Scholarship on 1 Corinthians – the best of the best

In my current doctoral research I am investigating Paul’s cultic language (especially related to the people of God) and how Paul’s theology is shaped by his understanding of temple, sacrifice, priesthood, and worshiper. I have been going book by book through Paul’s undisputed letters starting with 1 Thessalonians (in chronological order of their writing). I just completed my work on 1 Corinthians and I wanted to share some of the resources that aided me most. This list can help anyone who is approaching the scholarship of 1 Corinthians and wants my opinion on the most influential pieces (especially those written in the last three decades)

Commentaries

There are droves of commentaries out there on 1 Cor. Some are good, some are great and many are just mediocre. Instead of giving you an endless list, here are my top two:

(1) Fee (NICNT) – Here you will find mastery in nearly every area of interest: theology, history, social issues, textual criticism, rhetorical features…My study is particularly interested in theology and the depth that Fee goes into reveals the fruits of a lifetime of research on 1 Corinthians. Not even Thiselton’s work, which I admire greatly, can compare.  Buy this book.

(2) Hays (Interpretation) – In a day when commentaries are expected to be 1000 pages or more, it is hard to feel like you are getting your money’s worth with a short commentary, but Hays is able to pack a lot of theological insight into this book. He has a wonderful way with words and he disagrees with Fee on the issue of over-realized eschatology so you don’t feel like you are just getting a diet-Fee version of a commentary.  Hays and Fee agree a good deal on Paul’s theological interests, though, and the two scholars’ work complement one another in many ways.

General Orientation

Christianity at Corinth (Eds. Horrell and Adams). This collection of influential essays includes key articles/essays/excerpts from Baur, Munck, Schmithals, Barrett, Dahl, Theissen, Thiselton, Horsley, Murphy-O’Connor, (John) Barclay, and James Dunn (among several others). If one wanted to get a sense for the paths that scholarship has taken and particular hermeneutical trends, this is the best place to start.

Also, honorable mention should be given to Bieringer (ed) The Corinthian Correspondence with key contributions from such scholars as:

-R. Collins (1 Cor. as hellenistic letter)

- C. Tuckett (resurrection)

-V. Koperski (knowledge of Christ and God)

-T. Brodie (use of Pentateuch in 1 Cor)

- J. Gundry-Volf (sexuality in 1 Cor 7)

-M. de Boer (resurrection)

-B. Rosner (Use of Scripture)

Introductory Books with a chapter on 1 Corinthians

(1) Apostle of the Crucified Lord (M. Gorman): I used this as a textbook for a Paul class and it is brief, and yet picks up on almost all of the necessary theological and exegetical issues.

(2) Cambridge Companion to Paul (ed. Dunn): The chapter on 1 Corinthians is by J. Murphy-O’Connor (along with 2 Cor) and offers a brief but useful foray into the study of these epistles.

(3) Both of my supervisors have chapters on 1 Corinthians in all-in-one commentaries.  John Barclay’s commentary is found in the Oxford Bible Commentary and is excellent on the theology of 1 Corinthians as well as traditional historical-critical issues.  Stephen Barton’s (Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible) also engages a good deal in the theology of Paul, but is particularly excellent on social issues as well.

Theology

Many studies on Paul in the last few decades have focused on the social problems in Corinth as a way of better understanding the context of the letters. But, many such studies never end up getting around to how this illuminates Paul’s theology! Recent studies focused on the ‘theology’ of 1 Corinthians are a bit rare. Here are the top picks:

(1) Pauline Theology Vol. 2 (Ed. D. Hay; Fortress): Here we have a variety of articles focusing on the ‘theology’ of Paul in these letters and an important dialogue between Fee, Furnish and Cousar (arising from the Pauline Theology group of SBL in the ’80s and early ’90s).

(2) 1 Corinthians (Sheffield NT Guides; James Dunn): Though a slim volume, Dunn tackles a number of key theological issues in 1 Corinthians.

(3) Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation (M. M. Mitchell). I classify this under theology even though it fits under literary studies as well because she does such an excellent job tackling matters of the nature of Christian communal existence. I found myself turning to her book time and time again.

(4) The Cross and Human Transformation (A. Brown). Focusing on a theology of the cross in 1 Cor., Brown is influenced by Martyn’s apocalyptic interpretation. I have not spent as much time as I should in this book, but I have appreciated the portions I did work with.

Social Aspects

(1) The Social Ethos of the Corinthian Correspondence (D. Horrell). Though many (including I) have judged this to be a difficult work to engage in, it is worthwhile. Here is one of the best studies on how social factors can shed light on the problems that plagued the church. Though there is much to commend this book, I found his Solidarity and Difference book much more stimulating, but I have a central interest in ethics.

(2) Secular and Christian Leadership in Corinth (A. Clarke). Again, looking at social factors in Corinth, Clarke suggests that some of the Corinthian leaders were part of the elite in secular society and this caused problems in how they lead the church – employing common secular leadership conventions and attitudes that wreaked havoc on the community.

(3) Conversion at Corinth (S. Chester). A published thesis under John Barclay (my supervisor at Durham), Chester looks at Paul’s understanding of conversion and how the Corinthians may have misunderstood what it meant to be converted to the kind of ‘religion’ that he was preaching. Rather, going on social auto-pilot, it was natural for the Corinthians to expect of this new religion what they would have of the ethos and religious experience of other contemporary groups such as voluntary associations or mystery religions.

Ethics and Scripture in 1 Corinthians

Technically these would be categories to be treated separately, but part of the argument of the authors below is that Paul’s use of Scripture is fundamentally oriented towards ethics and identity formation (and I am in agreement).

(1) Paul, Scripture, and Ethics (B. Rosner).  Attempting to rebut the commonly held view that Paul’s ethics were not influenced by his reading of ‘Scripture’, Rosner takes 1 Corinthians 5-7 as a test-case and – no surprise here- finds echoes and allusions to Scripture everywhere, even though Paul rarely quotes texts directly.  He handles this portion of 1 Corinthians deftly and his study has become a foundational work in a new way of understanding Paul’s moral reasoning and his symbolic universe.   See also H.H. Drake Williams.

1.  Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (R. Hays): Though not solely focused on 1 Corinthians, this is such a massively influential work that it must be studied to understand Paul’s attitude towards Scripture in any of his epistles.  In Hays’ view, we must be willing to look beyond ‘quotations’ of Scripture and perceive the often subtle ways that Paul uses it (hence, ‘echoes’).  The way that echoes and allusions are woven into the fabric of his discourse (at any and almost every point of his rhetoric) demonstrates its source as a ‘fund of symbols and metaphors’.  This is particularly significant when observing how Paul turns to narratives of the OT in ethical discourses and not nomistic passages.  See also the collection of essays by Hays in Conversion of the Imagination.  For any Pauline scholar-in-training, this is on my top 10 list of books to know well.

NB: I’m sure much more could be added, but these were the ones I found most helpful.

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7 thoughts on “Scholarship on 1 Corinthians – the best of the best

  1. Hi Nijay,

    Longtime lurker, first time poster here. Thanks for your many helpful posts on your experience of postgrad student life at Durham. Quick question regarding Corinthians resources: any thoughts on David Garland’s Baker commentary? Just curious.

  2. It’s interesting that you place Fee’s commentary over Thiselton’s, because I’ve found so many are reticent to do just that. I happen to agree with you, but I think the obsession with massive commentaries (alluded to by you) has led many to assume bigger is better (not that Fee’s is small at all). I love Thiselton’s work, but in the end, I want a commentary on 1 Corinthians, not so much a commentary on various views of 1 Corinthians (which Thiselton’s becomes at some points). Fee wins in that regard.

    And Hays’ Interpretation commentary is outstanding, I can’t speak highly enough of it.

  3. Danny – I agree. Thiselton can be very insightful and eloquent at times, and I admire his work greatly, but he can be exhausting sometimes. Fee seems to say the appropriate amount about the issue

    Brian – I like Garland and he is a really solid evangelical Pauline exegete. I guess he is just a good safe bet for interpretation, but his commentary does is not a benchmark and does not break new ground. Still, I try to consult him alongside Fee and others.

  4. Thanks for this – I have also found these resources to be very worthwhile. Could I add one more resource in terms of Pauline theology: Thiselton’s collection of essays on Hermeneutics is excellent in terms of hermeneutics (of course) – but also in terms of the study of 1 Corinthians, as it contains a number of essays that are devoted to the exegetical, hermeneutical, or theological issues in 1 Corinthians. It differs from his commentary by providing in-depth studies on particular themes. I highly recommend it.

  5. I really appreciate your post. I am an undergraduate working on my first exegetical paper. I am working with 1 Corinthians 1:17-31 and was having trouble finding good resources that talked about Paul’s crucifixion theology. Thanks to you I found 2 good ones right of the bat.

  6. Hi,
    I have Fee and Thiselstons (the shorter commentary). I am wondering which is better as an overall commentary (readability, historical/cultural context, exegesis, and application and is willing to discuss various views) out of Garland and Rosner commentary which would be good to use in a preaching and teaching context. Also which is better in looking at the cultural context of corinthians Witherington or Keener.

    Thanks in advance.

    Steve.

  7. Mr. Gupta,
    Thank you for your work on this subject. I am trying to study the cultural backdrop of 1 Corinthians 11 2-16 on the subject of men/women, husbands/wives. Kenneth Bailey’s name came up in my brief research. He has a book called “Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes: Cultural Studies in 1 Corinthians”. Do you know anything about this? Or, do you have other recommendations? I kind of wonder what Fee says about this subject.

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