In 1 Corinthians 1:20 Paul asks ποῦ συζητητὴς τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου;
The NIV translates “Where is the philosopher of this age?” A more accurate translation is “debater.” Bruce Winter, in his book After Paul Left Corinth describes how the movement known as the “Second Sophistic” affected the Roman city of Corinth.
Earlier, in the time of Socrates the first Sophistic movement entered Athens. The Sophists taught eager young men–for a good fee–the arts of being successful. Success for these ambitious students who hoped to move quickly up the ladder in politics meant learning the art of persuasion, how to sway a crowd with moving words and convincing arguments. It didn’t matter if the arguments were true, what does that have to do with winning?
It was on that point that Socrates disagreed with the Sophists. How do you know what success is, if you don’t care about truth? How can a life be called successful if it is based on sleazy manipulation?
Four hundred and fifty years later the Sophistic movement gained a new life and the Sophists came to Corinth. A teacher would advertise a sample oration or debate (in which vicious insults was often the key to defeating his opponents) and then would enroll tuition paying students in the full course.
Once more the philosophers and the Sophists became bitter enemies. That’s why the NIV translation in this verse is historically inaccurate. It is also misleading. It gives the impression that St. Paul is anti-intellectual.
Paul is attacking pride in human accomplishments and the idea that life is a struggle of all against all, a contest to be won at any cost and by any means. That is what the “debater” represents. It is also what the system he calls “the world” represents. It’s what we used to call the establishment, the machine, or the Man.
But Paul is not attacking clear thinking or clear and effective communication.