1. Many commentators take 1 Cor 4.8 as evidence to show that the Corinthians suffered from an overrealized eschatology. Do you believe this to be the case, and if not, what is the problem that Paul is describing here?
We do not think overrealized eschatology is behind the problems in Corinth. Rather, we think that all of their problems are best explained by the influence of attitudes and ways of thinking and behaving that were very popular in Corinthian (and broader Greco-Roman) culture. The Corinthians had problems with their eschatology (both realized and future eschatology), but that is not the best explanation for their problems. To imagine oneself to be filled, rich, and reigning was a claim commonly made by Cynic and Stoic philosophers. Epictetus, for example, thinks the true Cynic can say, “Who, when he lays eyes upon me, does not feel that he is seeing his king?” Plutarch reminds us that according to the Stoics “the wise man is termed not only prudent and just and brave, but also an orator, a poet, a general, a rich man, and a king.” The Corinthians had apparently adopted the inflated self-understanding of pagan philosophy.
2. One of the significant contributions of this commentary is the proposed structure that views 4.18-7.40 and 8.1-14.40 as main subsections in the letter body, rather than the traditional break many place between chapters 6&7. Could you talk about your proposal here and the significance this has on your interpretation?
We point out that that letter does not consist of a random set of topics, but breaks down into four main sections, which follow a logical flow that Paul recounts elsewhere in brief passages. So 4.18-7.40 deals primarily with sexual morality and 8.1-14.40 deals with worship. Each of those larger units has a negative treatment of the problem which is followed by a positive treatment. So sexual immorality is dealt with in the negative treatment in 4:18-6:20 and the proper sexual behavior is dealt with in chapter 7. The problem of idolatry (as confronted in food offered to idols) is given the negative treatment in chapters 8-10 (to 11:1, actually), and then we have an extended positive treatment of the proper worship of the one true God in chapters 11-14. As Paul approaches the negative section in each case he gives a command to flee the key vice (“flee sexual immorality” in 6:18, and “flee idolatry” in 10:14) and then to glorify God in that area (“glorify God with your bodies” in 6:20 and “Whether you eat or drink [the contexts in which worship takes place and in which idolatry was being committed] or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” in 10:31). The larger pattern of the letter reflects the understanding of Romans 1:21-26 that false wisdom leads to sexual immorality and idolatry and therefore true wisdom (wisdom of the cross) leads people away from those vices. The letter also reflects the pattern found in 1 Thess. 1:9-10 where Paul speaks of the readers turning from idolatry to worship the one true God (cf. chapters 8-14) and wait for his resurrected Son from heaven (cf. chapter 15). So in chapters 1-4 (to slightly oversimplify the actual division of chapters) Paul deals with false and true worship and in chapters 5-7 he deals with the sexual immorality and sexual purity that flow from those two kinds of wisdom and in chapters 8-14 he deals with the idolatry and proper worship of God that also flow from those two kinds of wisdom and in chapter 15 he explains what it means to wait for the consummation, the return of God’s resurrected Son (and the consummation of their own redemption and that of creation as well). Wow. That’s a long answer!
3. Taking a closer look at 1 Corinthians 7, particularly 7.1, talk a bit about what Paul means when he states, “…it is good for a man not to touch (ἅπτεσθαι) a woman.”
It is important to keep in mind that in the Roman world there was great debate regarding whether sex was to be engaged in only for procreation (and in marriage) or if pleasure was also an acceptable motivation. Those who thought sex could be pursued for pleasure normally expected that such sex would be pursued outside of the marriage (with household slaves, prostitutes or other avenues) and sex with one’s wife would be primarily for procreation and establishing legal heirs. Earlier discussions of the euphemism of touching took it to be a general euphemism for sexual relations, and that conclusion was based on just eight examples of the euphemism that had been discussed. I found 25 examples of the euphemism and noted that while people were right to say it was a euphemism for sexual relations it was probably incorrect to conclude that it referred to sexual relations of any kind. The euphemism was not used for procreational sex in marriage, but for various other kinds. It was used to refer to what a man did to the object of his sexual desire (incidently, it was not unilateral, men and women did not touch each other, but a man would touch a woman (or a boy). Rather than reflecting a Corinthian group that rejected sex as a whole (like other scholars, we take the line to be a quote from the Corinthians’ letter to Paul), it more likely reflects a Corinthian group that is criticizing some of their members for going to prostitutes and continuing to pursue recreational sex outside of marriage despite being members of the church.
4. Too often, we read Paul’s description of what the marital, sexual relationship looks like through our 21st century lenses, and think, “Of course, that’s the way it should be.” Could you give us a glimpse into just how countercultural Paul’s message is in 1 Cor 7.2-5?
The more clearly we understand that the “touching” referenced in 7:1 was not a mutual act but what a man did to the object of his own sexual desire, and the clearer we are about how sex and marriage functioned in the Roman world the more dramatic we will recognize Paul’s message in 1 Cor 7.2-5 to be. In that world sex and marriage were clearly hierarchical and marked by asymmetrical power relations. Not only does Paul reject the idea that a man should use a woman for his own sexual self-gratification (the significance of touching), but every line of 7:2-5 emphasizes mutuality. Every single statement made about the husband is also made about the wife as well and then Paul talks about the need for mutual agreement between husband and wife. When we realize that husbands were significantly older and more mature and experienced than their wives the egalitarian emphasis on mutuality found in these verses stands out even more remarkably!
5. The chapters in which Paul addresses food being sacrificed to idols (chaps. 8-10) has often been interpreted as a concern to avoid damaging the consciences of Christians who associate this food with idolatry. In your estimation is this a correct interpretive assumption, and can you tell us what two kinds of idolatry Paul wrestles with in this section?
That, properly explained, is part of the problem. We see Paul dealing with both subjective idolatry and objective idolatry. By subjective idolatry we mean that there are Corinthian believers who are eating food that has been offered to idols (following the example of other Christians they have seen) who cannot help but think of themselves as participating in idolatry. They have pre-Christian experience as idolaters and think they are committing idolatry as they eat the food, their consciences not knowing better and not being strong enough to keep them from following the example they have seen. There are other Corinthian believers who have concluded that since there is only one God in the world idols have no significance and in theory it is impossible to commit idolatry since “an idol is nothing in the world.” These believers are not committing subjective idolatry – they don’t think of themselves as worshiping any idols, they don’t believe in idols – but they are guilty nevertheless of objective idolatry in that their misunderstanding has led them to participate in what are actually idolatrous behaviors that make them partakers of the cup of demons (as idols do not represent gods, but do represent spiritual beings masquerading as gods). They are also guilty, of course, of leading their brothers and sisters in Christ into subjective idolatry.