The Church at Corinth

Historical Background

The city of Corinth in southern Greece was founded by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C. as a Roman colony, upon the ruins of an ancient town. Within 100 years it had grown to a great cosmopolitan seaport of at least 500,000 inhabitants. Perhaps as many as half of these people were slaves.

Its location on a narrow isthmus gave it both access to the sea from a port on either side, and a pleasant climate. It was a favourite site of the Roman emperors, who frequently endowed the city until it became the richest and finest in Greece. It was deemed the capital of southern Greece, although it was only 80km west of Athens. It was a major centre of travel and trade, and also of philosophy (1:18-31; 15:12). The Isthmian Games held in Corinth every two years rivaled the Olympic contests in importance.

The chief pride of Corinth was the great hill-top temple of Aphrodite, with its 1000 temple courtesans. The licentious worship of Aphrodite (along with numerous other deities from many nations), mixed with the varied cultures of many ethnic groups, led to a moral laxity that was scandalous even to the decadent Romans. The expression "to live like a Corinthian" entered the Greek language as an epithet for drunken or debauched behaviour.

Paul's work at Corinth was mostly among the lower classes, with only a handful of disciples from the upper echelons of society (1 Co 1:26-31). His converts would have been: expatriates (both slaves and freedmen); bronze and pottery workers; dock hands and sailors; artisans and shopkeepers; and the like. The church had its roots in the arrival of Priscilla and Aquila (Ac 18:2, c. 49 A.D.). Paul arrived about a year later, on his second missionary journey, and remained there 18 months (Ac 18:1-11, 18a). Our letter was written from Ephesus some 2 and 1/2 years later. In between, Paul wrote another letter, but no trace of it remains (1 Co 5:9).

The occasion of the letter was probably the arrival in Corinth of a delegation from the church, who brought Paul both a report of conditions there and a letter containing a series of questions (1 Co 1:10-11; 16:15-17). Paul's reply therefore did not take the form of a doctrinal treatise (like Romans or Ephesians), but was a set of practical and ethical instructions, and a response to the queries raised by the Corinthians.

This study will be built around those instructions and responses; but first notice this –

In no other letter does Paul give so full a picture of what Christ meant to him. It is clear that Jesus was a person who lived in history, for he had brothers (9:5), was a teacher (7:10; 9:14), suffered betrayal (11:23), died on a cross (1:18; 15:3), and was buried.

Yet he was not simply an earthly figure. All things had come into existence through him (8:6); he had been the Rock from which the Israelites drank in the wilderness (10:4). We might assume that a pre-existent being would necessarily be eternal, but Paul does not take that for granted. God raised him from the dead (15:4), confirming him as Christ and Lord . . . This Christ will soon come (1:7; 4:5), to complete the conquest of the God-opposing powers, for through him the new age of redemption has come.

(The Interpreter's Bible, Vol 10, "Corinthians - Introduction", by C. T. Craig; Abingdon Press, New York, 1953; pg. 9.)

Part One below explains Paul's responses to the "report" he had received;

Part Two deals with the questions raised in the "letter".

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