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
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.
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 (