In Paul‘s time, Corinth was the capital of the province of Achaia and the seat of the Roman proconsul. Julius Caesar built it (44 B.C.) on the ruins of a Greek city of the same name. It had two ports in the isthmus where it was sited—one in the Aegean Sea and one on the Gulf of Lepanto.
Its excellent geographical position soon made it a prominent center of commerce, with a much higher standard of living than its neighbors. But it was also a loose-living city, rendering religious cult to the goddess Venus, a serious threat for those—Jews or Christians—who worshipped the true God.
Paul established a Christian community at Corinth during his second missionary journey (50-52). He preached the gospel there for a year and a half, aided by Silas and Timothy. Due to his remarkable zeal, quite a number of people were converted to the true faith, some of them Jews. Very soon many Jews in the city became openly hostile to the apostle’s preaching, but since they had little social influence they failed to obstruct his work. This may explain why the proconsul Gallio refused to listen to the charges they brought against Paul (Acts 18:12ff).
After he left Corinth, the city had a series of apostolic visitors. Apollos, a brilliant preacher (Acts 18:24-26), arrived about a year after Paul left. He made many additional converts and confirmed the Corinthians in their faith. It is likely that around this time Peter paid a short visit to Corinth. Up to that point, the Corinthian Church was at peace, and there was no sign of any doctrinal difficulties.
Almost two years later, some Christian Jews from Palestine arrived in the city, people who had previously been very apostolic but had now clearly gone off the rails of sound teaching. Paul does not hesitate to call them “false apostles” (2 Cor. 11:13), even though they boasted of being colleagues of the Twelve. They tried to undermine Paul’s work. They were over-tolerant of Christians fraternizing with pagans, failing to warn them of the risks involved. They became very influential, with the result that the Corinthians began to take things easy.
Paul heard about this soon afterward (he was in Ephesus at the time; the year was 57). Three influential Corinthians brought him a letter in which they and others asked for guidance on matters they found problematic. They probably filled out the information given in the letter, asking him to go quickly to Corinth.
Paul preferred to postpone going in Corinth in order to give everyone more time for reflection and repentance; this is why he wrote his first letter, shortly before Easter 57. It is not a doctrinal treatise like the letter to the Romans. It is more like an acknowledgment of their letter, but availing of it to answer about the things which were worrying them. He begins by taking to task Christians who had been unfaithful, but does this with great tenderness and charity, presumably to win over people who were confused in their minds by the preaching of the false apostles.
From a doctrinal point of view the letter centers on these points:
1.The need to reject false human philosophy and pretentiousness, to embrace Christ’s cross, the source of all wisdom. God chose to confound the wisdom of the world by choosing for servants humble people, poor and uneducated. Thanks to their humility they responded to grace and spread the gospel far and wide, showing that God was working through them. “For the divine work which the Holy Spirit has raised them up to fulfill transcends all human energies and human wisdom.”
2. Their obligation to avoid every kind of greed and an invitation to perfect continence—the excellence of virginity. He outlines the duties of married couples and of widows. It should be stressed that Paul does not despise the body; he regards it as the temple of the Holy Spirit, which is why he stresses the importance of Christian purity. As Vatican II has put it, “It is not lawful for man to despise his bodily life. On the contrary, he must regard his body as good and honorable, since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day. However, wounded by sin, man feels rebellious stirrings in his body. Therefore, human dignity demands that man glorify God in his body and forbid it to serve the evil inclinations of his heart.” Hence the excellence of virginity. Everyone must faithfully follow the calling he has received from God, but “perfect continence. embraced on behalf of the kingdom of heaven has always been held in particular honor by the Church, as being a sign of charity and stimulus toward charity and an exceptional source of spiritual fruitfulness in the world. ”
3. Criteria about attendance at pagan rites (this is not permitted because of scandal) and about eating food offered to idols.
4. Criteria about how agapes should be celebrated.
5. Confession of faith in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, which Christians should approach with a clear conscience because it is the Body and the Blood of the Lord that they are receiving. The apostle speaks very explicitly about the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:26-29), reflecting the faith of the first Christians: The Eucharist is not a mere commemoration but the very sacrifice of Calvary, offered now in an unbloody manner through the priestly ministry. As Vatican II said, priests, “acting in the person of Christ and proclaiming his ministry, unite the votive offerings of the faithful to the sacrifice of Christ their head, and in the sacrifice of the Mass they make present again and apply, until the coming of the Lord (cf. 1 Cor. 11:26), the unique sacrifice of the New Testament, that namely of Christ offering himself once and for all a spotless victim to the Father (cf. Heb.9:11-28).”
6. Mentioning various gifts, he recommends in chapter 13, as the most excellent of all, charity. Faith and hope, being theological virtues, have to do mainly with the Christian’s life here and now, preparing him for his definitive meeting with God in heaven. But they disappear once a person sees and possesses God, whereas charity, the first among the virtues, lasts forever. In heaven it attains its perfection in that uninterrupted embrace which unites the soul to God forever.
7. Finally, Paul reaffirms faith in the resurrection of the dead. Thus, for example, in chapter 15 he deals with the last and most important subject of controversy at Corinth, the resurrection of the bodies of the dead, a basic article of Catholic faith. “We believe that the souls of all those who die in the grace of Christ,” said Vatican II, “whether they must still make expiation in the fire of purgatory, or whether from the moment they leave their bodies they are received by Jesus into paradise like the good thief – go to form that people of God which succeeds death, death which will be totally destroyed on the day of the resurrection when these souls are reunited with their bodies.”
Paul’s letter was well received at Corinth; it convinced many waverers and some of those who had rebelled against his authority. But a minority, allied to the Judaizers, remained unconvinced. Titus brought him a report on the reaction to his letter (Paul was probably in Philippi at the time). He was very pleased (2 Cor. 7) to know that he could count on the fidelity of the Corinthians, and he set about winning over the remaining objectors.
In the meantime the false apostles had been intriguing, twisting what Paul had said in the first letter. They accused him of being all talk, irresponsible, and ambitious, pointing out that he had not made his promised visit to Corinth. There was every chance, therefore, that the church at Corinth would begin to stray again.
To deal with this situation, as a preliminary to his visit, the apostle wrote a second letter, very shortly after the first, probably toward the end of 57 or at the beginning of 58. In it he first apologizes for not being able to visit them, but he feels confident that he has behaved throughout as a minister of Christ.
The Corinthians must have been very disappointed to learn that Paul was postponing his visit and was heading for Macedonia (1 Cor. 16:57). Now he tells them that in doing so he had not acted capriciously or like a “worldly man,” suiting himself. He felt he did the best thing in the circumstances. His “yes” follows the example of Jesus, who is always straightforward (2 Cor. 1:17-18). He calls on his own conscience to witness that he has never acted in a worldly way but always with holiness and godly sincerity (2 Cor. 1:12).
In fact he does not live his own life, does not follow his personal preference, for “while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor. 4:11). Paul identifies himself with Christ and suffers along with Christ over the rejection of his teachings by the recalcitrant members of the Corinthian Church. Yet his suffering is nothing compared with what Christ had to suffer on our behalf, and his love for the people at Corinth is such that he leaves until the end of his letter the harsh words he has to speak in fidelity in the teaching of Christ.
Paul did not want his own personality to obtrude. Self-praise is deeply repugnant to him, yet he has to praise himself in order to expose the false apostles. He vigorously defends the apostolic ministry God has given him; he simply cannot allow the truths of faith to be diluted, and therefore he gives a short summary of what Christian commitment entails, exhorting them “not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor. 6:1) that constant stream of graces which God gives everyone to enable him to fulfill his obligations in the Church and in the world. Although the apostle seems to be referring to those who are still rebellious, his teaching can apply to anyone who is lukewarm or apathetic.
Finally, Paul justifies his attitude by showing what it means to be chosen by the Lord for the work of evangelization, but he speaks in all humility because he recognizes that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (4:7).
Probably no other letter of Paul gives us such insight into his personality. Warm-hearted, extremely understanding, and affectionate, he also has great courage and decisiveness. This explains his prudence and patience in biding his time when he is under personal attack and his intervention with the full force of his apostolic authority when God’s honor and the community’s good are at stake. This, in fact, is the principle on which these two letters are based—the unity of the Church and the communion of saints (which always go together and which form the framework of Christian holiness).