Friday, January 6, 2017

Why study 1 Corinthians

As I mentioned back in October, I will be teaching a 300-level course on Paul's first letter to the Corinthians this semester. In the syllabus, I make a case for studying the letter this way:

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians is a valuable resource for readers who wish to recover evidence for day-to-day church life in the mid-first-century CE, but the relative abundance of historical data in 1 Corinthians also poses a challenge. Of all Paul’s letters, 1 Corinthians may strike modern readers as the most firmly embedded in an alien historical setting. Reading 1 Corinthians well as a historical document demands more than tracing Paul’s argument; readers must also learn about the archaeology of ancient Corinth, the social and religious beliefs and practices of first-century Jews, Greeks and Romans, and the conventions of ancient rhetoric.

The challenge of reconstructing the letter’s context is matched by the demands of its contents. Paul’s instructions are sometimes challenging because they seem obviously and uncomfortably relevant. They address issues—like church unity, sexual morality and the practice of spiritual gifts—with which the twenty-first-century church continues to struggle. Sometimes they are challenging because the topics, such as head coverings and food sacrificed to idols, seem foreign to contemporary concerns and cultural norms; sometimes they seem equally familiar and foreign at the same time.

Readers who seek to read 1 Corinthians faithfully as Christian Scripture must be alert to the ways in which their own horizons of experience and their own preferences shape and constrain their interpretations. They must also face the hermeneutical challenge of applying what Paul says to their own twenty-first-century contexts. These challenges make 1 Corinthians a fascinating and rewarding subject of study.

In this class we will draw on all the interpretive resources at our disposal to read 1 Corinthians carefully in its historical context, and to consider its implications for contemporary readers.

By the end of this course, students will be able to articulate an understanding of the letter’s purpose, summarize its content, trace its flow of thought, and explain how Paul responds theologically to practical questions. They will be familiar with a range of options in the interpretation of key texts and be able to illustrate how knowledge of the socio-historical context of the letter affects its interpretation. They will also be able to describe hermeneutical challenges posed by the text, and be better prepared to engage it seriously as Christian Scripture.

A copy of the full syllabus is available online here.

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