The ancient city of Corinth was situated on a narrow neck of land about four miles wide connecting the area to the south with the Greek mainland to the north. The city occupied a strategic location for trade. It opened to the Aegean Sea to the east and the Adriatic Sea to the west. The city grew rich from all the trade passing through it, and there also were all the sailors. There were a proliferation of “female companions” so the city was therefore closely associated with sexual behavior.
By the time the Apostle Paul visited the city, it had been occupied for centuries. It was destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C., and then rebuilt by Julius Caesar in 44 B.C. as a colony for retired veterans of the Roman legions. What this meant was that there were not many old resident families that were so typical in other Roman cities. This allowed the commercial sector to be more open to new ideas. Eventually Augustus made it the capital of Achaia (the southern half of the Greek peninsula). In many ways the ancient and cosmopolitan city of Corinth resembles a modern city. Upward social mobility was generated by large amounts of money, there were big sporting events, love of parties, the loosening of sexual limits, and a gradual trend toward secularization.
The Apostle Paul begins this letter in the usual custom of dictating it to a secretary (16:22) who is not named. This letter was not the first one written by Paul to the church in that city (5:9). That earlier letter set the tone for this follow-up letter from the Apostle. What this means is that 1 Corinthians is really the second letter by Paul to the Christians in Corinth.
The Apostle Paul was clearly worried about the church in Corinth. In this first chapter, after greeting them (vs. 1-3) he states his hope that they would “come short in no gift” and be found “blameless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (vs. 7, 8). In fact, he warns them: “let there be no divisions among you” (v.10). Some of the church members had affiliated with different groups. “Is Christ divided?” he asked (v. 13). Then he warned them that this would “make the cross of Christ of no effect” (v. 17).
The solution to their problem is presented as the central theme of the letter expressed in verse 18: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Michael W. Campbell, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Historical/Theological Studies
Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies