Opponents Implicit in 2 Corinthians

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That Paul experienced bitter opposition from some rival missionaries is inescapable, especially from the rhetoric of 2 Corinthians 10­-13. Yet the identity of the adversaries is veiled, and so is their criticism of Paul. The only primary source for identifying the rivals depicted in 2 Corinthians is this extant letter (particularly chaps. 10­-13). The opposition may already begun when Paul was writing 1 Corinthians (cf. 1 Cor. 1:12­-17; 3:3­-15), but it came to a head by the time Paul wrote the Letter of Defense (2 Cor. 10­-13). Even in the Letter of Defense, the opponents are veiled behind (or within) the various forms of argument, but strangely also revealed therein at the same time. The job of locating the real identity and character of Paul's opponents in 2 Corinthians remains unfinished. But certain advances have been made.

Historical reconstructions of various allusions Paul makes in his arguments are usually not necessary for grasping the sense of a given text. In the case of the implied opponents at Corinth, however, the matter is somewhat different. The rival ministry of these figures lies intertwined in the rhetoric of chapters 10­-13. An informed, imaginative reconstruction of the identity and character of the persons denounced in the argument is therefore possible.

The following is a brief review of scholarly opinion regarding Paul's opponents at Corinth, including (last) the position assumed throughout the commentary.

Judaizers. To some modern readers, the opponents behind 2 Corinthians appear as "Judaizers" from Jerusalem. Unlike Paul. they insist that Gentile converts to Christ (the Jewish Messiah) observe the regulations of the Jewish law. These people came to Corinth under the auspices of the conservative branch of the Jerusalem Church, to ensure that Corinthian believers in the Jewish Messiah adhere to the law of Israel's God. These opponents, according to this view, are cut from the same cloth as those characterized in Galatians. They appeal to Moses (2 Cor. 3:1-­18) and preach another Jesus than the one we proclaimed . . . and a different gospel from the one you accepted (2 Cor. 11:4; cf. Gal. 1:6­-9; 2:11­-14). These same critics are also implied in Paul's rhetorical questions in 2 Corinthians 11 and are found to be Hebrews, Israelites and descendants of Abraham (11:22; cf. Gal. 3:6­-14). This school of interpretation takes such clues to mean that Paul's opponents at Corinth warrant the designation "Judaizers."

However, the way these clues are construed is misleading. The problems of law observance in Galatians (such as circumcision and the food code) are not mentioned in 2 Corinthians. Nor is the opponents' place of origin identified. As Meeks points out, "Where they came from, we do not know, for there is nothing in the text to connect them with Jerusalem" (132). Hints in 2 Corinthians portray them rather as charismatic missionaries (or self­-styled "apostles") who seek to outdo Paul in missionary leadership (apostleship), in spiritual insight and ministry (12:1, 11­-12), and in Christian social manners (12:14­-18). The traits of these opponents in 2 Corinthians are different from those of Galatians.

Gnostics. More than anyone else, Walter Schmithals detected "Christian" Gnostics at Corinth. According to him, these were the opponents Paul faced. Paul's extravagant rhetoric in 2 Corinthians 10­13 stems from Paul's misunderstanding of his Gnostic opponents. Gnosticism in Corinth, by Schmithals' description, was a religious movement that viewed human beings as essentially divine. Salvation comes to those with inner, spiritual knowledge (gnosis) * of their substantial self, of the nature of the world, and of God's redemption of the soul (25-­32).

Schmithals' conclusions stretch the evidence beyond proper limits. If Paul in his letters to the Corinthians appears to misunderstand the Gnostics that Schmithals constructs, it is because they did not exist as such in Paul's time. The force with which Paul addresses the situation in 2 Corinthians, especially in chapters 10­-13, demonstrates that he recognized quite well what his opponents were up to in Corinth; he rejected their stance unequivocally.

Jewish "Divine­-Men" Missionaries. Dieter Georgi's elaborate research into The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians deserves more detailed evaluation than this space allows. His analysis of the situation depicted in 2 Corinthians reveals a group of outside missionaries competing with Paul for the allegiance of the Corinthians. They touted their credentials as superior to Paul's, their ties to salvation­tradition as stronger, their spiritual experience as higher, and their rhetoric as more persuasive and pleasing. Georgi thus identifies Paul's opponents as Jewish missionaries of Palestinian origin who think they have reached the status of "divine men," like Moses and Jesus.

Georgi's designation of the opponents of Paul in 2 Corinthians relies heavily on material from the Corinthian correspondence. Yet it takes liberties with Paul's rhetoric without due warrant. If the opponents claimed to be Hebrews (2 Cor. 11:22), for example, does that really mean they were also of Palestinian Jewish origin and spoke Aramaic? Paul himself claimed to be "a Hebrew born of Hebrews" (Phil. 3:5), but he was a citizen of the Roman city of Tarsus and a Roman citizen, and he spoke Greek (Acts 21:37—22:29; 16:37­-39). Is Paul's reduction of the glory of Moses in chapter 3, and his own claim to spiritual ecstasy in chapters 11­-12, sufficient ground to classify the opponents as belonging to a "divine­-man" school of thought? The evidence scarcely carries the weight of the conclusion.

Pneumatics. A more modest proposal came from Ernst Käsemann. He signaled the importance of key words in 2 Corinthians 10­-13 for identifying the opponents. He acknowledged the Jewish­-Christian background of the rivals but emphasized their claim to pneumatic experience, their spiritual giftedness, including their ability thus to perform miracles. In comparing their credentials and experience of the Spirit (pneuma) with Paul's, they portrayed Paul as weak (10:10). The strength of Käsemann's conclusion about Paul's rival missionaries in 2 Corinthians is that he limited his search to 2 Corinthians 10­-13. The problem with working primarily with Paul's language, however, is that Paul argues polemically, in a way that will cast his opponents in the worst possible light.

The result of Käsemann's analysis is rather general. To say in the end that the opponents were "pneumatics" and "Jewish­-Christian" is scarcely telling for the interpretation of the text of 2 Corinthians.

Strategic Alliance of Judaizers and Spirit­-People. Jerome Murphy O'Connor put his finger on a very important point in his recent book on The Theology of the Second Letter to the Corinthians. His clue to part of the identity of the opponents comes from the figure of Apollos in 1 Corinthians. Apollos like Philo, his Alexandrian Jewish counterpart, taught initiation into a higher spiritual wisdom. A group in the church at Corinth had aligned themselves with this Apollos. They adopted his teaching on the Spirit to an extreme, from Paul's perspective. Paul put this group of "spirit­-people" in their place with his own instruction on spiritual wisdom and knowledge in 1 Corinthians 1­-3. The group must have felt hurt when the letter was read. When an outside group of Jewish­Christian missionaries came to Corinth to bring the community in line with the Jewish law, these "spirit­-people" in the community saw an opportunity to get back at Paul. They formed a coalition with these Judaizers to devalue Paul's status and mission in the community. "Such 'Corinthianization' of the Judaizers is the best explanation of the combination of apparently incompatible traits that appear in 2 Corinthians" (15).

Welcome as Murphy­-O'Connor's insight on Apollos at Corinth is, his attempt at combining two groups, (1) insider "spirit-­people" in league with Apollos and (2) outsider "Judaizers," is really not required by the evidence of 2 Corinthians to the extent that he thinks.

Another explanation of the opponents, adopted in the commentary. makes the most sense of the available evidence:

Hellenistic­Jewish Christian Missionaries from the Same Diaspora Synagogue Setting as Paul. Scholars in search of Paul's opponents in 2 Corinthians have felt reasonably secure in placing the opposing group at Corinth outside the circle of Paul's Christian mission. The opponents must have another origin, another language and culture, and a deficient Christian confession. The inquiry has operated on the premise that "opponents" must be sharply distinguished from the religious and social thought and life of Paul. Hence, scholars have tended to highlight their difference from Paul to account for Paul's dramatic rhetoric of denunciation.

A case can be made the other way. Paul is upset, as his polemical argument shows, because he has expected Christian missionaries from his own religious and social world, speaking his own Greek language, wandering charismatically in mission as he does, to respect his person and the primacy of his apostolic place in the church he founded at Corinth. These other "apostles" followed Paul to Corinth, arriving after he had left, and they should have supported him and his missionary work. Instead, they criticized him. Out of this sense of betrayal, Paul writes with such passion in 2 Corinthians 10­-13. The subjects of his scathing rhetoric, the "opponents," seem far removed from Paul's Christian thinking and mission, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ (11:13). But the distancing factor is itself a key part of the rhetoric of denunciation.

According to Paul in (2 Cor.) 11:12, the interlopers at Corinth take every opportunity to be recognized as our equals. As far as their Jewish background and spiritual gifts are concerned, they are Paul's equals (11:22). They also claim to be ministers of Christ as Paul is (11:23). Yet on several points, they are not his equal. They arrive in Corinth after Paul founded the community. On that score, they are secondary. They carry letters of recommendation. Paul did not carry such letters because he was breaking new ground. They take sustenance from the Corinthians for their labors in the gospel. Paul did not do so [Refusing Money from Corinth, p. 277].

However, from Paul's perspective, one critical point renders them unequal to him as an apostle: they boast competitively in the name of Jesus Christ. Paul does not, indeed cannot. Their vain boasting and competitive behavior brands Paul's critics as false apostles (2 Cor. 11:13), not merely secondary apostles, and certainly not their claimed status of super­-apostles (11:5). The purported Christian message they preach is another Jesus, . . . a different spirit . . . a different gospel (11:4). In short, these persons, despite their claim to have come from the same Jewish­-Christian circle as Paul, have lost their grasp on the distinctive character of the gospel: the paradox of the power of God in the weakness of the cross of Jesus Christ and manifested in the apostle (12:9; cf. 1 Cor. 1:18­-25).

At another level, these apostles" to Corinth from within Paul's missionary circle in the North Mediterranean society may have been able to maintain a better relationship to the Jewish synagogue than Paul was able to maintain (2 Cor. 11:24); they may have related to the one at Ephesus (cf. Acts 19:8­10). For one thing, Paul's Roman citizenship, associated with the Hellenistic city of Tarsus, may not have worked in his favor among the Jewish synagogue elite, who regarded Roman domination as a violation of the rule of the Lord their God. To complicate matters even more, Paul emphasizes a saving Messiah killed in Roman fashion, by crucifixion. These elements considered, Paul's preaching is bound to create no small animosity. Suppose that Paul's competitors, on the other hand, are not associated with Roman imperialism by citizenship and play down the significance of the cross­theology that Paul plays up; then their stance may be helping them retain their tie to the synagogue, with little repercussion.

The Jewish synagogue in the cities of the Greek­-speaking world ensured its members a link with the saving tradition of Israel. Greek­-speaking Jews, like Apollos from Alexandria and Paul from Tarsus, could listen to Moses being read (2 Cor. 3:15) in the Greek language, and know in their hearts that their Jewish inheritance in salvation was secure. Judging from the description of Apollos in 1 Corinthians 3 and in Acts 18­-19, he and others like him have made converts to Christ from Diaspora synagogues. In turn, the more outstanding of these converts to Christ have become recognized missionary preachers among the Gentiles, especially in Gentile congregations already established by someone else, Paul in particular (Acts 19:13­-19).

Their credentials, like those of Apollos, are first rate. Coming from Jewish parents and aligned with the synagogue, they are Hebrews, . . . Israelites, . . . descendants of Abraham (2 Cor. 11:22). Aligned with the new Christ movement, they are ministers of Christ and filled with the Spirit; they have visions of the Lord, performed miracles (11:23; 12:1, 12), and accept support for their labor in the gospel. They come from the same Jewish background as Paul himself and stand essentially in the same circle of Hellenistic­Jewish Christian thought.

Judging from Paul's dramatic rhetoric of denunciation in 2 Corinthians 10­-13, he perceives the criticism from his rival apostles to be aimed at denying his status and function as apostle of Jesus Christ at Corinth. His scathing denunciation of his critics is understandable if they come from within his own circle of Christian missionary friends and colleagues from the Diaspora synagogue setting, people like Apollos. Paul and his gospel were being discredited in the Corinthian congregation he founded, by Christian missionaries of his own kind of Jewish­-Christian thought and life. His pain at having his apostleship and his gospel thus discredited best accounts for the display of emotion in the rhetoric of denunciation in chapters 10­-13.

By analogy, a Christian minister in a denomination today feels deeply hurt when another leader of the same denomination calls one's own ministry and motives and message into question. The response to such betrayal is understandably defensive.

Of the number of possible factors that could account for the sharp criticism of Paul at Corinth, the sociological ones doubtless play a significant part. In his essay on the "Sociology of Early Christian Missionaries," Gerd Theissen (1982:27­-67) deals with the legitimation of "primitive Christian itinerant preachers," of which both Paul and his opponents are members. Theissen identifies two types of missionary preachers in the early stages of the Christian movement: (1) itinerant charismatics and (2) community organizers. Paul and his co­-workers represent community organizers, who break new ground and establish independent communities of believers. The most important difference between [the two types] is that each adopts a distinctive attitude to the question of subsistence" (28).

Paul recognizes his right to subsistence from preaching the gospel. He has a word from Moses and a word from the Lord Jesus to authorize his privilege of expecting a living from his preaching (1 Cor. 9:8­-14). But he renounces the privilege, choosing rather to support himself independently in his ministry at Corinth (1 Cor. 9:15). Paul's competitors view their right to food and lodging as a mark of apostleship in relation to Jesus, himself a wandering charismatic teacher. Their criticism against Paul is that by renouncing his privilege of subsistence, he has renounced true apostleship in the name of Christ. By seeking his own living, rather than accepting livelihood from the Corinthians, Paul is acting according to human standards (2 Cor. 10:2). On this count, among others, Paul's rivals hold his apostleship suspect. Paul is obliged to establish the legitimacy of his apostolic ministry, but not by the standards of his competitors. He cites his weakness as identification with Christ (2 Cor. 12:6­-10), and his renunciation of support as abundant love for the Corinthians (2 Cor. 12:14­-18).

Theissen's reconstruction of the crisis between Paul and his rival missionaries at Corinth is instructive:

Itinerant charismatics arriving in Corinth made a claim on support from the community. The members reacted at first by pointing to Paul: our apostle Paul never raised any such claims. In response, the itinerant charismatics could point to the words of Jesus as a justification for their position. As regards Paul, that left but two choices. Either they must convert him to their style of life or deny him his claim to apostolicity. . . . They contested Paul's apostolicity—not out of personal malice, but in self­-defense. (1982:53)

Antoinette Clark Wire adds yet another possible dimension to the mixed crisis that developed at Corinth. The social status of some members has improved after Paul's mission in the city, especially the status of the Corinthian women prophets. These would consider themselves Paul's friends, whose hospitality he has refused while maintaining his right to it. "When Paul refuses their hospitality—whether offered or not—and refuses to join them in mutual gain, they are offended, rejecting a friendship based on mutual loss. . . . The result is enmity" (195). The rival apostles to Corinth, discovering this situation among the Corinthians, are then able to use Paul's refusal of hospitality against him to their own social advantage.

All of this sifted evidence for the identity of Paul's opponents in 2 Corinthians points persuasively to Hellenistic­-Jewish Christian missionaries from a setting in a diaspora synagogue. The leader of the group may very well be Apollos.

V. George Shillington