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)


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.


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.

What Richard Hays and I almost had in common…

I was reading an article about the life (so far) of Richard Hays (Duke prof of NT).  After leaving Perkins School of Theology without a degree (due to his discouragement at the spiritual torpor in mainstream methodism at that time), Hays moved to Massachusetts where he taught high school English and built a close-knit spiritual community that became a successful house church.  Feeling called again to seminary, he applied to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.  He was turned down because at that time they had a strict residency requirement.  Hays went, instead, to Yale Divinity School.

Well, I am sad that my alma mater, Gordon-Conwell, cannot claim Hays, but I guess his time at Yale was so formative that I am happy he took the path he did!

When to quote…?

A few of us NT Postgrads are helping to teach seminars for the undergrad students here at Durham and part of our responsibilities involve marking essays (3000 words in length each).  As we are working with first year undergrads, they have not written a great number of research essays.  So, having marked the autumn term essays we were asked to have a review session with our students (we each work with small groups) and offer feedback and advice about essay writing.

I wrote down some thoughts for my students, and one area that needed some refining was in terms of when and why to quote a source.  Daniel Hawk (Ashland Theological Seminary) once told me that it takes more intelligence to paraphrase a source (and cite it) than to quote it, because then you have to show that you actually understood the quote (here I am paraphrasing Hawk, not quoting him)!  But, we still quote sometimes, don’t we?  Why?  Are there ‘rules’?  Or does it just seem to be more of an art?  Well, I like rules. So I tried to come up with some reasons why people quote:

1. The quotation is particularly well-written, articulate, or poetic: There are just some writers who can say something in such a beautiful way (such as, perhaps, C.S. Lewis).

2. The quotation is well-known or representative of a viewpoint: so, E.P. Sanders’ oft-cited conclusion: ‘In short, this is what Paul finds wrong with Judaism: it is not Christianity.‘ – a statement known ’round the world.

3. The quotation is particularly shocking or given for effect (this has similarities to #1)
4. The quotation, or author of it, is being studied in detail and for accuracy purposes it is important to get information straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak: So Vanhoozer’s study of Ricoeur would fall into this category.

5. The author of the quotation is an authority on the matter and giving a quotation of such a person strengthens the argument (this has some similarities to #2).

OK, so those are some of the thoughts I came up with just thinking about my own use of quotations.  Did I miss any obvious ones?  I made this post specifically for the purpose of getting anyone to offer more possible common uses of quotations.

More Research Advice from a Tenured Scholar

Today I had the privilege of having breakfast in Durham (England) with Ben Witherington III.  Ben and I have quite a bit in common.  We both went to secular universities for our undergraduate degree (he went to UNC; I went to Miami University of Ohio).  We both went to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (at very different times!).  We both went on to University of Durham for our PhD’s in New Testament working with the Lightfoot Professor of Divinity (he with Kingsley; one of my two supervisors is John Barclay).  We are both Methodist (he is ordained UMC; my wife and I will soon be pursuing ordination).  Ben taught for about a decade in Ashland, Ohio – my hometown.  I went to high school with his daughter and we were in Latin together.  We had much to talk about!

Well, Ben is a warm, intelligent, pastoral scholar and a humble man.  As I try to do, I asked some general questions that relate to life as a NT researcher.  Perhaps you will find his advice as helpful as I did.

1. What separates a good researcher from a great one? 

Ben basically said that good researches do their homework and know the primary and secondary literature.  A great researcher has enough critical acuity to identify the most helpful and most interesting pieces of scholarship that will take the discussion forward.  Often too much space in a dissertation is spent on superfluous information.  A great research knows how to be discriminating and selective in terms of what to discuss and what not to discuss.  Wise words.

2. What are some pet peeves of yours when it comes to reading theses and dissertations?

Ben said, regarding form, that stylistic and typographic errors can be deadly because they communicate that the writer did not really take the work seriously.  Ben recommended that the researcher not shy away from having numerous proofreaders -it will save you in the end!

As for content, Ben recommended this: make the piece easy to read for your examiners.  Avoid jargon and overly technical language.  Be clear and make your thesis statement simple.  Make the outline of your study intuitive.  Use restatement and repetition of main points the way a preacher might – what may seem over-simplistic may be ‘just right’ to your reader engaging this work for the first time.  So, keep it simple and clear.

3. What have been methodological trends in scholarship that have been most profitable?

Ben mentioned here narrative dynamics of NT theology (see his book on this).  Rhetorical-criticism, of course.  And, Ben referred to an increasing scholarly interest in the relationship between ‘theology’ and ‘ethics’ – something Witherington is working on right now!

4. Ben, what are 5 books that every Pauline-scholar-in-training should have read?

He listed these:

-Sanders, E.P. Paul and Palestinian Judaism

-Hays, R.B. The Faith of Jesus Christ

-Wright, N.T. The Resurrection and the Son of God

-Furnish, V.P. Theology and Ethics in Paul

-Murphy-O’Connor, J. Paul the Letter-Writer

These are all great suggestions!  Thanks, Ben!  I have only interacted with these in portions; I have read none of them in full!  I guess I have some catching up to do!

Ben Witherington to give paper in Durham

NB: For those in Northeast England

Ben Witherington III will be giving a paper at Leech Hall, St. John’s College (of Durham University) January 18th at 2pm on the topic:

‘Oral Texts and Rhetorical Contexts: Rethinking the “Letters”’

Witherington is an advocate of applying classical rhetorical terms and methodology to the NT epistles.  Some have criticized this tendency in scholarship with the concern that one cannot apply such labels and tools to written texts when they were meant originally meant for speeches and oratory.  W., I believe, will offer a defense of his interest in classic rhetorical criticism  and the appropriateness of applying it to NT epistles.

All are welcome.

Tyndale House trip

On Ben Blackwell’s blog he just posted his thoughts on the Tyndale House visit we took just before Xmas.  I thought I would add my two cents.

I had heard so much about the Tyndale House over the years I felt I had to experience it for myself.  So, I stayed with my good friend David Nystrom who just started at Cambridge and studied at the Tyndale House with him for a couple of days.  First of all, Cambridge as a city is much bigger than I imaged (and much bigger than Durham).  The traffic in and out of the city can be very chaotic!  But, I really enjoyed the walk to the TH.

The TH was actually much smaller than I had imagined, but that is not a bad thing.  I rented a day desk (as a Tyndale Fellow I get 10 free days a year, I think) and was able to begin studying at 9am and finish at 5.30.  Everyone on staff was warm and helpful.  Everyday there are tea times where everyone in the library must go to have fellowship and stretch their legs.  It was good to meet some students there, though at the time Cambridge’s term had ended and the TH was not as busy as normal.

I happened to be there on a Tuesday when they have chapel in the morning – about 10 of us gathered for a brief word from Scripture and an extended time of prayer.  This was a great way to start the day!

The library itself was cozy.  As expected, it was stocked full of great books for NT and OT study and very up-to-date on everything.  What was especially helpful for me was the many copies of UK theses (not just from Cambridge) and one of them (from Sheffield from 1985) was of particular value for my research.

The staff itself was impressive.  I briefly chatted with Pete Williams a couple of times and he is a friendly warden who, I think, was a great choice for the role at the TH.  He is also an excellent scholar.  I also had a couple of brief conversations with David Instone-Brewer – also nice, a truly a technological wiz!

As far as visiting scholars, Greg Beale (of Wheaton) was there working on some projects.  It sounds like the PhD program at Wheaton is going well and the first round of graduates are out teaching now.  He said the program at Wheaton is very good with only a few slots open per year because they want to offer their students financial packages.  If I were to recommend a PhD program from an evangelical institution, this might be at the top of the list.  But, all things being equal, I still would recommend the secular route (see my blog page on PhD info for details).  In any case, Beale is a great guy – I was sad not to have him still at Gordon-Conwell when I was there.

All in all, I had fun at the TH, but I am not disappointed in the least bit that I am at Durham.  The staff in NT at Durham right now is unparalleled.  Durham’s library is pretty bad, but the theological college here (St.John’s) has a decent library as well as the cathedral – and googlebooks has been good to me (and Amazon!).  The staff at TH is excellent, but we have the staff at Cranmer Hall (the anglican/wesleyan training centre).  So, I hope to make it down to the TH a few times a year, but I am content in Durham.

Thank you Tyndale House staff for your vision and warmth.  This library has been around for some time and has had some great thinkers make use of it (including my supervisor, John Barclay).  I hope it continues on for many years (and decades; centuries?).

BTW – for those of you in the UK doing research, consider joining Tyndale Fellowship and attending the summer conferences.  I sometimes read the collections of essays (published) that come out of the study groups and many of them are outstanding.