Corinth (2 Corinthians 1)

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The ancient city of Corinth lay on an isthmus between the Greek mainland and the Peloponnese, the soutwestern corner of Greece. The isthmus was about 6,000 m wide at its narrowest point, which led many to consider digging a canal there (a dream not realized until modern times). Two harbours were nearby: Lechaeum to the north, on the Gulf of Corinth, and Cenchrea to the south, on the Saronic Gul. Corinth’s location made the city a site of great strategic and economic importance. Ships often preferred to sail into Corinth and transport their goods overland across the isthmus on the portage road rather than risk the wild seas around the peloponnese. This brought lively trade to the city – along with the vices often associated with bustling commercial centres. It is not surprising, therefore, that ancient Corinth became a byword for sexual immorality.

Corinth’s history may be divided into two distinct periods: its long duration as one of the major cities of classical Greek civilization and its subsequent years after the Roman conquest as a cosmopolitan crossroads. The classical city was at one time a major player in the politics of Greece and was particularly important in the long history of competition between Athens and Sparta (Corinth was usually on the side of Sparta). Later, as head of the Achaean League (a coalition of Greek cities), it led resistance to Roman aggression. Its role as host of the Isthmian games (second only to the Olympic games in prestige) greatly enhanced Corinth’s ancient status. This city, however, was destroyed in 146 B.C. by the Roman general Lucius Mummius. While some inhabitants stayed in the vicinity of Corinth, the city did not rise to prominence again until 44 B.C., when Julius Caesar refounded it as a Roman colony.

The new city was Roman in its administration and architecture, with the majority of its settlers being freed men. The natural advantages of the site, coupled with the entrepreneurial vigour of the freed men, soon led to renewed prosperity. The Corinth of the New Testament era was reputed to be one of the most beautiful cities of the Greco-Roman world. Its importance in trade and its status as a Roman administrative centre made Corith a significant city in Paul’s day.

Corinth had a mixed, cosmopolitan populace, as reflected in its many religious shrines:

  • Visitors to Corinth can still find a archaeological evidence of votive offerings made to Asclepius, the god of medicine, in gratitude for healings. These offerings were clay models of body parts (often arms, legs or sexual organs) the god had supposedly healed, hung around the temple as tributes to Asclepius.
  • Corinth was home to a famous tmple to Aphrodite that supposedly employed 1000 temple prostitutes. While this number may be an exaggeration, scholars can hardly doubt that this port city supported a thriving prostitution industry, probably centered around such a shrine.
  • There were also temples to other Greek gods, such as to Poseidon, god of the sea (appropriate for a port city), and to Demete and Kore, goddesses of an ancient Greek fertility cult.
  • The cosmopolitan nature of Corinth is reflected in the fact that it also had numerous places of worship for foreign deities, such as a shrine to the Egyptian goddess Isis – as well as a Jewish synagogue.

With its cultural diversity, wealth, paganism and infamous debauchery, Corinth was perhaps not the place onlookers would have expected the church to flourish. Yet it was precisely here that Paul enjoyed one of his most successful ministries – and also here that he experienced some of his greatest challenges with early converts to Christianity.


 

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