Exposition of 1 Corinthians — Introduction

 History and Geography

The Greek city of Corinth has never lacked self-confidence, but that lofty opinion has not always served her well. Mighty Corinth led the Achaean League of Greek cities and defied the Romans when they said to break up the League. Roman consul Lucius Mummus took Corinth in 146 B.C., destroyed it, and killed the male population. The women and children were sold into slavery.[1] That was the city’s first failure in humility.

Julius Caesar — ever a strategic thinker — rebuilt Corinth in 44 B.C. as a Roman colony formally named Colonia Laus Julius Corinthiensis, meaning colony of Corinth in Honor of Julius.[2] Eventually, Rome sent many members of the freedman class (predominantly poor), military veterans, urban tradesmen and laborers to populate the colony. As a result, Latin was the official language of Corinth even beyond the time of the Apostle Paul.[3] New Testament scholar David Garland says, “When Paul visited, the city was geographically in Greece but culturally in Rome.” This history is vital in understanding the many problems Paul confronted in his letters to the Corinthian church.

Corinth and Ephesus

By looking at the map, you will see that Corinth was sited at the end of a narrow land bridge — roughly ten miles in length — connecting the Greek mainland to the massive peninsula named Peloponnesus, a place known as the ancient home of the Spartans. Corinth had a sheltered harbor and was just a mile away from a paved track used to haul cargo from the other harbor on the eastern side of the land bridge. This favorable geography made Corinth the main trade hub between Rome and the Roman province of Asia (modern Turkey). Springs provided an ample source of fresh water. Opportunities for gaining wealth abounded in Corinth.

The only alternative to shipping goods east or west through Corinth was the deadly trip around the Peloponnese peninsula. Those waters produced the violent storm that later swept Paul all the way to Malta where God intervened to save the lives of all aboard (Acts 27).

New Testament scholar Linda Belleville informs us: “Numbering some 500,000 slaves and 200,000 non-slaves at its height, Corinth’s cosmopolitan population was made up of a mix of local Greeks, Orientals (including a large number of Jews) and Italians.”[4] She compares it to San Francisco, Chicago and Boston.

 Cultural Influences

A building boom made Paul’s Corinth the most dazzling of the Greek cities. Various types of stone were locally available for building. At its core Corinth centered on the pursuit of success using trade, business and entrepreneurial skill. This environment interacted with Roman culture through the Corinthians’ desire to have public status, to promote their own honor, and to have numerous clients or adherents of their faction. Garland summarizes the Corinthian attitudes by quoting what the Roman poet Horace said about the Roman populace: “[They are] ‘absurd slaves to fame, who are stupefied by titles and masks.’”[5]

 Religious Setting

Corinth drew both people and religions from all over the Roman Empire. Most people “believed that there was safety in numbers: the more gods that one appeased and had on one’s side the better.”[6] Capping them all was the Roman imperial cult, which worshiped the power and genius of the emperor. New Testament scholar Craig Keener capably describes Roman commercial practices, which directly affected the Corinthians, when he says: “Pagan symbols were prominent at major Mediterranean ports, and activities of the shipping lines and merchant guilds involved aspects of the [Roman] imperial cult.”[7] Anyone who wanted in on the wealth had to play the game of idolatrous patriotism. The imperial cult applied such terms as “Lord,” “savior,” and “son of God” to Caesar, not Jesus.

All had to honor the emperor, but there were also sacred places for the Roman-Greek pantheon of gods — at least twenty, including Zeus, Neptune and Venus — Egyptian mystery cults, Asian mystery cults, as well as a Jewish synagogue and the ever-present magicians. In short, Corinth had every possible combination of religions in the Roman world. The city was full of temples.

 Establishing the Dates of Paul’s Ministry in Corinth

Paul’s ministry in Corinth is described in considerable detail in Acts 18:1–18. Acts 18:2 explains how Paul met two Jews recently expelled from Rome by order of Emperor Claudius. This decree was issued in A.D. 49. Garland says, “Acts 18:12–17 also refers to Gallio as the proconsul of Achaia [Greece], and an inscription fragment dates his tenure in office from July 1, A.D. 51, to June 30, A.D. 52.”[8] Garland goes on to suggest that the church in Corinth was founded in February/March, A.D. 50 and that Paul left for Ephesus by ship in September, A.D. 51. Paul taught the word of God for 18 months in Corinth (Acts 18:11). See the next section for the dates of other brief visits by Paul to Corinth.

Since Jesus was crucified in A.D. 33, Paul was proclaiming salvation in the name of Jesus just seventeen years later.

Paul’s relationship to Corinth

Belleville very capably summarizes Paul’s relationship to Corinth by saying, “The Paul-Corinthian relationship spanning seven years, three personal visits and four letters, is one of the most complex topics in New Testament studies.”[9] The two early stages of the relationship, as defined by Belleville, are summarized below.

Stage One “After a forced exit from Thessalonica and again from Berea (Acts 17:1–15; 1 Thess. 2:17–18), Paul made his way down the Aegean coast to Athens for a short layover (Acts 17:16–34; 1 Thess. 3:1–2) and then to Corinth where he settled down for about a year and a half (A.D. 50–52); Acts 18:1–18). . . . At some point he received enough financial support that he was able to drop his trade and give full attention to evangelism (Acts 18:5).”[10]

Stage Two “About 52 A.D. Paul left Corinth to briefly visit Jerusalem and then Antioch, his home base and supporting church. From there he went to Ephesus and set up his base of operations in the lecture hall of a local philosopher named Tyrannus (literally ‘the tyrant’). Three years were spent evangelizing, as Luke reports, ‘all the Jews and Greeks who lived in the province of Asia’ (Acts 19:10). It was during this three-year period that Paul wrote the Corinthians three letters and made his second visit to the city.”[11]

The biblical books of First Corinthians and Second Corinthians are apparently the second and third of the three letters Paul wrote to the Corinthian church from Ephesus, about 250 miles by sea to the east. First Corinthians was written partly to reply to a letter sent from the Corinthian church to Paul and carried by three of its members (1 Cor. 16:7). They probably took back Paul’s answer (First Corinthians) in A.D. 54.

Later in A.D. 54 (summer or fall), Paul made a “painful visit” (2 Cor. 2:1; 12:14, 21; 13:1–2) to Corinth and then returned to Ephesus. In A.D. 55 or 56, Paul wrote Second Corinthians in answer to further (false) charges made by some in Corinth. Finally, in the winter of A.D. 56, Paul visited Corinth for the last time, staying about three months.

Copyright © 2012 Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide. Derived from materials created for Christ Fellowship, McKinney, Texas. Used by permission.


[1] David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003) 1.

[2] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: William. B. Eerdmans publishing Company, 2000) 3.

[3] Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987) 1, footnote 3.

[4] Linda L. Belleville, 2 Corinthians, The IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL.: InterVarsity Press, 1996) 14–15.

[5] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 4.

[6] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 9.

[7] Craig Keener, Revelation, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000) 427.

[8] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 18.

[9] Belleville, 2 Corinthians, 15.

[10] Belleville, 2 Corinthians, 16.

[11] Belleville, 2 Corinthians, 16.


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