We are studying the book of 1 Corinthians in our Wednesday night Life Night class and so we have put together some reflection on the city of Corinth and on the different chapters that we will be dealing with. We hope these reflections help you as you study the book of 1 Corinthians.
One of the ways in which I believe that the city of Corinth described to us by Pausanias, an ancient writer of travel guides about cities he visited, effects the way in which we read the epistle, is how the city came into being. From the earliest day Pausanias tells us that the city was filled with idolatry. It tells of the origin of the city is said to have come from the Sun and the Sea. Although much of this had changed by the time Paul came to the city, it was still a root within the foundation of the culture. Pausanias also talks about the people that were brought into the remaking of the city. Freemen, that were a little better than slaves of the day, were sent to establish the city and because there was no old political group within the city, people that had never had political power or a voice came affluence within the city. This created a sense of independence and even pride. Both Pausanias and Strabo talk to us about the location of the city and the harbors that were built there. The city was a port city that was rich because all the goods from Asia and Italy interceded at Corinth. Strabo, more than Pausanias, deals with the sexual immorality of the city and though many believe that his numbers were inflated by the number of prostitutes that were working in the temple of Aphrodite, we do know that there was a great deal of sexual immorality in the church. Being a port city, there were all kinds of immorality that was available to those that came to a shore and for those that lived in the city. Pausanias also talks about the Isthmian games and how, not only did they bring money into the city, they were also competed in by women. Some being professional athletes and earning a great deal of money to compete.
Now the question is how must one interpret this when reading Corinthians? I think that you cannot effectively read the book of 1 Corinthians without taking all of this into consideration. When Paul first goes into the city and begins to preach the “good news,” he must overcome all the obstacles in order to be effective with the gospel. Dealing with all the idolatry would be an issue that he would have to deal with repeatedly. Throughout the letter, Paul continues to bring out the point that Jesus is the only way that we can receive salvation. Corinthian was made up of so many different groups of people and religions that Paul had to show that teaching was false and that only through Jesus Christ could one be saved. The political climate of the city had promoted people that more than likely would have never been promoted in Rome, and now they come into the church and believe that they should be leading the church, even though they did not have knowledge or Godly wisdom to do so. The richness of the city of Corinth plays a part in how we read the letter because, like the United States, the people of Corinth seem to have everything they could want and so Paul has to show them that they have nothing and that only through coming to Jesus is one truly wealthy. In 1 Corinthians 11, he makes this point while using the Isthmian games and telling them that what they gain here is only temporal but what they receive from Christ is eternal and that it is much better to have the eternal.
The cultural immorality of the city, I believe, had a great impact on the letter. We see where Paul spent two chapters (5-7) talking about this subject. No matter if it was as large of an issue as Strabo wrote, or much smaller, we do know that it was an issue within the city and ultimately had to be dealt with in the church. This draws a parallel to what we are facing in the church today, where our culture says that two people living together is totally acceptable. When people that are living in that situation come into the church they have to be taught that this is unacceptable. Whereas twenty years ago, everyone, even those outside the church, understood this, many today have no understanding that this is wrong. In like matter Paul has to show them that sexual immorality could not be accepted and that Jesus had given them the power to overcome this in their life.
I believe that after reading Margaret Mitchell’s paper, the historical situation of Corinthian church matters in the way we interpret 1 Corinthians. So here are my three points that brings me to these conclusions.
First, Mitchell brings out the fact that Paul centered around the theme that Jesus was the only One that could bring you salvation, that there was no other that could do this and only by the crucifixion of Christ could we have any hope of coming into a new life. The city of Corinthian was made up of so many different sub-cultures and religions that the people, by nature, seemed to form groups. We see that this happened within the church as some of the people aligned themselves with Paul and some Apollo, which led Paul to make the statement, “I planted, Apollo watered, but it is God that gave the increase” 1 Corinthians 3:6. Paul was showing them that it was God and Him alone that had brought them into salvation. Because of the polytheistic society that they had been a part of they tended to want to see more, but Paul tells them no, that all things come from God.
Second, Mitchell deals with the fact that the people are now united in Christ. Paul takes time in 1 Corinthians 6 to show them they are all one body now. The city of Corinth was filled with different sub-cultures, ethnic groups, and religions. They were use to being divided up into these different categories but Paul shares with them that they are now a part of one body, not because of who they are, but because they have come to know Jesus, and through Jesus they are now one. All the other things no longer matter and the division of their culture is superseded by they acceptance into the family of God.
Thirdly, Mitchell briefly talked about the fact that the Corinth Christians were mentioned more than any others except the Romans. I believe that this was due to the historical situation of the city. Because the city was so sinful they were open to the message of the gospel. I mean where the darkness looms the most the light shines the brightest. I believe this helped Paul and the early church in winning people to Jesus because they were looking for something different and something that was real. The problem was the same thing that brought them to Christ was also the thing that held them back from maturing the way they should have. Rather than forsake all the things that they had left in the past, they seemed to want to bring some of that into the church with them. Because of this, we see the problems that Paul would have to deal with in his letter to them.