Given what I've read on the historical context of Corinth in the first century CE, it seems likely that the audience of Paul's epistle known as 1 Corinthians1 are Gentile Christians in Corinth.

However, Philo notes that there was a sizable Jewish population in Corinth2 (but this does not necessarily mean that many of them became followers of Jesus after hearing Paul's message). Also, if the account of Acts is historical,3 particularly chapter 18, then likely there were not many Jewish adherents of Christianity in Corinth.

With the audience in mind, how should ἔθνος be translated in 1 Corinthians, particularly in 5:1?

Ὅλως ἀκούεται ἐν ὑμῖν πορνεία, καὶ τοιαύτη πορνεία ἥτις οὐδὲ ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν, ὥστε γυναῖκά τινα τοῦ πατρὸς ἔχειν (emphasis mine).

Many translations here have "Gentiles", but if the audience is largely Gentile Christians, would this be better translated "pagans" (or something else)? Or is this a shift in the letter where Jewish Christians are being addressed in 5ff?

Also, note that some scholars have suggested there are as many as three letters concatenated in this epistle. However, there seems stronger support for unity from what I've read (but this may be relevant).

NOTE: A good answer to this question will address both sub-questions:

  1. Who is the intended audience of 1 Corinthians?
  2. How should ἔθνος be translated in 5:1 (and throughout the remainder of the epistle in general)?

1 Paul references a previous letter in 1 Corinthians 5:9, which indicates this is not truly the first letter sent to Corinth.

2 Philo, De Legatione ad Caium (On the Embassy to Gaius) XXXVI, 281ff. Read on CCEL.

3 The historical reliability of Acts is questionable given its disparities with Paul's own accounts of his ministry (compare Galatians 2 & Acts 9ff for example).

This question stems from a comment on an answer to another question.

  • I'm debating if extending the question about translating ἔθνος throughout the epistle (beyond just 5:1) is too broad. If several folks think so, please indicate this in the comments and I'll edit to focus solely on 5:1.
    – Dan
    Commented Oct 4, 2016 at 19:35
  • It might be appropriate to surmise that "let us keep the feast" is a response to the question, "Should we keep the feast?" though again, what is inferred generally doesn't stand alone and must always be established by something explicit.
    – user10231
    Commented Oct 6, 2016 at 0:31
  • 1
    @Dan, there are only three uses of ἔθνος in the book (unless I missed something), I note the other two uses in my answer, and hope that it is helpful for you. Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 12:38
  • I would also expect a good answer to address the meaning of ethnos in contrast to polis.
    – fumanchu
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 22:07

2 Answers 2


I tend to agree that the church at Corinth was primarily composed of Gentiles, and I agree that in this case "pagans" or even "heathens" might be a better translation.

It must be remembered that even with primarily Gentile churches, the scriptures that they had available were Jewish scriptures, so the standards and mores transmitted to the Church were based on Jewish concepts of morality. Paul cites Jewish prophets as sources for his arguments (see 1 Cor 1:19 and 1:31 for two quick examples), and bases his arguments on those texts as understood by the nascent Christian community.

Additionally, the reason I say "heathen" may be a better translation is that Paul is using the word "ἔθνος" as an insult, at least in this case. You can hear his outrage--"There's one among you who has married his step-mother! Even the heathens don't do this!" His other uses of the word ἔθνος in this epistle are not insults: in both 10:20 and 12:2, he is simply talking about people who do not worship God, but in this case, he is attempting to transmit his outrage and horror at the situation.

  • 1
    @WoundedEgo comments are not the place to debate an answer (this is a Q&A site, not a discussion forum). If you disagree, post another answer. Justin, I've upvoted this answer as helpful +1
    – Dan
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 18:40
  • My apologies to both Dan and WoundedEgo--the system was advising me to take the discussion to chat, but I'm new enough I didn't know how that worked. Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 18:58
  • No problems @Justin - I know you're newer, that's why I jumped in with a comment (but WoundedEgo should know that comments should not be used to debate an answer). He should post his own answer if he disagrees.
    – Dan
    Commented Oct 9, 2016 at 22:46

If the audience is primarily "Gentile" then why would Paul In Chapter 5, when addressing the sexual immorality, that is not even named among the "gentiles". Would this not point to the audience being "non-gentile"? and further down in chapter 5 Paul states that "Leaven" should be purged out knowing his audience would already understand. Then he immediately moves into the Jewish Feast of the Passover and Unleavened Bread in vs 8. The Understanding of these "Jewish Feasts" and their deep implications I don't think would be studied and common knowledge among "Gentiles". To walk up to a Non-Jewish person and say "Christ is our Passover" would not invoke a remembrance back to the Exodus and What Passover is and why it was kept as a yearly Pilgrim Feast. I think It was a mixture of both for sure. But Paul's references here are definitely of Jewish thought.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.