BMCR 2006.06.10

1-2 Corinthians. New Cambridge Bible Commentary

, 1--2 Corinthians. New Cambridge Bible commentary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xii, 299 pages ; 24 cm.. ISBN 0521834627 $60.00.

Why should the Bryn Mawr Classical Review bother with a commentary from New Testament studies? After all, Craig Keener wrote this relatively brief book on 1-2 Corinthians with pastors and other students of Christian Scripture as his primary audience (1). What does that have to do with classical studies? First, though it may seem trite to point out, the early Christian church in Roman Corinth was significantly shaped by its cultural context. Issues like benefaction and patronage, lawsuits, rhetoric and wisdom, and meat sacrificed to cult deities, all require that readers pay attention to this Greco-Roman context if they hope to understand what Paul is saying. Secondly, Keener envisions this commentary as potentially having some value for scholars based on his extensive citation of primary sources. Indeed, the index for Greco-Roman sources numbers 17 pages, whereas the “Scripture and Apocrypha Index” is 15 pages, and that of “Extrabiblical Jewish and Christian Sources” 10 pages. Moreover, where possible, Keener intentionally focuses on primary sources not previously noted in scholarship (18-19).1 Thirdly, given this wide recourse to classical sources, a book like this is important for classicists since it opens a window onto the interaction of early Christianity with Greco-Roman culture, an intersection of great significance for late antiquity. The interpretation of these letters, therefore, is definitely situated in their ancient context, and this book is relevant for a classical studies audience.

The two letters from Paul of Tarsus to the house churches he founded in Corinth around A.D. 50 are treated individually. Each part begins with a general introduction and an annotated list of suggested readings, followed by the commentary proper. In the commentary, Keener works passage by passage (rather than verse by verse). Each section includes a thematic title, the NRSV translation of the passage, and comments. Interspersed throughout are sidebars offering “A Closer Look” at a particular issue or “Bridging the Horizons” to today’s world.

The significant weakness in this set-up is the failure to lay out clearly the overarching structure of each letter. Keener provides a two-page summary of the contents of 1 Cor in the introduction to that letter (8-10) but nothing comparable for 2 Cor in its introduction. A structural outline of each letter, placed right before the commentary proper, would have been helpful. As it is, judging by the table of contents or flipping from one page to the next, the section headings for the passages seem relatively autonomous. To be fair, within his comments on particular passages, Keener usually points out how that pericope fits within its context. A clear structural outline, however, would improve the book by helping readers track the larger flow of Paul’s argument in each letter.

The introduction to 1 Cor covers proposed backgrounds, ancient letters, the city of Corinth, the immediate historical context, and a summary of the letter’s contents. Keener indicates he will pay particular attention to rhetorical features in 1-2 Cor, since Paul uses them more frequently here than is the norm for ancient letters (4). Keener characterizes his interpretive approach as social-rhetorical (15). Though most of the church was poor, he thinks at least a few individuals were of higher status (7-8), and many of the problems with which Paul deals may have come at their instigation (10).

The suggested reading lists for both letters are well done and, thanks to their selective focus and annotations, provide significant help for someone not conversant with the scholarship (11-19 for 1 Cor; 152-55 for 2 Cor). Keener divides his recommendations first according to key subjects such as rhetoric, the social context in Corinth, etc., then a list of commentaries, sub-divided on a continuum from major technical works to semi-popular treatments that still have academic interest, and finally, a sample of seminal monographs and articles, correlated to the chapters which they cover. In keeping with the intended audience, all the works are in English, which unfortunately means, for example, that Wolfgang Schrage’s recent, magisterial 4-volume commentary is never mentioned.2

Keener comments on 1 Cor for about 120 pages. Disunity posed a serious problem for the church, as seen in its factions that aligned themselves with different leaders, perhaps based on their rhetorical styles (chs. 1-4; p. 25); in how socially elite members of the church shamed those of lower status in celebrating the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34); and in the way their practice of spiritual gifts was oriented toward prizing what was flashy rather than what edified others (chs. 12-14). A significant catalyst for this disunity arose from the socially elite believers’ continued participation in their previous way of life without taking sufficient heed of their new status as believers (e.g. 74). Though he never says so explicitly, Keener seems to agree with those scholars who locate the Corinthian church’s main problem in its weak group boundaries: the church’s members, particularly the elite, still partook in the social practices and cultural values of the pagan world.3 Paul’s consistent answer to these problems was the gospel — the salvation effected by Christ in his death on the cross and resurrection should determine who they are and thus how they live (e.g. 6:11; pp. 55-56). Christ crucified is the power and wisdom of God, the true standard of evaluation (1:24; pp. 28-29, 32), and the ethical implications of the gospel should shape their practice (57).

Ethics occupy a large part of 1 Cor, notably sexuality and relationships between men and women (5:1-13; 6:12-7:40; 11:2-16), and Keener handles these passages well. He examines the disputed terms arsenokoites and malakos from the vice list of 6:9 and concludes that arsenokoites refers to male homosexual intercourse, and that malakos, while more difficult, may well refer to the passive partner (54-55). His thoughtful discussion of head coverings and public meetings in 11:2-16 reflects his previous work on gender relationships in Paul (90-94).4 Keener repeatedly argues that, judged by the standards of his day, Paul was progressive in his treatment of women (62, 93, 119).

The introduction to 2 Cor focuses on Paul’s opponents and the letter’s literary integrity (143-51). The historical situation has changed between the two letters: other Jewish Christians have arrived who, with their rhetorical ability and perhaps charismatic experiences, advocate a different set of criteria for what makes an apostle (144-46). The main part of the letter dealing with these opponents is chs. 10-13, which most scholars believe was originally a separate document. Against this general consensus, Keener presents a clear, concise and balanced argument that 2 Cor is a unified letter, and that no partition should be made (146-51). The entailment for this view is that Paul has these opponents in mind throughout the letter but for strategic reasons waits until the end to confront them directly.

The commentary on 2 Cor runs just under 90 pages. Paul extensively defended his ministry in 2:14-7:4 where is revealed as “an ambassador of a revelation greater than that to Moses,” a revelation whose glory “those with eternal perspective can recognize” (163). His main plea is for the Corinthians to be reconciled to God and consequently to him, as God’s appointed agent (5:18-6:2; pp. 185-87). The climax for this section comes in 6:11-7:4 with its emotional appeal for the Corinthians to side with Christ over against idols (190).5 At the time of writing these letters, Paul was organizing a collection from his churches to benefit believers in Jerusalem suffering from famine. After the groundwork of chs. 1-7, Paul in chs. 8-9 called on the Corinthians to participate as they had promised, applying a variety of persuasive devices and pressures, sometimes blatant but mostly subtle (e.g. 211). Keener views chs. 10-13 as the culmination of the letter as a whole, where Paul defends himself against these super-apostles. Forced to match credentials with his opponents, Paul followed and yet subverted the conventions about boasting, as he adopted a “fool’s” persona (11:16-17). What he boasted in ultimately was not his accomplishments but his sufferings, a rhetorical reversal that undermined dominant Greco-Roman values of self-promotion (220). The crux of his charge against his opponents was that they had neutered the cross (227).

By what standards should we evaluate a short commentary like this one? The New Cambridge Bible Commentary series aims for up-to-date scholarship presented in an accessible fashion to a wide readership. How well does this volume meet those goals? Keener utilizes tools like social-rhetorical criticism and interacts competently with contemporary scholarship, while keeping the actual citation of secondary literature to a minimum, so he is certainly up-to-date. He has done a good job of presenting this material accessibly for those with the intellectual interest but not the training. Such accessibility is enhanced by the “Bridging the Horizons” sidebars where Keener connects the text to the contemporary world, often by incorporating personal anecdotes (e.g. 61, 230) or delivering a moving, prophetic critique of how the church today treats the poor (206-08). He has also tried in places to compensate for the limits intrinsic to a smaller commentary. Brevity and accessibility constrain how much an author can weigh the entire range of interpretations and then offer his or her own reasoned choice, which is a major raison d’être for a commentary. Still, for example, when explaining the statement, “nothing beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6), Keener aptly summarizes in a paragraph the three main options and then gives what he considers the basic sense (45). So he often navigates this drawback well.

The major weakness of this volume, as a short commentary, in my opinion, is that it lacks the readability for which one would hope. Admittedly, this may be a matter of personal taste, but to me the book did not read very smoothly. Perhaps that goes back to the lack of clear structural markers that track the flow of Paul’s argument. I found it difficult to be carried along by the text and on that count would prefer, for example, Richard Hays’s commentary on 1 Cor in the Interpretation series, which has similar aims as this one.6 At the same time, Keener does a good job of drawing connections between parts of the letters and thus revealing the coherence of Paul’s message. For example, the same pair of verbs, deomai and parakaleo, appears in 2 Cor 5:20 and in 10:1-2, and both passages are passionate appeals to the Corinthians to be reconciled, either to God or to Paul, God’s agent (217). On a bigger scale, Keener points out how the theology of the cross runs through both letters (240-41). In such instances, he shows a theological acuity and the necessary ability to read each part of the letter in its literary context.

The last major feature to consider is how Keener employs Greco-Roman primary sources, which constitutes both a strength and weakness. Their usage brings genuine insight to the letters by anchoring their interpretation in the social-historical context of Roman Corinth and the wider ancient Mediterranean. Keener is able to distill insights from primary sources (and secondary literature) and show how they illuminate the text. The “Looking Closer” sidebars often do this, for example in contextualizing Paul’s critique of rhetoric within ancient philosophy and rhetoric (35-37) or showing how he followed and yet subverted the conventions on self-boasting (221-22).

The problem is that too often such comparisons are offered only as short observations that speak to the general context of the day but offer little in the way of direct connection. They tend to say: “Here is what Paul does, and then how others did it similarly or differently.” For example, Paul reasons from the indicative to the imperative, from who the Corinthians are in Christ to how they should live (1 Cor 6:11), and Keener points out how philosophers sometimes follow this same train of thought (56). Yet this shows nothing more than a parallel without assessing its relevance or relative significance. That brevity might be a consequence of the kind of commentary, but such restrictions actually make it all the more imperative to use the space allotted judiciously. Perhaps fewer examples with greater depth would serve this purpose better.

Other comparisons from primary sources, especially the evaluation of rhetorical features, can come across as commonplace — what any good reader would notice anyway, regardless of what the rhetorical handbooks said. Paul reminds the believers how he acted when he came to Corinth (2 Cor 4:2) and hopes his conscience is well-known to them (5:11b). To this, Keener adds parenthetically, “Paul apparently knows that their memory of his heart is a strong part of his case; orators would dwell on a particularly strong point; see Rhet. Her. 4.45.58″ (183). This observation, however, adds nothing that is not already common sense. Yet just one paragraph later, Keener summarizes some of the ways orators would excuse or justify self-boasting and then gives verse references for where Paul does the same thing. This kind of reference does add value to the interpretation. Overall, Keener’s extensive use of primary sources is welcome but effective only insofar as he takes the time to demonstrate how they actually illuminate the biblical text.

The non-specialist in biblical studies will find in this commentary a competent reading of the text that is rightly concerned to show how the letters fit together and belong to their ancient social-historical context. It can usefully provide quick perspective on individual passages but may prove more difficult to read through from cover to cover, despite its small size. The specialist will appreciate and often benefit from Keener’s use of primary sources but sometimes may wish that more space was given to arguing for their direct relevance to the interpretation.


1. He is also working on a technical commentary on 1 Cor and notes that for this volume he could only include a fraction of the material he has gathered (11).

2. Wolfgang Schrage, Der Erste Brief an die Korinther. 4 vols. (Evangelisch-Katholischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament 7; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1991-2001).

3. This particular formulation comes from Edward Adams, Constructing the World: A Study in Paul’s Cosmological Language (Studies of the New Testament and its World; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2000).

4. See his Paul, Women and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1992).

5. This interpretation contrasts strongly with those who view 6:14-7:1 as an interpolation.

6. Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1997).