Paul - Lesson 8

The Apostle Paul

Lesson 8 – Life in Christ – Second Corinthians

By Luke Timothy Johnson, Emory University

Scope:  Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians presents readers with a number of critical issues.  Is it a single letter or an edited composite made up of several notes written by Paul to the Corinthian church.  What happened after the writing of I Corinthians, and how do theories of composition affect the way that history is reconstructed.  One thing is clear:  Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians is in trouble.  They suspect Paul and prefer other teachers.  Despite the literary and historical difficulties it presents, this letter contains some of Paul’s most personal , painful, and profound reflections on the meaning of ministry, which he sees as a process of self-emptying for the sake of others.  Paul sees Jesus as the model for such a reconciling way of life, and he calls on the Corinthians to imitate that pattern in their own behavior, as he encourages them to join in the great collection he is taking up for the Jerusalem church.

I.               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.

II.             All scholars consider II Corinthians to be an authentic letter, indeed, one of the four “great letters” (I and II Corinthians, Romans, and Galatians).  The critical question concerns its literary integrity: Is II Corinthians one letter or several stitched together?

a.     The letter is unquestionably difficult to read in a straight line from end to end.

                                      i.     The movements of Paul and his delegates are not easy to disentangle (see 1:15; 2:1; 12-13; 12:14).

                                    ii.     Paul’s reference to a letter “written in tears” )2:4) is obscure.

b.     Some scholars also detect literary “seams” that they think indicate separate sources clumsily joined together. 

                                      i.     The apparent shift in mood from chapter 9 to chapter 10.

                                    ii.     The apparent interpolation in 6:14 - 7:1;

                                   iii.     The apparent double treatment of the collection in chapters 8-9.

c.     The dominant hypothesis today is that II Corinthians is an edited composite of notes written by Paul to the Corinthian church.  It comprises:

                                      i.     An ironic letter of reconciliation (1:7);

                                    ii.     An interpolated fragment (6:14 – 7:1) that may be Paul’s “lost letter” (see I Corinthians 5:9);

                                   iii.     An angry polemic against rival teachers, perhaps written “in tears” (8-10);

                                   iv.     Two notes concerning the collection (chs, 8 and 9).

d.     It is possible, while recognizing the difficulties, also to read the “literary scams” as rhetorical shifts rather than indicators of prior sources and to understand II Corinthians as a single, if demanding, literary composition.

III.           Paul faces a situation in which, at the very moment that he seeks to reconcile Jew and gentile churches through a symbolic collection of money from gentile churches for the “saints in Jerusalem,” he finds that his major gentile community wants nothing to do with him.

a.     We see indications that Paul mission to the gentiles was rescued by some Jewish Christians.

                                      i.     Because of profound cultural differences, deep-seated ethnic rivalries existed between Jew and gentile in Paul’s time.

                                    ii.     Anti-Semitism was a reality of the Greco-Roman world.

                                   iii.     This situation of ethnic dissonance concerned Paul, because it did not fit with Paul’s view of God’s work as reconciling all humans.

b.     The importance of this collection is indicated by Paul’s frequent references to it and the elaborate plans he sketches for its accomplishment.

                                      i.     The collection formed the centerpiece of the agreement he had struck with the Jerusalem leaders (Galatians 2:10) – if Jerusalem recognized the legitimacy of Paul’s mission, Paul would help with donations from his gentile communities.

                                    ii.     He lays out plans for the collection in I Corinthians 16:1-4,

                                   iii.     He spends chapters 8 and 9 in this letter urging the Corinthians not to embarrass him by reneging on their pledge.

                                   iv.     He indicates at the end of Romans (15:25-32) that the collection forms the capstone of his ministry in the East.

c.     Second Corinthians offers some clues about why the Corinthians are alienated from Paul.

                                      i.     They resent his rebuke of one of their members in the “letter of tears.”

                                    ii.     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 the Philippian church was financing him on the side.  The Corinthians then suspected that his collection might be fraudulent.)

                                   iii.     They prefer rival apostles whose powerful deeds are accompanied by straightforward, “pay-up-front” approach (11:5-23).

d.     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.

IV.           Paul responds to the crisis with a rhetoric that focuses not on rational proof but on appeal to character – what ancient rhetoricians called an ethos argument.

a.     The three major sections of the letter develop different aspects of a defense of his ministry.

                                      i.     In chapters 1 – 7, the ministry of reconciliation is positively defined.

                                    ii.     In chapters 10 – 12, the ministry of reconciliation is negatively defined by contrast to the rival teachers.

                                   iii.     In chapters 8 – 9, the ministry of reconciliation is given practical embodiment through the collection.  (By donating to the Jerusalem church, the community members will be following Christ’s ministry of reconciliation).

b.     Throughout the letter, Paul interweaves the story of Jesus (the character of Jesus) and Paul’s ministry pf reconciliation.

                                      i.     Jesus accomplishes reconciliation between humans and God by a pattern of existence that is self-emptying (5:14-21; 12:4).

                                    ii.     In his work of ministry, Paul tries to follow that same pattern by emphasizing his weakness rather than his strength (4:5-12; 10:17-11:13).

                                   iii.     He invites the Corinthians to share the reconciling work of the collection for the saints in Jerusalem by imitating the same model of Jesus as the one who “though he was rich, yet for your sakes became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (II Corinthians 8:9).

Essential Reading:

Second Corinthians

Supplementary Reading:

D. Georgi, Remembering the Poor.

B. Hock, “Tentmaking and Apostleship: The Debate at Corinth,” in Social Context, pp. 50-65.

Question to Consider:

  1.  What does Paul’s fund-raising activity suggest about his attitude toward the Jerusalem leadership and Jewish Christianity?
  2. Does Paul’s appeal to a “servant style” of leadership make sense apart from his conviction concerning God’s power revealed through a crucified messiah?

Next Lesson:

Life and Law – Galatians

Read Galatians.