Who is Paul speaking to in 1 and 2 Corinthians? Where is the city of Corinth? What is its significance to Paul and to the Roman Empire? These are questions that I am sure many people who are uneducated about the city of Corinth have, and these are the questions that I will be exploring in this paper. During the First Century C.E., the Roman City of Corinth was an established port city, which played one of the most important roles in trade between Rome and Asia. By understanding the historical significance of the city, we can understand how the city was important to both the Roman Empire and Paul, the Apostle, who wrote 1 and 2 Corinthians to the congregation of the church of Corinth.
In order to understand the importance of the city of Corinth, both to the Roman Empire and to Paul, we must explore all aspects of the city, including its geography, its role as a port city and its history prior to the first century C.E. It will also be important to understand the people who inhabited the city and the newly formed church of Corinth, which was the recipient of two of Paul’s epistles. A greater sense of the significance of the city of Corinth and its inhabitants will be obtained through the exploration and understanding of these aspects.
The Roman City of Corinth is located in southern Greece and is approximately fifty miles away from the city of Athens. It is located two miles south of an isthmus that connects Peloponnesus to the mainland of Greece. The isthmus located to the north of Corinth is no more than four miles wide. Corinth had command of both of the harbors on either side of the isthmus; therefore the city controlled trade between Rome and Asia.
Due to the fact that Corinth controlled both the Saronic Gulf, on the east side of the isthmus, and the Gulf of Corinth, to the west of the isthmus, the city was one of the most important port cities of the Roman Empire. During the Pre-Common Era and early Common Era the Romans had a very intriguing way of transporting goods and ships across the isthmus. “In ancient days small ships were dragged across the isthmus on a paved road; larger ships unloaded their cargo, which was then carried across the isthmus and then reloaded onto other ships.”
In addition to Corinth’s advantageous geography and its role as a port city, the city also has a very vibrant, yet gory history. The city was in its prime between the 8th and 5th centuries B.C.E. However, tragedy struck the city in 146 B.C.E. when it was destroyed and left in ruins. Lucius Mummius ordered the burning of the city because of its pronounced alliance with the Achaean League. Julius Caesar ordered the rebuilding of the city as a Roman Colony under his rule in approximately 45 B.C.E. He named the city Colonia Laus Julia Corinthiensis which translates “Corinth the praise of Julius.” The city of Corinth would later become the capital of the Roman Province of Achaia. Corinth’s market, in the first century C.E., was larger than any market in Rome. Without the cooperation of the Corinthians and the Roman Empire, trade between Rome and Asia would have been much more difficult. The city of Corinth acted as a mediator of trade between Asia and Rome, and in return, it would become one of the most important and vital cities of the Roman Empire.
The people of Roman Corinth (45 B.C.E. and on) were primarily Greeks, however, there was also a dense population of Roman war veterans in the city. Many of the inhabitants of Corinth worked as merchants, sailors, and tradesmen. The vast diversity of skills in the city caused it to be recognized as one of the fastest advancing cities of Greece.
According to Encyclopedia Britannica Online, Paul’s first letter to the church of Corinth, 1 Corinthians, was written around 53-54 C.E. from the city of Ephesus. His second letter to the church, 2 Corinthians, would have been written around 55 C.E. from Macedonia. Paul wrote these letters to inform the church of Corinth not just what they were doing adequately, but, more importantly, what they were doing inadequately. At the time that the letters were written, the church, or temple, of Corinth was fairly new, being rebuilt and reestablished re-established sometime during the first century B.C.E. The attendants were obviously of Jewish Faith and perceived Paul as a leader in the Jewish community.
After understanding the geography of the city, its role as a port city, its history prior to Paul’s visit, the people who lived there in the first century C.E. and the church of the city, the question that still arises is: Why was the Roman city of Corinth, in Paul’s eyes, significant enough for him to have written two of his seven undisputed letters to? Although we will never know exactly why Paul took an interest in the city of Corinth, there are a multitude of reasons that he may have chosen to write to the church of Corinth.
According to Padfield Sermons, when Paul visited the city in approximately 50 C.E., Corinth had become the most beautiful modern city of Greece, and its industries surpassed that of any other city of its size in the Roman Empire. As stated previously, at the time that Paul visited the church, or temple, of Corinth, it was a relatively new church in comparison to the other Jewish temples across the empire. When Paul first visited the city of Corinth he himself baptized Crispus, who was, at the time, the ruler of the synagogue (1 Corinthians 1:14). Due to the fact that the temple was relatively young, Paul deemed it necessary to explain to the people of the church that although they were doing some things correctly (1 Corinthians 6:9-11), there were still many things that were wrong with their temple and ways of worship. For example, in Paul’s first letter to the church he discusses the churches’ problems with its congregation, such as: division (1 Cor. 1-4), marriage (1 Cor. 7), the congregation’s consumption of meat (1 Cor. 8-9), and the resurrection from the grave (1 Cor. 15).
Paul must have sensed a great deal of religious immaturity among the members of the church’s congregation. Paul must have also recognized the city of Corinth as an advancing city in the Roman Empire, with all of the potential in the world to become an industrial power house of the Common Era. By understanding all of the aspects that made the city of Corinth what it was in the first century C.E., we can obtain a much better perception of why Paul may have deemed it necessary to write to the congregation of its church and inform them of what was wrong with their congregation. During the first century C.E. the Roman City of Corinth was not just a vital port city of the Roman Empire, but it was also one of the most advancing cities of its time. Understanding the history of the city has helped historians and biblical scholars alike to understand some of the first New Testament documents ever written, the two letters of Paul, the Apostle, that were once sent to the city of Corinth.
Encyclopedia Britannica, “Paul, The Apostle”, Accessed 22 Jun 2009
Padfield Sermons, The Biblical City of Corinth, Padfield.com
Dr. Kang-Yup Na, Personal Interview, 28 Mar 2009