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Why is Paul's Letter to the Corinthians So Famous?

Updated on January 28, 2014

Greeks, Romans, and Jews Coexisted in the First Century Melting Pot, Corinth, Greece


The Battle Between Wisdom and Spirit

Saint Paul wrote at least 15 letters, which follow the Acts of the Apostles (a story about the adventures of Saint Paul). These letters usually appear in printed versions of the New Testament in the Bible. In addition to Paul's letters, we might find at least 7 more letters written by other disciples (James, Peter, John and Jude).

Corinth was and is part of Greece. Ancient Corinth was located in the southern area of Greece and had been under Roman rule for hundreds of years. Most of the people living there were Romans, Greeks, and Jews. Paul took it upon himself to try to convert all of them to Christianity. But people back then were just as skeptical as today, so Paul didn't convert everyone.

He wrote two separate letters to the Corinthians during periods of time when he was away from Corinth. The first letter contained 16 chapters, the second 13. Both letters are full of wisdom which anyone, Christian or even atheist, might find applicable to our mysterious human existence. But of course the main message from Paul, who said he had seen Jesus Himself in a vision, was that Jesus really was who He claimed to be.

In modern times hardly anyone can be found who is really sure one way or the other on this point, let alone the fact that anyone would depend to a degree on blind faith, whether Christian, atheist, or decidedly undecided about religion, to resolve the overriding issue of whether to place faith in God (a decision any of us can make at any time within the privacy of our own minds). But having witnessed a miraculous apparition, Paul was that one person in a million for whom all doubts were resolved.

Paul starts his first letter to the Corinthian Christians by observing that it was ironic that the killing of Jesus was a sign to the Jews, who typically sought signs before they would believe anything, and yet would seem to most people anywhere to indicate that Jesus was subject to mortality and, therefore, as weak as anyone else. Paul acknowledges that most of his fellow Jews did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, which sums up the present situation as well.

The ironies continued beyond Israel. In Paul's discussion of the Greeks, known for their quest of wisdom, he noted that they might look upon Jesus' death as proof that He was actually a fool and far from what He claimed to be. The irony in this, reasoned Paul, is that Jesus was full of wisdom, and his death and resurrection were signs proving his claim to be the human manifestation of God.

God is spirit, observed Paul, not simply wisdom, which only comes from the knowledge of information important to mankind. Saint Paul believed that spirit is more powerful than wisdom. He wanted people to love God because by doing so, they would obtain something more valuable than worldly wisdom. Along these lines, Einstein believed imagination was worth more than knowledge.

"For the wisdom of this world," wrote Paul, "is foolishness with God." Paul emphasized that only spirit really matters and not the things sought after by the world or the flesh, such as competition, envy, or even the possession of the entire earth itself.

Faith in spiritual things and preaching about Jesus, however, had brought poverty and contempt to Paul, as he freely admitted. He and other preachers often were considered fools in the eyes of the world. But Paul did not accept the judgmental opinions of mankind. Instead, he believed that no one had the power to judge him or anyone else with respect to spiritual things that really mattered. Only God could judge. Paul felt that he even did not have the right to judge himself. This sort of rebelliousness was characteristic of intellectuals who instigated the American and French revolutions in the late 1700's.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, he commented on one specific case. There was a Corinthian Christian who had been found sexually immoral. Paul, while incredibly broadminded and profound, appeared to be very strict on this subject. He felt it was correct to ostracize that person from the church. In such cases, he felt it would be wrong to ask secular judges to decide the case. Instead he wanted the saintly members of the church to be their own judges. On the subject of sex, Paul, while not completely against marriage, certainly favored the single, celibate life. The importance he placed on this subject was on the level of Freudian psychology.

Paul was absolutely clear on one point. He was very much opposed to worshiping idols.

In his letter, Paul tells what it's like to be a preacher. He felt that to be effective, he had to become like the people to whom he preached, changing like a chameleon from one audience to another. Also, he would remind himself constantly to expect no rewards at all, except from God. It's almost, but not quite, as if he were a politician.

Paul believed in a kind and compassionate Supreme Being. For example, he felt that God never tempts people beyond what they are able to resist.

The first letter also discusses communion and some of the other traditions still kept in certain Christian churches, such as women wearing hats, but not men. At one point Paul, at his strictest, expressed his opinion that women even should not speak while in church. He said this probably more to encourage modesty than to insult women.

But Saint Paul will be remembered less for those restrictive opinions than for his profound and uplifting philosophies. For example, he believed in an ideal unity of all mankind. Each person, he thought, could contribute his or her God-given abilities, so that together all people would form one body of humanity. Each of us was a small part of that one body representing the entire species. Karl Marx had a similar philosophy centuries later.

In his often quoted line from Chapter 13 of the first Corinthian letter, Paul expresses his belief that love is the greatest virtue of human beings: "Now abide faith, hope and love...but the greatest of these is love."

Paul continues in this letter to show his inner thoughts on serious subjects. He had a great respect for prophesies and believed strongly in the existence of a spiritual life following death, as if the body were only a seed that had to dry up and die before being planted so that it could grow into a spiritual, living thing. Paul often expressed himself through such metaphors.

He ended the first letter by promising to visit Corinth again soon and reminding the members of the church to "let all that you do be done with love."

The second letter to the Corinthians was shorter, but also contained many valuable principles to live by. Paul started the letter by telling about his coming very close to death and how he put all his faith and trust in God when he thought for sure that he was about to die during one of his many adventures described in the Acts of the Apostles.

Having suffered persecution by the authorities previously, Paul also hoped that his readers would have the strength and faith to live by the principle that it is good to forgive others who deliberately afflicted us. While this idea was expressed in religious terms, it seems the same as what we could call courage.

Although he was a devout, upper-class Jew, a highly educated pharisee with great knowledge of his Hebrew faith and traditions, Paul believed that the spirit of what we now call the New Testament was far more valuable than the commandments and laws of the Old Testament. Moses was passing away, said Paul, but Christ will not pass away. "For the things that are seen are temporary," wrote Paul, "but the things that are not seen are eternal." Mosaic law defined various sins, but Christ's spirit freed mankind of sin through God's forgiveness, Paul believed. He said, "Even though our outward man is perishing, yet the inward man is being renewed day by day." Our bodies, said Paul, are like tents in which we must live until we are with God.

Paul was very much a crusader for Christianity, which many of the Jews of Corinth must have found sacrilegious. Yet he did not want to insult his own native religion or negate the value of the Ten Commandments or the Bible's historical recording of Moses' direct conversations with God. Paul seemed to want to build upon, rather than supersede, the Jewish faith, although he strongly believed in his theory that the laws laid down by God through Moses were only a precursor to the spiritual values that came from God through Jesus.

Paul appeared to be almost unreasonably strict on some subjects, however. Believers in God, for example, should not associate with unbelievers, he thought. This, on the other hand, makes us think of how Jesus Himself associated with unbelievers and converted them, and how people who live in modern cities have to tolerate tremendous diversities and differences among other groups in the community.

In more general terms, Paul is to be greatly admired for his broad-minded faith and comforting encouragement. He believed in a "God who comforts the downcast." Jesus, he observed, became poor so that we could become rich in spirit. In this second letter, Paul goes beyond just a metaphor of poor and rich. He does make a direct request for financial contributions to further the church.

Paul advises the Corinthians to be happy that God, through Jesus, has exalted us. We should not exalt ourselves or be exalted by comparison or competition with others, said Paul.

Paul warned the Corinthians against false preachers and told the church members of his many hardships encountered while preaching. God strengthens us in our infirmities and weakness, said Paul, noting that it's then that God comes to us. God's power gives life to those who are weak and afflicted. It became clear toward the end of this second letter that Paul himself was starting to feel the pains of old age and was talking also about himself when he mentioned the weak and afflicted.

The two letters to the Corinthians expressed fine principles applicable to many different circumstances in life. Saint Paul's letters are good reading for people in all walks of life. They express ideas on subjects that continue to occupy the minds of people all over the world, such as what happens after we die; if there's eternal life, what exactly will continue to live after our bodies no longer exist; and if Jesus really was the Son of God, then why don't his fellow Jews, to this day, believe in Him.

Two thousand years ago Paul tried to answer such questions by suggesting that there is an enduring spiritual life that's separate from the temporary bodies we occupy and that Moses also must have been aware of this, as was Jesus.

The letters of Saint Paul must have been a great inspiration to many influential people including the founding fathers of the United States such as Jefferson and Madison, who were extremely broad-minded and liberal in their approach to freedom of religion and expression. Many of the admirable principles of personal freedom that we now consider progressive are completely compatible with Paul's most profound thinking on spiritual issues found in his letters to the citizens of Corinth handed down to us through the centuries.


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