What Was the City and Church of Corinth Like? — An Excerpt from Ralph Martin's "2 Corinthians (WBC)"
One of the disadvantages we have as 21st century Christians is how removed we are from the original context of Scripture. This disadvantage is compounded for preachers and teachers who are tasked with connecting that world and their problems to our world and our problems.
Ralph Martin expertly and diligently bridges that gap in his newly revised 2 Corinthians (Word Biblical Commentary). In his generous introduction he provides a birds-eye view of the historical context and conditions that drove Paul to write his letter, some of which we covered on Tuesday.
In our excerpt today we travel to the city itself and the church Paul planted there. Martin’s travelogue covers Corinth’s various facets, including commercial, political, and ecclesial.
Read and share it with colleagues to better understand why Martin calls Corinth “the ‘Vanity Fair’ of the Roman Empire.” Then add his important commentary to your library to better connect Corinth’s world to your peoples’ world.
First-century Corinth was the leading commercial center of southern Greece. Its favorable geographical situation contributed to this, for it was located on the isthmus connecting northern Greece with the Peloponnesus, and it boasted two harbors, Lechaeum to the west and Cenchreae to the east. It thus became an emporium for seaborne merchandise passing in either direction, and a considerable number of roads converged on it. Sailors were able to avoid the dangerous route around the Peloponnesus, and a more northerly trip across the Aegean Sea, away from storms, was made possible. Tribute to Corinth’s topographical position, which made unnecessary the voyage around Cape Malea, is given in Strabo: “To land their cargoes here was a welcome alternative to the voyage to Malea for merchants from both Italy and Asia.”
Like most seaports throughout history, Corinth took on an international reputation. Of this fact Cicero’s treatise De republica is cognizant: “Maritime cities also suggest a certain corruption and degeneration of morals; for they receive a mixture of strange languages and customs, and import foreign ways as well as foreign merchandise, so that none of their ancestral institutions can possibly remain unchanged.” There must have been considerable intermixing of races in its population, and this resulted in a variety of religious cults. Corinth’s chief shrine was the temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and life. In Corinth her cult appeared in a debased form, because of the admixture of certain oriental influences. This meant a low moral tone and sexual perversion in a possibly attested cult of sacred prostitution...
In such a place, by the grace of God and the ministry of his servant Paul, a church was formed. A large proportion of its members must have been drawn from the pagan world, with its heterogeneous standards of life and conduct. Yet they would be familiar with Jewish teaching as converts to the faith of the synagogue (Acts 18:4). Not surprisingly, issues of Christian morality and behavior dominate the first epistle to the Corinthians; and in 2 Cor 6:14–18 a strong warning is issued against association with unbelievers. “Also, the tendencies to factiousness and instability have a real psychological basis in both the blend and the clash of racial character to be found in such a cosmopolitan city."
A section of the church belonged to the Jewish colony, the so-called Dispersion, that was naturally represented in such a commercial center. Jewish exiles from Sicyon (to the northwest of Corinth) may have fled when their city was destroyed in 146 b.c. There were common trade links to draw them. Murphy-O’Connor remarks that after a.d. 67, when Vespasian sent six thousand young men to work on the Corinth canal, the nucleus of Jewish communities in Corinth would have been augmented. Jewish legal rights in such situations include the right to assembly, permission to send the temple tax to Jerusalem, and exemption from any civic activity that would violate their Sabbath observance. Smallwood suggests that by Paul’s time the Jewish presence at Corinth would be considered a politeuma, i.e., a corporation of resident aliens with permanent rights of domicile and empowered to manage its own affairs through self-appointed officials. Hence we read of a synagogue ruler (Acts 18:8, 17), and a debated inscription [SYN]AGŌGĒ HEBR[AIŌN], “Synagogue of the Hebrews,” may testify to the site of their meeting place.
Acts 18:1–11 tells us that the church was formed as a result of Paul’s preaching in the local synagogue. Nonetheless, it is probably correct to assume that the preponderance of the church members were Gentile, converted to Christ from a pagan milieu. These were called to be God’s people in the “Vanity Fair” of the Roman Empire. Murphy-O’Connor writes of Corinth in Paul’s day as “a wide-open boomtown,” comparing it with San Francisco of the gold rush days...
In the first century the city was heavily populated, and its place as a political and commercial center can be gauged from the Romans’ having made it, in 27 b.c., the capital city of the senatorial province of Achaia in southern Greece. Strabo gives the account of Caesar Augustus’s determination to create two kinds of Roman province in 27 b.c.: “provinces of Caesar,” or imperial provinces, and “provinces of the people,” or senatorial provinces, governed by a proconsul. Achaia fell into the latter category until a.d. 15, when “it was decided to relieve them [Achaia, Macedonia] of their proconsular government for the time being and transfer them to the emperor.” And while its reputation for moral corruption made the “Corinthian life” synonymous with luxury and licentiousness, its pretensions to philosophy and literary culture made the phrase “Corinthian words” a token of polished and cultivated speech; but this tribute is much later than Paul’s day.
In this great and busy center Paul spent a year and a half or more in the course of his second missionary journey (Acts 18:11, 18), having arrived in the city probably in the winter of a.d. 50/51.27 Paul found hospitality in the home of Aquila and Priscilla, a Jewish couple, eminent for their devotion, who had come from Rome following the decree of Claudius in a.d. 49. With them Paul carried on his trade of tent making.
Beginning his ministry in the synagogue, Paul was soon compelled by the opposition of the Jews to seek another place of meeting, which he found in the house of Justus, a converted proselyte. There he preached the gospel, encouraged by a vision from God. Divine blessing was manifest in the conversion of his hearers and in the establishment of a Christian community, despite the Jews’ attempt to invoke the civil power against him (Acts 18:4–18). The converts seem to have been drawn from the lower classes (1 Cor 1:26–29), but not exclusively so (cf. 1 Cor 4:10; 10:27; 11:17–34; 12:24–25). They were not free from the prevailing tendency to intellectual pride (cf. 1 Cor 1:18–20; 3:18, 19; 8:1). Added to this was a proneness to sensual sin, equally characteristic of their native city (1 Cor 5:1–11; 6:15–18; 11:21), though there is probably a theological reason for these symptoms.
Internal evidence from the first canonical letter suggests that several features marred the life of this church. There was a factious spirit that divided the church into rival groups and showed itself in bickering that drew them to civil courts to settle their disputes (chap. 6). This party rivalry destroyed the unity of Christ’s body (chap. 12) and was seen even at the Lord’s table meal (11:17–34). Also, the Corinthians boasted of their “knowledge” (8:1) and “freedom” (6:12; 8:9; 10:23). These two terms have suggested to some scholars that a species of Judeo-gnostic thought and practice had penetrated the church and influenced the thinking and conduct of some of the members. But arguing against this is R. McL. Wilson.33 Much turns on the precise definition of gnosticism, a slippery term.
Numerous signs of this “heretical theology in Corinth” (Schmithals’s expression) have been identified: the value placed on esoteric “knowledge” (γνῶσις); and “freedom” (ἐλευθερία, ἐλεύθερος) claimed and used in many ways. To these Corinthian catchwords must be added “spiritual” (πνευματικός), which is found fourteen times in 1 Corinthians as against four times in the other undisputed Pauline letters. Individual Corinthians evidently set themselves above the constraints of community order and control, and each church member became a law to himself or herself (1 Cor 8:9; 10:23; 14:32–40). Other signs were a denial of a future resurrection (chap. 15; cf. 2 Tim 2:18); a high value placed on sacramental efficacy as conferring “protection” (chap. 10), with a devaluating of ethical seriousness; an importance attached to demonstrations of the Spirit (τὰ πνευματικά; chap. 14); the setting up of a clique of Spirit-endowed persons (14:37); strange marriage practices (chap. 7; cf. 1 Tim 4:3); and possibly a disavowal of interest in the earthly Jesus, with a resulting concentration on the heavenly eon Christ (12:3), and a consequent passing over of the kerygma centered in the cross (1:18–19, 23). In 1 Cor 2:8 the christological title “Lord of glory” is probably borrowed from Paul’s Corinthian opponents and turned against them, as it is anchored in the cross, namely, by insisting that Jesus became Lord only by first submitting to humiliation and death...
When we turn to 2 Corinthians we find that the data available to us to attempt a description of the Corinthians’ “theology” are not the same. Whereas in 1 Corinthians the church leaders and members have written to consult Paul, and whereas he had received rumored reports (1 Cor 1:11; 11:18) of the problems there, in the Second Letter the sources of information are more indirect. We have to infer from the texts the nature of the debate between Paul and his congregation, some of whom at least seemed to be under the influence of intruding teachers, especially emissaries referred to in chaps. 10–13. Already in 2 Cor 2:17; 3:1–18; 4:2–6, in the canonical sequence of the letter, Paul is confronting those whose teaching is at odds with his version of the kerygma, and we will have to discuss the most likely reason for the way these texts set the ground of the debate. Part of the reason is personal: Paul is accused of vacillation and insincerity. But there is a theological difference between his message and the “gospel” brought to Corinth (11:4). Its “alien” character is in part christological (5:16), in part eschatological (5:1–10), in part related to the presence and power of “spirit” (πνεῦμα; 11:4) that conferred presumed authority on these teachers. At its heart was evidently an exegesis of the Old Testament and in particular an understanding of the role of Moses. The latter gave them an assurance that they were superior to Paul, who looked distinctly “inferior” by comparison (see 11:5, 6; 12:11). The point at issue has to do with rhetorical prowess and a commanding presence, two features that Paul’s ministry lacked. On the negative side, as Jervell and Holmberg have suggested, was the undeniable fact that, although Paul was known as a remarkable leader in the churches (12:12), he was a weak person physically (10:10) and could not heal himself (12:7; cf. Gal 4:13–14). The Corinthian adversaries may well have reasoned that he was no demonstration of God’s power since his claim to be an apostle and his experience of weakness contradicted each other. For them “a sick charismatic and wonderworker [would be] astonishing” as being a contradictio in adjecto, a contradiction in terms. They insinuated, there- fore, that he was no true apostle since they took as their criterion the picture of the itinerant “holy man” preacher, whose credentials were the possession of the spirit (πνεῦμα) and the right to claim the Corinthian province as their jurisdiction (10:13–18), evidently in the name of the Überapostel, the “super-apostles,” in Jerusalem (11:5; 12:11). The question is posed to the interpreter at this point: Can we identify, however tentatively, the type of “charismatic” ministry brought by these teachers that stands at odds with Paul’s self-conscious defense of his apostleship? In a later section we will try to set this question in a broader framework. Here we may pause to reflect on J. M. Robinson’s conclusion: “Paul was primarily confronted with a distorting transmission of traditions about Jesus as a glorious miracle worker, and he replied, with an ironic presentation of himself within that succession, to document the invalidity of such a scope for the traditions; and by repudiating such knowledge of Jesus.”
By Ralph Martin
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