1 Corinthians Part One Deep Dive
1 CORINTHIANS – PART 1 | DR ADAM WHITE
You might have heard it said by some well-meaning Christian (or, perhaps, you said it yourself at some point) that the Corinthians were the worst of the worst of Paul’s churches; that if you look up the definition of “immorality” in the dictionary, there’d be a picture of the Corinthians; that they made the practices in Sodom and Gomorrah look like the shenanigans on an unruly youth night. Or something to that effect. What I always find fun, however, is to show students how much we in the western church are like the Corinthians (yes, I have some serious pedagogical issues to address, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about). But before I hold up the mirror to our own stuff, we need to chat background, which will be the topic of this first blog.
Before we read any of Paul’s letters, the first questions we need to ask are: who are the people that Paul is addressing? What are they like? What sort of a church are they? Most importantly, why is Paul writing to them? The thing about ancient letter writing is that it was really expensive. More than that, the average Christian in the first century was really poor. Paul didn’t write letters because he was bored and trying to keep up contact with an old pen pal; he wrote because there was an issue going on and he couldn’t get there himself to deal with it in person. So why do we have not one, but two letters to the Corinthians?
The story begins in 49 AD when Paul first arrived in Corinth. Corinth was one of the wealthiest cities of the ancient world. The reason for this wealth was its location as a port city. Corinth wasn’t particularly known for its unique production; it was famous, rather, for trade. Virtually all traders travelling through the Mediterranean needed to pass through Corinth—literally. The city sits on a narrow, six-kilometre-wide neck that runs between Athens and Achaia called the Isthmus. Ships would sail up to the port on either side of this and be carried overland to the other side (there’s a canal there now). This made it very populated with travellers all year round; more importantly, it made it very wealthy. Corinth was one of only a few places at that time where someone with a little bit of capital could make a fortune. It also made it a very multicultural.
The thing about being a “Corinthian” was that there was no real traditional way of defining what it meant to be “Corinthian”. The city had only been re-found a century before, so it didn’t have a lot of history. There was no ethnic Corinthian. What there instead were people from all over the world, of every nationality, who had made Corinth home. Having no real history also meant that there was no traditional religion. Yes, there was Apollo, the patron god and some other gods that had been there for a long time; but mostly it was religiously very pluralistic. As long as your god didn’t bother people too much, they were welcome. So, we have a city that is very wealthy, full of citizens of all nationalities yet all calling themselves “Corinthians”, and religiously pluralistic. Sounding familiar?
Corinth, in other words, was the ideal mission field. Plenty of opportunities to make money, particularly if you have a trade that can fix leather shoes, horse saddles, ship sails, bags, make tents—all the things a traveller is looking for. You also have a constant influx of people coming and going. New people to preach to and others who can take the message to their next port of call. Then, as in all ancient cities, a population of people hopelessly lost in all forms of paganism and immorality. Corinth, as we will see, was a city full of first-century Greeks, Romans, Jews, and all other types of people who looked like anyone else you would have met in any other ancient city. The difference in Corinth, however, was the drive and unique opportunity not available in older cities to better yourself. It was here that Paul ministered for eighteen months from 49–51 AD.
I won’t repeat what you can read for yourself in Acts 18:1–18. What I want to focus on is a particular event that Luke doesn’t mention and to which Paul only alludes. It was something that happened while Paul was there that is, in fact, the key to understanding why we later get a 2 Corinthians. Corinth was a city that attracted the best orators and philosophers of the day. These were the modern equivalent to Hollywood celebrities. What would happen would be that when one of these intellectuals arrived in a city, they would seek out a patron to support them and they, in turn, would become a client to said patron. They would receive an income and support, and in return, the patron had the ability to boast that “such and such” is staying in my house! It also meant that the patron had the power over the “intellectual client” and the “intellectual client” had an obligation to reciprocate honour and pseudo-obedience to the patron. It seems that when Paul arrived in Corinth, someone in the church made an offer to Paul to become his patron. In some ways, this was the beginning of the end for Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians.
Dr Adam White began his working career as a spray painter and from there moved into ministry as a youth pastor then an associate pastor at Riverlands Christian Church in Penrith. Then at the age of 25, he felt called to study theology at Southern Cross College (now AC); this continued through an honours degree up to a Doctorate of Ancient History at Macquarie University. He is married to Rachel and has a daughter named Sophia and two sons, Alexander, and Sebastian.
Adam's primary research interests are Graeco-Roman history, ancient education and culture, and Pauline studies.
PhD in Ancient History (Macquarie University)
Dissertation Title “Where is the Wise Man? Graeco-Roman Education as a Background to the Divisions in 1 Corinthians 1–4.”
BTh with Honours (Alphacrucis College)
Dissertation Title “A Comparative Analysis of 1 Corinthians 1–4 and 2 Corinthians 10–13 in Light of Paul’s Ongoing Relationship with the Church.”