1 Corinthians Background
I. The Ancient City (Pre 146)
1. The city of Corinth has a complex past and as with all ancient cities the history in a bit murky.
a. By the 4th century the city was already prosperous. As early as Homer’s Iliad, Corinth was called “wealthy.” Hom. IL 2.570, 8.664.
b. This prosperity was due to strong leadership and perhaps more importantly due to its position on the Isthmus of Corinth between the Aegean and Ionian Seas.
c. This position made the city ideal for trade. Corinth had two ports: the Lechaeon on the Gulf of Corinth and Cenchreae on the Saronic Gulf.
d. The Greeks knew the importance and tried to build a canal several times.
2. David Engels’ imaginative account:
The man-made harbour – one of the largest in the Roman world – would be crowded with vessels from all over the Mediterranean. Its quays and warehouses would be packed with goods coming from as far as India, China and even Indonesia: spices, silks, precious stones, exotic woods, marble blocks of every color in the rainbow from Anatolia, North Africa, Italy and producing areas of Greece, amphora’s filled with wines, olive oils, and other vegetable oils, copper and tin ingots from the city’s bronze foundries and blocks of Corinth’s own building stone for export. David Engels. Roman Corinth: An Alternative Model for the Classical City, 12.
3. Ancient Testimony.
a. Strabo writes, “But to the Corinthians of later times still greater advantages were added, for also the Isthmian Games, which were celebrated there, were wont to draw crowds of people.” Str. 8.6.20
b. “Aristophanes coined the verb korinthiazesthai, ‘to fornicate’ (Fr. 354). Philetaerus and Poliochus wrote plays entitled Korinthiastes, ‘The Whoremonger’ (Athenaeus 313c, 559a). Plato used korinthia kore, ‘a Corinthian girl,’ to mean a prostitute (Rest. 404d).” J. Murphy-O’Connor. ABD 2 (1982), 1135-1136.
II. Setback of 146 and Resurrection
1. In 146 B.C. Corinth faced an enormous setback as it found itself on the wrong side of the Roman military machine. When Rome went to war with the Achaean league, of which Corinth was prominent member, the Roman consul Lucius Mummius destroyed and plundered the city.
2. Corinth became a shadow of its former glory until Julius Caesar made it into a Roman colony in 44 B.C. We can say that Rome resurrected Corinth and made it into a real Roman colony, not just a Greek city with a Roman façade.
a. For example, of the 104 texts that date before the emperor Hadrian only 3 are in Greek, the architecture is distinctly Roman, and the city is laid out according to Roman city planning.
b. As for the settlers, most of them were probably freed slaves and an interesting fact is that these freed slaves could even rise to the highest magistrates of the city.
3. In time, others looking for wealth would settle in the city and bring further prosperity. That we are on the right track with this interpretation is confirmed by the resumption of the Isthmian games within fifty years of the city’s refounding. By the first century A.D., Corinth also became an important financial center, which makes sense in view of their great commerce.
4. The Corinth of Paul’s time was a bustling city in every respect. Scholars estimate that approximately 50,000 to 100,000 people lived in Corinth, which is an enormous number for an ancient city.
5. In 77 A.D. the city experienced another setback. An earthquake severely damaged the city, but in time the city rebounded. Rome responded with aid and a new lease of life was given. Pausanias’ Description of Greece reflects this new city.
III. Government and Religion
1. Government. Corinth, as a Roman colony, followed the basic constitution of Rome. The city was divided into tribes and it elected magistrates.
a. The senior magistrates were called duoviri iure dicundo. The duoviri were assisted by two aediles, who were responsible for the daily maintenance of the city as well as whatever the duoviri needed them to do.
b. Scholars believe that one of these aediles was a part of one of the early churches of Paul. In Romans 16:23, Paul mentions an Erastus from Corinth, whom Paul describes as an aedile.
c. This point is significant, because it shows that the early Christians were not only from the lower classes, as assumed in popular imagination. Wayne Meeks clearly demonstrates that the early church was a healthy social cross-section of society.
2. Religion. As for religion, it is safe to say that Corinth was a typical city with adherence to the divinities of the Greco Roman world as well as the imperial cult. The religious milieu was polytheistic and pluralistic.
a. For example, references and remains of many shines exist – Apollo, Aphrodite, Asclepius, and Kore, to name a few.
b. What is also relevant is the importance of itinerant teachers, called sophists, who played an important role is the education of the elite.
c. There is evidence that some of the Corinthians judged Paul by the standards of rhetoric, the craft of the sophists.
1. Corinth was a cosmopolitan city with an advanced economy. We must not think that modern issues of city life with its struggles, temptations, and challenges are particular to places like New York, Shanghai, and London. Paul dealt with them two millennia ago.
2. From this perspective, we can say that the best manual for urban church life is the Pauline corpus.
3. Since Corinth was refounded in 44 B.C. with a new population of freedmen, issues of social status were particularly acute. In short, people were eager to distinguish themselves sharply from others – just like any society today.
4. By reading 1 Corinthians we can gain a better understanding of Paul’s stance towards cities and what his desire is for them.