“Jewish” and “Greco-Roman” Contexts of 1 Corinthians

In 2010 a new major commentary on 1 Corinthians appeared, by Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner:

The commentary has just been reviewed by Korinna Zamfir in the Review of Biblical Literature. Zamfir raises some interesting questions about the ways in which assumptions concerning the contexts of the letter affect our interpretation.

For Zamfir, Ciampa and Rosner are so focused on Paul’s “Jewish” background, that they unhelpfully downplay the Greco-Roman characteristics of Paul himself, and the audience to which he is writing. Zamfir is disappointed that the authors reject Margaret Mitchell’s contention that the letter utilises a Greco-Roman macro-rhetoric. Zamfir also points to an implication in the commentary that “pagan” society had no regard for sexual morality, whereas the (Jewish) Paul was committed to high ethical standards. She wishes Ciampa and Rosner were more sensitive to the complexities of religious life for “Gentile Christians coming from a Greco-Roman cultural and religious background” and concludes that throughout the work the Greco-Roman background has been disappointingly downplayed.

Is this fair? I think it’s true that the great strength of Ciampa and Rosner’s commentary is its attention to the Old Testament and Jewish themes that illuminate the letter – themes that are all too absent in Margaret Mitchell’s analysis. It may be that the strong emphasis on OT/Jewish contexts in the letter is in fact a reaction to a perceived over-emphasis on Greco-Roman backgrounds in many examinations of the Corinthian correspondence over the last couple of decades (this sort of corrective was certainly the burden of Rosner’s doctoral dissertation).

My own view is that Ciampa and Rosner’s emphases, while provocative and debatable at times, are useful in bringing the Old Testament and Judaism back into the picture in the study of this letter. I would want to tweak their presentation of “Jewish” ethics by insisting that Jewish ethics was itself impacted and shaped by the Hellenistic world; and I would probably give a little more prominence to the Greco-Roman character of the letter’s micro-rhetoric (but not macro-rhetoric). But I think that the commentary is a useful contribution in calling attention to neglected elements of the first century context of the letter.


  1. Thanks, Matthew! Of course (in response primarily to Zamfir) we understand that Jewish perspectives (including Paul’s) were impacted by Hellenism in every way. When a group understands itself in contrast to another group (whether a real group or a [sub-]cultural construction such as “paganism”) it has been deeply influenced by that context, beyond their own level of awareness. My own view is that the unusually careful attention we give to Jewish and biblical backgrounds to Paul’s thought have led some (including Zamfir) to downplay or (more accurately) fail to recognize the extent to which we also give unusually careful attention to the importance of some Greco-Roman backgrounds for both Paul’s thought and that of the Corinthians. Just a couple of examples include our discussion of how Paul’s discussion of the spiritual gifts relates to the Greco-Roman patronage system and the ways in which Paul’s discussion of sex and marriage is both shaped by and responds to his Hellenistic context. To her credit, Zamfir affirms that “At any rate, Ciampa and Rosner connect with good reason the Corinthian questions about marriage (ch. 7) to Greek and Roman discussions about the legitimacy of sexual gratification and sexual activities for purposes other than procreation, even within marriage (268–69).” But she fails to mention that (at least as far as I know) we are the only commentators that have ever made that connection – one that is all about understanding a key element of the Hellenistic background (that also influenced Jewish thinking as reflected in Philo and Josephus). In several areas I would say our attention to Hellenistic backgrounds exceeds that of virtually all who have gone before us, but one would think from some reviews (perhaps because some reviewers are taking their lead from some of our previous publications) that we neglect that background and are narrowly focused on Jewish and biblical backgrounds.

    We might also point out that paying attention to the biblical and Jewish roots of Paul’s letters pays dividends for biblical theology and preaching, one of the values of the Pillar series…

    Again, thanks for your response!

  2. Thanks for taking the time to join in, Roy. Unfortunately, once a review is out there, there’s often little opportunity for a “come-back” from the reviewed author – so it’s fantastic to hear your perspective on Zamfir’s review.

    You’ve made a really useful point – that perhaps the commentary’s striking insights into OT & Jewish background have overshadowed the fact that there is plenty in there about Greco-Roman contexts as well.

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