An overview of the process of exegesis
This week I am studying First Corinthians, chapters 8 through 10. Think of a careful study of a passage like an ever-widening spiral. Starting from your target text, which you should read over and over (about 20 times), move away from that passage, looking at the context before and after.
Once you have included the entire document in which your target text is found, you should start relating it to the other writings of the same author, the rest of the testament in which it occurs, and the other testament as well. Then take in, as much as you can, the literary and cultural contexts, which are external to the actual text. (Most of us tend to bypass the spade work for this final part and rely on a few good commentaries.)
A quick look at the target text
Looking at First Corinthians 8, right off, a seeming contradiction seems to jump off the page. Paul says, “All of us possess knowledge” (1 Cor. 8:1), and then shortly thereafter says, “Not all possess this knowledge” (1 Cor. 8:7).
In this section of First Corinthians, Paul is responding to statements and questions the Corinthians posed in a letter they send to him (now lost). His response to the letter begins in 1 Cor. 7:1 – “Now to the matters you wrote about,” and then he apparently addresses their topics in turn, introducing each with the phrase, “Now concerning…” (see 1 Cor. 7:25; 1 Cor. 8:1; 1 Cor. 12:1; 1 Cor. 16:1; and 1 Cor. 16:12).
Three exceptions to this pattern occur when Paul discusses the role of women when praying or prophesying (1 Cor. 11:3-16), the Corinthians’ abuses of the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-34), and their denial of the resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15). It is difficult to determine whether these topics were also in the Corinthians’ letter, and if they were not, why Paul chose to include them in the places where he did.
Understanding that Paul is responding to something that the Corinthians had written him about helps to relieve the seeming contradiction. The first statement “All of us possess knowledge” seems to be a quotation from the Corinthians’ letter, which Paul corrects a few verses later with the statement, “Not all possess this knowledge.” (Paul seems to make other quotations in other sections, e.g., 1 Cor. 7:1 and 1 Cor. 10:23.)
When Paul says, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1b), he is introducing a theme that will be at the heart of his later discussion of how to exercise spiritual gifts with love. Remember 1 Cor. 13:4? Paul says, “Love… is not proud” (literally, “is not puffed up”). But eating idol meats and exercising spiritual gifts are not the only occasions when the Corinthians were puffed up. They were puffed up in response to the man’s having his father’s wife (1 Cor. 5:2).
Finding such links to the target text in the same document helps us to understand it more deeply. The pride of the Corinthians was selfish, hurtful toward others, and apparently pervasive. The mark of maturity among them seems to have been based on how much they knew, not how much they loved. This set the stage for the influx of the Gnosticism of the second century, a tidal wave of esoteric, self-promoting, head-knowledge that swept away thousands of Christians into denying the salvation that Christ gave His life-blood to purchase.
The spiral widens
With more space we could examine Paul’s other writings, including the parallel passage, Romans 14, and to pertinent passages elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g., Acts 15:1-31; 1 John 5:21; and Rev. 2:14-16). We could compare with 1 Cor. 8:4 the Old Testament’s anti-idolatry passages (e.g., Ps. 115:4-8; Ps. 135:15-18; Isa. 40:19-20; Isa. 41:21-24; Isa. 44:9-20) and the famous “Shema” (Deut. 6:4-5), Judaism’s creedal statement of the oneness of God.
We could explore the common first-century practice of dining within the precincts of pagan temples whenever business and civic associations met, or on almost any occasion citizens wanted to celebrate, such as birthdays, comings of age, weddings, and parties celebrating victories in athletics, business, the courts, and elections. Corinthian Christians would feel obliged to participate in these and many other events tightly woven into the social fabric of the city.
We could listen as scholars debate the meaning of the brief sacrificial ceremony with which all such dinner parties began, as they acknowledged the god or goddess serving as host for the occasion. Were these meals sacramental, communal, or social? How much of the pagan deity’s worship was implied by buying surplus meat from such meals that was sold at the local meat market?
Finally, we could find modern situations that parallel the dilemma the Corinthian Christians faced regarding idol-meat. What modern practices do some Christians appraise as spiritually harmless but others shrink back from because they regard it as contaminated by worldliness, carnality, or worse? What principles can we draw from First Corinthians, chapters 8 through 10 that will guide us to responsible, Christ-based decision-making?
“Take up and read”
Reading and re-reading the target text is the starting point in this lengthy process of gaining a deeper understanding, a stronger connection to God and to each other, a firmer commitment to pursue what is right, and a more consistent follow-through.
Want to go deeper?
The following is recommended reading:
Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart. How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. 4th edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2014.
Enjoy God’s Word to the fullest! This classic reader-friendly manual explains the different kinds of biblical literature—such as prophecy, Gospels, poetry, and history—so you can get the most from them. The revised fourth edition includes updated language for today’s generation of readers, a new preface, bracketed Scripture references, and redesigned diagrams. 304 pages, softcover from Zondervan.
Richard E. Oster, Jr. 1 Corinthians. The College Press NIV Commentary. Joplin, Mo.: College, 1995.
First Corinthians was written to a church rocked by division, with great cracks developing over worldly issues and a misunderstanding of God’s plan. The church at Corinth is a warning of what our churches today are fast becoming. The beloved church of the Corinthians has become world-based, glory-motivated, and grounded in immorality. But there was hope! A hope found in a plan inspired by God. We call this plan First Corinthians. God’s course of action, laid out in 1 Corinthians, brought repentance and unity to a church that seemed on the verge of collapse. This makes 1 Corinthians one of the most important books we can turn to for guidance, as we begin the long, difficult task of bringing our churches back to unity with God.
Dealing with most of the issues in our churches today, 1 Corinthians brings you to a greater understand of God. This detailed plan also equips the Christian with the spiritual tools needed to bring unity and devotion to God out of chaos and disunity. If you are a Christian, a Sunday school teacher or a leader in the church, you will find 1 Corinthians a helpful addition to your library.
Robert Stein. A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible: Playing by the Rules. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2011.
Here’s a book that lives up to its name, and provides a firm bedrock from which to study, interpret, and understand the Bible and its myriad genres. Senior New Testament scholar Robert Stein helps readers identify various biblical genres, develop the skills to extrapolate meaning from biblical texts, and apply that meaning to contemporary life. Having undergone a complete revision to reflect Stein’s current thinking and changes to the discipline over the past decade, students of the Bible at all levels will find the book effective in group settings, classrooms, and for personal study.
Wendell Lee Willis. Idol Meat in Corinth: The Pauline Argument in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series, No. 68. Chico, Calif.: Scholars, 1985. Reprint: Eugene, Ore.: Wipf and Stock, 2004.
This work has several objectives: to understand what the problem of idol meat at Corinth involved, to establish the attitude of the Corinthians to this issue – what course of conduct had they followed or proposed to follow and how did they seek to defend their position? – to explain the reply of Paul to the Corinthian inquiry, and, finally, in the process of the exegesis and in the conclusions this study will seek to identify fundamental norms and themes which are operative here as a part of Paul’s ethical thought.