New Testament Words and Verses
The First First Corinthians, I Cor. 5:9-13
The title of this post might be confusing at first. Is the double “First” a typo? My computer program thinks it is, but actually, it isn’t. It points to the reality that the Corinthian correspondences of Paul (I, II Cor. in the NT) really contain more than two letters, and that the real I Corinthians is hinted at in the current I Cor. 5:9-13. That is, after Paul set up shop in Corinth for a couple of years around 50-52 CE, he then left for Ephesus. Because he had spent so much time in Corinth he was greatly invested in that congregation and its life. So, reports occasionally came to him in Ephesus, hints of which are dropped in the present I Cor., that things weren’t going so well in the congregation. In his concern for the congregation, Paul fired off a missive to the Corinthians that most scholars think is contained in or hinted at in this passage (I Cor. 5:9-13). He may have then received other visitors who told him about immoral activities in Corinth, which led him to write the present I Cor, not including, of course, 5:9-13. But one of the themes both of that earlier letter (which I am here calling the First First Corinthians) and the canonical First Corinthians, was immoral behavior. Paul felt he had to address the subject.
The big interpretive issue is what exactly Paul’s advice is in this passage. Oh, there is a “standard” and “easy” answer to the question. Paul’s advice in “First First” was not to “mix with” these immoral folk but to toss them out of the congregation. But, somehow, this didn’t seem to work, and so he had to reiterate that advice in the canonical I Corinthians 5, where he urged the congregation to, as it were, excommunicate (or maybe more—see my essay on the subject) the guy having intimate relations with his step-mother (or mother). Interestingly, there is no “penalty” seemingly assessed against the woman. Why not? No one says.
The purpose of this and the next several essays is to take issue with that neat, easy, and very “modern” approach to Paul. My point here will be that in the First First letter, Paul is pretty clear with his advice, until he gets to the last sentence (v 13). Then, he introduces an ambiguity that may have caused more problems than it solved. Then, when he gets to the canonical First Corinthians, he suggests a strategy that really doesn’t work. But rather than get ahead of myself now, let’s just turn to the examination of the First First Corinthians, which Paul wrote from Ephesus when informed that there were bad things happening at the congregation he had just left at Corinth.
The Greek text of these five verses is:
9 Ἔγραψα ὑμῖν ἐν τῇ ἐπιστολῇ μὴ συναναμίγνυσθαι πόρνοις, 10 οὐ πάντως τοῖς πόρνοις τοῦ κόσμου τούτου ἢ τοῖς πλεονέκταις καὶ ἅρπαξιν ἢ εἰδωλολάτραις, ἐπεὶ ὠφείλετε ἄρα ἐκ τοῦ κόσμου ἐξελθεῖν. 11 νῦν δὲ ἔγραψα ὑμῖν μὴ συναναμίγνυσθαι ἐάν τις ἀδελφὸς ὀνομαζόμενος ᾖ πόρνος ἢ πλεονέκτης ἢ εἰδωλολάτρης ἢ λοίδορος ἢ μέθυσος ἢ ἅρπαξ, τῷ τοιούτῳ μηδὲ συνεσθίειν. 12 τί γάρ μοι τοὺς ἔξω κρίνειν; οὐχὶ τοὺς ἔσω ὑμεῖς κρίνετε; 13 τοὺς δὲ ἔξω ὁ θεὸς κρινεῖ. ἐξάρατε τὸν πονηρὸν ἐξ ὑμῶν αὐτῶν.
9 “I wrote to you in my letter (i.e., the First First letter) that you not mingle with immoral people. 10 I didn’t at all mean the immoral of this world or the greedy or robbers or idol-worshippers, since (in order to do this) you would need to leave the world. 11. But I wrote to you not to mingle if a certain person who calls himself a BROTHER is either immoral or greedy or an idol-worshipper or a verbal abuser or drunkard or robber, and indeed, with such a person you ought not even to share a meal. 12 For what duty do I have to judge those on the outside? Isn’t it those on the inside that you judge? 13 God judges those on the outside. Toss out/Eliminate the immoral person from your midst.”
Even though the categories of people delineated are not precisely defined, the general approach of Paul in these lines is clear. Those in the church ought to be willing to separate themselves from those whose moral standards don’t meet Christian morality. But we don’t really know what each of the words mean, even though they have a colorful dimension to them. Verse 10 lists four types of people not to associate with, while verse 11 has snuck in two additional categories. They are urged not to “mix/mingle/associate” with:
v 10: immoral people greedy robber idol-worshippers
v 11: immoral people greedy idol-worshipper verbal abuser drunkard robber
You wonder if Paul was pulling down these categories from some list he found somewhere else, since lists of morally upright and reprehensible behavior were pretty commonplace in Hellenistic literature, whether he came up with them himself or whether these arose from long and contentious nights of debate among early Christians regarding whom you cut off from your midst. We don’t know that either.
You wonder also why the lists don’t fully overlap. It could be that the listing of the first four characteristics whetted Paul’s rhetorical appetite and, just as many an orator, he discovered his pleonastic oratorical self the second time around. So, verbal abusers and drunkards make the list on the second go-round but not the first.
The clear point emerging from Paul’s “First First” letter is that there are some who don’t belong in the fellowship. Paul says that it isn’t his place to judge those outside of the Church, but he does gives advice regarding what to do with those who fit one of these 4/6 categories. Yet he picks a verb to describe what to do with these people that is laced with ambiguity: ἐξάρατε (v 13).
Well, at first glance the verb seems crystal clear: “Toss” him. Get rid of him. That is what you do with a person fitting one of the six categories. But, as the next essay will show, the verb ἐξαίρω, a NT hapax, is dripping with ambiguity.
I Cor. 5:9, Two
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