How Immoral Was the City of Corinth–Really?

With almost every sermon I’ve heard on Corinthians the speaker would note how terribly immoral the Corinthians were. Many commentators and study Bibles repeat it like a song chorus. Consider this from the The MacArthur Study Bible:

“Even by pagan standards of its own culture, Corinth became so morally corrupt that its very name became synonymous with debauchery and moral depravity. To ‘corinthianize’ came to represent gross immorality and drunken debauchery.” (From the “Introduction to 1 Cornthians”.)

Similarly, the NIV Study Bible comments:

“So widely known did the immorality of Corinth become that the Greek verb ‘to Corinthianize’ came to mean ‘to practice sexual immorality.’” It repeats the common claim that Corinth at one time had 1,000 prostitutes in its temple but does acknowledge that “such claims are associated with old Corinth, destroyed two centuries before Paul.” (From the “Introduction to 1 Corinthians”.) There is an important qualifier here that most could read too quickly. These claims are said to be made of old Corinth which was destroyed two centuries before Paul! Two centuries! That’s a lot of time and is more significant than you may realize.

James Davis, in the The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary (Baker Books), offers a good summary of the evidence. The history of the city of Corinth can be divided into four periods: “the preclassical period (ca. 3500-1350 BC), the classical period (ca. 1350-338 BC), the Hellenistic period (338-146 BC), and the Roman period (146 BC-AD 395).” (p. 1274) When we look at this last period, the one in which Paul was interacting and writing, he writes the following.

“The reputation given to Corinth as an especially immoral place seems to have been largely created by the envy of other Greek city-states, which attempted to buttress their slander by pointing to the presence of the cult of Aphrodite in Corinth as an indication of the low morals of the populace, grossly exaggerating both the cult’s size and its influence. The truth of the matter lies neither at this extreme (despite the repetition of such rumors in the literature of the time) nor at is opposite, but in the realization that Corinth was a large urban center, no richer or poorer in terms of morality than comparable cities, either ancient or modern.” (Emphasis mine. p. 1275)

David Garland agrees, “The old view that made Corinth almost synonymous with prostitution should be abandoned. Aristophanes did use ‘to Corinthianize’ as a verb for dissipated living, and plays entitled The Corinthian made that name interchangeable with whoremonger. But these writers refer to Greek Corinth, destroyed in 146 B.C., not to Corinth after it had been resettled and rebuilt as a Roman colony. It is anachronistic to apply these epithets to the Corinth of Paul’s day.” (1 Corinthians, p. 240, Baker Academic)

What about the 1,000 prostitutes? MacArthur writes, “The most prominent edifice of the acropolis was a temple to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love. Some 1,000 prostitutes, who were ‘religious’ prostitutes, lived and worked there and came down into the city in the evening to offer their services to male citizens and foreign visitors.” (The MacArthur Study Bible, From the “Introduction to 1 Corinthians”.) Two observations. First, Garland says “the yarn about a thousand courtesans also appears to have been an Athenian slander maligning its rival Corinth.” (1 Corinthians, p. 240) Second, Bruce Winter says, “Strabo’s comments about 1,000 prostitutes of Aprhodite and those of Athenaeus are unmistakably about Greek not Roman Corinth. As temple prostitution was not a Greek phenomenon, the veracity of his comments on this point have been rightly questioned. The size of the Roman temple of Aphrodite on the Acrocorinth ruled out such temple prostitution; and by that time she had become Venus—the venerated mother of the imperial family and the highly respected patroness of Corinth—and was no longer a sex symbol.” (After Paul Left Corinth, pp. 87-88, Eerdmans)

How immoral was Corinth? As it turns out no better or worse than most other major urban cities of the day.

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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4 Responses to How Immoral Was the City of Corinth–Really?

  1. Charles says:

    This more nuanced reading of the evidence can also be seen in Jerome Murphy-O’Conner’s St. Paul’s Corinth.

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  2. Laura says:

    Thanks for this. I recently taught an adult sunday school class on a chapter in 1 Corinthians. Wish you’d posted sooner! It is frustrating when so many sources repeat the same/similar things and then to find out none are exactly accurate. I do check multiple sources when I create a lesson as I’m always concerned with accuracy. Thankfully, I did have at least some balance in my overview of Corinth – that any large urban port city (then or now) – would have particular issues with vice and immorality. So, in that aspect at least, I didn’t over-demonize Corinth. But I did mention the 1,000 prostitutes, etc. Will update these things if I should have opportunity to teach a lesson from Corinthians again.

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    • Louis says:

      Laura,
      You’re welcome. I completely understand. I look back over some of the many things I’ve taught and wish I could go back and rescind or least qualify what I said. But, as you say, we will have better information for next time.

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