Following his limited success at Athens, Paul traveled to Corinth, hoping for better response to his message. In a distance of forty miles he moved from the intellectual center of Greece to its most splendid commercial center.
This was the first of his three visits to the Corinth, and he remained at least 18 months (spring of 50 - fall 51 AD) — his first extended stay in one city. To support his missionary activities, he again worked as a tent-cloth maker. Undoubtedly he chose Corinth because of its central location and because of its large Jewish community. During his stay he wrote both his first and second letters to Thessalonians.
Corinth (of uncertain derivation, means "satiated") stood on the narrow isthmus connecting the Greek mainland with the Peloponnesus, the near-island at the southern end of the Greek peninsula. The city site was about 40 miles west of Athens on an elevated plain at the foot of the imposing Acrocorinth, a rocky hill rising 1,886 feet above sea level.
Stone tools and pottery attest to settlement in the area before 3,000 BC. But the history of the city really began in the 1st millennium BC with its settlement by the Dorian Greeks.
In the 8th and 7th centuries BC, the city, then known as Ephyra ("guard" or "lookout"), founded colonies at Corfu and Syracuse. Under the tyrants Cypselus (about 657-629 BC) and his son Periander (about 629-585 BC) it reached great power and prosperity, dominating extensive trade routes.
But with the rise of Athens, Corinth fell into decline. It was allied with Sparta in the Peloponnesian War (431-404 BC) and with Athens in the Corinthian War (395-386 BC). As a member of the Achaean League, it came into conflict with Rome. In 146 BC it was captured, burned and sacked by the Roman consul Mummius, who killed the men, and sold the women and children into slavery. For a century, it lay in ruins until about 100 years before Paul arrived on his first visit.
Corinth at the time of Paul
When Paul came to Corinth about 50 AD, the city was relatively young, having been re-founded as a Roman colony in 44 BC by Julius Caesar.
"Now after Corinth had remained deserted for a long time, it was restored again, because of its favorable position, by the deified Caesar." – Strabo, Geography
The emperor repopulated his new city mostly with freed slaves (libertini) from Greece, Egypt, Syria and Judea. In his honor it was called Colonia Laus Julia Corinthiensis, and it rose quickly to became, along with Alexandria, Rome, Antioch and Ephesus, one of the most important cities in the Roman Empire, famous for its luxury, architecture and ceramics. While Athens was the intellectual center of Greece, Corinth was the undisputed commercial center. Under Augustus, Corinth was made capital of the province of Achaea and seat of its proconsul (Acts 18:12).
Below, drawing of the Corinth city center around the time of Paul
Except where protected by the Acrocorinth, which served as the city's acropolis, it was surrounded by a six-mile wall. All trade from the north of Greece to Sparta and the Peloponnesus passed through Corinth, as did the greater part of east-west traffic.
Ships from Asia Minor, Syria and Egypt docked at the port of Cenchrea (below) on the Saronic Gulf to the east (see Romans 16:1 and Acts 18:18).
Those ships from Italy, Sicily and Spain stopped at Lechaion (below, satellite view) on the Corinthian Gulf to the north.
A great lighthouse and Poseidon temple guided ships into the harbors, filling the city's markets and the warehouses on the wharves with goods from the around the empire and beyond — spices from India, silk from China, linen from Tarsus, marble from Turkey, Greece and North Africa, timber from Italy. Upon docking at either port, small ships were placed on rollers and pulled across the isthmus by slaves on a four-mile-long marble slip-way (diokolos, "haul across").
The cargoes of large ships were unloaded and carried across the isthmus to ships docked at the opposite port. Otherwise ships had to travel an extra 200 miles around the extreme southern tip of Greece, known as Cape Malea (now Cape Matapan). Rounding Cape Malea was as dangerous as rounding Cape Horn in later times. The Greeks had two sayings: "Let him who sails round Malea forget his home," and, "Let him who sails round Malea first make his will."
In 66 AD, 16 years after Paul first came to the city, Nero began cutting a canal through the isthmus utilizing 6,000 Jews recently captured by general Vespasian (later emperor) in the Jewish War. But he abandoned it when when Egyptian scientists told him the sea would "flood and obliterate the island of Aegina." Today, that distance is crossed by the 75' wide Corinth Canal completed between 1882 and 1893.
Because of its proximity to major ports to the east and west, many sailors, merchants, adventurers and retired army veterans resided in Corinth. It was a place of energy, wealth and noise. It also had a reputation as a corrupt and wicked city. The verb 'Korinthiazesthai' ('to Corinth') in popular Greek meant to fornicate, and 'Corinthian girl' was synonymous for a prostitute. Paul's letters to the Corinthians address several questions of marriage and sexual morality. Shortly after Paul left Corinth, one of the church members became involved in a sex scandal. With this in mind, read 1 Corinthians 6:9,10:
"Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders, nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God."
Corinth also derived much wealth from its many pagan temples and shrines where homage was paid to foreign as well as civic deities like Isis, Serapis, Astarte, Artemis, Apollo, Hermes, Heracles, Athena and Poseidon. It had a famous temple dedicated to Aesklepius, the god of healing where patients left terra cotta replicas of body parts with the hope that their ailments would be healed. The most significant pagan cult in Corinth, however, was to Aphrodite whose temple was located atop the Acrocorinth. It had more than 1000 temple prostitutes dedicated to the goddess. In the evening they would descend the acropolis to ply there trade on the city streets. According to historian Strabo, it was because of them that the city was "crowded with people and grew rich." It is little wonder that Paul had so much to say in his first letter to the Corinthians about the sacredness of the body:
"Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred, and you are that temple" (1 Corinthians 3:16-17).
Being near the town of Isthmia (3.7 miles east), where Olympic-style games were held every two years, the Corinthians enjoyed the athletic contests and the wealth brought by visitors. The games were probably held the year after Paul arrived and he used them to emphasize the need for self-control to win a lasting prize:
"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last for ever" (1 Corinthians 9:24-25).
Touring the ancient city
Luckily, the modern city of Korinthos was not built on the ancient site and there is much to see from the time of Paul:
Temple of Octavia or Temple E (1st century) (below) - Thought to have been dedicated to Octavia (27 BC-14 AD), the sister of Emperor Augustus, it was built on a small platform on the ruins of a 3rd century BC temple; part of the foundation and a three pillars remain. The temple represents the imperial cult of Rome, which was spread throughout the empire. ** (See note at bottom of page)
Agora (from Greek ageiro, "to gather") - The center of city life and the place where all the business and most of the political activities were conducted. A line of shops divided the rectangular agora into unequal southern and northern sections. After the re-establishment of the city in 44 BC, the Roman colonists may have located the agora at a different site from the one occupied by the earlier Greek city. After the re-founding the inscriptions are predominantly in Latin rather than Greek. Here, among the offices of the city magistrates and the shops where goods and foodstuffs were sold, we can imagine Paul beginning to talk about of Jesus. ** (See note at bottom of page)
Row of shops (below) - along the west end of the Agora, with Acrocorinth.
"Bema" ("court," NIV; "judgment-seat," ASV and KJV) - An elevated platform at the center of the line of shops dividing the agora, it stood at a point highly visible to the crowds gathered there. Originally covered with white and blue marble, it had benches on the back and part way on the sides. Along the rear of the platform rose an elaborate superstructure of some sort of which there are only fragmentary remains. The entire complex was open to the sky. It served as a public speaker's platform and a judgment seat for magistrates. It was possibly here that Paul was brought before Gallio, the proconsul of Achaia, by the Jews of Corinth (Acts 18:12-17). ** (See note at bottom of page)
Periene Fountain (below) - For centuries, pilgrims worshiped at these sacred springs. The fountain was situated east of the Lechaion road and the townspeople went through the six arched openings to reach the water basins (water still flows through them). After a period of neglect between 146 BC and 44 BC, the fountain was developed and renovated during a series of seven Roman periods. In the courtyard is a rectangular basin supplied with water from chambers 2 and 4. It was constructed in the middle of the courtyard during the 4th Roman Period and was called a "Hypaithros Krene." It was accessed by stairways on its northeast and northwest corners. During the 5th Roman Period a rectangular concrete platform was constructed at the south end of the Hypaithros Krene. ** (See note at bottom of page)
Temple of Apollo (below) - Built in 600 BC, it somehow survived the destruction of the city by Rome in 146 BC. It measured 174' by 69'. Seven of the original thirty-eight columns still stand. Each was 24' high and 6' in diameter and, unlike many in Greece, were carved from single blocks of local limestone instead of being assembled with drums. Plaster made with marble dust was used to give them a marble-like appearance.
Lechaion Road (below) - Corinth's main north-south street (cardo maximus) from the agora to the northern port city of Lechaion on the Corinthian Gulf. Staircases on either end make it obvious the road was not meant for vehicles. ** (See note at bottom of page)
Lechaion Road entered the agora through a monumental entrance (propylea) (scant remains below). ** (See note at bottom of page)
Below, possibly the remains of the meat market. Archaeologists believe that an area of shops, not far from the temple of Apollo was the location of the Corinth meat market. Some of these shops sold meat previously offered to pagan gods. The temple priests could not eat all the meat sacrificed, so they sold it to the local butchers for income. Early Christians struggled with the problem of whether it was acceptable to eat meat that had been offered to idols (see Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8, 10). One of Paul's conclusions:
"Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, 'The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.'"
(1 Corinthians 10:25-26).
Synagogue Inscription - In 1898, a block of white marble was found near the propylea which once formed the lintel over a doorway. It had a broken Greek inscription, dating between 100 BC and 200 AD, that read [Syna]goge Hebr[aion] "Synagogue of the Hebrews." It may have marked the entrance to the synagogue where Paul taught, or a later building on the same site. The poorly cut letters indicate it was not a wealthy synagogue, in accord the Paul's characterization of the Corinthian Christians in 1 Corinthians 1:26. The synagogue was probably located on the east side of the street. As indicated by the remains of house walls, this was mainly a residential area. Consequently the house of "Titus Justus" (Acts 18:7) could have easily been "next door."
Fountain of Glauke (below) - A water reservoir where women of the town came to fill water jars. Its four cisterns were carved from the same limestone ridge where the Temple of Apollo stands and may have been built at the same time. It is in the form of a large cube measuring roughly 49 feet by 45 feet and 24 feet high. The fountain may have been destroyed by the Romans in 146 BC but elements of it were repaired and restored when the new city was built in 44 BC.
Odeum (below) - A small covered theater or hall used for public performances, it also served as a meeting place for civic affairs. It consisted of a seating area (cavea), an orchestra, a stage building (scanae frons), two corridors (parodoi) and an open court. It was constructed in the last third of the 1st century AD and rebuilt twice afterward. ** (See note at bottom of page)
Theater (below) - Located just north of the odeum.
"Erastus" inscription - In his letter to the Romans, most likely written from Corinth, Paul passed on massages from his companions to the Christians in Rome. Among those sending messages was one "Erastus, who is the city's director of public works...send(s his) greetings." (Romans 16:23) In 1929 archaeologists excavating in Corinth in a paved square just east of the city's theater discovered a broken inscription dating to the second half of the 1st century AD, reading: "ERASTVS PRO AEDILIT[AT]E S P STRAVIT" ("Erastus, in return for his aedileship, laid [this pavement] at his own expense"). An "aedile" is either a city engineer or chief of public works, and there is every reason to believe that the Erastus in this inscription is the same person Paul referred to in his letter to the Romans.
Paul preaches the Gospel in Corinth
(The account of Paul's first stay in Corinth is found in Acts 18:1-17)
According to Acts, when Paul first came to Corinth, he met "a Jew named Aquila, a native of Pontus, who had recently come from Italy with his wife Priscilla." The couple had recently come there because the emperor Claudius had ordered all the Jews expelled from Rome. Like Paul, they were tent makers, or rather tent-cloth makers (Greek skenopoios, tent maker), and Paul moved in with them so they could work together. This allowed him to go to the synagogue every Sabbath to preach to the local Jews and God-fearers. His work also provided him an opportunity to preach among his fellow trades-people. Clubs or guilds were among the social units at this time, and leather workers, like Paul, Aquila and Priscilla, would have belonged to such an association, which served the double function of providing business contacts and fellowship. In Greek the words club, association, assembly and church are all the same (ekklesia). Certainly, the church at Corinth included many trades-people who worked with Paul during his stay. Unlike Athens, where Paul attempted to take his message to the elite intellectual class, at Corinth he turned to the working-class, the dock workers, the sailors, the innkeepers, those who were poor in every respect, those who were exploited, those on whose backs the prosperity of the ruling class was built.
During this time, Timothy and Silas arrived from Macedonia with a gift, probably a money subsidy, which allowed Paul to preach full-time.
While speaking in the synagogue a number of Jews took offense at Paul's words and, on one occasion, shouted insults at him. In response, Paul "shook out his clothes" in front of them, a gesture to show he was breaking relations with them. He then said to them,
"Your blood be on your own heads! I am clear of my responsibility. From now on I will go to the Gentiles."
Henceforth, he stopped going to the synagogue, and went "next door to the house of Titius Justus" to set-up an alternate teaching center. However, he did attain some small but significant success with the Jews for, as Acts tell us, the president of the synagogue, Crispus, and his household, along with many Corinthians, were baptized.
At one point in his stay, Paul may have become discouraged. Acts records that one night he had a vision from God telling him to keep preaching fearlessly and that "no-one (was) going to attack and harm" him because of the great number of believers in the city.
The situation changed, however, when a new Roman proconsul named Gallio was appointed to govern Achaea. In a "united attack" the Jews brought Paul before Gallio at the "court" in the agora where they accused him of "persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law," that is the Jewish law. But Gallio dismissed the charge, telling them to settle the matter themselves. Then he ordered the area cleared. Immediately, Acts says, "they all turned on Sosthenes," the new synagogue president, and beat him. It is not clear from Acts why Sosthenes was punished or even who the "they" were. Whether it was the Jews themselves or someone else with anti-Jewish feelings is not known.
After reporting this incident, Acts states that "Paul stayed on in Corinth for some time."
During his eighteen months in Corinth, Paul worried particularly about the new Christians in Thessaloniki. But when Timothy returned from a pastoral visit there with news about their faith and growth, Paul wrote them a commendation letter which also answered several questions concerning the second coming of Christ. This is the letter we call First Thessalonians, and it is the earliest writing in the New Testament, even earlier than the four Gospel.
** High resolution versions of these and other images of the ruins at Corinth are available for purchase at CIR Photos.com