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Physical Weakness, Illness and Death in 1 Corinthians 11.30: Deprivation and Overconsumption in Pauline and Early Christianity

  • David J. Downs (a1)


In 1 Cor 11.17–34, Paul attempts to correct the practice of a communal meal in Corinth. He notes that consumption of this meal without discernment of ‘the body’ has had disastrous consequences within the community of Christ-followers: ‘For this reason, many among you are weak and sick, and quite a few are dying’ (11.30). This essay offers a physical interpretation of 1 Cor 11.30, contending that Paul presents the bodies of both the ‘have-nots’ and those who shame them as suffering because of the practice of the Lord's Supper, the former from dietary deprivation and the latter from overconsumption.



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An earlier version of this paper was presented at the ‘Development of Early Christian Ethics within its Jewish and Greco-Roman Contexts’ seminar at the 2018 SNTS meeting in Athens. I am grateful to Professors Matthias Konradt and William Loader for their invitation to give the paper and to the seminar participants for helpful feedback on the first draft. An anonymous reviewer at NTS also provided very detailed and instructive comments, for which I am thankful.



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1 Schneider, I. S., ‘Glaubensmängel in Korinth’, FilNeo 9 (1996) 320; Ramelli, , ‘Spiritual Weakness, Illness, and Death in 1 Corinthians 11:30’, JBL 130 (2011) 145–63, at 163.

2 The verb κοιμάομαι is only used in the Pauline letters metaphorically as a reference to death (1 Cor 7.39; 11.30; 15.6, 18, 20, 51; 1 Thess 4.13, 14, 15; cf. Matt 27.52; John 11.11–12; Acts 7.60; 13.36; 2 Pet 3.4), although elsewhere in the NT κοιμάομαι does refer to sleep (Matt 28.13; Luke 22.45; Acts 12.6).

3 The prepositional phrase διὰ τοῦτο at the beginning of v. 30 links to and explicates the consequences of the situation described in vv. 27–9. Some scribes (א2 C3 D F G) add του κυριου after τὸ σῶμα in v. 29. The shorter reading (46 א* A B C*) is to be preferred, however. Yet the manuscript tradition itself can be seen as a testimony to the multivalence of the phrase μὴ διακρίνων τὸ σῶμα.

4 For a full discussion, see Thiselton, A., The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000) 891–4. In short, ‘the body’ in v. 29 has been interpreted as (1) the eucharistic elements; (2) the body of Christ in the sense that the bread and wine must be recognised as part of the Lord's Supper; (3) the ekklēsia as the body of Christ; and (4) the individual bodies of believers.

5 So Martin, D., The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) 195–6, who points to the parallel between discerning the body and discerning oneself in vv. 29 and 31.

6 Although most commentators identify relatively well-off Christ-followers as the addressees of Paul's statements in 1 Cor 11.27–9, I am hesitant to deny agency to the poor among the Corinthian believers at this point. A similar concern is reflected in Belcher, J., ‘“Discerning the Body” at the Apocalyptic Standpoint: A Feminist Engagement with Martyn's Thought’, Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology: With and beyond J. Louis Martyn (ed. Davis, J. and Harink, D.; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2012) 236–63, at 259. The well-known comic figure of ‘the parasite’ was willing to subject himself to ridicule and shame in order to obtain a free meal that would satisfy his hunger; see Damon, C., The Mask of the Parasite: A Pathology of Roman Patronage (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997). For example, Juvenal's Satire 5 – itself a reflection on the shameful treatment at meals of clients by their patrons – features an image of the hungry client wishing to grab a loaf from the bread-basket, only to be scolded for bad table manners (5.70–5).

7 See Lampe, G., ‘Church Discipline and the Interpretation of the Epistles to the Corinthians’, Christian History and Interpretation: Studies Presented to John Knox (ed. Farmer, W., Moule, C. and Niebuhr, R.; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967) 337–61.

8 For a recent restatement of the view that 1 Cor 11.19 represents an example of Paul's ironic or sarcastic speech, see Brookins, T., ‘The Supposed Election of Officers in 1 Cor 11.19: A Response to Richard Last’, NTS 60 (2014) 423–32.

9 I prefer to take the phrase τοὺς μὴ ἔχοντας absolutely instead of supplying an implied object (e.g. τὸ σῶμα καὶ τὸ αἷμα τοῦ κυρίου); so Fee, G., The First Epistle to the Corinthians (rev. edn; NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014) 543–4.

10 Still helpful as an overview of the situation in Corinth is P. Lampe, ‘Das korinthische Herrenmahl im Schnittpunkt hellenistisch-römischer Mahlpraxis und paulinischer Theologia Crucis [1 Kor 11,17–34]’, ZNW 82 (1991) 183–213. It is also possible that Paul's comments in 11.33–4 shed additional light on the nature of the socio-economic division within the Corinthian ekklēsia at this common meal. In contrast to most interpretations, which have maintained that Paul's statements in 1 Cor 11.22 and 11.34 allow more economically advantaged members of the church the option of satisfying their hunger at home before the communal gathering, Suzanne Watts Henderson has proposed an integrated reading of 1 Cor 11.17–34 by arguing that Paul's concern throughout the passage is to ensure that the Corinthians feed hungry members of the community (“If Anyone Hungers …”: An Integrated Reading of 1 Cor 11.17–34’, NTS 48 (2002) 195208). Key to Henderson's contention is her claim that the conditional sentence εἴ τις πεινᾷ, ἐν οἴκῳ ἐσθιέτω in v. 34 represents not a concession that allows the relatively well-off among the Corinthian congregation satisfy their own hunger at home before arriving at the common meal but instead serves as command to ensure that the hungry are provisioned at household gatherings of the ekklēsia. Henderson renders v. 34: ‘If anyone hungers [when you gather], let that one eat in the house [church], lest you gather for judgment.’ Similarly, she paraphrases Paul's first question 11.22: ‘For do you not have houses [expressly] for eating and drinking [together]?’ One challenge to Henderson's interpretation, however, is the apparent distinction between an οἶκος and an ἐκκλησία in 1 Cor 14.35 (so Rhodes, M., ‘“Forward unto Virtue”: Formative Practices and 1 Corinthians 11:17–34’, JTI 11 (2017) 119–38, at 135). I would allow for an οἶκος/ἐκκλησία distinction in 14.35 (a text that I do not dismiss on text-critical grounds). The οἶκος/οἰκία can be a site where practices of mercy (11.22, 34) and teaching (including husbands of wives, as is implied in 14.35) occur without the entire community present, even as the entire ἐκκλησία did regularly gather as one collective body to celebrate the Lord's Supper.

11 Both Ramelli and Schneider raise a grammatical objection to the physical interpretation of 1 Cor 11.30. Ramelli follows Schneider in suggesting that one significant difficulty for a physical interpretation of the verse is that, ‘if κοιμῶνται referred to persons who are physically dead, this would contradict the notion conveyed by their being said to be “among you” (ἐν ὑμῖν), in the community’ (‘Spiritual Weakness’, 146; cf. Schneider, ‘Glaubensmängel’, 6–9). This contention is mitigated, however, by the observation that boundaries between the living and the dead were viewed as porous in the first century, as is seen in the Corinthian practice of baptism on behalf of the dead (15.29; cf. 1 Cor 6.2, where the phrase ἐν ὑμῖν refers to the eschatological judgement of the world by readers of the letter; elsewhere, Paul speaks of the ‘dead in Christ’ (1 Thess 4.16) and of Christ as ‘Lord of both the dead and the living’ (Rom 14.9); so Dijkhuizen, P., ‘The Lord's Supper and Ritual Theory: Interpreting 1 Corinthians 11:30 in Terms of Risk, Failure, and Efficacy’, Neot 50 (2016) 441–76.

12 Given the lack of attention to the literary context of 1 Cor 11.30 in both essays, I do not find at all compelling the parallels with ‘spiritual sleep/death’ in Philo discussed by Schneider (‘Glaubensmängel’, 10–12) and Ramelli (‘Spiritual Weakness’, 159–60). Moreover, Ramelli's appeal to the early history of interpretation of 1 Cor 11.30 is interesting, but strikes me as an example of some of the problems that can be associated with Wirkungsgeschichte as a hermeneutical approach. Ramelli demonstrates that a ‘spiritual’ interpretation of 1 Cor 11.30 is found in Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Didymus and Cassian – and these authors are contrasted with the physical interpretations found in Basil and Ambrosiaster. Ramelli appears to believe that the frequency of the spiritual interpretation is important: ‘the spiritual interpretation of illness and death in this passage is far more common than a physical interpretation’ (‘Spiritual Weakness’, 163, emphasis added). But given Origen's knowledge of the writings of Clement of Alexandria and Origen's influence over both Didymus and Cassian, what Ramelli has really shown is one particular strand of Alexandrian spiritual exegesis, and such a non-literal reading of 1 Cor 11.30 is hardly surprising in light of the allegorical impulse that characterised much scriptural interpretation in the Alexandrian tradition.

13 Contrary to Ramelli's assertion, while Paul does use the language of ‘death’ to refer to a spiritual condition, he does not speak of ‘sickness … of the soul’ or ‘spiritual illness’ (‘Spiritual Weakness’, 149). That is, with the exception of terminology from the ασθεν- root, which can denote weakness as well as physical infirmity (Phil 2.25–6; 2 Tim 4.20), ‘illness’ or ‘sickness’ are not metaphors that Paul employs to refer to spiritual realities; when Paul uses terminology from the semantic domain of sickness/disease, it is with reference to literal illness or some kind of physical affliction: διαφθείρω (2 Cor 4.16) and ἄρρωστος (1 Cor 11.30). In the Pastoral Epistles, metaphors of sickness are twice employed to refer to spiritual illness (1 Tim 6.5; 2 Tim 2.17), but the metaphorical nature of the language is clear. Ramelli's claim (‘Spiritual Weakness’, 153) that the substantive participle ὁ ἀσθενῶν in 1 Cor 8.11 offers an example of Paul using the language of ‘weakness’ in a metaphorical sense without a modifier such as τῇ πίστει or τῇ συνειδήσει (cf. 8.9) is hardly compelling since a modifier is supplied several times in the surrounding context (i.e. 8.7, 10, 12). Nor is it ‘obvious’ that ‘the weakness of which Paul is speaking [in 1 Cor 9.22] must be understood spiritually’ (‘Spiritual Weakness’, 153), not least because of references to physical (or at least social) weakness earlier in 1 Corinthians (e.g. 1.26–7; 2.3; 4.10).

14 For parallels from papyri that strengthen the claim that 1 Cor 11.30 refers to physical suffering, see the discussion of P.Cair.Zen. i.59018, P.Cair.Zen. i.59042, P.Oxy. xlv.3250 and P.Tebt. iii/1.768 in Arzt-Grabner, P. et al. , 1. Korinther (PKNT 2; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006) 400–1.

15 Winter, B., ‘Secular and Christian Responses to Corinthian Famines’, TynBul 40 (1989) 86109; Danylak, B., ‘Tiberius Claudius Dinippus and the Food Shortages in Corinth’, TynBul 59 (2008) 231–70. For a helpful treatment of 1 Cor 7.26 that argues that the phrase τὴν ἐνεστῶσαν ἀνάγκην in 1 Cor 7.26 should be translated ‘the present constraint’ and seen as a reference to ‘the inevitable mortality and decay of all things in “this age”’, see Barclay, J., ‘Apocalyptic Allegiance and Disinvestment in the World: A Reading of 1 Corinthians 7:25–35’, Paul and the Apocalyptic Imagination (ed. Blackwell, B., Goodrich, J. and Matson, J.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016) 257–74, at 263.

16 See the careful analysis of the evidence in Ibita, M., ‘Food Crises in Corinth? Revisiting the Evidence and Its Possible Implications in Reading 1 Cor 11:17–34’, Stones, Bones, and the Sacred: Essays on Material Culture and Ancient Religion in Honor of Dennis E. Smith (ed. Cadwallader, A.; ECL 22; Atlanta: SBL, 2016) 3353.

17 On the economic particularities of Corinth, see the essays in Friesen, S., James, S. and Schowalter, D., eds., Corinth in Contrast: Studies in Inequality (NovTSup 155; Leiden: Brill, 2013).

18 Friesen, S., ‘Poverty in Pauline Studies: Beyond the So-Called New Consensus’, JSNT 26 (2004) 323–61. For a recent overview of the discussion, see Brookins, T., ‘Economic Profiling of Early Christian Communities’, Paul and Economics: A Handbook (ed. Blanton, T. IV; Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017) 5787.

19 Questions of epistemology in the application of economic models to early Christian texts are explored in Brookins, ‘Economic Profiling’. For different perspectives, compare Longenecker, B., Remember the Poor: Paul, Poverty, and the Greco-Roman World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012) and Scheidel, W. and Friesen, S., ‘The Size of the Economy and the Distribution of Income in the Roman Empire’, JRS 99 (2010) 6191.

20 Garnsey, P. and Woolf, G., ‘Patronage of the Rural Poor in the Roman World’, Patronage in Ancient Society (ed. Wallace-Hadrill, A.; Routledge: London, 1990) 153–67, at 153.

21 Longenecker, Remember the Poor, 46.

22 Scheidel and Friesen, ‘Size of the Economy’, 69.

23 Scheidel and Friesen, ‘Size of the Economy’, 84.

24 Scheidel and Friesen, ‘Size of the Economy’, 84.

25 Friesen, ‘Poverty in Pauline Studies’, 350–1.

26 In 2004, Friesen observed regarding much commentary on 1 Cor 11.22: ‘The phrase is somewhat ambiguous but most commentators take the phrase τοὺς μὴ ἔχοντας in an absolute sense as “those who have nothing, the have-nots.” After they recognize this reference [in 11.22] to very poor members of the congregation, however, they then normally pursue other themes in the text and ignore the reference to desperately poor people within the Corinthian assemblies’ (‘Poverty in Pauline Studies’, 349).

27 Zeller, D. is more circumspect than most: ‘Es bleibt allerdings undeutlich, ob die Strafe eher kollektiv oder individuel geht’ (Der erste Brief an die Korinther (KEK 5; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2010) 387); cf. Smith, D., ‘Hand This Man Over to Satan’: Curse, Exclusion and Salvation in 1 Corinthians 5 (LNTS 386; London: T&T Clark, 2008) 170.

28 Thiselton, Corinthians, 894.

29 Brookins, T. and Longenecker, B., I Corinthians 10–16: A Handbook on the Greek Text (BHGNT; Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016) 58 (emphasis added); so also Hays, R., First Corinthians (Interpretation; Louisville, KY: John Knox, 1997) 201; Horsley, R., 1 Corinthians (ANTC; Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1998) 162.

30 Fee, First Corinthians, 565; Schrage, W., Der erste Brief an die Korinther: 3, 1Kor 11.17–14.40 (EKK 7/3; Zurich: Neukirchener, 1999) 53–4; Konradt, M., Gericht und Gemeinde: Eine Studie zur Bedeutung und Funktion von Gerichtsaussagen im Rahmen der paulinische Ekklesiologie und Ethik im 1 Thess und 1 Kor (BZNW 117; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2003) 442; Fitzmyer, J., First Corinthians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 32; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008) 447.

31 Ciampa, R. and Rosner, B., The First Letter to the Corinthians (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) 556.

32 The motif of communal judgement, warning and discipline is helpfully examined in Konradt, Gericht und Gemeinde, 439–51; cf. Schrage, Der erste Brief, 51–2.

33 Friesen, ‘Poverty in Pauline Studies’, 332.

34 Garland, D., 1 Corinthians (BECNT; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003) 553–4. Garland goes on to support this suggestion in light of the possibility that Corinth might have been ‘undergoing a famine’ (554).

35 Jamir, L., Exclusion and Judgment in Fellowship Meals: The Socio-Historical Background of 1 Corinthians 11:17–34 (Cambridge: James Clark, 2017) 185.

36 On the theme of God's judgement and human power in Rom 13.1–7, see Krauter, S., ‘Auf dem Weg zu einer theologischen Würdigung von Röm 13,1–7’, ZTK 109 (2012) 287306.

37 On this verse as an affirmation that ‘the afflictions of the elect are themselves the sign of God's righteous judgment’, see Bassler, J., ‘The Enigmatic Sign: 2 Thessalonians 1:5’, CBQ 46 (1984) 496510, at 509.

38 For the argument that 1 Cor 5.5 envisions some form of physical affliction, including possibly death, for the sexually immoral man, see Smith, ‘Hand This Man Over to Satan’; cf. Konradt, Gericht und Geminde, 313–21. Implicitly, Paul's allusion to Numbers 14 in 1 Cor 10.5 fits this pattern as well: ‘Nevertheless, God was not pleased with them, and they were struck down in the wilderness’ (NRSV). In Num 14.26–30, in response to the complaints of the Israelites and their desire to return to Egypt, God promises, ‘Your dead bodies shall fall in this very wilderness; and all of your number, included in the census, from twenty years old and upward, who have complained against me, not one of you shall come into the land in which I swore to settle you, except Caleb son of Jephunneh and Joshua son of Nun’ (vv. 28–30). According to the narrative of Numbers, it is not the direct action of God but an attack from the Amalekites and Canaanites that results in the first fulfilment of this promise (14.45). In 1 Cor 3.15–17 Paul also implies that human sin can lead to physical destruction (so Smith, ‘Hand This Man Over to Satan’, 164–7).

39 Herm. 17 is cited by Garland (1 Corinthians, 554), although Garland does not discuss the consequences of this text for understanding overconsumption as an issue in 1 Cor 11.17–34.

40 The translation of this phrase is adopted from Grundeken, M., Community Building in the Shepherd of Hermas: A Critical Study of Some Key Aspects (VCSup 131; Leiden: Brill, 2015) 143. At several points I am indebted to Grundeken's helpful translation and analysis of this passage.

41 On the translation of the rare word ἀσυγκρασία as ‘lack of community spirit’, see Grundeken, Community Building, 142.

42 In v. 5, ‘you who are better off’ (οἱ ὑπερέχοντες) are contrasted with ‘the hungry’ (τοὺς πεινῶντας), and in v. 6 ‘you who take pride in your wealth’ (ὑμεῖς οἱ γαυρούμενοι ἐν τῷ πλούτῳ ὑμῶν) with ‘the needy’ (οἱ ὑστερούμενοι). This is characteristic of the rich/poor binary found throughout Hermas (cf. the parable of the elm and the vine in 51.1–10).

43 C. Jefford, however, has recently made a case for Hermas’ awareness of the Pauline tradition: Missing Pauline Tradition in the Apostolic Fathers? Didache, Shephard of Hermas, Papias, the Martyrdom of Polycarp, and the Epistle to Diognetus’, The Apostolic Fathers and Paul (ed. Still, T. and Wilhite, D.; PPSD 2; London: T&T Clark, 2017) 4160, at 49–52.

44 Grundeken (Community Building, 145–7) lists six similarities between 1 Cor 11.17–34 and Herm. 17: (1) both authors are troubled by communal division (1 Cor 11.18–19; Hermas mentions ἀσυγκρασία and διχοστασίαι in 17.4, 9); (2) both critique the ‘haves’ for not sharing with the ‘have-nots’, even using similar terms (μὴ ἔχοντες in 1 Cor 11.22 and οἱ ἔχοντες, οἱ ὑπερέχοντες and μὴ ἔχοντες ἐδέσματα in Herm. 17.3–5); (3) both texts present illness (ἀσθενής in 1 Cor 11.30 and ἀσθένειαν in Herm. 17.3) and bodily harm as consequences of not sharing food; (4) judgement is a motif in both passages, although for Paul God's judgement upon those who participate in the Lord's Supper in an unworthy manner is manifested in the present (11.29, 31–2, 34), whereas in Herm. 17 judgement is eschatological (17.5); (5) both texts contain the theme of ‘chastisement’ (1 Cor 11.32; Herm. 17.10); and (6) ‘both authors use the same unusual combination of μὴ ἔχοντες and a form of πεινάω. Paul combines ὃς πεινᾷ (v. 21, cf. v. 34) with μὴ ἔχοντας (v. 22); Hermas μὴ ἔχοντες ἐδέσματα (v. 3) with οἱ πεινῶντες (v. 5). In (the Septuagint and) the New Testament the combination of μὴ ἔχοντες and πεινάω in the same context is found only in 1 Cor 11.21–22. In Hermas μὴ ἔχοντες (in the sense of “have-nots”) and (a form of) πεινάω is used only in Vis. 3,9,5’ (147).

45 On this topic, see Downs, D., Alms: Charity, Reward, and Atonement in Early Christianity (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2016) 143–73.

46 Rhodes, ‘“Forward unto Virtue”’, 120.

47 Rhodes, ‘“Forward unto Virtue”’, 136.

48 See esp. Welborn, L., ‘“That There May Be Equality”: The Contexts and Consequences of a Pauline Ideal’, NTS 59 (2013) 7390.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the ‘Development of Early Christian Ethics within its Jewish and Greco-Roman Contexts’ seminar at the 2018 SNTS meeting in Athens. I am grateful to Professors Matthias Konradt and William Loader for their invitation to give the paper and to the seminar participants for helpful feedback on the first draft. An anonymous reviewer at NTS also provided very detailed and instructive comments, for which I am thankful.


Physical Weakness, Illness and Death in 1 Corinthians 11.30: Deprivation and Overconsumption in Pauline and Early Christianity

  • David J. Downs (a1)


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