Now that we have completed our study of Christian theology, we are returning to biblical studies with a study of Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. The Corinthian letters are among the most challenging books in the New Testament. But they also deal with many issues that are central to a proper understanding of the Christian faith. Thus they can help us with many important matters, both theoretical and practical.
If you look at a map of Achaia, which is modern-day Greece, you easily will be able to see why the city of Corinth became a prosperous and important city. The southern part of Greece is almost an island. It is joined to the Northern part by an isthmus only four miles wide. And Corinth sits right on that isthmus.
This location automatically made Corinth one of the greatest commercial centers of the ancient world. All of the north-south land traffic and trade had to go through Corinth by necessity. But in addition, much of the east-west sea trade came through the city by choice. The alternative route, around the Southern tip of Greece, was a dangerous one that many ship owners avoided. And so they would sail up to Corinth; and if the ship was small, they would drag it out of the water, set it on rollers, and actually rolled it across the isthmus to the other side, where they could put the ship back in the water. If the ship was too large for that, they would unload it on the one side and transport the cargo to the other side to be loaded onto another ship there. Therefore the city became both extremely prosperous and very wicked.
The city had a two-part history (Gordon Fee, The New International commentary: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, pp. 1-3). During the first part, it was a flourishing Greek city-state, including during the golden age of Athens in the 5th century BC. By the middle of the second century BC, Corinth was the leader of the Achaean League. However, that prominence brought them into conflict with Rome. And in 146 BC the Romans completely destroyed the city of Corinth, which ended the first part of its history.
About a hundred years later, in 46 or 44 BC (the date is disputed), Julius Caesar reestablished the city as a Roman colony, which began the second part of its history. The people who were settled there were freedmen from Rome. Their socioeconomic position was just a step above that of slaves. And Rome sometimes became overpopulated with such people. Therefore the Roman government relocated them to a colony in order to give them an opportunity for economic betterment in a new place.
The re-founded city began to prosper almost immediately. The Romans were dominant, but the historically Greek city quickly became a mixture of Greek and Roman religions and cultures. It appears that the Corinthian church mirrored the city. The members were Greek, Roman, Jewish, slave and free. However the Jewish element was not large. Therefore the overall picture that emerges from the New Testament is that it was a mostly Gentile community, with a majority of members coming from the lower classes of Corinthian society. And they brought with them the moral standards of their previous pagan lives, which became a huge problem for Paul.
Paul first came to Corinth in AD 50 during his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1-17). He stayed there 18 months, the longest time he spent anywhere on his journeys, with the exception of Ephesus, where he stayed over two years during the third journey.
Paul’s time in Corinth illustrates his missionary strategy. He took the gospel to important metropolitan centers, where his converts would have maximum influence. This was not simply because of their potential influence in the cities themselves, but also the opportunity they had to evangelize the surrounding areas.
One of the difficulties in interpreting Paul’s epistles is the fact that we do not have all of the correspondence. The Corinthian correspondence is a perfect example of that. In the New Testament we have two letters of Paul to the Corinthians. But the content of those two letters indicates that there were other letters passing back and forth and some visits.
This exchange of letters and visits took place while Paul was at Ephesus during his third missionary journey. Therefore it would have been about AD 54-57. Thus when the exchange began, a couple of years had passed since Paul had been in Corinth.
The sequence went something like this. First, there was an earlier letter that Paul had written to the Corinthians, which is lost. 1 Cor. 5:9 reads, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons—not at all meaning the immoral of this world.”
As you can see, in that earlier letter, Paul had told the Corinthians not to associate with immoral men. Now it appears that the Corinthians had interpreted him to mean “the immoral of this world,” that is, non-Christians. But in 1 Cor. 5:9, Paul explains that he had meant immoral Christians, rather than immoral men in general. The only way to avoid immoral men in general is to leave the world. At any rate the important thing for our purposes is the fact that Paul clearly had written an earlier letter to the Corinthians that was not preserved.
Then 1 Cor. 7:1 reads, “Now concerning the matters about which you wrote.” Here we see, second, that the Corinthians had written a letter to Paul that we do not have. In 1 Cor. 16:17, Paul mentions three men (Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus) who came to Paul from Corinth. It is likely that they carried that lost letter to Paul. Then, third, Paul wrote what we call 1 Corinthians.
Next, fourth, Paul made a visit to Corinth that he describes as painful. If you look at a map of the Aegean Sea area, you will see how easily Paul could have made a quick trip to Corinth from Ephesus. Ephesus is almost directly East of Corinth just across the Aegean. We see that in 2 Cor. 2:1. It reads, “So I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit.” Paul doesn’t explain what happened on that visit that made it painful. But obviously, the visit did not go well; and Paul felt that it was unpleasant and psychologically painful.
Then, fifth, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians and indicated that he planned a third visit to Corinth. But, sixth, Paul decided to write a “painful” letter instead. We see that in 2 Cor. 2:1-4, which read, “So I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice; for I am confident about all of you, that my joy would be the joy of all of you. For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” This letter is called “the painful letter,” because it was written “out of much distress and anguish of heart with many tears.” And like the first letter, the painful letter is lost.
Then, seventh, near the end of 2 Corinthians Paul mentions a third visit to Corinth. 2 Cor. 12:14a reads, “Here I am, ready to come to you this third time.” And 13:1a reads, “This is the third time I am coming to you.” This third visit would be the one Acts records as part of the third journey.
Now let me review these visits and letters for you, so that you will see the overall chronological sequence insofar as it can be discerned. Paul visited Corinth the first time on his second missionary journey, and remained there for 18 months in A.D. 50-52. During his third journey, while Paul was at Ephesus (about AD 54-57) he wrote to the Corinthians a letter that is lost. The Corinthians replied with a letter that also is lost. Then Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. After that, Paul made a second visit to Corinth, the so-called “painful visit,” which is not recorded in Acts. Then he wrote 2 Corinthians. Following 2 Corinthians Paul wrote a painful letter to the Corinthians that is now lost. Then he did finally make a third personal visit to Corinth during his third journey. Thus we see that Paul wrote four letters to the Corinthians, not just two.
Not all scholars agree with this reconstruction. Some are convinced that none of the letters are lost. They believe that we have all four letters in 1 and 2 Corinthians. They suggest a so-called “partition theory” that divides 1 and 2 Corinthians into four parts. That is, they theorize that during the process of collecting Paul’s letters, the four letters to Corinth somehow were compressed into two. They do not profess to know how this happened, but somehow the salutations and closings of a couple of the letters were dropped off when they were combined. The most favored partition theory is that 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1 is the early letter, and 2 Cor. 10-13 is the painful letter. But evangelical scholars reject the partition theories, because the evidence in their favor is not at all convincing.
Now then, there are two basic conflicts that lie behind the Corinthian letters. First there is a conflict within the Corinthian church between several groups or parties. And second, there is a conflict between the church and its founder, Paul. In these letters Paul is seeking to resolve both of these conflicts.
Gordon Fee offers three theological contributions of the Corinthian correspondence letters. First, he rightly suggests that the end-time forms a framework for Paul’s theological thinking. The second theological contribution of the Corinthian letters “is Paul’s insistence on radical obedience to Christ as the norm of Christian existence” (Fee, p. 17). The third theological contribution has to do with the church (Fee, pp. 18-19). Paul uses two powerful images of the church. First, he says that the Christians in Corinth are God’s temple (1 Cor, 3:16). This means that they are an alternative to the many pagan temples in the city.
The second great image of the church, according to 1 Corinthians, is that the church is the body of Christ (1 Cor. 10:17; 11:29; 12:12-26). This means that the church is a single unit. Each member is a part of the body of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore each person is equally valuable. In our next essay we will begin a study of 1 Corinthians, chapter one.