Acts 18 – Corinth as “Sin City”

When I visited Corinth in January 2019 the tour leader made a big deal out of Corinth’s reputation as a “sin city” in the first century. He repeated the usual evidence for sexual immorality in ancient Corinth along with the evidence from 1 Corinthians. I tried to object this was a “classic Pastor’s preaching point,” but he totally disagreed with me and went back to his lurid description of first century Corinth. Sometimes Corinth is described as a “San Francisco of the ancient world.” I think Chuck Swindoll said this, so many pastors in the 1980s picked it up and tried to illustrate how bad Paul’s church was by comparing it to Haight-Ashbury circa 1967 or modern Las Vegas (“what happens in Corinth stays in Corinth”?)


This is one of those preaching points that gets picked up in popular commentaries and repeated with no additional research. I think some pastors get a perverse kick out of painting ancient Corinth as particular immoral. This salacious description makes for good preaching, but it is not accurate. As John Lanci says in a recent article, “there is no archaeological evidence that rituals of sacred sex were practiced in Corinth, and textual scholars have for some time questioned the reliability of Strabo and Athenaeus” (205). Lanci points out the term “companion” does not necessarily mean prostitute in a contemporary sense and the women in Athenaeus’s story prayed for the men of Corinth to become inflamed for war against the Persians. “Modern interpreters,” says Lanci, “have created sex slaves for Corinthian Aphrodite out of whole cloth of scholarly inferences” (213). Finally, Lanci questions the modern description of Aphrodite as a “goddess of love” as if that implies romance and sex, domesticating a terrifying and powerful goddess.

It was not for tips about lovemaking and cosmetics that the women of Corinth climbed haunting Acrocorinth in 480 B.C.E. They petitioned their goddess, but not to grant fertility to the land. No, they begged a great and terrifying divine force to inspire their warriors to overwhelm the horrifying, destructive power of war. (220)

Usually, the evidence for Corinth’s sexual freedom is that the city was built near two ports so it attracted sailors looking for a good time. 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 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 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.

When we teach that the Corinthian believers struggled with a culture that was oppose to Christianity in this way, we someone imply that things were better in Ephesus or Rome. That is absolutely not the case! All Christians struggled to relate this new faith to the culture in which they live, in A.D. 55 Corinth or modern America.

I think the problem in Corinth was not that the city was sexually immoral, but that the church members were wealthy and powerful and behaved like wealthy and powerful Romans. The problems reflected in the letters to the Corinthians are not the result of living in a city full of sinners who tempting pure-at-heart Christians. The problem was Christians insisting on living as wealthy powerful members of the Roman world, not as humble servants of other believers in Christ.

If we are going to accurately preach Corinthians, we need to stop relating the city of Corinth to San Francisco or Las Vegas. Rather, we need to start comparing the church at Corinth to the (wealthy, politically powerful) American church.


Bibliography: John Lanci, “The Stones Don’t Speak and the Texts Tell Lies: Sacred Sex at Corinth.” Pages 205-220 in Daniel N. Schowalter and Steven J. Friesen, eds. Urban Religion in Roman Corinth: Interdisciplinary Approaches. Harvard University Press, 2005.

25 thoughts on “Acts 18 – Corinth as “Sin City”

  1. I have heard the same claim so many times, that our world and the problem of sexual immorality is just as bad as it was in Corinth. I think people see the section about sexual immorality and they interpret it to be worse of a problem than it is. Something that Paul said that stuck out to me is in 1 Corinthians 5: 9-10. Paul says, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.” I think this is something that Christians need to really look at. Paul isn’t telling the people of Corinth not to disassociate themselves from the people of the world who are immoral. After this he says that he means that they stay away from those who claim to be brothers and sisters who are these kind of people. I know this has nothing to do with whether sexual immorality was a huge problem or not. I have just never realized that Paul says this. This kind of goes a long with how Jesus would talk to drunkards and prostitutes. Many Christians think that they should completely separate themselves from non-believers who live horrible lives. I think that this is something that needs to be talked about more in the church. As far as the point of this post, I agree that churches need to bring out the other issues that Paul addresses in his letters. Sexual immorality seems to be the issue that is always drawn from his letters.

  2. I too believe the issue at hand is not how sinful the city of Corinth indeed was but instead the way that the Christians wanted to live. This is because as the post says, “We need to start comparing the church at Corinth to the wealthy politically minded American church.” I believe that Corinth was indeed an immoral city, but the basis of their problems were not sexual immorality or rejection of God but instead its lack of total submission to God. What I mean by this is that the people of Corinth were open to God and as Acts 18:8 states, “many of the Corinthians, hearing, believed and were baptized,” but they were not open to the complete will of God. These new Christians wanted to maintain their wealth and power instead of being humble servants of Christ. So the stereotypical belief that Corinth was a city that rejected God and was far worse morally than Rome or any other Roman cities was false. This is because as the post alludes to, people tend to think that the Corinth Paul visited was the same as the Corinth that existed 400 years early. But this simply was not the case, though some including the Jews rejected Paul’s teaching (Acts 18:6), there were also some who were open to God and Paul’s teachings. However, I do think that comparing these new members of the church to the modern American church is applicable. This is because similar the church in Corinth, the modern day American church struggles with giving everything to God including money, power, and social status. Instead, the modern day church and church at Corinth, indeed wanted to be Christian’s but in some cases were not willing to give up their wealth and power in order to serve Christ to the fullest.

  3. Paul had his work cut out for him when it came to sexual purity in the days of the early church. Unfortunately, not much has changed today since our culture promotes sex everywhere. In Colossian 3:5-7 says to put to death what is earthly in us, and it goes on to state that “in these you too, once walked, when you were living in them.” As P. Long says, all Christians struggle to relate this new faith to the culture they live in, whether it was AD 55 Corinth or America. I think that Paul wanted to highlight the notion that as Christ-followers, they too used to walk in these ways, but it was time to change because they were no longer slaves to sin. He was trying to illustrate this idea of a “new self.” The idea to compare the Corinth church to the American church is quite a necessary blow. Too many times members of the American church point the finger to places such as Las Vegas or San Francisco instead of seeing the wealth and some corruption that exists within the Body of Christ. We too, must remember that these are old tendencies we must leave behind as we strive towards progressive sanctification. We have new hearts and the church should focus on making progress within our body rather than pointing the finger elsewhere.

  4. I wouldn’t say that the church was necessarily the bad part about the city, but the city was bad and therefore impacted the church there. The people must have been used to the customs and the activities before becoming believers and so it affected the way that they lived as believers. I must say that prior to this, I did not know where Corinth was located and what was going on in the city before the church was even built. I did not know that there was the Aphrodite temple with the prostitutes so it was really a way of life for them to purchase and have relations with prostitutes there. It’s no surprise that the believers in Corinth struggled with the culture because even believers now today struggle with the culture that is around us and what the culture says is normal and OK to do. I have to disagree that the city was not sinful because it in fact was sinful. The fact that it was sinful made it harder on the believers that were part of that culture to break away from that sin because they lived in a city of it.

  5. As P. Long states, Corinth being known as a more sinful city than the others in the Roman empire is a common misconception. Just like with bringing the gospel to any culture it was difficult for Paul to get the Corinthians to understand what the relationship between their faith and culture should look like. ” All Christians struggled to relate this new faith to the culture in which they live, in A.D. 55 Corinth or modern America.” (P.Long). It’s so true that A.D. 55 Corinth could be related to modern America. Paul never told Christians not to associate themselves with sexually immoral people. He told Christians not to associate themselves with sexually immoral people who call themselves Christians. As Christians, we should do the same today. Knowing that our culture today is driven by sexuality, we are in the same situation. Even with most recent events regarding same sex marriage. The church is going to need to make a decision. Some already have and publicized it (Rob Bell). The body of Christ needs to stay in line with the Word of God no matter where the culture goes.

  6. As it has already mentioned, the city of Corinth was more than just a defiled city as we have come to understand it. There was certainly something deeper going on within the city than their idolatrous behavior. At one point Paul gets frustrated with the people of the city and he walks out when they choose not to listen to his message. (18:6) As Nick mentioned, there is “a lack of total submission to God.” It seems that the people refuted Paul’s message because they wanted to hold on to control. Paul’s message called for them to relinquish that control and they were not ready for that. Yet Paul is reassured by God that although the people have hardened their hearts, God is with him.(18:9-10) With this knowledge, Paul is confident to return to the city where he persuades the Jews that Jesus is in fact the True Messiah to which many believed. (18:11; 18:27b-28)

  7. I think that with this day and age we should be able to get away from the “San Francisco” phrase. I just think that it is a little offensive and close minded. It would seem obvious that it is implying homosexuality, I am not saying that homosexuality is not a sin. I just believe that we need to understand that they are broken people exactly as the rest of us are and address it accordingly. It does seem fitting that we need to focus the attention of Corinthians to what the book is actually focused on. If the focus is on the wealthy and elite of Corinth it would make sense that those are the people who take part in the sexual immortality. Just as in our day those who are middle class do not have the money to be able to afford such lavishing things. I know that when I read Corinthians I usually pick out the focus as idolatry which, I would have to say is one of the top struggles of the American church.

  8. I have heard Corinth spoken with the illustration of “Sin City” so many times, I had never even questioned it. But, looking at this post, and doing a little outside research; Corinth would not really have been much different from any other Greek city at the time. I think that the most significant thing said in the post is the comparison between the “church at Corinth to the wealthy politically minded American church”, because whether or not Christians have come to grips with it yet, the church these days is not behaving in the way that it should. The problem is that Christians are still living with the mindset that we are a Christian society, and that is entirely wrong. “We are not called to Christianize the state, there is no point prescribing Christian values for people who are not Christians” (taken from an article by Michael F. Bird). Just like what Paul was doing in the time of Acts, we need to realize that we are an underground network of religious organizations that are bent on resisting the demoralizing of our country. We are bent on being counterculture, and as such, there should be distinct differences between our subculture, and the world’s dominating culture. Our culture, in a lot of ways, is just as sinful as the Roman culture of Acts, and we need to realize that “it’s not our job to make everyone believe” (“Listening to Freddie Mercury” by: Emery). It is, however, our job to help those who are believer, and followers, to realize their place in this culture, and realize that they cannot continue to live the way they have been living.

  9. As Heather said, Corinth was more than just a defiled city, it seems it was a city not just fractured along the the lines of Jew versus Greco-Roman, but Jew versus Greek as well. It says that, “Gallio (proconsul of Achaia) said to the Jews, “Then they all seized Sosthenes, the leader of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the judge’s bench (18:17).” There was a strong divide among Jews and Greeks, not only when the Jews rejected the Gospel (18:6), and the Gentiles recieved it (18:7-8), but also along political lines as well. As it is, Jews and Greeks had very different ideas of what was right and what was wrong (18:12-15), but this was not limited to sexual immorality. Greco-Roman society, politically and culturally, was completely different from Jewish culture, and this is evident in Corinth. Sexual immorality is just one of many aspects that stands out as a struggle for Jews and Christians in Corinth, but in reality, living according to God’s Law was a struggle in every aspect of this society.

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  11. “I think that the problem in Corinth was not that the city was ‘sinful,” but that the church had members who were wealthy and powerful. The problems reflected in the letters to the Corinthians are not the result of living in a city full of sinners who tempting the pure-at-heart Christians. The real problem was Christians insisting on living as wealthy powerful members of the Greco-Roman world, not as humble servants of other believers in Christ.”

    I DISAGREE, many problems surfaced in the church but In the church of Corinth they had something the other churches did not have. we see it in 1 Corinthians 5:1. It states, It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife.Corinth was a very immoral place and it was in the church and those in the church did not see this as an issue It was a common thing to fornicate in the church of Corinth. Paul does not say this about any other church. Wither being “wealthy and powerful” was an issue, maybe, the Bible does not say.

    • It is not very controversial to observe the church was wealthy and there were members who were “powerful” (Erastus at the very least, probably others). They also struggled with some sin that is not found in other Pauline letters, but sexual sin does appear elsewhere. My point in the original post is that the city of Corinth was no more sinful than any other Greco-Roman city, They were *all* immoral from a Jewish/Christian perspective!

      The individual you mention as an example in 1 Cor 5:1 (I would suggest) is wealthy/powerful enough to deflect criticism in the church and in society even though he is sinning in a spectacular way.

      Perhaps you have not noticed, people who are rich and powerful tend to think they can get away with anything they want and being a Christian does not always prevent them from abuse of wealth and power.

  12. 3/27
    When looking at the different cities that existed in the first century AD a lot of times we like to generalize of pin point one city as worst than the others. This is the case for many people who speak on Corinth. They like to paint the picture that this city was so much worst than others during this time and go as far as to say it is the “sin city” or relate it to Las Vegas. This approach although some aspects are true saying that Corinth was way worst than the other cities is not true. Corinth did have many prostitutes and ports that made it appealing for the secular world to stop in but so did Thessalonica and other cities where idol worship and prostitution were big as well. I like how Dr. Long states that the problem of Corinth was not only the sexual/ secular atmosphere, but it was the same Christians who focused on power and wealth instead of lowering themselves to the level of the individuals who really needed guidance. “The real problem was Christians insisting on living as wealthy powerful members of the Greco-Roman world, not as humble servants of other believers.” (Long, par 5) This is a great challenge to us believers. Are we living in a terrible society but doing nothing to help it? Do we think we are superior to those who are struggling to make it in this life? We need to get off our high horse and go help those who are really struggling to change their negative patterns of life and to be a light in the darkness. Stop complaining instead get out there and start doing something!

  13. I find this article to be rather eye-opening for two main reasons. the first is that we should always be aware if something is wrong when we are talking about it, especially if we are preaching about it from the pulpit. as I continue into what I believe God has called me into youth ministry I am getting more and more involved with Church and youth group, I need to be careful because words have weight to them and I need do my best to be as accurate as I can when speaking. the second is that I think we do this today still with las vegas and other places. sure las Vagaus is most likely more dangerous and all of the above, but there are also some bad places in Michigan as well. I think that we do this with people as well. we look around at everyone and think some people are worse than others, but the truth is we are all people in need of a savior.

    • I think cultural intelligence is of great importance when ministering in a city outside of your home. Even though I may claim Las Vegas as my home, I still am unaware of many cultural or societal factors that influence how I share the Gospel and approach people who live by different standards than my own.I think a common struggle between all organizations or groups of people,regardless of religious associations, is the instinct to push the blame onto the outlier. I think it is easy to see the bad in others while ignoring the evil within our own heart or mind. While Paul is in Corinth he is intentional about building genuine relationships by taking on the same profession as them. Paul set a great example by setting down roots in the city he was planning on ministering in, he worked as a tent maker in order to support his ministry (Long 117). Although I do not think that we should mimic everything the apostles do in order to reach people for the kingdom of Christ, I think we can take a note from Paul and be intentional about becoming like the people we are attempting to minster to. Philippians 4:8-9 sets a good standard of living that believers of Christ should strive to achieve.

  14. Throughout time there have been multiple cities that have fallen to sin or are still consumed with sin and the desires of the world. We are surrounded by a world that is wrapped around sin and can easily fall to it in any given period of time. I find it interesting that back in the day and today there are still people continuing to participate in the same sin and allowing themselves to be surrounded by others or a group of people who only partake in sinful behavior. So many people fall to sexual desires and the desire to have a large amount of money. We start to classify ourselves by our looks and wealth rather what is hidden in the insides of our heart. Christ followers need to break the habit of sinful behaviors and start to represent the heart of Christ. As we continue to unfold the heart of Christ, you will understand that one can not serve both God and the world. You can not love and serve God but also be obsessed with money and fame.

  15. This salacious description makes for good preaching, but it is not exactly accurate.

    Phillip, I think when you say “good preaching” you mean “lively sermonizing”. Which is often not good preaching.

  16. I think you make a good point saying that, though Corinth isn’t necessarily a moral place, it was on par with the other Roman cities in the area. It is interesting how a city can receive a stigma as being corrupt or immoral, yet the city is no different than others. That being said, Corinth still had a moral bar that was lower than the one set for the Church. Because those who were converted were a part of the Corinth culture, they had difficulty changing their worldview, or rather, to ‘de-barbarianise’ themselves. In class today this topic came up, and one thing stood out to me. That is, it can take a very long time for people to change their secular worldview to a Biblical worldview. In some cases, for the more unbiblical cultures, this can take generations. That being said, it takes time for everyone, both for those in Corinth, as well as those here today.

    Another point to be taken about Corinth is that, instead of looking down on the Corinthian believers, we should understand that the church now has similar struggles. Though the extent may be exaggerated, the believers in Corinth were still living amongst immorality and were trying to overcome this. In a similar way, we now have immorality in our world and our culture. Instead of scoffing about how bad they were, we should look inwardly at our shortcomings and use the example they gave to work on our problems.

  17. This point of this article is something that I think many out there need to hear and understand. The Corinthian church was far from virtuous, but they weren’t worse than the other cities like Ephesus and Rome. I’ve heard pastors preach about the sexual immorality of the city of Corinth before, and if people aren’t well studied in their bible, they’ll go right with this topic. It’s good to see something different pointed out, that members in the church were wealthy and wanted to live as such. Because of this, it’s much easier to correlate the church of Corinth to churches that are growing larger today.

    Lots of money is funneled into churches, and many members of the church are well-blessed in the ways of money. Many of them want to live the extravagant lifestyles that are freely available to those with money, when really, they need to be good stewards with their funds. The same goes for those Christians who wield power in society, whether it be from politics or money or both. It’s something that easily corrupts those who have it if they aren’t careful and have their priorities in the right place. Many people become more attached to the labels that come with their status, rather than using their status to benefit God and the church. I imagine that the church of Corinth had similar issues to what we have today.

  18. It all comes down to culture and the time period. There can’t be a comparison between the cities now versus then. As you stated in class we look now at all those sexual sins but truly don’t understand the deep rootedness of them. It was honestly the complete lifestyle of the people, and helped make their society, economy, and beliefs happen. The city was built around the gods that they believed in and the food sacrificed to idols and the prostitutes in the temple. In today’s major cities sin takes place but it is not what holds the city together. Believers now versus then still struggle with the same sins just in a totally different capacity. Where it is more personal instead of being completely driven by society and becoming successful in that society. It is also written in the Bible that the poor will receive the kingdom of God. Rich people not always but tend to follow down the track of greed and sin, while the poor relies more on God and his doings instead of their own. This is what was happening in the city of Corinth. If a whole city is richer then it more than not effects everyone. While people who are rich today tend to keep it more towards themselves.

  19. I found so many things about this blog post intriguing and profound. For starters, there is something to be said about the pattern we see throughout even biblical history with the rich/wealthy idolizing wealth and therefore in leadership allowing it to distort God’s intended way for his church to be lead. Even moreso, there’s much to be said about how we don’t acknowledge money/power dynamics being the root of some issues, but instead we take something that is not the actual issue (i.e sexual immorality in the Corinthian church) and say that it is the root. We see this happening in the American church and generally in the American world. People with wealth often make their way to the “top” and when in places of power, many misuse it. When we see the effects of this misuse of power, we often blame something that is not the issue while totally missing the money/power dynamic that creates different disparities in our society. I also like the point made in this discussion of how we shouldn’t preach something just because it’s common or popular, because common/popular does not always equate to accurate. Some examples of this would be phrases like, “God helps those who help themselves” or “To thine own self be true” or “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.” While these things are all popular sayings and some people believe they are from the bible, they are not. We should study the Word to be true, in order that we do not become false teachers or add or take away from God’s Word (Revelation 22:18-19).

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