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Factions in the Corinthian Church — 1 Cor 1:11-12

The Temple of Apollo at Corinth

The temple of Apollo at Corinth, with the city

Yesterday my eye was drawn to something intriguing at the start of 1 Corinthians. This is a letter written by the apostle Paul to a church he founded in Corinth which has grown and matured to some extent, but is gripped with some serious infighting and factional disputes. Some scholars (I’m thinking particularly of Dale Martin’s excellent “The Corinthian Body”) posit that these disputes line up on class lines, making the division basically a class war. Paul’s message can then be seen as giving succor to the majority, lower class position the church.

But what interested me was the list of names, Paul writes:

My brothers, some of Chloe’s folks have told me that there are quarrels among you. In other words: one of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Peter”; still another, “I follow Christ.”
– 1 Cor 1:11-12 (trans, mine)

The first thing that is amusing is the little gossip you get – word of the infighting came to Paul from a spy in the camp: “Chloe’s people” (this could mean members of her household, or her friends, or the house church that met with her). Lots more could be said about Chloe, but she’s a sideshow for this post!

The thing I noticed here is the four names mentioned. I wonder if that suggests four, rather than two factions. We know, for example, that Peter and Paul were at odds (read Galatians 1 for Paul’s rather arrogant take on their disagreement, and Acts for the official version that tries to smooth over the cracks!). For some of 1 Corinthian’s debates, such as the eating of food sacrificed to idols, I can imagine Paul and Peter lining up on opposite sides. We know further that Apollos was a follower originally of John the Baptist, rather than Jesus, but was converted later (Acts 18), but we don’t know of any theological differences here. Tradition also has it, via Jerome, that Apollos was so discontent with the split at Corinth, that he left the city and retired to Crete.

But most tantalizing to me is the faction who traced their teaching direct to Christ, I wonder what they believed.

I also wonder if the various problems Paul addresses (sexual abstention, food sacrificed to idols, speaking in tongues, etc) were distributed among those other three factions. Is he taking on all comers here? Trying to assert his theological dominance as the head of the community. Or was it basically a two-sides dispute as Martin, convincingly, argues.

Certainly something must have worked, because in a later letter Paul seems to have fewer debates he wants to win. (I’m referring to the first part of 2 Cor – the second part of 2 Cor, chapters 10-13, is a separate letter, and may even be the “letter of tears” referred to in 2 Cor 2:4).

I’m going to need to read more about it, obviously. I’m particularly loose on the early church traditions around Apollos. Any particular book suggestions would be welcome.

One of the reasons I love studying just one compilation of texts in detail is that you notice and take off on these new flights from time to time. The text doesn’t change (much!) but there are always new questions to research, and new insights to be had.

I know Shakespeare scholars who feel the same way about their text. For various historical twists of fate, the New Testament is my personal playground.

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