The Historical Background of First Corinthians

G. Lacoste Munn  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 3 - Fall 1960

An understanding of historical background is essential in the interpretation of any document, biblical or otherwise. The degree of significance is determined by the extent to which the document deals with the specific problems of a particular situation. Consequently, this factor plays a larger role in the interpretation of some books of the New Testament than it does in others.

Romans is one of those books where an understanding of historical background is essential, but not to the extent that it is in others. In Romans Paul is writing to a church which he did not establish and which he had not visited at the time of writing. As a result, the teaching here is the closest thing that Paul ever wrote to a summary of Christian doctrine, and there is less reference to local problems.

However, Paul was intimately involved with the church in Corinth. He had led in its establishment, had kept in close touch with it, and was now writing in the face of pressing needs. A thorough knowledge of the circumstances which preceded and called forth this book is essential to its interpretation.


The City of Corinth

Ancient Corinth had headed the Achaean League during the Hellenistic period. This city was completely destroyed by the Roman L. Mummius Achaicus in 146 B.C. A century passed before it was finally rebuilt, probably under the direction of Julius Caesar. The city lay on a narrow strip of land between the Corinthian Gulf and the Saronic Gulf, and this strategic location insured the commercial prosperity of the city. Merchant seamen preferred to send their cargoes across the isthmus to making the long and perilous journey around the tip of Greece. Smaller ships were taken across the isthmus “by means of a ship tramway with wooden rails.”[1]J. E. Harry, “Corinth,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, ed. James Orr (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1952), II, 710. The larger vessels which could not be handled in this manner were unloaded, and the merchandise was transferred to other ships across the isthmus.

The new city was a Roman colony; and its inhabitants were Romans, both veterans and freedmen. Greeks had been slow to return, but by the time of Paul’s contact with the city they were present in large numbers. Commercial prosperity had attracted Orientals in considerable numbers, and the city was truly cosmopolitan. Enough Jews were present to justify a synagogue. A. M. Hunter has described the city as “a compound of Newmarket, Chicago and Paris with perhaps a bit of Port Said thrown in.”[2]Introducing the New Testament (London: SCM Press, Ltd., 1957), p. 97. The exact population cannot be determined; estimates run from 100,000 to 600,000. It was a teeming city made up of permanent residents of many nationalities; in addition there were always present large numbers of sailors and merchants from all over the Roman Empire.

Corinth never became the intellectual center that Athens was, but it had distinguishing characteristics of its own. Just outside the city the Isthmian Games were conducted every two years. Athletes from distant parts were attracted to these games, which were conducted even during the century that the city lay in ruins.

Corinth was strategically located. It was a hub whose spokes radiated in every direction. Any movement which gained a footing here could be assured of a hearing in surrounding districts. Leon Morris has described this important city as intellectually alert, materially prosperous, and morally corrupt.[3]The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (“The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries” Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958), p. 17.


The Atmosphere in Which the Church Existed

A church will inevitably reflect to some extent the society in which it exists. This reflection need not necessarily be in direct proportion; indeed, it dare not be. The redemptive fellowship known as a New Testament church possesses a dimension unknown to the world; consequently, the church must not be conformed to its environment. But those redeemed ones who comprise a church are taken from the world whose influence is so often evil, and this influence continues to be felt after conversion. The church in Corinth existed in a grossly sinful atmosphere which continued to make its mark on the church. Many of the problems of the church found their basis in the life of the city.

Perhaps the most significant of the factors which comprised the atmosphere of Corinth was gross, unashamed immorality. Both the old city and the Roman colony were known far and wide for their sexual looseness. The most prominent site was the Acrocorinth, a sharp projection which rose to a height of 1,800 feet. On the summit of this steep mountain stood the temple of Aphrodite, a symbol of the lust which pervaded the mind of the city. The worship of this goddess was not Greek in origin but Oriental; it had been imported from the Phoenician cult of Astarte. In old Corinth the temple maintained a thousand priestesses who amounted to no more than common prostitutes. It is not certain that the thousand priestesses were maintained in the temple of rebuilt Corinth; nevertheless, the gross im­ morality continued as before. The attitude of the city toward immorality involved no condemnation whatever; on the contrary, it was considered to be a normal part of life. The same loose attitude was often reflected in the church. The case of incest and the question about the Christian view of marriage had their roots in the immoral mind of the city. Most of the members of the church were Gentiles, and the strict morality characteristic of the Jews was foreign to them. They found it difficult to understand that what they once considered virtue was now sin.

Idolatry is another feature of the city which was closely linked to its immorality. In addition to the temple of Aphrodite, there were numerous others, and the worship in these temples was popular among the residents. These idol temples played a significant role in both economic and social life. The economic factor arose from the practice of sacrificing animals to the idols. Some of the meat sacrificed was consumed in the sacrifice, some of it was eaten by the priests, and some of it was sold in the markets of the city. Accurate identification of this meat was often impossible, and a customer would have no way of knowing whether his meat had come from the altar of some pagan temple. When a citizen went to dine with a friend, there was no way of knowing whether the meat served him had come from the worship of an idol. The church in Corinth had a great problem at this point; some felt that there was no harm whatever in eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols while others felt that they were participating in idolatry when they did so. On the more distinctly social side, there was the problem of whether to attend feasts given in the idol temples. These feasts were outstanding social events, and many of the converted Gentiles continued to receive invitations. Could they in good faith attend on the assurance that an idol was nothing and that they were simply maintaining normal social intercourse? These problems were acute for the Corinthian converts, and Paul’s answers continue to be helpful today for the Christian who is struggling with some questionable practice.

The factions which existed in the church at Corinth are in part explained by the factious spirit of the city. The population consisted of Romans, Greeks, Orientals, and men of adventure from all over the world. The absence of an established aristocracy tended to make the people democratic and intolerant of control. This independent spirit carried over into the church, and there was displayed the tendency for each member to line up behind his favorite leader in competition with all others. This factious spirit was also revealed in the attempt of women to be as independent as possible in the congregation (11:5-15; 14:34-35) and in the insistence of those with spiritual gifts on displaying them publicly without regard to the edification of the church (chaps. 12 and 14).

Although there is little direct reflection in First Corinthians, the Oriental mystery religions were finding adherents in Corinth in Paul’s day. These religious societies provided the initiated with a close fellowship; forgiveness of sins and personal salvation were promised. The longing which these mystery religions filled was an indication of the spiritual hunger of the time. The official worship was no longer satisfying, and something more personal was being sought. Especially popular among these mysteries was the Isis cult, one which extended religious equality to women.[4]Clarence Tucker Craig, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (“The Interpreter’s Bible,” Vol. X New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1953), p. 4. One of the problems of idolatry involved the question of a Christian’s attendance at the religious meals of Dionysus, Serapis, and other deities. These religious societies doubtlessly offered some degree of preparation for membership in a Christian church.

Corinth was the most prosperous city in all of Greece, and as a trading center it ranked with Ephesus and Antioch. Commerce flowed in every direction, and there were abundant signs of wealth. However, not everyone shared in this wealth, and there was a great gulf between the rich and the poor. Slaves and freedmen were both present in large numbers. The church in Corinth reflected the population of the city; there were contrasts in its social and financial standings. Paul indicates in Romans 16:23 (written from Corinth) that his host was Gaius, probably a man of some wealth. This same verse indicates that Erastus was the city treasurer. Some of the church members were engaging in litigation and attending private banquets, a situation which indicated that they were men of means. On the other hand, although there were some members who possessed both money and position, the majority of· the believers came from the lower social classes (1 Cor. 1:26 ff.).

Another factor from the atmosphere of Corinth which made its impact upon the church was the intellectual climate. There is difficulty involved in classifying this climate because it consisted of many diverse elements. Here was an amalgamation of Roman, Greek, and Oriental life. T. C. Edwards says of Corinth, “Of Greek cities the least Greek, it was at this time the least Roman of Roman colonies.”[5]Quoted by Morris, p. 16. Although Corinth was not the intellectual center that Athens was, the Greek mind was still felt here. In Athens Paul had been ridiculed because of his preaching of the resurrection (Acts 17:32). The Greeks considered matter evil and spirit good; consequently, they held that a resurrection of the body was repugnant. Corinth retained enough of this Greek outlook to view the doctrines of the resurrection and the potential goodness of the body during this life with suspicion. The one great doctrinal passage in First Corinthians, chapter 15, was elicited because of the Corinthians’ difficulty with the resurrection. Another expression of the Greek mind is reflected in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20, where some were contending that the body was innately evil and that the sins of the flesh could neither be avoided nor condemned. Paul countered with the Christian teaching of the dignity of the body.


Paul’s Relation to the Church in Corinth

Paul’s first visit to Corinth was on his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1 ff.). His previous experience in the cities of Greece had given him little basis to anticipate a warm reception in Corinth. In Philippi he had been illegally beaten and thrown into prison. His labors in Thessalonica were fruitful, but the Jews soon stirred up a mob in opposition to him. From there he traveled to Berea, a city in which the Jews were quite receptive to his message. However, the Jews of Thessalonica did not waste much time in following Paul and inciting the crowds against him. The next stop on the apostle’s missionary itinerary found him in Athens, the intellectual center of Greece. His preaching bore some fruit, but it also precipitated scorn from the sophisticated Athenians. When Paul left Athens to make the short journey down to Corinth, he approached the teeming city aware of its notorious reputation. The very name of the city suggested immorality and corruption. Corinth was proud, busy, and intellectual. It is understandable that Paul confessed that he approached the city in weakness, fear, and in much trembling (1 Cor. 2:3).

Paul became acquainted with Aquila and Priscilla, a Jewish couple who had recently been expelled from Rome at the command of the Emperor Claudius. He found lodging with these new friends, and they worked together both in the Christian enterprise and in the trade of tentmaking. After making tents all week, Paul attended services in the synagogue every sabbath and there persuaded Jews and Greeks (Acts 18:4).

Silas and Timothy arrived from Thessalonica and greatly encouraged Paul with the message that his converts were standing firm in the faith. This news doubtlessly strengthened him for the task at hand. Soon the opposition which Paul had experienced in other cities arose in Corinth; the Jews opposed him and reviled his message. Consequently, he left the synagogue and turned to the Gentiles with the message of God’s redemptive love revealed in Christ. Another base of operations was found just next door to the synagogue in the home of Titus Justus. Such a location was certainly a source of irritation to the Jews, but it afforded the advantage of being convenient for the Gentiles who had attached themselves to the synagogue. The greater part of Paul’s converts apparently came from this group. They were attracted by the superior moral and pure monotheism of the Jews, but they could not accept the narrow Jewish nationalism and such ritual practices as circumcision.[6]Morris, p. 19. Many of these people opened their hearts to the message of Christ.

Paul’s ministry in Corinth was fruitful and extended. He remained here longer than he had previously in any other city, a year and a half.

When Paul left Corinth, he quickly concluded his second missionary journey. Apollos later arrived in Corinth and assumed the responsibilities of leadership. He was a brilliant Alexandrian Jew who had recently ministered in Ephesus. During his stay there, Aquila and Priscilla had given him a more accurate knowledge of the way of the Lord. He knew the Old Testament scriptures thoroughly and was an eloquent speaker. His ministry in Corinth was effective; and, although there was no fundamental difference in the content of his message, there was obviously a marked difference in presentation. The difference was sufficient to create a certain partisanship within the membership of the church.

In the meantime, Paul’s third missionary journey had taken him to Ephesus, where he labored for three years. This was the scene of his most extended recorded ministry. His responsibilities in Ephesus and the surrounding districts were pressing. However, he maintained a vital interest in the work in Corinth. Ephesus and Corinth were both great trading centers, and ships constantly made the journey between them. Communication and travel were easy; the trip could be made in less than a week when conditions were favorable.

Paul’s subsequent relations with the church in Corinth involved several visits and a number of letters. An enormous amount of conjecture has been expended in the effort to reconstruct this relationship chronologically. There is not sufficient evidence in hand to arrange these events in order with certainty. Apparently the “previous” letter mentioned in 1 Corinthians 5:9 is the first in this series of contacts with the Corinthian church.[7]The chronological reconstruction presented here will be essentially that one which is advocated by Hunter, p. 98, and Morris, pp. 21-24. Very little knowledge is available concerning the circumstances of this letter. Paul simply indicates that the Corinthians had misunderstood his admonition to have no association with immoral men. All trace of this letter has probably vanished, although some scholars feel that a part of it is preserved in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1. The letter had been misunderstood, and Paul’s teaching in First Corinthians superseded it; consequently, its preservation was not essential.

Next, Paul received news from Corinth by the household of Chloe (1 Cor. 1:11). Several factions had appeared in the fellowship of the church, and they were menacing its life and ministry. Subsequently, the Corinthians themselves wrote Paul a letter and requested his advice on a number of problems (1 Cor. 7:1). Paul responded to the news brought by the household of Chloe and to the questions sent by the church with the letter we know as First Corinthians.

The situation in Corinth did not clear up after the writing of First Corinthians; rather, it continued to deteriorate. The exact nature of the continuing difficulty is not apparent; at least it involved a denial of Paul’s authority and possibly some of the problems dealt with in First Corinthians. Paul felt it necessary to interrupt his ministry in Ephesus and to pay a brief, painful visit to Corinth (2 Cor. 2:1). Some scholars have placed this visit before First Corinthians.[8]Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (“The International Critical Commentary” Edingburgh: T. & T. Clarke, 1958), p. xxiv. Such a chronology can best be defended if the painful visit is placed before the previous letter referred to in 1 Corinthians 5:9. The lost letter probably referred to such a visit and made any mention of it in First Corinthians unnecessary. Nevertheless, it is more likely that the visit was made after the writing of First Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 2:1 Paul implies that he had made only one previous visit to Corinth, the one during which the church was founded. If this inference be accurate, then the painful visit was later. Paul revealed in 1 Corinthians 4:19 his intentions of another visit to Corinth to set matters straight, and these intentions were probably realized with the less fortunate visit.

Paul’s second visit to Corinth was brief, painful, and apparently ineffective. The situation was not corrected, and after Paul’s return to Ephesus he felt the necessity of writing a severe letter of rebuke (2 Cor. 2:4; 7:8). The writing of this letter caused Paul considerable agony. Some scholars have felt that Second Corinthians 10-13 is a part of his severe letter. However, it is more likely that the letter was lost. Titus was apparently commissioned to carry the letter to Corinth, returning by way of Macedonia and Troas to report to Paul. Paul soon became so eager for news that he could not wait in Ephesus any longer; he advanced to Troas hoping to intercept Titus. But, the messenger was not found, and Paul continued his search into Macedonia (2 Cor. 2:12 ff.). Here Paul met Titus and discovered to his great joy that the situation in Corinth had improved measurably. He immediately wrote and dispatched Second Corinthians. Later he left Macedonia and visited Corinth for the third time. During this third visit he wrote Romans.


Occasion, Purpose, and Date

Two circumstances provided the occasion for the writing of First Corinthians. First, the Corinthians had written to Paul and had asked his advice on a number of problems which were perplexing them. These problems included the Christian view of marriage, the practice of eating meat sacrificed to idols, the manner in which women should dress for public worship, the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper, the relative value of spiritual gifts, and the resurrection of the dead. The other circumstance was the news which Paul received of irregularities within the life of the church. Factions had sprung up and a case of incest was being condoned.

Paul’s purpose in writing paralleled the occasion. He wrote to answer the questions addressed to him by the Corinthians and to correct the problems about which he had heard from the members of the household of Chloe. As no other of his writings, First Corinthians reveals Paul’s skill in dealing with the problems of a local congregation. If Romans reveals Paul as a theologian, First Corinthians shows him as an administrator.

The approximate time of writing can be established. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 16:8, “I will tarry at Ephesus until Pentecost.” Paul paid a brief visit to Ephesus on his second missionary journey after he had established the church in Corinth (Acts 18:18-21). It is unlikely that First Corinthians was written during this brief visit. Sufficient time had not passed for the development of the problems which called forth First Corinthians. Paul’s only stay in Ephesus which will fit the conditions was the lengthy one of three years during his third missionary journey. Paul’s determination of staying in Ephesus until Pentecost implied that he planned to leave then. If this plan was carried out, then First Corinthians was written during the last year of his stay. Paul’s contact with Gallio (Acts 18:12) during his first stay in Ephesus provides a fixed point. This verse gives the impression that Gallio arrived in Corinth while Paul was there. An inscription at Delphi reveals that Gallio entered his office in Corinth in A.D. 51. Paul apparently did not remain long after Gallio arrived (Acts 18:18). Time must be allowed for Paul’s subsequent travels and most of his three-year ministry in Ephesus. Although the exact date cannot be set with precision, it was about A.D. 55 or 56.


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