Archaeology has uncovered an abundance of inscriptions in the city of Corinth that attest to the importance of the honor and shame system and the court of public opinion. These inscriptions are honorific in nature, as would be expected, and serve to demonstrate what seems to be a near obsession with public honor. Such inscriptions, obviously, would be encouraged by those being honored as it would cause the honorees to be viewed in the most positive light imaginable and by the widest possible cross-section of the populace (with this standing in for mass media).
These inscriptions would run the gamut, extolling individuals for being loyal and generous, excelling in virtues while shunning vices, gracious tending to the affairs of others as much as he would his own, and living a life free from strife. These things serve to adequately demonstrate the types of things that could lead, along with actions of public benefaction, to the accrual of honor. A person feted in such ways would be accorded much honor in accordance with the value system of society, as confirmed by the ever-changing court of public opinion. Conversely, disloyal behavior, stinginess, an excess of vice-like behavior, a selfish pre-occupation with one’s own affairs, and the production of strife were actions that would lead to the accrual of shame.
Given the high value placed on public opinion, we can understand the high value also placed on the use of rhetoric in the ancient world, as skilled speakers could do much to shape consensus, dragging public opinion concerning that which should be understood to be truly honorable in the direction desired by those that wished to either gain in status or cement their positions. It is the importance of the orator in this regard, as not only would the orator have his own honor while also being employed in ways that would gain honor for others, that stands in the background and informs Paul’s words about eloquence and wisdom and status and identification with certain individuals in his first letter to Corinth.
Eloquence, which was associated with wisdom, was associated with honor. A highly effective public speaker would be viewed with much honor and could be employed to achieve the same for others by either “singing their praises” or shaping the consciousness of the community in such a way that they found themselves wishing to bestow honor in accordance with the actions of the one being so praised. We cannot pass this by without acknowledging Paul’s focus on eloquent speech, understanding its function within the culture. We must also acknowledge that glossolalia (speaking in tongues), which is also referenced in the letter to Corinth, is a speech act as well. This particular type of speech act, which was associated with the gods, when performed publicly, was yet another means by which honor would be accrued.
Paying attention to the value of the orator, we can peruse a papyrus fragment dating from 110 A.D., roughly fifty years beyond the time of the writing of Paul’s letter. In that fragment we read “Pay to Licinius the rhetor,” rhetor being a specific type of orator (short for rhetorician---one specifically skilled in the art of rhetoric, which was a foundational component of the education system of the day and a valued tool for the shaping of opinion well employed by Paul), “the amount due him for the speeches in which Aurelius… was honored… in the gymnasium in the Great Serapeion, four hundred drachmas of silver.” According to the first century Roman historian by the name of Tacitus, the amount of money that was paid to Licinius exceeded the wages paid to a Roman soldier for a year’s worth of service. This serves to demonstrate the high value placed on this skill.
Accordingly, as there was much money to be made, especially because the skill was put to use in connection with the pursuit of honor (or the conferring of shame---it served a dual role), training in such speech and writing was central to the education provided in the institutions of the day. Indeed, the mastery of rhetorical speech was a potentially lucrative enterprise, serving to assist in the accrual of both wealth and public honor. Again, the gaining of position in society, and by extension, within the institutions and associations of that society, whatever those may be, is connected to public speech acts. Those that were more charismatic were able to serve themselves quite well. Because of this, rhetorical speech was prized almost universally in the ancient world. Romans, Greeks, and Jews, rich and poor alike, slaves and free, men and women, all enjoyed listening to the presentation of an eloquent speech riddled with lofty rhetoric. In this way, the people that composed the church of Corinth were no different than the wider populace of Corinth and the ancient world, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that.