Whatever Happened in Corinth?

Did Paul believe that he had failed in his encounter with the philosophers in Athens (Acts 17:16-34), leading to a change of approach in Corinth (Acts 18:1-18)? The start of Paul's first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 2:1-5) is sometimes seen as supporting this change – and undermining the value of apologetics today. Peter May considers the matter.

There appears to be no evidence at all, either in The Acts of the Apostles or from Paul's letters, that Paul changed his approach to an unsophisticated, and indeed an unargued, presentation of the Gospel when he went to Corinth after his encounter with the philosophers of Athens. Why then did he say in his first letter to the Corinthians that in Corinth he avoided "lofty speech, wisdom and persuasive words"? And what did he mean when he said, "I was determined to know nothing among you, except Jesus Christ and him crucified"? What conclusions should we draw from this?

And what was he so frightened about, that he arrived in Corinth "in fear and much trembling"? This Paul had been hauled up before the authorities time and again. He had faced jealous mobs which drove him out of Antioch; he fled from Iconium to Lystra to avoid being stoned to death – only to be stoned when he got there! He was dragged out of that city half-dead. He sailed on to Macedonia where he received a sound beating before being thrown into a prison, which then collapsed in an earthquake. He was subsequently attacked by a rabble in Thessalonica, those "lewd fellows of a baser sort" (KJV), who pursued him to Berea, from whence he escaped to Athens (Acts 13:44-17:15).

Now he comes to Corinth and has an attack of the nerves? If he was going to have a nervous breakdown, surely he would have done that a long time ago! This story doesn't seem to add up. There must be more going on here than is apparent.

The 'Hermeneutic' Challenge

Trying to understand any ancient document throws up the immediate question as to what the words meant to the writer at that time and how he wanted them to be understood by his original readers. We have to try to understand them first in the context of those original 'horizons', before we can jump the centuries – and the cultures – and apply them within our own 'horizons'.

This passage of 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 throws up enough red alert lights to suggest there is something important going on here that is not immediately obvious to us, reading it some 2000 years later. So we have to do some digging!

Some have thought that the background situation at Corinth was the rise of Gnosticism, but it seems too early for that to have been the case. Others have thought the Corinthians were just a particularly divisive and contentious lot. Again, some have thought that the use of rhetoric in Corinth was the problem, while others have felt they were just arrogant and that Paul's eloquence did not measure up to their Graeco-Roman standards.

While Paul's statements in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 have led some to the mistaken idea that Paul changed his evangelistic strategy in Corinth, it soon becomes apparent that these same difficulties underlie much that Paul has written.

A Growing List

What was going on with the divisions which were reported by "Chloe's people", such that some say, "I follow Paul" or "I follow Apollos" and others "I follow Peter (Cephas)"? What was all the fuss about baptism, such that Paul was grateful he had only baptised a few individuals? And how did all this rivalry relate to his comment that he did not preach, "with words of eloquent wisdom" (1Corinthians 1:10-17)?

And how come "his speech was of no account" (2 Corinthians 10:10)? Why did he write, "Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge", when we know his preaching was effective and his word skills were highly impressive?

When gazing at the night sky, as your eyes adapt, more and more stars come into view. So it is here; the more you look, the greater is the complexity and the more you see.

Who then were the "debaters of this age", who are seen to be foolish in the light of Paul's preaching (1 Corinthians 1:20-21). And who are the wise, whom God "catches out in their craftiness", and whose thoughts are "futile" (1 Corinthians 3:19-20)?

Why was money such a 'touchy' issue? "The Lord has commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel. But I have not made use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision" (1 Corinthians 9:14-15). Why did Paul feel he should pay his way by making tents in Corinth (Acts 18:3, 1 Corinthians 4:12)?

And what was the recurring significance of "flattery" and "greed", which spills over into letters to other destinations. "We never came with words of flattery or a pretext of greed", he wrote to the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 2:5). Who on earth would have thought that he did come in that way?

He wrote to Rome about "those who cause divisions" who "serve their own appetites and by smooth talk and flattery deceive the hearts of the naive" (Romans 1:17-18).

Another thread is the accusation that Paul was physically weak. "God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong" (1 Corinthians 1:27). "I came to you in weakness" (1 Corinthians 2:3) and "They say ... his bodily presence is weak" (2 Corinthians 10:10). How come they thought he was weak? Given all he had endured, he doesn't exactly sound physically fragile!

And what are we to make of the implied social class distinctions: "Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish ... what is weak ... what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God" (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).

There is rather a lot about boasting: "If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness" (2 Corinthians 11:30). "Not that we dare to ... compare ourselves with some of those who are commending themselves ... we will not boast ... we do not boast ... 'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord' " (2 Corinthians 10:13-18). Who were "these super-apostles", who looked down upon Paul (2 Corinthians 11:5)?

So what started off as just five verses (1 Corinthians 2:1-5) which are difficult to interpret, now appears to be part of a major undercurrent with a dozen different features, having extensive repercussions for Paul's engagement with the Graeco-Roman world.

Sophist Oratory

Anthony Thiselton, in his magisterial commentary on 1 Corinthians, writes of "The explosion of recent work on rhetoric in the Graeco-Roman world and in Paul".[1] He accepts a growing consensus that a certain type of Roman oratory (known as the Second Sophistic) explains a very great deal. In fact, it appears to be the elephant in the room!

Chief protagonist in this is Dr Bruce Winter, formerly Warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge and Director of the Institute of Early Christianity in the Graeco-Roman World. His book, Philo and Paul among the Sophists sets out the case.[2] In the Preface, G.W. Bowersock, Professor of Ancient History at Princeton, writes:

Through his mastery of both New Testament scholarship and Roman history, Bruce Winter has succeeded in documenting, for the first time, the sophistic movement of the mid-first century.[3]

Drawing on the writings of Philo, a first century Jew in Alexandria (20 BC – AD 50), as well as the Greek writer Dio Chrysostom (AD 40-115), Roman historian Plutarch (AD 46-120) and others, Winter compares them with the observations of Paul at Corinth. This has enabled him to establish that the sophist orators were an active force in those two major Mediterranean cities, both centres of commerce and education, in the middle of the 1st century AD. Indeed, he describes the first four chapters of 1 Corinthians as a critique of the Second Sophistic movement.

The first sophists were philosophers at the height of the Greek civilisation, but education and philosophy fell into decline. Under the Roman Empire, the Greeks sought to recover their heritage and the glories of their past. This second sophistic movement was thought to have begun towards the end of the 1st century AD, from the time of Nero, surviving until the middle of the 3rd century AD. Winter has shown that this time-frame must now be extended earlier.

Two Schools

There were two main schools in the revival of sophist oratory. The more philosophical and traditional school (the Atticist) was based in Athens. However, it is the Asianic school, originating outside of Athens, which seems to have given the movement its bad reputation. Philostratus, a sophist writing in the 3rd century AD, described it as being "flowery, bombastic, full of startling metaphors, too metrical, too dependent on tricks of rhetoric, too emotional."[4] He called it "theatrical shamelessness".[5]

There are two kinds of rhetoric – the good and the bad! Aristotle defined three modes of persuasion: ethos (the credibility of the speaker), pathos (the emotional rapport of the audience) and logos (the clarity and argumentation of the address). In order to be persuasive, an argument needs to be sound (good logos), but the speaker needs be respected enough for people to listen to him (good ethos), while the audience needs to be inclined to hear what he is saying (good pathos)![6] There is nothing sub-Christian in any of that. These are proper rhetorical considerations for any speaker to reflect upon. Good rhetoric is all about good communication.

The problem comes when the speaker makes himself out to be something he is not (bad ethos), adopts an indifferent approach to truth (bad logos) and makes his primary appeal to the emotions (bad pathos), so that his performance becomes more important than his message.

Some people are very gifted communicators. Their voices and demeanour are attractive. They have what the Irish call the 'gift of the gab' and could sell a second-hand car to anyone! These sophist orators were so good they performed professionally. They were not philosophers so much as travelling exhibitionists, who went from city to city to entertain the people with their rhetorical skills. Paul, in contrast, "wants to let truth speak for itself, not to manipulate rhetoric to sway his audience by appeal to opinions".[7]

Paul wrote of his own ministry, (concerning ethos, logos and pathos): "We have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyman's conscience in the sight of God" (2 Corinthians 4:2). But that, it seems, is the opposite of what the sophist orators excelled in.

Roman Education

I recently heard a university Vice-Chancellor saying that he thinks every one of his students should be taught the art of public speaking. This is an essential skill, in his view, for all senior posts whether academic or commercial. Well, the Romans evidently agreed with him. Training in eloquence was an essential part of their further education, not just the rudiments of philosophy but appropriate rhetorical skills.

Every educated person of high rank in Roman society, whether senators, ambassadors, politicians, administrators, poets, magistrates, diplomats or soldiers were trained in rhetoric. This was a skill of the educated, upper classes in contrast with the Christians of whom "not many were wise by worldly standards, powerful or of noble birth" (1 Corinthians 1:26). In comparison, they were the "foolish things which shamed the wise ... the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are" (1 Corinthians 1:27-28).

What then were the features of this particular Asianic style of Sophist oratory?

The Asianic Sophists

These sophists were celebrity speakers who travelled from city to city. They always charged fees and made their living from their oratory. The best earned a fortune and some became major benefactors to the cities they visited. Paul, in contrast, was not a 'pedlar' of God's word but saw himself as commissioned by God (2 Corinthians 2:17).

There were established conventions surrounding the arrival of an orator. Their initial 'coming' to town was important and followed a set pattern. There was advance publicity, and venues such as amphitheatres or lecture halls were booked. There was a sense of expectation in the crowd, who looked to be entertained – and the orator's initial reception determined his future.

Orators were expected to begin with an introductory speech (an encomium) where they would say flattering things about the city and its people. They may also make generous gifts to the city. Depending on how well this was received, they could then speak on a wide range of topics, sometimes determined in advance but sometimes chosen by the audience at the time, giving the orator only a few minutes in which to gather his thoughts. He might be asked to describe an historic or fictional event, such as the death of a Greek hero. This would allow him to describe the scene dramatically, pulling on the heart-strings of the audience. He would look for loud applause and shouts of acclamation from the crowd, as he basked in his own glory.

"Dio states that they are as ineffectual as eunuchs. They love their reputation and so never say anything to offend their audience: thus they simply expound the views of their hearers", writes Winter.[8]

Their appearance was very important. Some were athletic and others were described as "gorgeous peacocks".[9] They appeared in elaborate and effeminate dress, with coiffured hair-dos. They might pluck their body hair[10] and wear expensive jewellery. Their affected manner extended to a sing-song voice, with "charming pronunciations" and rhythmic metres in their speech. They displayed expressive glances and theatrical gestures, stomping their feet and falling to their knees, then pausing for applause and shouts of approval.

Winter quotes Philostratus, who noted that when Alexander of Seleucia came to Athens his "perfect elegance" sent an appreciative murmur through the crowd. He was described as "godlike""for his beard was curly and of moderate length, his eyes large and melting, his nose well shaped, his teeth very white, his fingers long and slender and well-fitted to hold the reins of eloquence."[11]

Their rhetorical flow of words was everything – while truth counted for nothing. This was a style of entertainment, equivalent in its day to the music halls of the 19th century, or the pop stars and Strictly Come Dancing of today. The crowds knew what to expect – and they expected to be amused, emotionally moved and generally uplifted.

As for Paul resolving "to know nothing among them except Christ", he was clearly not prepared to speak about the Greek myths! Thiselton comments:

what we now know of the rhetorical background at Corinth, releases Paul of any hint of an uncharacteristic or obsessional anti-intellectualism, or any lack of imagination or communicative flexibility. His settled resolve was that he would do only what served the gospel ... regardless of people's expectations or seductive shortcuts to success, most of all the seduction of self-advertisement. Neither then nor now does the gospel rest on the magnetism of 'big personalities'.[12]

Each orator cultivated a following and there was great rivalry between performers, sometimes succumbing to physical violence between their supporters. Followers would imitate their heroes, mimicking their accents, their walks and their attire. This gives a context for understanding why Paul wrote, "I urge you then, be imitators of me" (1 Corinthians 4:16).

There was a long history of this rivalry. Dio reported that back in the days of Diogenes in 4th century BC:

one could hear crowds of wretched sophists around Poseidon's temple shouting and reviling one another, their disciples, as they were called, fighting one another, many reading aloud their stupid works, many poets reciting their poems while others applauded them ... and pedlars not a few, peddling whatever they happened to have.[13]

Paul's contemporary, Philo, the Alexandrian Jew, described the sophists as:

imposters, flatterers, inventors of cunning plausibilities, who know well how to cheat and mislead, but that only, and have no thought for honest truth.[14]

Speaking to a huge crowd in Alexandria, Greek philosopher Dio Chrysostom (c. AD 40-112) accused the orators of deception, "If in the guise of philosophers they do these things [declaim their speeches] with a view to their own profit and reputation and not to improve you, that is indeed shocking." They cared nothing about their audiences. Dio went on to compare them with visiting physicians, who instead of providing treatment bring only flowers and perfume![15]

An even earlier example of this style of oratory is described by the Roman historian Plutarch in relation to Cleopatra's Mark Anthony (83-30 BC). He "devoted himself to military training and to the study of public speaking, adopting what was known as the Asianic style. This type of oratory ... had much in common with Anthony's own mode of life, which was boastful, insolent, and full of empty bravado and misguided aspirations."[16]

This sense of bravado draws attention to Paul's comments about fear and trembling. Thiselton comments that this phrase contrasts with "the self-confident, self-promotion of the sophist's visit. Paul is precisely not a visiting orator come to entertain the crowds as an audience-pleasing performer."[17]

The importance of the arrival of the orator in a city is touched on by Paul distancing himself from such expectations: "But as for me, when I came to you, I did not come with lofty speech ...". Paul must have been a colossal disappointment to them!

Lampooning the Sophists

Lucian of Samosata, a 2nd century rhetorician, wrote a satire called Dialogues of the Dead. Lampooning the sophists, he describes the Olympian god Hermes welcoming the soul of a 'philosopher' on board his boat to Hades:

My goodness, what a bundle: quackery, ignorance, quarrelsomeness, vainglory, idle questioning, prickly arguments, intricate conceptions, humbug, and gammon and wishy-washy hair-splittings without end; and hullo! Why here's avarice and self-indulgence, and impudence! Luxury, effeminacy and peevishness! Yes, I see them all and you need not try to hide them. Away with falsehood and swagger and superciliousness; why the three-decker is not built that would hold you with all this luggage![18]

And that, it seems, is what Paul had to compete with at Corinth!

Re-reading the Text

So now review those words of 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, here in a translation offered by Anthony Thiselton:[19]

1. As for me, when I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come with high-sounding rhetoric or a display of cleverness in proclaiming to you the mystery of God.

2. For I did not resolve to know anything to speak among you except Jesus Christ and Christ crucified.

3. I came to you in weakness, with much fear and trembling.

4. My speech and my proclamation were not with enticing, clever words, but by transparent proof brought home powerfully by the Holy Spirit,

5. that your faith should not rest on human cleverness, but on God's power.

Winter says that these verses reveal "a distinct constellation of rhetorical terms and allusions."[20] They reflect the extraordinary cultural context in which Paul was working, and not merely some change of strategy on his part to avoid philosophical ideas.

Finally, with the curtain being drawn back on the sophist orators, we might now see some of Paul's statements to the Thessalonians in a new light. Paul wrote this during his time in Corinth around AD 51:

1:5 Our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction. You know what kind of men we proved to be among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord.

1:9 For they themselves report concerning the kind of reception we had among you ...

2:1-9 ... our coming to you was not in vain ... For our appeal does not spring from error or impurity or any attempt to deceive ... so we speak, not to please man but to please God ... For we never came with words of flattery, as you know, nor with a pretext for greed – God is witness. Nor did we seek glory from people, whether from you or from others, though we could have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her children ... ready to share, not the gospel of God only, but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labour and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.

In Conclusion

It has been suggested by many people over the years that Paul, disappointed by the reception he had at Athens, changed his approach when he moved on to Corinth.[21] In Athens, he seemed to argue from nature rather than scripture and quoted from Greek writers (Epimenides of Crete and Aratus of Cilicia) to address the pantheism of the Stoics and the idolatry of the Epicurean philosophers. So it has been assumed that it was this philosophic style of "eloquence and superior wisdom" which he now abandoned.

However, there is nothing in Luke's writing to suggest this. Rather the opposite. Paul's Athenian address is presented in detail as if it were a fine example of Paul engaging with cultured pagans. And it is, moreover, the only account he gave us!

Furthermore, there is nothing in Paul's writing to substantiate a different approach in Corinth. Instead, in a letter to the Corinthians, we get a very clear picture of his strategy:

We demolish arguments and every lofty idea raised up against the knowledge of God and we take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:4-5)

If he had a difficult time in Athens, he certainly had difficulties in Corinth. This is reflected in numerous clues in his letters, which have previously been difficult to understand.

I have listed at least a dozen such mysteries from the text of Paul's letters. Occam's razor encourages us to look for a single solution, and not a diversity of explanations, to solve a complex problem. We have such an explanation here. The oratory of the Asianic Sophists has now been shown to have been a major feature of Corinthian life at the time of Paul's visit. It has ample power to explain both the depths of Paul's difficulty and the scope of the wide-ranging details he has given us.

The idea that Paul changed his tactics in Corinth and abandoned cultural and persuasive arguments in his preaching must now be laid to rest. We have here an altogether more compelling account of what was going on.


[1] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC, Eerdmans, 2000, p.218.

[2] Bruce W. Winter, Philo and Paul among the Sophists, Eerdmans 2nd Ed., 2002.

[3] Ibid, Preface, p.ix.

[4] Philostratus, The Lives of the Sophists, trans. Wilmer C. Wright, Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1961, p.xix.

[5] Ibid, p.xx.

[6] Peter S. Williams, A Faithful Guide to Philosophy, Paternoster, 2013, p.7.

[7] Thiselton, op.cit. p.219, Thiselton's emphasis.

[8] Winter, op.cit., p.55.

[9] Dio Chrysostom, quoted by Winter, op.cit., p.54.

[10] Winter, ibid, p.114.

[11] Winter, ibid, p.114 footnote.

[12] Thiselton, op.cit., p.212.

[13] Dio Chrysostom, Discourse 8, Loeb Classical Library, 1932, para 9.

[14] Philo, Her. [Quis Rerum Divinarum Heres Sit] 302, quoted by Winter, op.cit., p.90.

[15] Dio Chrysostom, Discourse 32, Loeb Classical Library, 1940, para 10. See Winter, op.cit., p.50.

[16] Plutarch, Makers of Rome – Nine Lives, Guild Publishing, 1993, p.272.

[17] Thiselton, op.cit., p.213.

[18] Lucian of Samosata, Dialogues of the Dead X, trans. Fowler & Fowler, Clarendon Press, 1905.

[19] Thiselton, op.cit., p.204.

[20] Winter, op. cit., p.150.

[21] Sir William Ramsay, St Paul the Traveller, Hodder, 1895, p.252.

© 2013 Peter May

This resource is provided by the kind permission of Peter May.