Corinth as “Sin City”

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.

26 thoughts on “Corinth as “Sin City”

  1. Ah man, I got all excited that you would be going into some detail concerning other issues that the church in Corinth was having that lead up to the writing of 1 and 2 Clement… darn. Guess I’ll have to do that myself.

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  2. Stay tuned, I have four or five more on social change in Corinth. Maybe you can “guest blog” for me on Corinth at the time of 1 Clement?

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    • Yes, the lectures on Monday will be on Corinth and what the problem was with that church.

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  3. Any thoughts on why Paul has to write so much about sexual immorality in 1 Corinthians? I have argued that the leading Jewish Christian benefactors had been forced out of Corinth by the time that 1 Corinthians was written. Does this explain why the church had fallen back into Gentile sexual morals, or is there another explanation?

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    • I am not sure “fallen back” is the right way to think of it, I suspect the new Gentile converts struggle to “de-paganize” (the word I use in today’s post). I am really channeling Bruce Winter in these posts since his thesis is that the Corinthians are taking their ethical clues from the culture not scripture / Paul.

      I think that you are probably right that there was a withdrawal of Jewish converts, perhaps after the beating of Sosthenes. If so, this is analogous to what I suggested about Thessalonica, and what will happen in Rome according to the book of Hebrews.

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  4. It is interesting that so many preachers and teachers have used the illustration that the city of Corinth was like San Francisco, or like Las Vegas. It seems like Swindoll, or whoever started this “illustration trend” didn’t do much study into the history of the city but instead just read the text and made up their own history for the city. I can, however, see how it could be assumable that the city was full of fornicators and was an “evil” city because of the sea port that the city had.
    I wonder if the Paul wrote so much about sexual immorality and marriage in his letters to the Corinthians was because of a couple of reasons.
    1. Because there was an “incident of incest within the Christian fellowship.” (Pohill 239) and he didn’t want to have that on a “report” from them anymore. It’s kind of a big deal, considering that incest was against both the Jewish Law and the Roman law.
    2. Because there may have been a considerable number of young married/young unmarried people in that body of believers. I don’t necessarily have any biblical evidence of this other than the assumption that it seems that whenever sexual purity is brought up it is brought up to younger people (middle school, high school and college age). Also, Aquila and Priscilla came from this church, which makes it seem that there must have been some amount of married couples within this congregation. In fact, they were so well known in Corinth that Paul is sure to let the church know of their greeting (1 Cor. 16:19) and that they have a church that meets in their house even.

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  5. P. Long concluded his post by saying, “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.” For the most part I see that most practicing Christians in the modern world seem to have radically different sexual ethics than most people do. However, many people who call themselves Christians do not act like it, especially in their actions sexually. I know everyone has problems with areas of their own life but it seems to be that so many people are struggling with this area either through pornography or some other ways. Paul wanted Christianity to be different than the rest of the world. Yet one of my professors says that over 40% of pastors today are struggling with pornography. Also we have been discussing the emerging church some and the topic of homosexuality comes up constantly. 1 Corinthians 6:18 says, Flee from sexual immorality.” No offense to any homosexuals but I believe practicing it is a sexual immoral act. Now leaders of the church are saying its ok? This concerns me! The Corinthians wanted to exercise their freedom as an excuse to be immoral. They said they were given genitals for sex. Polhill says, “Paul would not buy into such a negative view of the body… It was destined to perish” (240). Paul obviously disagreed with the Corinthians philosophies on sex. Yet despite the opposition he stood strong for what he believed in. I think we as believers today have Paul’s responsibilities of standing up for what is right. We need to encourage our fellow brothers and sisters to get rid of the things that are keeping us from being fully devoted to God.

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  6. I think I have heard about Corinth as a sin city on the radio before. It seems like Corinth was just the place Paul choose to talk about sexual issues. Like Joe mentioned it may have steamed from an issue of incest (1 Cor 5). One example of sexual immorality may have caused Paul to let loose in relation to all things having to do with sexual ethics. If its true that Corinth was no less moral than Ephesus or Thessalonica it seems that Paul may have inadvertently chosen Corinth as the place to expose sexual issues. But what do Paul’s claims really look like practically (1 Cor 5:9-11)? Our ethics and our boasting as Paul concludes need to come from Scripture. We need not allow the world to construct our views on sexual issues. This is a major struggle for Christ followers concerning all different issues and practices. The question of how should we then live, keeps coming up. Paul is keying in on an issue he sees present in the body so that Corinthians and those who read these letters would know how to develop a perspective on sexual issues. The context and “solutions” to these issues transcends time offering something valuable to us today.

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  7. Paul’s messages were relevant to the area he was preaching at. Like Joe said, maybe the case of incest made him go into detail about sexual immorality. In 1 Cor. 5 Paul explains the need to get rid of the one who sins among them. He uses the example of unleavened bread and how just a little leaven leavens the whole loaf. Another thought I have is that if Corinth and Ephesus and Thessalonica were all similar, maybe instead of giving the same message, Paul saw a need to talk about sexual immorality because at least one person was dealing with it.

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  8. I can see where people would think that this city is so immoral and just downright bad, but they seem to be missing the bigger picture. Paul’s morals and the morals he spent his life trying to teach to others is not anywhere near what the people in this city held as morals. To them it was normal to live sexual impure lives and do as they please; so for Paul or any of his followers to look at that it would translate as a completely immoral city. It makes me think of Division Street that runs through a few cities in west Michigan. This street is associated with a lot of different horrible things such as prostitution, drugs, alcohol, and homelessness; but does that mean the entire cities of Grand Rapids and Wyoming and so on are horrible places completely? No. For Paul to go into this city and teach what he has to teach about sexual purity would be such a radical culture shock for these people that it is so crazy it just might work!

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  9. The way that some pastors try to paint the city of Corinth as so far worse than all of the other Roman cities doesn’t really surprise me. We do this all the time. I have heard many people from older generations speaking of how this generation is running wild when it comes to sexual sins. “Back in my day, kids weren’t running around having sex before marriage!” I don’t think so. What about the sixties? Free Love? It reminds me of Archie Bunker commenting on a local commune, saying that the mindset was, “Pass the Pass the meat, pass the potatoes, pass your wife.” Man has been committing sexual sins since the dawn of time. From Sodom and Gomorrah till now.

    The Romans had a very lax view on having sex, even more so than today. Today, Christians are so quick to condemn non-believers their sexual sins. And non-Christians looks at Christians who preach against sex out of the context of marriage and same sex marriages, and think that were all homophobic and afraid of sex as well. Most non-Christians don’t understand the idea of waiting until marriage for sex, and who can really blame them? If sex feels good, why wait? Why limit yourself to one sexual partner for your entire life?

    Paul writes to the Corinthians about sexual sins, and marriage because he wanted them to understand God’s plan for sex, and marriage. As Christians we need to realize that our bodies are Living Temples and treat them as such. In doing so we are to abide by God’s plan, and to refrain from sexual sin (Polhill, 240). God created marriage to be a life-long union between a man and a woman. He wants us to keep ourselves sexually pure for that union. This is not a form of punishment, but of blessing. God’s plan is far greater than our plan.

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  10. I think it very funny that people call Corinth the “San Francisco” or “Las Vegas” of Bible times. Sure the city clearly had some sexual issues that Paul talked about with them, but there was any number of other metropolitan type cities at that time that could have been addressed on the same issues. Yet if you simply read Corinthians you can tell that these people did have real issues of some sorts. Judging by chapter 7 some of these issues were sexual or marital. So while saying that Corinth is like whatever nasty city you choose is cliche, it is definitely still right.

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  11. Part of the very nature of Christianity is to be different. Paul tells us in Romans 12:2 to stop conforming to what the world does, and instead transform our minds to think (and therefore act) more along the lines of what would please God. However, because of out inborn sin nature, and the normality of sin in the culture of the world around us, it is often really hard to go against the flow of the world and please God as we should. I think while it might be somewhat accurate to call Corinth “Sin City” because of the seemingly abundant immorality, as P. Long said, it really would be just as accurate to bestow that title upon any major city of the Roman Empire. In the culture of the day back then, it was normal for people to be so sexual. And Paul knew this. That’s why he makes the distinction to the believers in Corinth in 1 Cor. 6:12-20 that as the Body of Christ, they are to “glorify God” with their bodies (vs. 20), and not to abuse the freedom they have in Christ (vs 12). Polhill says “Paul knew that one could become a slave to one’s freedom!” (240). The whole point of this section of 1 Corinthians was to exhort the church there to rise above the norms of the culture because they were so contrary to the life Christ was calling them to lead for His glory.

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  12. If Corinth was anything like modern day America Paul had great cause to talk about sexual imorality. I have heard it said that with so many sicknesses and the government of Rome being so coruptthat the young peple had the ideathatthey might as well do whatever came to mindbecase wo new if they would be alive tommorow. Now i don’t know i that is true, howerver i look at those around me and see a lot of sexual imorality.I know that tose drives were not just recently developed over the past few generation. If Paul took the time to talk aout sexual imorality it wa for a strong purpose. Sexual imorality is a physical sin and has physical and emotional damage. We can learn a lot about how to reiterate this message to those in modern day culture through Paul’s example.

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  13. “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your bodies. (1 Cor. 6:19-20)” I heard this preached over and over and over again in youth groups and at summer camps growing up. And as awesome a message as this is, I feel like sometimes we, as listeners, get so bogged down in how many times we’ve heard it that we forget an extremely important factor: It is the truth! Corinth, our “modern-day” San Francisco, is actually found all over the world since before this letter was written. However, this message was sent to the Corinthians by Paul when it was because they needed to hear it, as we all do. If you look closely, towns and cities all over the world, then and now, are this “Sin City” that we have painted Corinth to be. They needed this message then, and we still need it now, and I can’t see why we won’t need it in the future.

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  14. The city of Corinth does not seem so different from many of the cities in the United States. I think that every city can be called ‘sin city’. Some cities may be more sinful in a human’s eyes but in God’s eye every city is filled to the brim with sin.

    The Christians in the Corinth, just as other gentiles, are free in Christ. They do not have to follow the law as the Jews before them did. In general, they can eat what they want along with other freedoms. They have the mindset that “everything is permissible for me”. This becomes dangerous if they forget the consequences that come with the behaviors. No where does Paul say that they have sexual freedom. They need to one hundred percent stay away from sexual immorality by staying away from relationships that are unholy, a defilement of the body with is the temple of God’s Spirit. (Polhill, 240)

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  15. Interesting post and discussion. The image of Corinth as the Sin City is an old one, already in place in the mid-20th century (and no doubt earlier), and Corinthian archaeologists themselves had a role in creating it. Check out this recent piece at Mediterranean Palimpsest: http://mediterraneanpalimpsest.wordpress.com/2011/10/09/the-oscar-broneer-papers-and-the-image-of-corinth/

    And my commentary at http://corinthianmatters.com/2011/10/13/oscar-broneer-and-corinth-and-a-new-blog/ .

    Newspaper clips from 1950 were referring to Corinth as the “Miami” of the ancient world!

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    • Thanks for the links to this, very interesting! I like the idea that Corinth as a “sin city” is a media creation rather than a scholarly mistake. I think that it is funny that Miami Beach was once thought of as Sin City, now it is more of a retirement village.

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  16. IS THERE NO CHURCH OF GOD IN THE CITY TO PREACH THE WORD OF GOD TO THEN

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