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A Tale of Two Cities

by Tim O'Hearn

“If it bleeds it leads. What I really want, though, is some good news.” “No news is good news.” “What a relief. Finally, some good news.”

The distance from the highest point in the contiguous United States (Mt. Whitney) to the lowest point (Death Valley) is about 84 miles. The distance from the intellectual high point of ancient Greece to one of its low points is a little more than half that. Athens and Corinth may have been the most opposite of cities, and they are only 44 miles apart. It is little wonder that Paul spent time in both cities. What may be a wonder is the reactions to Paul’s teaching in each city. It might not be what some would expect.

Athens

Athens was the intellectual capital of the world. By the time Paul arrived it had lost its status as the political center, but it retained its status as the virtual center of the known civilized world.

Greece was not always Greece. In its earliest existence it was a loose confederation of city-states, of which Athens was one. At one time, Athens was the most powerful of these independent governments. The Athenians developed a democratic system of government.Athens was one of the places you had to go if you wanted to be anybody. During a period of peace they excelled in the areas of philosophy, drama, and the visual arts. This “golden age” still stands as one of the most productive in these areas until the Renaissance. It was also during this time that Athens began to excel in military might, as well. This was the period of the Persian Wars, and the great victory at Marathon.

Truth be told, what would become the Greeks were often more at battle with each other than anyone else. This was not more true than the conflicts between Athens and Sparta that became the Peloponnesian Wars. At one point Athens was defeated and Corinth demanded the total destruction of the city, but Sparta refused. Nevertheless, Athens never fully regained its political power. Indeed, Sparta also lost influence, while Corinth gained.

The great conqueror of the world was not even Greek, but Macedonian. Athens did not prosper under Alexander. Then came the Romans. Still, Greek was the universal language of the Mediterranean area. Athens retained its status as the center of learning, despite significant competition from Alexandria.

In the Roman world, Athens was a small city. The big four were Rome, Ephesus, Antioch, and Alexandria. Perhaps this was due to the Greek idea that once a city reached a certain size it outgrew itself and had to send part of its population elsewhere. Nevertheless, Athens was still one of the places you had to go if you were anybody, or wanted to be anybody. So Paul came to Athens.

He was waiting for his friends to join him, so he wandered the city. Paul was not immune to being a tourist, even though he had spent time in two of the largest cities in the world. As he wandered the city, he saw many monuments to the Greek gods.

Now, some Jewish scholars with whom he had grown up might have taken the route that some Christians today take; he could have polemicized against idolatry and told the Athenians they were all going to hell. Instead, when the leading aesthetes asked him to speak to them he started by praising them for their religiosity. “Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things you are very religious.” (Acts 17:22) He went on from there to teach them about “the unknown god,” who was really the God of creation. Luke summarizes his sermon.

God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands; Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed any thing, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead. (Acts 17:24-31)

To the Athenians who were the inventors of rhetoric, this was a masterful speech. It builds from an identification of who God is, through what he has done, to what he expects. The speech had but one flaw; the word Anastasia, resurrection. He held his audience until that point, and then they began to argue whether what he said was believable. Some mocked, some put off judgement, and a few believed. Paul’s reception in Athens could, at best, be called mixed. Indeed, we hear very little about the Athenian church in the rest of scripture.

Corinth

Corinth had its golden age as well. It was one of the first places to use silver coins. It had developed Corinthian architecture, which was the most decorative of the three classes of Greek building. It had invented the trireme, a warship with three rows of oars, which became the dominant galley of the Mediterranean even into the Roman period. Corinth was one of the first city-states to throw off the power of the priests and establish a secular government.

Despite its strategic location on the isthmus between Peloponnesus and Achaia (the two principle divisions of what is now Greece), and despite its power in the Peloponnesian wars, Corinth did not fare well under the Macedonians and the Romans. In fact, the city was totally destroyed in about 146 BC. It ceased to exist entirely until Gaius Julius (Caesar) rebuilt it in the year in which he was assassinated. Over the next fifty years it regained much of its former glory.

In Paul’s time Corinth was really a very young city, in contrast to very old Athens. By the time of his visit, Corinth had become one of the richest cities in the Empire. Because of its location it was a center of trade. As the shortest point between the Adriatic and Aegean Seas, it held a status now experienced by Suez or Panama. It was the shortest trade route, and therefore became a wealthy city.

As a center of trade, however, Corinth did not enjoy the intellectual benefits of Athens. Instead it became like many port cities, a center of vice and depravity. Trade means sailors, and sailors have to have their prostitutes and alcohol. The port of Corinth was noted for its “fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, effeminate, men who sleep with other men, thieves, covetous, drunkards, revilers, and extortioners.” (1 Cor 6:9-10)

Paul apparently spent only a few days in Athens, but this was a city in which he spent over a year and a half. (Acts 18:11) That is probably because he could not reach the Athenian mind, even with his superior logic, but Corinth was fertile soil. Perhaps because it contained sinners who knew they were sinners he was able to teach God’s word more effectively.

We have no record that Paul ever wrote to the church in Athens. The Athenian letter, if there ever was one, is long lost. In contrast, we have preserved two of the possibly four letters Paul wrote to the Corinthians. (If he wrote four, then 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians are probably actually 2 and 4 Corinthians.) Tarsus was where he was born and Jerusalem was where he was schooled. Antioch was his home base, and Ephesus was a favorite city. But Corinth also held an extra special place in his heart. Just reading the Corinthian letters reveals a depth of feeling Paul shows for no other group of people. He shows love and gratitude to the Philippians, but his worry and his care are for the church at Corinth.

The church at Corinth had problems with those outside the church. The church at Corinth had problems within the church. The letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor in the Revelation reveal some very real issues; nevertheless, Corinth is known today as the most dysfunctional of the churches of the first century. Perhaps it was that dysfunction that caused Paul to write more frequently when he had left the city. Perhaps, though, it is just that dysfunction that drew the Corinthian church closer to Paul’s heart. It is easy to like a congregation that seems to have no problems; it is easier to love a congregation that seems to be more in need of love.

Corinth may have been the most valuable congregation to the church throughout the ages. If Corinth had not had all the problems inherent in being a sailor’s town, we might not have the letters Paul wrote. If we did not have those letters, we would not know how Paul expected the church to function in a dysfunctional society.Corinth, like many port cities, became a center of vice and depravity. It is through Paul’s writings to the congregation at Corinth that we know about how the church should deal with division, issues with the Lord’s Supper, issues of sexuality, questions about the resurrection of the dead, and forgiveness of repentant Christians. In these letters we see Paul’s attitude toward preaching, and his views on how the church should deal with those outside of it.

It is a tale of two cities. Separated in space by only 44 miles (70.8 km), they were separated by light years in attitude. Athens was proud, ancient, and intellectual; and as a result generally close-minded. Corinth was young, wealthy, boisterous, and ambitious; and as a result more open to new ideas. Athens had all the answers; Corinth had all the questions. When Paul approached the Athenians, his answers did not match their answers. When Paul came to the Corinthians his answers were the perfect solution to their questions.

We live with people who are from these two cities. The temptation would be to say that since Corinth was more open, we should teach only those of the Corinthian mind. That would be wrong. Paul went first to Athens. Granted, it was first on the road he traveled, but he did not bypass the city. He taught the Athenians, and had some converts. Those few people are no less valuable than the many he changed in Corinth. In his tale of two cities, Paul shows us that we must not judge the audience. Whether in Athens or Corinth, among the intellectuals or the rabble, our job is to preach the gospel.