In this excerpt from Transformed in Christ, Ron Elsdon and William Olhausen provide some insight into the history and culture of Corinth.
Many cities, past and present, have reputations, including the Greek city of Corinth. But was its reputation deserved?
Two of Paul’s letters usually command more attention than the others. In the case of Romans, the theological content is particularly significant, but there is little content focused on the dynamic of Christian life in the city of Rome. First Corinthians is different. Here Paul addresses issues that reflect the life of Corinth and the church there. To understand 1 Corinthians, it is helpful to know something of the history of the city. It would be easy to start with Aristophanes, who coined the term korinthiazesthai (“to play the Corinthian”) to depict its immorality. After all, Paul refers to a climate of sexual immorality (7:2) and expresses horror at a report of it among members of the Corinthian church (5:1). There is also Strabo’s description of one thousand temple prostitutes dedicated to Aphrodite. But the ancient Greek city described by Aristophanes, Strabo, and others was destroyed in 146 bc by a Roman army in reprisal for Corinth’s refusal to submit to the authority of Rome. The city then lay in ruins until being rebuilt by Julius Caesar as a Roman colony in 44 bc, probably on account of its strategic commercial location.
By New Testament times, Corinth had become one of the largest and most prosperous cities in Greece. Rome sent many of its veteran soldiers, along with freedmen and freedwomen, to Corinth to avoid overpopulation and to defuse potential trouble, as well as giving them the opportunity for advancement. Immorality in Roman Corinth was probably no worse than one might have found in any Mediterranean commercial center. But old reputations die hard. The problems addressed in 1 Corinthians can be precisely defined. They included: the nature of commercial life in the newly rebuilt city and the art of rhetoric as a feature of Roman cultural life.
The Commercial Life of Corinth
While life in the earliest days of Roman Corinth may well have been harsh, the city soon began to acquire a reputation for its wealth:
Our survey of the evolution of the commerce of the Roman Empire in the first two centuries A.D. establishes the fact that commerce, and especially foreign and inter-provincial maritime commerce, provided the main sources of wealth in the Roman Empire. Most of the nouveaux riches owed their money to it.
Freedmen, amongst others, had significant opportunities for economic and political status. They could get rich through cultivating business contacts; they could acquire status by buying influential positions in the city’s administration, by giving generous donations (leitourgoi) to the city, and by making public displays of religious loyalty to the Empire. The patronage system was a vital feature of social, religious, and economic life throughout the Roman Empire.
Rhetoric and the Cultural Life of Corinth
Entertainment culture was alive and well in cities like first-century Corinth; it centered on the art of rhetoric:
Rhetoric played a powerful and persuasive role in first century Greco-Roman society. It was a commodity of which the vast majority of the population were either producers or, much more likely, consumers, and not seldom, avid consumers.
The art of rhetoric was prized as essential to a good education, and thus to social advancement. One commentator describes the “debilitating sense of inadequacy” felt by those left behind. Rhetoric became more form than substance in swaying audiences. It was used increasingly for display and ornamentation, and rhetorical displays were often mere showpieces. Stoic philosophers claimed rhetoric had become empty, nothing more than orators playing with style; Philo described it as “shadowboxing.”
First Corinthians as a Countercultural Document
These two factors—the desire for economic advancement and first-century entertainment culture—fed into the contentious issues that Paul addresses as he writes to the Christians in the city. He challenges them to see their faith as countercultural. “If a man does not keep pace with his companions,” declared Henry David Thoreau, “perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.” The temptation, of course, was (and always is) to follow the crowd (see Rom 12:1–2). To inhabit our own culture with discernment helps us define the interface with biblical Christianity. On one hand, the economic prosperity that most of us enjoy brings the temptation to put personal wealth before all else, including our responsibilities toward others. On the other hand, the modern equivalent of enthusiasm for rhetoric is a preoccupation with entertainment, driven by the revolution in technology.
Reading 1 Corinthians against this backdrop helps us to grapple with the questions: how aware were early Christians of these pressures? How successful were they in resisting them? How does this help us to face the same issues two millennia later and go on to dance to the beat of a different drummer?
We ought to listen to Paul speaking as he writes a pastoral letter to a particular church. His response to each issue reflects his understanding of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even if there is no explicit Trinitarian theology in 1 Corinthians. Particularly significant are his references to the cross. He opens up its relationship to ethics, so that the cross is not restricted to the start of a living relationship with God. Rather the cross defines the shape of the daily life and relationships to which Christians are called.
This post is adapted from Transformed in Christ: 1 Corinthians by Ron Elsdon and William Olhausen (Lexham Press, 2021).