Classical Education in Corinth (I)

The Corinthian church of the first century has rather a bad reputation, but I wonder if people thought about her the same way back then.

Don’t get me wrong; they were a mess. In fact, the first Christian text we have from the Christian era that is not included in the Bible is a letter from Clement, the bishop of Rome, who wrote to them in something like 95 or 96 AD for the same sort of divisiveness Paul wrote to them about in something like 55 AD.

But those are epistles written by very holy people who occupy significant leadership positions in the church. I wonder what the popular opinions about them would have been. I suspect they were different from Paul’s.

I develop that hypothesis because of the type of city Corinth was and because of the problems Paul has to deal with.

We say, of course, that Corinth was an immoral city, and so it was. That’s our primary focus. In a way, I would compare it to a modern Las Vegas or New York.

But it wasn’t only known for its immorality. Corinth had been a very ancient Greek city. Oedipus, of Oedipus Rex fame, had been brought up there. The city sat on the cross roads of Hellene (what we call Greece). To the north was Macedonia and northern Greece. To the south, Athens, Sparta, and the Peloponnesian Peninsula.

But Corinth sat on an Isthmus, which meant 1. that to pass between northern and southern Greece, you had to go past Corinth, and 2. that it sat on the shortest route between east (Asia Minor and the Aegean or even Athens) and west (Italy).

The Greeks irritated the Romans, so in 146 a Roman general, Mummius, sacked Corinth, virtually completely destroying it and bringing its treasures to Rome.

Then sometime around 65 BC, Julius Caesar both rebuilt the city and had a canal cut through from west to east. Little time was wasted rebuilding Corinth into a trade center and a leader in Hellenistic culture, especially under its Roman expression.

It’s pretty obvious from Paul’s epistle to the Corinthians that the leaders of Corinth, or at least a significant portion of them, had been classically educated. So given that they were rich, an Imperial city, founded by Julius Caesar, ruled by people with a fine education, a cultural center of sorts, I conclude that most people probably thought very highly of this successful Corinthian church.

I know we would today if such a church were in the news.

To repeat, at least some of the church leaders were classically educated. For one things, virtually everybody in leadership was so educated in those days. But Paul also indicates as much a number of different ways, some direct and some more oblique.

The whole passage from 1:17-2:5 is an extended critique of the confidence the Corinthians place in the “wisdom of words.”

The Christian classical school has to take this critique very seriously. After all, we teach our students logic and debate (i.e. to become “the disputer of this age”) and rhetoric (i.e. the wisdom of words), while preparing them for leadership (even though “not many mighty, not many noble, are called”).

You can’t just dismiss these words and say, “Oh, that doesn’t apply to us. That was pagan Corinth.”

No, these verses apply very explicitly to the Christian school – more, I think, to us, than to anybody else today.

For this reason, I have been meditating on these verses, indeed, on the whole book, off and on for years. Over the past couple weeks, some important matters have become very clear to me, so I plan on writing as often as I am able about it.

My reflections revolve around that ancient question of Tertullian (and every other Christian who has ever lived and thought): What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem, and Jerusalem with Athens?

In other words, what is the relationship between the things taught us by the Holy Spirit within the Christian tradition and the things discovered by people outside the church? What should we read and study? Should we read and study at all? Why?

One thing I will do my best to avoid, and that is to argue this very practical matter in the abstract. In other words, I’m not going to put an idea about Christian thought up against an idea about classical or secular (or whatever) thought.

I don’t think we’d learn much that way, because this isn’t a theoretical matter. It’s got everything to do with specific decisions by specific people about specific questions and decisions.

So by looking at I Corinthians in this light (and I believe Paul wrote this epistle with this question very much in mind, as I hope to demonstrate while I write), we can examine it not as a theoretical proposition, but as a practical matter we need to understand, apply, and internalize.

I haven’t worked out the details of my strategy yet, but my intent is to

  1. Take this very seriously
  2. Pursue wisdom with an eager and an open heart
  3. Approach the text synthetically (as a whole) instead of analytically. In other words, I want to see how the whole text deals with these questions, not exegete verses grammatically. I don’t have as much confidence in grammatical approaches to the scriptures as I used to, so while I will gladly submit to what grammar demands of me, I won’t expect it to reveal the hidden wisdom of God.
  4. Listen to what others have to contribute.

I have no idea whatsoever about the timeline for this pursuit. I have no specific goal except to ponder the question in the pages of Corinth. The less I have to worry about peripheral matters, the more I’ll be able to focus on this.

In any case, I do hope you’ll join me!