Since I am spending time in Corinth this week (in class, not it real life, sadly enough), I thought I would dispense right away with the classic Pastor’s preaching point that Corinth was a “San Francisco of the ancient world.” I think Chuck Swindoll said that, so most pastors have picked it up and try to illustrate how bad Paul’s church was by comparing it to Haight-Ashbury circa 1969. This is one of those points that gets picked up in a commentary and repeated with little additional research, sadly it is not exactly accurate.
Usually the evidence for this sexual freedom is that the city was built around two ports and attracted sailors. In addition, there is usually some reference to the temple of Aphrodite with 2000 prostitutes. While the reputation is deserved, it has little to do with the city that Paul visited – all of these sorts of things were true of Greek Corinth, almost 400 years prior to the time of Paul! I cite Jerome Murphy-O’Connor:
Such success inevitably provoked the envy of those less fortunate in their location and less industrious in their habits, and so in the 5th–4th centuries b.c., Athenian writers made Corinth the symbol of commercialized love. Aristophanes coined the verb korinthiazesthai, “to fornicate” (Fr. 354). Philetaerus and Poliochus wrote plays entitled Korinthiastes, “The Whoremonger” (Athenaeus 313c, 559a). Plato used korinthia kore, “a Corinthian girl,” to mean a prostitute (Rest. 404d). These neologisms, however, left no permanent mark on the language, because in reality Corinth was neither better nor worse than its contemporaries. (Murphy-O’Connor, ABD 1:1135).
In fact, the whole Roman empire at the time Paul visited the Corinth had sexual morals that were significantly different than those of the Jews and the early Christians. Corinth was no less moral that Ephesus or Thessalonica. This is not to say that the city of Corinth was virtuous, no one was singing “I Wish They Could All Be Corinthian Girls.” Perhaps it is better to think of the Greco-Roman world as having a radically different sexual ethic as Christianity. The type of sexual morality Paul’s gospel demands simply cut across the grain of the culture of the Greco-Roman world, as it should in the modern world.