By the time Paul reached Corinth, in the autumn of ad 50, it had been a Roman colony for over a century. It had formerly been a Greek city with a proud history but had been destroyed by Mummius in 146 bc after conflict with Rome, and lay in ruins for 100 years. Its town plan was laid on the traditional Roman grid pattern in 44 bc after the decision of Julius Caesar to make it a Roman colony. It became the seat of the Roman governor of the province of Achaea and soon had a population larger than that of Athens. Although founded as a ‘soldier settlement’, supplemented with some freedmen coming from Italy, it quickly established itself as an important centre of culture and trade. Some of the wealthy families of Greece had been attracted to Corinth and settled in the desirable residential suburb on the slopes of the enormous 1,800 foot (545 m.) outcrop known as Acrocorinth. They were among its leading civic benefactors. Inscriptions give evidence of many among the class of the wise, the well-born, and the powerful. By the beginning of the Christian era the Isthmian games had resumed under its auspices. The ports which served the colony were Lechaion and Cenchrae. The archaeological remains of the latter indicate its prosperity not only as a port but also as a satellite city, and at the time when Paul wrote his letter to the Roman Christians there was a church in existence (Rom. 16:1).
It was a city of rich culture and its citizens, as in Athens, worshipped many gods. Among them, Aphrodite is the best known. When Corinth was a Greek city this goddess was associated with love and especially temple prostitution. She had been thoroughly rehabilitated in the Roman period. She was claimed to be the mother of the imperial family; hence her presence in Roman Corinth as a venerated figure associated, as she was elsewhere, with the imperial cult. It is a gross exaggeration to say that the Corinthians’ leanings towards immorality were a result of her patronage, and wrong to imply that the sexual sins of the Corinthian Christians could be explained because of her. Immorality, whether fornication, adultery or incest, was not confined to Corinth.
Paul founded the church circa ad 50, after his visit to Athens (Acts 18:1–7). It had its origins in the sermons Paul preached in the Jewish synagogue whose leader was among the early converts (Acts 18:8). Inevitably the church and synagogue clashed. The Jews attempted to institute criminal proceedings against the Christians. This failed when Gallio ruled that Christianity sat under the umbrella of Judaism (Acts 18:12–17), giving Christians the same favoured status as Jews. This was a decision with far-reaching consequences, especially for Christians who were Roman citizens with obligations to the imperial cult.
Paul underwent a period of discouragement in ministry which required the direct intervention of the Lord (Acts 18:9–11). After 18 months’ work—his second longest stay in any city—he left Corinth. The work was continued by Apollos (1 Cor. 3:6), an able Jewish orator from Alexandria and more recently from Ephesus where his ministry had been greatly enhanced by Aquila and Priscilla (Acts 18:24–28). They had been with Paul in Corinth from the founding of the church and followed the same profession as tent-makers (Acts 18:2–3). It would seem that Peter was also in Corinth (1 Cor. 1:12).
Before writing 1 Corinthians Paul appears to have written a letter about associating with immoral people which was misunderstood by the Corinthians (1 Cor. 5:9). He himself had by this time moved to Ephesus when some from the household of Chloe brought reports of dissention in the church (1 Cor. 1:11). Others also came, Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (1 Cor. 16:17), bearing a letter which the Corinthians had written seeking Paul’s ruling on a number of complex pastoral matters affecting the church—marriage, food offered to idols, spiritual gifts, the collection for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, and the request for the return of Apollos (1 Cor. 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12).
Verbal reports also disclosed problems of divisiveness, incest, civil litigation, immorality, women prophesying unveiled in church, abuse of the Lord’s supper, and the denial of the resurrection of the body (Chs. 1–4; 5; 6; 12; 15).
For a more detailed discussion of the Corinthian correspondence and a reconstruction of Paul’s several visits see the Introduction to 2 Corinthians. See also Reading the letters.
1 Corinthians is the longest pastoral document in the NT and gives important clues as to how difficult pastoral issues should be handled. It also provides crucial answers to critical problems which one way or another still haunt the church today.
D. Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians, BST (IVP, 1985).
D. A. Carson, Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12–14 (Baker Book House, 1987).
D. A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry: An Exposition of Passages from 1 Corinthians (IVP/UK/Baker Book House, 1993).
L. Morris, The First Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians, TNTC (IVP/UK/Eerdmans, 1985).
G. D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Eerdmans, 1987)
BST The Bible Speaks Today
TNTC Tyndale New Testament Commentary
NICNT The New International Commentary on the New Testament
Carson, D. A. (1994). New Bible commentary : 21st century edition. Rev. ed. of: The new Bible commentary. 3rd ed. / edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970. (4th ed.) (1 Co 1.1). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press.