Corinth, Greece in the Mid-1st Century
Corinth. Cicero called it "the light of all of Greece," but the Greek poet Crinagoras described its citizens as "scoundrels" (source, p. 512). So which is it? Was Corinth a city of beauty and inspiration or a den of hooligans? Only our apostle knows for sure.
Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ancient Corinth (But Were Afraid to Ask)
Corinth became part of the Roman Empire in 44 BCE. By the middle of the first century, it had become a manufacturing and commercial center and was actually quite cosmopolitan (by 1st-century standards, that is). Corinth was between two seaports, and its citizens exported lots of bronze and terra cotta items. Because this stuff was all the rage in ancient Rome, this made a lot of people very, very rich (source).
But the city attracted middle and lower income people, too. Artisans (like tentmakers, Aquila and Prisca) would have made a good living here. Even ex-slaves came to Corinth seeking a better life. And there was also a thriving Jewish community in town. It was quite the melting pot (source).
The come-and-go atmosphere of a town on a seaport actually made Corinth the perfect place for evangelizing. A disciple could set up shop in town without being seen as an outsider and slowly spread the word through the city. And with people constantly leaving and entering Corinth, it meant the gospel message could be spread far and wide. Really, without Twitter, it was the only option they had.
Paul's Travels in Corinth
Paul first makes his way to Corinth sometime between 50-51 CE. There, he meets Aquila and Prisca, fellow tentmakers, and sets up shop with them. They begin making tents… and winning converts to Christ (Acts 18:1-3).
His first stop is in the synagogue where he argues that Jesus is actually the Jewish messiah come to earth. He manages to convince some people, but, oddly enough, the majority of Jews are not persuaded to throw out their thousands-year-old religious practices just because Paul says it's a good idea (Acts 18:4-6). Go figure.
The naysayers get so mad that they actually drag him in front of a Roman tribunal. This whole scheme backfires, though, when the governor in Corinth, Galileo, gives one big ol' shoulder shrug about the trouble Paul has caused and then turns a blind eye as one of the synagogue officials is beaten (Acts 18:12-17). Whoa. Corinth was a tough town.
Like he always did, Paul won over some Gentiles, too. These folks would have previously worshiped either Greek, Egyptians, or Roman gods. When Paul comes along, they give that all up for a chance at a sweet, sweet life with Paul's one true God—Jesus Christ (source, p. 513).
All in all, Paul stays in Corinth for eighteen months before leaving for Ephesus with Prisca and Aquila (source, p. 514). Sometime between 51 CE and 54 CE, he writes a letter to the Corinthians (known in scholarly circles as "Letter A"). He advises the group "not to associate with sexually immoral persons" (1 Corinthians 5:9), but the folks in Corinth don't quite get what he means by this. Try including more lurid details next time, Paul.
1 Corinthians and Other Problems
Sometime between 54 CE and 55 CE, Paul gets a report that things are not going well back in good old Corinth. Apparently different missionaries—Apollos and Cephas—have come into town, and the people are divided about whom to follow. Both Timothy and Chloe bring Paul reports of very bad behavior among the Christians there. You naughty things! The Corinthians also write to Paul with loads and loads of questions. Can't an apostle get a break?
So, Paul puts 1 Corinthians (also known as "Letter B") down on paper sometime around 55 CE or 56 CE. He sends this little masterpiece along urging the church to get along and answering all kinds of super specific questions for Christian living (source, p. 515).
Problems solved? No, not quite.
Pain, Sweat, and Tears
Paul makes a second visit to Corinth around 56 CE. Things do not go well. Paul calls this "the painful visit" and, boy, he is not kidding (source, pp. 1093-94). The Corinthians argue with him and doubt his credentials as an apostle. They even refuse to discipline the Offending Brother. Paul is not pleased.
When he leaves, Paul does what he does best—he writes a letter (better known as "Letter C"). He says, "I wrote to you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears" (2 Corinthians 2:4). Are you happy now, Corinthians? Can someone please get Paul some tissues?
Everything's All Right
Titus carries this letter to Corinth while Paul hangs out in Troas. But Paul is too anxious to stay there evangelizing too long. He rushes to meet Titus in Macedonia the first chance he gets because he needs to hear how the Corinthians received his letter (source, p. 543). Are they still mad at him? Do they love another apostle more? Wow, someone is needy.
Huzzah! Titus has good news! The Corinthians have repented of their evil(ish) ways. They're super sorry for not listening to Paul (silly, Corinthians!) and they're ready to patch things up and punish the Offending Brother. Paul does a happy dance (note: we have no historical proof of that, but we're guessing it's probably true).
Paul is so psyched that, around 57 CE, he writes the first part of 2 Corinthians (also called "Letter D"). He congratulates the church on their repentance and their continued allegiance to their favorite apostle (Paul).
Since everything is all good now, Paul encourages the Corinthians to start a fund for Christians in Jerusalem. He's been running around the Roman Empire asking everyone to spare a little change, and he's looking forward to coming to Corinth to collect the dough himself soon. Paul knows they'll give generously (hint, hint).
A few months pass. Things have gotten bad. Real bad. Paul writes the second half of 2 Corinthians (let's call this "Letter E") and he is not happy one bit. In fact, he's down right mad. How dare the Corinthians be entertaining other apostles? How dare they question him? He made them who they are! He coulda been a contender (source, pp. 1093-94)!
Third Time's A Charm
Paul visits the church for a third time after this letter. We're guessing things must have gone pretty well, because while he was there, he had time to churn out a little theological masterpiece known as The Epistle to the Romans. Not something you do if your life's work is crumbling around you.
So everything is just swell in Corinth, right? Paul and the Corinthians probably wrote back and forth to each other many times, though only the words of 1 and 2 Corinthians survive today. We know that the Corinthians took up a ton of Paul's time, both in parchment spent and visits allowed. But why all the drama in Corinth?
Corinthian Long Division
The church in Corinth was made up of all kinds of different people. Paul would probably have recruited lots of middle and lower class Christians, but also a few really rich folks. The fact that he expected them to all worship and eat together was causing problems. In 1 Corinthians, the wealthier members of the community are a bit reluctant to share. The poor folks, who haven't got any bread, have to sit by and watch while their social better gorge themselves. Needless to say, Paul doesn't think this is very Christian of them.
The mix of religious background, too, would have caused divisions. Some of these new Christians would have been raised Jewish and understood Jesus in light of Jewish scripture and tradition. Some spent their whole life paying homage Greek or Roman gods and it might have been a little tough to get them to throw off their idol-worshiping ways.
Being Greek, the folks in Corinth were also influenced by Greek thinkers like Socrates and Aristotle. Their idea that the body and soul were two very separate things was definitely part of the Corinthians' culture. That might be why the Corinthians doubt the resurrection of the body (1 Corinthians 15) or fail to see what's wrong with having sex with random people. Bodies are just junk—the soul is the most important thing (source, pp. 1074-75).
Of course, for Paul, all this is absurd. He hates seeing any division among Christians and sums this all up with the statement: "In the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free" (1 Corinthians 12.13). In other words, it doesn't matter where you come from, it just matter where you are now. Awww.