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As Paul arrived at Corinth in 49 or 50 C.E., he would have seen lots of rock piles, ruins of ancient city walls. Rome had destroyed the old Corinth in 146 B.C.E. The city Paul entered was therefore young-- not even a century old. In 44 B.C.E. a decree of Julius Caesar had re-founded Corinth as a Roman colony.
Corinth, the capital of the province of Achaia, was a city of social, cultural, and religious diversity, including Jews. The Jews living there were more cosmopolitan and multicultural than those in Palestine. Paul's visit came at a significant time for mission work. In 49 C.E., the Jews were expelled from Rome. A good number migrated to Corinth.
While Paul stayed in Corinth, he met with Jewish refugees from Rome. Paul sought out two of them, Aquila and Prisca, because they were tentmakers like him. He asked if they could work together as business associates. Aquila and Prisca also became key leaders of the young Christian church (Acts 18:1-12, 1 Cor. 16:19) [standard link].
Around 150-200 followers of Christ were in Corinth at the time of Paul's writing his letters to them. Corinthian Christians lived in large, complex households and worshiped in house churches that reflected the city's diverse make-up.
Corinth was located directly south of the Corinthian Gulf, on the Peloponnesian side (southern Greece) of the Isthmus of Corinth [standard link, outside]. Two harbors accommodated the city's position of control over the isthmus between two seas. Lechaeum served the westward facing the Corinthian gulf, and Cenchreae functioned as the harbor on the eastward facing the Saronic Gulf.
The territory included quite a variety of terrain: the coastal plain, which was abundantly watered and fertile; relatively flat areas further from the coast, which were fairly well-watered; areas of arable sloping hills; and mountainous regions. The most famous Corinthian mountain was the Acrocorinth [standard link], which served as the city's citadel.
Corinth was prosperous enough to be named as one of the three economic centers of Greece by Plutarch, a writer of the second century. The historian Strabo wrote, "Corinth is called 'wealthy' because of its commerce, since it is situated on the Isthmus and is master of two harbors, of which the one leads straight to Asia, and the other to Italy; and it makes easy the exchange of merchandise from both countries that are so far distant from each other."
The Corinthian economy was more wide-ranging than that of many other Roman colonies. In addition to agriculture, Corinth was known for manufacturing and trade, especially of bronze, and the Isthmian games.
Not surprisingly the city derived income from its control of the isthmus. A charge was imposed for boats or cargo hauled on a platform across the isthmus on the "Diolkos," a paved road.
The Isthmian games were a big event. They were held very two years on the isthmus in honor of Greek god Poseidon, god of water and sea, horses and earthquakes. When Paul was in Corinth, however, the games may have been held in the city (the games moved back to the isthmus about 50-60 C.E.). Both men and women competed in these popular pan-Hellenic games. For those more interested in the arts or who wanted a mix of physical and intellectual competition, musical and oratorical contests were held at the same time in a theater on the isthmus [Standard Link, Outside].1
The Christians of Corinth were economically diverse. Congregations included a cross section of society-- rich people, tradespeople, slaves, former slaves.... Although some Christians were wealthy, they did not have high status; they were like the "new rich" of our day.
Freed people P. Aiedius and his wife Aiedia (from the Via Appia in Rome) c. 30 BC. Original art in Berlin, Pergamon Museum
Paul's Letters to the Corinthians
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Notes and Credits
1C. L. Thompson, "Corinth," The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible, Supplementary Volume (Nashville: Abingdon, 1976), p. 18; Elizabeth R. Gebhard, The Isthmian Games and the Sanctuary of Poseidon in the Early Empire, Journal of Roman Archaeology, Supplemental Series Number 8, Ann Arbor, MI 1993.
The computer-altered photograph of a sculpture of Poseidon is adapted from one at Forum Romanum web site and is used by permission of David Camden. Click on the photo and you will see the original version.
The picture of the Roman freed people is adapted from a photo in the gallery the VRoma Project.
The photograph(s) by Allan R. Brockway are used with his permission. Please credit him and the web page on Corinth, which Thomas Price has written. For many years, Allan Brockway was "specialist" in Jewish Christian Relations with the World Council of Churches in Geneva and an educator in Judaism and Christianity at the Selly Oak Colleges and the University of Birmingham (England). Thomas Price earned his Ph.D. in theology from Boston University and worked for the General Board of Church and Society for 10 years. He works for the Social Security Administration and teaches adult Bible classes in Paul and the historical Jesus at St. Matthew's UMC, Bowie, Maryland. The web site grew out of his research on Paul before and after a tour of Greece and Turkey in the "footsteps of Paul."
Disclaimer: Some links jump to outside sites for further information on Corinthians, the Bible, Paul, and other resources. Links do not constitute an endorsement by the Women's Division of the information on other web sites. External web sites offer us diverse perspectives; afford us an opportunity to compare them to United Methodist positions; and, encourage us to critically analyze the issues raised by the Corinthians web pages.