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.