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.

Book Review: Benjamin H. Walton, Preaching Old Testament Narratives

Walton, Benjamin H. Preaching Old Testament Narratives.  Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2016. 254 pp. Pb; $18.99. Link to Kregel  

This short book is based on Walton’s 2012 D.Min thesis for Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (“Enhancing Hermeneutical Accuracy for the Preaching of Old Testament Narratives Using 2 Samuel 11-12 as a Case Study.”) The book offers a methodology for both the interpretive and practical skills necessary for preaching Old Testament narrative.

walton-preaching-narrativesThe first three chapters deal with hermeneutical concerns. First, Walton explains preaching with “biblical authority” means accurately proclaiming and applying the message of biblical preaching texts (29). This necessarily requires a proper hermeneutic for the genre. Since the genre of Old Testament narrative is quite different than a New Testament epistle, Walton argues this difference in genre requires hermeneutical steps in order to write a sermon with an appropriate application.

Second, Walton deals with the often difficult problem of selecting appropriate texts from the Old Testament to preach and making them applicable, what he calls “take home truth.” He offers five steps, beginning with identifying a complete unit of thought (CUT), the moving from the original theological message (OTM) to the take-home truth (THT). These abbreviations are used throughout the book. Although chapter 2 is a basic introduction to reading narrative, it goes beyond identifying a narrative to demonstrating how a large narrative can be captured in a short, crisp original theological statement. If that statement is clear and concise, then “crafting the take-home truth” will be easier and more accurate. I suspect pastors usually start with what they want their application to be, then drive that thought into a text whether it belongs there or not. Walton’s method starts with a serious reading of the text using all of the exegetical skills and tools available so that the final application arises from the text itself. Walton provides a short example of his method in chapter 3 using 1 Samuel 11-12.

One thing missing from Walton’s discussion is some advice on “what not to preach.” A pastor might decide to preach through a series of stories in the Old Testament, but not every paragraph needs to be read and explained. In fact, there are texts that do not make appropriate preaching texts. For example, when preaching through the life of David, it is important to illustrate Saul’s jealousy of David and the loyalty of Saul’s children to David rather than to their father. But it might not be appropriate to treat the dowry Saul demands of David in detail (1 Sam 18:24-28). I might discuss this unusual bride-price in a Sunday School class or a small group Bible Study, but most morning worship service sermons are not quite ready for this particular paragraph.

Walton indicates chapters 4-10 are a “conscious attempt to apply, in my own way, Donald Sunukijan’s homiletic to the preaching of Old Testament narratives” (19). Some of this is generic enough to be used for any text in the Bible (creating introductions and conclusions, applications as “picture painting, etc.) Where Walton excels is his principles for preaching through a text in complete units of thought, rather than verse-by-verse. He recommends summarizing texts without reading whole sections. Certainly some verses ought to be read with the congregation, but to read twenty verses of an Old Testament narrative will not engage the congregation. Another way to do this is to explain the text as it is read, so that the preacher is creating a running commentary, explaining details of the text in order to bring the focus back on the take-home truth.

In Chapter 11 Walton outlines a method for moving from the text of the Old Testament to Christ. Since evangelical pastors want to preach Christ in every sermon, they often avoid the Old Testament because it can be difficult to draw a reasonable and appropriate application from an Old Testament narrative that somehow can be tied to the Gospel. Walton uses an “old covenant to the new covenant” method, similar to apostolic preaching in Acts or Paul in the epistles. By preaching new Covenant theology or ethics, Walton asserts, we are preaching Christ (185). If the take-home truth is well-crafted and attentive to the theological meaning of the original text, then a preacher might as how Christ makes that application possible in the present, New Covenant age. Walton highly recommends the work of Sidney Greidanus, Preaching Christ from the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 1999) as well as his Preaching Christ from Genesis (Eerdmans, 2007).

In his final chapter, Walton offers advice on developing from a good preacher to an excellent preacher. These nine sections apply to any sort of preaching, whether expository from the Old Testament or not. Two sections of this chapter stand out to me. First, he recommends fifteen hours dedicated to sermon preparation, not including practicing the sermon. I suspect most pastors would like to dedicate this much time, but few are able to do so because of other demands on their time. Walton cites his mentor Donald Sunukjian as describing sermon preparation as “the hardest and best thing we will ever do” (200). Second, he recommends writing a manuscript for the sermon, then ditching it. I almost always create a lengthy manuscript of my sermons, although I cannot quite “ditch it” when I preach; it functions like a security blanket for me, and I am OK with that. But Walton is correct that the best preachers have prepared well and should not need the safety net of a manuscript.

Walton includes several appendices demonstrating his method and offering a short overview of the story of the Old Testament.

Conclusion. With five pages of endorsements from academics and preaching experts, the book certainly comes well recommended. Walton’s book does in fact provide a useful method for preaching the narratives of the Old Testament. The value of the book is often in the form of brief advice from an experienced preacher.

Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Duane Liftin, Paul’s Theology of Preaching

Liftin, Duane. Paul’s Theology of Preaching: The Apostle’s Challenge to the Art of Persuasion in Ancient Corinth. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 392 pp. Pb; $40.00.   Link to IVP

In recent years interest in Greco-Roman rhetoric has exploded for Pauline scholars. Liftin is somewhat responsible for this interest since he published a similarly-titled monograph in 1994 (St. Paul’s Theology of Proclamation: 1 Corinthians 1-4 and Greco-Roman Rhetoric; SNTS Monograph Series). As he states in the introduction to this new book, prior to the twentieth century, interpreters understood “words of wisdom” in 1 Cor 1:17 as a reference to Greco-Roman rhetoric and philosophy. Due in part to growing interest in Gnosticism, the first half of the twentieth century understood “words of wisdom” in the light of Gnostic mythology. Paul’s opponents were “gnostic pneumatics” who downplayed the significance of the Cross. In this book, Liftin argues the earlier view was correct. When Paul describes his own mission as preaching the Cross “not with words of the wise,” he has Greco-Roman rhetoric in mind.

Lifton, Theology of PreachingThe first part of Liftin’s book is an introduction to Greco-Roman Rhetoric. In these early chapters Liftin attempts to avoid the “wearisome minutia” typically found in introductions to rhetoric. This is not a monograph-length book on rhetoric, so he illustrates the main features with one or two key original Greco-Roman texts. He also avoids the tendency to reduce rhetoric to techniques for manipulation or simple ornamentation. Liftin argues rhetoric was so pervasive in first-century Corinth Paul could not avoid using some aspects of rhetoric even if he has a negative assessment of the impact some orators have had on his Corinthian churches.

After a short chapter tracing the history of rhetoric from Socrates to the Second Sophistic movement, he demonstrates the goal of rhetoric is persuasion. A successful orator used all possible means of persuasion to “create or produce belief in their listeners” (73). This required the orator to know a great deal about human psychology and their audiences worked. In chapters 3-5 (The Power, Reach and Genius of Rhetoric), Liftin shows how this power to sway an audience provided a foundation for power in Greco-Roman society. Virtually everyone in the Greco-Roman world understood what good rhetoric was and treated the best speakers with honor. In fact, the audience was the ultimate judge of a successful orator.

In chapter 6 (The Appraisal of Rhetoric) Liftin argues audience in the first century were experienced listeners and were capable of critiquing an orator even if they were not specifically trained in rhetoric. Just as most sports fans are able to critique the performance of their team despite not being professional athletes, most people had enough experience listening to orators they could make a judgment on the speaker’s skills. In Chapters 7-8 Liftin contrasts the hazards and rewards of rhetoric.

The second part of this book applies this history of rhetoric to 1 Corinthians 1-4. This opening section of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is the only place in Paul’s letters where he expresses anything like a “theology of preaching.” In addition, Paul makes some dismissive remarks concerning the “wisdom” of this world. Liftin points out the usual arguments about Paul’s education in rhetoric are not as important to his goals since he has argued for the pervasiveness of rhetoric in the first century. It does not matter if Paul was a professionally trained orator or not, he was being judged in ways consistent with the Greco-Roman world by the Corinthians and found wanting.

Liftin reconstructs the situation in Corinth as follows. Paul preached the Gospel in Corinth, people responded and a community was established. After Paul left and Apollos arrived the church began to have reservations about Paul with respect to his deficient public speaking. He was unskilled, something Paul admits in 2 Cor 11:6 (Liftin has an excursus defining what he means by “bad rhetoric”). Since the Gentile Corinthian believers were part of a culture which highly honored rhetorical skills, the church was embarrassed by Paul’s poor skills and began to look elsewhere for apostolic guidance. Specifically, Liftin thinks Apollos is was an eloquent speaker who “unwittingly” caused a division in the church (p. 156). 1 Corinthians 1-4 is therefore Paul’s response to criticism of his ministry style. Over several chapters Liftin supports this contention with careful observation and exegesis of the text of 1 Cor 1-4.

LiftinThe third part of this book offers some analysis of Paul’s ministry model and suggestions “appropriate strategies” for applying the “Pauline model.” While the Greco-Roman world sought to use rhetoric to persuade an audience by means of their own skills, Paul “disavowed the task of inducing belief in his listeners” (p. 263).  For Paul, it is the Holy Spirit who prompts faith in a listener, not “words of wisdom” as judged by contemporary standards. Paul is only the herald of the Gospel, someone who presents the truth of the Gospel. It is the power of God who brings a listener to belief. If this is the case, then there are two important implications. First, there is a certain ambiguity of “persuasion.” Paul certainly wanted to persuade, but he did not resort to the strategies of the Sophist to achieve this goal. Second, a good herald must adapt to the audience. This is exactly what Paul claims to do in 1 Cor 9:19-23. Paul is functioning as any herald might when he is “all things to all men.”

Liftin deals with the problem of Paul’s consistency in chapter 18. When Paul decries use of rhetoric, is he not employing a classic rhetorical style? If the goal of rhetoric was to persuade, then Paul’s letters have to be considered examples of rhetoric since they are trying to persuade an audience. Liftin thinks his “limited definition” of what Paul rejected defuses this criticism of Paul. Paul is not saying he rejects all forms of rhetoric since this would be virtually impossible if he was going to communicate the Gospel. Paul’s denial of rhetorical skills means he shifted the power of his speech away from himself to the Holy Spirit. To a large extent, Paul’s rhetorical skills gave the Holy Spirit “something to work with” for bringing people to Christ.

Paul’s missionary model is therefore humble and servant oriented. Paul was a herald announcing the Good News, leaving the power of persuasion to the message preached rather than then messenger.

Liftin includes five appendices. First, Liftin comments on the relationship between Paul, Apollos and Philo. Although he things “Philo might have written 1 Corinthians 2:13 almost as comfortably as the Apostle Paul” (p. 326), he ultimately rejects Philo as a source for the “words of wisdom” in Corinth. Appendix Two briefly discusses the Book of Acts as a source for background to 1 Cor 1-4, concluding Acts is reliably complements 1 Corinthians, but Acts is inadequate for the rhetorical skills of Apollos.  A third Appendix concerns Paul’s Epistemology.

In the fourth appendix Liftin discusses the implications of his study for contemporary preaching. This chapter is adapted from his 1977 Christianity Today article. He makes some pointed critiques of “gatherings centered on a charismatic, pseudo-celebrity communicator who revels in the spotlight” and other manipulative strategies used to wear people down and force people into an emotional response (p. 348). In contrast to this, the preacher “should do everything possible to build comprehension of the reality of Christ’s claims upon the listener” (p. 349). Amen and amen.

The final appendix suggests several “Broader Implications” of Paul’s ministry model with respect to the Church Growth movement. The appendix was originally an address to the American Society for Church Growth (ASCG) in 1995. Liftin is critical of marketing strategies used by churches in order to stimulate growth. Rather than presenting the Gospel as a product to be marketed, driven by the need for results, churches must be “obedience driven” (358).

Conclusion. Liftin admits early this book requires “tolerant readers” (p. 29). There are lengthy citations of primary sources in the first part of the book in order to illustrate some aspect of rhetoric. In order to keep the text readable, he placed technical material in a series of short excurses scattered throughout the book. These text-boxes are indexed in the table of contents and tend to be no more than a page or two.

This is a stimulating and challenging book operating at two levels. On the one hand, Liftin provides an academic introduction to Greco-Roman rhetoric as a background for reading 1 Corinthians 1-4 in a proper cultural context. But at another level, Liftin wants to challenge the churches to be faithful to God in their preaching of the Gospel. His call is to reject the sin of the Corinthians who used their culture to judge the success of the Gospel. In the end, it is this topic which needs to be addressed more directly by Liftin.

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Gary M. Burge, A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion

Burge, Gary M. A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2015. 189 pp. Pb; $16.  Link to IVP, includes a short book trailer featuring Burge.

Burge says the modern reader is like “a foreigner in their world and culture,” this book attempts to immerse us in the world of the first century.  In the same vein as Ben Witherington’s A Day in the Life of Corinth or Bruce Longenecker’s The Lost Letters of Pergamum, Burge has created a short story about a centurion named Appius and his scribe and slave Tullus. While stationed in Dura-Europos, Appius is injured in a battle with the Parthians and eventually is in a gladiator arena at Caesarea Maritima. Eventually Appius and Tertullus end up in the small village of Capernaum on the shores of Galilee where the meet Jesus of Nazareth.

BurgeI will not spoil the novel with any more plot summary. The value of this book for Bible students is found in the numerous side-bars with detailed cultural information on such diverse cultural issues such as honor and shame, familia, or cosmetics. Burge describes the various locations mentioned in the book in the sidebars as well. There are small black and white illustrations scattered through the book. These are all informative, but could have been enhanced by added a “for further study” to each topic with reference to a more detailed source. Assuming use in a classroom, students could be encouraged to pick a topic and research it in more detail.

A Week in the Life of a Roman Centurion is a great way to get into the world of the New Testament and would be used in a New Testament introduction or a Gospels class, in the same way A Day in the Life of Corinth is appropriate for a book on the Pauline letters. I am occasionally asked for resources on the “background” of the New Testament, this short novel will serve the average Bible reader well by illustrating the Roman world and enriching one’s reading of the Gospels.

NB: Thanks to Intervarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Randal E. Pelton, Preaching with Accuracy

PeltonPelton, Randal E. Preaching with Accuracy. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Ministry, 2015. 170 pp. Pb; $16.   Link to Kregel, read a 25 page excerpt from the book.

This short book of preaching is in many ways a combination of Haddon Robinson’s classic Biblical Preaching and Bryan Chappell’s Christ-Centered Preaching. Pelton recognizes his debt to both books in his introduction. He believes the preacher needs to develop the ability to identify the dominant idea of a preaching portion, but also to allow the language and concepts of the portion to shape the sermon.

The first chapter of the book is a defense of expository preaching. For many preachers, exposition of a text in a sermon is not popular with audiences. Expository sermons will not “grow a church.” It is unfortunately true many congregations lack the biblical background to appreciate an expositional sermon and fewer pastors are attempting to “preach through a book.” I have found that even when a pastor preaches a series on a biblical book, the sermons will still be topical and only vaguely related to the selected text. This book by Pelton will help pastors to pay attention to the main idea of a text a selected text and conform their presentations to the Word of God rather than using scripture as a pretext for the hot topic of the week.

Pelton’s model for preaching begins with selecting an appropriate text to preach. He calls this “cutting the text,” although he is simply demonstrated for the reader how to identify a proper unit of scripture for preaching. Topical preaching tends to err by using a single verse (sometimes out of context) or by jumping to as many verses as possible. Expositional preaching can be ruined by trying to reach too large of a section, forcing the pastor to rush the details or bore the listeners with story-retelling. By paying attention to the genre-based clues in the text itself a pastor ought to be able to limit their expository sermon to an ideal number of verses.

By “cutting the text” properly, the expositor will then be able to identify the “textual big idea” in the portion. Pelton’s fourth chapter demonstrates how to select the broad subject, to narrow the subject to the preaching portion and finally to develop the “big idea” which will govern the content of the sermon. He gives several examples and has a number of “workbook” like exercises to allow the reader to develop their own “big idea” and compare it to his own work.

Randal PeltonOnce a “big idea” for the sermon has been crafted, Pelton describes a method for grounding the “big idea” in the context of Scripture. Obviously the “hero” of every text is God and the main character of every text is Jesus, but creating a Christ-centered sermon will vary from genre to genre. Pelton therefore gives several examples, including a few from the Old Testament, to demonstrate how to ground the “big idea” in the immediate context of the portion of Scripture selected. This contextual approach allows a preacher to select only a short section for the expositional sermon. For example, a preacher can cover the whole of Gen 39, for example, while focusing on only a few verses which demonstrate the “big idea.”

In his final major chapter, Pelton describes what he calls “canonical preaching.” By this he more or less means preaching Christ in every text. This many take the form of what Christians ought to be or do, or how Christ is revealed in a particular text. He is careful to avoid the allegorical “fuller meaning” of medieval preaching which found Jesus in every word of the Old Testament. Pelton firmly believes every text ought to point to Jesus and apply to the Christian and a sermon should be a kind of “theological exegesis” pointing the way to the Cross. This is not unlike Bryan Chapell’s “grace-centered preaching” or Sidney Greidanus’s method for preaching Christ from the Old Testament. While Pelton makes some distinctions between his approach and these other two popular homiletical texts, all three are working similar methods with the goal of preaching every text in the larger context of the whole canon.

If I have any critique of Pelton’s approach, it is this canonical method. On page 118 he has a chart comparing his method to a target, with the textual big idea on the outside, the contextual in the second ring and the canonical interpretation in the center of the bull’s-eye. Until I saw this chart, I would have place the textual big idea in the center and the canonical interpretation on the outside. For me, the idea in the text I have selected is the driving force in my sermon and (perhaps to my shame) I often do not consciously attempt to draw the text to the larger canonical context. Pelton’s book is an encouragement to re-think what is important in a sermon and to center my presentation on the Cross.

NB: Randal Pelton blogs on Preaching at Pelton on Preaching. Thanks to Kregel Books for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.