I. Author The Pauline authorship of this letter has never been seriously questioned. External and internal evidence is strong in support of Paul as the author.
II. Date and Place
Paul was converted 33/34 AD
He planted the church in Corinth 48/49-51
The letter was written from Ephesus (cf. 16:5-9) in c. A.D. 56-57.
Paul wrote 1 Corinthians during his third missionary journey, near the end of his three-year ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19:21–22). Both Corinth and Ephesus were wealthy port cities steeped in pagan idolatry and philosophy. Corinth benefited both militarily and economically from its strategic location at one end of the isthmus that connected the southern Greek peninsula to the mainland.
A. Paul’s founding visit in Corinth is discussed in Acts 18 (approximately A.D. 50-52 on his second missionary journey).
Paul arrives here fleeing persecution in Thessalonica to the north, followed by a lukewarm reception in Athens. He spends a year and a half in Corinth in 50-51 CE, sharing his message and building a community of believers in Jesus Christ—a gospel radically opposed to the “gospel” of the imperial religion. He probably rents a room in a densely populated tenement complex, working with fellow Jew Aquila and his wife, Priscilla, in their shop making tents and awnings (Acts 18:1-3). As he interacts with customers and bystanders and synagogue contacts, Paul proclaims his message of the crucified and risen Messiah.
After several house churches are established, Paul sails to Ephesus with Priscilla and Aquila, but leaves them there while he sails east, visiting his home church of Antioch and the mother church in Jerusalem. On the way back west he checks up on the churches he had previously planted in Galatia and Phrygia (Acts 18:18-23).
During Paul’s absence in Ephesus, the Alexandrian Jew Apollos arrives in Ephesus and impresses everyone with his eloquence. After Priscilla and Aquila patch up the holes in his limited theology, they encourage Apollos to visit Corinth, and include a letter of recommendation (Acts 18:24-28). Apollos is a smash hit there as well, “publicly debating with the Jews” and “showing by the Scriptures that the Messiah is Jesus” (v28). While Apollos is in Corinth, Paul returns to Ephesus (Acts 19:1). By the time the letter we call 1 Corinthians was written, both Paul and Apollos appear to be working in Ephesus or the surrounding area (1 Corinthians 16:12).
Much was happening in the region of Corinth that Paul left behind. In his aptly named book After Paul Left Corinth, Bruce W. Winter details several events that took place between 51 and 54 CE. Each has consequences for Corinthian believers that will be noted in conjunction with particular parts of Paul’s letter.
- The Isthmian Games have returned to Isthmia, the isthmus adjacent to Corinth that joins the Peloponnesus (southern Greece) with the rest of Achaia (Greece).
- A serious famine and grain shortage recurs.
- Kosher meat is withdrawn from sale in the Corinth meat market.
- Corinth is chosen as the site for a new province-wide emperor cult
Much was happening in the house assemblies as well, and not all of the news Paul heard was good. Paul’s response to all this is the letter we call 1 Corinthians.
B. A couple of years later, while Paul was in Ephesus, he wrote what is called the “previous letter” (1 Cor. 5). Though the contents of this letter are unknown, it definitely dealt with the problem of sexual immorality in the church.
Paul’s words in 1 Cor. 5 suggest that the Corinthians misunderstood or rejected his counsel in this letter.
C. This leads to the writing of our (the canonical) 1 Corinthians. This epistle was occasioned by several events:
- Paul has heard from “Chloe’s people” (1:11) that a party spirit has developed in Corinth.
These revealed a church struggling with division, immorality, idolatry, and theological confusion. He wrote them this letter so that they would become a true dwelling place for God’s Spirit (3:12, 16), stay faithful to the gospel, and be “guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:8).
Paul confronts and attempts to correct the division within the Corinthian church and the errant beliefs that led to these problems. Key terms in the discussions are spiritual (pneumatikos), wisdom (sophia), knowledge (gnosis), and love (agape).
- Paul has also received a letter from the Corinthian church. Paul begins to respond to this letter in chapter 7. He takes up the items in their letter one by one, most of them introduced by the words “now concerning . . .” (7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12). Most likely, this letter from Corinth was written, at least in part, as a response to Paul’s “previous letter” and was brought to Paul by a delegation from Corinth (16:15-17).
3 Paul instructs the Corinthians to participate in the offering for the Jerusalem church (16:1-4)
IV. The City of Corinth
A. The city was strategically located as a sentry of the 4 ½ mile Isthmus of Corinth, and it was located on major land and sea travel routes. It was located at the foot of the 1,886 feet high AcroCorinth, and was the master of two harbors (Cenchreae leading to Asia and Lechaeum leading to Italy). B
B. From the beginning it was prosperous; but it became famous also for luxury and immorality. The city contained at least 26 sacred places, including one dedicated to Aphrodite that had 1,000 temple priestesses/prostitutes.
C. The population of the city has been estimated at approximately 500,000. Corinth was the New York, Los Angeles, or New Orleans of the ancient world.
D. In 27 BC it became the capital of the Roman province of Achaia, what is southern Greece today. The city was comprised of Jew and Greek, slave and free. It was proud of its Hellenic culture, international Isthmian games, philosophical schools, and esoteric mystery religions.
V The church at Corinth
By the time Paul writes 1 Corinthians there are probably several house assemblies in the city itself and several more in the larger region called the Corinthia. For instance, we know that several miles east, Phoebe leads an assembly at Corinth’s seaport of Cenchreae (Romans 16:1-2).
Furthermore, the detail with which Paul writes and the range of issues brought to his attention show us how deeply involved he was in the lives of these Corinthian believers. He feels free to scold them when it is necessary and gives lots of advice.
The two letters to the Corinthians in the New Testament refer to other (lost) letters Paul wrote to these churches, as well as visits made to Corinth by Paul himself and by his coworkers, Timothy and Titus. In 1 Corinthians 5:9, Paul refers to a previous letter in which he told them not to associate with sexually immoral persons. (A fragment of that may be found in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1.) But some Corinthians mistook Paul to mean that Jesus-followers should have nothing to do with the pagan world around them. So he clarifies that they should shun only those within the church who do not follow the moral practices of Jewish Scripture (1 Corinthians 5:10-13). Contemporary Christians are not the only people who misunderstand Paul!
The largest group is comprised of slaves, freed slaves, and lower-class freed persons who have joined this house fellowship because they live in the neighborhood, just north of East Theater Street. Some work in the weaving and dyeing collective in Chloe’s household. Some live in slave quarters next to her small factory and house. Former slaves and freed persons probably rent a tenement room in the neighborhood.
- Those who belong to Paul
- Those of Apollos, a Christian teacher from Alexandria, Egypt (Acts 18:24-28)
- Those of Cephas (Aramaic for Peter), one of Jesus’ original twelve
- Those of Christ alone—mostly women, mostly present or former slaves
Here is how we understand the character of these factions:
Those who belong to Paul: Chloe, (Phoebe), Fortunatus, Achaicus, Olympius, Trocmias. The Pauline faction is led by Chloe herself. She and her people care deeply about the unity and concord of the house church that originally met in her home, but they have run into seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The first four persons listed above were likely very close to Paul when he spent his initial eighteen months in Corinth. We can assume they were converted by him and absorbed the core of his teaching. They are inclined to support Paul’s viewpoint on crucial issues and want to be faithful to his teaching.
Fortunatus and Achaicus recently visited Paul and their presence “refreshed his spirit” (16:16). Paul trusts them and wants others to “give recognition” to them, that is, to respect their judgment and their modeling of the faith (16:17-18). Phoebe is a patron of Paul’s (Romans 16:2), but is not a regular part of Chloe’s people—she has her own house church in Cenchreae. Paul trusts Phoebe to interpret his message and to reconcile people to his ways, even though they can be upsetting. She may well be reading his letter to Chloe’s people.
Those who belong to Apollos: Erastus, Dionysia, Tertius, Valerius. Apollos, a teacher of the faith from the great intellectual center of Alexandria in Egypt, came to Corinth after Paul’s lengthy stay (Acts 18:24-28). Those in this faction are particularly impressed with his attractive appearance and eloquent speaking abilities and have attached themselves to him. Typically, these Apollonians hold positions in civic government, not top positions by any means, but definitely responsible ones. They enjoy a status above most of Chloe’s people, are more integrated into the imperial government, and have personal hopes of rising higher among the ranks of Corinthian civic leadership. They, unlike most in the house church, have some chance for upward mobility—something rare in the imperial system.
For the sake of public honor and prestige, these early believers like to do favors for the others—bringing special food to the agape meals, getting people jobs, hosting the meals in their larger apartments—in other words, bestowing patronage. They had wanted to do more for Paul when he was around, but he had resisted, which hurt their pride.
They believe Apollos affirms both their membership in the body of believers and the responsible positions they hold in Corinth. To them, “resurrection” is more a metaphor than a historical reality. They also contend that the modest influence they have with important people they know may be needed to protect the fledgling house churches from persecution. The emperor’s expulsion of the Jews from Rome a few years ago should be sufficient warning to be prepared.
Those who belong to Cephas: Deborah, Matthias, Enoch, Caulius. This group consists of Jews, like Deborah and Matthias, who were introduced to the gospel by the apostle Peter. As practicing Jews who observe Torah, the Mosaic Law, they respond to the thorough Jewishness of Peter’s presentation of the good news. To them Jesus is the New Moses and the Messiah heralded by the great prophet Isaiah. They study the Jewish Scriptures diligently, looking for the connections to the crucified and risen Christ. To them Paul sometimes seems overly interested in Gentiles, rather than his own Jewish people. Last year kosher meat was withdrawn from the Corinth meat market. What’s next? Is Corinth going to turn against the Jews the way Emperor Claudius did?
Those Belonging to Christ: Daphne, Alexandra, Euphemia, Dorcas, Gala. These women share in common their experience as present or former slaves. Some had been abandoned at birth to die, but were rescued and raised as slaves. Most once held special devotion to the goddesses Isis or Demeter, but found no release there from tie terrible psychic weight and material burden of their station in life as slave, ex-slave, prostitute, or victim of physical and emotional abuse.
But through their baptism into the body of Christ, they experience a life-transformation in the radical baptismal declaration: “in Christ there no longer is slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (Galatians 3:28). They feel part of a new creation, experiencing a rising from the dead in their very lives. They embrace the gifts of the Spirit in prophecy and tongues-speaking.
They also experience tension with Paul over the extent of their newfound freedom in Christ. They have not by any means given up on him; but they do believe Paul hasn’t yet fully understood the implications of being “in Christ.” He just needs another blinding flash from heaven, they believe, to complete his vision of what being in Christ means for gender relations. Dionysia and Deborah from other factions have similar feelings about Paul’s instructions on women’s behavior.
The Corinthian church, divided because of the arrogance of its more powerful members, should work together for the advancement of the gospel. They should repent of their rivalries, build up the faith of those who are weak, and witness effectively to unbelievers.
- The church is the dwelling place of God’s Spirit. Thus, the people who make up the church should work for unity by building each other up (1:10–4:21, especially 3:10–16; 14:12).
- Christians should build up the church in four practical ways:-they should be sensitive to those with fragile faith (8:1–9:18; 10:28, 33).
-they should win unbelievers to the faith (9:19–23; 10:27, 32–33).
-they should conduct worship services in such a way that unbelievers might come to faith (14:16, 23–25).
-their corporate worship should use spiritual gifts not out of personal pride, or for evaluating who has the better gift, but to build up the church (11:2–16; 12:12–30; 14:1–35).
- Sexual relations form a union between man and woman as deep as the union of the believer with Christ. Therefore sexual activity should be confined to marriage (5:1–13; 6:12–20; 7:5, 9, 36).
- Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are important. Yet both are less important than personal trust in the gospel and living in the way God commands (1:14–17; 10:1–5; 11:17–34; 15:29–34).
- The bodily resurrection of Jesus (and of his followers) from the dead is a key truth of the Christian faith (6:14; 15:1–58).
VI Organization of 1 Corinthians:
A. Paul responds to an oral report about factions and strife in Corinth—1:10-6:20
- Caesar’s empire vs. Jesus’ alternate, upside-down kingdom—1:10-3:4
- Unity between apostles Paul and Apollos—3:5-4:20
- Sexual misbehavior—5:1-13
- Lawsuits that go to public courts rather than to the church—6:1-8
- Visiting prostitutes—6:9-2
B. Paul answers questions from the Corinthians—7:1-11:1
- Marriage and Domestic Matters—7:1-40
o Should one marry?
o Should married people have sexual relations? Should a believer divorce an unbeliever?
o How important is circumcision?
o How can slaves live as Christ-believers?
o May we eat meat sacrificed to the gods and then sold in the market?
o Are we free to eat even if it offends others?
o May we eat in the home of an idolater?
o May we eat at public banquets?
C. Paul’s further concerns on issues the Corinthians don’t seem to “get”—11:2-15:58
- Conduct of worship—11:2-14:40
o What should we wear on our heads for worship?
o Why should we eat our suppers together?
o Which spiritual gifts are the most important?
o Should spiritual gifts be regulated during worship?
o Will there be a bodily resurrection? With what sort of body are the dead raised?
o How should it be taken up?
o When will Paul come for it?
o Should widows remarry?