Corinth in Acts: Paul’s Financial Support
by Steve Walton
Corinth is a key center for Paul’s missionary activity in the book of Acts. The apostle spends at least eighteen months there (Acts 18:11, Acts 18:18)—a substantially longer period than he stays anywhere else except Ephesus. But how did he support himself while in Corinth? The account of Paul’s Corinthian ministry in the book of Acts (Acts 18:1-21) provides some clues.
Acts 18:3 alone names Paul’s trade, traditionally translated “tentmaker.” In the first century, tents may have been made from cloth woven from goat hair, known as cilicium, a name some connect with Paul’s home region, Cilicia (Acts 21:39, Acts 22:3, Acts 23:34). If tents were made from animal skins, however, we should interpret Paul’s occupation as “leather worker” (Hock). However, tanning was considered an unclean trade among Jews (and Paul was a Jew), so the matter remains uncertain.
In a port city like Corinth, the construction and repair of tents would have been especially valuable, given the needs of the many travelers passing through. Sailors also often lived onshore in tents while their ships were in dock.
We know of ancient workshops like the ones that Paul worked in, and these give us a window into his ministry in Corinth. The work was strenuous—Paul calls it “labor and toil”—and took substantial time. Paul writes that he worked “night and day” (1Thess 2:9; see also 1Cor 4:12; 2Cor 11:27). However, a workshop was a relatively quiet environment, which could facilitate conversation. In antiquity, Philiscus the shoemaker listened to the philosopher Aristotle read aloud while he worked, and Simon the shoemaker debated with Cynic philosophers as he worked. Such an environment would have enabled Paul to speak about Jesus with customers and colleagues alike. His occupational setting was therefore a major means of evangelism. A workshop could also provide a place for believers to meet outside working hours.
It was common for Jewish rabbis to practice trades, but Greeks and Romans considered manual work fit only for slaves. Paul’s decision to work in a culturally Greek and officially Roman port city therefore caused some criticisms, and he had to defend his policy, arguing that working enabled him to offer the gospel message freely and without “burdening” the Corinthians (1Cor 9:15-18; 2Cor 11:7-10, 2Cor 12:14-18).
Timothy and Silas, two of Paul’s travel companions (Acts 16:1-3, Acts 15:40) whom he had left in Beroea (Acts 17:10-15), arrived in Corinth some time after Paul, and their arrival triggered a change. Acts 18:5 probably means, “Paul began to be fully occupied with proclaiming the word.” At that time, Paul gave himself full-time to proclaiming the gospel and no longer worked in tentmaking. This change was caused by Silas (perhaps with Timothy) bringing a substantial financial gift from Philippi. Second Corinthians 2Cor 11:9 and Phil 4:15 indicate that the Philippian church (located in Macedonia) was the only one that supported Paul financially during his first trip to the province of Achaia (of which Corinth was the capital).
Thus, though Paul was ready to work when necessary, his highest priority was the proclamation of the gospel message. His decisions about working or not were therefore to a degree pragmatic, based on what would facilitate the communication of his message best in a given time and place. However, Paul did decline financial support from those to whom he was proclaiming the gospel at the time. So he turned down subsidy from the Corinthian believers while in Corinth but accepted support from the Philippian believers for his ministry in Corinth.
Steve Walton is professorial research fellow in New Testament and an affiliate of the Center for the Social-Scientific Study of the Bible at St. Mary's University, Twickenham (London), UK. He has a particular interest in the book of Acts and is writing a major commentary on it.
The apostle Paul was likely a tentmaker or leather worker; he also accepted financial support from followers so long as they were not members of the community where he was actively spreading his gospel.
The historical period from the beginning of Western civilization to the start of the Middle Ages.
fourth century BCE Greek philosopher
The proclaiming of "the good news" of Jesus Christ.
A gospel is an account that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth.
Service or a religious vocation to help others.
One who embarks on a mission of good (usually religiously motivated) works, often to a distant locale.
religious authorities of Judaism in the period after the destruction of the second temple in 70 C.E.
A state of being ritually unacceptable and therefore excluded from proximity to holy objects or use in religious observance. According to the book of Levticus, some unclean things can be purified and become clean, whereas other are permanently unclean.
11He stayed there a year and six months, teaching the word of God among them.
Paul's Return to Antioch
18After staying there for a considerable time, Paul said farewell to the believers and sailed for Syria, accompanied by Priscilla and A ... View more
Paul in Corinth
1After this Paul left Athens and went to Corinth.2There he found a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with h ... View more
3and, because he was of the same trade, he stayed with them, and they worked together—by trade they were tentmakers.
39Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city; I beg you, let me speak to the people.”
3“I am a Jew, born in Tarsus in Cilicia, but brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous fo ... View more
34On reading the letter, he asked what province he belonged to, and when he learned that he was from Cilicia,
9You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of ... View more
12and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure;
27in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked.
15But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing this so that they may be applied in my case. Indeed, I would rather die than that—no one will ... View more
7Did I commit a sin by humbling myself so that you might be exalted, because I proclaimed God's good news to you free of charge?8I robbed other churches by acce ... View more
14Here I am, ready to come to you this third time. And I will not be a burden, because I do not want what is yours but you; for children ought not to lay up for ... View more
Timothy Joins Paul and Silas
1Paul went on also to Derbe and to Lystra, where there was a disciple named Timothy, the son of a Jewish woman who was a believer; ... View more
40But Paul chose Silas and set out, the believers commending him to the grace of the Lord.
Paul and Silas in Beroea
10That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea; and when they arrived, they went to the Jewish synagogue.11These Jew ... View more
5When Silas and Timothy arrived from Macedonia, Paul was occupied with proclaiming the word, testifying to the Jews that the Messiah was Jesus.
9And when I was with you and was in need, I did not burden anyone, for my needs were supplied by the friends who came from Macedonia. So I refrained and will co ... View more
15You Philippians indeed know that in the early days of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, excep ... View more