There is no other letter of Paul which reveals so fully the reaction of the life of the city upon the church as does I Corinthians. It is well, therefore, to know something of the city itself.
Located on the southwestern side of the isthmus of the same name, it was on the direct line of trade and travel between the East and the West. It had two ports — Lechaeum, one and one-half miles distant on the Corinthian gulf, to which came the shipping of Italy, Sicily, and Spain, and Cenchreae, eight and one-half miles from the city on the Saronic gulf, where ships from places all about the eastern part of the Mediterranean found anchorage. The way across the isthmus shortened the route to the west by many miles and obviated the perilous sail around Cape Mdea, on the southern coast of Greece. Arriving at either port, large ships transhipped their cargoes across the narrow bridge of land for further transport. Small vessels were often hauled across the isthmus on a tramway about five miles long. The value of this shortened trade route is evident from the fact that plans were made in Paul's time to cut a canal through the isthmus. Nero actually began to dig one, but found the undertaking too difficult, and it is only in 1893 that the two gulfs have been thus united. Corinth was thus, as Horace described it, "the city of two seas." Nor was it only on the shortest way from the East to the West, but as the isthmus was the "bridge of the sea," Corinth was likewise on the direct road from the Peloponnesus to the northern parts of Greece and profited also by reason of this position. In fact, its highly advantageous commercial situation lay at the foundation of the greatness of both Old Corinth and New Corinth and did much to give both of them their peculiar character.
It is with New Corinth, however, that we are now concerned. The old city was utterly destroyed by the Romans in 146 B.C. and the site was desolate for about one hundred years. In 46 B.C. the new city was founded by Julius Caesar, who established a colony of Roman veterans and freedmen near the Acrocorinthus, the great protective rock of the old city. By the time Paul came to visit it the new foundation had become a very large city with a mixed population of Italians (descendants from the early colonists), Greeks, Jews, and orientals from all parts of the East. The Greek influence was dominant in the life of the city. Because of its importance it had been made the capital of the Roman province of Achaia and the seat of the Roman Proconsul. The commercial greatness of the old city, which, during the period of desolation, had been given to Delos, was rapidly regained. New Corinth became the most prominent and the richest city of Greece. Its chief business was again the transport of goods.
Like most cities that have become great commercial centers, it was a place of sharp contrasts. Poverty and squalor had their abode in wretched huts; wealth and luxury in costly palaces. Beautiful temples enriched by columns of marble and porphyry and ornamented with gold and silver adorned its streets. The gods of Greece, Rome, and Egypt had their shrines not far from each other. Luxurious living characterized often by gross self-indulgence brought about debasement of character. Two elements of the population contributed especially to the maintenance of the desperate profligacy for which Corinth was noted, viz., the sailors found constantly in her streets and the numerous slaves who had their miserable existence within her confines. Even religion gave sanction to immorality by its cult of sexual indulgence. To live like a Corinthian was synonymous with debauchery. Paul wrote his letter to the Romans from Corinth, and it was from her life that he got the description of paganism which is found in Rom. 1:21-32. Drunkenness was common and dishonesty notorious. It would be unfair, however, to leave the impression that business and profligacy were the only characteristics of the city.
There were intellectual interests both in art and philosophy. No Greek city was without interest in philosophy and schools of philosophy were to be found in Corinth. Her citizens were proud of their mental acuteness; so much so that in their conceit they criticized all men and questioned anything and everything. They loved disputation, but all their intellectual activity resulted in nothing of much value. The wisdom of the schools took little hold upon the earnest realities of life. They dabbled in philosophy. The knowledge that "puffeth up" was a consequence. Indeed, "the artificiality and flowing rhetoric of the sophists" were quite satisfying. Far-reaching fame came to the city from the Isthmian games which were under the supervision of the Corinthians and which brought together every third year many contestants and visitors from all parts of the world. In the markets of the world Corinthian wares of fine day, tapestries, and vessels of bronze were well known. New Corinth, in brief, was a busy, keen-witted, pleasure-loving, grossly immoral city, given over to idolatry and superstition and exerting a wide-reaching influence by reason of the streams of travel constantly passing through it. "The merchant toiling upward by all possible means, the glutton yielding to every desire the athlete steeled by exercise and bidding defiance to every power — these were the real Corinthian types; in a word, the man whom none surpasses, to whom nothing is impossible and nothing denied" — Dobschiitz.
The one place of any moral illumination at all amid the surrounding darkness was the humble synagogue of the Jews. Until the church of Christ was established it was probably the only refuge for any Gentile who longed for better things than either the idolatry of the temples or the philosophy of the schools could give him. Such was the Corinth to which Paul came as a Missionary of the Cross. Only unwavering faith in the power of God could have nerved him for his task.
From I Epistle to the Corinthians by professor James S. Riggs, Auburn Theological Seminary. Published by the MacMillan Company in 1922. Lightly updated to the language of the 21st century by D. N. Pham. (c) 2013. This conversion is not completed.
Insights of the past for the present
To the Corinthians - J.S. Riggs
ON THE BOOK SHELF
May your insights be worthy.