Reading Apostle Paul 5
Second Corinthians continues Paul’s complex correspondence with the church that he founded and with which he had such difficult relations. It is among the most difficult of Paul’s letters to read, not only because of the critical difficulties we discuss, but also because of the density and power of its language, forged in a context of anguish.
2nd Corinthians lacks many of the details of community life that we found in 1st Corinthians. We learn very little of the social realities that we heard about in 1st Corinthians.
But we do find in 2nd Corinthians another stage in mis-understanding, even alienation between Paul and the Corinthians. And in response to that increased alienation we find Paul responding with his most passionate examination, in fact a passionate self-examination of the meaning of “the mind of Christ”
Recall that in 1st Corinthians 2:14-16 Paul tried to remind the Corinthians that they had not received the spirit from worldly culture, which was based on dualist thinking, rivalry, and competition with each other. Rather, they received the spirit that comes from God, which using Paul’s language, is the mind of Christ.
14 Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them, and they are unable to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15 Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.
16 “For who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.
In other words, Paul was suggesting that they should be thinking in a very different way. In 2nd Corinthians we will see him examining that proposition in more detail.
We are also going to examine in turn the question of the literary integrity of 2nd Corinthians. It is the major critical issue having to do with this letter.
Secondly the painful situation of alienation that Paul is forced to address at a major point of intersection in his ministry.
And thirdly the rhetoric of reconciliation that Paul crafts in order to meet this crisis.
All scholars consider 2 Corinthians to be an authentic letter, indeed, one of the four “great letters” (1st and 2nd Corinthians, Romans, and Galatians). And by authentic they mean that it is unquestionably from Paul, either written or dictated.
The critical question concerns its literary integrity: Is 2nd Corinthians one letter or several stitched together?
The letter is unquestionably difficult to read in a straight line from end to end.
The movements of Paul and his delegates are not easy to disentangle (see 1:15; 2:1, 12–13; 12:14).
Paul begins in chapter 1 tracing the movements of himself and his delegates and then abruptly in chapter 2 beginning in verse 13 he drops the description and moves to an entirely different subject for 5 chapters. And then suddenly in Chapter 7 verse 5 picks up the itinerary again exactly where it left off.
His references to the movements of his delegate Titus are terribly obscure. He says in 2:12 that when he went to Troas he could not find Titus. And then much later in 7:6 he says that when he came to Troas he met with Titus. In 8:18 he says he is about to send Titus to Corinth but then in 12:18 he said that he had already sent Titus. So where is Titus?
And how many times has Paul visited this community? In 1:15 Paul seems to suggest that he had delayed visiting. In 2:1 he suggests that he had made a painful visit to this community. And then throughout the letter we have further references to a second and a third visit either accomplished or anticipated that Paul mentions. In other words we do not know what is going on here. And especially what went on between the writing of 1st Corinthians and 2nd Corinthians with reference to the movements of Paul and his delegates.
Paul’s reference in 2:1-11 to a letter that he wrote to the community that was written in “great anguish and with many tears” is equally obscure. To what was he referring. Maybe he was referring to the rebuke of that brother that was living with in some sort of incestuous relationship with his father’s wife. But we cannot be certain.
But in addition to these obscurities having to do do with what happened and when some scholars have identified literary seams in the letter that seem to indicate places where blocks of text have been clumsily stitched together.
For example, in moving from chapter 9 to 10 Paul seems to make a dramatic rhetorical shift; from being very purposeful, very congratulatory in Chapter 9. Then suddenly in chapter 10, without warning, he shifts into the language of strong rebuke.
Secondly, there is a very dramatic shift in 6:14 to 7:1. In the text up to 6:13 Paul is speaking warmly and lovingly to the Corinthians, saying “our hearts are wide open to you, open wide your hearts also.” And that thought continues later in 7:2. “make room in your hearts for us….”. But suddenly in 6:14 Paul engages in an angry polemic against them for continuing to socialize with former friends (unbelievers).
Then we apparently have a double treatment of the collection for the saints in Jerusalem in chapters 8 and later in 9.
In 9:1 Paul writes “Now concerning the collection I have no need to write to you.” Now that is clear because he just wrote extensively on that subject in chapter 8. But then all of chapter 9 is another pleading for the Corinthians to be generous regarding the collection for the assembly in Jerusalem.
The difficulty of keeping up with Paul and his delegates, together with several apparent broken seams in the narrative have led the majority of scholars today to adopt a hypothesis that what we call 2nd Corinthians is a composite of notes written by Paul over a period of time to the Corinthian church.
2nd Corinthians is thus to be read not as a single rhetorical unit written at once, but rather a series of notes to be read with an understanding of where the breaks are. Later we will try to show one way of doing that.
So What Do We Have?
So with this hypothesis we have now a reigning view that this letter is actually a composite of 4 or 5 letters or notes from Paul to the Corinthians. The idea is that there was someone in the Corinthian assembly had most of these notes and somehow stitched them together.
A letter of reconciliation from Paul to the Corinthians from chapters 1-7 in which Paul, having experienced alienation from the community is now attempting reconciliation.
An interpolated fragment from 6:14 to 7:1. And some scholars have opined that this may be a fragment from that lost letter that Paul referred to as being “written in tears”.
Then we have chapters 8-9. This is apparently two separate notes written about the collection for the saints written at different times and then pasted together.
And finally there is chapters 11-13. This is an angry polemic concerning the rival teachers that some of the Corinthians prefer to Paul. Paul revels a great deal about himself and his concept of his role as an apostle.
If this hypothesis is correct then it is fairly clear why this is a difficult to read. In order to make sense of it the reader would need to know what the sequence of these note was.
Some have suggested that the proper sequence may have been that Paul first wrote the letter in tears, followed by a letter of reconciliation, then after that wrote two different notes hoping his reconciliation worked so he could take up his collection. But we are not certain if that was the actual sequence.
Paul’s Rhetorical Situation
Paul’s situation is very difficult. At the very moment that Paul is seeking to reconcile Jew and Gentile followers of Jesus through a large collection of money for the Jewish followers in Jerusalem he seems to be finding out that his gentile followers of Jesus want nothing to do with Paul.
While trying to promote reconciliation, something he feels is very important to his ministry, he is actually facing alienation from Corinth.
Let’s try to show why this situation is so important to Paul. And why is he so interested in reconciling these two groups (Jew and Gentile)?
First we know that the Jerusalem followers of Jesus, mostly Jewish, are very impoverished at this point in time due to famine.
Paul often argued the importance of that group as the mother church of the Jesus movement.
There are numerous indications that Paul was receiving numerous oppositions from the Jewish followers of Jesus, who resented, misunderstood, and sometime opposed Paul’s ministry to the gentiles.
Finally, it must be recognized that there are deep-seated ethnic rivalries between Jew and gentiles grounded in their very profound cultural differences.
It must be remembered that anti-Semitism was not invented by Christians. Anti-Semitism was a serious reality of the Greco-Roman world as well.
We know the collection was very important to Paul because of the frequency that he wrote about it in many letters. For example in Galatians 2:1-10 Paul describes the important meeting he had in Jerusalem with the Apostles in which they agreed that Paul would take the Gospel to the uncircumcised, they only requested one thing in return, that Paul remember the poor, meaning the saints in Jerusalem which Paul said he was very eager to do.
In 1st Corinthians chapter 15 after Paul deals with all the pastoral problems of the community he turns to what is uppermost in his mind, namely for the collection for the saints in Jerusalem. He plans to travel to Corinth, pick up there money, travel to Macedonia, pick up their money, and then go back to Jerusalem.
Finally though, we should mention that in Romans we see Paul in 15:19-31 telling the church in Rome that he is about to pick up generous contributions from both Macedonia and Achaia for Jerusalem. So apparently the church in Corinth did eventually join in for the collection.
2nd Corinthians did provide us some clues as to why the Corinthians were alienated from Paul.
Several factors played into this increased state of alienation:
1. The Corinthians continuing resentment at Paul’s rather high handed authoritarianism. At one stage in 1st Corinthians Paul at one time said “I may have to come to you with a big stick”
2. In chapter 10 of 2nd Corinthians Paul acknowledges that they were not impressed with his personal presence. Possibly he came on such a threatening visit and maybe it got out of control.
3. They think that Paul is unreliable and possibly even fraudulent in his dealings with money (11:7–11; 12:16–18). (Paul had emphasized that he preached for free, but he did not tell the Corinthians that assemblies in Macedonia were financing him on the side. As a result the Corinthians were suspect when he began to hit them up for a big donation for the poor in Jerusalem.
The deep paradox of Paul’s situation is that to carry out his cosmic ministry of reconciliation, he must first reconcile with his own community.
He does this again by using a Greek rhetorical form that focuses not on rational proof but on an appeal to character. Known by ancient rhetoricians as an Ethos argument.
The Ethos can possibly be seen as consisting of three parts defining a ministry of reconciliation – which is something he can do and they can do by following the mind of Christ. Seen this way the letter can be organized as follows:
1. In Chapters 1-7, the ministry of reconciliation is very positively defined to show how both he and they can reconcile by thinking like Christ.
2. Then jumping to chapters 10-12 (his defense of his ministry) his ministry of reconciliation is defined by contrast with how his rival teachers operated.
3. Then jumping back to chapters 8-9 (the chapters on the collection for Jerusalem) he give the ministry of reconciliation practical embodiment through the collection (by donating to the Jerusalem people the community will be following Christ’s ministry of reconciliation of all people.)
And as part of that argument in Chapter 8 he made a strong linkage to the mind of Christ when he stated:
7 Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you - so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.
8 I do not say this as a command, but I am testing the genuineness of your love against the earnestness of others. 9 For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.
10 And in this matter I am giving my advice: it is appropriate for you who began last year not only to do something but even to desire to do something - 11 now finish doing it, so that your eagerness may be matched by completing it according to your means.”