Corinth in History and Archaeology
The biblical accounts of the travels of Paul often include societal information that is made more pertinent by a historical and archaeological examination of the locations of the churches founded in Acts. One such church was in Corinth in Achaia, where Paul stayed a year and a half during his second missionary journey (Acts 18:11). From Acts 18:1-18, it can be determined that there were a substantial number of Jews in the city (as evinced by the presence of a synagogue—18:4), that, likely, Corinth was the seat of government for the Roman province of Achaia (as evinced by the mention of Gallio as proconsul—18:12), and that it was a port city (18:18).
This provides some evidence, from which can be reconstructed only a vague view of the city and people of Corinth. However, through a consideration of the archaeological and ancient historical evidence, the Corinth of Paul’s time can come alive to the readers of Acts and the books of First and Second Corinthians. Plus, the text itself becomes more significant, once a background of the city and its people is understood. The Bible speaks only briefly about Corinth, but it is obvious from what is said, that it was a very important city. The geography of Achaia, and even the geography of that part of the Mediterranean, played a major role in ancient Corinth. Greece was divided between the mainland and the Peloponnesian peninsula, with a narrow isthmus connecting the two. Corinth was located just to the southwest of the isthmus, on the peninsula, overlooking the isthmus. With this location, Corinth was able to control all the terrestrial traffic (commercial and otherwise) that moved from the mainland to the peninsula (DeVries, 1997, p. 359). Corinth was serviced by two ports: Lechaeum on the Gulf of Corinth, which was a little more than a mile to the north of Corinth and led to Italy; and Cenchreae on the Saronic Gulf, which was a little more than six miles to the east and led to Asia Minor (Harrison, 1985, pp. 83-84).
The southernmost tip of the Peloponnesian peninsula, known as Cape Maleae, was the route around Greece, and was known for being a dangerous path (Blaiklock, 1965, p. 56; Harrison, p. 83). There even came to be a saying, based on the treacherous nature of the waters of Cape Maleae: “When you double Maleae, forget your home” (Harrison, p. 83). Because of this, ships carrying goods bound for Italy often unloaded in port at Cenchreae. Their goods were carried across the five-mile wide isthmus, and then were reloaded in the port at Lechaeum aboard ships bound for Italy. Smaller, lighter boats were placed on “trolleys” and moved along the diolkos, a paved highway that joined the gulfs at Cenchreae and Lechaeum (Blaiklock, p. 56; Harrison, pp. 83-84; DeVries, p. 360). Thus, Corinth was in a geographical position to control all traffic between Asia Minor in the east and Italy in the west, and between mainland Greece in the north and the Peloponnesian peninsula in the south.
Legend records that the mythological Argo, piloted by Jason with his crew of Argonauts, was built at Corinth (Blaiklock, p. 57). Historically, the area where Corinth sat was inhabited sporadically before the founding of the city itself, which occurred when Dorian Greeks settled in the area and founded the city of Corinth around 1000 B.C. Corinth soon established colonies on the islands of Sicily and Corfu in the eighth century B.C., and reached a new position of dominance during the seventh and sixth centuries B.C. It was during this time that Periander, son of Cypselus, built the diolkos between the Saronic Gulf and the Gulf of Corinth (DeVries, pp. 360-361). During the fifth century B.C., Athens challenged the Corinthian control of commerce by attempting to take over certain trade interests and colonies. Sparta, the rival city of Athens, sided with Corinth, and the city-states of Greece were plunged into the Peloponnesian War in 430 B.C. Sparta and Corinth prevailed, but Athens and Sparta continued to fight until the conquest of Greece by the Macedonians in 338 B.C. (Blaiklock, p. 57). As the Roman Empire began its conquest of the Mediterranean world, the Corinthians tried to defend themselves, but were destroyed in 146 B.C. by the Roman general Lucius Mummius, who slaughtered the men and sold the women and children into slavery. There was no real Corinth for almost a hundred years, until Julius Caesar reestablished it as a Roman colony in 44 B.C., and it was made the capital of Achaia in 27 B.C. by Caesar Augustus. Corinth was again the center of trade in Greece between Asia Minor and Rome (DeVries, p. 362; Harrison, pp. 84-85). It is therefore no wonder, seeing the great amount of commercial trafficking through Corinth, that Paul, Aquila, and Priscilla there plied their trade as tentmakers (Acts 18:2-3).
As a city, Corinth enjoyed good land, with the prominent feature being a 1,887-foot-tall limestone mountain called the Acrocorinth. The soil near the Acrocorinth was not fertile, but to the west the land was considered good agricultural property (Harrison, p. 86). The Acrocorinth served as the citadel for Corinth, with the temple of Aphrodite perched atop it, which supposedly housed one thousand shrine prostitutes (Harrison, p. 86; Duffield, 1985, p. 22). Regarding Corinth’s economy, LaMoine DeVries wrote:
Corinth had an economy based on trade and commerce, industry, and agriculture. While the annual rainfall of the region was quite limited, the city benefited from the production of agricultural products in the fertile coastal plain nearby, especially the cultivation of orchards and vineyards. In addition to agriculture, Corinth had at least two thriving industries that produced pottery and bronze metal works that were shipped throughout the Mediterranean (p. 360).
Since 1896, archeologists under the direction of the American School of Classical Studies in Athens have been excavating ancient Corinth. They found that during the time of Paul, many great buildings were being reconstructed after their destruction at the hands of Lucius Mummius, and that many new building were being built as well. This possibly explains Paul’s use of construction metaphors in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 (see Furnish, 1988, pp. 16-17). Remains have been found of a sixth century B.C. Doric temple that was restored in the first century B.C., of which seven columns are still standing. Some say that this was the temple to Apollo, but no one is certain. Just to the north of the temple of Apollo was the north market, which housed shops for the sale of foodstuffs. The theater lay to the west of the north market, and was rebuilt and renovated many times throughout the years (Furnish, pp. 22-23).
An interesting archaeological find lies between the north market and the theater in the form of an inscription. This finding probably refers to a public official of Corinth, whom Paul appears to have identified by name in his letter to the Romans. In Romans 16:23 Paul conveyed greetings to the Roman church from several people, one of whom was “Erastus, the city treasurer.” Since the apostle almost certainly wrote Romans from Corinth, Erastus was probably the treasurer of the city. Erastus is associated specifically with Corinth in 2 Timothy 4:20. The Erastus inscription, which was found in Corinth in 1929, has been dated to the second half of the first century A.D.. Originally, it consisted of letters carved into limestone paving blocks and then inlaid with metal. Only two metal punctuation marks remain, however, although most of the inscription itself is still visible in a small plaza just east of the theater (Furnish, p. 20). The inscription in the pavement is translated, “Erastus in return for his aedileship [position as magistrate—AP] laid [the pavement] at his own expense” (Furnish, p. 20). It is highly possible that this is the same Erastus mentioned in Romans 16:23, 2 Timothy 4:20, and Acts 19:22.
To the south of the theater and temple of Apollo were several other temples, religious shrines, and Roman-style public buildings. Also present was a basilica, probably used as the judicial headquarters for the city of Corinth. If this were true, then Paul likely would have appeared before Gallio (Acts 18:12-17) at the basilica instead of at the ceremonial bema in the center of the forum (Furnish, p. 23). DeVries gave a very well summarized walk-through of Corinth, based on the archaeological evidence discovered:
The major entrance to the city was from the north; the Lechaion road moved from the Gulf of Corinth and its port southward to the city. As the road entered the city, its width increased to nearly twenty-five feet. It was paved with slabs of limestone and was lined with raised sidewalks with channels for drainage, colonnades, and shops. Beyond the shops to the west was a large rectangular basilica, the great temple of Apollo, the north market, and a theater. The large basilica, often called the north basilica, with chambers at each end, apparently functioned as a large hall. It was divided by two rows of columns and was perhaps used for a variety of public meetings. The temple of Apollo, originally built in the sixth century BCE, was designed with thirty-eight columns, seven of which remain standing today. The peribolos of Apollo and the fountain of Peirene were located east of the thoroughfare. The peribolos was a large courtyard enclosed by columns and dedicated to Apollo whose statue stood in its midst. The fountain of Peirene, a large reservoir with a capacity of more than eighty-one thousand gallons, was fed by natural springs and provided the major source of water for the city (p. 364).
DeVries went on to describe the agora, or market, which was divided by a row of shops and the bema [seat or step of judgment—AP] into the lower and upper forums; the bouleuterion, where the council met; a series of shops, possibly restaurants or bars, where pits, fed with cold spring water, kept wine cool; small temples to Apollo, Tyche, Venus and Hera located to the west of the agora; the sanctuary of Demeter and Kore; a large pottery industrial area; and the Lerna-Asclepeum complex, which contained bathing, exercise, and dining areas all devoted to the healing of the infirmed and consecrated to Asclepius, the god of healing (pp. 365-366).
While dated later than the time of Paul, two archaeological finds proved that there was a significant number of Jews at Corinth. The first was an inscription that read, “Synagogue of the Hebrews,” proving that there were enough Jews in Corinth, at least as late as the fourth century, to warrant building a synagogue. Another piece, apparently from a synagogue, showed typical Jewish decorations of candelabras, palm branches, and citron (Furnish, p. 26). Other archaeological finds in the city of Corinth included a bronze mirror that had been made in Corinth, statues, a fountain with sculpted dolphins, and terra cotta models of body parts that were used in healing rituals at the Lerna-Asclepeum healing complex (Furnish, pp. 17-26).
As a major influence in the Roman Empire, Corinth was able to control all east-west commerce, and all Grecian north-south commerce. Many buildings and inscriptions have been found that confirm the biblical record of Corinth, and which prove that the accounts found in Acts and First and Second Corinthians are true and accurate. The more archaeologists dig into the deep, dark earth, the more they shed light upon the Bible and its accuracy.
Blaiklock, E.M. (1965), Cities of the New Testament (London, England: Revell).
DeVries, LaMoine F. (1997), Cities of the Biblical World (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson).
Duffield, Guy P. (1985), Handbook of Bible Lands (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker).
Furnish, Victor Paul (1988), “Corinth in Paul’s Time—What Can Archaeology Tell Us?” Biblical Archaeology Review, 14:15-27, May/June.
Harrison, R.K. (1985), Major Cities of the Biblical World (Nashville, TN: Nelson).