Introduction to 1 Corinthians

Roman Corinth

The city of Corinth was ideally situated on the narrow land bridge between Peloponnesus and mainland Greece. Strabo (Geogr. 8.6.20) attributes the city’s wealth to the fortune of being “the master of two harbors.” Cenchreae, about six miles to the east on the Saronic Gulf, led straight to Asia, and Lechaeum, about two miles to the north on the Corinthian Gulf, led straight to Italy. A four-mile rock-cut track (diolkos, built ca. 625-585 b.c.) connected the two ports, enabling cargo and even small ships to be hauled across the isthmus to the other gulf, and thus allowed transporters to avoid the treacherous sea journey around the cape of the Peloponnese (cf. Acts 27). Corinth was a natural crossroad for land and sea travel.

Corinth had aroused Rome’s wrath as the chief city of the Achaean league, which revolted rather than submit to Rome’s demands to dissolve the league (cf. Cicero, De lege agraria 1.5; Strabo, Geogr. 8.4.8; 8.6.23; Pausanias, Descr. 2.1.2). The Roman military machine’s superior numbers and prowess led to the league’s inevitable defeat and the demolition of its leading city in 146 b.c. Lucius Mummius, the Roman general, sacked and burned the city. Reportedly, the male population was killed, the women and children were sold into slavery (Cicero, Tusculanae disputationes 3.53-54; Strabo, Geogr. 8.6.23; 10.5.4; Pausanias, Descr. 2.1.2), and the city’s treasures were plundered. The extent of the destruction of the city may have been exaggerated by the ancient sources (Wiseman 1979: 494), but 146 b.c. marks its end as a normally functioning city.

Strabo (Geogr. 8.6.23) asserts that the town remained desolated and largely uninhabited for 102 years after this defeat. Its old shrines became a curiosity for tourists, and the ruins provided shelter to squatters and visitors to the Isthmian games now under the control of Sicyon (C. Williams 1987: 26; Stansbury 1990: 134). In 44 b.c., shortly before his assassination, Julius Caesar decided to establish a Roman colony on the site with the official name Colonia Laus Iulia Corinthiensis (Colony of Corinth in Honor of Julius). Rome established colonies to solve overcrowding in the city and to promulgate Roman civilization across the world. This resettlement created a new Roman heritage for Corinth and gave it a different appearance from its Greek period. The new city was laid out with a new grid on top of the former Greek city (see Romano 1993). Many of the existing Greek buildings were utilized in the design, but the Romans imposed a city plan, architecture, political organization, and ethos different from the Greek predecessor.

Strabo (Geogr. 8.6.23; 17.3.15) recounts that Julius Caesar colonized the city with persons predominately belonging to the “freedman class.” Rome needed to export the swelling ranks of the poor and settle its potentially restless army veterans. The city’s Roman identity was guaranteed by the immigration of a Roman population. Hopkins (1978: 66) estimates that during the years 88-80 b.c., “Roughly half of the free adult males in Italy left their farms and went to Italian towns or were settled by the state on new farms in Italy or the provinces.” A portion of these must have resettled in Corinth. Crinagoras (Greek Anthology 9.284) acidly refers to the Corinthian settlers as “those often sold, unstable or disreputable slaves.” Appian alleges that the first colonists were desperate and out of options, and Strabo’s (Geogr. 8.6.23) claim that they looted the Greek tombs and established a market for necrocorinthian ware suggests that these first colonists were strapped for cash (Lanci 1997: 26-27). The city, however, was soon transformed from ruin to riches. The denizens of Corinth in Paul’s day were known for their wealth and ostentation. The new city allowed many aggressive freedmen and their heirs, who would have been freeborn, the chance to acquire wealth through commercial ventures. Without an entrenched aristocracy, the citizens of Corinth were not fated “to remain in their allotted position on the social scale” but had a real opportunity for upward social mobility, primarily by attaining wealth and buying friendships and clients (Carter 1997: 53). The favorable economic climate attracted settlers from all over the empire who could work their way up the social ladder. Stansbury (1990: 120-21) makes it clear, however, that this society was not egalitarian. It was an oligarchy that was “hierarchic and elitist, and therefore safe” from a Roman point of view. De Vos (1999: 189) notes that the elite “used a number of social control mechanisms to restrict access to their group, including wealth, marriage, and social ties.” Despite the city’s prosperity, poverty afflicted many inhabitants. Alciphron (Epistles 3.60), a second-century writer, explained why he did not go to Corinth: “I learned in a short time the nauseating behavior of the rich and the misery of the poor.” Murphy-O’Connor (1984: 148) interprets the proverb “Not for every man is the voyage to Corinth” (Strabo, Geogr. 8.6.20; Horace, Ep. 1.17.36) to mean that only “the tough survived there.” Winter (1989) points to evidence of grain shortages after Paul left Corinth that resulted in famines worsening the divide between rich and poor.

In Paul’s time, Corinth had a mixed ethnic population of Roman freedmen, indigenous Greeks, and immigrants from far and wide. De Vos (1999: 187-88) argues that it is conceivable that Jews were included among the original colonists and that a strong Jewish community was “well integrated and on good terms with the wider community.” Despite this diversity, Corinth was heavily influenced by Rome, and C. Williams (1987: 31) argues that its population “felt themselves to be Roman.” Pausanius’s claim that the city was basically Greek has been reevaluated. Winter (2001: 16) remarks, “While Pausanius provides important information on the topography and religious sites of Corinth from a later era, his rereading of Corinth from the fashionable perspective of the Greek Classical revival in the Rome of his day does not provide hard background evidence of the culture of the mid-first century.” Stansbury (1990: 116) concludes, “The Greek Corinth of old would live on in folk memory and literature, reinforced by the traditions of the Isthmian festival.” But everything was given a Roman stamp. When Paul visited, the city was geographically in Greece but culturally in Rome.

In what follows, I highlight two factors from this urban context—social relations and religious/philosophical influences—that I believe have a direct bearing on the Corinthians’ behavior and their misinterpretation of the Christian faith that Paul is compelled to address.

Social Relations

This letter should be read against the background of Corinth as a city imbued with Roman cultural values (Gill 1993: 328). Aulus Gellius (Noctes atticae [Attic Nights] 16.13.9) claimed that colonies were “miniatures” of Rome. They were established to foster the majesty of Roman culture, religion, and values. The original freedmen settlers were still under obligation to their former masters in Italy, and they may have acted as their business agents (De Vos 1999: 190). The official language of Latin predominates in the extant public inscriptions prior to the time of Hadrian (101 of 104 [Kent 1966: 19]), and the inscriptions on the coinage minted by the magistrates were in Latin. The religious focal point of the Corinthian forum was the temple at the west end dedicated to the imperial family (designated Temple E). It was of Roman construction and towered over all other temples as an ever present symbol of the dominant imperial presence. Upon entering the forum, one could not help but direct an eye to this temple, and the construction of the long line of buildings blocked the view of the grand archaic temple to the north.

When Paul came to Corinth to begin his missionary activity, the city teemed with commerce as the vital link between Rome and its eastern provinces, attracting traders from everywhere in the empire (C. Wil-liams 1993). Throngs attended the Isthmian games. A building boom occurred between the reigns of Augustus and Nero, making Corinth “arguably the most dazzling and modern of Greek cities” (Savage 1996: 36). Many inhabitants were so affluent that “wealth and ostentatious display became the hallmark of Corinth” (Betz 1985: 53), which contrasted with the relative poverty of the surrounding countryside of Achaia. Betz (1985: 53) attests that while “Greeks tried as best they could to preserve their traditional culture, the Corinthians indulged new attitudes and ways of life fueled by the new wealth and unbridled by ancestral tradition. Thus, the province and its capital were in many respects worlds apart.” Corinth rose in status as a Roman colony while the surrounding areas tied to the Greek past decreased in status. Spawforth (1994: 407) calls attention to grievances raised against Corinth by people of Argos who grumbled that the Corinthians were proud of their privileged position with Rome and had turned their backs on their Greek heritage and the other cities in the old Achaean league (see Winter 2001: 4-5, 19-20).

This letter also should be read against the background of a mercantile society, as “the core community and core tradition of the city culture were those of trade, business, entrepreneurial pragmatism in the pursuit of success” (Thiselton 2000: 4). These values fed the zeal to attain public status, to promote one’s own honor, and to secure power. According to Savage (1996: 35), “Perhaps no city in the Empire offered so congenial an atmosphere for individual and corporate advancement.” B. Peterson (1998: 61) asserts that Corinth “seems to have been a city designed for those who were preoccupied with the marks of social status”—that is, “the value which others place on one’s goods and achievements” (Barclay 1992: 56). Horace’s (Sat. 1.6.16-17) mockery of the Roman populace as “absurd slaves to fame, who are stupefied by titles and masks” could apply to Corinth. Meeks (1983: 54) argues that an individual’s status was tied to a variety of factors: “occupational prestige, income or wealth, education and knowledge, religious purity, family and ethnic group position, and local-community status.” They do not all carry the same weight, and their relative value in the equation depends on who is doing the weighing. Meeks (1983: 54) explains, “Most individuals tend to measure themselves by the standards of some group that is very important to them—their reference group, whether or not they belong to it—rather than by the standards of the whole society.” One could possess high status according to certain markers but low status when it came to others, creating a status dissonance that fed an internal restlessness and a greater desire to achieve the dignitas that one believed was one’s due. Stansbury (1990: 278) contends that a “shortage of reasonable avenues of honor at the top of the political structure” existed. The scramble for scarce honor was as intense as the scramble for scarce wealth. The result was that many well-to-do sought honor wherever they could get it. Stansbury (1990: 278) lists the available options as “sponsoring private entertainment, games and festivals, patronage of new cults or collegia, demonstration of rhetorical skill or philosophical acumen, sponsorship or receipt of an approved honorary statue with appropriate epigraph, and socially conspicuous displays of a private retinue of slaves and freedmen.” In this social climate, one could only increase one’s standing via a “combination of patronage, marriage, wealth, and patient cultivation of connections” (Stansbury 1990: 87; cf. Chow 1992). MacMullen (1974: 106-7) argues that a key measure of one’s standing in Roman societal structure was the size of philanthropic gifts and the number of clients. Crucial for any success and status in this culture was attaining the patronage of powerful persons and bestowing benefaction on others to establish an array of influential friends and clients, exerting political enmity to ostracize opponents, and employing skillful oratory to persuade others in any assembly. To use terms from American culture: schmoozing, massaging a superior’s ego, rubbing shoulders with the powerful, pulling strings, scratching each other’s back, and dragging rivals’ names through the mud—all describe what was required to attain success in this society. Persons also wanted to accumulate wealth and “then display or distribute it in a way that would bring individual honor” (Stansbury 1990: 76). Possessing wealth cleared a path for social climbing because it enabled one to buy friends and clients through extravagant spending and win the esteem accorded benefactors.

The implications of this backdrop for understanding the problems that beset the Corinthian church should not be underestimated. Few Christians could have been unaffected by the dominant culture surrounding them, even if they assimilated its values only subliminally. Most, if not all, of the problems that Paul addresses were hatched from the influence of this setting. Values that were antithetical to the message of the cross—particularly those related to honor and status so basic to the Greco-Roman social system, in which power manifesting itself in ruthlessness and self-advancement is thought to be the only sensible course—percolated into the church, destroying its fellowship and its Christian witness as some members sought to balance civic norms with Christian norms. Secular wisdom—which reflected the code of conduct of the social elites, who jostled one another for power, prestige, and popularity—had its hold on members of the church. Its values played havoc on Paul’s attempt to build a community based on love, selflessness, and the equal worth of every member. Corinthian society was riddled by competitive individualism, and this ethos spilled over into the relationships in the church as wealthier members competed for followers. Socially pretentious and self-important individuals appear to have dominated the church. It is likely that they flaunted their symbols of status, wisdom, influence, and family pedigree and looked down on others of lesser status. They appear to have wanted to preserve the social barriers of class and status that permeated their social world but were nullified in the cross of Christ. For some, the Christian community had become simply another arena to compete for status according to the societal norms.

Drawing on Mary Douglas’s anthropological studies and grid and group matrix, Carter (1997: 51) thinks that this church’s culture fits the model of a “highly egocentric, individualistic and competitive society, dominated by the ‘Big Man,’ who imposes himself as a leader, and who derives prestige and power from the size of his following.” He goes on to describe this culture as “highly materialistic and egocentric: any sense of relationship or mutual obligation rests purely on a fiscal basis: where there is no interchange of goods or services there is only suspicion, hostility and the risk of warfare.” Although this sociological model may not fit the Corinthian church precisely, it does help to make sense of internal power struggles that were tearing the church apart. The recent trend is to trace the problem in Corinth back to “personality centred politics” (Clarke 1993: 93; see also M. Mitchell 1993: 67; Welborn 1997). The discordant factions within the community did not revolve around fine points of theological interpretation but developed between rival leading figures who may have been the hosts of different house churches. Paul does not address specifically the theology of the factions but condemns the fact that Corinthians were aligning themselves along party lines and around specific persons, who apparently developed and encouraged personality cults. These unnamed individuals in the church were likely to be wealthier and influential and were unduly influenced by worldly wisdom. Those who provided homes for worship are most likely the culprits. They could exert more influence in their home than in a neutral meeting place. Because they ranked higher socially and because the group met on their turf, they could control worship practices, the distribution of honors, organization patterns, and even doctrine, and they would be looked upon by others as examples to follow.

The “spirit of the world” (2:12) is synonymous with the “wisdom of the world” (1:20; 3:19; cf. “wisdom of this age,” 2:6), and Pickett (1997: 63) contends, “The latter phrase demystifies the former in that it shows that to be under the influence of the ‘spirit of the world’ is to be guided by the values which constitute its wisdom.” It makes clear that the conflict pits God and God’s ways, exhibited in the weakness of the cross, against the world and its ways, exhibited by its fascination with displays of status and power. Pickett (1997: 64) continues, “Thus the world which stands in opposition to God is a real social world, and the ‘spirit of the world’ refers, in some sense at least, to the values which govern the attitudes, judgments and behaviour of the people in that world.” It is the baneful influence of this secular wisdom on members in the church rather than some overarching theological misconception that lies behind most of the problems that Paul addresses in the letter (cf. Winter 2001 for a similar approach). It, not some imagined theological dispute swirling around Peter, Apollos, Paul, or the elusive Christ party, sparked off the rivalries ripping apart the fellowship. It is behind the Corinthians’ attraction to flashy displays of knowledge, wisdom, and spiritual gifts. It throws light on why someone pursued a lawsuit against a brother Christian (6:1-11), why some sought to justify eating food sacrificed to idols so that they could participate fully in their society (8:1-11:1), why the issue of headdress during worship became a problem (11:2-16), and why some wished to vaunt their spiritual gifts above others (12:1-14:40). Paul pictures the church as divided into “haves” and “have-nots” (11:22). Since one needed to affirm one’s wealth and social status to confirm one’s identity in this culture, the “haves” show no qualms about humiliating the “have-nots” at the Lord’s Supper, widening the division in the camp (11:17-34). The cultural values may shed light on aspects of the man living with his father’s wife and the church’s incriminating silence (5:1-8).

Barclay (1992) offers an important entrée into understanding the social roots of the problems in Corinth by noting a stark contrast between the issues Paul addresses in 1 Thessalonians and those in 1 Corinthians. Though the two churches were founded within months of each other, “these sibling communities developed remarkably different interpretations of the Christian faith” (Barclay 1992: 50). Barclay isolates one neglected factor that may explain this phenomenon: the social relations with outsiders. One discerns in 1 Thessalonians evidence of painful conflict with outsiders (1 Thess. 1:6; 2:2, 14-16; 3:3) and a sense of alienation from society and hostility toward it (1 Thess. 4:5, 13; 5:7). By contrast, no reference to the Corinthian church’s experience of social alienation appears in 1 or 2 Corinthians (Barclay 1992: 57). Instead, Paul contrasts the affliction and dishonor of apostles with the Corinthians’ relative tranquility (1 Cor. 4:9-13; 15:30-32; 16:9). The Corinthians appear to be getting on quite well in their community (De Vos 1999: 206-14). Paul can envision certain ones participating in feasts in the dining rooms of pagan temples (8:10) and being invited to share meals in the homes of unbelievers (10:27). Unbelievers drop into worship gatherings (14:24-25). Some members of the church make use of the civil court system to bring suit against other believers (6:1-8). Apparently, they have no religious scruples about being well integrated into a pagan society that is inherently hostile to the wisdom of the cross. In Corinth, no countercultural impact, so central to the preaching of the cross (1:18-25), is evident. Their faith appears not to have created any significant social and moral realignment of their lives. They face little or no social ostracism, and the lack of external pressure contributes to their internal dissension.

Paul thinks that it is fine to have contact with unbelievers to witness to the gospel (9:19-23; 10:32-33), but he views the world with “dark apocalyptic spectacles” (Barclay 1992: 60) and declares that “bad company ruins good morals” (15:33). His insistence throughout the letter that the church is set apart (cf. 1:2) from a world doomed to be destroyed would not have been necessary in Thessalonica, according to Barclay (1992: 59). Barclay’s (1992: 71) conclusion about the Corinthians’ attitude toward their faith and the nature of the church unveils the root of Paul’s grievances against them:

The church is not a cohesive community but a club, whose meetings provide important moments of spiritual insight and exaltation, but do not have global implications of moral and social change. The Corinthians could gladly participate in this church as one segment of their lives. But the segment, however important, is not the whole and the centre. Their perception of their church and of the significance of their faith could correlate well with a lifestyle which remained fully integrated in Corinthian society.

In this letter, Paul addresses the issue of the church’s identity over against its cultural surroundings and seeks to stake out firm boundaries. The problem was not that the church was in Corinth but that too much of Corinth was in the church (Fee 1987: 4). He seeks to disarm the warring factions, to bolster the sense of their common union in Christ, and to widen the boundaries between the church and its surrounding culture. Paul seeks to reform their values so that they live in a manner congruent with the cross and to make them aware that only God’s measure of judgment at the end of the ages has any consequence. He shows how he has abandoned his concern for status because the message of the cross he preaches makes it contemptible in the eyes of God. In fact, God has already made that judgment known in the cross and resurrection of Christ, with the result that the world can be divided up into those who are being saved and those who are perishing (1:18; 2 Cor. 2:15).

Religious Influences

As a cosmopolitan city, Corinth was a religious melting pot with older and newer religions flourishing side by side. De Vos (1999: 192) identifies the gods and cults celebrated by the Corinthians as “Apollo, Aphrodite/Venus, Asclepius, Athena, Athena Chalinitus, Demeter and Kore, Dionysus, Ephesian Artemis, Hera Acraea, Hermes/Mercury, Jupiter Capitolinus, Poseidon/Neptune, Tyche, Fortuna, and Zeus.” Egyptian mystery cults, such as the worship of Isis, also were practiced. Never to be forgotten was the ubiquitous attraction of magic. The imperial cult, an “alliance of throne and altar” forged by Augustus, was virulent and expansive during this time and was extremely influential in a Roman colony. Broneer (1971: 170) asserts, “Scholars’ penchant for orderly exposition and clear definition can be misleading for an understanding of the religious life of a given period because they pretend to make clear what was anything but clear to the ancients.” Most persons could accommodate all gods and goddesses into their religious behavior, and they could choose from a great cafeteria line of religious practices. Many believed that there was safety in numbers: the more gods that one appeased and had on one’s side, the better. The temple of Demeter in Pergamum, for example, also had altars to the gods Hermes, Helios, Zeus, Asclepius, and Heracles. Angus (1925: 192) cites the private chapel of the emperor Alexander Severus (third century) as containing shrines to Orpheus, Abraham, Apollonius of Tyana, and Jesus. In one papyrus fragment the writer says, “I pray to all gods” (P. Oxy. 1766 [18]), and an inscription announces, “We magnify every God” (SIG 1153). Some welcomed the religious stimulus that strange new gods provided (cf. Acts 17:18-21), since they offered new ways of experimenting with religion and worship. Roman officials did not police private associations and became upset with religious behavior only when it was perceived as disturbing the peace and security they so zealously guarded. The Roman senate did take action against groups suspected of gross immorality, subverting good order, and drawing people away from expected civic loyalty.

Paul’s opening comments in Rom. 1:18-32 may provide us with impressions that match Corinth’s religious and ethical milieu. The plethora of idols in the city illustrated his point that humans had exchanged the true God for false gods and honored the creature rather than the Creator, and that the human mind was a perpetual factory of idols. They did not see fit to have God in their knowledge, so God gave them up to their unfit minds (Rom. 1:28). The unfit mind is so corrupted that it no longer can think straight and becomes a totally untrustworthy guide in moral decisions. The city’s rampant immorality was living proof of this principle. The breakdown of morals leads to the breakup of society, as cataloged in Rom. 1:29-32. It results in a religion based on falsehoods, a body that is defiled, and a society in which hate and war are at home. The inevitable price of having one’s way with God is spiritual poverty and in the end moral abasement.

Paul’s statements in Rom. 1:18-32 imply that Christians and Jews were different from the dominant pagan culture because of their religious intolerance of other gods and their rigorous standards regarding sexual conduct. As a result of the former, they were labeled “atheists” because they did not believe in the traditional gods—only their one God. Apuleius (Metam. 9.14) describes a certain baker’s wife in his novel as “an enemy of faith and chastity” because she is a “despiser of all the gods whom others did honor.” Christians were labeled “misanthropes,” haters of humankind, because they refused to join in the worship and sacrificial meals offered to local, traditional gods and in their great festivals that quickened local pride or to help polish a city’s image as loyal to the emperor by taking part in the imperial cult. Their detachment rankled their neighbors as an impious disparagement of sources of civic vanity. Since the gods were also deemed to be the ones who preserved the state and social order, to reject them opened up the city to divine disfavor and catastrophe. Christians may also have been deemed strange because they themselves had no temples or national temple. They met in private homes (or rented assembly halls) at night, greeted each other with a holy kiss, and partook of the body and blood of one who was crucified by Roman authorities in a provincial backwater. Christians also had no particular national identity and consequently had no established political ties with the Romans. Any repudiation of the imperial cult would have made them particularly vulnerable and politically suspect.

The most important religious influence in Corinth at this time was the imperial cult, which worshiped political power as divine. The emperor cult pervaded public space. Wink (1992: 300) observes that empires “cannot exist for a moment without the spiritual undergirding of a persuasive ideology.” Stansbury (1990: 260) notes, “Religious ceremony and political authority were inseparable.” The Romans in the first century did not worship the seated emperor but only his “genius,” which, as Wink (1992: 300) contends, is “his inspiration, the daemon or god or spirituality that animated the incumbent ruler by virtue of his being incumbent. His ‘genius’ is the totality of impersonal power located in an office of surpassing might.” Winter (2001: 270-71) comments, “The imperial cult grew more spectacularly throughout the empire during the Julio-Claudian and Flavian period than the early Christian movement ever did, and the establishment of a federal cult in Corinth was a matter of great political, social, and financial importance for the colony.” The cult was the incarnation of Roman ideology on Greek soil and tended to raise the prestige of the city. In addition to the quadrennial and the biennial Isthmian games, which became connected to the imperial cult, the federal imperial cult celebrated the reigning emperor’s birthday every year. It required an overt display of reverence for the imperial house and the performing of sacrifices and conducting of festivals and feasts (see IGR 4:1068c [cited by Winter 2001: 275]). Winter notes evidence that householders sacrificed on altars outside their homes as the cult procession passed by (citing Price 1984: 112).

Paul’s proclamation that Jesus alone is Lord (8:5-6) directly challenged the imperial cult. “Lord Jesus” was a different kind of “emperor,” “savior,” and “son of God” than Caesar. The problem for some was that this Lord offered no actual political favors in this worldly realm. S. Mitchell’s (1993: 10 [cited by Winter 1995: 176]) reflections about the imperial cult in Anatolia are applicable to Corinth:

One cannot avoid the impression that the obstacle which stood in the way of the progress of Christianity, and the force which would have drawn new adherents back to conformity with the prevailing paganism, was the public worship of the emperors.... It was not a change of heart that might win a Christian convert back to paganism, but the overwhelming pressure to conform imposed by the institutions of his city and the activities of his neighbours.

At a later time and in a different place, Pliny the Younger (Ep. 96) used the imperial cult to determine whether persons were Christians or not: if they were willing to deny their Lord and sacrifice incense to a statue of a living emperor, they were not Christians.

This raises the question of how someone like Erastus, whom Paul identifies in Rom. 16:23 as the city’s οἰκονόμος (oikonomos, which may be equivalent to “aedile”), coped with the pagan trappings of his office (Stansbury 1990: 323). Most assume that he was the same Erastus who paid for paving the plaza adjoining the theater to fulfill an election pledge and publicized this benefaction with an inscription. With the abbreviations spelled out in brackets, it reads: [——] Erastus pro aedilit[at]e s[ua] p[ecunia] stravit. Kent (1966: no. 232) translates it: [——] “Erastus in return for his aedileship laid [the pavement] at his own expense.” The cognomen is unusual and does not occur elsewhere in Corinthian evidence. Its rarity does not demand that these two mentions of Erastus point to one and the same person, but its rarity in Corinth strengthens the likelihood that they are (see Gill 1989; Clarke 1993: 46-56). Since the inscription fits the general time frame of Paul’s letters, it is unlikely that two different persons with this uncommon name held office in Corinth. Bartchy (ABD 6:67) thinks it highly probable that Erastus “had to sell himself to the city (as a form of bonding) in order to secure this responsible position” (cf. Cadbury 1931; Theissen 1982: 75-83; Fox 1986: 293; D. Martin 1990: 15-16, 174-76). But Kent (1966: no. 232) interprets the lack of a patronymic in the inscription as suggesting that he was a freedman “who had acquired considerable wealth in commercial activities.” Since it is unusual for Paul to mention someone’s office, Erastus must have had a reasonably high standing (De Vos 1999: 200 n. 83). Stansbury (1990: 332), however, argues that aedile was an annual office, and it would only be by chance that Paul wrote to the Romans the year that Erastus held that office. Paul probably used oikonomos “in a generic sense of one with responsibilities in the running of the city, that is, a decurion.” Stansbury (1990: 383) surmises,

Possibly Paul uses the term in a general sense that would be understood of a class of local offices below those held by the top four magistrates. More likely he meant a specific minor office, although one worthy of some respect to the general populace. Since Corinth apparently lacked the office of quaestor, a subordinate of the aedile likely took on many functions of that financial office. Paul’s phrase probably describes a minor office of this sort.

This conclusion does not dismiss the significance of Erastus. He is likely to have succeeded in business, and Paul and others may have found his shipping contacts useful (Stansbury 1990: 323-24).

The question is, How could someone with this role have carried out his civic duties and maintained his social and political connections as a practicing Christian? The wealthier members of the Corinthian church would have faced enormous social pressure to conform to religious expectations, particularly those related to the imperial cult, if they were to advance or to preserve their place in society. This problem was the source of much of the tension between Paul and the wealthier members. This backdrop may shed light on Paul’s discussion of the issue of food sacrificed to idols and why it would have been so problematic for many in the church.