Corinth is an ancient city dating back to the second millennium before Christ. The ancient city was destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C. and re-founded a century later as a Roman colony. The Romans made Corinth the capital city of the province of Achaia. Both the ancient city and the city as a Roman colony were wealthy hubs of commerce, culture, religion, and trade.
In Paul’s day, Corinth was five times as large as Athens and one of the most populous and important Greek cities. It was a bustling city which was never free of activity. It was frequented by soldiers, seafarers, merchants, athletes, philosophers, and worshippers. It was a wealthy, cosmopolitan city which featured men and women from all ethnicities, religions, and social statuses.
Corinth is located on west coast of a narrow isthmus which connects the Greek mainland with the Peloponnesus (4 ½ miles at its narrowest). The isthmus is flanked on the east by the Saronic Gulf and on the west by the Gulf of Corinth. This proved a strategic location for both the ancient city and the city as re-established by the Romans.
Because a voyage around the south of the Peloponnesus was long (200 miles) and treacherous, merchants from the east and west would dock in the harbours of Lechaeum (on the west and 2 miles north) and Cenchreae (7 miles to the East), unload their wares and transport them from one side to the other.
Although the digging of a canal was suggested at various times in the history of Corinth (and attempted), one was not actually completed until 1893. Instead, a paved roadway was made under the rule of Periander (627–585 BC), which connected the bodies of water and allowed for smaller ships to be placed on racks with wheels and to be dragged from one side to the other (in use 600 BC until middle of 1st Century AD).
The convenience of travel provided by the isthmus, made it a chief center of trade and travel. Ships from Italy, Spain and North Africa would arrive on the west at the port Lechaeum; and ships from Asia Minor, Phoenicia, Palestine, Egypt, and Cyrene would arrive on the east at the port Cenchreae.
It was at Corinth that the trade routes from all directions intersected. All north to south overland traffic, including that which came to and from Athens, passed through Corinth.
In addition to trade and travel, Corinth was home to the major sporting event, the Isthmian Games. Conducted every two years, and featuring foot races, boxing, wrestling and chariot racing, these games were second only to the Olympics (see 9:24ff. Paul was in Corinth long enough that he would have had opportunity to witness the games).
Religiously, Corinth was pagan. Towering over the city was a mountain called the Acrocorinth. Atop the mountain was a large temple dedicated to Aphrodite (Venus). At one point, in Ancient Corinth, 1000 temple prostitutes are said to have plied their trade there. Such was still the case in Paul’s day but to a lesser extent. Also worshipped was Asclepius, Apollo, and Poseidon. There were altars and temples to the Greek deities Athena, Hera, and Hermes. There were even shrines for the worship of some Egyptian gods (Isis and Serapis).
The population of soldiers, seafarers, merchants and other passers-through, added to the already immoral nature of the city. Greek and Roman authors before the rise of Christianity would often cite the city as a place of fornication and prostitution. So great was its licentiousness, that its name became synonymous with sexual deviancy (to Corinthianize came to mean “to go to the devil”).
The bustling nature of Corinth and the frequent coming-and-going of travellers made it the perfect location for philosophers and religious types to spread their message. Valued among the philosophers was eloquence and rhetorical skill. Such became highly valued in the city and, as we will see, a stumbling block to the early church.
The strategic location of Corinth was not lost on Paul, who would often headquarter his missionary work in a large city. Any converts made would take their newfound faith and spread it through their travels and to their hometowns.
The Founding of the Corinthian Church
On Paul’s second missionary journey, after receiving the “Macedonian call” (Acts 16:9-10), he and Silas and Timothy and Luke visit and make converts in Philippi (where he is jailed after exorcising the demon possessed slave girl); and in Thessalonica (where he is driven out by mob of Jews). After being driven out of Thessalonica, he preaches in Berea (where the same Jews from Thessalonica cause an uproar), and then flees alone to Athens. In Athens, Paul is brought before the Aeropagus where he shares the gospel. A few converts are made there. Paul leaves Athens and comes to Corinth in about 51 AD.
According to Acts 18, upon arriving in Corinth, Paul met a Jew named Aquila who was a native of Pontus. He had recently come to Corinth from Italy with his wife Priscilla because the Roman Emperor Claudius had expelled Jews from Rome. Aquila and Priscilla, being of the same trade as Paul (they were tentmakers/leather workers), and believers, welcomed him into their household.
Paul reasoned in the synagogue of Corinth every Sabbath. Which is where Silas and Timothy found him when they joined him once again, arriving from Macedonia.
Eventually, the Jews of the synagogue rejected Paul and the gospel, and he turned to the Gentiles. From that point forth, he made the home of Titius Justus, which happened to be next door to the synagogue, his headquarters. Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue eventually believes, along with many other Corinthians.
Paul was encouraged by God to continue preaching in the city saying “no one will attack you… I have many in this city who are my people.” Consequently, Paul remained in the city for over 18 months and probably closer to 2 years (Acts 18:11,18).
When Paul left Corinth, he set sail for Syria, by way of Ephesus. He left Priscilla and Aquila in Ephesus, with whom he would reunite on his third missionary journey.
The Occasion of Writing 1 Corinthians.
Paul embarked upon his third missionary journey around 53 A.D. It was on this journey that he spent about 2 ½ years in Ephesus (Acts 19:1, 9-11). In Ephesus, he preached in the synagogue for three months before the Jews began to oppose him. He then began to preach in the hall of the teacher, Tyrannus. In doing so, he split the synagogue, taking the disciples with him. During his preaching ministry in Ephesus, “all the residents of Asia heard the word of the Lord, both Jews and Greeks. And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul” (Acts 19:10-11). It was also in Ephesus where many who had previously practiced magic, repented and burned their books (Acts 19:18-20). Paul’s great success in converting pagans in Ephesus led Demetrius the silversmith to lead a city-wide uprising against Paul, just prior to his departure.
It was while in Ephesus (Acts 16:8), that Paul received letters and verbal reports from the church which he had previously founded in Corinth (1 Cor 1:11, 7:1). These communications presented questions and problems which Paul would address in the letter we call 1st Corinthians. Before writing this letter, Paul also wrote another letter to the church (1 Cor 5:9). He would also write another letter before what we know as 2nd Corinthians (2 Cor 2:3-4). Second Corinthians was likely written from Macedonia in 56 AD (Acts 20:2).
The Content of 1 Corinthians
The reports which Paul received regarding the church in Corinth were not good. It was reported that the church had succumb to the culture’s elevation of eloquence and rhetorical skill in that they were becoming sectarian, elevating one preacher of the gospel over another. Although Paul mentions himself, Apollos, Peter, and Jesus (1 Cor 1:12, 3:22), a major issue was their comparison of Paul to Apollos (1 Cor 3:4-6; 1 Cor 1:17 with Acts 18:25). Paul would address their perverse elevation of human wisdom and the division which it had caused within the church.
It was also reported to Paul that a member of the Corinthian church was involved in sexual immorality in that he was carrying on a relationship with his stepmother (1 Cor 5:1-6). Paul would instruct the church to excommunicate this man.
Next, it was told Paul that the Corinthian Christians were taking one another to court before the unbelieving magistrates. He would rebuke them while encouraging them to settle such disputes internally. In chapter 7, Paul answers a series of questions which were posed him by the church regarding sex, marriage, singleness, and divorce. In chapter 8 and 10, he addresses the question of whether believers could partake in meat which was previously dedicated to idols. In chapter 9, he makes a defense of his apostleship and the nature of his ministry. In chapter 12-14, he writes on the nature, diversity, and distribution of spiritual gifts with an emphasis on the proper use of tongues and the necessity for orderly worship services. In chapter 15, he addresses those who claim that there is no resurrection of the dead, stating that the resurrection is fundamental to the Christian faith. In chapter 16, he gives instruction regarding the collection of funds for the poor saints in Judea.
The Makeup of the Corinthian Church
The church at Corinth included some Jews (1 Cor 7:18-19), but was chiefly Gentile (1 Cor 6:9-11, 1 Cor 8:7, 1 Cor 12:2). The church was largely made up of the lower class with few members of wealth or status (1 Cor 1:26; 7:21-23). Even with few upper class members, the church was subject to tension due to class divisions (1 Cor 11:17-34). The member’s shared history in paganism and immorality colours much of what Paul addresses and emphasizes in the letter.