Approximately 146 years before Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes, the Roman Empire began to make its mark on a region that was once under the control of the Greeks (Friesen, Schowalter, & Walters, 2010). The Roman consul L. Mummius was victorious against the settlers of Corinth (Friesen, Schowalter, & Walters, 2010). However, it took the Roman Empire a hundred years after that victory to decide to create a Roman colony in the ancient city of Corinth (Friesen, Schowalter, & Walters, 2010). It is the amalgamation of different people, with different culture and background that paved the way for a dynamic ancient city filled with interesting people but, at the same time, unable to achieve harmony in different aspects of life. As a result, when the Apostle Paul started his ministry among the Corinthian people, he experienced great conflict from the external and the internal environment of the church. Nevertheless, his experience with conflict made it possible for him to develop a powerful thesis about love.
Alexander the Great was the great warrior and general from Macedonia (Freeman, 2011). He inherited a fighting force from his father King Philip (Freeman, 2011). He molded his father's army into an efficient and decisive instrument of war, and it enabled him to become victorious in every battle he entered (Freeman, 2011). As a result, he was the undisputed ruler of many realms and his Empire stretched from Greece to Alexandria in Egypt (Freeman, 2011).
Alexander the Great's major contribution in history was the proliferation of the Greek culture in many parts of Europe and the Middle East (Freeman, 2011). This influential power gave rise to the term Hellenism and those that were under the power of this influential force were known as Hellenists (Freeman, 2011). Those who are familiar with historical studies of the New Testament would have encountered the term Hellenistic Jews. These are Jews who practiced Judaism: nevertheless, their world view was also shaped by the Greek culture (Freeman, 2011).
One of the profound impacts of Hellenism is the establishment of a common language that enhanced the interaction of a disparate group of people (Freeman, 2011). It can be argued that trade relations between different people groups in different parts of the Mediterranean, the Middle East, Europe and Asia were also enhanced (Freeman, 2011). Important trade routes and centers of economic powers were also places were the Greek culture was paramount (Freeman, 2011). One of the centers of economic power in the ancient world was the ancient city of Corinth (Crocker, 2004). Thus, when the Romans came to establish a colony at Corinth, they did not develop anything from scratch (Crocker, 2004). They had to learn how to co-exist with the Hellenistic members of the city (Crocker, 2004).
Melting Pot of Cultures and Beliefs
Archaeological findings and other forms of evidence revealed that there was a clear division between the Greek and the Roman population in the city. It has to be made clear that Corinth was a place located in Greece and not just a far flung area that was influenced by the Greek settlers (Friesen, Schowalter, & Walters, 2010). According to one commentary, the colony was not founded on a blank slate because it was founded on the site of a venerable city (Friesen, Schowalter, & Walters, 2010). Archaeological findings also testified to the presence of ancient Greek buildings that were either remodeled or renovated as these structures were integrated into the new Roman city (Friesen, Schowalter, & Walters, 2010). One can just imagine the social and political upheaval that came when the Romans established a colony in the said city (Friesen, Schowalter, & Walters, 2010).
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There were two major sources of conflict: ethnic and religious differences (Stegman, 2009). In regard with the various sociological issues that the residents had to contend with, there was a large Roman settlement in the Greek cultural context, and it was made more complicated by the presence of a sizable Jewish population (Crocker, 2004). When the city was transformed into a Roman city in 44 BC, there were at least three major cultures, languages, and religions interacting within the said area (Crocker, 2004).
The complicated interactions and delicate balance is evident when one looks at the artifacts and other archaeological findings the excavators discovered when they uncovered Corinth (Friesen, Schowalter, & Walters, 2010). The excavators unearthed the remains of a gymnasium, an array of temples, numerous public baths, and other evidence that pointed to the hosting of the Isthmian Games – the second greatest of the Pan-Hellenic festivals, which were celebrated once in two years (Crocker, 2004). It was a unique social climate wherein veterans of the Roman army and freedmen co-existed. They were under Roman control, but because of the Isthmian Games, it is clear that the Romans loved to embrace the Greek culture. According to one commentary, the relatively new colony presented various opportunities for ambitious men to advance in position and status in a city wherein the social hierarchy was not yet set in stone (Crocker, 2004). If there was already a tension in a city that attracted Romans, Greeks, and other nationalities, it is easy to imagine the added tension when the Jews from other parts of the Mediterranean were added to the population (Friesen, Schowalter, & Walters, 2010). One can imagine the added source of conflict when the same people converted to Christianity during the time of St. Paul's ministry at Corinth.
The Sources of Conflict
A decade or so after Corinth was transformed into a Roman city, St. Paul entered the city gates bringing the Good News of the Kingdom of God (Stegman, 2009). It was a radical message, whish differed significantly from the religious concepts espoused by Romans and Greeks (Stegman, 2009). If the Christian message was a challenge for the Greeks and Romans, it is possible to imagine the tension it created when it came to the Jewish members of the population (Stegman, 2009). It should be noted that Christianity had a more profound impact on the Jews compared to other people groups (Stegman, 2009).
Religion was a major point of contention in a city characterized by complicated social structures: however, there were other sources of conflict outside the sphere of religion (Stegman, 2009). In St. Paul's Second Letter to the Corinthians, he wrote that the Corinthian Christians excelled in so many ways (2Cor. 8:7). Without a doubt, this is a reflection of the kind of residents that populated the city. The Apostle Paul even clarified his remarks by saying that they have many gifted speakers and intellectually gifted people in the church (2Cor. 8:7). This kind of description provides an overview of the level of sophistication this city enjoys (Stegman, 2009). However, with sophistication, also comes s conflict, especially when it is referred to a group of highly-intellectual people (2Cor. 8:7).
The nature and severity of the conflict that St. Paul encountered at Corinth was made clear when he established a community of believers comprised mainly of Gentiles (Stegman, 2009). Nevertheless, it was also a church that was populated by a handful of Jews (Stegman, 2009). It can be argued that those who were Gentiles had an easier time embracing Christianity as compared to the Jews (Stegman, 2009). This assertion is especially true when it is referred to the belief system of Gentiles and Jews (Stegman, 2009). The Jews had a deeper understanding of the concepts described in the Christian tenets while the Gentiles have very little opposition considering that they have a religious belief system that allowed the worship of a multitude of gods (Stegman, 2009). One cannot say the same thing about the Jews who had a sophisticated understanding of monotheism, for instance (Stegman, 2009). In addition, the Jews were more fanatical to their world views as compared to their Gentile counterparts (Stegman, 2009). It is easier to understand if they challenge or oppose Paul's teachings (Stegman, 2009).
The conflict stems from different sources (Crocker, 2004). For example, there was a conflict due to the way the Corinthian interpreted the new belief system, especially when it conflicted with their older world views (Crocker, 2004). For instance, the conflict arising from how some Gentile believers interpreted the Christian view regarding sexual purity can be taken in consideration. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul did not hide his disappointment when he pointed out that one of the members had sexual relations with his stepmother (1Cor. 5:1). One can argue that this man considered it acceptable to have sexual intercourse with his stepmother since there was no biological connection between them (1Cor. 5:1). Although modern readers understand the implication of this practice, it must be stated that in ancient times, this was not very clear (1Cor. 5:1). Thus, St. Paul had to exercise a certain level of spiritual authority to rectify the error and to establish order in the church (1Cor. 5:2).
Sexual promiscuity was rampant and a common issue in this particular community (1Cor. 6:15). One of the problematic aspects of sexual misconduct was the ignorance regarding the wickedness of having sexual relations with prostitutes (1Cor. 6:20). There was no explicit description of pagan Temples that employed Temple prostitutes, but it can be argued that this is what the Apostle was trying to imply when he talked about prostitutes (1Cor. 6:20). If this was the case, then one can understand Paul's frustrations. At the same time, an outsider investigating these issues will realize how the cultural and social atmosphere was permeated by ancient belief systems that encourage practices that were reprehensible to the Christians.
Another major source of conflict was in regard with the Corinthians's view of alcoholic drinks (1Cor 11:17). Christianity practiced a certain type of ritual wherein the believers commemorated the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ through the consumption of bread and drinking of wine (Thiselton, 2000). These were symbolic gestures, of course, because the bread represented the Body of Christ and the wine represented the Blood of Christ (Thiselton, 2000). However, this ritual was utilized by some believers in a wrong way, and they used it to cover up their desire to get drunk (1Cor. 11:21). There is a deeper problem here, and it reared its ugly head only after some of the members got drunk with wine (1Cor. 11:21). Paul indicated that those who were drunk were people who had access to a greater degree of resources (1Cor. 11:21). In other words, they were drunk because they had access to significant reserves of alcoholic beverages (1Cor. 11:21). This is the reason why Paul said that their behavior embarrassed the poor members of the church (1Cor. 11:21). The poor people were embarrassed first of all by their drunken behavior, but more than that, they felt the economic inequality between the two groups of people inside the church (1Cor. 11:21). The poor people could never afford to imbibe strong drinks as freely as the other rich members of the church, and, therefore, their economic status was plain to see (1Cor. 11:21).
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It is interesting to note that some of the conflicts that they experienced within the church were something that many modern couples could identify (1Cor. 7:1). In St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, he also claimed that there were women who were ignorant of their obligation to fulfill their husband's sexual needs (1Cor. 7:1). It was not only the women who were guilty of this offense; Paul also reminded the men that they had obligations to fulfill the sexual needs of their wives (1Cor. 7:1). This minor conflict was linked to a major issue, which were the rampant sexual immorality problems that the church and society as a whole were experiencing during that particular time period (1Cor. 7:1).
Another source of conflict can be seen in Christianity's radical view in regard with the importance of women (1Cor. 11:12) At first glance, it may seem that Paul was similar to the other men from ancient times: he had a low opinion of women (1Cor. 11:12). However, a closer scrutiny of his words will reveal that he viewed women not as mere properties of men but people who were valued as much as men were valued in the community (1Cor. 11:7). Paul used his superior intellect to argue that although women were taken from man, all the men in the world who were born after that were birthed to this planet through the body of a woman (1Cor. 11:12).
When the Apostle Paul initiated a discussion about food offered to idols, it was clear that most of the Gentile members of the church were having a hard time distancing themselves from their old ways (1Cor. 8:1). As a result, Paul had to force the issue that the offering of food to idols may seem a harmless thing although it is not if they could only see that they were offering it to demonic powers that were behind those idols (1Cor. 8:6).
The Apostle Paul also encountered conflict from the external environment (Thiselton, 2000). It happened due to the unique cultural and social climate in Corinth (Thiselton, 2000). It has been mentioned earlier that the relatively new Roman city attracted ambitious people who wanted to make their mark in a society with few social elites (Thiselton, 2000). In other words, the city attracted a significant number of social climbers (Thiselton, 2000).
The activity of social climbers within the city was so prevalent that historians discovered a phenomenon of self-boasting and self-proclamation (Thiselton, 2000). One of the best ways to look at it is to imagine what people went through when they founded New York City, Los Angeles, and several towns in the Midwest that blossomed overnight due to the gold rush in the early days of the American frontier (Thiselton, 2000). The social climbers at Corinth used self-proclamation as a means to an end (Thiselton, 2000). Therefore, they were offended by St. Paul's self-abasement, which was a sharp contrast to their own behavior (Thiselton, 2000). St. Paul always reminded his audience that he was nothing but a servant of Jesus Christ (Thiselton, 2000). Thus, their negative view of the Apostle Paul served as ammunition for his critics, especially among the Jews who did not agree with his teachings.
In the Book of Acts, one can see how the negative views regarding St. Paul reached a boiling point (Acts 18:12). Some of the prominent Jews of the city rose against the humble Apostle and brought him on the basis of exaggerated charges to Governor Gallio (Acts 18:12). Governor Gallio must be credited for his wisdom and experience as he quickly realized that these charges had nothing to do with Roman laws but everything to do with the Jews' fanatical view of their religion, and how negatively they perceived Paul's teachings (Acts 18:13). Thus, he quickly tried to diffuse the situation by telling the crowd that he is not interested if the charges were linked to their religious beliefs (Acts 18:15). Nevertheless, the Jews and the excited crowd with them needed to quench their thirst for blood, and, therefore, they redirected their anger towards the Jewish synagogue leader who converted to Christianity (Acts 18:17). The name of the synagogue leader was Sosthenes, and he became the victim of mob rule as they beat him right inside the courtroom (Act 18:17)
The Love Solution
The conflict was great and complex (Keller, 2010). The Apostle Paul could have repaid them in kind and fought fire with fire as he answered to religious fanaticism with his own version of fanatic outbursts (Keller, 2010). He could have said that since they were on the side of God, they could use violence because the end justifies the means (Keller, 2010). However, Paul prescribed a radical approach to the conflict that was brewing within and without the church (Kovacs, 2005). Paul said that love is the answer (Kovacs, 2005).
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For those who were mature in their faith and this maturity manifested through the exercise of spiritual gifts, Paul reminded that this was not the most important thing (Kovacs, 2005). He said that prophecies will pass away (1Cor. 13:8) The Jews and the Gentiles who were familiar with the power of prophecies may have tried to use their spiritual maturity as a weapon against those who opposed them, but Paul said that it is unwise to rely on prophecies because these will pass away (1Cor. 13:9). Those who had the gift of speaking in unknown tongues, and those who had the gift to speak like angels, they should not boast about their gifts because love is the greatest (1Cor. 13:8).
Paul used a powerful illustration when he said that those who had the power to exercise spiritual gifts and to communicate great truths are nothing but noisy instruments if they do not have love (Hughes 1985). He even went further to say that knowledge without love can even be detrimental because it increases one area but not the other more important aspects of life (Hughes 1985).
It has been mentioned earlier that the Corinthians were gifted people, and their abilities were manifested in their mastery of certain knowledge (Rice, 2013). Without a doubt, this has something to do with the Greek culture that values knowledge above all (Rice, 2013). However, Paul reminded them to diffuse conflict by looking at the problem through the eyes of love (Hughes 1985). By confronting the intellectuals and reducing the value of knowledge as seen through the eyes of God, Paul scored a major victory when to the question is about his goal of creating harmony within the Corinthian church (Hughes 1985).
Like A Diamond with Many Facets
St. Paul said that love is patient and kind (1Cor. 13:4). This verse encompasses a great wealth of truth, and it enables the believer to control his temper (Roetzel, 2007). If one will examine the root cause of many conflicts around the world, one can deduce that everything started from a person that could not control his tongue and spoke something negative against another person (Roetzel, 2007). However, if one will learn the importance of patience and kindness as these virtues are allowed to grow in a heart filled with love, then there is a greater capacity for self-control (Roetzel, 2007).
St. Paul added that love is not boastful, proud, and rude (1Cor.13:5). These are related terms, but based on the historical context of his letter to the Corinthians, it was discovered that social climbers populated many areas of the city (Thiselton, 2000). It was a means to an end as people tried to take control of certain seats of power and influence (Thiselton, 2000). Nevertheless, Paul saw it as a source of conflict and divisions in the Body of Christ in particular and the outside community in general (1Cor. 13:1) If they learn how to be humble, then they would also learn to control the expression of boastful speech from their lips because such verbal exercises are prone to hurt other people's feelings (Stegman, 2009).
Paul also said that God's love expressed through the lives of his people is not a demanding type of love (1Cor. 13:5). It was mentioned earlier that the social inequality that existed in the city of Corinth was manifested through the numerous conflicts that Paul tried to resolve while he was away (Soards, 1999). The gap between the rich and the poor was immense because it was mentioned earlier that the rich had access to the vast amounts of resources while the poor were living in an environment characterized by immense lack (Soards, 1999). It is not hard to imagine that the rich members of the church were demanding and irritable, the same character flaw manifested in modern times (Roetzel, 2007). Paul made them painfully aware of the cultural and social biases that could hurt people (Roetzel, 2007). He asserted that in all these issues, love is the answer (Roetzel, 2007).
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It will require a serious study of the historical context of the city of Corinth in order to understand the reasons for the conflicts that were recorded in Paul's letter to the group of believers who resided in that city. A careful examination of excavator's findings and archaeological evidence that were unearthed throughout the centuries will reveal that Corinth is a unique city in many respects. First of all, it was a relatively new Roman city, and it was established by the Roman Empire a decade or so before Paul went there to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Therefore, the social hierarchy of the city was not yet set in stone, and it attracted many social climbers from the Mediterranean and the Middle East world. These were ambitious men and women who knew that they could make their mark in a new society wherein there are only a few social elites. Although the city was relatively new, the Romans did not build the city from scratch. They actually created a new Roman city on top of an old structure whose foundations were Greek. Therefore, the laws that governed the city were Roman laws that came straight from the seat of the Roman Empire.
However, the spirit and heartbeat of the city was also Greek, one of the best examples of a Greco-Roman environment. The entertainment and the festivities were Greek in origin as manifested by the celebration of the Isthmian Games. The interaction of Romans and Greeks already created tension: however, the addition of the Jews and other ethnic groups coming in from different parts of the known world added different layers of ethnic diversity. It does not require a scientist to realize that the existence of different groups of people sharing and interacting from different cultural and religious frameworks will eventually lead to conflicts. When Paul established a church that mirrored the cultural diversity of the city, he experienced and encountered different types of conflicts. Paul could have used fanaticism and legalism to solve his problems. However, he chose love. He made them understand the different facets of love and made them realize that love is superior to other pursuits. When love was made real in the church, many of the conflicts that they experienced could be avoided.