The Glossary of Terms

2 Corinthians



Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

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Corinthians, the Second Letter of Paul to the, one of two canonical Letters addressed to Corinth, although it may be a composite of two or more letters or parts thereof. The church in Corinth and the two earliest letters Paul is known to have addressed to it are discussed in the article on 1 Corinthians. The correspondence with the congregation represented by 2 Corinthians is of somewhat later date.


The Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians

If 2 Corinthians is a composite of two or more originally separate letters, then its present structure is due to the work of some early editor. Thus, if one distinguishes chaps. 1-9 from chaps. 10-13, the former has lost its closing section and the latter has lost its opening. As it stands in its canonical form, however, the Letter may be outlined as follows:

The ‘Tearful Letter’: In 2 Corinthians chaps. 2 and 7 the apostle refers to an earlier letter he had dispatched to Corinth, written ‘out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears’ (2:4). Paul explains that he had chosen to send it rather than to make another personal visit, which he feared would have turned out like the last one—painful for all parties concerned (2:1-3). The traditional view is that 1 Corinthians was that ‘tearful letter,’ but there are serious difficulties with this identification. First, since 1 Corinthians seems to presuppose no presence of Paul in Corinth other than during his initial period of evangelization there, the ‘painful visit’ referred to in 2 Cor. 2:1 would have to be the visit on which he made his first converts and established a Christian congregation, which is unlikely. Second, if 1 Corinthians is the ‘tearful letter,’ then the errant brother with whose case that letter was concerned (see 2 Cor. 2:5-11; 7:8-12) would have to be the incestuous man mentioned in 1 Cor. 5:1-5. Yet there is no convincing way to reconcile Paul’s instructions about that man with the apostle’s instructions about the brother who is in view in 2 Cor. 2:5-11. As a result, many interpreters hypothesize that sometime between the writing of 1 and 2 Corinthians Paul had paid a second (‘painful’) visit to Corinth. Then, in the wake of that he had sent off a ‘tearful letter’ to his congregation sharply critical of it for failing to take any disciplinary action against a brother with whom, apparently, Paul himself had had some kind of serious confrontation. Unless an early editor of the Corinthian correspondence incorporated part (or most) of the ‘tearful letter’ into canonical 2 Corinthians (discussed below), it—like the ‘previous letter’ mentioned in 1 Cor. 5:9-11—no longer survives.

Authenticity and Literary Integrity: The authenticity of 2 Corinthians, taken as a whole, is not seriously in doubt, but many scholars believe that there are good reasons to regard 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1 as a later, non-Pauline addition to the text. For example, the passage seems to disrupt an otherwise clear flow of thought from 6:11-13 to 7:2-3 (or 4). A number of words in the passage are found nowhere else in the Letters of certainly Pauline authorship, or else are used very differently in those other Letters. Also, several of the most important ideas of the passage (e.g., the exhortations to separate oneself from unbelievers and to cleanse oneself ‘from every defilement of body and spirit’) are hardly compatible with Pauline thought as it is known from authentic materials. And finally there are numerous parallels between this passage and the Dead Sea Scrolls, which originated within a Jewish sectarian movement at Qumran about two hundred years before Paul. It is not clear why anyone would have wanted to add this material to a letter of Paul—or why Paul himself would have incorporated some preformulated material into it as he wrote, as a few have suggested. Yet these problems do not lessen the seriousness of the difficulties faced by those who defend the authenticity of the passage.

A broader and more fundamental question about 2 Corinthians is whether, as it stands, it is a composite of two or more originally separate Pauline letters to Corinth. There is considerable evidence to suggest that this is the case, including the following general points: First, chaps. 1-9 do not entirely cohere with chaps. 10-13 in either form or content. While in chaps. 1-9 Paul seems generally confident about his readers and his mood is conciliatory, in chaps. 10-13 he is clearly upset and does not hesitate to criticize and threaten them. Moreover, as he writes chaps. 1-9 he seeks to explain why his plans for a visit had to be cancelled, but as he writes chaps. 10-13 he is on the verge of another visit. Again, one would not expect the appeal on behalf of his collection for Jerusalem (chaps. 8 and 9) to be followed immediately by the kind of impassioned invective one finds in chaps. 10-13. Second, since chaps. 8 and 9, both devoted to the matter of the collection, can be read independently, some scholars doubt whether these chapters would have stood in the same letter. Third, if the long discussion of apostleship in 2:14-7:4 were removed from its present position, then the references to Titus and to Paul’s journey into Macedonia (2:12-13) would connect up meaningfully with 7:5-16, where the apostle describes his meeting with Titus in Macedonia.

One widely held partition theory finds parts of four or five letters in 2 Corinthians, identifying 2:14-7:4 (excluding 6:14-7:1) as the earliest, followed by chaps. 10-13 (the ‘tearful letter’); 1:1-2:13 plus 7:5-16; chap. 8 (unless it goes with chap. 7); and chap. 9. Some who are willing to accept 6:14-7:1 as authentic regard it as part of the ‘previous letter’ referred to in 1 Cor. 5:9-11; and a few have devised even more complex partition hypotheses. A division of canonical 2 Corinthians into at least two originally distinct letters, represented by chaps. 1-9 and 10-13 respectively, does indeed seem warranted, whatever one thinks about the alleged redundancy of chaps. 8 and 9. However, there are serious difficulties with the identification of chaps. 10-13 as part of the ‘tearful letter,’ and some very good reasons for regarding these chapters as written after the letter(s) represented by chaps. 1-9. There are also some scholars who continue to defend the noncomposite nature of the entire Letter.

Occasion(s) and Purpose(s): Assuming, with a number of interpreters, that 2 Corinthians is a composite of two originally separate letters, the earlier represented by chaps. 1-9 and the later by chaps. 10-13, one must take account of two distinct occasions for writing. Chaps. 1-9 were sent from Macedonia (perhaps Philippi) not long after Paul had been met there by Titus, on the way back from Corinth with generally encouraging news about the congregation (7:5-7). Chaps. 10-13, also sent from Macedonia, were written shortly after Paul’s receipt of some alarming news about the congregation, and not long before his own departure for a third visit to the city (e.g., 10:1-2; 12:14, 20-21; 13:1-2). Chaps. 1-9 may be dated tentatively in the summer or fall of a.d. 55 and chaps. 10-13 about one year later.

The letter represented by chaps. 1-9 was written to assure the Corinthians of their apostle’s continuing care for them, despite his ‘tearful letter’ which had upset them, and despite his apparent vacillation in the matter of a promised return visit (1:12-2:13); to clarify the apostolic commission he had sought to discharge in his dealings with them (2:14-5:19); and to appeal to them on behalf of his gospel, his ministry, and his collection for the church in Jerusalem (5:20-9:15). The letter represented by chaps. 10-13 was written to warn and admonish the Corinthian congregation in advance of Paul’s forthcoming visit (see esp. 13:10). Rival apostles had intruded themselves and their teachings into the congregation, seeking to displace Paul and his gospel. Chaps. 10-13 are dominated by Paul’s attack on these intruders, whom he describes as ‘false apostles, deceitful workmen,’ and ministers of Satan in disguise (11:13-15).

Theme: The theme that pervades the whole of 2 Corinthians, however many letters be represented there, is the meaning of apostleship—and, by extension, the meaning of Christian ministry in general. Throughout, Paul emphasizes that Christian ministry is the service of the gospel of God’s reconciling love as present in Christ (see especially 5:11-19), and that ministers are made adequate for this service by God alone (2:14-3:6). Against the rival apostles who would have the Corinthians believe otherwise, Paul insists that special religious knowledge, ecstatic experiences, or miraculous powers do not certify one as a true apostle. The important question is whether, in one’s serving of the gospel, the saving death and resurrection life of Jesus are evident (see esp. 4:10-12). For this reason, Paul repeatedly lists the hardships he has experienced as an apostle (4:8-9; 6:4b-5; 11:23b-29; 12:10), not in order to boast of the strength with which he has endured them, but in order to ‘boast’ of his weaknesses (the ‘fool’s speech,’ 11:1-12:13), and thus of the transcendent power of God (see esp. 4:7; 13:4).

Bibliography Barrett, C. K. A. Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians. New York: Harper & Row, 1973. Fallon, Francis T. 2 Corinthians. New Testament Message, 11. Wilmington, DL: Michael Glazier, 1980. Furnish, Victor Paul. II Corinthians. Anchor Bible 32A. Garden City: Doubleday & Co., 1985.


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