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Schismata and ʾAgudot: The Prohibition against Creating Factions in Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians and Rabbinic Literature

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 October 2020

Aaron Amit
Bar-Ilan University
E-mail address:


Paul opens his First Epistle to the Corinthians with the exhortation “Now I appeal to you, brothers [and sisters], … that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1:10). This plea is strikingly similar to a passage in Sifre Deuteronomy 96, where the words lo titgodedu are interpreted as “Do not be made into gatherings/factions [ʾagudot]; rather, be all of you one gathering [ʾagudah].” Analyzing these sources in depth, this article argues that Paul was familiar with this early rabbinic midrash in an oral form. It also explores the possibility that Paul used another early rabbinic tradition on unity, which is found in the Mekhilta de-miluʾim section of the Sifra. If Paul indeed knew certain rabbinic oral traditions, then he was an independent interpreter of Scripture, who read Scripture in the original Hebrew. Further, even if Paul's audience consisted primarily of gentiles, the legal norms he sought to institute among them were based on Jewish traditions. Finally, Paul follows his exhortation against schismata with the names of specific groups in Corinth, which demonstrates that he understood the tannaitic tradition as a normative principle, meant to be applied to specific disagreements. If so, other first-century Jews also likely understood lo titgodedu as a concrete halakhic prohibition.

Research Article
Copyright © Association for Jewish Studies 2020

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1. See Fredriksen, Paula, Paul: The Pagans' Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Nanos, Mark, Reading Corinthians and Philippians within Judaism: Collected Essays of Mark D. Nanos, vol. 4 (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017)Google Scholar. Nanos's volume contains four of his essays on 1 Corinthians. In addition, see the collection of essays: Casey, Thomas G. and Taylor, Justin, eds., Paul's Jewish Matrix (Rome: Gregorian & Biblical Press, 2011)Google Scholar. See also Aus, Roger David, Two Puzzling Baptisms: First Corinthians 10:1–5 and 15:29: Studies in Their Judaic Background (Lanham: Hamilton Books, 2017)Google Scholar.

2. Obviously, this avenue of investigation does not negate other ways of reading Paul. My argument here is that using rabbinic material that we can identify as early is a fruitful way to think about Paul's formulation of certain issues. In a recent article, Ishay Rosen-Zvi describes “two opposing camps” in scholarship: “Some claimed that rabbinic literature, from its earliest sources, evinces knowledge of Paul and reacts to his work or thought, while others use the Pauline corpus to establish the antiquity of the rabbinic traditions, if not in form then in content.” See “Pauline Traditions and the Rabbis: Three Case Studies,” Harvard Theological Review 110, no. 2 (2017): 170 and nn. 7 and 8 there. In my work, after establishing the antiquity of certain rabbinic traditions, the primary goal is to think about how they could have been used by Paul in his correspondence.

3. Early rabbinic scholarship used attributions of material in their redacted form as a guide to deciding what was early and late. The methodological problems with this simplistic approach are numerous, and have been replaced in contemporary scholarship with more sophisticated tools, such as careful analysis of the way in which the tradition was preserved in parallel sources. Obviously, each tradition has to be analyzed and examined on its own merits.

4. Scholars agree that the Lukan version of Paul's biography in the book of Acts cannot be accepted as a source of exact historical data.

5. See Antonio Pitta, “Paul, the Pharisee, and the Law,” in Casey and Taylor, Paul's Jewish Matrix, 103–12.

6. For a discussion of Paul's knowledge of Hebrew see the discussion of Sifre Deuteronomy 96, below.

7. NRSV. I have bracketed the words “and sisters,” which are not found in the Greek.

8. Mitchell, Margaret M., Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation, An Exegetical Investigation of the Language and Composition of 1 Corinthians (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1991), 6880Google Scholar. On Mitchell's contention that this verse is the thesis statement of the letter, see Witherington, Ben III, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: MI: Eerdmans, 1995), 9497Google Scholar, and Ciampa, Roy E. and Rosner, Brian S., The First Letter to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans; Nottingham, England: Apollos, 2010)Google Scholar, 73n25.

9. Mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation, 69.

10. Ibid., 79–80.


11. Liddell, H. G., Scott, R., Jones, H. S., and McKenzie, R., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1940), 1634Google Scholar. In definition II there are a number of meanings mentioned: “party, company band,” “faction, sedition, discord,” and “division.”

12. Ibid., 689.


13. Ibid., 1937–38. The literal meaning is “fond of victory,” which naturally leads to contentiousness.


14. Sifre Deuteronomy, pis. 96, to Deuteronomy 14:1 (ed. Finkelstein, p. 158).

15. This is the reading of the Vatican 66 manuscript. Other versions (printed editions of the Sifra and the London manuscript) read: ביראה אחת ובעצה אחת לשרת לפני המקום, “in one fear and in one purpose” (ed. Weiss, p. 43d). This lectio facilior is secondary.

16. Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans' Apostle, 113–14.

17. See F. Brown, S. R. Driver and C. A. Briggs, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament (BDB) (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1979), 151. On the Septuagint translation of לא תתגודדו, οὐ φοιβήσετε, a hapax legomenon, see Wevers, John William, Notes on the Greek Text of Deuteronomy (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1995), 240Google Scholar. Wevers proposes to translate the Greek “you must not engage in purificatory rites.” For a detailed discussion of the Syriac translation in the Peshitta and the Septuagint see Talshir, David, “תתערדון in the Peshitta” [in Hebrew], Tarbiz 49 (1980): 81–101Google Scholar, and also his book Living Names: Fauna, Places and Humans [in Hebrew], Asupot 6 (Jerusalem: Mosad Bialik, 2012), 163–83. The book chapter represents an updated version of the article published earlier in Tarbiz.

18. Kutscher, E. Y., “About Weaving Tools” [in Hebrew], Tarbiz 16 (1944): 4448Google Scholar. See Genesis Rabbah 71 to Genesis 30:11 (ed. Theodor-Albeck, 833), cited by Kutscher at the beginning of his discussion.

19. vv. 8, 15, and 23. See BDB, p. 151.

20. BDB, 8.

21. A similar formulation, also playing on the difference in connotation between the plural and singular forms ʾagudot and ʾagudah, is found in Sifre Deuteronomy, pis. 346, to Deuteronomy 33:5 (ed. Finkelstein, p. 403, lines 7–8), an aggadic passage. Perhaps the best-known example of the word ʾagudah being used with a positive connotation is the formulation found in the High Holy Days liturgy, ויעשו כולם אגודה אחת לעשות רצונך בלבב שלם “let us all be made into one gathering to do your will with a fulfilled heart,” which may be based on this midrash.

22. B. Yevamot 13b. Most of the textual witnesses read אגודות אגודות (twice).

23. This exact form is also used in all extant manuscripts of 1 Corinthians 11:18. In 12:25, cited below, some versions of the text have σχίσμα, while others (including Codex Sinaiticus) read σχίσματα.

24. Mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation, 71–74.

25. Ibid., 72. See Christian Maurer, “σχίζω, σχίσμα,” Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (TDNT), ed. Gerhard Friedrich (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1971), 7:963–64. My search of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae yielded similar results. The term σχίσμα appears in Mark 2:21 and in Matthew 9:16 in the sense of tearing clothing (see Joel Marcus, The Anchor Bible: Mark 1–8, A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary [New York: Doubleday, 1999], 234). In John 7:43, 9:16, and 10:19 we find a meaning similar to that used by Paul, as a division of people. Clearly Paul's use predates all of the others.


26. This verse should be understood in the context of Paul's discussion of the differing roles of members of the congregation in Corinth. Paul argues that a variety of spiritual gifts were given to people and the body of the church requires all of them. In 1 Corinthians 12:20 Paul writes: νῦν δὲ πολλὰ μέν μέλη, ἓν δὲ σῶμα “but now there are many members, but one body.” Paul's message is that all the parts of the body play an important role in the function of the body of the church and that body cannot exist without all of its parts. Therefore, Paul teaches that a part of the body of the church cannot be torn away, causing a split in the church. On parallels to the body metaphor for unity in Hellenistic literature see Mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation, 157–62.

27. These short midrashic passages consisting of a brief definition of a biblical word or phrase are reminiscent of the “x is nothing but y” formulations that Saul Lieberman saw as the earliest rabbinic interpretations of Scripture; see Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (New York: The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1962), 51. Our midrash in the Sifre does not use the phrase “x is nothing but y”; however, in essence, the midrash represents the same phenomenon—brief midrashim of definition, which are the earliest type of midrash. Thus, it could certainly have been available to Paul, who was himself a Pharisee, according to his own words in Philippians 3:5. (See also Acts 23:6, where Paul is quoted as saying: ἐγὼ Φαρισαῖός εἰμι, υἱὸς Φαρισαίων—“I am a Pharisee, son of Pharisees.”)

28. E. P. Sanders, “Paul's Jewishness,” in Casey and Taylor, Paul's Jewish Matrix, 61. Although it makes abundant sense that Paul was proficient in Hebrew, it is difficult to prove. Acts 21:40f(f). attributes a Hebrew speech to Paul, but most commentators assume that the reference is to a speech in Aramaic; see Fitzmyer, Joseph A., The Acts of the Apostles: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AB 31 (New York: Doubleday, 1998), 701Google Scholar; Conzelman, Hans, Acts of the Apostles, trans. Limburg, James et al. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 184Google Scholar; contrast William J. Larkin, cited in Acts, IVP New Testament Commentary 5 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1995), 316. In a recent article, “Paul's Scriptures,” in Strength to Strength: Essays in Appreciation of Shaye J. D. Cohen, ed. Michael L. Satlow (Providence, RI: Brown Judaic Studies, 2018), 257–73, Michael Satlow argues that Paul “was a Jerusalem Jew, most likely from a relatively affluent family, who in all likelihood spent few if any of his formative years outside of Judea; whose native language was Aramaic but who received a Greek education in Jerusalem” (258). However, curiously, Satlow assumes, comparing Paul to Josephus, that Paul did not know Hebrew (264). In my opinion there is no reason to assume that Paul was like Josephus, and there are many sources to support the idea that Hebrew was spoken by Jews in the first century CE. See, for example, Turnage, Marc, “The Linguistic Ethos of the Galilee in the First Century C.E.,” in The Language Environment of First Century Judaea: Jerusalem Studies in the Synoptic Gospels, ed. Buth, Randall and Notley, R. Steven, Jewish and Christian Perspectives Series 26 (Leiden: Brill, 2014), 120–26Google Scholar. For older scholarship on Paul's knowledge of Hebrew, see Daube, David, “Participle and Imperative in I Peter,” in The First Epistle of St. Peter, ed. Selwyn, Edward (London: Macmillan, 1964), 467–88Google Scholar; Grintz, Jehoshua, “Hebrew as the Spoken and Written Language in the Last Days of the Second Temple,” Journal of Biblical Literature 79 (1960): 3247CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Porter, Stanley, Paul in Acts (Tübingen: Hendrickson, 2001), 152Google Scholar; Porter, , “Jesus and the Use of Greek in Galilee,” in Studying the Historical Jesus, Evaluations of the State of the Current Research, ed. Chilton, Bruce and Evans, Craig A. (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 123–54Google Scholar; see also Rosner, Brian, Paul, Scripture and Ethics: A Study of 1 Corinthians 5–7 (Leiden: Brill, 1994), 1617CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29. See Mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation, 74–75. Mitchell argues that the meaning of the word is “to return something to its original form.” She writes: “The metaphorical use of καταρτίζειν to describe the ‘resetting’ of broken human relationships and communities is commonly found in Greek literature” (75).

30. The terms νοῦς and γνώμῃ have a wide semantic range and their meaning depends largely on context. The word νοῦς is connected with internal thought, which would be best described as mind or intent. The word γνώμη has a similar meaning, but is more connected with belief or purpose and understanding. See Thiselton, Anthony, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 119–20Google Scholar; Conzelmann, Hans, 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians, trans. Leitch, James W. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), 32n14Google Scholar.

31. NJPS translation.

32. I have not found any commentator on Paul who mentions this verse in the context of 1 Corinthians 1:10. In his book, Paul's Use of Isaiah in Romans, A Comparative Study of Paul's Letter to the Romans and the Sibylline and Qumran Sectarian Texts, Wissenshaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 156 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002), Shiu-Lun Shum discusses fascinating parallels between this verse in Isaiah and fragmentary documents found in Qumran; however, he does not connect the material with Paul. See his discussion on 1QSb, on pp. 163–64.

33. Paul uses the word a few verses on in verse 19. On the meaning of the word see TDNT 7:888–96; Liddell et al., Greek-Jewish Lexicon, 1712 (σύνεσις, II).

34. See, for example, the story about the righteous gentile Dama ben Netina, in Yerushalmi Pe'ah 1:1 (15c), who made a precious stone into his יראה—i.e., his object of worship. In Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael, Pisḥa 13 (ed. Horovitz-Rabin, p. 44), the term יראתנו is used to refer to the sheep, said to be worshipped by the Egyptians as a god.

35. See Liddell et al., Greek-English Lexicon, 731.

36. Otto, Rudolf, The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational Factor in the Idea of the Divine and Its Relation to the Rational, trans. Harvey, J. W. repr. (Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 1969)Google Scholar.

37. Ibid., 12–13. In her book dedicated to the history of Otto's ideas, Rudolf Otto and the Concept of Holiness (Oxford: Clarendon, 1997), Melissa Raphael writes: “Holy value is first apprehended as the mysterium tremendum, and cannot be described in itself. … The holy is inevitably articulated in the rational categories of the mind and of mundane experience that evoke, rather than describe, the nature of holiness” (40).


38. Mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation, 76. She argues that it is a common word for “concord” or political agreement in Greek literature. See her discussion, pp. 60–61n190.

39. See LXX 2 Samuel 16:20 and 2 Kings 18:20, and Gottlob Schrenk, “βουλή,” TDNT 1:633–34.

40. Isaiah 5:19 and 46:11.

41. See Luke 7:30 and Ephesians 1:11.

42. Richard Hays, in his book Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), lists seven criteria for identifying degrees of intertextual echoes of Scripture in Paul's writing, namely: availability, volume, recurrence, thematic coherence, historical plausibility, history of interpretation, and satisfaction (31–32). This case of intertextuality, in which the text is an oral tradition rather than Scripture, might nonetheless fit what Richard Hays terms “satisfaction” in his treatment of echoes of Scripture in Paul's epistles. Regarding “satisfaction” Hays writes: “With or without clear confirmation from the other criteria listed here, does the proposed reading make sense? Does it illuminate the surrounding discourse? Does it produce for the reader a satisfying account of the effect of the intertextual relation? This criterion is difficult to articulate precisely without falling into the affective fallacy, but it is finally the most important test: it is in fact another way of asking whether the proposed reading offers a good account of the experience of a contemporary community of competent readers” (31–32).

43. As Joseph Fitzmyer has argued, “Among such inhabitants of Roman Corinth would have been Jews from Judea, although they are not mentioned by the ancient Greek writers who have described Corinth for us.” See First Corinthians, A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, AYB 32 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008), 31. In his discussion, Fitzmyer points to an undated Greek inscription found in Corinth mentioning a synagogue of Hebrews, although we are unsure of its date.

44. Gilat, Yitzhak D., Studies in the Development of the Halakha [in Hebrew] (Ramat Gan: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1992), 161–80Google Scholar.

45. Louis Finkelstein takes a similar position in his commentary on Sifre Deuteronomy, writing: “The intention of the statement [the midrash לא תעשו אגודות] is to oppose the various sects that flourished during the first generations of the Tannaim” (p. 158, commentary on line 1, my translation of Hebrew).

46. The sugya is quoted according to Talmud Yerushalmi, According to Ms. Or. 4720 (Scal.3) of the Leiden University Library with Restorations and Corrections (Jerusalem: The Academy of the Hebrew Language, 2001), 517 (punctuation is mine).

47. Most commentators agree that Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish (usually referred to in the Bavli as Reish Lakish) refers to M. Pesaḥim 4:1: “In a place where they have the custom to do labor on the morning of Passover eve until midday, it is permitted, and in a place where they have a custom to refrain from labor—it is forbidden.” Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish proposes that tolerance for these varying customs constitutes a transgression of lo titgodedu.

48. The discussion continues to treat other examples that one might deem as violations of lo titgodedu but with regard to each it is explained that varying practices are permitted in those cases.

49. The discussion that ensues is similar to the sugya in the Palestinian Talmud in which there is an attempt to determine whether the prohibition applies to disagreements between Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai and varying customs. For a discussion of the differences between the Babylonian sugya and the Palestinian sugya see Hidary, Richard, Dispute for the Sake of Heaven: Legal Pluralism in the Talmud (Providence, RI: Brown Judaic Studies, 2010), 97125Google Scholar.

50. The point of departure in the Babylonian sugya is M. Megillah 1:1, which states that the scroll of Esther can be read anytime from the 11th to the 15th of Adar. This would seem to be a violation of the prohibition of lo titgodedu, which would presumably require reading the scroll at a uniform time. Interestingly, this same source is the last to be discussed in the parallel passage in the Palestinian Talmud. See Hidary, Dispute, 114.

51. Most of the textual witnesses read אגודות אגודות (twice) and it is only in the editio princeps that we find אגודות just once. Geniza fragment T-S F 2 (1).69 reads: אגודות אגודות אגודות. For variants see: The Babylonian Talmud with Variant Readings Collected from Manuscripts, Fragments of the “Geniza” and Early Printed Editions, Tractate Yevamot, vol. 1, ed. Avraham Lis (Jerusalem: Institute for the Complete Israeli Talmud, 1983), 133.

52. Gilat, Studies in the Development of the Halakha, 166–67 (my translation).

53. The redaction of the Mishnah, according to Gilat, represented an attempt to create a uniform Halakhah. However, even with the redaction of the Mishnah and other tannaitic material, many disagreements were left unresolved, and this brought about problems of variation in practice, which the Amoraim sought to limit by invoking the midrash lo titgodedu as a concrete halakhic requirement.

54. On the identity of these groups, see the useful summary of Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 123–33.

55. The NRSV understands the genitive as indicating possession, translating: “What I mean is that each of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ.’” However, there is wide agreement that this is an example of the genitive of relationship. See Blass, F. and Debrunner, A., A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961)Google Scholar. Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, 136, translates: “One of you says, ‘I side with Paul!’; another, ‘I side with Apollos!’; or ‘I side with Cephas!’; or ‘I side with Christ!’”

56. In 1 Corinthians 3:4–5 Paul mentions only two groups: Paul and Apollos (the figure of Apollos is described in the book of Acts 18:24–28). However, in 1 Corinthians 3:22, Paul mentions three groups: εἴτε Παῦλος εἴτε Ἀπολλῶς εἴτε Κηφᾶς, “whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas” (Cephas is the Aramaic name of Peter). It is not clear if Peter ever visited the city of Corinth. It is even more difficult to understand the group ἐγὼ δὲ Χριστοῦ, “I side with Christ.” Therefore, there are commentators who argue that Paul is not talking about an actual group but through reductio ad absurdum pointing out the absurdity of dividing into factions.

57. Scholars have also pointed to the cultural and societal reality of Corinth to explain the factions. In his book, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), Bruce Winter compares Paul's criticism of the factions in Corinth with the phenomenon of charismatic sophists in Corinth who attracted disciples and encouraged them to be faithful exclusively to them. Winter writes, “The conduct of the disciples of the sophists and the Christian disciples was identical. There were the same assertions of loyalty to one teacher, the same pride (‘puffed up’) with the same strife resulting as they denigrated other teachers while at the same time singing the praise of their own. The charge that Paul levelled at them—that they were conducting their relations with Apollos and himself in the same way the secular students of Corinth did with their sophists—was justified” (41). See also Ciampa and Rosner, First Letter to the Corinthians, 77–78.

58. Fee, Gordon, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 55Google Scholar.

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