Letters to the Corinthians

saint-paulToo many irons in the fire, so to speak. I have a whole folder of work-in-progress articles, posts, studies, musings, and a “digital attic” of things in the folder “Interesting ideas.” One of the items in the attic was an introduction to St. Paul’s letters to the Corinthians – or rather his on-going somewhat rocky relationship with the community at Corinth.

With the exception of The Letter to the Galatians and The Letter to the Romans, St. Paul’s epistles are pastoral letters, most often responding to some problem in the community – that is not to say they do not carry/imply a consistent theological unpinning – but the letters are pastoral in nature and most often corrective and encouraging. But we are not always sure of the problem that is being addressed.It is as though you are sitting in the room with Paul (for the first time) and he is on the phone with leaders of the problem community. You can only hear one side of the conversation and so you have to infer a lot of what has been reported to Paul based on what Paul is saying. Compounding the difficulty is that this is your first time to overhear half the conversation – but this is not the first conversation. You quickly realize that there is a lot going on and a lot of “water under the bridge.” That leaves you working to infer the context of the larger history of communications even as you listen in on the current conversation.

St Paul has lots of quotable single verses. How many times have you heard at Christian weddings the line from 1st Corinthians: “love is patient, love is kind.” On our best days that is certainly true. For the other days, it would be good that we remember a following verse: love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor 13:7). That being said, what is the context in which Paul is speaking? It was certainly not a wedding, but is part of a longer admonishment of the manner in which the Corinth community is living. As I have often noted, “Any text without a context is just a pretext to use the text as you see fit.” So what is the context of the letters to the Corinthians? My context was some questions I was asked about 2nd Corinthians.

As for St. Paul, at the writing of this letter, St. Paul had already visited Corinth twice. But 2nd Corinthians is thought to be the fourth letter that St. Paul wrote to the community in Corinth after bringing the gospel to them a few years earlier (1 Cor 2:1–5; 2 Cor 1:19). Scholars reconstruct the historical context of the letter according to periods or phases, as follows. (The following is based on the work of Thomas Stegman,)

Phase 1: Paul founded the church at Corinth, AD 50–51.
As mentioned in Acts 18:1–18, Paul spent eighteen months during his founding visit and succeeded in establishing a community of believers consisting of Gentiles and Jews, with Gentiles in the majority. The makeup would be consistent with the nature of Corinth, a major port city on the Grecian peninsula and crossroads of all peoples of the Mediterranean. Just as Corinth was a dynamic port-of-call, the church in Corinth proved to be a vibrant but challenging community, one that excelled in many things (2 Cor 8:7)—including its proclivity for misunderstanding Paul – not that Paul is always easy to understand.

Phase 2: Paul’s First Letter to Corinth between AD 51 and AD 53.
From 1 Cor 5:9 we learn that Paul had written an earlier letter to the Corinthians. In this letter he had urged them not to associate with immoral people. Apparently some in the community misconstrued his words to mean that they were to avoid contact with all outsiders (1 Cor 5:10-12).

Phase 3: Paul sends 1st Corinthians from Ephesus via Timothy, spring AD 54.
Some time later Paul wrote a second letter, what we know as 1st Corinthians. In this letter he responded to oral reports about divisions (1 Cor 1:11) and scandalous behavior in the community (5:1–6:20; 11:2–34), as well as to issues raised in a letter written to him by some of its members (see 7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1). Paul wrote 1st Corinthians from Ephesus (16:8) in order to exhort the church in Corinth to strive for unity (1:10) as members of the one body of Christ (12:12–27). He also sent his coworker Timothy to Corinth to remind the community of all he had previously taught them (4:17; 16:10).

If Paul thought that his letter urging unity and his sending Timothy to Corinth would resolve all of the community’s questions and problems, he was soon proven wrong. Most likely, Timothy returned quickly to Ephesus with some sobering news. The precise content of that news is impossible to reconstruct. Did the Corinthians reject the youthful Timothy in his role as Paul’s envoy (see 1 Cor 16:11)? Did some persist in aberrant behavior as an expression of their freedom in the Spirit? Were some offended by Paul’s use of irony and sarcasm (e.g., 4:8–13)? Were suspicions raised about Paul’s proud insistence that he preaches the gospel free of charge (9:12–18) while collecting money for another church (16:1–4)? Had other missionaries arrived in Corinth, criticizing Paul’s gospel and his manner of being an apostle? Any one or combination of these is possible.

Phase 4: Paul makes an emergency visit, early summer AD 54.
In response to the situation, Paul paid an emergency visit to Corinth during the summer of AD 54, a visit that he later confessed was “painful” (2 Cor 2:1). That this visit was urgent and unexpected is suggested by the fact that he changed the travel plans he had indicated in 1 Cor 16:5–7, deciding to go directly to Corinth from Ephesus by sea as opposed to the overland route through Macedonia. Paul’s second visit to the Corinthians culminated in an unpleasant incident with a person he later referred to as “the one who did the wrong” (2 Cor 7:12). Once again, we are left guessing as to what exactly happened. The most common scholarly opinion is that a member of the community slandered Paul, calling his apostolic authority into question. Whatever happened, Paul apparently left Corinth abruptly and returned by sea directly to Ephesus. That his departure was abrupt is inferred from the fact that he deviated from his revised travel plans (1:15–17).

Phase 5: Paul sends a “tearful letter” via his delegate Titus, late summer AD 54.
Having returned to Ephesus, Paul decided to write another letter to the Corinthians, a letter penned “out of much affliction and anguish of heart” and “with many tears” (2 Cor 2:4). Like the lost letter alluded to in 1 Cor 5:9, this third piece of correspondence from Paul, known as the “tearful letter,” no longer survives. Nevertheless, we know the gist of its contents from various references to it in 2nd Corinthians. Paul wrote to express his love and concern for the community, as well as to convey his sense of pain: was he upset that the Corinthians had not come to his defense at the time of the nasty incident? He then entrusted delivery of the tearful letter to Titus, rather than Timothy. Titus was charged with gauging the community’s response to it. Upon receiving the letter and hearing Paul’s side of things, the Corinthians were cut to the heart. The majority of the community meted out a severe punishment, probably ostracism, to the person who had offended Paul (2 Cor 2:6; 7:11). Moreover, they grieved and expressed their desire to see the Apostle again (7:7). Titus carried the Corinth community’s response which was conveyed to Paul in the Winter of 54-55. Each was on their own missionary journey and likely met along the way (2 Cor 2:12–13). Titus relayed the Corinthians’ heartfelt response to Paul’s letter, which brought great joy and consolation to him (7:6–7, 13).

Phase 6: Titus reports new problems, winter AD 54–55.
The report brought by Titus, however, was not all positive and sunny. A few ominous clouds lingered. Apparently not all the members of the community agreed with the punishment imposed on “the offender” (see 2 Cor 2:6, where a “majority” is said to have punished him). In addition, Titus in all likelihood informed Paul of the arrival of other missionaries. Whether Timothy had known about them from his short visit is unclear.

These missionaries criticized Paul’s appearance and lack of eloquence. They accused him of hiding behind the “severe and forceful” letters he wrote (2 Cor 10:10). They also claimed to have superior apostolic credentials, bringing with them “letters of recommendation” (3:1) while boasting of their pedigree (11:22) and spectacular exploits (11:23), such as visionary experiences (12:1–6). In contrast, Paul’s way of life was marked by suffering, and his preaching focused on the cross (1 Cor 2:2). These other missionaries asked how such a lifestyle and gospel show forth the power of the resurrection.

Moreover, Titus reported to Paul that the community’s participation in the collection for the Jerusalem church—an undertaking, we will see, that was most dear to his heart (Gal 2:10; Acts 11:29–30)—had come to a standstill (2 Cor 8:10). Indeed, it is easy to imagine that this was because the newly arrived missionaries planted seeds of doubt in the minds of some of the Corinthians: Isn’t Paul just really lining his own pockets? Doesn’t his constant change in travel plans reveal how untrustworthy his word really is? Doesn’t his abrupt departure during his last visit expose a lack of strength and character? Lastly, Titus must have told Paul, there were still some cases of scandalous behavior in the community (12:20; 13:2).

Stage 7: Paul sends 2nd Corinthians via Titus, spring AD 55.
We are now in a position to understand why Paul wrote a fourth letter to the church in Corinth, the letter known as 2nd Corinthians. Having spent the winter of AD 54–55 in Macedonia, he was ready to come to Corinth for the third time (2 Cor 12:14; 13:1). In order to prepare for this visit, Paul needed to accomplish several things. Since doubts still existed about his character and the authenticity of his apostleship, Paul decided to clear the air over recent events by explaining his change in travel plans and his reasons for sending the tearful letter. He also sought to defend his way of being an apostle, a way marked by self-giving love patterned after the love embodied by Jesus. Also, Paul wanted to convey his joy over the Corinthians’ response—at least the majority’s response—to his third letter. Real reconciliation was now possible between them, and he desired to consolidate it and promote further reconciliation. Toward this end, Paul offered to forgive the offending member and encouraged the community to reach out to this person and receive him back.

Then, because Paul felt confident about the Corinthians’ renewed enthusiasm for him, he wanted them to recommit themselves to participate generously in the work of the collection for the Jerusalem church, which, as we will see, was another expression of reconciliation—here between Gentiles and Jews. Next Paul seemed determined to go on the attack against the come-lately missionaries, whom he dubbed “superapostles,” by exposing the foolishness of their boasting. Finally, he wanted to warn those who persisted in their sinful ways that he would deal with them severely. By means of his various exhortations, the Apostle sought to have the members of the community attend to their own character rather than challenge his.

Thus, sometime in the spring of AD 55, Paul sent his fourth letter to the community via Titus and two unnamed brothers (2 Cor 8:16–24). When taken as a whole, 2nd Corinthians Paul is commending his example of Christian living which is rooted in reconciliation. The basis and motivation is the exemplar of Jesus, whose entire life was marked by faithful obedience to God in giving himself in love for the sake of others that all might be reconciled to God. This is what Paul asks of the Corinthian church.

As best we can surmise, that is the context is which 2nd Corinthians was written and should have a favored starting point to understand what St. Paul means to communicate to the believers in Corinth.

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