Paul writes in 1 Cor 5:1, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife.” Paul is letting the Corinthians know that (1) he’s received an oral report; (2) they failed to mention this in their letter to him; (3) those on the outside appear to be aware of this. May (2004: 60) asserts, “their public reputation (positive social identity) is at stake.” I would add, how did these outsiders become aware of this? The Corinthians were involved in their civic community, (see mission as social integration), and it appears their behavior wasn’t lining up with their speech.
Paul receives three oral reports in 1 Corinthians: (1) 1:11 “For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there are quarrels among you.” Here the communication is private, less confrontational, and more detailed indicating insider concern for the community. I am not arguing those from Chloe were Christ-followers (Barrett 1971: 42 is ambivalent; Fee 1987: 54 suggests they weren’t). Either way, Paul trusts their information. (2) 11:18 “…when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you; and to some extent I believe it.” Here is uses a simple 1 person singular, ‘I hear’) rather than the passive 3rd person singular in 5:1. In 11:18, Paul is informed about the Corinthians' behavior during the Lord’s supper, but he doesn’t bring out the larger community’s awareness of the issue. I think the issue in the Lord’s supper was “status differentials in dining” and these would not have been issues because their eating arrangements would look like those in rest of the culture. (3) 5:1 “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you…” The 3rd person singular indicates that this report has reached the ears of others besides him. The presence of “nations/gentiles/pagans” may indicate an outgroup awareness of this. Paul’s use of the adverb “actually” describes his “horror” at this news (Fee 1987: 199). Paul’s concern could also be that outsiders are aware of this (see Conzelmann 1975: 95).
Paul is using shame language to form the identity of the ecclesia, (see honor-shame discourse as an ordering-principle of identity). Cicero in Part. Or. 26.91 notes that shame is an effective tool in changing behavior. Paul is concerned that these things should not be, but notice he draws on their social identity as he describes issues regarding the existence of the immoral man in their group (and also noting that they have not expelled him from their group). The group is in focus with the use of “among you,” in effect Paul places “sexual immorality” among the entire group. So, the actions of this one individual, affects the social identity of the whole group. Paul feels collective action is required.
“…and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans…” – Paul engages in an intergroup comparison (see Social Identity Theory), by noting that this specific “sexual immorality” does not even occur among the nations (another indicator that they are socially identifying with their Roman social identity, otherwise this outgroup comparison would be ineffective). Paul uses the nations as a negative foil for the Corinthians’ behavior. Rosner (1994: 84) notes this occurs in the Hebrew Bible (Amos 1, 2; 2 Kgs 21:9, 11; Deut 12:29–31; 1 Kgs 14:24).
Social Identity Theory argues that groups require positive self-evaluation over and against and outgroup (I have argued that the outgroup is those aligned with the wisdom and power of Rome in 1 Corinthians). The outgroup evaluation results in a positive ingroup identity (think of MSU versus U of M football fans). Look what Paul has done: the immoral man (is an ingroup member), but the behavior is “worse than” what occurs in the outgroup (the nations, this is the term the Romans used to describe everyone else but themselves, see Lopez 2008). Paul undermines the Corinthians’ confidence in their ability to assess the ingroup correctly (see 4:3), while connecting this sin with their ingroup.
In 3:1–4, Paul equates the Corinthians with outsiders, however, here (5:1) he unfavorably compares them with outsiders: they are more immoral than those who are normally described as immoral. Paul doesn’t use a verb here so we have to supply either not heard/condoned/found. Commentators are split, as are English versions (see Garland 2003: 157).
What was not found? porneia, which Garland notes, “is a flexible term that covers all prohibited sexual intercourse and here applies to a case of unnatural sexual vice, “incest.” (see Reuben’s incest with his father’s concubine in T. Reub. 1:6; 4:8). The translation “sexual immorality” seems to tame and sanitized to convey Paul’s revulsion…”whoredom” may” be better (2003: 156–7). Incest of this nature was strongly discouraged by Roman writers: Cicero, Pro Cluentio; Martial, Epigrams 4.16; Tacitus, Annales 6.19; and Dio Cassius, Roman History 58.22.
“…for a man has his father's wife” – What are we dealing with here? May (2004: 640) contends that “a case of a marriage or concubinage between a believer and his stepmother.” This would be a violation of Roman law (Gaius Inst. 1.63 “It is illegal to marry a father’s or mother’s sister…nor can I marry her who was at one time my mother-in-law or stepmother”; Cicero, Pro Cluento 5.12—6.14 [Cicero was disgusted when “mother-in-law marries son-in-law”; it is “unbelievable” [Pro Cluento 5.27 (Thiselton 2006: 84)]; Clarke 1993: 77–80; Apuleius Metamorphoses 10.2–12; Augustan’s lex Julia de adulteriis [18–16 BCE]). May (2004: 65) continues, “the high instance of remarriage, and the fact that women often married at an early age, would suggest a good number of step-relationships in antiquity, where stepmothers were of similar ages to stepsons. Granted this, it is perhaps naïve to search far for a motive for such unions.”
What do you think about Paul's use of intergroup comparison in 1 Cor 5:1?
Barrett, C. K. A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Black's New Testament commentaries. London: A. & C. Black, 1971.
Clarke, Andrew D. Secular and Christian Leadership in Corinth: A Socio-Historical and Exegetical Study of 1 Corinthians 1-6. Leiden: Brill, 1993.
Conzelmann, Hans. 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.
Fee, Gordon D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. NICNT. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
Garland, David E. 1 Corinthians. BECNT. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003.
Lopez, Davina C. Apostle to the Conquered: Reimagining Paul's Mission. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008.
May, Alistair Scott. The Body for the Lord: Sex and Identity in 1 Corinthians 5-7. JSNT, 278. London: T&T Clark, 2004.
Rosner, Brian S. Paul, Scripture and Ethics: A Study of I Corinthians 5-7. Leiden: Brill, 1994.
Thiselton, Anthony C. First Corinthians: A Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral Commentary. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.