Craig Keener’s 1-2 Corinthians is a wonderfully engaging and easily read commentary on Paul’s letters to the Corinthians. It is tightly packed with documented information from ancient sources on the historical/social/cultural setting of Corinth in Paul’s time. This information enables the reader to understand more clearly the intentions behind Paul’s letters to the Corinthians, underlining how the cultural emphasis on rhetoric in Paul’s time shaped his writings.
Craig Keener holds a PhD from Duke University and is a professor of New Testament at Palmer Seminary (Wynnewood, Pennsylvania). He has authored several award-winning books, such as his commentary on John (Hendrickson, 2004), Paul, Women, and Wives (Hendrickson, 1992), and his commentary on Matthew (Eerdmans, 1999). Published by Cambridge University Press, 1-2 Corinthians is one of eleven volumes in a series entitled the New Cambridge Bible Commentary. Cambridge University Press claims to publish “the finest academic and educational writing from around the world. As a department of the University of Cambridge, its purpose is to further the University’s objective of advancing knowledge, education, learning, and research.” The New Cambridge Bible Commentary series attempts to elucidate biblical writings through careful study of the texts in the original languages and through an understanding of the historical/cultural circumstances of these writings.
1-2 Corinthians covers the two epistles passage by passage and clarifies Paul’s seamless line of thought as he is writing these letters. It acquaints the reader with the various problems faced by the church in Corinth of Paul’s day and how Paul responded to those issues. Highlighted sections called “A Closer Look” explain the historical/cultural background of various problematic issues. For example, he explains why Paul placed such emphasis on the necessity of the collection of monies that the Corinthian church was to send to the church in Jerusalem. The collection was important “to establish unity between Jewish and Gentile Christians, a tangible offering of reconciliation that he hoped that even the more conservative elements in the Jerusalem church would recognize (Rom 15:25,31)” (138).
Other highlighted sections, “Bridging the Horizons,” tackle hotly debated points in questions that face the church in our postmodern culture. The commentary does not shy away from applying Paul’s letters to the Corinthians to such critical issues as the unity of the Christian church, sexuality, and the role of women in church leadership. Concerning church unity, it states:
Paul’s argument against division also challenges today’s church … especially division by class, status, and education. In this case, he challenges also our division over representative Christian celebrities. Today he would hardly be impressed by those who value denominational loyalties, rival theological traditions, political allegiances, or predilections for various worship styles over a common unity in Christ.” (33, emphasis mine)
Keener unblushingly proffers his convictions on Paul’s teachings concerning thorny ethical questions relating to sex vis à vis marriage, divorce, celibacy, and homosexuality. He applies Paul’s teachings and helps the reader to draw sound biblical conclusions on these highly charged issues (51-72). For example, he asserts that divorce is permissible only if there is unfaithfulness (64) and that a person of homosexual orientation must practice celibacy in order to remain true to his or her allegiance to Christ (69).
This commentary also addresses the “women’s issue” (i.e., the role of women in church leadership) by giving insight into the cultural norms of Paul’s day. It helps the scholar to distinguish between prescriptive, transcultural commands and those commands that are relevant only to Paul’s time and the Corinthian culture of his day. The author recognizes that the question of women in ministry may be problematic for some theologians, but concludes, “On some points, as noted earlier, he was among the more progressive voices of his day on gender. Thus, had Paul faced today’s social conventions rather than those of his day, he likely would have endorsed women’s ministry more fully” (121).
Craig Keener’s 1-2 Corinthians provides a wonderful map for those who desire to unearth the treasure of teachings that are found in 1 and 2 Corinthians. Anyone who is a serious student of the Bible would benefit from using 1-2 Corinthians as a reference while studying these letters of Paul.