Corinth was a cosmopolitan city situated in the narrowest part of Greece. It had harbours on both the east coast (Cenchrea, modern Kechries) and the west coast (Lechaion) [12 p.231–2], 4½ miles apart, and slaves pulled boats from one sea to the other on rollers. It was full of international traders and sailors, attracted by lucrative trade. It was also famous for prostitutes who offered opportunities of all kinds, to the extent that the city's name was used as slang for fornication.[1 p.2]
It appears from the letter that Paul had visited Corinth, as possibly had Apollos and Cephas. He then wrote a letter to the Corinthians which is now lost, and some travellers had passed between Corinth and Paul giving each news of the other.[2 p.23] He was not pleased at what he heard, and was prompted to write another letter which we now know as 1 Corinthians because it is the earliest of these letters that has survived.
It seems that nobody in the church in Corinth at this early date regulated the gatherings (11:33) nor took collections (16:2)[2 p.24]; it was a weakly led assembly of diverse people, with little Jewish influence.[1 p.3–4] The prevailing culture adopted the Greek view that spiritual things are eternal and important, but physical things are temporary and unimportant.[1 p.11] They valued spiritual ideas while accepting prostitution.
Commentators do not dispute that St Paul wrote this letter[2 p.10], though he may not have written it all at once since it is a long document and he was probably busy. If it was composed piecemeal, perhaps at Ephesus, some inconsistency is not surprising[2 p.15] as well as a haphazard structure.
Bishop Hugh Montefiore saw in 1 Corinthians allusions to Hebrews (which was possibly written by Apollos who became a colleague of Paul) implying that both Paul and the Corinthians had already seen Hebrews. Paul wanted to help them interpret it, while being careful not to criticize its author.[2 p.9–10] Paul had founded the Corinthian church, but they were arrogant and critical of his instructions (1 Corinthians 4:3). Apollos's eloquence, which Paul lacked, resonated with their Greek thinking about divine wisdom.[1 p.6,8] Paul's policy of earning his missionary living by tent-making, rather than relying on charity, made him seem an ordinary person who had no right to tell them what to do (1 Corinthians 9:3f).[1 p.9]
The letters to the Corinthians are the only ones where Paul makes rules for holy living, such as dressing modestly; elsewhere the Holy Spirit could lead the converts to use their freedom to grow into living that pleased God. These rules are not in the form of rules for all time, but rather Christian principles applied to their specific situation (as shown, for example, by 1 Corinthians 7:26).
The letter uses terminology untypical of Paul, which he probably adopted in reply to questions from Corinth[1 p.106]. The entire letter from 7:1 onwards appears to be Paul's response to a letter from Corinth, dealing with their questions in turn (7:1, 7:25, 8:1, 8:2, 12:1, 16:1, 16:12).
The chapter 1 Corinthians 8, responding to a question from Corinth, allows Christians to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols (as some meat had been, before it appeared in the shops, in those days[2 p.240]) provided their faith was strong enough to avoid them worshipping idols in so doing. This question and answer would not make sense if the exchange took place after James-the-Just's ruling of Acts 15:29. James was martyred in 61CE, so the events of Acts 15 must have taken place earlier, and 1 Corinthians must have been written earlier still. Barrett calculates that Paul arrived in Corinth about March 50CE and stayed until about September 51CE, moved to Ephesus (Acts 18:18), and wrote the epistle in late 53 or early 54CE[2 p.5]; Fee puts these events a year later[1 p.4]. Thus the letter was written twenty years after Jesus's death, resurrection and ascension at Jerusalem, when many eye-witnesses to those events were still alive. The lack of any comment about Jewish visitors trying to add customs such as circumcision to Christianity confirms an early date.[1 p.6] Fee reckons that 1 and 2 Thessalonians are still earlier, because their greetings sections are less adapted from the secular style to a Christian context.[1 p.28]
Themes appear and disappear unpredictably; therefore no one passage represents Paul's last word on a subject. In the background Paul is constantly trying to demonstrate authority over the Corinthian church.
© David Billin 2002–2021