Atop the hill of Corinth called Acrocorinth stood a temple that was the scourge of the city. It was the temple to the goddess Aphrodite (photo left), the goddess of love. The photo below shows all that is left of the temple today.
A Photo Tour of Corinth
In around 51 AD, the Apostle Paul arrived in the city of Corinth. He remained there for about 18 months, working alongside his friends Aquilla and Priscilla as a tentmaker, and preaching the message of Christ. Paul would later write at least four letters to the Corinthian Church, teaching, correcting and encouraging them, and addressing issues about his reputation and message. Two of these letters are preserved in our Bibles as 1 & 2 Corinthians. In this article we will look at some of the events, places, images and people that shaped Paul’s life and these letters he wrote.
The city of Corinth is situated on the Peloponnesian Peninsula in Southern Greece. The original city was destroyed in 146 BC and then rebuilt in 44 BC at the command of Julius Caesar. By the time the apostle Paul visited in 51 AD, it was once again a thriving city. It is estimated that the population in Paul’s time was between 400,000 and 800,000. At that time it was a major economic centre with a reputation for being one of the financial centres of the ancient world.
The city was also well known for its immorality, with temples, prostitution, night clubs and bars readily on offer. Excavators have so far uncovered 33 taverns in Corinth.
There is a narrow land-bridge, about 6 km wide, between Corinth and Athens (photo below). To the south of the Peloponnesian peninsula was a wild and dangerous ocean route that few sailors wanted to brave. They instead preferred the relative calm of travelling up to Corinth and dragging their boat across the isthmus by trolley on a road called the diolkos (photo left).
Ancient records indicate that ever since the 6th century BC men had dreamed of cutting a canal through the isthmus. One notable attempt during the Roman era was made by the emperor Nero. He began the work himself using his own golden pickaxe, but then continued the work using thousands of Jewish slaves captured during the Jewish revolt (mid 60s – 73 AD). The work ceased three years later when Nero committed suicide.
This massive engineering feat was only completed in 1893. Today’s Corinthian Canal (right) is 6.3 km long, 21 metres wide at the base and the walls reach up to 79 metres high.
One of the more public areas of ancient Corinth was the marketplace or ‘agora’. It was here that the locals came to buy and sell their produce, and where the merchants passing through would set up their stalls. The arch in the photo to the left is one of the shop fronts in the Corinthian marketplace. It is possible that Paul and his friends Priscilla and Aquilla made use of one of these shops while they worked together as tentmakers (Acts 18:1-3).
Archaeologists have even been able to tell what was sold in some of the shops. In one part of the market they have discovered the sign saying “Meat Market”, and in another place, one for a shop selling fish. In 1 Corinthians 10:25, Paul makes reference to this meat market saying “Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience…”
The ancient fish scales in the image to the right were discovered in what has become known as the ‘House of the Merchant’, a building in Corinth dating to the 5th century BC. They are from two fish varieties, the Sea Bream and the Tuna. It seems that these fish were imported to Corinth, since both varieties are found in the Atlantic Ocean rather than the Mediterranean.
Paul’s Trial before Gallio
In Acts 18:12, we read of an important incident that occurred during Paul’s first visit to Corinth. At that time the Jews laid charges against Paul, claiming he was “persuading the people to worship God in ways contrary to the law.” As a result he was brought to trial before Gallio, the Roman proconsul for that year.
One of the more likely places for the trial to have taken place was called the bema (photo left). This was the public courthouse at the time of Paul, and was located in the city’s civic centre. In his day the bema would have been an impressive sight. It was a high platform covered with blue and white marble. Gallio would have sat on the platform to hold court.
An inscription found in the 1800s indicates that Gallio served as Corinth’s proconsul from 51-52 AD. Since Paul stood trial at this time, the inscription has also been used to accurately date Paul’s first stay in Corinth to 51-52 AD.
The outcome of the trial was a major victory for Christianity. Gallio did not regard Paul’s actions as a serious crime, and the Gospel continued to be preached in Corinth and throughout the Roman world.
The Temple of Apollo
When Paul came to Corinth, he came to a city full of temples. One of the most prominent temples would have been the temple of Apollo. This was a huge structure that was built some 600 years before Paul’s visit, making it an archaeological feature even in his day. It stood on a high mound overlooking the market place, and would have been one of the focal points of the city. The temple had been built to honour Apollo, the Greek god of music, medicine, healing and prophecy. Today only 7 of the original 38 columns remain. Each of these impressive columns stands 3.506 metres high. They are unusual in that they are each built from one single piece of stone. Most columns in the ancient world were made in several sections called drums and then joined together.
The Temple of Asklepios
Another temple, common in the Greek and Roman world, was one to Asklepios the god of healing (photo left). These temples were usually located away from the hustle and bustle of the city, and often outside the city walls. Like other centres, Corinth too had its temple to Asklepios. It was found inside the walls, but some distance from the city centre. A fresh water spring located nearby may have been a part of the Temple complex, which included not only the temple but also an area that functioned a bit like a hospital today.
Excavations at the temple complex in Corinth have uncovered a huge number of votive offerings to the god. Many of these were life-size terracotta representations of parts of the human body. It seems that when a person was healed of a sickness they would have a model of the affected body part made, and would present it at the temple. Terracotta body parts totalling ten cubic metres have been excavated at Corinth. The hand in the image to the right is an example of one of these votive offerings.
The Temple of Aphrodite
According to the writer Strabo who visited Corinth in about 40 BC, there were about one thousand cult prostitutes working from this temple. Whenever merchants sailed into the harbour, the prostitutes would soon make their presence known. In fact the reputation of Corinth as a place of prostitution became so bad that the term ‘Corinthian girl’ became synonymous with a prostitute in the ancient Mediterranean world. No wonder Paul felt it necessary to warn his readers not to be united with prostitutes (1 Corinthians 6:15). It was also to this city that Paul addressed his famous passage about the true nature of love:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13).
The small museum at Corinth houses a range of items used in the day-to-day lives of the Corinthian people. The following are just a small representation of these items.
These small articulated dolls are made from terracotta. I wonder who carefully crafted them and what child lovingly played with them.
A child’s pull toy at Corinth museum.
In earlier years, Corinth was renowned for its unique style of pottery, so much so that other nations imitated it.
War was an ever present reality in the ancient world. This style of helmet, called a “Corinthian helmet”, was used by Greek armies during the 400 years prior to the coming of Jesus.
An Athletic Centre
Only a few kilometres from Corinth lies, Isthmia, one of the sporting centres of the Greek world. Every two years, athletes from all over Greece would gather together here to test their skills against one another.
These games were such a big occasion, that during the games ‘season’, a universal truce was declared throughout the land enabling competitors and visitors safe passage to the games. In 412 BC, despite Athens and Corinth being at war, the Athenians were invited to the games as usual.
Athletes at the games would compete in a range of events including boxing (image above left), wrestling, chariot racing, foot-races and even music and poetry. As a prize, the winners would receive a crown-like wreath made from dried, withered celery. The statue (above right) shows Nike (or Victory) holding a victory wreath.
Paul uses the imagery of the Isthmian games and their prize when he writes in 1 Corinthians 9 as follows:
‘Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified from the prize. (1 Corinthians 9:24-27 NIV)
The Erastus Inscription
Just below Corinth’s theatre, in an area once paved in marble, there quite possibly lies a tribute to one of Paul’s wealthier Corinthian associates. This engraved block of stone, discovered in 1929, reads:
Erastus, commissioner of public works [aedile], laid this pavement at his own expense.
In Romans 16, Paul sends greeting from a fellow called ‘Erastus, who is said to be the city treasurer’, or as some translations put it, ‘the director of public works’. The letter to the Romans was written from Corinth, and many people believe this pavement was laid by the same person mentioned by Paul in both Romans and in 2 Timothy 4.
In Paul’s day the inscribed hollows were filled by bronze letters. Today only two small punctuation marks retain the bronze. The other bronze letters were likely stolen by looters centuries ago. However, even when we observed it in 2006, the inscription was still very clear and readable.
If you were to visit Greece today, you too could walk around the ruins of ancient Corinth. You could see the remains of buildings used in Paul’s time and ponder the letters he sent to a church that formed here some 20 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Ross and Sarah Nightingale images: Lechaion Road, view towards Acrocorinth; The Diolkos; Corinthian canal; Northwest shop and Temple of Apollo; Fish scales (Ancient Corinth Museum); Bema; Temple of Apollo; Votive hand (Ancient Corinth Museum); Aphrodite (Ancient Corinth Museum); Acrocorinth from behind northwest shop; Temple of Aphrodite on Acrocorinth; Articulated dolls (Ancient Corinth Museum); Childs pull toy (Ancient Corinth Museum); Pottery (Ancient Corinth Museum); Corinthian helmet (Ancient Corinth Museum); Boxer (National Museum of Rome); Nike with wreath (Altes Museum, Berlin); Greek vase showing runners (Vatican Museum); Erastus inscription.
Wikipedia Commons images: Map of Greece (modified); Corinthian canal aerial; Asklepios.