Classical Education in Corinth (I)

The Corinthian church of the first century has rather a bad reputation, but I wonder if people thought about her the same way back then.

Don’t get me wrong; they were a mess. In fact, the first Christian text we have from the Christian era that is not included in the Bible is a letter from Clement, the bishop of Rome, who wrote to them in something like 95 or 96 AD for the same sort of divisiveness Paul wrote to them about in something like 55 AD.

But those are epistles written by very holy people who occupy significant leadership positions in the church. I wonder what the popular opinions about them would have been. I suspect they were different from Paul’s.

I develop that hypothesis because of the type of city Corinth was and because of the problems Paul has to deal with.

We say, of course, that Corinth was an immoral city, and so it was. That’s our primary focus. In a way, I would compare it to a modern Las Vegas or New York.

But it wasn’t only known for its immorality. Corinth had been a very ancient Greek city. Oedipus, of Oedipus Rex fame, had been brought up there. The city sat on the cross roads of Hellene (what we call Greece). To the north was Macedonia and northern Greece. To the south, Athens, Sparta, and the Peloponnesian Peninsula.

But Corinth sat on an Isthmus, which meant 1. that to pass between northern and southern Greece, you had to go past Corinth, and 2. that it sat on the shortest route between east (Asia Minor and the Aegean or even Athens) and west (Italy).

The Greeks irritated the Romans, so in 146 a Roman general, Mummius, sacked Corinth, virtually completely destroying it and bringing its treasures to Rome.

Then sometime around 65 BC, Julius Caesar both rebuilt the city and had a canal cut through from west to east. Little time was wasted rebuilding Corinth into a trade center and a leader in Hellenistic culture, especially under its Roman expression.

It’s pretty obvious from Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians that the leaders of Corinth, or at least a significant portion of them, had been classically educated. So given that they were rich, an Imperial city, founded by Julius Caesar, ruled by people with a fine education, a cultural center of sorts, I conclude that most people probably thought very highly of this successful Corinthian church.

I know we would today if such a church were in the news.

To repeat, at least some of the church leaders were classically educated. For one things, virtually everybody in leadership was so educated in those days. But Paul also indicates as much a number of different ways, some direct and some more oblique.

The whole passage from 1:17-2:5 is an extended critique of the confidence the Corinthians place in the “wisdom of words.”

The Christian classical school has to take this critique very seriously. After all, we teach our students logic and debate (i.e. to become “the disputer of this age”) and rhetoric (i.e. the wisdom of words), while preparing them for leadership (even though “not many mighty, not many noble, are called”).

You can’t just dismiss these words and say, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to us. That was pagan Corinth.”

No, these verses apply very explicitly to the Christian school – more, I think, to us, than to anybody else today.

For this reason, I have been meditating on these verses, indeed, on the whole book, off and on for years. Over the past couple weeks, some important matters have become very clear to me, so I plan on writing as often as I am able about it.

My reflections revolve around that ancient question of Tertullian (and every other Christian who has ever lived and thought): What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem, and Jerusalem with Athens?

In other words, what is the relationship between the things taught us by the Holy Spirit within the Christian tradition and the things discovered by people outside the church? What should we read and study? Should we read and study at all? Why?

One thing I will do my best to avoid, and that is to argue this very practical matter in the abstract. In other words, I’m not going to put an idea about Christian thought up against an idea about classical or secular (or whatever) thought.

I don’t think we’d learn much that way, because this isn’t a theoretical matter. It’s got everything to do with specific decisions by specific people about specific questions and decisions.

So by looking at I Corinthians in this light (and I believe Paul wrote this epistle with this question very much in mind, as I hope to demonstrate while I write), we can examine it not as a theoretical proposition, but as a practical matter we need to understand, apply, and internalize.

I haven’t worked out the details of my strategy yet, but my intent is to

  1. Take this very seriously
  2. Pursue wisdom with an eager and an open heart
  3. Approach the text synthetically (as a whole) instead of analytically. In other words, I want to see how the whole text deals with these questions, not exegete verses grammatically. I don’t have as much confidence in grammatical approaches to the scriptures as I used to, so while I will gladly submit to what grammar demands of me, I won’t expect it to reveal the hidden wisdom of God.
  4. Listen to what others have to contribute.

I have no idea whatsoever about the timeline for this pursuit. I have no specific goal except to ponder the question in the pages of Corinth. The less I have to worry about peripheral matters, the more I’ll be able to focus on this.

In any case, I do hope you’ll join me!

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13 Responses

  1. Cindy,

    NO, I doubt they all were too. But it is always the case that people are led by those who are most influential. That’s why we need spiritual perception.

    Peter was “simple” but I’d have a hard time seeing Stephen that way. He was a Hellenized Jew, hardly uneducated. He spoke with the power and eloquence of the Spirit, but does that mean he ignored the principles of rhetoric? Is that what the Spirit does?

  2. Isn’t one of the questions being raised by Paul the question of how it is that one is taught by the spirit rather than being taught by the intellect? (Corinthians 1, 2:10) And isn’t Paul suggesting that Christians are taught by the spirit, whereas outsiders are taught by the intellect? Or am I wrong?

    I think this topic is interesting because the same question arises in Chan (Zen) Buddhism (Zen is the Japanese version of Chinese Chan). A quote from Chan Master Sheng-Yen (Zen Wisdom, North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, CA, 2001)

    “Chan masters acknowledge intelligence and learning, but taught that they must be transcended. Intellectual knowledge is not ultimate truth. The enlightened state that Chan speaks of is beyond thinking, words, and symbols: it cannot be described and it cannot be understood through deductive reasoning. Ultimately, thought and language are man-made constructs based on symbols. By definition a symbol is not the thing it symbolizes.” (p. 198)

    But while intelligence and learning need to be left behind in order to attain Enlightenment,

    “Ironically, enlightened beings use reasoning, intelligence, and language to help others practice.” (pp. 199)

    • Gloria,

      If I understand you, I think you are right, at least basically. The hard part is what we mean by the words, especially spirit and intellect.

      I would propose that it isn’t so much the difference between spirit and intellect as between what the “natural man” (the psuchecon, which I believe refers to Aristotle’s Ethics) can know through his own refinement and perspectives (which is quite extraordinary, as Plato demonstrates), and what the “spiritual man” can know by comparing spritual things with spiritual.

      The intellect itself needs to be “spiritualized” from this point of view.

      So it isn’t, I think, so much the spirit instead of the intellect, but the intellect being fulfilled by the Spirit of Christ.

      If there is a major difference between Chan Buddhism and Christian thought, it would seem to be precisely who Jesus is.

      In the case of the spiritual Christian, it is not his spirit that he is learning from. On the contrary, because of Christ, he has been given both the Spirit and “the mind (nous: intellect) of Christ.”

      So whereas only a man’s spirit can know what he is thinking, so only God’s Spirit can know what He is thinking.

      But when Christ became human, took on human nature, he made it possible for people united to Him to receive, not the spirit of a man, but the Spirit of God.

      Receiving that Spirit gives us the capacity to know things, Paul says, by comparing spiritual things with spiritual things.

      I have to admit that this is pretty much beyond me. I’m what Paul calls a carnal Christian in chapter 3. I need spiritual things laid out for me by comparing them with natural and I don’t have the pure heart that true spiritual perception requires.

      But I can’t deny that there are occasions when the Spirit of God has caused me to glimpse ineffable things such as He has promised for those who love Him.

      I am very grateful to have you in this conversation. You compel careful thought and bring a gracious spirit.

      Thank you!

    • Zen, when taken as a metaphysic (and not just a practice) is very difficult to reconcile with Christianity.

      Creation begins with differentiation (real differentiation) from a source that contains difference within itself (the Trinity). Further, early Christian theologians were quite content speaking of God as pure mind, or of the second person of the trinity as the principle of intelligibility (as is required by the Gospel of John).

      God is not himself beyond thought, but only beyond the kind of thought that belongs natively to a circumscribed mind. Some Orthodox would disagree with this based on a Palamite interpretation of apophaticism, but this was actually one of the points of contention between the Cappadocian fathers and Eunomius, in which the St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa defended God’s complete self-knowledge.

      My Zen studies may be rusty, but even in the broad themes, this doesn’t seem to be particularly compatible.

      • Tom, I agree with your assessment of Zen in respect to Christianity, and would indeed go even further by suggesting that Zen and Christianity are ultimately quite incompatible metaphysically. For example, there is quite simply no God in Buddhism. Buddhism is called a “religion” in Western languages because we have no more accurate word for it. “Philosophy” doesn’t work as a descriptor because Western philosophy has traditionally been viewed as discussion about certain topics, and does not include the idea of an associated goal-oriented set of practices that a person carries out on a daily basis.

        What I found fascinating about Andrew Kern’s reflections about Paul’s Epistle is the concern with the possible kinds of thinking we humans can engage in and which forms of thinking permit us to transcend our mundane world. Do we learn these forms of transcendent-aimed thinking or are they innate? Can they be taught? Can they be modeled by a good teacher?

        In Buddhism this is the concern about how we reach Enlightenment. Both Christianity and Chan (Zen) Buddhism are concerned with the transcendent nature of man and I have an interest in noting the similarities and differences in what these two traditions have to say about the paths of thinking that are necessary for man to recognize that he has a transcendent nature and to find and utilize that nature to attain Enlightenment (in Buddhism) and xxxx with the Spirit of God. I use xxxx here to indicate that I’m not sure (due to my own ignorance) what word to use to indicate what Christians hope to attain and don’t want to misrepresent the goal of Christians.

      • Gloria,

        So far as I understand it, what the Christian hopes to attain is beatitude, that state of blessedness that is the full realization of ALL of our human potentialities and thus the enablement to know and enjoy the God who made us to enjoy Him.

        This includes a kind of knowing that requires purity (cf. James: the wisdom from above is first pure, and Jesus: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God) first and foremost.

        The more time I spend reflecting on the writings of the New Testament, the more convinced I am that Jesus came to offer a “way,” a path to purity and knowledge, not just a set of propositions everybody is supposed to agree about.

        The telos of that way is beatitude, His presence and pleasure.

      • I might quibble with your description of philosophy (Socrates, for example, viewed philosophy as the active preparation of the soul for death), but it would really be beside the point. You are right when it comes to much modern philosophy though.

        You are correct to say that Buddhism and Christianity shares similar concerns about how to think the transcendent, and both hold man to be in some way transcendent. Further, by their practice, both hope to achieve something.

        However, the means by which Christians go about thinking the transcendent (especially), the way they conceive of the nature of human being, and the practices they engage in and what they hope to achieve, differ radically — to my mind — from those interests of Zen in particular and Asian philosophy more generally. (I realize you don’t necessarily disagree with these points.)

        Christian theology views the transcendent as the superabundant (rather than empty) source of all being, and views God as transcending even the distinction between transcendent and immanent. This happens especially though the incarnation, in which the — to borrow St. Athanasius’ terminology — uncircumscribable becomes circumscribed, in which the transcendent becomes immanent. This ontology informs the other two aspects mentioned above, as well as the way we think about God (which is the primary topic of concern here).

        As to the second aspect, the Christian does not try to annihilate his particular self in order to realize his universal self, but rather grasps himself in his particularity precisely in order to relate himself to the transcendent “universal self”. This happens through the (now often maligned) analogy of being, which is made possible by the fact that for Christians, God contains both particularity and distinction already within himself.

        As to the third, the practices of Christians involve union with divine nature through Baptism, and the reinvigoration of that divine nature through the Eucharist.

        Thus, the way we think about God is situated within the context of this active participation in his divine energies through the tangible elements of the sacraments. That is, we don’t think about God by progessively annihilating all particularity until we surpass number and distinction; rather, Christians must always think of God as Trinity, as distinct, particular, and infinite.

        While Christianity might share the same general concern as Zen, the means by which it goes about achieving its goal and the goal itself are essentially different and in some ways opposite Zen belief (if it falls within that category) and practice.

        And, it’s worth noting, in order to think the transcendent in the way just (too briefly) described, Christianity enlisted the help of pagan philosophy, stealing away its riches just as the Isrealites took the Egyptian’s treasures with them as they left to return home (as St. Gregory of Nyssa liked to say).

        Hopefully this helps distinguish similarities and differences between Zen and Christianity.

  3. Tertullian liked to complain about pagan influences on Christian thought, but then he uses a Stoic paradigm to think about the Trinity.

    Disentangling Greek and Roman philosophy from Christianity would be a pretty fruitless exercise. For one thing, parts of the New Testament are themselves steeped in pagan philosophy.

    Paul’s discussion of body and spirit are almost explicitly Platonic, influenced (it seems) through a variety of gnosticism.

    The Gospel of John commences by identifying the Logos with God. The term “Logos” is heavily philosophically loaded and dates back to Heraclitus, but was had gained a certain intellectual currency through the likes of Philo of Alexandria.

    • Thomas,

      Do you mean the New Testament is a paganized version of Judaism?

      • No. But just as the Jews of OT times were deeply influenced by other regional cultures and religions, Christianity could not help but be influenced in some way by its culture. There’s nothing wrong or surprising about that, things should have concrete (and sometimes ambiguous) histories.

        Even if there was, any attempt to disentangle Jerusalem from Athens would involve jettisoning a good portion of the New Testament, as well as much of the rest of written tradition. What you would have in the end wouldn’t look much like Christianity.

  4. Paul seems to indicate that the church at Corinth was not a strikingly educated or aristocratic group. I think it’s important to remember that the erudition for which Paul is often lauded (example in Acts 17) left a few converts. Paul’s determination to know nothing but Christ crucified for sinners immediately thereafter in Corinth left a thriving congregation. It’s the kind of thing that gave Paul the impetus to say the Gospel is the power of God to salvation.

    Be careful, Andrew. You’re dealing with some very powerful ideas there. I tried to mess with them and had to covert to a whole different denomination!

    • Dave,

      I saw that you had become Lutheran and wondered what you came from. Why did you need to convert because of this question?

      I’m OK with the dangers. My Father loves me.

  5. Hmmm . . . I wonder if ALL the leadership in Corinth were educated? Part of the wonder of Peter, for example, and Stephen, were that they were just simple people, uneducated, and speaking with the power and eloquence of the Spirit. Great things to think about!

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