… Part two examines biblical history and change forces in Corinth during the time of Apostle Paul’s ministry in this city. Part two of three.
Jan Paron / August 10, 2012
By looking at historical background in Scripture, one gains understanding and new insights of biblical text. Theologian, James D. G. Dunn applies this principle to 1 Cor and says that the “ancient text cannot be properly understood unless it is read against the background of its historical context and as part of a dialogue with the Corinthian church itself” (as cited in Adams & Horrell, 2004, p. 308-9). This essay gathers critical historical details about Corinthian social, political, economic, cultural and religious factors for later examination through the four forces of change (Van de Ven & Poole).
Biblical History of Corinth
Apostle Paul’s missionary work in Corinth around 51 AD proved fruitful. He reasoned in the synagogue every Sabbath, persuaded both Jews and Gentiles and established the “church of God which is at Corinth (Acts 18:4; 1 Cor 1:2 KJV). Paul first wrote to the Corinthians around 55 AD and again about a half-year later (Chronological Study Bible, 2008). Both instances, letters compiled in 1 and 2 Cor, present correction and guidance about matters of the church. When you analyze Corinth’s key historical aspects during Paul’s ministry, you capture a fuller picture behind horizontal and vertical reconciliatory disconnects; the very ones that fractured unity of the church around Christ. As you review social, political, economic, cultural and religious factors in Corinth, the flaws and imperfections of its populace emerge. Corinth’s societal norms and diverse urbanity, although ancient by custom, present a not too dissimilar portrait of modern-day social order and challenges.
Roman influenced various aspects of the city. Caesar ordered the rebuilding of Corinth in 44 BC. after its destruction in 146 BC. Rome then colonized Corinth with plebeians, freedman, freedwomen and veterans. Many of those whom Rome sent to the city were “disaffected and potentially volatile” people. Greeks also inhabited the city, living in its ruins (Witherington, 1994). Rome’s influence extended to Jewish inhabitants, too. Many Jews made their way to Corinth after Claudius “commanded all Jews to depart from Rome” (Acts 18:2). Roman further affected the city by specifying Corinthian architecture, language, law and government, religion and culture established the flavor of Corinth.
Corinth was an urban area, although the total land not expansive. Yet, the population density was high. MacMullen (1974), who wrote about social history of early Christians, estimated that the average population in Roman cities approached 200 people per acre. Within these densely populated areas, people clustered together neighborhoods by trades and crafts. Newcomers resided with other temporary residents from their country (as cited in Meeks, 1983). An example can be found in Priscilla and Aquila. The Ekklēsia that gathered with them, may well have been of the same or related crafts and trades (Meeks, 1983; Witherington, 1994).
The Corinthian personality showed characteristics of self promotion, public boasting, preening and false pride (addressed in both 1 and 2 Cor). An honor-shame culture fueled this self-promotional aspect; whereby, public reputation and loss played into self-preservation (Witherington, 2001).
Sophists played an influential role in rhetoric throughout Corinthian society. The sophist rhetorical style further promulgated self promotion. Biblical historian, Bruce Winter tells that in 100 AD, Corinthians considered training as essential for successful public speaking for young men going into political and professional arenas specializing in the art of persuasion. Paul addressed the Corinthian quarrels and jealousy (1 Cor 1:11; 3:3) referencing the Sophists (Winter, 2001).
The Roman Senate ruled Corinth because the city was in the district of Achaea. Corinth was the capital of the region, as opposed to Athens (Acts 18:12-17; Witherington, 1994). For the reason that Corinth was a Roman colony and subject to its rule, Corinth held to Roman law, trends and changes (Winter, 2001). For example, Roman law divided the populace with different privileges. Romans could hold citizenship or office, while Greeks could not (Witherington, 1994).
Corinth held a strategic geographical location, next to an isthmus that separated the Aegean Sea and Gulf of Corinth and connected to parts of Greece. Its prime location created a crossroad that supported east-west Mediterranean trading. The city experienced constant, high volume human traffic as a result. The land advantage facilitated trade; and because of this, the city became a center for manufacturing. People also flocked to Corinth for tourism and religious purposes. Many people visited while on pilgrimages to Aphrodite’s temple and other healing centers.
Severe grain shortage (1 Cor 7:26) caused a divide between rich and poor (Garland, 2003). Other dynamics furthered this division. The Corinthian economic system, along with other areas in the Mediterranean, depended on patronage. Most people faced limited access to goods during the ancient through classical periods of Rome. The wealthy elite held property, wealth and power. When one needed access to certain benefits, that person sought assistance from a patron. That benefit reflected a broad range of goods such as money, protection, credit, advancement, etc. (de Silva, 2000).
The Corinthian population consisted of Roman freedman, indigenous Greeks and Diaspora Jews. Corinthian Christians had long been inhabitants of Corinth before they became Christians. Although converted, many did not abandon culturally accepted practices and worldly behaviors from Roman culture (Winter, 2001). In this highly populated area they faced prideful natures, lustful and immoral behaviors, social standings and kinship relationships of which touched all aspects of society and daily life. To note, the Corinthian nature of prideful nature, in combination with a competitive spirit, let to it being the first Greek city with Roman gladiator arenas. This is not to mentions that Romans considered many sexual practices as acceptable. Not only did many prostitutes claim Aphrodite as their patroness, but Aphrodite’s temple itself had many sacred prostitutes. Further, immoral sexual activities were part of festivals, pagan rituals and dinner parties in temple precincts. (Witherington, 1994). Paul referenced these practices in 1 Cor 10:7-10.
Romans claimed multiple deities as patrons. They incorporated the Greek gods and goddesses with their own deities. These gods and goddesses heavily influenced the nature of the city. Religious pilgrims traveled to Corinth to the temple of Aphrodite (the goddess of love, beauty and fertility. The Romans even minted their coins with Aphrodite on them (Witherington, 1994).Rome also created a new imperial cult around 54 AD. (1 Cor 8:5 refers to gods on the earth) that included the reigning emperor and sometimes members of the imperial family. They celebrated the cult yearly in Corinth (Winter, 2001). In addition to the imperial cult, the Isthmian Games’ president hosted an annual dinner for those with Corinthian citizenship. There was a question among the weaker brothers (1 Cor 8:9) as to whether Christians should take up their citizen rights and eat in the idol temple (Winter, 2001).
Such was secular Rome’s influence that the church struggled with many internal conflicts. Numerous problems riddled the Corinthian church: divisions, carnality, judging and cheating each other, sexual immorality, arrogance, not forgiving each other, breaking marriage vows, false doctrines, idolatry, and more. Apostle Paul addressed a plethora of issues.
Internal problems among the Corinthian Christian community also existed. Paul related divisions based on favoritism over different leaders in 1 Cor 1:12. “What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ” (NIV). Additionally, Paul wrote 1 Cor based on oral reports from Chloe’s people (1:11) Stephanus, Fortunatus and Achaicus (16:17). He received a letter from the church with a series of questions, too. The Corinthian church experienced a myriad of problems upon Paul’s departure from the city.
History of Corinth: Summary
With this historical background I give you well-rounded information about ancient Corinth; but by no means an exhaustive study. Many authors researched Corinth and provide the reader with a wealth detail on the subject. To note, I found several quality analyses on Corinthian biblical history, and listed them in the essay’s reference. Read further! Though set in times past, the Corinthian church faced challenges that resonate with the 21st century church.
Four Forces of Change
This section continues discussion on biblical history in connection with forces of change in Corinth. While an initial overview of the forces of change, it provides a starting place of which to reflect.
Paul arrived to a city rebuilt according to Roman specifications. Corinth experienced population and building growth during Paul’s 18-month stay. The church grew as well. Paul evangelized, planted churches and trained other leaders. After Paul left Corinth, the faith community continued to expand. People of “the Way” met in house churches. However, outside secular influences and inside divisions threatened the stability and future of the church. One can view the latter as moving towards the termination stage if not addressed.
Paul wrote in response to questions posed to him and issues that surfaced. He addressed concerns methodically to move the Body forward and drive change. He taught and equipped other leaders to support the Christian community in biblical alignment with righteousness. Last, in the words of John Maxwell, Paul kept the “main thing the main thing” (2002, p. 1388).
The Corinthian faith community confronted a number of conflicts from both inside and outside parties that posed a challenge to their Christian lifestyle. Literally, more than one “party” from Roman society posed a threat from each of social, political, economic, cultural and religious events during that era. Roman religious (1 Cor 10:7-10; 12:2) and cultural practices (1 Cor 8:9) challenged Christian beliefs and raised issues for them as how to remain in the world, but not of it. The patronage system was an established economic and social means of obtaining favor for certain goods in Corinth (2 Cor 1:10-11). The fact that God is the believer’s patron, hearing petitions and giving favor, posed a change in mindset for Christians. Add to the fact that God freely gives gifts to every believer for edification of the Body (1 Cor 12:1-11). The gifts benefit the entire Body, as opposed to serving as a power base for patron brokerage. As Paul worked through the different issues associated with a former way of life, change occurs. With change comes a lifestyle of holiness for individual and the faith community.
A natural human response to action is reaction. As you examine the historical facts, a definite cause and effect relationship presents itself in each situation. Paul was not immune. His opponents criticized his authenticity as an apostle (2 Cor 10:7-11), belonging to Christ (10:7) and boasting of authority (10:8). In the face of false teachers and critics, he defended his authority as an apostle (2 Cor 10:1-11:33). My impression of the overall action/reaction events in Corinth is one of accumulated pressures that evolved into a pressure catch that exploded, like small storms that join into a weather larger front.
The human dynamics involving history and change work together. By looking at the past, one learns lessons from the enduring and authoritative qualities of God’s Word to His people. What historical and change forces exist today? How can we learn from the past?
The post is part two from a series of three. Part one introduced the forces of change, while part three delves deeper into the change models and proposes lessons learned from the Corinthian church for the contemporary American.
- What biblical events from Corinth and corresponding change forces are like modern-day society?
- How can we apply Paul’s messages to the current circumstances?
- In what ways does a person’s view “in front of text” influence the meaning of 1 & 2 Cor?
- Adams, E. & Horrell, D. (Eds.). (2004). Christianity at Corinth: The quest for the Pauline church. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox.
- Bailey, K. (2011). Paul through Mediterranean eyes: Cultural studies in 1 Corinthians. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic.
- Balch, D. & Osiek, C. (Eds.). (2003). Early Christian families in context: An interdisciplinary context. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, Co.
- Banks, R. (1995). Paul’s idea of community: The early house churches in their cultural setting. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
- Bernard, D. (2005). Understanding God’s Word. Hazelwood, MO: Word Aflame Press.
- Chronological study Bible. (2008). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
- deSilva, D. (2000). Honor, patronage, kinship and purity: Unlocking the New Testament culture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- Evans, J. (2011). 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians: Immersion Bible studies. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.
- Finger, R. (1993). Roman house churches for today. Grand Rapids, MI William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- Garland, D. (2003). 1 Corinthians: Baker exegetical commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics.
- Johnson, L. (2009). Among the Gentiles: Greco-Roman religion and Christianity. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Lea, T. & Black, D. (2003). The New Testament: Its background and message. Nashville, TN: Broadman Holman Publishers.
- Malina, B. (2001). The New Testament world: Insights from cultural anthropology. Third edition. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
- Maxwell, J. (2002). The Maxwell leadership Bible. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
- Meeks, W. The first urban Christians: The social world of the Apostle Paul. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Neyrey, J. (1990). Paul in other words: A cultural reading of his letters. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.
- Neyrey, J. & Stewart, E. (Eds.) (2008). The social world of the New Testament. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc.
- Sanders, E. (1977). Paul and Palestinian Judaism. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press.
- Search Out the Matter. (2011). The Corinthian church. Retrieved on August 8, 2012, from http://www.searchoutamatter.com/the-corinthian-church.html
- Van de Ven, A. & Poole, M. (1995). Explaining development and change in organizations. Academy of Management Review, 3 (20) 510-540.
- Van de Ven, A. & Poole, M. (Eds.). (2004). Handbook of organizational change and innovation. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Whitesel, B. (2010, April). The ‘fantastic four.’ Leadership. Retrieved on October, 2010 from http://churchexecutive.com/archives/understanding-the-four-forces-that-control-church-change.
- Winter, B. (2001). After Paul left Corinth: The influence of secular, ethics and social change. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
- Witherington, B. (1994). Conflict and community in Corinth: A socio-rhetorical commentary on 1 & 2 Corinthians. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing.
- Witherington, B. (2012). A week in the life of Corinth. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.