Corinth by David G. Horrell

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, "Corinth", n.p. [cited 30 Nov 2022]. Online:


David G. Horrell

David G. Horrell
Professor, University of Exeter

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).

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.

Did you know…?

  • Corinth was a major focus for the apostle Paul’s activity.
  • Corinth was ransacked in 146 B.C.E. and refounded as a Roman colony in 44 B.C.E.
  • Scholars continue to debate the extent of continuity between Greek and Roman Corinth.
  • First-century Roman Corinth was probably no more immoral than other cities in the empire.
  • Corinth was, like other cities in the empire, marked by religious diversity, including forms of the imperial cult.
  • There were Jews in Corinth at the time of Paul’s activity there, but direct archaeological evidence for Jews and Christians in Corinth does not emerge until some centuries later.

One who embarks on a mission of good (usually religiously motivated) works, often to a distant locale.

1Cor 5:9

Sexual Immorality Must Be Judged
9I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons—

2Cor 2:4

4For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you ... View more

2Cor 7:8

8For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it, for I see that I grieved you with that letter, though only briefly).

Worship of a diety or cultural value not associated with the one, true, God.

A territory controlled by a different nation, generally in separate geographic regions.

A system of religious worship, or cultus (e.g., the Israelite cult). Also refers to adherents of that system.

A broad, diverse group of nations ruled by the government of a single nation.

Of or related to the written word, especially that which is considered literature; literary criticism is a interpretative method that has been adapted to biblical analysis.

Gods or goddesses; powerful supernatural figures worshipped by humans.

A form of religion, most notable in ancient Rome, where emperors were worshipped as literal gods or demi-gods.

A powerful ancient Egyptian goddess whose purview included maternity, magic, and the Pharaoh's lineage.

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

A Greco-Egyptian god invented by Ptolemy I of Egypt in the third century B.C.E. in an attempt at unifiying the Greek and Egyptian peoples of his empire.

1Cor 12:2

2You know that when you were pagans, you were enticed and led astray to idols that could not speak.

Rom 16:23

23Gaius, who is host to me and to the whole church, greets you. Erastus, the city treasurer, and our brother Quartus, greet you.

An outpost or territory of the ancient Roman Empire that was annexed but not yet an official imperial province.

 NEH Logo
Bible Odyssey has been made possible in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the human endeavor
Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this website, do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.