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The city of Corinth, west of Athens in southern Greece, was part of the Roman province of Achaia and an important focus for the apostle Paul’s missionary activity.

“Temple E” at Ancient Corinth.
Remains of “Temple E” at Corinth. Photo by Todd Bolen.

Corinth is well known to readers of the Bible because of its importance in the missionary activity of the apostle Paul: he visited Corinth at least three times, founded Christian assemblies there, and wrote at least four letters to Christians in Corinth (besides 1-2 Corinthians, note the other letters mentioned in 1Cor 5:9 and 2Cor 2:4, 2Cor 7:8). The city lies at an important trading position about six miles to the southwest of the narrow isthmus that separates the Corinthian and Saronic gulfs. Ancient Corinth had two nearby ports: Lechaeum to the north and Cenchreae to the east. In ancient times, ships were pulled across the narrow stretch of land separating east and west on a paved road known as the diolkos. Since 1893 there has been an impressive canal connecting the two sides, a project initially attempted, unsuccessfully, by the Roman emperor Nero in the late 60s C.E. Archaeological excavations at Corinth began in 1886 and since 1896 have taken place under the auspices of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. The most extensive excavations have been in the area of the forum and theatre, in the center of the ancient city.

Was Corinth a Greek or a Roman city?

Corinth’s history is marked by a major change from Greek to Roman control. The Greek city of Corinth flourished until 146 B.C.E., when it was defeated in a war with the Romans. Just over a century later, in 44 B.C.E., the city was refounded as a Roman colony with new settlers (particularly freed slaves) from elsewhere in the Empire. Ancient literary sources that indicate Corinth’s total destruction in the interim has often been taken at face value by scholars. Certainly, on its new foundation, Corinth was reoriented according to Roman organization and ideology. This is evident, for example, in the temple (known as “temple E”) that dominated the central area. This temple was devoted in some way to the Roman gods and imperial family (the so-called imperial cult). Latin became the official language, and the city was laid out according to the Roman grid system. Yet recent archaeological evidence has called into question any stark division between a Greek past and a Roman present. There were no established civic institutions between 146 and 44 B.C.E., but evidence for continuing occupation during this period is apparent, along with artifacts indicating that the Greek language continued to be used among the population (and, of course, in Paul’s letters). It is perhaps better to see Corinth in the first century C.E. as a place of hybrid identities, where Greek culture, language, and religion were reshaped in a variety of ways by Roman colonization. Roman dominance continued until the end of the fourth century C.E.

Was Corinth a den of iniquity and idolatry?

The ancient Greek city of Corinth acquired something of a proverbial reputation for sexual promiscuity, and modern biblical scholarship has frequently reiterated a view of the city as a particular hotbed of immorality and vice. Yet even if the proverbial ancient remarks are accurate, they refer to the period before 146 B.C.E., and there is little to suggest that first-century Roman Corinth was significantly different in this regard from any other city in the empire at the time.

Like other such cities, Corinth was a place of religious variety, with the worship of traditional gods and goddesses from Greek and Roman religions, local deities and heroes, and divinities from further east, such as the Egyptian deities Isis and Serapis. Roman cults were especially important to the city’s elite, and the imperial cult—in which the Emperor, his ancestors, and his family were venerated—formed an important part of religious and political life. From Jewish and Christian perspectives this was all idol worship (1Cor 12:2). Ancient literary evidence, including Acts and Paul’s letters, suggests that there were also Jews in Corinth, though archaeological evidence for this dates from several centuries later. Indeed, direct archaeological evidence confirming the presence of Christians in the city only emerges from around the fourth century C.E. and later. It is highly uncertain whether the famous Erastus inscription refers to the same Erastus Paul mentions in Rom 16:23. Recent research suggests a date for the inscription in the second century C.E. Archaeology informs us about the city of Corinth in the first century, but for direct evidence of the earliest Christians there we are dependent on the New Testament.

  • David G. Horrell

    David G. Horrell is professor of New Testament studies and director of the Centre for Biblical Studies at the University of Exeter, UK. He is author of The Social Ethos of the Corinthian Correspondence (T&T Clark, 1996) and An Introduction to the Study of Paul (T&T Clark, 2006) and editor, with Edward Adams, of Christianity at Corinth (Westminster John Knox, 2004).