One could say that human beings are the same the world over throughout all ages. It has been propounded that humankind from the beginning has the capacity to think and reason and imagine in ways that other life forms do not. On that premise, the first readers of 2 Corinthians would have thought and felt the same in the first century as we do in the twenty-first. But that is not the whole truth about then and now. 2 Corinthians was written by a person in close social and cultural proximity to the life and experience of the first readers. Our awareness of our post-modern world is second nature to us, but not to them. The writer and his first readers were not remotely aware of the world that shapes our thinking. They did not know, for example, that planet earth was a sphere spinning on its axis every twenty-four hours, and circling the sun once every 365/6 days. They had not heard of global warming, much less that 7 billion people of earth move about in 1.2 billion horseless vehicles powered by fossil fuel.
Unlike them, we have had two millennia of preaching and teaching about Jesus Messiah (Christ) still to come again to set things right with humankind. The point is this: When we attempt to understand 2 Corinthians for our time and place in the present world we need to take into account the cultural and intellectual gap between the first writer-and-readers and ourselves. Failure to do so short-circuits our attempt to capture the sense of the variety of first-century texts that make up 2 Corinthians. When the writer tells about being “caught up to the third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2) we scientific moderns simply cannot comprehend such a domain of thinking. Still, there are lessons for life now as then in that biblical document: moral, spiritual and cultural lessons. One important lesson has to do with proper respect for leaders, religious leaders in particular. The writer of 2 Corinthians devotes a large part of the document to regaining the respect of the congregation he created through his teaching. The challenge for us is to work together in community, as the early Anabaptists did in the sixteenth century, to find our way to hope and wholeness and faithfulness in our precarious time and place.
Author, Date, and Situation(s)
2 Corinthians of the New Testament stands as one of seven letters whose authorship is uncontested. The historical figure of Paul, a late Apostle of Christ, is the author according to the best scholarly assessment. Paul’s letter writing extended from ca. 49 CE until ca. 57/8 CE. 2 Corinthians appears to have been written in 55-56 CE, prior to Paul’s last journey to Jerusalem (ca. 57/58 CE). The place of writing is not certain. The situation that gave rise to the document in its present form was two-fold: chapters 1–9 extend thanksgiving, encouragement in the faith, awaiting new creation, reconciliation between Paul and the community, and urging the community to complete the collection of funds for the poor saints in Jerusalem; chapters 10–13 carry a different tone. Some people visited the community in Paul’s absence and tried to persuade the members to reconsider Paul’s apostolic status. The tone of the second part of the letter is biting and corrective, the rhetoric sharp, intended to warn the community at Corinth of the danger of abandoning Paul in favor of the would-be apostles who dishonor Paul.
Form and Rhetoric
2 Corinthians falls within the literary form of an ancient Greco-Roman letter: opening salutation consisting of sender, receiver(s), greeting; thanksgiving for the relationship between sender and receiver; body of the letter that expands the purpose for writing; and closing, which often consists of a benediction.
But 2 Corinthians does not quite fit the coherent letter form. The document exhibits the presence of at least two original letters pieced together on one sheet of papyrus. The first letter (chapters 1-9) is conciliatory, while the second (chapters 10–13) is sharp and threatening. But there may be even more than two documents spliced together on the scroll of 2 Corinthians. For example, the two appeals in chapters 8 and 9 to complete the collection, rather than being redundant repetition, may well be the combination of two separate letters (or parts of letters) written on two different occasions. Another piece of text (6:14–7:1) seems to have been inserted into the flow of discussion surrounding it. Its texture does not fit the subject matter surrounding it. So the rhetoric of 2 Corinthians is mixed. Rhetoric is a form of persuasion. The rhetoric in the first nine chapters is one of fostering wholesome relationship based on faith in Jesus Christ. The rhetoric in the last four chapters is reactionary, sarcastic, and shaming, directed as it is at the interlopers who seek to discredit Paul in the community that he founded.
Summary and Comment
The Letter of Reconciliation, 1:1–9:15
Following the opening salutation (1:1-2) and the thanksgiving (1:3–7) in which Paul aims to console those afflicted in one way or another, Paul then addresses in more detail the importance of right relationship within the community of Christ. Paul had experienced an affront on his person from a member of the community. Details about the affront are missing, as also the “letter of tears,” to which Paul refers, and in which he rebuked both the offender and also the congregation for their indifference to the offence. Paul’s conciliatory attitude comes through in the text surrounding his reference to the hurtful episode: he forgives the offender (2:5-11). Here we have an emphasis that the early Anabaptists picked up and sought to put into practice.
The Letter of Reconciliation exhibits three variations on that theme, which extends from the opening salutation to the end of the appeal for funds for the righteous poor of Jerusalem (9: 15). The three may be identified under three headings as follows:
Solidarity in Affliction and Joy, 1:1–2:13
Paul offers up thanks to the “Father of mercies and the God of all consolation” (1:3) for bringing him through some afflictions, whether from the community or from outsiders. So painful were the afflictions that he felt the “sentence of death” (1:9) on his life. Specific description of the afflictions is not given. In the midst of it all, Paul senses in his heart God’s unequivocal “Yes” (1:15–22) that affirms his ministry, which prompts him to utter the “‘Amen,’ to the glory of God” (1:20). Paul then calls God as his witness before the congregation (1:23–2:4), and demonstrates how the good news of God-in-Christ manifests itself in a faithful community: the offender is forgiven (2:5-11). Paul’s joy comes especially from faithful partnership with those who believe and practise as he does in relation to Christ. Titus is one such faithful partner, as illustrated in 2:12–13; cf. 2 Cor. 8:23): he acts as Paul’s interface between himself and the communities while Paul travels to and fro in mission.
New Ministry in the Light of Christ, 2:14–7:4
The large discussion in this part of 2 Corinthians is testimony to the character and fervor of Paul’s life in mission. The argument moves along with verve and purpose, and “presents one of the most moving portrayals of ministry to be found anywhere in Scripture” (Baird: 78). The issue that drives the argument is the shape and scope of the ministry in which Paul is engaged. The word “ministry” (diakonia) comes through twenty times in this passage (2:14–7:16), compared to a total of thirty-six in all of Paul’s letters. That observation alone is testimony to the significance of the kind of work in which Paul is engaged. A “new creation” (5:17) is underway, and with it a “new covenant” (3:6) in keeping with the presence and power of the Spirit of the resurrected Messiah in the community. Hence, Paul views his ministry to the Corinthians—and others—as belonging to the large end-time ingathering of people of the world into Christ at the turn of the ages from old to new (5:16). Paul’s rival missionaries present themselves to the Corinthians with letters of recommendation, and thus put the Corinthians on alert to demand the same from Paul. He refuses, on the ground that he has been their apostle from the beginning. He knows them and they know him: “Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we?” (3:1). The situation implied in the rhetorical question, and elsewhere, provides a clue concerning the purpose of Paul’s letter. His somewhat strained relationship with the Corinthians comes to the fore in this variation on the theme of ministry (2:14-7:4), but reaches crescendo proportion in the Letter of Defence (10:1– 13:13).
Equity through a Financial “Gift of Blessing,” 8:1–9:15
The two appeals for a financial gift for the “saints” in Jerusalem seems to be redundant. Both are still about ministry, not Paul’s, but that of the Corinthian congregation of Christ- followers. This time the ministry is related to a gift of money, so that there be a measure of equity between the relatively rich Corinthians and the poor saints of Jerusalem. Paul then cites Exodus 16:18 about the Hebrews gathering manna and quail: “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” (8:15). Paul’s rhetorical appeal in chapter 8 tends to be heavy-handed. He cites the overflowing generosity of the Macedonians to the north, compared to the halting spirit of the Corinthians. He calls the financial gift a “generous undertaking” (NRSV), or simply “grace” (charis). Grace is a very positive quality, and the Macedonians have plenty of it, compared to the Corinthians who are halting in their willingness to complete the collection of funds. Paul also appeals to the great grace of Christ who gave up even his life for the sake of others. In this strong rhetorical flourish Paul holds that he is merely “testing the genuineness of [their] love against the earnestness of others.” (8:8). Chapter 9 appears to be repetitive. Dieter Betz argues that chapters 8 and 9 about the collection were originally two letters written at different times. Both were later incorporated into the final shape of 2 Corinthians as we have it today. That scenario is plausible, but not necessary to understand the difference between the two appeals. Equally plausible is the idea that the scribe read back the appeal of chapter 8, and Paul sensed its critical tone. The sheet of papyrus would not be thrown away, like a sheet of paper today. Instead, Paul dictated a codicil that softens the critical tone of chapter 8. Now in chapter 9 Paul lets the Corinthians know that he reported to the Macedonians the eagerness of the Corinthians of Achaia to complete the collection for Jerusalem. They have “great generosity” (9:11) after all.
The Letter of Defense, 10:1–13:13
Response to Betrayal in Ministry, 10:1–13:10
The last four chapters of 2 Corinthians clearly do not complement or extend the themes of the first 9 chapters. On the strength of that judgement it is reasonable to suggest that the papyrus that carried the material of the last four chapters came from a different time and situation. There is no sure way of knowing whether the last four chapters were written before or after the first nine. What is clear from reading chapters 10–13 is that Paul in responding to betrayal with respect to his ministry among the Corinthians. His trust friend, Titus, brought him word about the betrayal, even quoting to Paul what was being said about his apostolic ministry: “‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible.’” (10:10). Then comes the defence from Paul, using the strongest rhetoric at his disposal to shame his opponents. They see him more as a fool than a confirmed apostle of the good news of Jesus Christ. So he turns that criticism against them by acknowledging that he is a fool for the sake of the good news of Jesus Christ. He cites as examples his imprisonments and beatings as the marks of a true minister of Christ crucified: “Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death.” (11:23). Moreover, in this second part of 2 Corinthians (10–13) we have some of the most challenging imagery of life in relationship to Christ to be found anywhere in the Bible. Here is a classic example of Paul’s provocative and paradoxical stance about his person and ministry in the sphere of Christ in response to his negative critics: “Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (12:7–10).
Paul’s final appeal to the congregation is to live up to the standard of Christ in whose name they worship together and in whose way they engage with the culture. Paul’s closing words of counsel still have currency for the descendents of the early Anabaptists: agreement, peace, love, and grace. The benediction that closes the letter is one of the most used in Christian churches: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.” (13:13).
Lessons from the Letter(s)
2 Corinthians 1:1–2:13. Greetings, thanksgiving, and forgiveness of offence.
Greet each other in the fellowship of Christ, and be thankful, even when circumstances in life are difficult. Always stand ready to forgive an offence done to you. God in Christ is the reference point in all of life. Enjoy the friendship and service of trusted friends such as Titus.
2 Corinthians 2:14–7:4. The ministry about which Paul writes was new at the time. Jesus was a new kind of Jewish Messiah figure whose Spirit lived within the faithful community.
The same ministry is renewed throughout history. The new creation continues to come to expression in every generation in keeping with the situation. Reconciliation is possible between people of the world, but how much more between people infused with the Spirit of Christ Jesus. Paul was engaged in a ministry of reconciling the world to God. That reconciliation means freedom from the grip of sin and death, in that “the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” (3:17).
2 Corinthians 8:1–9:15. The gift of God in Christ exceeds all other gifts, including the gift of money received or given to others.
Paul’s appeal for money is wrapped in theological language: the basis for collecting money from the congregation(s) and giving to those who have little is grounded in the abundant grace of God is the gift of Christ Jesus. There should be fair balance between people, especially so in the household of faith in Christ. There is nothing here about giving one-tenth as in the old law of the Temple, but each one should give “according to your means” (8:11). For some people giving one-tenth of their income means their family could go hungry. Paul eschews such an inequitable position in the community of Christ.
2 Corinthians 10:1–13:13. How does a person of faith in Christ respond to unbridled criticism, especially from within the community of faith?
When Paul felt the sting of criticism against his person and ministry he did not remain silent. The criticism against him was unwarranted, hence his sharp message of defence to his congregation. His reaction was not so much to save himself, but to save the members of the congregation from misguided attitude and belief concerning the person of Jesus Messiah crucified and risen. Paul stands in relationship to that redemptive figure, and that trumps the opponents’ critique of his seemingly weak ministry.
Conclusion and the Anabaptist Tradition
Second Corinthians contains two types of address, originally probably two separate letters, directed to the congregation of faith in Jesus. The first type (chapters 1-9) may be called lessons on reconciliation within the household of believers in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. The ministry in the community should reflect the saving ministry of Jesus Christ. “For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake.” (2 Cor. 4:5). The second type of address is that of defence of Paul’s ministry lest the Corinthians be taken in by the urge toward elegance in speech and personality. To put emphasis on power and glory is tantamount to dishonoring Jesus Messiah. Here is Paul in his own voice with one of the great paradoxes of the New Testament: “I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (12:10).
Recommended Essays in the Commentary
The Integrity of 2 Corinthians
A Different Gospel
The Canonical Shape of 2 Corinthians
Opponents Implicit in 2 Corinthians
Two Appeals for One Collection in One Letter
Use of Scripture
- Baird, William. Knox Preaching Guides: 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians. Atlanta: John Knox, 1980.
- Bates, W. H. “The Integrity of 2 Corinthians.” New Testament Studies 12 (1965): 56–69.
- Batey, Richard. “Paul’s Interaction with the Corinthians.” Journal of Biblical Literature 84 (1965): 139–46.
- Betz, Hans Dieter. 2 Corinthians 8 and 9. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985.
- Fitzgerald, John T. Cracks in an Earthen Vessel: An Examination of the Catalogues of Hardships in the Corinthian Correspondence. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.
- Georgi, Dieter. The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986.
- Harvey, A. E. Renewal Through Suffering: A Study of 2 Corinthians. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996.
- Kennedy, George A. New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984.
Invitation to Comment
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|—V. George Shillington|