Although people had lived in the area for centuries, the city of Corinth was established in about 900 BC by the Doric Greek dynasty of the Bacchiadae. This lasted until about 747 BC when a political revolution occurred, and the city began to be governed by a civil leader, military leader, and a council. Corinth continued to thrive as one of the most prosperous Greek city-states for hundreds of years, developing the Greek trireme warship, dominating trade in the region, inventing Corinthian style architecture, Corinthian Bronze, hosting the Isthmian games, and boasting some of the greatest fighters in Greece. All the while, Corinth had a continuous rivalry with Athens, which lasted in some form even into the Roman period. During the period of the Achaean League in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC, Corinth was the largest city and eventually made the capital. However, in 146 BC it was destroyed by the Romans, and Corinth was mostly abandoned until Julius Caesar re-founded the city as Colonia Laus Iulia Corinthiensis (colony of Corinth in honor of Julius) in 44 BC, only months before his assassination (Strabo, Geography; Pausanias, Description of Greece). It was a Roman colony, but it was primarily populated with freedmen, plus veterans of the Roman army, locals, and transplants from elsewhere (Strabo, Geography; Pausanias, Description of Greece; Appian). This undoubtedly changed the character of the “new” city into one that was very Roman, in addition to Greek. Robbing ancient graves was initially a popular commercial activity for the startup city, but its prominence reemerged in Roman times, agriculture, banking, trade, and travel became major industries, and it was made the capital of the new Achaia Province by Augustus in 27 BC (Keener, Acts). Described by the ancients as a metropolis, a refuge, and a route of travel for all, Roman Corinth was located on an isthmus which had two harbors. It was one of the hubs of the ancient world, but it was also called a place in which it was difficult to survive and thrive (Aelius Aristides, Orations; Murphy-OConnor, “Corinth”). The harbor of Cenchrae on the east led to the Aegean, and Lechaeum on the west leading to the Adriatic. These harbors were connected to each other by a paved road about 20 feet wide called the diolkos, originally constructed by Periander in the 6th century BC, which allowed the movement of goods, animals, people, and even small boats across an isthmus that was about 3.9 miles wide (Strabo, Geography; Thucydides; Polybius). This allowed ships, goods, and passengers to avoid the dangerous Cape Maleae, and save time. The land route to the north of the city led to Macedonia, while the route to the south side led to the rest of the Peloponnesian peninsula. As a major transit hub for sea trade, commerce thrived and the government collected plenty of taxes (Strabo, Geography). The Lechaeum harbor was the largest, and it was connected to central Corinth by the Lechaeum Road, a walled road 1.5 miles long, similar to the walled road, which led from Athens to Piraeus harbor.
Because of an earthquake in 1858 that destroyed the city, modern Corinth was relocated and built about 3 miles northeast of the former site of the city, allowing comprehensive exploration and excavation of the ancient city. Excavations have uncovered much of the Roman period city, including the forum (measuring 600 feet east/west and 300 feet north/south, divided into upper administrative and lower commercial) and its marketplace (agora), the villa of Anaploga, a city council building (bouleterion), a gymnasium, baths, fountains, temples of Apollo, Asclepius, Athena, Demeter and Kore, Hera, Palaimon, Poseidon, Sisyphus, Sarapis, Tyche, Venus, and the temple of Aphrodite on Acrocorinth (Beal, “Corinth”; McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament; Papahatzis, Ancient Corinth). [The Asklepion, similar to others throughout the ancient world, received offerings in the form of body parts made out of stone or ceramic in recognition of healing that the worshipper had sought from the god. Many of these offerings in ceramic were discovered at Corinth. It is possible that Paul used knowledge of this practice in a passage to make an illustration about the “body of Christ” being composed of individual members of hands, feet, ears, eyes, etc. but all functioning as one body (1 Corinthians 12:14-27). However, the practice of donating “body parts” to the Asklepion was done throughout the ancient world, and not only at Corinth.] The Acrocorinth, a massive rocky hill with an elevation of 1,886 feet and a prominence of about 1800 feet, towered over the city of Corinth. It also had a temple to the Emperor, depicted on coins and likely built during the time of Augustus. It was probably located at what is known as “Temple E” on the far west side of the forum (Walbank, “Pausanias, Octavia and Temple E at Corinth”; McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament; Jeffers, Greco-Roman World). Besides these pagan temples, there was also at least one synagogue of the Jews at Corinth, as attested by a Greek inscription reading “synagogue of the Hebrews,” decorative architecture depicting the menorah discovered in ruins near the center of the city, and reference to a substantial community of Jews in Corinth (Philo, Embassy to Gaius). Although the inscription probably dates to the 4th century AD in the Byzantine period, most synagogues in the ancient world were constructed directly over the earlier remains when being repaired or rebuilt, so the Roman period synagogue at Corinth from the 1st century was probably at the same location. Entertainment in the city included a 14,000-seat theater and an odeon. [A few scholars have suggested a possible connection between this theater and a quote of Paul “God has exhibited us apostles last of all, as men condemned to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, both to angels and to men” (1 Corinthians 4:9). If this does relate to the theater at Corinth and not to events in Ephesus, then perhaps the theater at Corinth was also being used for gladiatorial or beast fights. However, this most likely is connected to the beast battle Paul alludes to which occurred in Ephesus, where he wrote 1 Corinthians.] Providing much of the water for the city was the Fountain of Peirene, connected by underground tunnels to the spring located on Acrocorinth. Therefore, a large aqueduct system bringing water in from far away was not necessary in Corinth. An ancient legend claims that a lady named Peirene became the spring after crying for her son Cenchrias, who was killed by the goddess Artemis (Pausanias, Description of Greece). Another legend associates the upper Peirene spring on Acrocorinth with the mythological flying horse Pegasus. The walls of ancient Corinth were not rebuilt in the Roman period, but instead the stones were reused in the construction of the new city. The plain to the north of the city was used for agriculture, such as vineyards and olive orchards, but the economic focus of the area seems to have been trade and banking (Plutarch, De Vitando).
Although historians and Bible scholars have often stressed the immorality of Corinth, reflected in Strabo’s mention of the temple of Aphrodite and Paul’s reference to problems with prostitutes and immorality in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, the city of Corinth was probably not any worse in regard to paganism than many other large cities of the Roman Empire. However, in ancient times, the phrase “Corinthian woman” was used as a euphemism for prostitute or sexual immorality (Keener, Acts). It was a very “progressive” and libertine city in which the worship of many deities was encouraged, and practices such as prostitution, incest, homosexuality, and transgenderism existed (1 Corinthians 5:1-11, 6:9-19). Corinth was also renowned for its “Corinthian Bronze,” which was sought all over the Empire for its use in temples, palaces, theaters, and music (Strabo, Geography; Vitruvius, On Architecture; Pliny, Natural History). Even the temple in Jerusalem used Corinthian Bronze for one of its gates, known as the Beautiful Gate (Josephus, Wars; Acts 3:2). Paul may have alluded to this famous Corinthian Bronze and its use in musical instruments in a letter to the church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 13:1). Bronze was also commonly used for mirrors, and many of these artifacts have been unearthed in ancient Corinth. These mirrors were typically small, round, held with a handle, and had molding or engraving designs around the rim or on the reverse side. Because metal was difficult to form as a wide, flat, and thin surface, in addition to properties causing inaccurate color rendering and the constant need for polishing, in the Roman period these mirrors produced distorted, dark, and unclear images. Writing to the church at Corinth, Paul used the known image distortion of mirrors in antiquity, which he described as seeing an indirect image (or a riddle) in a mirror, contrasted with to seeing face to face, as a metaphor for spiritual knowledge on earth (1 Corinthians 13:12).
In the 1st century, Corinth was known for its commerce, pagan temples, seat of the proconsul of the province, ports, and the biennial (once every 2 years) Isthmian games, held in honor of Poseidon. The Isthmian games were considered second only to the quadrennial Olympic games. The stadium, where some of the events of the Isthmian games were held, was rediscovered in nearby Isthmia about 9 miles east of Corinth (McRay, Archaeology of the New Testamnet). These games included contests such as equestrian, gymnastics, music, poetry, wrestling, boxing, running, and chariot racing. The winner was given a wreath of pine leaves, remission of taxes, fame, and perhaps a statue or victory ode. Paul used the familiarity that the residents of the Corinth area had with the Isthmian games, which were held in 51 AD during the time Paul lived in Corinth, to present a spiritual metaphor about how to live the Christian life with self-discipline, an ultimate goal, and for an imperishable reward in heaven (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). The office of the president of the Isthmian games was located in Corinth, in the third building from the east end in the South Stoa (cf. floor mosaic of athlete with crown; McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament). The influx of temporary people in Corinth for the games also meant that tent making would have been in irregularly high demand for part of the time that Paul was there. Although the Corinthian church seems to have been wealthy, and Paul clearly taught that leaders and teachers in the church were “worth their wages,” he usually supported himself financially because of the lack of giving, and to avoid a possible false perception that he was preaching the Gospel for monetary gain (1 Timothy 5:17-18; 1 Corinthians 9:6-19; 2 Corinthians 8:14, 11:7).
In about 50 AD, after a brief visit to Athens, Paul traveled to Corinth, perhaps the fifth largest city in the Roman Empire behind Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Ephesus, probably with a population of over 200,000 (Acts 18:1). In the 1st century BC, Strabo described the perimeter of the city as 85 stadia, or over 8 miles (Strabo, Geography). The Roman poet Horace lauded the city of Corinth in the 1st century BC, and it must have been an impressive city to see. Corinth was also the capital of Achaia Province and the seat of power in the region, controlled at that time by a proconsul (Acts 18:12). As perhaps the fifth largest city in the Empire and a major center of travel and commerce, Corinth was yet another location in which the Gospel would have a far reaching impact. Entering the city from the north, via the Lechaion Road, which also became the cardo (main north-south street), Paul soon met Priscilla and Aquila, fellow tent makers who had been deported from Rome by Emperor Claudius in an attempt to rid the city of Judeans and Christianity in about 49 AD or slightly earlier (Suetonius, Claudius; Acts 18:2). Paul and his new friends may have sold their tents in the area of the shops on the western side of the forum. In Corinth, Paul also began writing his letters found in the New Testament as he stayed in the city for more than 18 months. Following his normal protocol, Paul went to the synagogue, which seemed to include both Jews and God-fearers, and began teaching (Acts 18:4-7). Based on the discovery of the synagogue inscription, this synagogue in Corinth was likely located on the Lechaion Road, north of the Peirene Fountain. Throughout the city, people became Christians after listening to Paul teach, including the city treasurer named Erastus, who is remembered by an official Latin inscription from about 50 AD, found on a slab of stone pavement near the theater (Kent, “Corinth: The Inscriptions”). It translates as, “Erastus in return for his aedileship laid [the pavement] at his own expense.” Erastus was called “manager of the city” or “treasurer” of Corinth by Luke and Paul, and this position was known in Latin as the aedile, a city official chosen annually who managed public works and commercial affairs (Cadbury, “Erastus of Corinth”; Acts 19:21-22; Romans 16:23; 2 Timothy 4:20). Another “aedile” inscription found in the forum, dating to the time of Augustus, states that a monument was erected at the expense of the aedile Babbius. Many similar inscriptions lauding various officials, paid for and placed there by the various officials, have been found throughout Corinth. This self-aggrandizement of honorific inscriptions on stone was something which Paul appears to use as a contrasting example to spiritual matters, written with the Spirit of the living God on human hearts and based on confidence in God, not ourselves (2 Corinthians 3:1-5).
The church in Corinth seems to have consisted of all segments of society, including government officials, wealthy businessmen, freedmen, and the poor. Of course, there were also many in Corinth who heard Paul preach the Gospel but were opposed to the message of Jesus Christ, and eventually they brought Paul before the Roman proconsul at the bema (judgement seat) in the forum. Paul used the “bema” in his letters to the Corinthians and Romans as an familiar word picture to communicate a teaching about the judgement seat of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:10; Romans 14:10). This “bema” in Corinth is still standing, as a platform on the south side of the forum. An inscription was discovered near the platform which identifies it, stating “he revetted the rostra (bema/judgement seat) and paid personally the expense of making all its marble” (McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament). Another inscription discovered in Corinth further confirmed the use of the “rostra” as a place where official proclamations were made (Broneer, “An Official Rescript from Corinth”). The platform where the proconsul stood or sat was about 7.5 feet above the level of the stone pavement in the forum where the accused and onlookers stood. It was here that the proconsul would address citizens, settle disputes, or render verdicts on criminal cases. When Paul was living in Corinth, around 51 AD, leaders of Judaism in Corinth and many of the members of the synagogue brought him before the proconsul of Achaia Province, Junius Gallio, in the hopes of having Paul barred from teaching Christianity and punished. A stone inscription from Delphi, which records an edict of Emperor Claudius in about 52 AD to invite citizens to replenish the depopulated city of Delphi, states that the proconsul or governor of the Province of Achaia was Junius Gallio (“Tiber[ius Claudius C]aes[ar….[L. Ju]nius Gallio, my fr[iend] an[d procon]sul”). Gallio served a short term as proconsul of Achaia from late 51 AD to 52 AD, and is also known from Roman writings of the 1st and 2nd century such as Cassius Dio, Seneca, and Tacitus. This Roman official had his official residence at Corinth, the capital of the province, where he encountered the Apostle Paul around 51 AD. The judge, Gallio, would have ascended the steps and emerged in front of the people, facing north. As the provincial governor, Gallio would have spent part of his time at the bema in Corinth to pass judgement, but since his time was limited, he would have heard only the most important cases. When the Jews dragged Paul before Gallio, he was probably stationed there and passing judgement on various cases all day. However, due to the nature of the accusation, and because Gallio was generally uninterested in the province and wished to return to Rome, he proclaimed that it was an internal religious matter, not a crime or an evil, told everyone that he was unwilling to make any judgement on the issue, and drove them away from the bema. His judgement probably fell under what the Romans called cognition extra ordinem, in which the judge could decide to accept or decline a novel accusation, and Gallio stated “I am not willing to be a judge of these matters” (Jeffers, The Greco-Roman World). The new leader of the synagogue, Sosthenes, received a beating from the mob, and Paul went on with his teaching and writing, while “Gallio was not concerned with these things” (Acts 18:12-17). The philosopher Seneca, brother of Gallio, implies that the proconsul left Achaia early because of distaste for the area, which can be seen in his apathetic behavior in Acts. “For I remembered master Gallio’s words, when he began to develop a fever in Achaia and took ship at once, insisting that the disease was not of the body but of the place” (Seneca, Epistle). Seneca later met a tragic fate when Nero executed him for allegedly participating in an assassination attempt, and Gallio was publicly denounced.
The young church at Corinth faced problems of syncretism due to the pagan culture in which it was immersed. Many idols and shrines were located throughout the city (1 Corinthians 8:4-5). The Temple of Apollo was one of the oldest temples in Corinth, and a major landmark for those walking through the city. Located near the agora, synagogue, and bema, it was employed in cult rituals which caused problems for the Corinthian church, which would have included food sacrifices and sacred meals. Dining rooms were discovered in the temples of Asclepius and Demeter at Corinth, and meat sacrifice plus ritual meals were also practiced at other temples (1 Corinthians 9:13; McRay, Archaeology of the New Testament). One could purchase meat at the meat market, or macellum, but the association with the use of meat in pagan temples caused problems for some of the Christians in the Corinthian church, so Paul advised to not ask where the meat came from, or to avoid purchasing meat that the Christians had been specifically told was used in a pagan sacrifice (1 Corinthians 10:14-29). The exact location of this meat market in the time of Paul is unknown, but later in the 1st century AD it was near the theater (McRay, Archaeology and the New Testament; Keener, Acts). The Temple of Aphrodite on the Acrocorinth probably employed over 1,000 “sacred” prostitutes according to Strabo, both male and female, and seems to have also caused problems for the Corinthian church (Strabo, Geography; 1 Corinthians 6:15-20; Pausanias, Description of Greece). Located on the top of the Acrocorinth as a true “high place,” it was about a 2 hour trek from the forum. Measuring only about 33 feet by 52 feet, the temple owned the prostitutes, but it would not have been the location where all of these sacred prostitutes worked, which was instead in the actual city of Corinth below, where residents could “donate to Aphrodite” for services. Images of the ancient temple have been found on coins of the era.
During his year and a half stay in Corinth, besides establishing the church there, Paul wrote the letters of 1 and 2 Thessalonians to the church at Thessalonica, where had been very recently until he was forced to leave the city. A manuscript designated Papyrus 46, from about 150 AD, contains a copy of 1 Thessalonians. Currently, the earliest known copy of 2 Thessalonians is preserved in Papyrus 65 from about 250 AD. Departing from Corinth in 52 AD, Paul went to the harbor of Cenchrea about 8 miles away, and sailed east to Ephesus, eventually arriving at Antioch (Acts 18:18-22). The port town of Cenchrea was also the home of Phoebe, one of the Christians mentioned by Paul as part of the Corinth area church (Romans 16:1). In addition to the harbor, Cenchrea had many temples, residences, and perhaps other public buildings. Soon after, Paul wrote two letters to the church at Corinth which are preserved in the New Testament, and at least one other, or perhaps two, which have not been preserved. First Corinthians was probably written from Ephesus around 53 AD, and Second Corinthians was also written at Ephesus, but in about 55 AD. One of the lost letters to Corinth, often called the “Severe Letter to the Corinthians,” was mentioned by Paul, and he may have also referred to a “third” letter written to Corinth which has not been preserved over the centuries (1 Corinthians 5:9; 2 Corinthians 2:4?). A document called 3 Corinthians, a fragment of which was discovered might be a pseudepigraphal work attempting to imitate a lost letter of Paul, or may be part of the “Severe Letter,” or part of the “third” letter to the Corinthians (Bodmer X Papyrus, 3rd century AD). There are other epistles mentioned in the New Testament which are no longer in existence, such as the Epistle to Laodicea also written by Paul (Colossians 4:16).
Just before the final return to Jerusalem in 57 AD, which resulted in his arrest and imprisonment in Caesarea Maritima, Paul passed through Corinth and stayed there for about 3 months (Acts 20:2-3). It was during this brief stay in Corinth that Paul probably wrote the Epistle to the Romans, mentioning Phoebe of Cenchrea (port city of Corinth), Gaius of Corinth, and Erastus of Corinth (Romans 15:25, 16:1, 23; 1 Corinthians 1:14; 2 Timothy 4:20). Gaius, probably a wealthy Roman citizen who owned a large residence in Corinth, was the host of Paul and the church in Corinth. He may have been the same person as Titius Justus (praenomen Gaius), or perhaps the main meeting place of the church relocated (Acts 18:7). The villa of Anaploga serves as an example of the type of meeting place for the 1st century house church in Corinth.