Background study on the ancient city of Corinth is useful in understanding how Corinthian social conventions, living spaces, and cultic influences may have shaped Paul’s letters to the Corinthians.
Murphy-O’Connor has described how some of the Corinthian conflicts evidenced in Paul’s letters were probably aggravated by the size and layout of Corinthian houses. The space available to support house churches was small. The average atrium measured about 800 square feet and the average dining room was about 400 square feet. That meant a minority of church members would recline in the more comfortable dining room while the majority would have to sit in the more exposed atrium. The resultant provocations inherent in such necessities were amplified by the common practice of discriminating among guests in the serving of food by assigning some people choice selections of food and drink while giving others less desirable offerings. Taken together, such practices guaranteed a level of alienation that could beg supernatural help to overcome.
Probably the most important influence on Paul and his audience was the presence of pagan cults within Corinth. Mark Harding has identified seven areas in which the beliefs and practices of pagan cults may have influenced Paul’s thoughts and words— two areas of which seem likely to Harding, the remaining five being less so.
Harding’s likely connections are (1) meat offered to idols and (2) participation in temple banquets. In the latter regard, pagan cults in Corinth did engage in banquets involving table fellowship with pagan deities an implied in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Temples often featured banquet rooms for such purposes, although they could be used for other reasons.
In relation to meat offered to idols, Fee notes that not all meat sold in the marketplace was associated with pagan sacrifice— another point of agreement with Paul’s teachings. Such meat was, of course, forbidden to Jews, a taboo that naturally would have demanded application within the early church. That application would have been complicated by class distinctions which would have shaped temptations differently for upper and lower-class Christians, thus heightening the possibility of conflict.
Harding thinks the connection between pagan cults and Paul’s use of body imagery is less certain. He cites A.E. Hill’s suggestion that such imagery arises from Paul’s exposure to the Temple of Asclepius, where devotees placed replicas of human body parts as votive offerings in thanks for the healing of their particular maladies. Hill thinks Paul reacted to the resultant impression of dismemberment by asserting the unity of Christ’s body. Although such a view is attractive, Harding notes the votive offerings in question come from an earlier period of Corinth’s history and there is no evidence such offerings were still being made in Paul’s time.
A third, but still uncertain connection is Paul’s use of athletic imagery (e.g., 1 Cor 9:24-27) in relation to Corinth’s involvement in the Isthmian games held at the sanctuary of Poseidon at Isthmia, approximately seven miles east of Corinth. A particularly attractive suggestion is that Paul’s image of the "perishable crown" (1 Cor 9:25) may have had a concrete expression in the withered wreath of celery given to winners of the games.
A fourth connection is sacral manumission— an idea going back to A. Deissmann who argued Paul’s assertions, "You are not your own; you were bought with a price" (1 Cor 6:19–20) and "You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men" (1 Cor 7:23 ) relate to the Delphian practice of transacting a slave’s purchase of his or her freedom through the temple such that ownership of the slave was transferred from a human master to divine one. Although that too is an attractive parallel, a better explanation may be in reference to the way Romans understood the relationship between freedmen and former masters. When slaves became free, their former masters became patrons, taking care of them when they became sick, homeless, or needy. The freedman, of course, owed their former masters special allegiance in return.
A fifth connection is Paul’s excommunication of the immoral brother in 1 Cor 5:5 as a possible parallel to pagan incantations of execration presumably practiced among the pagan cults of Corinth. The idea of "giving a person over" to demons of darkness existed in the pagan world, so some see Paul’s words in v.5 as at least playing off that concept. Others, however, argue Paul saw the break in fellowship, not as a magical thing, but rather as an ecclesiological and eschatological event.
A sixth connection is Paul’s use of "mysteries" in relation to the "mysteries" of the mystery cults found in Corinth. Corinthian mystery cults were both native and imported. Imports came from such places as Asia and Egypt. Such cults were often church-like in welcoming slave and free, men and women. The mysteries they guarded removed fear of death, imparted salvific experiences and initiated participants into divine life. Although there are intriguing correspondences, the precise degree of similarity between early Christianity and mystery cults is much disputed. Their influence often seems more in terms of contrast than comparison. For example, in the mystery cults it was a profanity to reveal the secret knowledge maintained within the cult; but for early Christians, it was a moral failure to withhold the public knowledge of the gospel entrusted to the church.
A seventh connection between early Christianity and pagan cults in Corinth may have been that of "speaking in tongues." H. Wayne House is confident the problems of "glossolalia" in the Corinthian church had connections to ecstatic experiences within the Corinthian cult of Dionysius and to the tongues practiced at the shrine of Apollo in nearby Delphi. The prominence of women is such cults may also lay behind Pauline restrictions on females. Harding, however, has reservations, citing the limited data upon which such conclusions are based.
As could be expected from the preceding descriptions, there are varying degrees of certainty in associating particular aspects of Paul’s Corinthian letters to definite circumstances in the ancient city of Corinth. That uncertainty, however, is no cause for alarm. Although specific parallels may sometimes be doubtful, it is quite certain neither Paul nor his listeners escaped the historical contingencies of cultic, civic, and private life in ancient Corinth.
Banks, R. Paul’s Idea of Community. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980.
Barrett, C. K. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. New York: Harper & Row, 1968.
Broneer, Oscar. “Paul and the Pagan Cults at Isthmia.” Harvard Theological Review 44 (1971): 169-187.
Collins, Adela Yarbro. “The Function of ‘Excommunication’ in Paul.” Harvard Theological Review, no. 73 (1980): 251-63.
Conzelmann, Hans. 1 Corinthians. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.
Deissman, Gustav A. Paulus. Eine kultur und religionsgeschichtliche skizzw. 1 vol. n.p., 1911.
Fee, G. D. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987.
Harding, Mark. “Church and Gentile Cults at Corinth.” Grace Theological Journal 10, no. 2 (fall 1989): 203-224.
Hill, A. E. “The Temple of Asclepius: An Alternative Source for Paul’s Body Theology?Journal of Biblical Literature 99 (1980): 437-39.
House, H. Wayne. “Tongues and the Mystery Religions of Corinth.” Bibliotheca Sacra, no. 140 (April-June 1983): 134-148.
Lyall, F. Slaves, Citizens, Sons: Legal Metaphors in the Epistles. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984.
Murphy-O’Connor, Jerome. St. Paul’s Corinth. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002.
Roebuck, C. Corinth. vol. 14, The Asclepeum and Lerna. Princeton: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1951.
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, St. Paul’s Corinth (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2002), 179-184.
Mark Harding, “Church and Gentile Cults at Corinth,” Grace Theological Journal 10, no. 2 (fall 1989): 203-224.
C. Roebuck, Corinth, Vol. 14, The Asclepeum and Lerna (Princeton: The American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1951), 52.
Murphy-O’Connor, St. Paul’s Corinth, 164.
G. D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 481, n. 21.
A. E. Hill, “The Temple of Asclepius: An Alternative Source for Paul’s Body Theology?,” The Journal of Biblical Literature 99 (1980), 438.
 Harding gives credit to John Court, a post-graduate student at Macquarie University, for discovering the time period problem.
Oscar Broneer, “Paul and the Pagan Cults at Isthmia,” Harvard Theological Review 44 (1971): 186.
Gustav A. Deissman, Paulus. Eine kultur und religionsgeschichtliche skizzw, 1 vols. (n.p., 1911) in Mark Harding, “Church and Gentile Cults at Corinth,” Grace Theological Journal 10, no. 2 (fall 1989): 213.
F. Lyall, Slaves, Citizens, Sons: Legal Metaphors in the Epistles (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), 27-46.
Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 97.
Adela Yarbro Collins, “The Function of ‘Excommunication’ in Paul,” Harvard Theological Review, no. 73 (1980). Also see C. K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 126; and Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 208-13.
R. Banks, Paul’s Idea of Community (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1980), 20.
Harding, "Church and Gentile Cults at Corinth," 218-219.
H. Wayne House, “Tongues and the Mystery Religions of Corinth,” Bibliotheca Sacra, no. 140 (April-June 1983): 134-148.
Harding, "Church and Gentile Cults at Corinth," 220-221.