The Correspondence of the Apostle Paul with the Church in Corinth.

By Ernest D. Burton.

The University of Chicago.


The City of Corinth, its antiquity, its characteristics in New Testament times.—The work of the apostle Paul in Corinth as told in his letters', as told in Acts.—Letters and Messages between Paul and the Corinthians in his absence from Corinth.—Occasion of 1 Cor.—Analysis of 1 Cor.—Apparent references to 1 Cor. in 2 Cor.—Change of situation in the interval between 1 Cor. and 2 Cor.—Summary of events in this interval.—Occasion of 2 Cor.—Analysis of 2 Cor.


History has left us no record of the first settlement made on the site of what in classical and New Testament times was known as Corinth. It was in the nature of the case that a city should very early be founded on the isthmus that joined the Peloponnesus to Attica and separated the Corinthian and Saronic Gulfs, and on that isthmus there could hardly be a more attractive spot for a city than at the foot of that remarkable rock citadel, afterward known as the Acrocorinthus, rising 2000 feet above the surrounding region.

But the Corinth with which the reader of the New Testament has to do is not the Corinth of pre-historic or even of classical antiquity, but one which was in New Testament times a comparatively modern city. The Corinth of the Achaean League, of Thucydides and Xenophon, was destroyed by the Romans under Mummius in 146 B. C. A century, later, in 46 B. C., Julius Caesar rebuilt and repopulated it. It grew rapidly, and another century later—it was almost exactly one hundred years later when Paul first visited it—it had perhaps 100,000 inhabitants. Its population was heterogeneous, including, almost as a matter of course in that day, many Jews. It was a wealthy, and a highly cultivated city, though possibly both in wealth and cultivation inferior to the Corinth which Mummius destroyed. It was so infamous for its vice that a word meaning to practice licentiousness was coined from the name of the city. Today the only significant remnants of its former splendor are seven Doric columns, which once formed part of a temple. The modern city of Corinth is four miles distant on the Bay of Corinth.

The epistles of Paul, even apart from the book of Acts, yield us considerable information concerning Paul's first visit to Corinth. A comparison of Phil. 4:15; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2:2; 3:1,6; and 2 Cor. 11:9 enables us both to reproduce the itinerary of Paul's first journey through Macedonia and Achaia, and to recover a number of other important facts concerning it. We see that Paul visited Philippi, Thessalonica, Athens, and Corinth; that being left alone at Athens while Timothy (probably Silas also) returned to Macedonia he was afterwards rejoined at Corinth by these helpers of his, Timothy coming from Thessalonica, and he or some one else—it seems probable that it was Silas (1 Thess. 1:1)—bringing him a gift of money from Philippi. With what anxiety Paul awaited the return of Timothy and with what emotions he received the news from his converts in Thessalonica, we have already seen in his letter to them written at this time (1 Thess.). But must there not have been also a letter to the Philippians at this time thanking them for their gift? If so it must be counted among the many treasures now lost to us. But the two letters to Corinth which we have furnish us no little information concerning Paul's work in that city. That he was the founder of the church, he says plainly in 1 Cor. 3:6, io and 9:1, 2. That with fear and trembling he preached in Corinth the gospel of a crucified Saviour with unadorned simplicity and without attempt to commend it by giving it the appearance of a philosophy, he declares 1 Cor. 2:1-5; cf. also 3: I, 2. He baptized but few of his Corinthian converts, not regarding this as a part of his special work (1 Cor. 1:14-17). He was supported while in Corinth, not by his converts there, but in part at least by the gifts sent to him from Philippi (Phil. 4:15; 2 Cor. 11:9).

All this we learn from the existing letters of Paul. The book of Acts tells in part the same facts, and adds some others of interest. Thus we learn that Paul labored with his own hands to support himself, that he began his work in the Jewish synagogue, but was constrained at length to turn from the Jews to the Gentiles, that he remained in the city eighteen months, and that before he left he was at the instance of the Jews brought before the proconsul Gallio, who, however, dismissed the case as having nothing in it demanding his attention. See Acts 18: 1-17.

There are several indications that a considerable interval elapsed between Paul's first ministry in Corinth and the writing of the letter which we call First Corinthians. Yet this interval was by no means one of neglect of the church by the apostle or of the suspense of communication between him and them. The letter which we commonly call Second Corinthians refers to the visit which the apostle is then about to make to Corinth as the third (2 Cor. 12:14; 13:1). This implies that one visit had already been made since the founding of the church. Most scholars have judged it impossible to find place for this second visit between our two letters, and hence have held that it must have taken place before First Corinthians was written. First Corinthians refers also to a previous letter of the apostle to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 5: 9). This letter is now lost. It probably followed the visit referred to above, since otherwise the visit would have furnished ample opportunity to correct the misunderstanding of its meaning. Still later members of the household of Chloe brought the apostle news of the state of affairs at Corinth (1 Cor. 1:11). Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus also visited him (1 Cor. 16: 17), and they or others brought a letter from the members of the church (7:1) to the apostle. The letter which we have from the apostle was written from Ephesus (1 Cor. 16:19; 16:8,) but the apostle was expecting before long to leave there. The residence in Ephesus thus referred to must certainly be that recorded in Acts chap. 19, and as that lasted between two and three years (Acts 19:8, 10; 20:31), and was preceded by journeys from Corinth to Jerusalem and Antioch, and thence across Asia Minor (Acts 18: 18-19:1), the letter must have been written about three years after Paul left Corinth.

During all this time the apostle had undoubtedly borne the Corinthian Christians upon his heart, and as we have seen had several times had communication with them, in person, or by messenger, or by letter from them or to them. Just now there were several matters which urgently called for attention from him. The members of the household of Chloe had brought him news of the existence in the church of four parties. These parties called themselves by the names of Paul, of Apollos, of Peter, and of Christ, though there is no indication that any one of the three Christian preachers whose names were thus converted into party-cries approved of this use of their names. The Apollos party seems to have been made up of those who were captivated with the preaching of Apollos. Paul had studiously abstained from catering to the Corinthian love of philosophy, and had set forth the simple, to many repulsive, doctrine of a crucified Christ. Apollos coming after Paul (1 Cor. 3:6) had preached, it would seem, substantially the same doctrine, but had adopted a different method of presentation. Perhaps quite as much because of the cast of his own mind, as from a desire to win the attention or admiration of the Corinthians, he had translated the gospel into the terms of philosophy. Such preaching always attracts a certain class of minds-those who have, or fancy they have, a natural taste for philosophical methods of statement. It attracted some of the Corinthians, and this gave rise to the Apollos—party. The Paul-party was probably composed simply of those who stood by the apostle, the founder of the church and its first pastor. Of the Peter-party we have no definite information. The Christ-party we shall have occasion to speak of in connection with Second Corinthians. The references to it in First Corinthians would scarcely enable us to determine its character at all.

But other evils existed also in the church of the Corinthians. The vices of Corinth as well as its philosophy affected the life of the Christian community. One conspicuous case of immorality, surpassing in grossness even that which prevailed among the heathen, called for prompt attention and stern rebuke (1 Cor. chap. 5). The spirit of litigiousness prevailed too among the brethren, leading them to carry their quarrels into the courts of law, where they must of course be tried before heathen tribunals, to the disgrace of the new religion (6:1-11). Nor was the sinfulness of unchastity quite clearly recognized among the new converts. The apostle's own teaching that all things are lawful had apparently been turned into an excuse for sin, and he is compelled to interpret it, and to insist upon those other complementary truths which save it from becoming a principle of immorality (6:12-20).

In the letter which the Corinthians had written to the apostle they had asked him questions concerning marriage (chap. 7). Probably also the matters discussed in chaps. 8-14, things sacrificed to idols, the customs of public worship, spiritual gifts, were suggested to him by their letter. From some source unknown to us the apostle had still further learned that some among the Corinthians were affected with the Sadducean tendency and denied the resurrection of the dead.

It is evident that these various matters furnish ample occasion for this letter of the apostle; and in the light of the situation thus depicted, it becomes intensely interesting even at this day so long after it was written. In the following analysis the ten topics which the letter discussed are grouped according to what seems to be the source of the apostle's information, but are for convenience numbered consecutively in one series:



  1. Concerning the factions in the church.   1:10-4:21.
    a. The situation stated.   1:10-17.
    b. Justification of the simplicity of his preaching among them.   1:18-3:4.
    c. Explanation of the relation between himself and Apollos, and of the relation of both to the gospel work.   3:5-17.
    d. How in view of these facts the Corinthians ought to act.   3:18-4:13.
    e. Concluding appeal and warning.   4:14-21.
  2. The case of incest.   chap. 5.
  3. Lawsuits between members of the church.   6:1-11.
  4. Fornication.   6:12-20.
  5. Concerning marriage.   chap. 7.
  6. Concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols.   8:1-11:1.
    a. General principles: such eating is lawful, but is not in accordance with love.   chap. 8.
    b. Appeal to his own example in waiving his rights.   chap. 9.
    c. Warning, derived from the Old Testament, against pride and self-conceit.   10:1-13.
    d. Argument from the communion table.   10:14-22.
    e. Conclusion: recognize Christian liberty, but let Christian love be supreme.   10:23-11:1.
  7. Concerning women praying and prophesying unveiled.   11:2-16.
  8. Concerning disorder in connection with the Lord's Supper.   11:17-34.
  9. Concerning spiritual gifts.   chaps. 12-14.
    a. The diversity of gifts.   chap. 12.
    b. Love greater than all gifts.   chap. 13.
    c. Prophecy better than the gift of tongues.   14:1-25.
    d. Concerning the exercise of gifts in their assemblies.   14:26-36.
    e. Conclusion.   14:37-40.
  10. Concerning the resurrection.   chap. 15.


Our First Corinthians is not a letter which could be the last word of the correspondence between the apostle and the Corinthian church. It called for an answer of some sort. That answer would naturally be awaited by the apostle with no little anxiety. Our Second Corinthians tells of the great anxiety which he had had after writing a certain letter (2 Cor. 7:8), and especially of the suspense with which he had awaited news from Corinth (2 Cor. 2:12, 13; 7:5), and the great joy with which he had at length received good news (7:6 ff.). It is natural to infer at once that the letter which for a time he regretted having written was our First Corinthians, and that our Second Corinthians is the next in the series, expressing his joy on the receipt of welcome tidings from Corinth. This seems all the more probable if we recall that First Corinthians was written at Ephesus when the apostle was expecting before long to leave there (1 Cor. 16:8) for Macedonia and Corinth (16:5), and then observe that when he writes Second Corinthians he has arrived in Macedonia (2 Cor. 7:5), having come thither via Troas, evidently from some point further south, and is on his way to Corinth (2 Cor. 14:12; 13:1). The journey which in Second Corinthians is in progress is precisely the one which in First Corinthians was contemplated.

But there are other facts about Second Corinthians which suggest that there has been more intervening history than this simple explanation of the relation between the letters would imply. Thus the first letter speaks of Timothy as about to come to Corinth, though his arrival there is not regarded as quite certain (1 Cor. 4: 17; 16:10). When the second letter is written, Timothy is with the apostle again (2 Cor. 1:1), but there is no reference to any news brought by him: either he has not been in Corinth or the situation has so changed as not to call for any reference to him. Titus, who is not mentioned at all in the first letter, has just made a visit to Corinth, and the apostle has been anxiously waiting his return (2 Cor. 2:12, 13; 7:5). The references to the letter of the apostle to which Titus was apparently to bring an answer do not, on second consideration, seem perfectly to fit our First Corinthians. The letter to which Second Corinthians refers seems to have been severe against the church as such (2 Cor. 2:1-4; 7:8-11). But this can hardly be said of the first letter. Especially does it seem difficult to suppose that what the apostle says in this second letter about the individual offender applied to the offender spoken of in the first letter (1 Cor. chap. 5). Second Corinthians speaks of one who had evidently committed some offense against the apostle personally, and against the church only in the fact of the offense against the apostle (2 Cor. 2:5-11; 7:11 12). But the offense of the wrong-doer spoken of in the first letter, could scarcely by any straining of language be thus described. His sin was against an individual, against the church, and against God, but only in a very indirect sense against the apostle.

It must be observed also that the situation in respect to the parties has greatly changed in the interval between the two letters that we now have. In the first letter we read of four parties, though the apostle has little to say directly concerning any but the Apollos-party and the one which bore his own name. But in the second letter there are apparently but two parties, and it seems to be the Christ-party that is most bitterly opposing the apostle (2 Cor. 10:7; 11:23).

These considerations have led to the supposition that there was communication both ways between the apostle and the church in the interval between our First Corinthians and our Second Corinthians. The history may be reconstructed somewhat as follows: Our First Corinthians was taken to Corinth, but failed to accomplish its whole purpose. In some way, perhaps because the incestuous man was offended at the apostle's rebuke of him and succeeded in gathering a party around him which was able to control the action of the church for a time, perhaps because the leaders of the Christ-party took offense at even the mild and indirect reproof of them, and possibly gathered to themselves some of the members of the Apollos and Peter parties,—for some reason which we cannot state with positiveness,—the church virtually rebelled against the apostle. In connection with the discussion of the matter one man made himself conspicuous by his opposition to the apostle, apparently openly insulting and defying him. News of this was carried back to the apostle, perhaps by Timothy, who if he came to Corinth was unable to carry the case for Paul. When this sad news reached the apostle, he wrote another letter, more severe than the former, and with it sent Titus that he might, if possible, by personal entreaty and argument persuade the church to adopt the course which the apostle enjoined. This letter—on this view the third which we know of the apostle's writing to the Corinthians—is the one referred to in our Second Corinthians (which might therefore be designated as Fourth Corinthians). The mission of Titus required a longer time than Paul had anticipated. It had been arranged that Titus should come to Troas, evidently by way of Macedonia. The apostle went thither from Ephesus, but being unable to compose himself to work there because of his distress of mind about the Corinthians he went on to Macedonia, hoping there to find Titus. Again he was disappointed, and his anxiety increased. At length, however, Titus arrived, bringing the long-desired report of affairs at Corinth. On the main question, and with the majority of the church, the efforts of Titus re-enforcing the letters had been successful. The church had repudiated the action of the leader of the opposition to the apostle, and had inflicted a punishment so severe that the apostle was constrained, now that the essential point was gained in securing the renewed allegiance of the church, to turn and beg them to have mercy on the offender (2:5-11; 7:9-12). But the news of Titus was by no means wholly of a reassuring character. On the one side the church, though returning to their loyalty to the apostle, were still offended at his failure to keep his promises in the matter of visiting them (1:15-23). On the other hand, it is evident that there still remained at Corinth a party who were bitterly opposed to Paul, ridiculed him, and denied altogether his claim to be an apostle (chaps. 10 and 11). These opponents of the apostle evidently claimed to be Christ's in a sense in which he was not such (10:7; 11:23). It seems clear also that they claimed to be themselves apostles (11:5, 13; 12:11). This is, then, in all probability the Christ-party referred to briefly in First Corinthians (1:12, cf. also 3:22). And, indeed, in the light of these references to this party in the later letter, we are able to see that the defense of himself which the apostle introduced incidentally into his former letter as an illustration of the principle of waiving rights for the sake of love (1 Cor. chap. 9), had a real and vital interest of its own, and was in fact a defense of himself against the Christ-party. In respect, then, to the opposition from this party, matters have not at all mended since First Corinthians was written. It must be noticed, indeed, that this party was, as respects its leaders at least, composed not of members of the Corinthian church, but of those who claimed a special relationship to Jesus, hence, in all probability, Jewish Christians from Palestine, who had seen Christ in the flesh. Yet they must have gained some following in Corinth, or the apostle would have had no need to make so extended a reply to them.

Such is the situation which gives rise to the fourth of the letters which we have reason to believe that Paul wrote to the Corinthians, our Second Corinthians, so-called. The news that Titus brings gives the apostle occasion for the expression of his joy that the church has at length renewed its allegiance to him, and calls also for an explanation of his seeming vacillation in reference to the visit to them, and for a vigorous defense of himself against his opponents, the members of the Christ-faction. He employs the opportunity also to urge the completion of the offering for the saints at Jerusalem.

The letter stands in one respect in sharp contrast with First Corinthians. That is simple and clear in its structure. This is broken, involved, full of digressions. Some scholars have held, indeed, that it is not one letter, but a combination of several letters of the apostle to this Corinthian church. Nor is it indeed impossible that there are passages of the letter, as we now have it, which are in reality fragments of some of the lost letters of the apostle to the Corinthians. Perhaps the most probable instance of this is in 6:14-7:1, a passage which seems to have little connection with what precedes or what follows, and the removal of which certainly leaves the course of thought more clear and straightforward. The remainder of the letter, however, despite its somewhat tortuous course of thought, seems quite explicable as a single letter written under considerable stress of feeling and of conflicting emotions. Its plan seems to be as follows:


II. THE APOSTLE'S FEELINGS AND CONDUCT TOWARD THE CORINTHIANS, particularly in the matter of his proposed visit to them, and of his former letter.   1:12-7:16.
  1. Declares that he had acted holily and sincerely.   1:12-14.
  2. Explains his change of purpose respecting his promised visit to them, and the motives of his former letter, and bids them now forgive the one whose wrongdoing had occasioned the letter.   1:15-2:11.
  3. His anxious suspense while waiting at Troas for Titus to bring news from them.   2:12-17.
  4. [Digression—a partial anticipation of his self-defense: See IV. below.] The manner and motives of the apostolic ministry.   3:1-6:10.
    a. Not with self-commendation or with letters of commendation from others, but in reliance on God, having been made by him ministers of a new covenant.   3:1-11.
    b. Using the boldness of speech appropriate to the new hope.   3:12-18.
    c. Without craftiness, preaching Christ only as Lord.   4:1-6.
    d. Weak and afflicted, yet living for others unto the glory of God.   4:7-15.
    e. Fainting not at persecutions, but looking unto the eternal things which are to come.   4:16-5:10.
    f. As ambassadors for Christ, responsible to God, living and suffering for men.   5:11-6:10.
  5. His love for the Corinthians and appeal for their love.   6:11-7:4.
  6. His anxious suspense while he waited in Macedonia for Titus, (cf. 3 above) and his great joy when Titus brought good news.   7:5-16.
III. CONCERNING THE MINISTERING TO THE SAINTS (Cf. 1 Cor. 16:1-3; Rom. 15:25, 26).   chaps. 8, 9.
  1. Repels the charges of his opponents, intimating charges against them, and affirms the authority given him by Christ.   chap. 10.
  2. With repeated apologies for boasting, and mingled denunciation of his opponents, he boasts of his Hebrew blood, his relation to Christ, his sufferings and labors, and his visions.   11:1-12:13.
V. TRANSITION TO THE CONCLUSION: his intention to come to them; the motives and manner of his coming.   12:14-13:10.