Once there had been a time, in the flourishing age of the Greek republics, when Athens had been politically greater than Corinth. Now, however, that the little territories of the Levantine cities were fused into the larger political divisions of the empire, Athens had only the memory of its preeminence, while Corinth held the keys of commerce and swarmed with a crowded population.
Both Athens and Corinth had recently experienced severe vicissitudes. A spell, however, was on the fortunes of the former, and its character remained more entirely Greek than that of any other place, while the latter rose from its ruins, a new and splendid city, on the Isthmus between its two seas. Corinth was the place where a multitude of Greeks and Jews gradually united themselves with the military colonists sent by Julius Caesar from Italy, and were kept in order by the presence of a Roman proconsul.
The connection of Corinth with the life of Apostle Paul and the early progress of Christianity is so close and eventful, that no student of the Bible ought to be satisfied without obtaining as correct and clear an idea as possible of its social condition, and its relation to other parts of the Empire. We are now arrived at that point in the life of Apostle Paul when his first Epistles were written. His first epistle included in Scripture is the book of 1Thessalonians written in 50 A.D. from Corinth. It was followed by 2Thessalonians penned in 51.
We know that the Apostle's mind, on his arrival at Corinth, was still turning with affection and anxiety towards his converts at Thessalonica. In the midst of all his labors at the Isthmus, his thoughts were continually with those whom he had left in Macedonia. Although the Biblical narrative (Acts 18:1 - 4) tells us only of his tent-making and preaching in the metropolis of Achaia, we discover, on a closer inquiry, that the Letters to the Thessalonians were written at this particular crisis.
Why come to Corinth?
The reasons which determined Apostle Paul to come to Corinth (above the discouragement of Athens) were, probably, twofold. In the first place, it was a large mercantile city, in immediate connection with Rome and the West of the Mediterranean, with Thessalonica and Ephesus in the Aegean Sea, and with Antioch and Alexandria in the East. The Gospel once established in Corinth, would rapidly spread everywhere. And, again, from the very nature of the city, the Jews established there were numerous.
Communities of scattered Israelites were found in various parts of the province of Achaia, such as in Athens, in Argos (as we learn from Philo) and in Boeotia and Eubosa. But their chief settlement must necessarily have been in Corinth, which not only gave opportunities of trade by land along the Isthmus between the Morea and the Continent, but received in its two harbors the ships of the Eastern and Western Seas.
True Christianity, which was first to be planted in the Synagogue, and was thence intended to scatter its seeds over all parts of the earth, could nowhere find a more favorable soil than among the Hebrew families at Corinth.
At this particular time there was a greater number of Jews in the city than usual, for they had lately been banished from Rome by command of the Emperor Claudius (Acts 18:2). Among the Jews who had been banished from Rome by Claudius, and had settled for a time at Corinth, were two natives of Pontus, whose names were Aquila and Priscilla.
Pontus denoted a province of Asia Minor on the shores of the Euxine, and we have noticed some political facts which tended to bring this province into relations with Judea. Though, indeed, it is hardly necessary to allude to this, for there were Jewish colonies over every part of Asia Minor, and we are expressly told that Jews from Pontus heard Peter's first sermon (Acts 2:9) and read his first Epistle (1Peter 1:1).
Priscilla and Aquila
Aquila and Priscilla's names have a Roman form, and we may conjecture that they were brought into some connection with a Roman family, similar to that which we have supposed to have existed in the case of Apostle Paul himself. We find they were on the present occasion forced to leave Rome, and we notice that they are afterwards addressed (Romans 16:3) as residing there again, so that it is reasonable to suppose that the metropolis was their stated residence.
Aquila and Priscilla frequently traveled. We trace them on the Asiatic coast on two distinct occasions, separated by a wide interval of time. First, before their return to Italy (Acts 18:18, 26, 1Corinthians 16:19), and again, shortly before the martyrdom of Apostle Paul (2Timothy 4:19), we find them at Ephesus. From the manner in which they are referred to as having Christian meetings in their houses, both at Ephesus and Rome (Romans 16:3, 1Corinthians 16:19), we should be inclined to conclude that they were possessed of some considerable wealth.
The trade at which Priscilla and Aquila labored, or which at least they superintended, at Corinth was the manufacture of tents. The demand for tents must have been continual in that age of traveling, while the cilicium, or hair-cloth, of which they were made, could easily be procured at every large town in the Levant.
Preaching the truth
The Biblical Sabbath (Acts 18:4) was, and still is, a day of rest. From sunset Friday to Saturday, the Jews (and later converted Christians) of Corinth laid aside their tent-making and their other trades, and, amid the derision of their Gentile neighbors, assembled to worship God.
It was first in the Synagogue of Corinth that Apostle Paul spoke of the mercy promised to their forefathers, and of the oath sworn to Abraham, being performed. There his countrymen listened with incredulity or conviction, and the tent-maker of Tarsus reasoned with them, and endeavored to persuade both the Jews and the Gentiles who were present to believe in Jesus Christ as the promised Messiah.
While these two employments were proceeding, the daily labor in the workshop, and the weekly discussions in the synagogue, Timothy and Silas returned from Macedonia. The effect produced by their arrival seems to have been an instantaneous increase of the zeal and energy with which Apostle Paul resisted the opposition, which was even now beginning to hem in the progress of the truth.
When Apostle Paul's companions rejoined him, he was reenforced with new earnestness and vigor in combating the difficulties which met him. He acknowledges himself that he was at Corinth "in weakness, and in fear and much trembling" (1Corinthians 2:3) but "God, who comforteth those that are cast down, comforted him by the arrival" (2Corinthians 7:6) of his friends.
Timothy had been sent, while Apostle Paul was still at Athens, to revisit and establish the church of Thessalonica. The news he brought on his return to Apostle Paul caused the latter to write to these beloved converts and, as we have already observed, the letter which he sent them is the first of his Epistles which has been preserved to us. It seems to have been occasioned partly by his wish to express his earnest affection for the Thessalonian Christians, and to encourage them under their persecutions. It also, however, was called for by some errors into which they had fallen.
Paul left the Jews in Corinth and turned to the Gentiles. He withdrew from his own people with one of those symbolical actions, which, in the East, have all the expressiveness of language, and which, having received the sanction of our Lord Himself (Mark 6:11) are equivalent to the denunciation of woe. He shook the dust off his garments (Acts 18:6) and proclaimed himself innocent of the blood (Acts 5:28, 20:26) of those who refused to listen to the voice which offered them salvation.
A proselyte in Corinth, whose name was Justus, opened his door to the rejected Apostle. His house became thenceforward the place of public teaching. While Paul continued doubtless to lodge with Aquila and Priscilla, he met his flock in the house of Justus which was next to the Synagogue. It may readily be supposed that no convenient place could be found in the manufactory of Aquila and Priscilla. There, too, in the society of Jews lately exiled from Rome, he could hardly have looked for a congregation of Gentiles, whereas Justus, being a proselyte, was exactly in a position to receive under his roof, indiscriminately, both Hebrews and Greeks.
The names of both individuals and families in Corinth are mentioned in abundance in the Bible. The family of Stephanas is the first that occurs to us, for they seem to have been the earliest Corinthian converts. Apostle Paul himself speaks of that household, in the first Epistle to the Corinthians (1Corinthians 16:15), as the firstfruits of Achaia. Another Christian of Corinth was Gaius (1Corinthians 1:14) with whom Apostle Paul found a home on his next visit (Romans 16:23).
After an open schism had taken place in the Synagogue where Paul preached, the Christian church rapidly increasing. Many of the Corinthians began to believe when they heard and came to receive baptism (Acts 18:8). We derive some information from Apostle Paul's own writings concerning the character of those who became believers. Not many of the philosophers, not many of the noble and powerful (1Corinthians 1:26), but many of those who had been profligate and degraded (1Corinthians 6:11), were called.
From Apostle Paul's language we infer that the Gentile converts in Corinth were more numerous than the Jewish. Yet one signal victory of the Gospel over Judaism must be mentioned here, which is the conversion of Crispus (Acts 18:8). His position, as ruler of Corinth's Synagogue, may be presumed to require a man of learning and high character, and who now, with all his family, joined himself to the new community. His conversion was felt to be so important that the Apostle deviated from his usual practice (1Corinthians 1:14 - 16) and baptized him, as well as Caius and the household of Stephanas, with his own hand.
Such an event as the baptism of Crispus must have had a great effect in exasperating the Jews against Apostle Paul. Their opposition grew with his success.
The influence of great cities has always been important on the wider movements of human life. We see Apostle Paul diligently using this influence, during a protracted residence at Corinth, for the spreading and strengthening of the Gospel in Achaia and beyond. As regards the province of Achaia, we have no reason to suppose that he confined his activity to its metropolis. The expression used by Luke (Acts 18:11) need only denote that it was his headquarters, or general place of residence.
In our next chapter we will discover the level of anomosity the Jews had against Paul and how they influenced an end to his first visit in Corinth.