In most Bibles, 1 Corinthians 15:33 reads something like this:
‘Do not be misled: “Bad company corrupts good character.”’
This may indeed be a universal truth, but is it what the verse originally said? No. These words are actually a common mistranslation. You may have suspected this from seeing how it doesn’t flow with the rest of the argument very well.
First, consider the word variously translated as company, companionships, associating, or friends. According to ancient sources, the word does not refer to people at all, but to bad (or evil) ideas, stories, and communications.
This would make sense, because the context is Paul refuting the idea, or teaching, that the resurrection has already occurred. He is not talking about bad people, but bad talk and its logical consequences – and older Bibles seem to agree.
For example, the first Bible ever made in English (Tyndale, 1526) says:
‘Be not deceived: malicious speakings corrupt good manners.’
Also, the Aramaic version of the text clearly says communications or stories. Every English translation of the Aramaic agrees on this. For example, the Aramaic Bible in Plain English says:
Be not deceived, evil discourse corrupts pleasant minds.
The only Bibles that translate the word in a way that refers to bad people, and not bad talk, are those from the Greek. The Greek word is ομιλίαι (homilia) – which is defined in most Bible dictionaries as meaning ‘company, association’.
However, if we check the word in the Greek lexicon (which catalogs the real-world ancient uses of Greek words), we find that in ancient times it had many meanings. Yes, it included company and association, but also persuasion, instruction, and intercourse – meaning an interaction of ideas. To put it another way, talk. This matches up well with the Aramaic word. But wait, there’s more.
There is a very odd thing about the verse in Aramaic. The words seem to have a poetic, repetitive cadence, where the endings of the words seem to be deliberately matched up:
Mablan reyaneh basiymeh
They/corrupt minds fair,
This is phrased as if this is a common saying, told in the typical way that was very common in ancient times: making a slight rhyme so it’s easier to remember.
There is a good reason for this: it is a poetic quote! Indeed, it was probably a well-known one at the time. It was used by a popular ancient Greek poet, Menander. Unfortunately, most of his work was lost, and we only have fragments. So how do we know that Paul was using a quote also used by Menander? Because ancient writers tell us so.
The ancient Church historian Socrates of Constantinople reported in his book, Historia Ecclesiastica:
‘Again this sentence [of Paul], ‘Evil communications corrupt good manners,’ is a sufficient proof that he was conversant with the tragedies of Euripides.’– Book III, chapter 16, verse 114
Notice that not only does this confirm that the phrase is indeed a well-known quote, but look at how Socrates quotes it from Paul: ‘Evil communications corrupt good manners.’ He does not say ‘bad company’.
Interestingly, the Hermeneia Bible commentary series on 1 Corinthians says ‘This saying was widely known as a familiar quotation.’ Then it gives an example of its use by the 1st century BCE historian Diodorus Siculus who, speaking of Philip II of Macedon, said:
‘So, organising bands of traitors in the several cities by means of bribes and calling those who accepted his gold “guests” and “friends”, by his evil communications he corrupted the morals of the people’ –Bibliotheca Historica, 16.54.4
Do you see how it was offering bribes, and then calling these bribed people ‘friends’ – evil communications – that the people were corrupted? So it’s clear why Paul was using this common phrase, because the ‘evil’ teaching that the resurrection had already occurred was corrupting the congregation.
The second part
The second part of the phrase, usually translated as ‘good character,’ or ‘good morals’ needs to be re-examined too.
Since this is a moral tale where something is corrupted, it must be the opposite beforehand, so we could collectively summarize all of these simply as good. Things that are good or can be corrupted, we don’t really speak about corrupting things that are pleasant, kind, or sweet. Also, good was the word used by Socrates of Constantinople when he quoted Paul.
But what about the second word? The Aramaic word can mean mind, thought or attitude, as well as will. The Greek word is éthos, and is where we get the word ethics. It can mean habit, manner, custom, or morals.
So, are we talking about corrupting a good mind? Or good morals? Good habits? Good manners? A good conscience? All of these?
We can immediately rule out habits, because, in our modern language, a good habit is something like brushing your teeth before bed. Good habits – as we think of them today – do not fit in the context. No longer believing in a future resurrection will not stop you brushing your teeth.
We can rule out manners for the same reason, because in modern English, good manners are things like saying please or thank you, or keeping the door open for someone behind you. This is nothing to do with being corrupted by an incorrect teaching about the resurrection!
Good conscience could fit, but when both Socrates of Constantinople and Diodorus Siculus (quoted above) used the expression, they did not say anything so specific as conscience.
So we are left with corrupting the morals or the mind. These are similar thoughts. However, corrupting your morals is the best choice for two reasons: it’s how Diodorus Siculus quoted Paul, and that’s what Paul was talking about. The previous verse said:
‘And if the dead aren’t going to be raised, and if it was just as a man that I fought wild animals at Ephesus, what good did it do me? Why not rather say, ‘Let’s eat and drink, for tomorrow we will die!’ —1 Corinthians 15:32
Clearly the implication is that, if this life is all there is, why not just enjoy it in an immoral way? So if people believe this false teaching about the resurrection, throw your morals to the wind, and enjoy life! Then comes the warning, that evil communications, or ideas, like that, can corrupt your good morals.
It makes perfect sense. Therefore our translation puts 1 Corinthians 15:33 as:
‘So, don’t allow [anyone] to mislead you about this… Remember that “evil communications corrupt good morals!”’
This fits the context perfectly, flows extremely well, matches the ancient uses of the words, and agrees with ancient historians quoting the same expression.
Are bad companions okay?
So, are we saying that the Bible doesn’t condemn associating with bad people? No, of course not. There are numerous warnings about befriending evil people, especially in the Psalms and Proverbs. However, 1 Corinthians 15:33 is not one of them.
This verse is warning about something else: how what you believe affects your morals!
Indeed, the 20th century had a very stark example of evil beliefs causing people to lose their morals. Hitler’s beliefs in a German master race, the pseudoscience of eugenics, Nietzsche’s nihilist philosophy that life is meaningless, and Darwin’s survival of the fittest, all combined to create some of the greatest horrors ever inflicted upon humanity.