Paul’s ministry in Corinth is his biggest success up to this point in Paul’s missionary career. The Romans founded a colony on the site of ancient Corinth in 44 B.C. The new city of Corinth was populated by freed slaves (Strabo (8.136) cf., Appian (Hist 8.136)). Socially this means that the new population has been given freedom, a fresh start, and the opportunity to advance far beyond what they might have hoped for as slaves.
The town was laid out in the Roman style, completely ignoring the layout of the old city, although the forum follows the outline of the old agora. The cardo (main street) cut through the old city. All of the architecture and design reflected the Roman style, not Greek. Even the Greek temples were “modernized” after the fashion of the Romans, including an imperial cult temple overlooking the forum. The foundations of the temple were higher than the other temples, even that of Apollo. The settlers were making it clear that Corinth was to be a Roman city, loyal to the Empire rather than the memory of the Greek city of Corinth.
The buildings for the Isthmia Games were done in a Roman style and Roman games were added to the Greek contests. The first Isthmian Games of New Corinth were held sometime between 7 B.C. and A.D. 3. in honor of L. Castricius Regulus, who had re-built the athletic facilities of Corinth. Regulus offered a banquet to all the inhabitants of the city to honor the games. These games are important to an understanding of the problems of the Corinthian letters since the games were not simply athletic events. They were dedicated to the gods, the chief of which was the Roman Emperor Nero himself. It was in the A.D. 50’s that the city of Corinth was honored with an Imperial Cult center. This is a major factor in Paul’s arrest and hearing before Gallio.
It is the combination of the games and imperial cult that put enormous pressure on the Corinthian church. The whole city would have participated in the banquets honoring the Roman Emperor, the elite of the city would be invited to the most important banquet honoring the Emperor as a god. There are both political and spiritual aspects to consider in refusing to attend this meal or social events like it.
The city of Corinth was an important cosmopolitan city in the middle part of the first century. It was economically stable, attracting a wide range of businesses from all over the Empire. Paul established the church in this city for this very reason. Once Christianity takes hold in Corinth, the local churches themselves can continue the mission of spreading the gospel throughout the region. Yet of all of Paul’s churches, this one seems to have had the most difficulties assimilating Christianity and their culture. For this reason Corinth is probably the church of the New Testament that is most like the modern church.
In choosing as one of his main missionary centers a city in which only the tough were reputed to survive, Paul demonstrated a confidence oddly at variance with his protestations of weakness. Corinth, however, offered advantages that outweighed its dangers. In addition to excellent communications, the extraordinary number of visitors (Dio Chrysostom, Or. 37.8; Aelius Aristides, Or. 46.24) created the possibility of converts who would carry the gospel back to their homelands. In contrast to the closed complacency of Athens, Corinth was open and questioning, eager for new ideas but neither docile nor passive, as Paul’s relationship with the Christian community there amply documents (Murphy-O’Connor, ABD 1:1138)
What are the potential implications for modern mission strategy? Paul targeted one of the most modern of the urban centers in the world at the time. Should this speak to where we plant churches? How we plant churches?