Book Review: Gordon Fee, 1 Corinthians, Revised Edition

Fee, Gordon. 1 Corinthians, Revised Edition. NICNT Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2014. 962 pp. Hb; $65.   Link to Eerdmans

Gordon Fee is one of the greatest New Testament scholars of the twentieth century. Fee was the general editor of the NICNT series from 1990 to 2012, when he was replaced by Joel Green. Under Fee’s guidance this venerable series has become one of the premier commentaries series. For example, the commentaries on Romans (Doug Moo), Hebrews (Gareth Lee Cockerill), Matthew (R. T. France), Luke (Joel Green) and James (Scot McKnight) are all among the best commentaries published in the last few years.

Fee, 1 CorThis is one of the few commentaries I have owned in three different editions, four if you include the original New International Commentary on the New Testament volume on 1 Corinthians by F. E. Grosheide (1953). When Fee’s original commentary was published in 1987, the NICNT series was printed in more compact form (8.5×6). For most of the series, this was a handy size, but for Fee’s massive commentary on 1 Corinthians, it was much too thick to be useful. The New International Commentary also had particularly ugly dust jackets, purple in the Old Testament and bright yellow for the New Testament. As replacement volumes appeared, Eerdmans moved to a larger format (6.125 x 9.25) and greatly improved the design of the dust jackets. I bought a copy of the new version from Eerdmans soon after it came out since my older copy was cracking in the center. At that time there was no new text and the type was set exactly like the original volume so references to specific pages would be the same.

What is new in this Revised Edition? The main change in this revised commentary is the use of the NIV 2011. The first edition of the commentary used the original 1978 NIV text, which Fee describes as “more poorly done in this letter than anywhere else in the canon” (xvi). Fee has been a member of the Committee on Bible Translation since 1991 and has been a major participant in the revisions of the NIV during those years. Most casual readers think revisions were made to the NIV only to make it gender inclusive, but that is not the case. There are 82 instances in the Pauline letters where the word “brothers” refers to the whole congregation and is therefore rendered by the NIV 2011 as “brothers and sisters” (twenty-two times in 1 Corinthians). But there is far more going on in the new editions of the NIV and there is no clandestine group of liberal feminists attempting to corrupt evangelicalism from within. Setting aside the gender-inclusive language, there are many places were the NIV 2011 reflects the sense of the Greek text better than the earlier incarnations of the translation.

Fee explains a second motivation for a revised edition of the commentary: in twenty-five years there have been many important studies of 1 Corinthians. This is certainly true, but in practice Fee does not thoroughly revise the commentary with insights from more recent studies. Fee includes an “addendum” of bibliographical material to this introduction to chapters 8-10 (p. 400-1) and on the very difficult problem of veiling women in 11:2-6 (p. 565-7). Both these bibliographies are offered with a short introduction and no additional commentary. Fee chose to not update his commentary on chapters 8-10 despite the growth in secondary literature on these chapters. His reason is his target audience, pastors and students as oppose to the academy. The same is true for chapter 7, where new bibliography is placed in a footnote (p. 296). There are a few other significant revisions primarily in the footnotes, especially reference to BDAG for lexical issues.

One major revision in this edition is on the controversial text in 14:34-35, “On Women Remaining Silent” (780-92). This section appears after verse 40, only a note appears after verse 33 indicating the “spurious passage (vv. 34-35) that made its way into the MS tradition at this point in the majority of surviving witnesses, but after v. 40 in the Italian church. . .” (774, n. 695). Fee made this argument more briefly in the earlier commentary, in the revised commentary he offers for evidence for the exclusion of the verse as well as some interaction with other explanations of the verses. These pages take the form of an excursus; it is set off from the main commentary by lines, the font is smaller, and the footnotes are unique to this section. While Fee states there is a substantial bibliography for these verses (presumably in the last 25 years), his interest only textual-critical and most articles are theological in nature. This is perhaps the case, but there are several important studies since 2000 simply ignored by the excursus. For example, the contribution of Jeffrey Kloha, “A Textual Commentary on Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians” (Ph.D. diss., The University of Leeds, 2006) seems worthy of inclusion here even if the final form of the study has yet to be published. He mentions Payne’s Man and Woman (2009), although he does not do much with Payne’s arguments. Since Fee’s solution to the problem of a very difficult text, namely, it is spurious and non-Pauline, I expected more interaction with alternative views.

Conclusion. In some ways I was disappointed with the commentary since I imagined a “Second Edition” of the commentary which fully interacted with the massive number of commentaries, monographs, and articles on 1 Corinthians. There are a number of new (perhaps faddish) approaches to epistles Fee has no interest in these new approaches at all: there is nothing socio-rhetorical in this commentary! But this is not a problem since Fee is not writing a new commentary, but revising his older work.

Despite the fact this is a revision as opposed to a Second Edition, Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians should be among the first consulted by pastors and teachers as they treat this important letter of Paul.

NB: Thanks to Eerdmans for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

1 Corinthians 6:12-20 – Gluttony, Drunkenness and Immorality

Paul must correct the church because of gluttony, drunkenness and going to prostitutes at private banquets (6:12-20). The issue here is attendance at banquets given by the rich elite of the city.  There is plenty of evidence concerning the types of things that went on in a Roman banquet of the first century from contemporary writers.

Winter gathers a number of references from Plutarch describing the combination of gluttony, drunkenness and sexual immorality that were a part of the “after-dinners” as he calls them.   There was an association between gluttony and sexual excess, as is seen from the well known saying reported by Plutarch, “in well-gorged-bodies love (passions) reside.” The writer Athenaeus said that the goddess Cypris (Aphrodite) does not visit the poor, “in an empty body no love of the beautiful can reside.”  Plutarch also said that in “intemperate intercourse follows a lawless meal, inharmonious music follows a shameless debauch” (Winter, After Paul Left Corinth, 84).

These banquets would only have been attended by the rich elite of the city of Corinth.  The poor were not invited, only those of some social standing. In Corinth there was a major city-wide banquet for all citizens celebrating the games.  Not only would there have been pressure to attend these banquets on a social level, there was the added pressure of begin a good citizen of Corinth and of Rome

These sorts of banquets are in the background of 1 Corinthians.  Members of the church are not visiting brothels as we might think of it today.  They are attending meals with the elite of Corinth, either hosted in the home of a wealthy patron of the city or in a temple.  The practice was considered not only acceptable, but in some cases required for social mobility.  If one wanted to gain the favor of a wealthy patron in order to advance a business plan, then attendance at a banquet hosted by the patron was a necessity.

Why would the Corinthian Christians think that they had a right to participate in these banquets?   Paul seems to have taught them that Christians are to be separate from such activities, and the strong Jewish ethic of many of the founders would have argued against going to a temple, eating food sacrificed to idols, and participating in the “after-dinners.”

It appears at the very least that the Gentile converts to Christianity did not see this activity as sin. As with most of the problems Paul treats in 1 Corinthians, the congregation is slow to de-paganize.  The practice of going to temples to share meals with the elite of Corinth was socially desirable for the wealthy and “wanna-be” elite.  Perhaps individuals in the church thought they had to do their civic duty by doing to the banquets (a virtue) and did not yet see the additional practices as a vice yet.

While it is easy to point at the Corinthians and judge them as “immature,” it seems to me that the church in general as well as individual believers are quick to compromise with “the world” when money is involved.  Sin is condemned with the poor people are doing it, but if a wealthy member of the congregation is involved, the condemnation is quite a bit less severe.  A church might borrow a practice from the corporate business world  because it “works” without really thinking about the origins or ramifications of the practice.  I can think of a hundred great excuses for behaving any way I please as a Christian, most of them are well-intentioned.  I suspect Paul would have an equally strong condemnation for the modern church as he did Corinth!