Paul vs. the Debaters of the Age: Some Background to the Corinthian Letters

In the beginning of 1 Corinthians, Paul issued this challenge: “Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?” (1 Corinthians 1:20 ESV)

When we understand what was happening in Corinth in the first century, both 1 and 2 Corinthians make more sense. Bruce W. Winter provided helpful background in his book, After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change.

In this post, I want to look at what Winter had to say about the class of debaters called “sophists” (derived from the Greek word for “wisdom”), and how it helps us understand some of the things Paul wrote.

The Sophist Renaissance

The original sophists were philosopher/teachers in Greece in the fifth century B.C., in the days of Socrates and Plato (although those two are not necessarily counted among the sophists).

Centuries later, when Paul arrived in Corinth, he encountered what Bruce W. Winter called a sophist “renaissance.”[1]

The sophists in the Corinth of Paul’s day were “virtuoso orators who possessed a large public following.” They were public figures in the city, paid speakers, and they “ran expensive schools.”[2] But the sophist was the only teacher in the school, and it was built around his personality.

The Importance of Public Speaking

The sophists taught public speaking in their schools. Public speaking was important, and it had to be done in a certain way. Winter explains:

“Parents were therefore particularly concerned to find the best sophist for their son. Because oratory was essential for any public career in the first century, it was important to have sons well trained in this sophisticated discipline.”[3]

As we will see below, Paul referred to himself as “unskilled in speaking” (2 Corinthians 11:6). This does not necessarily mean that he was bad by our standards, or bad by first-century synagogue standards. But by Corinthians standards, he was a complete failure, and this mattered a lot to them.

Paul also faced this criticism: “his bodily presence is weak” (2 Corinthians 10:10). Winter points out how important that was:

“For more than two centuries `rhetorical delivery’ had encompassed both speech and `bodily presence’; this included appearance and a stage presence.”[4]

An Untrained Speaker Faced a Great Challenge

The sophists were extremely competitive with one another, and this extended to their students. They were paying a lot of money to their teacher, and they wanted to believe that they had chosen the best one.

The students were called “disciples.” (This may explain why Paul didn’t use that word in his letters to Corinth.) The disciples would boast to one another about their teachers.

It was humiliating to be seen as a “disciple” of Paul, in the Corinthian sense of the word. And to those outside the church, that is what the church would have looked like, Paul’s school. And the man couldn’t speak properly. He was an embarrassment.

Bruce W. Winter again:

“A disciple whose teacher failed in any aspect of rhetorical delivery had an uphill battle to defend him in the face of such an obvious defect, as it would quickly draw criticism from the disciples of other teachers.”[5]

How to Become a Sophist

There was a lot of money to be made as a sophist with your own school. But it was a hard business to break into. You had to attract a crowd, for you were judged by the numbers. There was also a specific test:

“There were established conventions by which a sophist secured a foothold in a city. On first arriving, the teacher advertised by sending out invitations indicating the time and place where he would present his credentials and declaim. At the appointed hour he addressed the gathered assembly. Seated, he would engage in an encomium on the city and an oblique self-commendation…The sophist then invited the audience to nominate any topic on which he would declaim. Once that was known, the choice rested with him to rise from his seat and declaim immediately if he felt competent to speak to the subject, thereby displaying his great ability in extemporary rhetoric.”[6]

Paul may be referring to his practice in 2 Corinthians 11:6. He certainly wasn’t trying out to be a sophist, but the Corinthians were used to testing their potential teachers this way. Paul points out that he passed the knowledge part of the test: “Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge; indeed, in every way we have made this plain to you in all things” (ESV).

The Gospel Was a Much Better Deal Than the Wisdom of Men

Paul defended the gospel by pointing out ways in which it was much more excellent than the schools of the sophists. For one thing, the teachers and preachers of the gospel did not compete with each other, and the Corinthians did not have to choose just one. In fact, they were supposed to take advantage of their abundance of ministers.

Paul put it this way: “So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” (1 Corinthians 3:21-23 ESV)

Among the sophist schools, there was pressure to choose the best teacher, because you had to trust his authority. If he was wrong about something, you didn’t know it. There was no outside authority to evaluate him, there was only his ability to draw a crowd and convince them that he knew what he was talking about.

In the respect as well, the Corinthians were much better off with the gospel. They had the Scriptures. They didn’t need to choose a man to be their final authority. Paul told them they did not have to decide which teacher to be “puffed up” about. Instead, they could learn from all men, and judge all things by “what is written”:

“I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.” (1 Corinthians 4:6 ESV)

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[1] Mr. Bruce W. Winter. After Paul Left Corinth: The Influence of Secular Ethics and Social Change (Kindle Locations 448-449). Kindle Edition.
[2] (Kindle Locations 451-453)
[3] (Kindle Locations 481-482)
[4] (Kindle Location 475)
[5] (Kindle Locations 479-480)
[6] (Kindle Locations 515-519)