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Corinth became the emporium of trade. Once rebuilt, the tide of commerce, which had been forced in another direction, surged naturally back again, and streamed as of old, across the bridge between Europe and Asia.
From this circumstance arose another feature of its society. Its aristocracy was one not of birth, but of wealth. They were merchants, not manufacturers. They had not the calm dignity of ancient lineage, nor the intellectual culture of a manufacturing population. For let us remember that manufactories must educate. A manufacturer may not be a man of learning, but an educated man he must be, by the very necessity of his position. His intelligence, contrivance, invention, and skill, which are being drawn out continually every hour, spread their influence through his work among the very lowest of his artisans. But, on the other hand, Trade does not necessarily need more than a clear head, a knowledge of accounts, and a certain clever sagacity. It becomes too a life of routine at last, which neither, necessarily, teaches one moral truth, nor, necessarily, enlarges the mind. The danger of a mere trading existence is, that it leaves the soul engaged not in producing, but in removing productions from one place to another; it buries the heart in the task of money-getting; and measuring the worthiness of manhood and of all things, by what they severally are worth, too often worships Mammon instead of God. Such men were the rich merchants of Corinth.
In addition to this adoration of gold, there were also all the demoralizing influences of a trading seaport. Men from all quarters of the globe met in the streets of Corinth, and on the quays of its two harbours. Now, one reason why a population is always demoralized by an influx of strangers, continually going and coming, is this: a nation shut up in itself may be very narrow, and have its own vices, but it will also have its own growth of native virtues; but when peoples mix, and men see the sanctities of their childhood dispensed with, and other sanctities, which they despise, substituted; when they see the principles of their own country ignored, and all that they have held venerable made profane and common, the natural consequence is that they begin to look upon the manners, religion, and sanctities of their own birth-place as prejudices. They do not get instead those reverences which belong to other countries. They lose their own holy ties and sanctions, and they obtain nothing in their place. And so men, when they mix together, corrupt each other; each contributes his own vices and his irreverence of the other's good, to destroy every standard of goodness, and each in the contact loses his own excellences. Exactly as our young English men and women on their return from foreign countries learn to sneer at the rigidity of English purity, yet never learn instead even that urbanity and hospitality which foreigners have as a kind of equivalent for the laxity of their morals. Retaining our own haughtiness, and rudeness, and nisanthropy, we graft upon our natural vices, sins which are against the very grain of our own nature and temperament.
Such as I have described it was the moral state of Corinth. The city was the hotbed of the world's evil, in which every noxious plant, indigenous or transplanted, rapidly grew and flourished; where luxury and sensuality throve rankly, stimulated by the gambling spirit of commercial life, till Corinth now in the Apostle's time, as in previous centuries, became a proverbial name for moral corruption.
Another element in the city was the Greek population. To understand the nature of this we must make a distinction. I have already said that Greece was tainted to the core. Her ancient patriotism was gone. Her valour was no more. Her statesmen were no longer pure in policy as in eloquence. Her poets had died with her disgrace. She had but the remembrance of what had been. Foreign conquest had broken her spirit. Despair had settled on her energies. Loss of liberty had ended in loss of manhood. Her children felt the Roman Colossus bestriding their once beloved country.
The last and most indispensable element of goodness had perished, for hope was dead. They buried themselves in stagnancy. But remark that anid this universal degeneracy there were two classes. There were, first, the uncultivated and the poor, to whom the ancient glories of their land were yet dear, to whom the old religion was not merely hereditary, but true and living still; whose imagination still saw the solemn conclave of their ancient deities on Mount Olympus, and still heard Pan, and the Fauns, and the wood gods piping in the groves. Such were they who in Lystra came forth to meet Paul and Barnabas, and believed them to be Jupiter and Mercury. With such, paganism was still tenaciously believed, just as in England now, the faith in witchcraft, spells, and the magical virtue of baptismal water, banished from the towns, survives and lingers among our rural population. At this period it was with that portion of heathenism alone, that Christianity came in contact, to meet a foe.
Very different, however, was the state of the cultivated and the rich. They had lost their religion. Their civilization and their knowledge of the world had destroyed that; and that being lost, they retained no natural vent for the energies of the restless Greek character. Hence out of their high state of intellectual culture there arose a craving for “Wisdom :" not the Wisdom which Solomon spoke of, but wisdom in the sense of intellectual speculation. The energy which had found a safe outlet in War now wasted itself in the Amphitheatre. The enthusiasm which had been stimulated by the noble eloquence of patriotism now preyed on glittering rhetoric. Men spent their days in tournaments of speeches, and exulted in gladiatorial oratory. They would not even listen to a sermon from St. Paul, unless it were clothed in dazzling words and full of brilliant thought. They were in a state not uncommon now with fine intellects whose action is cramped. Religion, instead of being solid food for the soul, had become an intellectual banquet. That was another difficulty with which Christianity had to deal.
The next thing we observe as influencing Corinthian society is, that Corinth was the seat of a Roman provincial government. There was a Roman deputy there, that is, a proconsul : “Gallio was deputy of Achaia." Let it surprise no one if I say that this was an influence favourable to Christianity. The doctrine of Christ had not as yet come into direct antagonism with Heathenism. It is true that throughout the Acts we read of persecution coming from the Greeks, but at the same time we invariably find that it was the Jews who had “stirred up the Greeks.” The persecution always arose first on the part of the Jews; and, indeed, until it became evident that in Christianity there was a Power before which all the principalities of evil, all tyranny and wrong, must perish, the Roman magistrates generally defended it, and interposed their authority between the Christians and their fierce enemies. A signal instance of this is related in this chapter. Gallio, the Roman proconsul, dismisses the charge brought against the Christians. “And when Paul was now about to open his no
Gallio said unto the Jews, If it were a matter of wrong or wicked lewdness, O ye Jews, reason would that I should bear with you: But if it be a question of words and names, and of your law, look ye to it; for I will be no judge of such matters."
And his judgment was followed by a similar verdict from the people ; for Sosthenes, the ringleader of the accusation, was beaten by the mob before the judgment seat. " And Gallio cared for none of those things,” that is, he took no notice of them, he would not interfere. He was, perhaps, even glad that a kind of wild, irregular justice was administered to one who had been foremost in bringing an unjust charge. So that instead of Gallio being, as commentators make him, a sort of
type of religious lukewarmness, he is really a specimen of an upright Roman magistrate. But what now principally concerns us in the story is, that it is an example of the way in which the existence of the Roman Government at Corinth was, on the whole, an advantage for the spread of the Gospel.
The last element in this complex community was the Jews. Every city, Greek or Roman, at this time was rife with them. Then, as now, they had that national peculiarity which scatters them among all nations, while it prevents them from amalgamating with any: which makes them worshippers of Mammon, and yet withal, ready to suffer all things, and even to die, for their faith. In their way they were religious; but it was a blind and bigoted adherence to the sensuous side of religion. They had almost ceased to believe in a living God, but they were strenuous believers in the virtue of ordinances. God only existed to them for the benefit of the Jewish nation. To them a Messiah must be a World-Prince. To them a new revelation could only be substantiated by marvels and miracles. To them it could have no self-evident spiritual light; and St. Paul, in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, describes the difficulty which this tendency put in the way of the progress of the Gospel among them in the words: “The Jews require a sign.”
II. Inquiry respecting the Apostle Paul.
To this society, so constituted, so complex, so manifold, St. Paul came, assured that he was in possession of a truth which was adapted and addressed to all, “the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek.” For this work the Apostle was peculiarly assisted and prepared.
1. By the fellowship of Aquila and Priscilla. We read that when he came to Corinth he found a certain Jew named Aquila, lately come from Italy with his wife Priscilla, because the Emperor Claudius had commanded all the Jews to depart from Rome; and that he came to them.