Paul in Corinth
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP
Paul did not stay long in Athens. The more he heard its dried-up,pessimistic intellectuals decry the commercial boom-town of Corinth across the bay, the more he became convinced that it was the place in which he should be investing his energy. It offered opportunities that sclerotic Athens denied him.
Corinth lay on the isthmus which links the Peloponnese to mainland Greece. The narrow land bridge facilitated north-south traffic, but it was a barrier to east-west shipping. Small boats could be dragged across on a wooden carriage running in groves in a paved road. Heavier cargos had to be transshipped from the western port of Lechaeum to the eastern port of Cenchreae and vice versa. Corinth levied taxes on everything that passed through its territory. From remote antiquity it was known as ‘wealthy’ Corinth.
The city was reestablished by Julius Caesar in 44 BC. Such was its economic potential that within 50 years some of the colonists had become millionaires. Wealth came easily to those prepared to work hard, and cut-throat competition ensured that only the clever and committed survived. ‘Not for everyone is the voyage to Corinth’ was one of the famous proverbs of the ancient world.
Paul took this as a challenge, whereas others would have held back for fear that people so busy and preoccupied, so eager in their pursuit of gain, would have no time to listen. Paul, on the contrary, realized that if he could establish a church in such an environment, it would be indisputable proof of the power of God. Moreover, Corinth offered him superb communications. There were always groups of travellers going in all directions into which he could insert his letter-carriers.
No sooner had Paul arrived in Corinth than he had an incredible piece of luck. In searching among the tent workshops for a job, he was hired by Prisca and Aquila, a couple from Pontus on the Black Sea. To his amazement he discovered that they were Christians, who had been converted in Rome. Of course, they aided his apostolate, and became a permanent part of his missionary team. Later they were to prepare the ground for him in Ephesus and Rome.
Even though Paul’s base was a lowly workshop, his first converts were two wealthy men. Crispus had enough surplus cash to be a benefactor of the synagogue. Gaius was the owner of a large house. This relieved Paul’s mind considerably because he needed space to bring the whole community together at least occasionally.
From allusions scattered throughout Paul’s letters and Acts we know the name of 16 members of the church at Corinth. From this we can develop a rough idea of the composition of the community. We must assume that all were married, and we know that some were converted together with their households. Thus at a minimum the community numbered between 40 and 50.
Of the named men 6 were Jews and 8 pagans, but this is unlikely to represent the correct proportions. 1 Corinthians 12:2 suggests that the vast majority were gentiles. Socially the men ranged from Gaius and other wealthy men to Tertius, who was a professional secretary and possibly a slave. Three were ex-slaves, but Erastus had risen to a post in the municipal government; he was treasurer of the city. The nickname of another, Achaicus (‘the man from Achaia’) shows that he had travelled abroad. El Greco did not get his nickname on Crete.
Only two women are named. Phoebe, a pagan, was independantly wealthy and hosted the church at Cenchreae. Her home and her purse were open to all in need. Prisca was a Jewess, but frequently she is mentioned before her husband Aquila, showing that in the church she was much more important than he was.
Clearly the church at Corinth was the city in microcosm, and mirrored its dynamic energy. The Corinthians were the antithesis of the Galatians. Whereas the latter were risk-averse and paralyzed by prudence, the Corinthians eagerly accepted Paul’s challenge to work out for themselves what it meant to be Christian. They frequently got it wrong, but this gave Paul the opportunity to nudge them in the right direction by dialogue. He would not tell them what to do. They had to discover the right answers for themselves.