Background to the epistle of first corinthians

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A Research Paper

Submitted to Dr. Craig Price

Of the

New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary

In Partial Fulfillment

Of the Requirements for the Course

Greek Exegesis of First Corinthians

In the Biblical Studies Division

Austin K. DeArmond

B.A., Southeastern Bible College, 2012


The city of Corinth (Κόρινθος, Kórinthos) was a celebrated city of the Peloponnesus, capital of Achaia, which connected the Greek mainland with the Peloponnesian peninsula.1 The ancient and powerful commercial city on the Isthmus had been destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C. and was rebuilt under the reign of Julius Caesar (taking on the name Colonia Laus Julia Corinthiensis.) as a freedman colony in 44 B.C.2 The new colonization of the city was owing to Rome’s desire to promulgate Roman civilization across the world and solve the population issues in the metropolis of Rome.3 Though lying desolate for almost 102 years, the city began to attract a large amount of tourists and others interested in commerce. The city owed much of its prosperity to the lucrative shipping trade afforded by its geographical location between the Aegean and the Mediterranean Seas. The prosperity of Corinth rested not upon rents, taxes, and consumer items from its own territorium of Corinthia but upon its effectiveness as a service economy to tradespeople, merchants, travelers, and those seeking the resources of a well-equipped business center which offered religious, educational, cultural, and judicial provisions.4

Corinth was famous not only for its bustling trade and wealth but also for its immorality, the likes that included remarkable lows in the form of extensive and lucrative prostitution and other forms of sexual licentiousness.5 Strabo’s first century account notes that there were 1,000 temple prostitutes maintained for pagan sex-worship though some scholars see this as historically suspect.6 Regardless, their wanton sexual practices led to the common verb to “corinthianize” which carried sexual connotations. Roman law, culture and religion were dominant in the city, and Latin was Corinth’s official language, but the Greek traditions and philosophies of the area and the mystery cults from Egypt and Asia were also strongly represented (1 Cor. 1:20-22).7 The religious milieu of Corinth included the worship of various Roman and Greek deities including no less than Aphrodite, Asclepius, Apollo, Athena, Hera, Hermes, Poseidon and even some Egyptians deities such as Isis and Serapis.8 Jewish presence within the city is attested by biblical evidence (Acts 18:1-17) as well as inscriptions and letters.

Also of important note for the city was the control of the Isthmian games, one of the three most important religious and athletic festivals in Greece, which provided means by which the city could act as a pro-Roman focal point in Achaean life.9 Various cities in the area (Ephesus, Smyrna, and Pergamum) often vied for political prestige and recognition that included no less than having the chief seat of imperial worship present within their metropolis. Because of the often rampant politicking, many orators and public officials sought to unify the cities by exhorting the socio-economic virtue of homonoia (order and unity). Though not engaging in military campaigns, the major cities instigated intense rivalries for the honor of the title πρώτη 'Ασίας. The ranking of cities was important for the festivals and provincial councils in which an official procession from the imperial cult temple, a meeting of the delegates of the cities, and commonly a sacrifice at the temple altar, all made statements about which cities could lay claim to power in the province.10 The presence of the games was another avenue for honor and prestige to be bestowed on the city. Such an honor positively affected the social environment.


Pauline authorship (1 Cor. 1:1) is virtually undeniable in light of evidence from the theological concerns of the letter, the energy of its style, its vocabulary, and the historical connections with the other Pauline letters and the book of Acts. Such evidence includes Paul’s self-attestation throughout the letter (1:1, 12-13, 3:4-5, 22, 16:21), the similarity of the salutation, address, blessing, and thanksgiving with other letters in the Pauline corpus, and various people appearing in Acts that are mentioned in the letter (e.g. Sosthenes [1 Cor. 1:1, Acts 18:17], Crispus [1 Cor. 1:14, Acts 18:8], Aquila and Priscilla [1 Cor. 16:19, Acts 18:2-3, Rom. 16:3]).11 Even the most critical modern scholarship has consistently accepted the letters as genuine, apart from 1 Corinthians 1:2b and 14:34b035, which some scholars have argued are non-Pauline interpolations.12

Acts 18:11 reports that Paul ministered in Corinth for a duration of eighteen months likely for the following three reasons: 1) Corinth was an ideal location to spread the word of the new religion because of the number of traders, travelers and tourists in the area, 2) the city provided Paul an opportunity for some measure of economic independence, and 3) immigration (slaves and free) resulted in a population more open to something new like the gospel and its offer of new attachments, since they had severed their local ties and were living anonymously in a big city.13 The authenticity of the letter is attested at the end of the first century by both Clement of Rome (1 Clement 47:1-3, 49) and also within the letters of Ignatius (To the Ephesians 16:1, 18:1; To the Romans 4:3, 5:1, 9:2; To the Philadelphians 3:3).14 Other evidence includes the Aramaic expression of Maranatha in the Didache that is found in 1 Cor. 16:22, Justin Martyr’s direct quotation of 1 Cor. 11:19 in his Dialogue with Trypho, and the inclusion of the letters in the Marcionite and Muratorian canon.15

Date, Provenance, & Occasion

Paul went to Corinth for the first time on his second missionary journey where he preached and taught until he left for Jerusalem in A.D. 51 (Acts 18:1-4,18-19,24-28). On the way to Jerusalem, Paul stopped and ministered in Ephesus until he received a negative report about the Corinthian church from Chloe’s household (Acts 20:31; 1 Cor. 1:11) about the divisions within the Church. He responded with a letter (1 Cor. 5:9). After latter receiving a Corinthian letter that displayed considerable theological confusions about various topics, Paul wrote First Corinthians at the end of his almost three-year ministry from the city of Ephesus. If Paul left Corinth in September 51 after a ministry of a little more than eighteen months, either two and a half years (if 1 Corinthians dates from Spring 54) or perhaps three and a half years (if the epistle derives from spring 55) constitutes the probable period of development, expansion, and time for the emergence of the problems which Paul addresses in the epistle.16

What was the occasion for the letter? The discord in the church, the Corinthian’s own inquiry for Paul (1 Cor. 7:1), the desire for a visit to the Corinthians from Apollos, and possible good news from Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus likely provoked the apostle to send the epistle.17 The correspondence was sent by Timothy with the exhortation to the Corinthians to receive him warmly and “send him on his way in peace” (1 Cor. 16:10-11). The letter and Timothy did not resolve the factionalism and issues within the Church which led Paul to visit the Corinthians again personally. The visit was painful for Paul and resulted in another letter written “out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears” (2 Cor. 2:4).18 Paul eventually left to return to Ephesus until he received a report from Titus (2 Cor. 2:6-7) which led the apostle to write the book deemed Second Corinthians. Though certainty is allusive at specific junctures concerning the exact setting of the four letters, proponents of this view surmise the following possible reconstruction:

  1. First Visit: Paul planted the church in Corinth in 50-52 (Acts 18).

  2. Paul wrote the previous letter (1 Cor. 5:9, 11; Corinthians A)

  3. Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus in 53/54 (1 Cor. 16:8; Corinthians B)

  4. Second visit: the “painful visit” (2 Cor. 2:1; see 12:14; 13:1-2)

  5. Paul wrote the “severe letter” (2 Cor. 2:4, 7:8; Corinthians C)

  6. Paul wrote 2 Corinthians from Macedonia in 54/55 (2 Cor. 7:5, 8:1, 9:2; Corinthians D)

  7. Third visit (Acts 20:2)19

Others have abandoned the quadruple-letter theory because it is believed to run aground at four points. Gordon Fee dismisses the hypothesis saying:

1) The very fact that there is so little agreement in the theories suggests that the various reconstructions are not as viable as their proponents would lead one to believe. 2) The alleged contradictions are invariably resolvable exegetically….3) Related to this, these theories miss a basic form of argumentation in the letter, the “A-B-A” pattern. In each case the first “A” section puts the matter into a larger, moral general theological perspective; the “B” section is an explanatory digression of some kinds, yet crucial to the argument as a whole; and the second “A” section is the very specific response to the matter at hand. 4) When one can make perfectly good sense of the document as it comes to us, such theories are as unnecessary as they are unprovable.20

Making sense of 2 Corinthians 10-13 in light of the reconstruction is exegetically difficult though not impossible.21

While the unity of the text has been questioned by various scholars in the past, the fragmentary nature of the letter is due largely to the fact that Paul’s letter responds point by point to issues raised by oral reports and a letter from Corinth.22 The possibility that Paul wrote the correspondence over a lengthy period in light of his responsibilities in Ephesus (Acts 19:8-10, 20:20-21, 34) and also as he gained new information would explain the changes in tone that occur within the epistle. Tonal and stylistic variations could also be explained by the use of a secretary that helped compose the letter (1 Cor. 16:21; Rom. 16:22; Col. 4:18; 2 Thess. 3:17).


First Corinthians appears to be both apologetic and corrective/didactic in purpose. Within the letter, the relationship between Paul and the Church is visibly deteriorating, but has not yet resulted in open hostility.23 Though more explicit in Second Corinthians, the apostle does defend his role against an anti-Pauline sentiment found among a few who are infecting the whole (1:12, 4:3, 6, 18-20, 9:3, 10:29-30, 14:37, 15:12).24 This likely arose because of the secular expectations placed upon Paul and others serving within the community. The root of the problem was the Corinthian addiction to the power, prestige, and pride represented in the Hellenistic rhetorical tradition, with its emphasis on the glory of human wisdom and attainment and its flamboyant lifestyle.25 Paul rebuked the Corinthians for “walking in a secular way” (1 Cor. 3:3) and failing to understand the role of the apostles (1 Cor. 4:1-3).26

Paul’s role as an apostle was to build up and strengthen the church. To that end, Paul writes to correct bad beliefs and behavior found within the body. The Corinthian congregation was being torn apart by quarreling (1 Cor. 1:11) and Paul wrote the lengthy letter to quell the disturbance so the Gospel would not be hindered (1 Cor. 5-6).27 Questions of factions (1:10-17, 3), true wisdom (2), the role of the apostles (4), church discipline (5), lawsuits among believers (6), marriage (7), cultural engagement (8-10), head coverings (11:1-16), the Lord’s Supper (11:17-34), spiritual gifts (12-14), and the resurrection (15) are all addressed with sufficient corrections made along the way. Many times the apostle quotes either slogans or sayings the Corinthians utilized so as to further elucidate and extend his arguments. Paul’s suffering and life are to be models for the congregation (1 Cor. 4:16, 11:1) because he is their “father” in the faith (1 Cor. 4:17). The partisan attachment to particular Christian teachers, the continuing adherence to particular cultural values, the hubris on the part of some utilizing their spiritual gifts in unedifying manner, the disagreements regarding sexual conduct, and the divergence over eschatological matters indicate that many of the problems were social in nature rather than theological (albeit the last is theological with social ramifications [see 7:26; 15:58]).28 Paul teaches the Corinthians how the Christian life affects daily decisions in various social settings.

One pragmatic purpose of the letter was the instructions for the believers in Corinth to collect funds to aid the needy saints in Jerusalem (1 Cor. 16:1-3). Paul’s role and duty on collecting funds for the suffering church is mentioned elsewhere within his writings (2 Cor. 8:13, 9:9, 12; Rom. 15:26). The need for the collection likely existed because of the large number of widows who had converted in Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-16) and the failure of the crops during a famine (Acts 11:27-30).29 The letter would likely be shared with various churches throughout the province of Achaia and thus garner more financial support for the Jerusalem church.


Paul’s categories of people within the church, listed in 1 Corinthians 12:13 as Jew, Greek, slave and free, reflect the make-up of the city, as do the various Jewish, Roman, and Greek names mentioned in the letters (e.g. Jews- Aquila, Pricilla, Crispus; Romans- Fortunatus, Quartus, Justus; Greeks- Stephanus, Achaicus, Erastus).30 The prevalence of pagan idolatry paints a portrait of a largely Gentile congregation (1 Cor. 6:10-11, 8:7, 12:2). There is however clear evidence of Jews and Gentile synagogue adherents among the Corinthian Christians evidenced by the following: 1) Paul refers to circumcised believers in Corinth (1 Cor. 7:18), 2) he may also allude to a mixed audience in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:22-24, 9:20-22), 3) he appeals to the mosaic law (1 Cor. 9:8-10, 14:34, 2 Cor. 3:4), 4) he quotes the Old Testament (2 Cor. 6:2, 9:9, 10:17) in such a way as to assume that his audience will know and reflect on the larger contexts of some of these quotations, and 5) his reference to the exodus generation in 1 Cor. 10:1-13 seems to assume that some of his audience will be conversant with specifically Jewish ways of interpreting and apply Scripture.31 Though some affluent congregants would undoubtedly exist within the church (1 Cor. 11:22), most members were likely not of high status within the culture of the city (1 Cor. 1:26-28, 7:21-23).


Blomberg, Craig. 1 Corinthians-From Biblical Text to Contemporary Life. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1994.

Carson, D. A., Douglas J. Moo, and Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1992.

Conzelmann, Hans. 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1975.

Elwell, Walter A., Robert W. Yarbrough. Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 2013.

Fee, Gordon. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1988.

Garland, David E.. 1 Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 2003.

Hawthorne, Gerald F., Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993.

Kistemaker, Simon J.. New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 1993.

Köstenberger, Andreas J., L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville, TN.: B & H Academic, 2009.

Lotz, John Paul. 1999. "The homonoia Coins of Asia Minor and Ephesians 1:21." Tyndale

Bulletin 50, no. 2: 173-188.

Thiselton, Anthony C.. The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2000.

Winter, Bruce W.. After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2001.

Witherington, Ben. Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1995.

1  R. Dykes Shaw, “Corinth” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Vol. II, George W. Bromiley. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1979), 710-711.

2  Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians: A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians. (Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1975), 11-12.

3  David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 2003), 1-2.

4  Donald Engels quoted in Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2000), 10.

5  Walter A. Elwell & Robert W. Yarbrough, Encountering the New Testament: A Historical and Theological Survey. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 2013), 271.

6  Conzelmann, 12.

7  S.J. Hafemann, “Letters to the Corinthians” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, Gerald F.Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 173.

8  Simon J. Kistemaker, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker, 1993), 5.

9  Bruce W. Winter, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 2001), 10.

10  John Paul Lotz, “"The homonoia Coins of Asia Minor and Ephesians 1:21." Tyndale

Bulletin 50, 1999: 184.

11  Kistemaker, 23.

12  Hafemann, 175.

13  Garland, 17-18.

14  Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles. The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament. (Nashville, TN.: B & H Academic, 2009), 464.

15  Kistemaker, 24.

16  Thiselton, 32.

17  Ibid., 32-33.

18  D.A. Carson, Douglas Moo, and Leon Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 266. Much of this reconstruction is owing to Carson, Moo, and Morris’ scholarship.

19  Ibid., 469.

20  Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1988), 15-16.

21  Carson, Moo, and Morris, 267. See also Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles, 473-476.

22  Köstenberger, Kellum, and Quarles, 465.

23  Fee, 8.

24  Ibid.

25  Hafemann, 165.

26  For more information, see Winter 40-43 who lists the remedial steps Paul took to counter this secular view of discipleship.

27  Elwell and Yarbrough, 273.

28  Ben Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1995), 74.

29  Fee, 810.

30  Hafemann, 173.

31  Witherington, 24-25.

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