In order to properly interpret the Bible, it is necessary to understand what genre the Bible is operating in. If we view the Gospels as myths, for example, we will fail to take into account the historical truth they present about the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Epistles of Paul present special difficulties of interpretation. Even as early as the lifetime of Paul, it was possible for Peter to accurately write in 2 Peter 3:14-16: “Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless; and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation—as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures.” We are faced with the reality that from the beginning of the Christian church that the writings of Paul were twisted by those who wanted to corrupt the Gospel and that Paul said some things difficult to understand.
One of the things that makes Paul’s writing easier to understand is recognizing his situation as an evangelist and how he handled congregational problems using writing. Given that he traveled throughout the Mediterranean world and that his congregations were often made up of new members from diverse backgrounds, it is quite natural that they should have questions for him and that he would respond to those questions. In doing so, Paul wrote in a genre that remains popular called the responsa, where someone starts with a question from someone else and then responds to it based on scriptural understanding and sound reason. This is a particular genre that remains popular in Jewish literature–the late Reform rabbi Jacob Zallel Lauterbach was noted for writing many of them, as well as within the contemporary Church of God. In fact, as a blogger I write quite a few responsa myself where a question from a reader prompts research that leads to a response, on subjects as diverse as the origin of the word restaurant to the meaning of a particular verse or passage of the Bible or even a hunt for scriptures dealing with something that a minister has said. Generally speaking, people who write respona are considered to be people willing to give an answer and knowledgeable about the matter that they are responding to.
1 Corinthians presents a case study in the use of the responsa genre by Paul to answer the questions and respond to the concerns and misguided beliefs of the brethren in Corinth. In order to recognize this genre, we would expect to see a question or statement to begin with, and then a response to that statement. If we recognize a great deal of paradox between the initial statement and the rest of the commentary, then we can understand that the author (Paul in this case) is responding critically to the initial comment, and that we can take the initial comment not as a statement of Paul’s beliefs, but rather as a statement of some sort of belief or practice extant within the Corinthian congregation that he felt it necessary to correct. Given that 1 Corinthians contains Paul’s responses to various matters brought up by the congregation, we would expect to see within 1 Corinthians cases where an initial comment that Paul would strongly disagree with is corrected by later comments that are written in order to set the questioner straight about proper Christian doctrine and practice. And throughout 1 Corinthians that is precisely what we see.
Let us now look at some of these examples of responsa so that we may better understand the correspondence that Paul engaged in and how he approached the generally low level of understanding on the part of the brethren of Corinth, who he was not particularly impressed with. For the purposes of comprehensibility, we will label the parts of the particular examples with the original statement by the Corinthian writer and Paul’s response, with the text itself taken from the NKJV. Let us begin with 1 Corinthians 6:12-20:
Corinthians: All things are lawful for me.
Paul: But all things are not helpful.
Corinthians: All things are lawful for me.
Paul: But I will not be brought under the power of any.
Corinthians: Foods for the stomach and the stomach for foods.
Paul: But God will destroy both it and them. Now the body is not for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God both raised up the Lord and will also raise us up by His power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a harlot? Certainly not! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a harlot is one body with her? For “the two,” He says, “shall become one flesh.” But he who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with Him. Flee sexual immorality. Every sin that a man does is outside the body, but he who commits sexual immorality sins against his own body. Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.”
In the preceding passage we see the Corinthians trying to argue that they could do anything because they had been set free from the burden of the law by Jesus Christ’s sacrifice. Paul is reminding the brethren that even apart from considerations of the law, that sexual immorality is still a sin, against oneself as well as against God, and that believers belong to God and therefore should glorify God in one’s body and spirit that belong to Him, thus undercutting the belief that the body was meant for sexual pleasure just like the stomach was designed for the enjoyment of food.
Later on, when talking about gifts, we see the following example in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40:
“Paul: How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. If anyone speaks in a tongue, let there be two or at the most three, each in turn, and let one interpret. But if there is no interpreter, let him keep silent in church, and let him speak to himself and to God. Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others judge. But if anything is revealed to another who sits by, let the first keep silent. For you can all prophesy one by one, that all may learn and all may be encouraged. And the spirits of the prophets are subject to the prophets. For God is not the author of confusion but of peace, as in all the churches of the saints.
Corinthians: Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak; but they are to be submissive, as the law also says. And if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home; for it is shameful for women to speak in church.
Paul: Or did the word of God come originally from you? Or was it you only that it reached? If anyone thinks himself to be a prophet or spiritual, let him acknowledge that the things which I write to you are the commandments of the Lord. But if anyone is ignorant, let him be ignorant. Therefore, brethren, desire earnestly to prophesy, and do not forbid to speak with tongues. Let all things be done decently and in order.”
About this passage we have much to say, but for the present, let us note that the statement in 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 breaks the flow of the rest of the chapter, which deals with church order. Paul’s concern through the entire chapter of 1 Corinthians 14 is that all things should be done for edification, that all should learn, and that God is the author of peace and not of confusion. Yet the decency and order of which Paul desires is not an order that is an exploitative order. Paul, quite bluntly, views the attitude that it is shameful for women to speak in Church or to learn something by any means other than indirectly through their husbands, as being ignorant. Many contemporary feminists would agree with that. Paul did not desire to forbid anyone the expression of their God-given gifts, but it was important that this expression was done decently and in order, and not in a way that was chaotic or anarchical. This is obviously still a concern for Christians because there is often the tension between our desire to express ourselves and the importance of maintaining proper decorum, which becomes more difficult when everyone wants to say something, as our age demonstrates.
What does understanding Paul’s writing of much of 1 Corinthians as a response to the thinking of Corinthians matter? For one, understanding Paul’s use of the quotations of others helps us better understand his flow of argument, and helps us to recognize the way in which the Corinthians were divided. Just as is the case today among those who profess to follow Christ, there are some people who are attracted by various authoritarian models that seek to forbid people from acting on their God-given gifts because it does not fit their view of what is fitting and proper. To them Paul says that all should desire to understand and prophecy in the sense of speaking out of God’s word wit a proper attention to order and structure. There are others who see the gracious forgiveness of God as being a license to follow their whims and desires and to be free of all restraint and all law whatsoever, and to these people Paul reminds us that we do not belong to ourselves but to God and that God has placed limits on what it is right for us to do and how it is right for us to fulfill the God-given longings and desires that we have in a fallen world such as our own. There are pitfalls on the right and on the left, as there always have been, and ways that believers struggle to understand and apply the truths that are being taught to them.
That is, incidentally enough, why the genre of responsa exists at all. People who do not know the details of how to live in a godly fashion wish to ask those who are more knowledgeable than themselves to share their own insights. The people who share their insights will draw upon their own knowledge of the Bible, their own understanding of the law as well as tradition, and their own sense not only of what is right but also how to best deal with the problem of encouraging people to behave properly without coercing them and embittering them about the process. We know from books like Philemon that Paul was indeed very capable (especially as he got older) of writing very graciously in such a way that he led people to understand difficult truths that were in contradiction to the received tradition of their time, such as the truth that slaves were beloved brethren and the full spiritual equals of their masters. Even in our generation, it is not always easy to apply straightforward biblical truths, such as the spiritual equality between men and women in the eyes of God. And even when we know these things, how to apply them in a gracious and loving way that gives full flowering of all of God’s children to produce with their gifts and talents is by no means an obvious or straightforward matter.
Let us also note one more important insight we gain from understanding Paul’s use of material quoted from others. When we have reason to believe that a given statement in a book like 1 Corinthians does not fit with either the point of view of the context or that of the writer and the New Testament in general, and we know that Paul is communicating with a congregation that has probably written to him about various matters, it is important to read the whole context to see the distinction between what Paul is saying and what he is responding to. If we take scriptures out of their context and use them as proof texts to club others with, we may find that we are quoting the ignorant mindset of the immature Corinthian brethren and not the truth of God, because we have not understood the context well enough to see that Paul was quoting something that he would then be speaking out against, and that is a somewhat embarrassing place to be. Understanding genre is one piece that helps us to better understand the context of the scriptures, and when we understand the context of what is said, we can come to a better understanding of what it is that different verses mean, especially when those verses may trouble us, as is often the case in Paul’s writing.