Given the high value placed on public opinion, one can understand the high value 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 also 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. One cannot pass this by without acknowledging Paul’s focus on eloquent speech, understanding its function within the culture. An observer must also acknowledge that glossolalia is a speech act as well. This particular type of speech act, which was intimately 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, it is worth perusing a papyrus fragment dating from 110 A.D., roughly fifty years beyond the time of the writing of Paul’s letter. That fragment reads “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 that was then 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, outgoing, engaging, and comfortable with public speech 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 in Corinth and in the church in Corinth were no different (and there is nothing wrong with that).