Introduction to First Corinthians
First Corinthians is the second longest of Paul's canonical letters. It is only a few paragraphs shorter than Romans. The third longest letter is 2 Corinthians, which is almost twice as long as the fourth longest. When combined with the information found in Acts we know more about the church at Corinth than we know of any other New Testament church. The actual content of 1 and 2 Corinthians provide a much more complete picture of the Corinthian church than the content of any other Pauline letters provides for the church to which they were written.
Paul also engaged in much self-disclosure in 1 and 2 Corinthians. Not only do we know more about the church at Corinth, we also know more about Paul's relationship with the Corinthian church than with any other church. When the New Testament material is combined with the vast amount of information about Corinth available from historical sources we enjoy great potential for understanding the church in Corinth in its human strengths and weaknesses. In many ways the church reflected the city and Paul's letters reflect the church.
The City of Corinth
Ancient Corinth was (as modern Corinth) located on an isthmus connecting the mainland of Greece and an almost circular peninsula extending south and west from the mainland. The peninsula is called either Peloponnese or Peloponnesus. The isthmus runs from northeast to southwest. To the north and extending west from the isthmus is the Gulf of Corinth which leads out to the Adriatic Sea which provides the eastern coast for much of Italy. To the east and south of the Corinthian isthmus is the Saronic Gulf which leads to the Aegean Sea which is between modern day Turkey and Greece.
Ancient sailors preferred coast hugging to sailing the open seas, a wise precaution given the primitive development of their boats. As a result much of the sea traffic between the eastern and western ends of the Mediterranean preferred to cross the isthmus rather than sail the open Mediterranean. (Acts 27 contains an all too typical story of what happened to boats that risked the open sea.) As a result of its location all land traffic passing from mainland Greece to the Peloponnesus and all sea traffic passing east and west had to go through Corinth. Virtually no other city of the ancient world enjoyed such a strategic location.
The city began to develop around 1000 BC. It grew in influence by colonization and trade throughout the Mediterranean. Corinth reached its peak of prosperity and influence between 350 and 250 BC when it was the most influential and prosperous city of Greece. The city's location at the crossroads of international trade meant a constant flow of all kinds of people, ideas, and morals passing through Corinth. The reputation for sexual license at Corinth was widespread. The Greek author, Aristophanes (approx. 450-385 BC) coined a new Greek verb - to Corinthianize - meaning participation in immoral sexual practices. The archaeological evidence suggests thriving homosexual practices also. A later historian (Strabo who wrote about 7 B.C.) spoke of a thousand temple prostitutes plying their trade in Corinth during its peak of prosperity. He quoted an old proverb that sarcastically suggested, "Not every man is man enough to go to Corinth."
It is not clear to what degree Strabo may have exaggerated the sexual promiscuity of "Old" Corinth but its prosperity and strategic location made the city one of Rome's first targets as it began expanding east. The city, now called "Old" Corinth, was destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC and the site was abandoned for a century. Julius Caesar had Corinth rebuilt in 44 BC as a Roman colony.
All the ingredients for building a city were present at the location of Corinth. It possessed an unusually strategic commercial location. It sat at the foot of the northern slope of Acrocorinth, a "mountain" looming almost 2000 feet in elevation above the city. Acrocorinth provided both natural defense and a set of springs that yielded a good supply of drinkable water. Strabo states that Corinth was repopulated with "freedmen" from Rome. This class of people was slightly above the slaves of Rome, but far below the aristocracy. They would have been eager to make quick financial gain in Corinth and that happened.
Corinth quickly regained its prosperity and experienced a great influx of people from both Rome in the west and a variety of places to the east. The Roman population controlled the city with Roman law, culture, and religions finding prominent expression in the "new" city. However, Rome itself had been strongly influenced by Greek culture. Thus an amalgamation of cultural influences, religious ideas, and morality marked the city to which the Apostle Paul came. As a "new" city Corinth had no history of wealthy aristocrats who controlled the city. There were no "high ranking" families. This fostered a spirit of independence and vigorous self-assertion. Corinthians of the "new" Corinth were aggressive and confident that they could shape life the way they wanted it.
The prospect for prosperity brought entrepreneurs, tradesmen, and artists and philosophers in search of wealthy patrons who would support them. Obviously it was impossible for all the people rushing to Corinth to cash in on the exploding economy. However, even those who did not "make it big" in Corinth enjoyed the trickle-down effects of prosperity in ways that few other ancient cities could match.
Historical evidence suggests that "new" Corinth never quite matched "old" Corinth for its reputation for promiscuous sexual activity. However, new Corinth was no monastery and the sexual looseness that would characterize any international port city was certainly prevalent in the city in Paul's time. Sexual freedom was partly a product of religious diversity and partly a product of sexually oriented religions from the east. By New Testament times there were at least 26 separate sacred places in Corinth. Many were temples of the gods of the Greek and Roman pantheons. Others were worship centers for the mystery religions. In addition there was also a Jewish synagogue as archaeologists have discovered. This religious diversity probably lies behind Paul's reference in 1 Corinthians 8:5 to "many gods" and "many lords." The diverse religions and the variety of philosophers seeking patronage made Corinth a place in which any idea claimed the right to be heard but few had the power to claim commitment. Gordon Fee (p. 3) has aptly described Corinth as "the New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas of the ancient world."
We know that during New Testament times Corinth was the home of Isthmian Games held every other year. These games were second in importance only the Olympic Games in the ancient world and would have brought a great influx of visitors. There is some evidence indicating that the Isthmian Games provided competition for both men and women, a rarity in that time of history. Archaeologists have found an inscription in which a man named Hermesianax congratulated his daughters, Tryphosa, Dedea, and Dionysia for winning the 200-meter race in various occasions of the Games. Whether women in Corinth enjoyed equal participation with men in other areas of public life is not clear.
Though we do not know the exact population it is clear that Corinth was the largest city Paul had ever set foot in when he arrived there to begin the ministry described in Acts 18:1-18. The cross-cultural and multi-racial nature of the city, the reputation for sexual immorality, the religious diversity, and lack of commitment could have caused Paul to enter the city with eager anticipation. It is also possible that the complexity and wickedness of Corinth lay behind his comment in 1 Corinthians 2:3 that he came with much fear and trembling. Though Paul could not know it as he entered Corinth, the church that he would establish there would come to reflect the city itself more than he would desire.
Paul states in 1 Corinthians 12:13 that the church at Corinth included Jews, Greeks, slaves, and freedmen. The names found in Acts 18:1-18; Romans 16:23; 1 Corinthians 1:14 and 16; and 1 Corinthians 16:15-17 reflect this diversity. Aquila, Priscilla, and Crispus were Jews although their names are Latin in form. Fortunatus, Quartus, Gaius, and Titius Justus appear to have been Romans. (Some scholars believe Gaius and Titius Justus to have been one person whose full name was Gaius Titius Justus.) Stephanas, Achaicus, and Erastus are Greek names.
The implication of the passages mentioning these people is that Stephanas, Erastus, and Gaius (and) Titius Justus were relatively well-to-do financially. On the other hand, 1 Corinthians 1:26 points out that not many of the congregation were of noble birth (meaning that few came from well off families). Many scholars now suggest that the conflict described in 1 Corinthians 11:18-22 separated the church along economic lines. Some scholars argue that the division was between rich and poor while others believe it was a conflict between two or more of the wealthy members of the congregation. Paul assumed that the church would have enough financial resources to participate in the offering for the impoverished believers in Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:2; 2 Corinthians 8:1-6). The discussion of 1 Corinthians 7:20-24 shows that both slaves and freedmen shared in the life of the church at Corinth.
Though Aquila and Priscilla spent some time in Corinth (compare Acts 18:2 with Romans 16:3-4), the Jewish influence in the Corinthian church was quite small. 1 Corinthians 6:10-11; 8:7; and 12:2 indicate that Paul's readers had a background in pagan idolatry and thus were Gentiles. The whole discussion found in 1 Corinthians 8-10 of eating meat offered to idols makes no sense in a Jewish context. The questions and attitudes regarding marriage found in chapter 7 reflect a Gentile culture. The practice of going before city magistrates for due legal process mentioned in 1 Corinthians 6:1-11 was customary for Greeks and Romans, but was not allowed by Jews. The denial of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:12) and the claiming of a right to go to prostitutes (1 Corinthians 6:12-20) are evidence of pagan Greek backgrounds. Gordon Fee (p. 4) sums up the matter quite well when he writes,
Corinth was made the capital of the Roman province of Achaia by Caesar Augustus in 27 BC. As a result the provincial governor's residence was in Corinth. This officer, called the proconsul, was appointed and sent from Rome for a one or two year term. This fact enables us to date Paul's visit to Corinth more exactly than any other event mentioned in the New Testament can be dated. Acts 18:12 states that Gallio was proconsul of the province of Achaia while Paul was at Corinth for the first time. This Gallio was the older brother of the well-known Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and tutor of Nero. An inscription found in the Greek city of Delphi mentions Gallio and provides evidence that dates his proconsulship from A.D. 51-52. Gallio did not adjust to the climate of Corinth and returned to Rome at the end of a one year term. Acts 18:12 states that the Jewish community of Corinth took Paul to court before Gallio. Though Gallio refused to hear the case the following verses imply that Paul left Corinth shortly after the incident after having spent 18 months there. This enables us to date Paul's first visit to Corinth between A.D. 50 and the middle of 52. This date then serves as an anchor point for calculating the chronology of Paul's life forward and backward by references in Acts and his letters.
The combination of material in Acts and 1 and 2 Corinthians provides a more detailed picture of Paul's relationship with the church at Corinth than we have for his relationship with any other church. Acts 18:1-18 describes Paul's first visit to the city and the founding of the church there. Paul arrived at Corinth and went to work making tents to support himself. He met Aquila and Priscilla who were in the same business and stayed with them (see the Appendix below for a brief overview of this section).
As was his custom he began his evangelism in the synagogue. Silas and Timothy arrived with financial support (probably from the church at Philippi) which enabled Paul to go full time in his ministry. As often happened the synagogue divided over the teaching of Jesus as Messiah and Paul was asked to leave. However, he was invited to continue his ministry in the house next door to the synagogue and eventually the leader of the synagogue was won over to Christian faith.
Apparently, next door was too close for the Jews who had rejected Paul's message and Acts 18:9-10 indicates that considerable tension and conflict occurred. Near the end of 18 months the Jewish group tried to bring charges against Paul before the proconsul. Gallio threw the case out of court, but Paul left Corinth shortly thereafter sailing to Ephesus from Cenchrea, the eastern port for Corinth.
We know very little of the size or condition of the church when Paul left. Crispus, who had been the leader of the synagogue when Paul arrived, and his family had become believers. Presumably his leadership in the synagogue signified that Crispus was a stable and respectable Jew. Aquila and Priscilla had apparently become believers under Paul's influence, but they left with Paul and went to Ephesus and eventually returned to their home in Rome.
Titius Justus, who opened his home to Paul, is the only other believer mentioned in the Acts 18 account. He is described as a "god-fearer" in Acts 18:7 (most English versions call him a worshipper of God). This was a technical term describing a Gentile who had begun attending synagogue worship, but, for whatever reasons, chose not to fully convert to Judaism. God-fearers provided considerable numerical and financial support in some synagogues. Acts reveals that the god-fearers were usually a fertile field for evangelism in Paul's ministry.
Acts 18:17 provides a tantalizing conclusion to the story of the Jewish attempt to take Paul to court. After Gallio dismissed the case, verse 17 states that "they all" grabbed Sosthenes, Crispus' successor as leader of the synagogue and began beating him up in Gallio's court. The original Greek text does not identify "they all." Later manuscripts state that they were Jews who were upset that Sosthenes' strategy had failed. However, it is more likely that "they all" were Paul's supporters from the Corinthian church. No one needs enemies when their friends are as violent and ungracious in victory as Paul's friends.
The order and timing of the subsequent events is not completely clear but several identifiable events took place between Paul and the church at Corinth before 1 Corinthians was written. In 1 Corinthians 5:9 Paul states that he had already written the Corinthians a letter about not associating with wicked and immoral people. Scholars usually call this the Previous Letter. The theory that 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 was a misplaced piece of that letter was quite popular for some time, but is no longer considered likely.
First Corinthians 1:11 states that people from Chloe's house (perhaps slaves sent for this purpose) had brought Paul news of division in the church. 1 Corinthians 16:17 mentions another group of Corinthians, Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus, who had come from Corinth to see Paul. Because the visit of Chloe's group is mentioned in the past tense and the Stephanas' group in the present tense it is likely that Stephanas' group had arrived just before Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 7:1 (with echoes in 7:25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1 and 12) refers to a letter from the church at Corinth to Paul with a series of questions they wanted answered. It is possible, though not certain, that either the messengers from Chloe's household or the group with Stephanas brought this letter with them.
The existence of the Previous Letter shows that Paul had received disturbing information about the Corinthian church prior to writing that letter. His comments in 1 Corinthians 5:9-11 showed considerable influence - at least at a social level - by swindlers, idolaters, drunkards, and party animals on the church. Not a promising development following Paul's departure.
First Corinthians 1:12 shows that Apollos and Peter served brief periods of leadership for the church. Acts 18:27-19:1 briefly alludes to Apollos' ministry in Corinth though no clue is given to the length of his stay. 1 Corinthians 16:12 indicates that after Apollos left Corinth and returned to Ephesus the Corinthians asked Paul to send him back. Paul tried to convince Apollos to return to Corinth but Apollos had not returned by the time 1 Corinthians was written. We know nothing of Peter's visit to Corinth except the fact that he gained a following among certain members of the church.
Following the Previous Letter, the visit of Chloe's people, the arrival of Stephanas' group, and the letter from Corinth to Paul 1 Corinthians was written. 1 Corinthians 4:17 states that Paul had sent Timothy to Corinth to function as the apostle's personal representative. However, 1 Corinthians 16:10 shows that Paul did not expect Timothy to have arrived by the time the letter of 1 Corinthians would reach them. 1 Corinthians 16:8 states that it was written from Ephesus before Pentecost. Scholars estimate that it was written either in the Spring of AD 53 or 54. This would mean that all the confusing events described above between Paul departure from Corinth and the writing of 1 Corinthians would have occurred in a time span of no more than two years and perhaps less. Unfortunately, the trouble and confusion would increase rather than decrease after 1 Corinthians was written.
Sometime after writing 1 Corinthians Paul traveled from Ephesus to visit Corinth (2 Corinthians 2:1). This is often called the painful visit because someone at Corinth challenged Paul's authority (2 Corinthians 2:5-8, 10; 7:12). The apostle expected the Corinthian church to rally around him when this challenge arose, but the church did not and Paul left the city quickly. Paul had written in 1 Corinthians 16:1-9 that he intended to visit and perhaps spend some time with the Corinthians as part of a trip to collect an offering for the church in Jerusalem. Paul's sudden departure when his authority was challenged left many Corinthians expecting him to return shortly to fulfill his promise about collecting the offering. When he did not quickly return further accusations that he was unreliable arose in the church (2 Corinthians 1:15-16, 23; 2:1).
Instead of returning Paul wrote a third letter to the Corinthian church. This letter is referred to in 2 Corinthians 2:3, 4, 9; 7:8 and 12 and is often called the Severe Letter or "sorrowful letter" (from 2 Corinthians 7:8). The Severe Letter dealt with the man who had challenged Paul and rebuked the church for not coming to Paul's support. The severe nature of 2 Corinthians 10-13 has caused some scholars to believe that those chapters contain at least part of the Severe Letter. Paul either sent Titus to deliver the Severe Letter to the Corinthians or sent him some time after the Severe Letter had been delivered to see what effect it had (2 Corinthians 7:6-14). In either case the Severe Letter caused the Corinthians to reconsider and at least the majority pledged to Titus that they would support Paul in the future.
Before Titus could return with this good news Paul left Ephesus and traveled to Troas. 2 Corinthians 2:12-13 indicates that the apostle was so upset over the Corinthian problem that he was unable to preach in Troas even though the door was wide open for evangelism there. He left Troas and traveled to Macedonia where Titus met him and shared the good news of the change of heart in the Corinthian church. Paul then wrote 2 Corinthians from Macedonia. 2 Corinthians contains the apostle's joyful and relieved thanksgiving, a review of the recent events, and renewed instructions concerning the offering. Scholars usually date 2 Corinthians in either AD 55 or 56. This means the painful visit, Severe Letter, the travels of Titus, and 2 Corinthians all took place within one or two years of 1 Corinthians.
What Do We Do With All This?
There are several ways we can respond to the almost confusing mass of information the New Testament and ancient history provide about Corinth and Paul’s relationship with the Corinthian church. We could throw up our hands in despair and declare the whole matter too confusing to consider. While that might be easiest for us it does not change the facts presented in the New Testament and it does not ask the question, "What would God have us learn from Paul's relationship with the church at Corinth?"
We could respond with disgust toward either the Corinthians or Paul or both. The problems in the church and the period of painful relationship between Paul and the church do not present a pretty picture. We could rejoice that we would never become involved in such ugliness. Unfortunately, the kind of relationship problems that Paul and Corinthians suffered is all too common even in the life of the churches we know and love. At least the Corinthians came by their ugliness honestly. They were only a few months removed from the raw paganism of one of the most wicked cities of the New Testament world. But there is no justification for the divisions and pettiness exhibited in the Corinthian church among believers who have a Christian heritage. God calls us to the patient efforts to correct misunderstanding that we see exhibited by Paul as he wrote to the Corinthians.
What we see in the Corinthians letters is the grace of God at work in the midst of difficult circumstances. Perhaps we should learn that God never gives up on people. He is not satisfied with division, sin, and doubt in the community of faith. The people he sends to bring grace are not always perfect either. Paul wasn't. But for every church, regardless of its problems, God has a vision of growing godliness. That holiness is not to be achieved by withdrawing from sinners and a godless world. Rather, it is to be pursued in the confusing whirlpool of conflicting cultures, personalities, and values. That is, holiness is to be pursued in the kind of world in which we still live.
And God still wants and needs people who aren't perfect but who are willing to love and pray and suffer to win the kind of world in which we live. May this study of 1 Corinthians equip us to better be those kinds of people.
Appendix: Paul and the Church at Corinth
This is a brief synopsis of Paul's interaction with the church at Corinth. From hints in the existing letters that Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, it seems certain that Paul write other letters to the church besides the two that are preserved in the New Testament canon. Some scholars have suggested that parts of those other letters are contained within the existing letters. Other scholars conclude that these additional letters have not survived and are "lost." For more detail, see the section on "Paul and the Corinthian Church" in the Introduction above.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to make his word come alive in your heart. Ask him to help you understand how his word should apply to your life.
First Day: Read the notes of the Introduction. Look up the Scripture references that are given.
1. What aspects of the city of Corinth did you find most interesting? Why? What modern city or combination of cities came to your mind as contemporary parallels of Corinth?
2. What do you think is the church's responsibility in modern cities like Corinth? What are the first steps we need to take to fulfill that responsibility?
3. Write a brief prayer asking the Holy Spirit to use this study of 1 Corinthians to increase your hunger to follow Christ and your ability to so do in the world in which you live.
Second Day: Read 1 Corinthians 1:1-17. Now turn your focus to 1 Corinthians 1:1-9.
1. How does Paul describe the Corinthian church in verse 2? Does that description surprise you? If so why? If not, why not? How much of this description fits your church?
2. What do you think Paul was trying to communicate in verse 3? How would your life be different if grace and peace from God were given to you?
3. What does Paul thank God for in verses 4-8? Which of those blessings are enjoyed in your church? Thank God for the ways in which you have experienced those blessings.
Third Day: Read 1 Corinthians 1:1-17. Focus in on 1 Corinthians 1:4-17.
1. Verse 9 declares that God is faithful. List some of the ways you have discovered God's faithfulness. What does his faithfulness mean to you?
2. Is Paul's request in verse 10 reasonable? If so, why? If not, why not? According to verses 11-13 what does division in the church mean?
3. What does Paul have against baptism? Do you agree with his priorities? Why or why not?
Fourth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 1:10-25. Now focus on 1 Corinthians 1:18-25.
1. What do you think Paul meant in verse 18 when he described the word of the cross as the power of God? How does verse 24 fit with verse 18?
2. Paul quotes Isaiah 29:14 in verse 19. What point do you think he was trying to make with this quotation? What additional insight (if any) comes to you from reading Isaiah 29:13?3. Describe some instances in your life when you discovered God's foolishness to be wiser than human wisdom and his weakness to be stronger than human strength.
Fifth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. Focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 1:26-31.
1. In verse 26 Paul asks the Corinthians to remember their condition when they were converted. In what ways has God's work in your life gone beyond human expectation? Thank him for the way he is continuing to lead you spiritually.
2. In what ways has Christ become wisdom from God for you? In what ways has he become righteousness, sanctification, and redemption for you?
3. Is Paul for or against boasting? What would it mean for you to "boast in the Lord?" Identify some one you will "boast in the Lord" to this week.
Sixth Day: Read 1 Corinthians 1:25-2:5. Now focus your attention on 1 Corinthians 2:1-5.
1. Why do you think Paul contrasted preaching with fancy words and wisdom in verse 1 with Christ and his crucifixion in verse 2? Can't we have both? Why or why not?
2. Paul states in verse 4 that his preaching was a demonstration of the Spirit and power. What did he mean? How do you tell when preaching is a demonstration of Spirit and of power?
3. Write a prayer asking God to help your pastor's preaching demonstrate the Spirit and power and that your faith be in God's power rather than your pastor's preaching.