The city of Corinth was an important cosmopolitan city in the middle part of the first century. (Was Corinth more sinful than other Roman cities? Click the link for my comments about that longstanding misunderstanding of history, as well as a followup comment from a read.) It was economically stable, attracting a wide range of businesses from all over the Empire. Paul established the church in this city for this very reason. Once Christianity takes hold in Corinth, the local churches themselves can continue the mission of spreading the gospel throughout the region.
In choosing as one of his main missionary centers a city in which only the tough were reputed to survive, Paul demonstrated a confidence oddly at variance with his protestations of weakness. Corinth, however, offered advantages that outweighed its dangers. In addition to excellent communications, the extraordinary number of visitors (Dio Chrysostom, Or. 37.8; Aelius Aristides, Or. 46.24) created the possibility of converts who would carry the gospel back to their homelands. In contrast to the closed complacency of Athens, Corinth was open and questioning, eager for new ideas but neither docile nor passive, as Paul’s relationship with the Christian community there amply documents (Murphy-O’Connor, ABD 1:1138).
Yet of all of Paul’s churches, this one seems to have had the most difficulties assimilating Christianity and their culture.
The books of 1 and 2 Corinthians deal with a number of problems that arose after Paul left the city. Why did Paul not deal with them as a part of his regular training of new believers and church leaders? What happened in Corinth that brought these particular problems to the forefront only after Paul left the city?
The thesis of Bruce Winter’s After Paul Left Corinth is that after Paul left the city the church began to explore how Christianity interacted with their Greco-Roman culture and social relationships. Their culture was a thoroughly Roman world-view, but it was also a world-view in flux.
There were several de-stabilizing factors in first century Corinth.
First, the institution of yearly festivals in the imperial cult. Participation in these festivals was something a Roman citizen would have associated with loyalty to Rome, a loyalty that the citizens of Corinth took very seriously.
Second, the Isthmian Games were based in Corinth, and there is evidence that when the games were celebrated the President of the games hosted a festival for Corinthians who were Roman citizens. In 8:9 there is a reference to having the “freedom” to eat; the Greek word is “authority,” or perhaps “right” to eat. Paul may be referring to these sort of elite social connections that some in the church had the right/freedom to participate in. Can a Christian really participate in this meal as a follower of Christ?
Third, Winter cites evidence that there were three severe grain famines in the first century that effected Corinth. There are ten inscriptions from Paul’s time that honor the “superintendent of the grain.” This office had the power to manage grain sales in an effort to keep prices down and supply flowing. This could involve a taxation system that paid for grain for the poor, or even a flooding of the market with grain in order to drive prices down. Even rumors of famine were enough to cause riots and generally de-stabilize an economy.
Last, the most difficult issues revolved around Roman cultural and social practices. In 1 Cor 3:3 Paul says that the church is “still worldly,” literally that they are thinking like the people of Corinth, not the people of God. The Christians in Corinth failed to see how the Roman world impacted their life in Christ.
Does this cultural background help us understand “what happened” in Corinth? Why did the church mis-handle so many of the challenges to their new faith in Christ? Is the Corinthian experience much different than Christianity in the modern West?
Bibliography: Bruce Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2001).