A Brief Primer on Corinth (Part I) – The Graeco-Roman Cults

The city of Corinth was originally a Greek city which was inhabited from about the 5th millennium BC until 146 BC when it was destroyed by the Romans. In approximately 44 BC a Roman colony was established there by Julius Caesar, occupying a significant place in the Roman Empire as it controlled the Isthmus of Corinth (a stretch of land joining central Greece to the Peloponnese). This established Corinth as successful a place of trade and commerce, thus bringing diverse cultures and creeds to the city. It was within this multicreedal society that Paul established a congregation of believers which, as seen in the first epistle he wrote to them, underwent various crises of faith.

An understanding of this society that flourished in Corinth is important in order to more fully appreciate and comprehend the text of 1 Corinthians. The polytheistic type thought inherent to the Hellenistic world of first-century Corinth allowed a multitude of religious systems to exist alongside one another; some old and some new, some native and some foreign.  This blog post (and the next one) will briefly look at how a reading of 1-2 Corinthians can be better informed with an understanding of the role that the Graeco-Roman cults and the Roman imperial cult played in the life of first-century Corinth.

I will pass over the attestation and influence of Judaism in Corinth due to the sparse literary (e.g. Acts 18.2) and archaeological attestation to its presence. I will also skip over the two Graeco-Roman mystery religions known to have been practice in Corinth – the cult of Cybele and the cult of Isis and Serapis as these similarly suffer from a paucity of extant evidence. A couple of articles for the interested reader in this regard are: Dennis Smith, ‘The Egyptian Cults at Corinth’, Harvard Theological Review 70 (1977): 201-31; and Mark Harding, ‘Church and Gentile Cults at Corinth’, Grace Theological Journal 10.2 (1989): 203-22 (esp. pp. 216-21).

The Graeco-Roman Cults

The Graeco-Roman cults are those of the Greek Parthenon and the Roman Pantheon, the gods of which, by the first century AD, had become practically interchangeable and indistinguishable. For example, the Greek god Poseidon had its counterpart in the Roman god Neptune, and the Greek god Aphrodite was now identified as the Roman god Venus. It was not uncommon for the Romans to adopt and adapt religious ideas from the Greeks. Not only did they identify their Roman gods with the previous Greek gods, but they also rededicated the former Greek temples and shrines to their own Roman gods. See Simon Price, Religions of the Ancient Greeks. (Cambridge: CUP, 1999), pp. 143-58 for a look at how the Romans responded to, and adopted, the Greek religious system.

Just as Athens had the Parthenon temple and Ephesus had the temple of Artemis, the city of Corinth had a temple dedicated to the Olympian god Poseidon. This god was honored due to the fact that he was seen as the ruler of the sea, thus finding his favor would have been seen as critical to bringing success to the mercantile city of Corinth, as the frequent passage of trade-ships allowed for the import and export of Corinthian products (especially ceramics, textiles, and bronze). This temple to Poseidon was not just a religious complex, but was also a cultural and social sanctuary for it consisted of a theatre and a stadium where athletic and literary competitions were held. While this shrine attests to the interplay of Greco-Roman society and religion, I’m not sure if there is a lot of evidence demonstrating the role it played in the time of the apostle Paul.

Aphrodite, the Olympian goddess of love and sexuality, was also prominent in the Graeco-Roman religious cult of Corinth with her influence on Corinthian life being more apparent to the eye. The Roman city of Corinth, which was known as the city of Aphrodite in the Greek Empire, kept to its namesake, having a reputation for being a centre of sexual excess. For example, the writer Aristophanes created the unique verb korinthiazesthai, “to fornicate”, due to the sexual promiscuity in the city. Even though we know of at least three temples devoted to Aphrodite in Roman Corinth, the reputation for sexual excess is probably exaggerated and the city was no worse than other seaport cities of the day.

The Graeco-Roman Cults and Temple Imagery of 1 Corinthians

Religious identity and social identity are inextricably linked together. Having spent a good period of time in Corinth, Paul was no doubt familiar with the religious and social culture of the city, so it should be no surprise to see Paul using imagery that would be recognizable to the recipients of this letter. How would someone in the Corinthian community have understood the following verses in 1 Corinthians?

  • Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? (1 Cor. 3.16)
  • Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God. (1 Cor. 6.19)

Paul’s invocation of temple imagery would possibly have resonated in the minds of the Corinthian Christians who may very well have previously enjoyed an active participation in the various shrines found in the city, or at least knew of them. In the midst of dealing with the factionalism that was apparently rife in the Corinthian community (1 Cor. 1.10), Paul tells the community that they are being in-dwelt by God’s Spirit (1 Cor. 3.16). He again uses the temple imagery in 1 Cor. 6.19, coming at the end of a section where Paul discusses matters of sexual immorality, arguing that the joining together of a Christian to a prostitute is inappropriate. Some commentators define the porneia (v. 18), to which the metaphor of Temple is applied to (v. 19), as an allusion to participation of the Corinthian Christians in the sacred temple prostitution. Though other commentators contend that Paul is concerned here only with sexual immorality in general. A compelling case for temple prostitution is provided by Brian Rosner, ‘Temple Prostitution in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20’, Novum Testamentum 40 (1998): 336-51. He concludes by saying:

A better label for what gave rise to Paul’s instructions may well be temple prostitution. The apostle’s warning is against porneia, and not idolatry per se; but the hypothesis that the environment in which the offence was occurring, a pagan temple, has influenced Paul’s response to the situation, makes good sense of much of the data. It is historically credible (prostitution did occur at festive occasions in pagan temples), exegetically congruent, giving due heed to the theocentric thrust of the passage and to the links with 1 Cor. 10, and can best be seen when Paul’s instructions are viewed against a biblical and Jewish background in which porneia and idolatry are closely associated. (351)

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