This article discusses the background of 1 Corinthians

Source: The Banner of Truth, 1987. 4 pages.

An Introduction to 1 Corinthians

Authorship and Date🔗

Expatiating to any great extent on the authorship of 1 Corinthians would be a waste of time and space, since the evidence in support of the thesis that it was the apostle Paul who wrote this letter is overwhelming. Ignatius, who, according to the testimony of Eusebius, suffered martyr­dom in the tenth year of Trajan's reign, on his way to Rome and death wrote letters to several churches. Several times in these letters he alludes to passages found in 1 Corinthians

Clearer still is the evidence that can be culled from Clement of Rome's epistle to the church at Corinth and probably written during the last decade of the first century A.D. In reprimanding that church because of the schism that had arisen there, he states: 'Take up the epistle of the blessed Paul, the apostle. What did he first write to you at the beginning of his preaching? In truth by inspiration he wrote to you concerning himself and Cephas and Apollos, because even then you were given to faction' (quoted from chapter 47). Clement is clearly referring to 1 Corinthians 1:10-12, which, together with the epistle in which it is found, he ascribes to Paul.

Reference to 1 Corinthians, at least traces of that letter's use, also occur in the writings of Barnabas, Hermas, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Athenagoras, Irenaeus, and Tertullian. The Gnostics regarded it with special favour, and it is found in Marcion's Canon.

Moreover, if on the basis of the evidence 1we agree that it was Paul who composed that epistle, then the close resemblance in style and content of many passages that are common, or broadly common, to Romans and 1 Corinthians should suffice to convince anyone that he who composed Romans was also the author of 1 Corinthians. Compare:


1 Corinthians  




by God's will




a called apostle




saits by virtue of having been called




call on the name of the Lord                                                               




Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ      




I thank my God through Jesus Christ for you




In every respect you have been enriched in Him with full power of expression and adequate knowledge




as you eagerly look forward to the revelation of                                 


8:19, 23


through whom you were called



There are many additional parallels

The place where Paul wrote 1 Corinthians was Ephesus, as is clearly indicated in 16:8, 'But I will stay on at Ephesus until Pentecost'. This passage also helps us to determine the approximate time of the year when the letter was sent. It was probably dispatched 'before Pentecost', that is, in the early part of the year. 1 Corinthians 5:7, 8, with its reference to the (approaching?) Passover Festival, may also point in this direction.

As to the year itself, in my Commentary on Romans (pp 14, 15) it was made clear that the date for the composition of Romans must have been A.D. 57 or 58. It is also readily apparent that 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, in that chronological order, were written before Romans, for according to the situation as described in these Corinthian epistles the gathering of funds to help the Jerusalem poor is still in full swing (1 Corinthians 16:1 f; 2 Corinthians 8:1 f.), whereas in Romans the collection has entered its final stage; that is, the bounty is about to be delivered (Romans 15:25, 28). Therefore, the conjecture of L. Berkhof that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians toward the end of his Ephesian ministry, before Pentecost of A.D. 57; 2 Corinthians, in the summer of A.D. 57; and Romans, before Pentecost of A.D. 58, may well be correct. Other authors place the date a little earlier. What is certain is that 1 and 2 Corinthians preceded Romans

Corinth: The city🔗

The city of Corinth, meaning ornament, reminds us of currants, so named from being exported from that place. Very recently it was shaken by violent earth tremors. Earlier quakes occurred in 1858 and 1928. As a result not much is left of what was at one time the fourth largest city in the entire Roman Empire. Only Rome, Alexandria and Syrian Antioch had a larger population. It is estimated that in Paul's day there were about half a million people living in Corinth.

The scenery here is impressive; in fact, grandiose. Ancient Corinth was located at the southwestern extremity of the Isthmus of Corinth, and on the north side of the 1900 feet high Acrocorinthos. On this citadel stood the temple of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of sexual love and beauty, by the Romans identified with Venus.

At the foot of the citadel stood the temple of Melicertes (=Melkart), patron of all those who 'go down to the sea in ships' (Psalm 107:23).

As to the Corinthian Isthmus, when the apostle wrote his epistles this narrow strip of land was as important to the people of his day, connecting Northern Greece to The Peloponnese, as is the Isthmus of Panama and that of Suez to those living today. Moreover, it was the city of Corinth that presided over the Isthmian games, held in honour of Poseidon, god of the sea and of horses. By the Romans this god was identified with Neptune.

Today all that is left of ancient Corinth is the ruins of the market place and a few columns of one Doric temple dedicated to Apollo.

That which made Corinth especially important was the fact that, in conjunction with its two main harbours — Lechaeum on the west and Cenchreae on the east — it was one of the greatest commercial centres of the ancient world. All north to south traffic of Greece had to pass through Corinth, and to a great extent this was even true with respect to traffic coming from other directions.

Let us imagine that a ship, with its cargo having been loaded on at Nicopolis, or perhaps at one of Rome's harbours, was headed for Athens. For such a vessel to make the lengthy journey around Greece's southern peninsula and thus to reach Athens at last, would be too time consuming and therefore also too costly. Besides, rounding storm-tossed Cape Malea was so dangerous that current among the Greeks was this saying, 'Let him who plans to sail around Malea draw up his last will and testament'. So it was to Corinth that traders from all over the then known world, and speaking various languages (often in addition to Greek) would wend their way. Here they would stop a while, do business, etc. Corinth thus became a very important centre of trade and commerce.

Returning now to the ship's cargo, to which reference was made a moment ago as being destined for Athens: if the vessel on which it was being carried was very large, it was unloaded on the shore of the isthmus. Then this freight was loaded on to land-vehicles which brought it across the isthmus, from which point, by maritime means it was conveyed to Athens. On the other hand, if the vessel was small, then, cargo and all, it was dragged across the isthmus by means of a ship tramway equipped with wooden rails, after which by water the journey to Athens could be resumed and completed.

The question occurs, however, if the Corinthian Isthmus was such an obstacle to direct navigation, why did not the Romans construct a canal at its narrowest (about 3 ½ miles) point? The answer is that in the year A.D. 67 Emperor Nero actually tried to do that very thing. He used a golden shovel to start the digging, and imported a slave labour force of no less than six thousand prisoners from Judea. But even with the best instruments available at that time it was found to be impossible to cut down deeply enough into the rocky soil. So the work was left uncom­pleted. It continued in that state until the year 1882 when a French company made a new effort to construct a canal. Finally, in the year 1893 the canal was completed, not by the French company but by a Greek firm.

The history of Corinth is not one of uninterrupted peace and pros­perity. During the Hellenistic period, as head of the Achean League it revolted against Rome. As a result Lucius Mummius, in the year 146 B.C. destroyed the city and carried its population into captivity. For exactly a century, that is from 146 B.C. to 46 B.C., the city lay in ruins. Under Julius Caesar it was refounded a little to the Northeast. Its first settlers now, as usual in such cases, were Roman war veterans and freedmen. Soon afterward Corinth became the capital of the Roman province of Achaia.

Corinth was huge, famous, busy, cosmopolitan, and ... terribly wicked. The most tempting 'attraction' of ancient Corinth — really its most abominable 'curse' — was the temple of Aphrodite, where it is said that no less than a thousand female slave devotees were ready to cater to the lusts of depraved citizens and visitors. There were several other temples. It is not surprising that among seamen the proverb arose, 'To go to Corinth is not for everyone', and that a Greek synonym for surrendering oneself to a life of gross immorality was 'to Corinthianize' No wonder that in this very epistle Paul denounces this evil and warns against it in such strong terms (5:1, 9-11; 6:9, 13-20; 10:8).

Corinth: The Church🔗

In the Corinthian church the Gentiles predominated numerically (1 Corinthians 12:2; cf. Acts 18:6, 7). Though, as was his habit, Paul began his labours in Corinth by preaching in the synagogue, as a result of bitter opposition by the Jews he soon left their place of worship and used the house next door, owned by Titius Justus, a Gentile proselyte. Note the Latin character of the name Titius Justus. Other names associated with the church at Corinth and ending in us are Crispus (Acts 18.8); Fortunatus and Achaicus (1 Corinthians 16.17); and, in a paragraph in Romans, containing the names of Corinthians who are sending greetings to fellow-believers in Rome: Tertius, Gaius, Erastus, and Quartus (Romans 16:22, 23).2ality.Besides, it has already been pointed out that the original settlers of restored Corinth were Romans, and in view of the fact that relations between Paul and the Romans were generally cordial — see Acts 18:12-17 — for these several reasons the conclusion seems to be warranted that more than just a few of the members of the Corinthian church were indeed Romans.

It should, however, be borne in mind that Corinth was, after all, a Greek city. Greek teachers and their followers were constantly placing great stress on the importance of knowledge, (human) wisdom, liberty, the soul, as contrasted with what they considered its prison house, namely, the body. In view of all this, it is not surprising that the apostle, in this letter, places the emphasis where it really belongs, namely, on the following eternal truths:

  1. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up (8:1).
  2. Christ crucified ... the power of God and the wisdom of God (1:23, 24).
  3. 'All things are lawful', but not all things are helpful (10:23).
  4. But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep (15:20).

As has already been indicated, it was especially in reaction to those, whether Greeks or Romans, who had formerly given free rein to the baser desires of their evil nature, that the apostle again and again stresses the necessity of living lives of wholehearted consecration to God. The Corin­thians must rivet their attention on the atoning cross of Christ and the cleansing power of the Holy Spirit (1:17, 18; 2:2, 10-16; 6:19, 20).

That among the members of the Corinthian church there were also many, Jews is clear from Acts 18:1-4, 8; 1 Corinthians 1:12 ('I belong to Cephas'), 22-24; 9:20; 12:13. Some of these Jews failed to understand that the food restrictions of the Mosaic law were no longer in force (Mark 7:14-19; Acts 10:9-16; 11:1-18; Galatians 2:11-21; Colossians 2:14). Besides, how could anyone be sure that whatever was set before one had not been previously offered to idols?

Believers who had formerly been pagans were prone to look down with a degree of disgust on Jews who entertained such scruples. In 1 Corinthians 8:1-13; 10:14-33 Paul teaches that the church, and also believers individually, should treat with consideration and tenderness those who were unable to grasp the full significance of the cross of Christ for daily life.

'Be careful', he says, 'that the exercise of your liberty does not become a stumbling block to the weak'.1 Corinthians 8:9

Pagan festivities must be avoided (10:20).

It will have become clear that in a cultural as well as commercial centre such as Corinth believers were subjected to the influence of various contrasting philosophies. As a result factions arose. It should be stressed, however, that these divisions, though certainly unfavourable, were not so acute or incisive that they prevented the members of the church from 'coming together' in attending the worship services (11:18; 14:23). On the manner in which Paul handled this situation see the explanation of 1:10-17; 3:1-9.

Among all Paul's epistles there is none that covers such a wide variety of subjects and problems, stretching all the way from those relating to lawsuits, marriage and divorce, meats offered to idols, ministers' remuneration, propriety in worship, celebration of the Lord's Supper, speaking in tongues, belief in the resurrection of the body, to the exercise of Christian benevolence. Though, to be sure, the inspired teaching and exhortation found here is coloured by the historical circumstances pre­vailing when this letter was composed, the abiding underlying principles are as valuable and practical today as they were in the days of Paul and the Corinthians.


  1. ^ See Hendriksen on Romans, pp 4-7.
  2. ^  it will not do, however, to conclude that, in any specific case, a person whose name ends in -us, is necessarily a Roman. Erastus, Corinth's treasurer, was a Greek and has a Greek name. Lucius (Romans 16:21) was Paul's fellow-countryman; hence, a Jew. And was not Paul (Latin Paulus) himself also a Jew? On the other hand, a rather lengthy list of Latin names may well point in the direction of Roman nation

Add new comment

(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.
(If you're a human, don't change the following field)
Your first name.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.