The Paul of 1 Corinthians

We are more than halfway through the so-called authentic letters (ca. 50-66 CE) of the New Testament Paul. This past week our reading group discussed the first half of his first letter to the ekklesia at Corinth. This is the first of these seven epistles to provide something Jews might refer to as halakhic details for a distinctive set of two ecclesial practices—baptism into “the Lord” and the “Lord’s Supper” or eucharist, a Greek word that means thanksgiving. These practices, together with the unique nature and requirements for belonging to the ekklesia (at least as the Paul of this letter imagines it), are sufficient to establish a social and metaphysical communal identity that is deliberately distinct and separated from both the contemporaneous Jewish and Greek worlds in which it exists. It is definitely not Judaism, but it is also not the Christianity of the third and fourth centuries CE. The ekklesia communities and their member ekklesians neither refer to themselves as Christians, nor do they call their movement Christianity. In fact both terms, as they are commonly understood today, would be anachronisms. What these earliest New Testament texts attributed to Paul preserve and describe is what students of religious movements once would easily have labeled a cult. Today the more politically correct term is New Religious Movement, but I think this neutralizes the alienating, insular, and dangerous elements of this first century messianic movement, at least as it is laid out in the letters of Paul we have read thus far.  Continue reading