Book Reviews

The First Epistle to the Corinthians

Gordon D. Fee Grand Rapids 2014

The first edition of Gordon Fee’s First Corinthians (NICNT) commentary was published in 1987. It immediately became one of the most important commentaries on this New Testament book. Its appeal and usefulness were far reaching as it met the needs of scholars, pastors, and laypeople. Despite its age, it was still an important commentary well into the twenty-first century. Thus, the publication of a revised edition is welcomed with enthusiasm by all those interested in 1 Corinthians.

Fee’s main reasons for revising the commentary are the release of the revised NIV (2011) and the massive amount of literature on 1 Corinthians that has been published since the first edition (pp. xvi–xvii). Fee also desired to format the commentary to minimize the influence of chapter and verse breaks foreign to Paul (p. xvii). There seem not to be substantial changes in conclusions.

The introduction begins with a description of the city (pp. 1–4). Fee correctly dismisses some of the fanciful descriptions of Corinth such as Strabo’s statement about the one thousand prostitutes working from the temple of Aphrodite on the Acrocorinth (p. 3). Interestingly however, he still cites Aristophanes who uses the term κορινθιάζω (“to act as a Corinthian”) to mean “to commit fornication” (p. 2). This was written over four hundred years before Paul, and Aristophanes was from a city (Athens) that was an enemy of Corinth. Nevertheless, Fee’s brief description accurately portrays a typical Roman port city with its problems.

Next, Fee turns to Paul’s relationship with the church (pp. 5–16) and rejects the notion that the main problem was internal disagreement. Though some such strife existed, the main problem was between the church and Paul, its founder (pp. 6, 9). After an initial (now lost) letter to the church (mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9) and a written response to Paul, 1 Corinthians was sent to Corinth to deal with matters brought up by the earlier Corinthian letter (p. 9). First Corinthians reflects a relationship between the church and Paul that was deteriorating but had not yet come to open hostility (p. 8). While the church questioned Paul’s authority (pp. 9–10), it is likely that Paul was also concerned about their theology, which seems to have been heading toward a Hellenistic dualism (pp. 9–10). Their theological error was primarily rooted in their former Greco-Roman paganism, not in Hellenistic Judaism (pp. 14–15). Also, Fee notes that there was social rivalry that contributed to the problems within the community and with Paul (p. 15). The final section of the introduction discusses theological contributions of the book to eschatology, ethics, and the church (pp. 17–20).

The commentary is well written and the argument is easy to follow. Each section begins with the NIV translation, a passage-specific introduction, and verse-by-verse exposition. Much is worth commenting on here. First, in 1 Corinthians 3:1, the Corinthians are called σαρκίνοις, which suggests they are living like the world and not “spiritual” as they themselves claimed (pp. 132–35). They are not without the Spirit; thus Paul seems to be acknowledging the possibility of “unspiritual” Christians (p. 132). The “virgins” mentioned throughout 1 Corinthians 7:25–40 are betrothed women with their fiancés who, due to pressure, “are now questioning whether to go through with their marriages” (pp. 361–62; quotation, p. 357). As is the custom, the man is being addressed, thus in 1 Corinthians 7:36, the fiancé is instructed that he may marry his betrothed (his virgin) if he wishes (pp. 386–87). Fee rejects the authoritative or hierarchical view of “head” in 1 Corinthians 11:3 (p. 554) and suggests that “Paul’s understanding of the metaphor, therefore, and almost certainly the only one the Corinthians would have grasped, is ‘head’ as ‘source,’ especially ‘source of life’ or origin” (p. 555). Although Fee’s conclusion on “baptized for the dead” in 15:29 is tentative, his discussion is very helpful (pp. 845–50). Though it is unknown why it was done, this description likely refers to believers being baptized on behalf of those (believers or not) who died before baptism (and in some cases, before becoming Christians) (p. 849).

One of Fee’s more controversial positions is his belief that 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 is not originally part of the letter. The commentary moves straight from 14:33 to 14:36 and his decision is defended in an addendum at the end of his discussion of 14:36–40 (pp. 780–92). In addition to his defense, Fee also includes commentary on the two verses here. One reason Fee discusses this passage after 14:40 is that there is manuscript evidence for this placement (p. 780). However, although no extant manuscript omits these verses, the unprecedented displacement (the reversal of the verses in Matthew 5:4–5 is the only thing close in the New Testament) and the internal evidence persuade Fee that this passage is not authentic (pp. 780–82). Fee suggests these verses were most likely a marginal gloss that was later copied into the text (pp. 788–89). Although the unanimous inclusion of these verses somewhere in all manuscripts is too strong to dismiss these verses, Fee’s position should not be simply ignored. This is a difficult passage in its context, and Fee is trying to solve the issue to his own satisfaction. To the reader who may accuse Fee of tampering with the Bible, it should be remembered that there are a number of passages in the King James Version that most evangelicals today do not consider authentic (e.g., John 5:3b–4; 7:53–8:11; Rom. 8:1b).

The volume has a thirty-page bibliography (pp. xxxiii–lxii) and concludes with four indexes: subject (pp. 929–34), author (pp. 935–48), Scripture (pp. 949–76), and early extrabiblical literature (pp. 977–82).

This commentary is helpful for all. It deals with problems thoroughly and provides a clear discussion of differing views. It is also easy to see what position Fee holds and why. If one wishes to work in 1 Corinthians, either academically or in a church setting, this volume is strongly recommended. However, the decision to purchase the revised edition if one already owns the original is more difficult. For one who needs the latest scholarship for various reasons, it is worth the upgrade. The main text is just under ninety pages longer than the earlier edition; however, there is significant overlap. So for the Bible student who needs access to Fee’s arguments and positions for personal use, the original edition will suffice.

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Joseph D. Fantin
Dr. Fantin believes an accurate understanding of God's Word will enable the believer to grow in his or her relationship with Christ, to love God and others, to bring Christ's love to a lost world, to build up the church, and most importantly, to glorify God. He is committed to teaching exegetical method in order to help students understand, apply, and teach the Bible in order to achieve these goals. His research interests include the prison epistles, the first-century world, Greek, linguistics, and relevance theory. He and his wife, Robin, have two children: Jillian and David.
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