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.