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Learn about the foundation of the church at Corinth and the difficulties Paul overcame in establishing the church community as they are revealed in his Second Letter to the Corinthians.


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Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians

by Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, O.P.

The foundation of the church at Corinth was the highpoint of Paul’s first journey into Europe. The difficulties he had to overcome are hinted at in the pagan proverb: “Not for everyone is the journey to Corinth,” which remained current for over 500 years. The meaning was that only the tough could survive in that fiercely competitive commercial center where material gain was the one true god. Paul felt that if he could establish a community there it would be the most graphic demonstration of the power of grace.

We know the names of 16 of those whom he gathered around him, far more than in any other community. Some were wealthy and influential, but the majority were a microcosm of the population of the city. They were a mixture of men and women, Jews and Gentiles. Some had been born free, others were ex-slaves, and others again were still in servitude.

Emotionally they were the polar opposites of the converts Paul had made in Galatia. The Galatians were paralyzed by prudence, afraid to make any moral decision for fear that it might be wrong. They desperately wanted to live by a rulebook.

The Corinthians, on the contrary, were bursting with initiative, and joyfully welcomed Paul’s invitation to work out for themselves what Christian living meant. Their enthusiasm, however, was not matched by their sensitivity to the gospel, and their insights were regularly wrong. This infuriated Paul, but he did not want to crush their spirit. He was forced to enter into dialogue with them in order to nudge them in the right direction. In the process his own theology developed because he had to find answers to problems that he had not envisaged.

Divisions in Corinth

Paul left Corinth after his founding visit, and the situation there was complicated by the arrival of Apollos, another Christian missionary, who did not disagree with Paul, but whose style was completely different. If Paul stressed the practical, Apollos stressed the spiritual. He became the darling of those Corinthian Christians who wanted the challenge of developing a speculative theology. For convenience I shall call them the Spirit-people. The nature of God was more important to them than loving one’s neighbor. Eventually they came to the conclusion that since most sins were bodily actions, and since the physical body was insignificant when compared to the spiritual mind, they could do as they liked, provided that they kept their minds firmly fixed on God. This attitude lies at the root of most of the problems with which Paul deals in 1 Corinthians.

Temperamentally Paul had no interest in speculative theology, and the behavior of the Spirit-people at Corinth convinced him that it was pernicious. Thus his intention in 1 Corinthians was to marginalize them by vicious mockery of what he saw as their pretensions. Such an unchristian pastoral strategy inevitably alienated the Spirit-people, and those moderates at Corinth who thought that Paul had gone too far.

At just this point a delegation from Antioch arrived at Corinth. In opposition to Paul, believed that Gentiles had first to become Jews in order to become Christians. These are the Judaizers, and simply because they were opposed to Paul, they were welcomed by the Spirit-people.

This was a serious crisis, and Paul rushed from Ephesus to Corinth to deal with it in person. The Judaizers resisted him, and to his dismay his “children” (1 Cor 4:15), the Corinthians, did not come to his support. To provide a cooling-off period Paul went to Macedonia, promising to return.

There he met Timothy, who persuaded him to go back to Ephesus and to write a letter instead. This is the now-lost Severe Letter or Tearful Letter (2 Cor 2:1-4). He entrusted it to Titus, and then waited for the result in a state of profound anxiety.

He knew that he was walking a tightrope. He had to shock the Corinthians into a realization of what they had done to him, but yet not turn them off completely by harsh blame.

Desperate for an answer, Paul, accompanied by Timothy, went north to Troas, and crossed over from there to Macedonia (2 Cor 2:12-14). When he finally encountered Titus the news was good. The Corinthians had repented their treatment of Paul. It was now winter and travel was no longer possible.

Paul, Timothy and Titus settled down in either Philippi or Thessalonica to compose a letter to Corinth that would both celebrate the reconciliation and subtly deal with certain problems that Titus had brought to Paul’s attention. This letter survives as 2 Corinthians 1—9, which is a much more sophisticated and effective document than 1 Corinthians.

Paul’s Defense

One of the criticisms of Paul that Titus picked up at Corinth was that Paul was an ineffective leader because he could not make up his mind. He would announce one plan, and then do something else. Paul’s first concern was to refute this accusation of arbitrariness (2 Cor 1:12—2:13). The main charge was the substitution of the Severe Letter for a promised visit. In explaining his reason, Paul reveals his generous heart by asking the Corinthians to cease punishing the leader of the Judaizers. Excess would do more harm than good (2 Cor 2:1-13).

The essence of the letter is concentrated in 2 Cor 2:14—6:10. Paul attempts to achieve three goals: (1) to reply to objections to his leadership style by outlining the nature of authentic ministry; (2) to drive a wedge between the Spirit-people and the Judaizers from Antioch; (3) to win back the Spirit-people by presenting the gospel in terms that they should appreciate.

Paul does not treat these successively, as I will try to do in this commentary. He touches on one point, slides off to another, drifts almost imperceptibly to a third, and then circles back disconcertingly.

The Spirit-people wanted a leader of whom they could boast to their pagan contemporaries. He should be eloquent in speech, majestic in presence, and the recipient of heavenly revelations. For Paul, on the contrary, the responsibility of a minister was to be another Christ (1 Cor 11:1). Jesus’ life, however, was characterized by humiliation and suffering. He lived with the specter of death hanging over him. Thus it is those who in their daily lives reflect the dying of Jesus that make him visible as he was (2 Cor 4:7-12). The secure, the safe, the honored, the merely verbal, cannot be who Jesus was. If they affirm what the world considers success, they cannot be instruments of change as Jesus was.

Both the Judaizers and the Spirit-people venerated Moses. For the former he was above all the Lawgiver, whereas for the latter he was the quintessential wise man. Each hoped to influence the other. Paul destroys this relationship by highlighting one aspect of the career of Moses. After his encounter with God, Moses dissimulated. He pretended to be otherwise than he really was (2 Cor 3:13). Moses, in consequence, was not someone to be admired and imitated. Similarly the intelligence of his followers is obscured. A veil lies over their minds if they are committed to the Law.

Paul, on the contrary, speaks with confident openness (2 Cor 3:12). This is a virtue with which the Spirit-people would wish to be associated, and Paul reinforces this desire by characterizing the gospel in terms of Spirit and freedom (2 Cor 3:17). Perhaps under the influence of Timothy, his co-author, Paul has finally entered into the thought-world of the Spirit-people instead of abusing them as in 1 Corinthians.

Such are the three fundamental points that Paul wants to make in 2 Cor 2:14—6:10. Other themes are treated incidentally. His daily sufferings make him think of death. He did not fear it. It was no more than a passage from the transitory realities of this world to the security of the heavenly world (5:1-10). The confusing mix of building and clothing metaphors reflects different strands of Jewish tradition regarding life after death. Paul does not take it for granted that all will end up in heaven. It is God who will decide, and Paul is conscious of a major fault in his past.

Jesus Is the Standard

When Paul was a Pharisee (Philippians 3:5) he believed Jesus to be a false teacher who had led some of his people astray. Now he knows this to have been a fleshly assessment. Paul’s new understanding of the authentic humanity of Christ means that he looks at all human beings in a different way (2 Cor 5:16). He judges them, as God will, by the standard of the self-sacrificing love exhibited by Christ (2 Cor 5:14). This is the criterion of the new creation (2 Cor 5:17).

Since the occasion of 2 Cor 1—9 was the good news brought by Titus regarding the reception at Corinth of the Severe Letter, Paul has to express his relief at the change of attitude of the Corinthians (2 Cor 6:11-7:16). He now feels that he can trust them completely.

Understandably, therefore, he relaunches the collection for the poor of Jerusalem (2 Cor 8:1—9:14). He believed that a contribution from Gentile churches to the poverty-stricken mother church, which was being progressively cut off from Jewish institutional charity, would contribute to bridging the widening gap between believers from paganism and those from Judaism.

Titus, who was entrusted with invigorating the charity of the Corinthians (2 Cor 8:6), carried 2 Corinthians 1—9 to Corinth in the spring of a.d.55.

Paul, for the first time in many years, had time on his hands. The churches of Philippi and Thessalonica did not need his attentions. He realized that he had not founded a new church for five years. Now there was time to be an apostle again.

With renewed vigor he headed west on the great Roman road, the Via Egnatia, that ran across Macedonia. It eventually brought him to Illyricum (Romans 15:19), which he estimated was beyond the missionary reach of Thessalonica.

Further Criticism

Just how much Paul had invested in his plans for the summer of a.d.55 is shown by the violence of his frustration when bad news from Corinth forced him to change them. 2 Cor 1—9 had saved the Spirit-people from the Judaizers. If the latter no longer had any hope of imposing their vision of the gospel, they could take revenge on Paul by intensifying their criticism of him. His presence was unimpressive, they said, and his preaching uninspired (10:10). When he left Corinth after a confrontation he was too much of a coward to return as he had promised. Finally, his attitude toward money was highly suspicious (11:7-10; 12:16).

Paul could only interpret such sniping as a malicious distortion of his actions and motives. In a fit of anger he dashed off 2 Corinthians 10—13, a wild outburst of sarcasm and irony that could not possibly be the continuation of 2 Cor 1-9, which ends with a request for money.

The kernel of 2 Cor 10—13 is the Fool’s Speech (2 Cor 11:1-12:13), where Paul uses his great rhetorical skills to turn convention upside down. Instead of defending himself against criticism by listing his successes, he parodies the technique by listing his failures culminating in his inglorious escape from Damascus as a baby in a basket (2 Cor 11:22-23). Instead of boasting of his strengths Paul insists on his weaknesses, notably his ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Cor 12:7). Usually understood as a psychological or physical illness, this is much more likely to be opposition to Paul within his own churches.

Paul knew that he would have to go to Corinth to deal with the situation.   2 Cor 10—3 was just a holding action to give himself time to disengage from the Illyrians. The second part of this letter (2 Cor 12:14—13:13) prepares for that visit by defending himself against criticisms and by issuing a strong warning (2 Cor 13:1) to the Corinthians to change or else risk his wrath. As things turned out the Corinthians reformed, and Paul spent the winter of a.d.55-56 in Corinth, tranquilly writing his letter to the Romans.

Jerome Murphy-O’Connor is a professor of New Testament at the Ecole Biblique in Jerusalem and is the author of numerous books including Paul: A Critical Life (Clarendon Press).

Next: Matthew’s Five Sermons (by Barbara Reid, O.P.)

Praying With Scripture
Read 2 Corinthians 1:3-7. Realize that you can find the consolation of Christ in your sufferings. Know that even your suffering has value in that it unites you more closely to Christ.
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