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Notebook: Cities of the New Testament - Corinth

J Grant

Corinth was a famous Greek city, situated some forty miles to the east of Athens, on the isthmus connecting the Peloponnesus to the mainland. It thus had the benefit of two harbours, Cenchreae on the east on the Aegean Sea, and Lechaeum on the west on the Mediterranean Sea, receiving on the one hand the rich merchandise of Asia, and on the other that of the West.

The Greek Era

By the 7th century BC Corinth was a powerful city-state. It struck its own currency and extended its trading settlements considerably during the time when Cypselus and Periander, his son, ruled. They held absolute authority and Periander was considered to be one of the wise men of Greece. During his reign (627-585 BC) there was an attempt made to create a canal across the isthmus between the two harbours, but this was abandoned. However, in place of a canal, a paved road was created, named the Diolkos, which greatly facilitated the transport of goods and travellers from one port to the other. It was not until 1893 that the canal was finally completed.

The Corinthians developed the Corinthian Order of Architecture, that is a unique form of column architecture. There were three such orders, the Doric, the Ionic, and the Corinthian. The Corinthian was known as being the most complex, to reflect the luxury and wealth that was to be seen in the city. An example of this can be seen overleaf.

During the Persian wars (499-449 BC) Corinth provided 40 ships of war which were used in the victory over the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis (480 BC). This victory was followed up one year later when the Persian armies were defeated at the Battle of Plataea. The Greek cities states survived, despite periods of wars between each other, until the expanding Roman Empire determined to subdue them. In 146 BC Lucius Mummius, the Roman general, was victorious and destroyed Corinth. The city was razed to the ground, its treasures plundered and sent to Rome, its men put to death, and the women and children sold as slaves. Corinth, it would appear at that time, was laid so low that it seemed most unlikely that it would ever rise again.

The Roman Era

Before his assassination in 44 BC Julius Caesar authorised the rebuilding of Corinth and made it the centre of government for the province of Achaia. The bestowal of this honour, and the re-building which took place to create a city worthy of such dignity, resulted in a metropolis that was distinguished by its public buildings and by its encouragement of the arts and of learning.

Over the years Corinth once again became a very prosperous commercial centre. Together with this prosperity it became a centre of religion and licentiousness. The worship of Venus was attended with all the shameful rites of heathendom, and society manifested every dreadful moral vice which Paul noted in Romans 1.21-32 (the Roman epistle was written in Corinth). This resulted in Corinth becoming known as the most corrupt city in Greece.

The population consisted of Romans, Greeks, and Jews, and a synagogue was to be found there. The predominant characteristics of this population were those of a great mercantile and seafaring city, barely affected by traditional culture. In the midst of this shifting population the Jews had preserved their identity together with a strong moral consciousness, their national beliefs, and their religious practices.

The Isthmian games, which were held near the city in the year before and the year after the Olympic games, attracted a vast concourse of strangers from all parts. At the games centre the athlete reached the zenith of his fame, and physical skill and prowess became an object of worship. In addition, the Roman influence is seen in that Corinth was the first Greek city to allow the gladiatorial games with all the inhumane brutality that was associated with them.

In contrast to this, the tomb of Diogenes the Cynic, whose teaching showed contempt for ease or pleasure, is to be found there. It is known that Diogenes and his followers found an audience in the city. They taught the value of poverty. Diogenes lived in a barrel and would act in a way to condemn Corinthian society. For example, he would appear in the city during the day holding up a light, explaining that he was seeking in vain to find an honest man.

The Roman poet Horace (65-8 BC) is reputed to have stated, "non licet omnibus adire Corinthum", meaning, "Not everyone is able to go to Corinth", due doubtless to the high cost of living and extravagance that was to be found there. The fame of Corinth reached as far as Rome.

The Corinthian, therefore, in the first century AD would be proud of his city and of its reputation. Not only of the past glory of which he would have been taught, but also of the wealth and the magnificence of the architecture around him. The authority of being the chief city of the province would add to his pride. The mixed culture would increase the attraction of the city for of all kinds of sin and vice. "The ideal of the Corinthian was the reckless development of the individual. The merchant who made his gain by all and every means, the man of pleasure surrendering himself to every lust, the athlete steeled to every bodily exercise and proud in his physical strength, are the true Corinthian types: in a word the man who recognised no superior and no law but his own desires" (Cambridge Greek Testament, 1916).

The Entrance of the Gospel

To such a city Paul brought the gospel. This was certainly not a city that was known for its moral probity. The need was great, but Corinth was strategically well placed for the gospel to be told out. If it was preached in this great port where ships from all quarters docked and where were to be found merchants passing through to buy and sell, it was an opportunity to have it taken by those who heard and believed to their own home cities and towns.

Paul’s first visit is recorded in Acts 18.1-17 following his time in Athens on his second missionary journey. It was there that he first met Aquila and Priscilla, Jews who had come from Rome as a result of the decree of the Emperor Claudius that all Jews should be expelled from Rome. As they were tent makers, as was Paul, he lived with them and earned his living by pursuing his craft. Every Sabbath he went to the synagogue and reasoned and debated there. As a result, a number of Jews, and Greeks who were proselytes, that is converts to Judaism, were persuaded by his teaching.

On the later arrival of Silas and Timothy Paul continued to teach that "Jesus was Christ" (Acts 18.5) which led to opposition to his preaching. As a result Paul left the synagogue proclaiming, "Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go to the Gentiles" (v.6). This did not discourage the Apostle as the Lord spoke to him in a vision and encouraged him with the words, "Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace: For I am with thee, and no man shall set on thee to hurt thee: for I have much people in this city" (vv.9-10). This was a very fruitful period in Paul’s ministry. Crispus, the chief ruler of the synagogue believed as did all in his household. Many Corinthians were saved and baptised.

The Jews, however, could not tolerate Paul’s presence, and brought him before Gallio, the Deputy of Achaia, whose brother was Seneca, the tutor of Nero. The charge was that Paul sought to persuade men "to worship God contrary to the law" (v.13) but Gallio dismissed these charges and drove the complainants from the judgment seat.

Paul continued with his preaching, and after eighteen months in Corinth he left to go to Ephesus, leaving behind a local church, an assembly. While in Ephesus he heard of certain difficulties that had arisen in Corinth as a result of which he wrote the First Epistle to the Corinthians. He determined not to return to Corinth until matters had been put right. The matters were dealt with, as he was able to visit Corinth a second time on his third missionary journey after leaving Ephesus and returning to Greece (Acts 20.1-2). It would appear that this was not his last visit as, referring to the time of release between his first and second imprisonment he states, "Erastus abode at Corinth" (2 Tim 4.20), indicating that Paul had been at Corinth with Erastus.


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