While Athens may have a more celebrated history as the birthplace of Greek culture and philosophy, ancient Corinth rivaled Athens in many ways. While the Apostle Paul does visit Athens in the mid-first century AD, he is focused more on the city of Corinth. This is in part due to the fact that by the first century, Corinth was as important as Athens within the Roman Empire, if not more important.
Corinth is located only about fifty miles from Athens. It is situated on a narrow isthmus which connects the Peloponnesian Peninsula to mainland Greece. Its location made for wealthy trading ports on either side of the isthmus, as well as a strategic city for anyone traveling from the peninsula and the mainland – for example, between Sparta and Athens.
The history of Corinth goes back at least as far as 750 BC, but likely goes back even further. In the following centuries, the rulers of Corinth established several colonies, expanding the size of the Corinthian city-state. It would become known for its pottery, which was exported around the Mediterranean and for hosting the Isthmian Games every two years. The city also developed a track, on which ships on one side of the isthmus could be dragged over a two-mile strip of land and put to sea on the other side, saving days of sailing around the Peloponnesian Peninsula.
The city was allied with Sparta during the Peloponnesian wars, but broke with Sparta following those conflicts with Athens. Corinth followed the fate of the rest of Greece when Philip II of Macedon took control of the region in the fourth-century BC. The city was sacked by Roman forces in 146 BC, but Julius Caesar ordered the city to be rebuilt as a Roman colony about a hundred years later. Corinth would go on to become the administrative center of the Roman province of Achaia.
So when Paul arrived at the city in 51 or 52 AD, Corinth was the center of Roman power in the region. It was a flourishing city, rich in history, games, and trade. It boasted a well-known temple to Aphrodite, which was perched atop the Acrocorinth, overlooking the city. It offered all the entertainment, opportunities, and allurements of any large modern city.
Corinth In The Bible
In addition to the letters of 1 and 2 Corinthians, Paul spent considerable time in the city of Corinth. Acts 18 recounts Paul’s arrival in the city on his second missionary journey. He would stay in the city for a year and a half, teaching the good news. It was in Corinth that Paul met Priscilla and Aquilla, and together established a tent-making business in the city. Another of Paul’s co-workers, Apollos, would also spend time in Corinth, encouraging the church there.
Paul’s letters to Corinth reveal a rocky relationship with the growing church. The church appeared to be troubled with divisions, immorality, and ongoing compromise with the pagan culture of the city. Paul saved some of his harshest words for the struggling Corinthian church, yet always tried to remain encouraging, motivating them to a higher calling. One interesting feature of Paul’s letters to Corinth is that he references additional letters that apparently were not preserved. There may have been two additional epistles to Corinth that have been lost to time. In one of them, referenced in 2 Corinthians 2:3–4, Paul mentions writing to them with great distress and many tears – so upset was Paul at the condition of the church in Corinth. While the occasion for writing was not always pleasant, his letters to Corinth provide us with a plethora of Paul’s insights into a variety of issues facing the church of any age.
Take A Photo Tour
The Biblical city of Corinth is about an hour train ride from Athens, though for the Apostle Paul it may have been 2- or 3-day’s journey. From the train station, we took a taxi to the Acrocorinth. The Acrocorinth is an 1,800 ft. high natural rock fortress that serves as the backdrop to many photos of the ancient city. It strategically oversees the narrow strip of land that separates the Peloponnesian Peninsula from mainland Greece, and thus gave Corinth an elevated military and economic status. Oddly, most tourists skip the Acrocorinth and head straight for the ancient city. This is a mistake! I had read that we were likely to have the walled fortress to ourselves and that was indeed the case. We spent a good hour (and could have spent more) exploring the citadel’s three gates that offered the only access to the top, the mostly intact walls encircling the summit, and various structures representing different eras of occupation over the past 2,500 years.
In the middle of an overgrown patch of ground at the top, one can see the foundation of a temple to Aphrodite. Strabo wrote that this temple was once home to a thousand temple prostitutes. More on this below, but it is difficult to capture the full impact of Corinth if you skip the Acrocorinth.
After overcoming a small language barrier (pro tip: when the taxi driver quotes you 15 Euro to shuttle you around Corinth, it is best to confirm in writing that he is not actually quoting you 50 Euro) we were dropped at the site of the city of Paul’s day. The first thing you notice is the remaining columns from the Temple of Apollo, dating back to the 6th-century BC. We began with the museum, which houses numerous artifacts discovered at the site and gave a flavor for what the city must have been like when Paul arrived from Athens. Two main streets, the city agora, the Roman Forum, and other temple sites allowed us to wander and explore far more than can initially be observed from the entrance. An adjacent site across the parking lot offers a glimpse of the ancient theater and the Odeon.
The final stop in Corinth was the Corinth Canal. The canal cuts through rock across the 4-mile strip of land that connects the Gulf of Corinth to the Aegean Sea. It was completed in 1893 but soon became unworkable for modern ships. Yet it still represents an impressive feat of engineering. It is also the location for several ancient attempts to bridge the two bodies of water at the Corinth harbor. Julius Caesar began plans to dig a canal here before his assassination. Caligula revived the plan, but it was not until Nero that the project got underway. The huge effort stalled and eventually became a road that transported smaller vessels across the strip of land.
View from Acrocorinth
The archaeological site corresponds well to Paul’s two letters to the Corinthian church. Here are just a few of the points of contact:
Insight #1 – The Temple of Aphrodite. As noted above, the Acrocorinth was home to the Temple of Aphrodite. Corinth was also a harbor town with a constant influx of sailors. It is debated whether worshippers would have made the trek up to this temple or if it simply served as a backdrop to the sacred prostitution in the city itself. Regardless, there is little doubt that the Temple of Aphrodite atop the Acrocorinth would have literally cast a shadow on the town below. Corinth became synonymous with sketchy behavior. Undoubtedly, this explains why Paul spends a considerable amount of space warning the Corinthians about sexual immorality:
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!
The practice was not simply one that offered temptation if you wandered into the wrong section of town, but it hung over the city like a cloud. All you had to do was look up anywhere in the city and you were reminded of the city’s notoriety.
Insight #2 – The Temple of Asclepius. There is a room in the museum at Corinth where you will find replicas of an assortment of votive offerings shaped as body parts. These have been found at the site of a nearby temple to Asclepius. Asclepius was a deified Greek physician, whose symbol of entwined snakes still represents the medical community today. The site included dorms and baths where the sick would come to heal and recover. People would also offer these replicated body parts analogous to their illness as votive offerings for healing. One cannot help but see these and reflect on Paul’s imagery of the body when writing to the church at Corinth.
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ.
It is possible that Paul may have seen these votive offerings being sold in the local market to the sick headed up to the Asclepion. While all these body parts look a little creepy, when fully assembled and animated with life, the body become a marvel. Is this what Paul envisioned when he was speaking of the church? Elsewhere Paul encourages believers to offer their whole body – all its parts – as a living sacrifice, perhaps as opposed to votive offerings to Asclepius.
Insight #3 – The Erastus Inscription. As you make your way across the parking lot of the site down to the theater grounds, you will notice a sectioned-off area on the stone pavement below. A large inscription on the stone reads, “Erastus, in return for his aedileship, paved this at his own expense.” This is known as the Erastus Inscription and is an important find, as it may refer to the same Erastus mentioned in Romans 16:23, “Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works, and our brother Quartus send you their greetings.” It is one of only a couple inscriptions that can be linked to a reference from Paul and the New Testament. (See video below)
Insight #4 – The Isthmian Games. Corinth was a sports town, as we might say today. Corinth hosted the Isthmian Games, second only to the ancient Olympic Games, for several centuries. By the time Paul arrived in Corinth, the games already had a 500-year history. There are several tantalizing metaphors along these lines that Paul utilizes in his letters to the Corinthians. We stood on a long road next to the ancient agora that served as a racecourse lined with box seating for dignitaries. If Paul sold his leather-goods and tents in the agora he would have been familiar with this path. His time in Corinth may have overlapped during one of these games, as they were held every two years. The winner of an event would have received a garland of a type of celery, which quickly wilts after being plucked from the ground.
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 forever.
These are only a couple of references Paul mentions throughout his letters to running a race and winning a crown or claiming the prize. Quite fitting for a sports town!
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