Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

Materials available for professors by request only


14. 1 Corinthians


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize what modern scholarship has to say regarding the historical background for 1 Corinthians, including information about the city and church to which this letter was addressed, the possible date of its composition, and the circumstances that prompted Paul to write the letter.
  • articulate the major theological themes developed by Paul in 1 Corinthians, as he pays attention to the necessity of church unity, the demotion of concern for wisdom and power, the implications of Christ’s crucifixion for theology and practice, the importance of believing in a bodily resurrection of both Christ and all believers, and an understanding of Christian freedom as liberation from bondage rather than mere permissiveness.
  • describe the advice that Paul gives to the Corinthians regarding a number of practical matters, including: proper observance of the Lord’s Supper; ethical concerns related to eating foods sacrificed to idols; questions concerning celibacy, marriage, and sexual morality; and, the practice of speaking in tongues and other spiritual gifts.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. The Situations in Corinth

Divide the class into three groups (5–10 students). Have each group address one of the following prompts by acting out the scenario that Paul has heard of and is addressing.

Group A: Read 1 Corinthians 11 and review text pp. 289–90. Sketch the problems Paul addresses in this passage. Now, prepare to act out the scenario Paul imagines is going on in the Corinthian Christian communities. Give each person a role, for example, narrator, church members, etc. How is this scene divisive? How might chapter 13 offer solutions to these divisions?

Group B: Read 1 Corinthians 5–7 (focusing on 5:1–13) and review text pp. 290–91. Pay close attention to the attitudes of all of the people involved (not just the man singled out). What does Paul have against the whole community at Corinth? Why? What attitudes do the different factions within the Corinthian church have toward the man and his lover? What is the purpose of excommunication? Now prepare to act out the distinct Corinthian perspectives involved and Paul’s accusation of the man. You may even act out the scenario Paul commands the Corinthians to enact.

Group C: Read 1 Corinthians 8–10 and review text pp. 292–93. Outline the various views of eating food that has been sacrificed to idols. Where are people buying or eating this food? Who has access to this food? Why is there a conflict in the community? How does Paul address the conflict? What is the ethical principle that he holds up to the Corinthians? Now, try to act out the situation in Corinth for the class. Be sure to present the diverse viewpoints among Corinthian believers as well as Paul’s own suggestions.


The aim of this exercise is to help students imagine and re-create the ancient social situations that Paul describes. Students see that Paul’s letters address down-to-earth, real human problems: sexual relations, arrogance, shame, competition, who can eat what with whom, how we treat one another, basic issues of respect, spats that escalate into lawsuits, how to regulate community finances, etc. Paul’s theology in the Corinthian correspondence takes an ethical, material, and embodied form; it is not an academic exercise, nor heady, systematic theology. Here students experience Paul as a pastor-theologian. They can also identify the key ethical principles that Paul applies to each of the (very different) situational problems in Corinth.

2. Our Letters to Urban America

After a discussion of the problems Paul addresses in Corinth and the ethical principles Paul offers to address these problems, have students write a letter to a parallel modern urban community, for example, a short “letter to Miami” or a “letter to Los Angeles” that takes one problem Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians and creates a contemporary parallel problem, applying the same ethical principles as Paul. Students could also take the metaphor of the body (1 Cor. 12:12–27) and use this metaphor to address a contemporary problem on their campus. After writing their letters, have students read them to one another in small groups. Lead students in a reflection on how this exercise helped them to understand Paul, the churches in Corinth, and first-century Christianity. How did students translate the ancient scenarios into contemporary ones? What are the issues (e.g., boasting [or status], excommunication, excess, or division) of today?


This exercise seems to focus on contemporary situations. However, it requires students to have assimilated the ethical solutions Paul applies to the problems in Corinth and to translate and apply these to contemporary situations. There may not be exact parallels. Still, students can engage the material in a different and creative way, thereby extending their ability to analyze and understand this first-century writing.

Discussion Prompts

  1. How do scholars proceed with reconstructing the conversational exchange between Paul and the churches in Corinth? What is the role of Chloe’s people? How do letters play a part? How do we know (what is the evidence for these letters and their exchange)?
  2. Paul offers a number of solutions to various problems the Corinthians are experiencing. What are the problems and what solutions does Paul offer? What ethical principles guide Paul’s solutions (love, humility, putting others first)? Do these principles translate to the modern day? Can you think of situations in our world that might benefit from Paul’s ethical principles here?
  3. First Corinthians 13 is often read at weddings, and the “love” Paul talks about is applied to the newlyweds. Why is this application of the passage a misreading of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians? What is your evidence?
  4. After reading 1 Corinthians through, and after discussing the specific problems and issues Paul addresses, what are the central themes in this letter? What do these themes have to do with Christ?

Explore Readings

These readings provide a chance for your students to explore the New Testament in more depth. The boxes from the text are included here, as well as bibliographies and outlines for the books of the New Testament.

All the Explore readings can also be downloaded as PDFs here.