Acts 18 – Corinth as “Sin City”

I visited Corinth in January, and the leader of the tour made a big deal out of Corinth’s reputation as a “sin city” in the first century. He repeated the usual evidence 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 Las Vegas (“what happens in Corinth stays in Corinth”?)


This is one of those points that gets picked up in popular commentaries and repeated with little additional research. This salacious description makes for good preaching, but 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 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.

In fact, I think 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.

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.

Acts 18 – Corinth in the First Century

Paul’s ministry in Corinth is his biggest success up to this point in Paul’s missionary career.  The Romans founded a colony on the site of ancient Corinth in 44 B.C.  The new city of Corinth was populated by freed slaves ( Strabo (8.136) cf., Appian (Hist 8.136)).  Socially this means that the new population has been given freedom, a fresh start, and the opportunity to advance far beyond what they might have hoped for as slaves.

Temple of Apollo at Corinth (January 2019)

The town was laid out in the Roman style, completely ignoring the layout of the old city, although the forum follows the outline of the old agora.  The cardo (main street)  cut through the old city.  All of the architecture and design reflected the Roman style, not Greek.  Even the Greek temples were “modernized” after the fashion of the Romans, including an imperial cult temple overlooking the forum.   The foundations of the temple were higher than the other temples, even that of Apollo.  Clearly the settlers were making it clear that Corinth was to be a Roman city, loyal to the Empire rather than the memory of the Greek city of Corinth.

The buildings for the Isthmia Games were done in a Roman style and Roman games were added to the Greek contests. The first Isthmian Games of New Corinth were held sometime between 7 B.C. and A.D. 3. in honor of L. Castricius Regulus, who had re-built the athletic facilities of Corinth.  Regulus offered a banquet to all the inhabitants of city to honor the games.  These games are important to an understanding of the problems of the Corinthian letters since the games were not simply athletic events.  They were dedicated to the gods, the chief of which was the Roman Emperor Nero himself. It was in the A.D. 50’s that the city of Corinth was honored with an Imperial Cult center.  This is a major factor in Paul’s arrest and hearing before Gallio.

It is the combination of the games and imperial cult that put enormous pressure on the Corinthian church.  The whole city would have participated in the banquets honoring the Roman Emperor, the elite of the city would be invited to the most important banquet honoring the Emperor as a god.  There are both political and spiritual aspects to consider in refusing to attend this meal or social events like it.

The city of Corinth was an important cosmopolitan city in the middle part of the first century.  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.  Yet of all of Paul’s churches, this one seems to have had the most difficulties assimilating Christianity and their culture.  For this reason Corinth is probably the church of the New Testament that is most like the modern church.

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)

What are the potential implications for modern mission strategy?  Paul targeted one of the most modern of the urban centers in the world at the time.  Should this speak to where we plant churches?  How we plant churches?

Acts 18 – Success Breeds Jealousy

After several very difficult experiences in Philippi and Thessalonica and an unfruitful visit to Athens, Paul finally experiences some good success in Corinth. After preaching in the synagogue he establishes a church that includes several key converts. Luke lists Titius Justus, a god-fearing Gentile and Crispus, the leader of the synagogue.  Both of these were leaders in the synagogue and would have been valuable to Paul as leaders in a new church. A third convert is implied in Romans 16:23 – Erastus, the “director of public works” (NIV) or city treasurer. If Erastus was a convert at this time he would have brought some wealth and prestige to the church. In addition to these converts, Aquilla and Priscilla were in Corinth and eventually the teacher Apollos

art-thou-jealous-muchPaul may have been concerned his success would breed a violent back-lash from the synagogue, as it had in Thessalonica. In fact, Paul has seen this happen before.  The normal pattern is for him to enter the synagogue and face serious persecution.  He is not afraid for his own life, in fact, he seems more than willing to suffer physically for the Gospel.

1 Cor 2:3-4 indicates that Paul was afraid his ministry was destined for failure.  He does not yet know of the fate of the Thessalonican believers, perhaps even Berea is unknown to him.  Athens likely did not result in a church.  Will Corinth go just as badly?  Yet in 1 Cor 2, Paul claims that any success in Corinth was based solely on the power of the Holy Spirit, not his own rhetorical ability.

In Acts 18:9-10 Luke tells us that Paul has a vision in which the Lord tells Paul that he will not be harmed in the city of Corinth and that there are many people in the city that are “the Lord’s.”  There are three short, related commands: Do not fear, continue to speak, and do not be silent.

If these commands reflect Paul’s mood prior to Silas and Timothy’s return, then it is possible that Paul considered, like Jeremiah before him, to remain silent and not open himself up to further persecution (Jer 20:7-12).  But like Jeremiah, Paul cannot keep the Gospel to himself, he must be what he is, the light to the Gentiles.  Even if this means he will be persecuted.  This vision encourages him to continue, since his Gospel message will be received in Corinth. He will remain in the city 18 months, Paul’s longest place of ministry since his commission from Antioch in Acts 13.

An important observation here is Paul’s success was met with increased jealousy and persecution. Paul was obedient to his calling yet he was still suffering. Why is this? To what extent is Luke describing a successful ministry as a persecuted ministry? Compared to what some modern Christians seem to think, this is the opposite of what to expect. Yet for Paul, suffering confirmed he was doing exactly what God called him to do.

1 Corinthians 1-4 – The Problem of Division

It is well known that the church at Corinth had “divisions” over leadership.  Some considering Paul their authority, other Apollos, others Peter, and still others accepted only Jesus as their authority.  It is possible that these divisions represent competing house churches, some founded by Paul, some by Apollos.  But even if there are multiple house churches founded by different leaders, Paul passionately argues that the body of Christ cannot be divided in this way.  In fact, these divisions are a sign of worldliness.  How can the presence of “divisions” be described as “worldly?”

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Bruce Winter details the Greco-Roman practice of discipleship in the second chapter of After Paul Left Corinth. He finds that there is a great deal of parallels between the disciple-teacher relationship in the culture of Corinth and the problem of divisions in the church over the authority of teachers. Dio Chrysostom visited Corinth about A.D. 89-96.  He described the activities of the disciples of the Sophists – the professional orators who were able to command large audiences, high fees for educating youth, and often a great deal of power within the city.   There was extreme competition among the orators for honor and power.  The better the orator, the higher the fee, and the more disciples he will attract.  Dio Chrysostom complained that Corinth was filled with “wretched” sophists, many of whom were debating one another with “shouting and abuse” near the temple to Poseidon.  (I suppose that if Dio were commenting on the modern world, he would describe the “wretched bloggers” shouting abuse at the temple of WordPress…!)

Paul enters this world of “wretched Sophists” and preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  He gathers disciples and establishes a church, a meeting place for educating his disciples.  He begins the process of developing them into leaders who will also preach the gospel and found more churches. The Gentiles coming into this new Church do not seem to be able to see the differences between it and a Greco-Roman philosopher gathering disciples and educating them in a particular philosophy.

In 1 Corinthians, Paul consciously avoids disciple-teacher language.  Paul did not want to present the Gospel as an orator, competing for students as they did.  In fact, Paul never claims disciples.  This is really what is behind his disclaimer on baptism in 1 Cor 1:14-16.  He come to Corinth to create a community of disciples from which he might receive patronage and prestige.

Paul does not want to be considered a philosopher who is gathering disciples, nor does he want that for Apollos or Peter or any man.  So rather that detailing their accomplishments as orators, Paul describes their functions (Paul planted, Apollos watered, etc.)   Christians are all disciples, or better, stewards and servants of the mysteries of God (1 Cor 4:1).

The real problem behind the “divisions” is that the church continues to act like Christianity is just another philosophy, and teachers are in competition with each other just as the Greek orators competed.  They are still acting “just like the world.”  This is the challenge of the “divisions” in 1 Corinthians –  how does the modern church act “just like the world”? In what ways have we failed to “de-paganize”? I do not think things have improved much since the first century.