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First Corinthians: Background

December 17, 2007

Paul addressed the letter known as 1 Corinthians to an affluent, diverse, and promiscuous city. Corinth was the capital of Achaea, a region encompassing the majority of ancient Greece. Rome destroyed Corinth in 146 BC, and recolonized Corinth with Roman citizens about 46 BC. So there was a mix of Greek and Roman culture in the city.

The city derived its affluence from its favorable location at a narrow section of the peninsula where traders crossed to avoid the hazardous trip around by the sea. As a result, there were many foreign travelers passing through the city. Commercial vices targeted at entertaining these travelers contributed to the seedy reputation of the city. Barclay’s Daily Study Bible states:

The very word korinthiazesthai, to live like a Corinthian, had become a part of the Greek language, and meant to live with drunken and immoral debauchery.

Just south of the city, on the mountain called Acrocorinthus, was a magnificent temple to Aphrodite (Gk; aka Venus by the Romans). Reportedly, a thousand temple prostitutes worked their trade at the temple. As the song goes, that house became the ruin of many a poor boy, and cemented the reputation of the city as a center of debauchery.

Paul began his ministry in Corinth at the Jewish synagogue . In addition to the Greek and Roman populations, there were more than a few Jews in the city. During his second missionary journey (circa AD 49-52), Paul entered this wicked city alone, and spent a year and a half there preaching the gospel and converting many (Acts 18:1-18), baptizing among others Crispus, the synagogue ruler, and his family (Acts 18:8, 1 Cor 1:14).

On his third missionary journey, during the approximately three years Paul spent in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-20), it is thought that he probably made a visit to Corinth (1 Cor 2:1), and also wrote a letter which preceded the one we call 1 Corinthians (1 Cor 5:9). Later during that stay in Ephesus, he apparently wrote 1 Corinthians, in about 56 AD. (For more on the basis for this conclusion, see the introduction to Barnes’ commentary on 1 Corinthians.)

Paul wrote this letter in part as an answer to a letter he had received from the church (1 Cor 7:1). In addition, Paul had received reports of divisions in the church from Chloe’s household (1 Cor 1:11). Paul might have chosen to address these issues in person on his next visit. He intended to stay in Ephesus until after Pentecost (1 Cor 16:8), after which he hoped to visit them (1 Cor 4:19). But the matters that had arisen were so significant that he did not feel he could wait that long to address them.

Paul had spent a year and a half with this church on his first visit, about five years earlier. Since that time, the church had developed serious problems — sin, division, a lack of love, even denying the resurrection of the dead. Had the Corinthian church missed the point of the gospel? That was not likely the case at the time Paul had left Corinth. But things had quickly deteriorated in the few intervening years. Paul knew he had to respond decisively. He would send a strong letter addressing the issues, and then follow that letter with a visit.

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