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St. Paul in Corinth – Bearing Faith to a Worldly City

St. Paul brings Christianity to the turbulent, historic city of Corinth.

Leaving the sprawling, noisy, smoke-filled city of modern Athens on the road for Corinth recalls the Apostle Paul, who centuries ago embarked on that same journey. Its fruits, especially the great documents I and II Corinthians, today are an integral part of our Christian faith.

The Corinth to which Paul traveled was far larger and wealthier than its current namesake. Indeed, in that period it outshone Athens in almost every sphere. Corinth’s cosmopolitan character made it a model of the worldly cultures which young Christianity had to confront. Paul helped define the new faith’s response to the spheres of power and pleasure by bringing it into this place.

Corinth was one of the most prosperous cities of Greece. At the country’s commercial and military crossroads, it used its harbors in both the Aegean and Adriatic Seas to control the line of communication in peace and war. Merchant shipping brought wealth to the city, whose pottery was the finest in Greece.

This surfeit of riches encouraged widespread corruption and immorality. Corinth’s first governor, Sisyphus, was a cunning and deceitful ruler. Subsequent leaders tended to be dishonest tyrants. “Living as a Corinthian” was an expression synonymous with leading a decadent and depraved life.

Corinth’s commercial success constantly challenged Athens, and its strategic position on the isthmus also threatened that other great city-state, Sparta. These factors helped lead to the Peloponnesian War. Corinth survived this lengthy conflict and prospered until the Romans destroyed it in 146 B.C. Julius Caesar rebuilt the city in 46 B.C. When Paul visited in 51 A.D., it was a flourishing Roman and Jewish settlement, capital of the province of Achaia, and renowned for its luxury and wealth.

Corinth’s wealth was matched by a natural beauty which is still evident. The surrounding hills are alive with rich greens broken by fields of yellow, ochre, and brown. The sparkling clear blue waters of the Saronic and Corinthian gulfs complete the picture. Today, modern Corinth is a small town nestling along the water’s edge some 3.5 miles from the original site. Ancient Corinth’s ruins are situated against the background of Acrocorinth’s towering citadel, perched above a 1886-foot precipice.

The city occupied two natural terraces at the bottom of Acrocorinth and was joined to the cliff by a six-mile-long circuit wall. Although little of this wall survives, the ruins of the city give a visitor a clear impression of the flourishing city it once was.

Seven remaining pillars of the Temple of Apollo dominate the site, attesting to the pagan nature of Corinth that must have presented a great challenge to Paul. The city was morally decadent, cults thrived, and the sanctuary of Aphrodite owned more than a thousand courtesan slaves for sacred prostitution.

When Paul arrived in Corinth, he easily found the large Jewish community. The synagogue was a prominent building southeast of Apollo’s Temple. Paul immediately met Aquila and Priscilla, a Jewish couple recently expelled from Rome with all its Jews. Already believers, they were also tent-makers like Paul, and he was able to live and work with them (Acts 18:1-3).

Paul worked his trade and preached in the synagogue every Sabbath until Silas and Timothy joined him from Macedonia. Thereafter he gave himself fulltime to spreading the Gospel among the Jews. Many Corinthians believed and were baptized, including Crispus, the leader of the synagogue, and all his household (Acts 13:8). This success greatly angered many others, who resisted Paul’s preaching to the point where he had to leave the synagogue. From then on, he decided to concentrate his efforts on the Gentiles.

After one and a half years teaching in Corinth, Paul had built up a close community of believers. The converts were many, though clearly not without difficulties. Corinth’s continuing moral depravity constantly threatened the Christian community, and so Paul warned them to guard against the perils around them (I Cor. 5).

The first epistle, exhorting the Church to unity and brotherly love was apparently not enough to solve the problems of the Corinthians. The second epistle became necessary after Titus brought discouraging news to Paul in Macedonia. Paul’s very personal message uses strong words to rebuke their failings while expressing his love: “I wrote you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love I have for you” (II Cor. 2:4). This epistle also reminded the Corinthians of their pledge to collect gifts for the saints in Jerusalem. This was important to him, not only because of the needs of the Jerusalem Church, but as an expression of Christian brotherhood.

It seems that this stern letter had its effect. When Paul visited the city for the last time on his third missionary journey, he found the Church there at peace and was able to write, “For Macedonia and Achaia [i.e., Corinth’s province] have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints of Jerusalem” (Romans 15: 26-27).

For two centuries after Paul’s ministry, Corinth prospered with a character more Roman than Greek. Ironically, its importance and strategic desirability contributed to Corinth’s decline. It was burned by barbarians in 267, severely damaged by an earthquake in 375, and sacked by the Goths twice, in 395 and 521. A series of earthquakes and a plague very nearly wiped out the city in the sixth century. The emperor Justinian refounded it, and it again flourished into the Byzantine era. During the Middle Ages it was mainly confined to the area of Acrocorinth. Leon Sgouros, a thirteenth century Byzantine general, defended it for seven years against the invading Franks. In the end, rather than surrender, he leapt on horseback over the precipice. From this same spot many centuries earlier, according to Greek mythology, Belierophon took off on his winged horse, Pegasus. Unfortunately for Sgouros, his steed was not so endowed.

After the Franks, Corinth was ruled successively by the Venetians and the Knights of Saint John until the Turkish conquest of 1458 reduced the once splendid metropolis to the status of a small town. The Greeks were able to raise their standard from Acrocorinth once again in 1822, but it continued to be the focus of attacks and was only liberated finally at the end of the War of Independence in 1833. Corinth never again regained the ascendency of its past, despite the completion in 1892 of the four-mile canal joining the Aegean and the Adriatic, a project first started by Nero in 67 A.D.

Despite such a violent history, remarkably, extensive ruins remain of the ancient city. The excavations which began in 1896 have given us an almost complete picture of the town as it was at the time of Paul. Yet, to wander through the ruins of the stoa or to gaze up at the impressive pillars of Apollo’s temple causes one to reflect on Corinth’s legacy.

On the edge of the ruins is a tiny village with a typical tile-domed Orthodox church. In its courtyard is a marble pillar on which is inscribed in four languages the whole of Chapter 13 of I Corinthians, attesting to a faith more enduring than that represented by Apollo’s marble columns. Perhaps this expression of the nature of love is the greatest legacy that Corinth has bequeathed us.

Gerald Ring is a writer and photographer living in Jerusalem.

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