The second interview in our Eerdmans 100 series shifts gears from Theology to Biblical Studies, and highlights the most recent volume in Eerdmans’ acclaimed Pillar New Testament Commentary series. The First Letter to the Corinthians [PNTC] is a collaborative effort by New Testament scholars Roy Ciampa and Brian Rosner and is a solid mid-level exegetical commentary.
Brian Rosner is Senior Lecturer in New Testament and Ethics at Moore Theological College and Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Ancient History at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Roy Ciampa, the subject of our interview today, is Director of the Th.M. program in Biblical Studies, Professor of New Testament, and Chair of the Division of Biblical Studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts. As a special note, though our discussion today is with Dr. Ciampa it should be stressed that Dr. Rosner has reviewed the interview manuscript. I would like to thank each of them for participating in the interview, and wish them continued success in their work.
Matthew: There currently exist a number of outstanding commentaries on 1 Corinthians including works by Gordon Fee, Anthony Thiselton, and David Garland. Each of these has their own emphasis and strengths. What unique contributions does your commentary make to the ongoing discussion regarding the epistle?
Ciampa: Those are all indeed very fine commentaries, each of which makes important contributions. If one follows a trajectory from Fee, through Thiselton to Garland one will note a move from an interpretation of the letter strongly governed by a theory that the Corinthians suffered from an over-realized eschatology [toward a] growing consensus that they suffered primarily from being overly Roman and Corinthian in their views and behaviors.
Our commentary supports that growing consensus and applies it more consistently in that our understanding of the Corinthians’ sexual problems and debates more clearly reflects (we think) the dominant debates on the subject in wider Roman culture at the time (while others continue to attribute rather exotic views to the Corinthians without sufficient evidence) and understands Paul’s argument to make more sense in light of those debates. Our commentary, although not the most technical commentary on 1 Corinthians, is still the second-longest commentary on this epistle in the English language (being just slightly longer than those by Fee, Garland and Collins, but in the same category as those).
Tony Thiselton’s commentary is 50% longer than ours and thus is in a category of its own. It is practically an exhaustive encyclopedia in which one can find out “who said what” about any passage in the letter. At times one is left wondering what his own opinion is about the views he introduces along the way, and most pastors probably don’t have the time and energy to read through all of that (admittedly, many will want something more concise than what Fee, Garland and Rosner and I offer). Gordon Fee’s commentary is full of insights (as reflected in the great number of times he [as well as Thiselton and Garland] is cited in our author index), but is getting a bit dated and is the most fully indebted to the over-realized eschatology view that fewer and fewer scholars continue to see as the real key to the letter.
David Garland’s commentary comes closest to ours in scope and perspective, and was my favorite commentary before we authored our own, but we have had the advantage of incorporating 7 more years’ worth of research into the letter (including our own original research reflected in the commentary and articles written as we went about writing it) and we think we have contributed something important to the understanding of the letter’s structure and fundamental argument as well as to numerous exegetical issues along the way (e.g., on the meaning of 7:1 in particular and that chapter in general and the focus on avoiding Gentile vices and glorifying God in life and worship).
Matthew: The First Letter to the Corinthians is a work brought together by two authors, yourself and Brian Rosner. What role did each person play in writing the commentary and what is it like to co-author a volume of this length and complexity?
Ciampa: Brian and I found collaboration to be a wonderful experience and now wonder why it doesn’t happen more often! 1 Corinthians itself is part of a dialogue between Paul and the Corinthians and our writing of the commentary also grew out of our constant dialogue. While all commentary writers dialogue with what other authors have written, other voices don’t get to respond to their arguments until the commentary is published. In our case, we were able to dialogue not only with the literature, but with a live co-author that could help sharpen the argument before it was published. We are convinced the collaboration led to a better commentary. Most of what we regard of our best insights were sharpened in the conversation.
We had some extended times together to talk through our understanding of the letter as a whole and key issues within it. I spent some time with Brian in Sydney towards the beginning of the project and then he came to stay with us for a while towards the end. We talked regularly by phone or Skype along the way. Towards the beginning of our work we came up with an original understanding of the structure and argument of the letter and co-authored an article in the journal New Testament Studiesdefending what would appear in longer form as the
structure for this commentary. We also co-authored the contribution on 1 Corinthians in the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (BakerAcademic: 2007), giving us the opportunity to work through that aspect of the letter together, as a foundation for the fuller treatment in this commentary.
We also went over each other’s work as it was being prepared, giving feedback, suggestions of other sources, arguments or ideas, etc. Whenever one of us completed the first draft of a chapter of the commentary we sent it to the other, who then read it and suggested changes (and caught mistakes). Sometimes we went back and forth several times on a passage or chapter before we were done. Email and Skype make this type of close and constant collaboration between people living on different continents possible in a way that earlier generations couldn’t have imagined! Both of our fingerprints are all over every part of the commentary and we made sure we were both very happy with our material before we felt ready to send it to Don Carson and Eerdmans.
Matthew: The Introduction indicates that you approach the letter as “fundamentally Jewish” in character, an approach you believe provides several interpretive advantages. Will you unpack what the implications of this approach are for your understanding of the epistle?
Ciampa: Previous commentaries on 1 Corinthians have tended to pay close attention to the Greco-Roman backgrounds informing the Corinthian situation (which we also do, making a few special contributions in this area as well, we think), but tended to neglect the extent to which Paul’s own biblical and Jewish theological framework governed his response to the problems in Corinth. Our commentary is unique in recognizing the extent, for instance, that the letter builds on biblical and Jewish concerns about sexual immorality and idolatry in a situation where Greco-Roman culture is influencing the worshiping community in dangerous ways.
In fact, while others have tended to think the letter lacked any coherent structure or simply reflected ad hocresponses to a series of (possibly unrelated) questions and issues raised by the Corinthians, we see the structure of the letter as one reflected elsewhere in Paul’s thought, and consistent with biblical and Jewish perspectives reflected elsewhere, where false or true wisdom leads people to sexual immorality or purity and to idolatry or the proper worship of God as one awaits the return of the resurrected Christ. That gets us to the heart of the basic structure of the letter as a whole.
Matthew: You often emphasize the role of verbal aspect in understanding and translating the New Testament text. First, what exactly is verbal aspect and how did it influence your understanding of 1 Corinthians. Did it result in significant disagreements with previous commentators?
Ciampa: Verbal aspect is the expression used to refer to the way verb tenses express basic kinds of action, particularly as action viewed as a complete whole (perfective, as in the case with the aorist tense), or as incomplete and/or unfolding (imperfective, as in the case with the present and imperfect tenses) or possibly, in some analyses, as describing a state of affairs (with the perfect and pluperfect tenses in the view of Stanley Porter and those who follow him on this question – these tenses are handled differently by other scholars). Different verbal aspects combine naturally with the lexical aspect and meaning of particular verbs and with other contextual indicators to express certain kinds of action such as repeated action, attempted but incomplete or unrealized action, or the initiation of action, etc.
In many ways current advances in our understanding of verbal aspect help us understand how it is that Greek texts actually communicated what they were generally thought to communicate. In some cases recent studies nuance our understanding. Most scholars are now much more careful about attributing a particular meaning to verb forms than they were in previous generations. We dedicate most of our attention to Paul’s use of perfect tenses (which most scholars now agree usually portray an on-going state, although different scholars have different explanations of how or why they do that) and non-indicative verbs (especially imperatives).
In the case of perfect tenses we tend to focus more strictly on the state being described than scholars often did in the past (when they would sometimes give more attention to the idea of a completed action than many now think is appropriate). In the case of imperatives we take the time to explore why Paul sometimes uses aorist imperatives when present imperatives would be expected (in cases where he is giving teaching that is expected to apply not just to a present occasioning incident/situation, but to similar situations that will arise). We now have tools that allow us to examine how particular verbs where used throughout the history of Greek literature. In the commentary we address a few cases where commentators in the past would have been tempted to attribute some special meaning to Paul’s use of an aorist imperative but where we can now see that no Greek writer ever used the present tense form of the same imperative, suggesting we should not make too much of the fact that Paul doesn’t use it either.
Matthew: The use of the Old Testament in the New Testament is an area of particular interest for you. What Old Testament texts are key for understanding 1 Corinthians? Why are they important?
Ciampa: There are many different texts that are keys to understanding various parts of Paul’s arguments along the way and we address them in the commentary as they arise. In general, the books of Deuteronomy and Isaiah are particularly important (see pages 28-32 of the commentary). Paul’s statement that the Corinthians are united with all those who call on the name of the Lord “in every place” evokes a significant scriptural tradition going back to a key theme in Deuteronomy, namely, the Lord’s selection of one particular place where people would call on his name (understood to refer to Jerusalem).
Repeated reference is made to “the place which the Lord your God will choose to have people call upon his name” (cf. LXX Deut. 12:11, 21, 26; 14:23–24; 16:2, 6, 11; 17:8, 10; 26:2). Rather than refer to that place, however, Paul says that the Corinthians join those who call on the name of our Lord “in every place.” The expression is found only in the Pauline corpus (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 2:14; 1 Thess. 1:8; 1 Tim. 2:8) and he uses it to refer to the worship of God that is spreading around the world through his ministry to the Gentiles. The expression echoes Malachi 1:11 LXX, which (in a context of frustration over the way the Lord is being worshiped in Jerusalem) prophesies a future time when God would be worshiped by Gentiles “in every place”: “From the rising of the sun until its setting my name will be glorified among the Gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to my name and a pure offering, for my name is great among the Gentiles, says the Lord Almighty.” Similarly, Haggai 2:7 anticipates a time when the Gentiles will glorify God in his temple: “all nations will come in, and I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts.”
The echo of Malachi 1:11 in 1 Corinthians 1:2 suggests that the Corinthians are part of the fulfillment of God’s plan to be worshiped among all the Gentiles and that it is Paul’s ultimate purpose in writing to them to see them play their part in fulfilling this world-wide eschatological vision by glorifying God (see 6:20b and 10:31b).
Also, two of Paul’s main moral emphases in 1 Corinthians are, like Deuteronomy, the shunning of the sexual immorality and idolatry of the nations/Gentiles. As mentioned above, Paul’s opposition to these two vices structures the central section of the letter, where most of the links with Deuteronomy are to be found.
The book of Isaiah informs Paul’s argument in a variety of ways (see pages 31-32 for a brief survey). For example, the references to the book of Isaiah in the opening chapters of 1 Corinthians inform Paul’s self-understanding as the prophetic herald of God’s eschatological age, and Isaiah’s vision of the eschatological glory of God (66:18–24) gave Paul the map for his work as apostle to the Gentiles.
Matthew: Throughout 1 Corinthians we find Paul consistently admonishing the Corinthians to refrain from certain sins (or stop sins they were already engaged in). Yet, in chapter 13 we find a chapter devoted to love. What is the relationship of this chapter to Paul previous exhortations against sin?
Ciampa: Chapter 13 is crucial for Paul’s argument. It is at the heart of his section on how to properly worship God – through worship that is marked by God’s own commitment to love and to the edification of the church. Most of the sins Paul addresses in the letter reflect a greater concern for one’s own desires, interests and perceived rights than with the well-being of others. There is a self-deceptive ego-centric strain that runs through Corinthian vices – and Corinthian worship – and which is clearly the target of Paul’s exposition of love in this chapter and the broader theme of edification (remember, “love builds up” [8:1]) in the surrounding chapters.
Matthew: There has often been debate about the nature of Christian liberty as it is portrayed in the New Testament, and specifically in 1 Corinthians. What factors contributed to your reading of 1 Cor. 8.1-13, and what conclusions about Christian freedom have you drawn from this text? Did they differ from previous commentators?
Ciampa: I would say that one of the problems in Corinth had to do with an egocentric focus by some Corinthian believers on their own perceived rights and freedom at the expense of other brothers and sisters in Christ. In Romans 14, Paul tackles a similar issue from a somewhat different perspective. His treatment in 1 Corinthians 8-10 is governed by his perception of attitudinal problems in the church. A robust debate has been taking place in academic research and recent commentaries on this subject, so it is difficult to make a general characterization of how our view relates to previous views.
Something distinctive (I think) about our view is that we see Paul dealing with both subjective idolatry and objective idolatry in Corinth. By subjective idolatry we mean that there are Corinthian believers who are eating food that has been offered to idols (following the example of other Christians they have seen) who cannot help but think of themselves as participating in idolatry. They have pre-Christian experience as idolaters and think they are committing idolatry as they eat the food, their consciences not knowing better and not being strong enough to keep them from following the example they have seen.
There are other Corinthian believers who have concluded that since there is only one God in the world idols have no significance and in theory it is impossible to commit idolatry since “an idol is nothing in the world.” These believers are not committing subjective idolatry – they don’t think of themselves as worshiping any idols, they don’t believe in idols – but they are guilty nevertheless of objective idolatry in that their misunderstanding has led them to participate in what are actually idolatrous behaviors that make them partakers of the cup of demons (as idols do not represent gods, but do represent spiritual beings masquerading as gods). They are also guilty, of course, of leading their brothers and sisters in Christ into subjective idolatry, all in the name of exercising their Christian rights and freedom. Paul’s stress in chapter 9 on not using his rights or freedom when doing so would harm others or hinder the advance of the gospel is not a digression, but speaks to the attitude the Corinthians should adopt with respect to food offered to idols.
Matthew: Debates of spiritual gifts played a prominent role in the Pentecostal/Charismatic movements in the 20th Century, and with its global spread have become more relevant than ever. What is your reading of Paul’s teaching in Corinthians on the gifts, and how has this influenced your view of the modern use of these gifts?
Ciampa: Our reading on the gifts is that Paul stresses the great diversity of ways in which God enables the various members of the church to act in ways that make for a stronger, healthier, more vital and God-centered church (and thus God-glorifying church) and that the practice of any gift in the worshipping community is to be evaluated in terms of whether or not (or the extent to which) it promotes that God-intended result. Our commentary does not promote cessationism or a particular Pentecostal or charismatic view, but tries to keep the stress where we think Paul puts it – on freedom and diversity married to an overriding commitment to the edification of the church and the glorification of God.
In my view the modern use of the gifts often gets tied up over things that are extraneous to Paul’s central concerns. People can have a tendency either to get defensive about why they are not practicing the gifts (and that defensiveness can come out as aggression against those who do) or to get a sense of superiority about practicing the gifts or get fixated about how they might coax God to give them certain gifts or about what they themselves can do to generate some gifts. Paul doesn’t seem concerned about needing to generate gifts, but about making sure those that God manifests are used in ways that glorify him through the healthy building up of the church. I confess I’m not a huge fan of “gift inventory” surveys or tests, because they assume a fixed number and list of gifts that seems to me to go against the grain of Paul’s emphasis on the great diversity of ways God might use to empower people to edify the body.
Finally, I think people’s experience of the gifts is sometimes (or perhaps even often) much better than their theology of the gifts. For example, I think the gift of prophecy is at work in virtually all evangelical churches (even if not as effectively as it could be allowed to function), even in churches that don’t believe the gift continues to exist in the church.
Matthew: Your commentary is part of the Pillar series, and as such is a uniquely exhaustive work in this series. In what ways does your contribution model the rest of the Pillar series, and in which ways does it transcend/broaden that scope?
Ciampa: The acceptable length of commentary is usually dictated by more by consumer issues than by consistency of presentation. What I mean is that one usually finds that commentaries on longer books (including Romans, the Corinthian epistles or one of the Gospels) are often expected to dedicate fewer words per verse than commentaries on shorter letters because consumers will spend up to a certain amount of money on a book and that amount is not necessarily determined by whether the commentary covers a long book or a short one.
So our commentary covers well more than twice as much text as ones dedicated to Ephesians or to Colossians and Philemon (for example), but is not twice as long as those commentaries. So our commentary is really not any more exhaustive than some others in the series. It is about as exhaustive as Doug Moo’s terrific volume The Letter of James: If you divide his total pages by 5 (number of chapters covered) and then multiply the result by 16 you could come to about our number of pages. The problem with a longer book like 1 Corinthians is that if you give each verse the same amount of space as in a commentary on a shorter book you wind up with a long and therefore more expensive book! We are very grateful to Eerdmans for deciding that our commentary made enough of a special contribution to the understanding of 1 Corinthians that they allowed us to go longer than originally planned or expected. I don’t think it transcends or broadens the scope of the series.
Matthew: 1 Corinthians also presents a number of issues regarding gender. Specifically, Paul’s exhortations in 1 Corinthians 11 have been grounds for heated debate. Based on your work, what do you think the implications of this pericope are for gender relations and the often divisive debate concerning egalitarianism and complementarianism?
Ciampa: We argue that Paul is concerned with the communication of glory/honor and shame through behavior in worship, wanting to make sure nothing is done that would bring shame on God’s people or on God himself through their behavior. Headcoverings on women had a particular social significance in the Roman world, but that was being challenged by some less traditional folks. To oversimplify (which is why this is only a paragraph long and the commentary takes much more space!) Paul is concerned to make sure the public meetings of the church did not become contexts where husbands and wives would bring shame on each other (and God) by dressing in immodest or culturally inappropriate ways.
Paul draws on Genesis 1-2 both to defend and (then) to relativize the distinctions between men and women found there. While Brian is an irenic “complementarian” and I am (I hope) an irenic “egalitarian” (the quotes reflect the fact that I’m not a big fan of those labels) we both agree that Paul’s commitment to fully integrating women and their gifts in the life of the church is clear in this letter and this passage. Perhaps some complementarians will feel Brian has given away too much while some egalitarians will feel I have given away too much! But we raise issues that people on either or any side of this dispute need to consider as they wrestle with the subject. Different people will do that in different ways.
Matthew: Finally, for those working in churches, and doing weekly exegetical work in preparations for sermons and other teaching, what are the most profitable ways in which they might use your commentary?
Ciampa: Our prayer as we worked on the commentary was (and it continues to be) that God would use it to seriously enrich pastors’ understanding of the letter and its relevance for their lives and congregations and thus that it would result in glorifying God through the edification of his church. We are grateful to God for having already heard from numerous working pastors that they have found the commentary to be extremely helpful to them in their ministries and sermon preparation work.
I suppose some might find it useful to read the commentary in conjunction with their own devotional reading of the letter over an extended period. But the most natural usage would be for sermon preparation. I would hope that those preparing sermons and lessons would take the time to carefully study the text on their own and to consult our commentary (and perhaps some others too!) to see if we provide important information on aspects of the exegesis and contemporary application or interpretation of the text that they might otherwise have missed (given the time we dedicated to the subject, I think they might find that more often than not we will have uncovered important information they might have missed).
We have been thrilled to hear that it has been helpful. One pastor (and former student) from England wrote:
“Over the last few months we have been preaching through the latter half of 1 Corinthians. I was able to buy your commentary in good time to use it. It is FANTASTIC. For a busy pastor, having a well-written contemporary resource that is critical but faithful is a joy. You and Dr Rosner write so well, and have done such a thorough job of the research. I valued the way you clearly explained alternative views, weighed the evidence, stated your own viewpoint and then connected with contemporary church life. Not only me, but also some other guys in the church who preached on 1 Corinthians, found it invaluable–though sadly, as they borrowed my copy, this did not do much to boost UK sales.”
It seems our prayers may be answered whether it is reflected in greater sales or not!