We have seen that Paul used the family metaphor liberally throughout his writings, with at least a few instances in every book attributed to him. The fictive family is Paul’s primary metaphor for instilling unity among believers and uniting them in common mission. However, Paul’s use of the metaphor is uneven and varies some from book to book. Paul’s use of the metaphor seems to be most frequent in his letters to the Corinthians, then Romans, and then 1 Thessalonians. There are forty instances of fictive sibling references in 1 Corinthians alone, about one quarter of the instances in which Paul used the metaphor. Joseph Hellerman points out that there seems to be a direct correlation between the frequency at which Paul uses family metaphors and the degree of division among those to whom he is writing. Let us take a closer look at two of Paul’s letters and see his rhetorical strategy: 1 Corinthians and Romans.
Corinth is situated about 48 miles west of Athens on the Isthmus of Corinth. The ancient city played a vital commercial and military role in the ancient Greece. Ships could be rolled on sledges across the isthmus, considerably reducing travel time of those navigating their way around Greece by bypassing the land mass of Peloponnese. The Romans destroyed the city in 146 B.C.E only to rebuild the city as a colony of freedmen in 44 B.C.E. The population was a hodge-podge of people from across the Empire representing many ethnic groups and cultures. Many who lived there were no doubt engaged in the ship transport business and related services. As a port city where seamen disembarked, Corinth had a reputation for loose morals and hard living with no unifying cultural heritage to give moral direction.
The Church at Corinth
We know from clues in Paul’s letters that the church at Corinth was to some degree representative of the city. There were some very wealthy high status people in the worshiping community as well as many lower class types. Idolatry and goddess worship were prevalent in the city and some appear to have been caught up in this. Believers including one man who apparently was having sexual relations with his stepmother were practicing various types of sexual immorality. The wealthy were turning the common meal into a gluttonous affair leaving little food for the poor among them. The evidence suggests that in the midst of this there was a minority of Jewish Christians as well.
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians appears to be in response to a letter sent to him by the Corinthians with many questions concerning how to deal with conflicts and divisions that had emerged. Paul writes 1 Corinthians in response but it is clear Paul has something more in mind. He opens the letter with:
1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, 2 To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Cor 1:1-3)
While addressing specific issues in Corinth Paul clearly intends this to be a general epistle to the church at large.
Paul's Subversive “Concord” Strategy
Joseph Hellerman points to the work of scholar Margaret Mitchell who has identified a Greco-Roman oratorical and epistolary genre called the “concord speech”:
The concord speech was designed to challenge a divided people, typically the polis, to set aside their differences and become united once again. Rhetoricians delivered concord speeches to cities and their leaders at times of crises. Historians also utilized the genre in their narratives. Others, like Paul, sought to diffuse factional behavior through epistolary appeal. Laurence Wellborn summarizes: “Their authors, generally philosophers or rhetoricians, seek to calm the outbreak of faction, within cities or between cities, by dissuading from strife (stasis) and exhorting to concord (homonoia).” (96)
Passages like 1 Cor 1:10, “Now I appeal to you, … that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose,” and 1 Corinthians 12:24-25 concerning “no dissension within the body,” use vocabulary consistent with concord discourses. But there is a shocking departure in how Paul uses the concord appeal. Here is an excerpt from the Pseudo-Aristotelian work called On the Cosmos.
It is as if men should wonder how a city survives, composed as it is of the most opposite classes (I mean rich and poor, young and old, weak and strong, bad and good). They do not recognize that the most wonderful thing of all about the harmonious working (homonoias) of city-community is this: that out of plurality and diversity it achieves a homogeneous unity capable of admitting every variation and degree. (On the Cosmos, 5.396b)
The important thing to note here, as scholar Del Martin points out, is that this reasoning is not opposing hierarchy. On the contrary. The opposites are necessary for the polis to exist and what creates harmony is when people recognize the value of hierarchy that holds all these statuses in place. The concord speech “… preserved the ‘natural’ relation of strength to weakness.”(97) Democracy was perceived as excessive freedom of the masses and enslavement of the upper class by lower classes, surely leading to chaos. While the concord speeches also warned against tyranny by those with power, it was firmly an affirmation of hierarchy and status.
What does Paul do in 1 Corinthians that is so subversive? More on that in the next post but if you are interested, read the first chapter of 1 Corinthians and see if you detect a divergence from the values of the Greco-Roman concord speech.