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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Reading through 2 Corinthians

The Address ( 1, 1–7 )

In the address Paul names Timothy as co‐author. Timothy and Titus ( 2, 13; 7, 6; 8, 16.23; see also Gal 2, 1 ) were apparently more trusted by the Corinthians than Paul himself. Timothy is not named again in 2 Corinthians although some suppose he is the unnamed “brother” who accompanies Titus with the collection. Luke tells us that Timothy was a faithful companion of Paul, especially on the second and third missionary journeys (see “The Pastoral Letters,” RG 486–7 ).

The greeting includes a doxology or prayer glorifying and praising God whose “encouragement” is strength in affliction (see 2 Cor 1, 3–4 ). This encouragement (paraklesis) in noun or verbal form occurs ten times in five verses, 3 through 7. This addition gives us a hint as to the overriding mood of 2 Corinthians. Paul and the Corinthians have experienced much misunderstanding, but Paul wants to move on to great consolation. Transcending all the pain is the certainty of God's presence with them and Paul's confidence that God is at work in their lives.

The Body of the Letter ( 1, 8–13, 10 )

The message of 2 Corinthians is developed in three main parts: (A) In the first part ( 1, 8–7, 16 ), Paul reviews his past relationship with the Corinthians; (B) Chapters 8 and 9 form a second part in which Paul develops a theology of giving, speaking of the collection among the Gentiles and specifically of the generosity of the Corinthians as a symbol of the fruitfulness of the Gentile mission; (A') In the third part, 10, 1–13, 10 , Paul revisits topics he raised in the first part and returns to the theme of his credentials as an apostle, accenting his own weakness and the call of God. It is here that Paul develops a theology of suffering, speaking candidly and with great feeling about his own experience of the grace of God. Many in the history of Christianity have seen in these chapters a spiritual reality by which they are helped to interpret their own personal experience of God: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” ( 12, 9 ). We can read through these three parts of the body of 2 Corinthians, reflecting on the relevance of this composite letter for our own experience as Christians.

The Crisis between Paul and the Corinthians ( 1, 8–7, 16 )

The relationship between Paul and the Corinthians seems to have been marked by crisis. This is evident in both 1 and 2 Corinthians. We shall focus now on the problems Paul mentions in the first part of 2 Corinthians. The apostle first reviews his past relationship with the Corinthians and then his ministry with them. Paul mentions several instances of mistrust and tension between himself and the Corinthians in his review of their past relationship.

Past Difficulties and Relationships ( 1, 8–2, 13 )

First, Paul reviews the difficulties he had in “Asia,” meaning the Roman province that covered the western part of Asia Minor. He probably alludes to Ephesus, where because of this and 1 Corinthians 15, 32 many scholars think he endured an imprisonment not recorded in Acts. Paul then focuses on several areas‐a change of plans and the Corinthians' subsequent accusation of inconstancy and lack of sincerity; his confrontation with an offending member of the community and his plea for leniency in the punishment of this person whom he has forgiven; and Paul's anxiety about the lack of information about the Corinthians from Titus. Paul appears frustrated at the apparent lack of communication, sympathy, and confidence. The factions that were mentioned in 1 Corinthians could have made a simple change of mind such as this a source of strife. Paul's detractors accused him of being unreliable.

Paul appeals to God's own fidelity as part of his response ( 1, 18 ), showing that his word is sincere and his care constant. Yet he decided to change his plans in view of the recent painful letter ( 2, 4 ) that he had found it necessary to write to the Corinthians. He postponed a promised visit only to give time for healing ( 2, 1–4 ). With sufficient reflection Paul is confident that the Corinthians would realize the abundant love he has for them ( 2, 4 ).

Apparently someone in the community publicly offended Paul ( 2, 5–11 ), though the nature of the offense remains obscure. As in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul advocates a judgment not by outsiders but within the church. The action by the majority was acceptable and judged sufficient by Paul. In the case of the incestuous man of 1 Corinthians, he recommended expulsion from the church (see 1 Cor 5, 2.4–5 ). But in 2 Corinthians 2, 5–11 Paul says that the time has come for forgiveness and reintegration lest Satan be granted a victory in the offender. Like many other biblical writers Paul sees the world as an arena where the conflict between good and evil forces is ongoing, each vying for human allegiance. The church is entrusted with the “ministry of reconciliation” as Paul describes it in 2 Corinthians 5, 11–16 . The forgiveness of the one who offended Paul is a specific example of that ministry in practice.

In 2, 12–13 Paul mentions the anguish he felt at his inability to find Titus and receive news about the Corinthians. This anxiety is a further indication of Paul's sincere affection for the Corinthians. In 1, 12–24 he defends his change of plans and insists on his anxious concern for the Corinthians. It would seem that this was written before Paul received the happy news from Titus described in 7, 5–16 .

Paul's Ministry ( 2, 14–7, 4 )

Paul interrupts his review of the events that troubled his relationship to the Corinthians in order to describe in more general theological terms his apostolic ministry. Within the overall A‐B‐A' structure of 2 Corinthians we see subsections like 1, 12–7, 16 also exhibiting this same pattern. In this instance, 2, 14–7, 4 (B), describing Paul's ministry, is framed by, and grounds theologically, the practical and painful experience of Paul's relationship with the community described in 1, 12–2, 13 (A) and 7, 5–16 (A'). Paul's description of his ministry develops several important themes:

the new covenant enacted by Christ ( 3, 1–18 ); the paradox of the ministry: strength in weakness ( 4, 1–18 ); the ministry of reconciliation entrusted to them ( 5, 1–21 ).

This description begins ( 2, 14–17 ) and ends ( 7, 2–4 ) with expressions of confidence in God and in the Corinthians. We will briefly discuss each of the three Pauline themes.

The New Covenant Enacted by Christ ( 3, 1–18 ). Here, Paul's reasoning is based on the Old Testament passages and on one of his favorite contrasts, between spirit and flesh (see Rom 8, 1–10; Gal 2, 3; 5, 17–23 ). It exemplifies the method taught him in his biblical training, taking several passages from different sources and combining them to produce a new conclusion. Jeremiah's promise of a “new covenant” ( 31, 31–34 ) is combined with Ezekiel's prophecy of God's promise to replace human hearts of stone with hearts of flesh and to give a covenant in the spirit (Ez 36, 26–36 ). Exodus 34 described the relationship between God and Moses as so glorious that Moses had to come down from Mount Sinai with a veil covering his head lest the Israelites die at the sight of his glowing face (Ex 34, 33–35 ). These passages from the Prophets and the Law provide the scriptural basis for Paul's argument that the ministry (diakonia) of the new covenant, to which Paul is devoted, is superior to that of Moses. Using the familiar rhetorical method from lesser to greater, Paul argues that if Moses' covenant was so spectacular yet was still written on stone and in hearts of flesh, how much greater is Christ's covenant, which is the fulfillment of the prophetic promise of the Spirit!

Paul contrasts the Mosaic covenant written “in ink” or “on stone” with the “new covenant” written by the “Spirit” on “hearts of flesh.” In the process he uses the phrase “old covenant” (2 Cor 3, 14 ), the only instance of this expression in the Scriptures. This “old” covenant was that enacted by God with Moses. Jeremiah and Ezekiel had spoken of a new enactment of the covenant reality, in which intimate access to God would be realized. Paul picks up this theme to write that this promise of a “new covenant” is realized in the work of Jesus. The difference between the covenants illustrates the contrast between Moses and Christ, and indicates the superiority of the covenant in Christ. Paul and the Corinthians are ministers or agents (diakonoi) of the new covenant that brings life and the Spirit. In the last part of the passage, he switches the image of the veil to apply it not as a protection on Moses' face to prevent injury to the people but as an obstacle to clear vision, now upon the faces of those who are unable to see the glory of the new covenant in Jesus ( 3, 14–18 ). Christian readers today should remember that Paul was working within the Jewish context of biblical interpretation to work in a new way with familiar texts and images. While his message was definitely that a new thing had been done in Christ that would fully include the Gentiles, he was not drawing a contrast between an old Jewish covenant, now obsolete, and a new Christian covenant that would replace it. Rather, he wanted new Gentile members of the church to realize their debt to our Jewish brothers and sisters for the spiritual heritage they preserved and which we share with them. The Old Testament Scriptures continue to provide a fertile field for mutual reflection and understanding among Christians and Jews.

The Paradox of the Ministry: Strength in Weakness ( 4, 1–18 ). Even though Paul is a minister of this great new covenant, he knows that the glory is God's, not his, and that the mystery of reception in faith is not within his control. He expresses the weakness and fragility of this ministry by the familiar image: “We hold this treasure in earthen vessels” ( 4, 7 ), a poetic translation of meaning that could be said more prosaically: “We hold these treasures in clay pots,” as a reminder that the power is from God, not from human agents. Paul recalls the price to be paid: “We are afflicted in every way… perplexed…persecuted…constantly being given up to death for the sake of Jesus” ( 4, 8–11 ). But Paul continuously alludes to God as the source of his own hope, confidence, and power.

Grace is given in greater and greater abundance through the mystery of Christ for the glory of God. Even while they experience diminishment of their “outer self,” the “inner self” grows stronger. The afflictions they experience are passing, but the invisible power of God is what lasts forever.

The Ministry of Reconciliation ( 5, 1–21 ). Throughout 2 Corinthians 2, 14–7, 4 Paul wrestles with the redemptive aspects of suffering for the sake of the Christian message. This aspect has several implications: first, the negative is not overwhelming; rather, there is always some experience of rescue or salvation. Second, the experience of suffering ends not with the apostle but redounds to the good of the community and, beyond the community, relates to the will of God. Third, for Paul, redemption effects a radical change in believers, taking them out of a particular sinful mode of existence and introducing them into another mode of reality that is in Christ. Fourth and finally, Paul and the Corinthians, like all ministers of the gospel, are involved in the ministry of reconciliation of the whole world to God.

Earthly existence is fraught with difficulties. In Paul's words, we “groan and are weighed down” ( 5, 4 ) by the difficulties of human existence and of fidelity to the work entrusted to us. We are longing to be covered not with a “tent” but with a heavenly dwelling not made with human hands. We walk by faith ( 5, 7 ), trying to please the Lord by whom, in the end, we will be judged ( 5, 10 ) not only on our own deeds but also on the effect of those deeds on others' actions. Catholic interpretation has always emphasized the communal responsibility or the obligations believers have toward others. Paul goes on to explain in the remainder of chapter 5 (vv. 11–21) that Christ's work is a ministry of reconciling the world to God. But that work is not finished once and for all. Through Christ we have been given the astounding mission and responsibility of carrying on that work of reconciliation ( 5, 17–20 ). In this context, Paul pleads with the Corinthians to be reconciled with God and thus, implicitly, with him.

Resolution of the Crisis ( 7, 5–16 )

Paul returns to the concrete situation in Corinth, alluding to his anguished wait until he encountered Titus. Paul's representative, Titus, had now furnished good news about the Corinthians' reception of Paul's difficult letter ( 2, 4 and 7, 8 ), which some argue is actually chapters 10 through 12 of the present letter. Now the conflict between Paul and the Corinthians was apparently resolved. Paul's exuberant gratitude overshadows all of the former sadness and anxiety. It appears as though all is completely restored, and there is no more reason for concern.

If we have been reading along with Paul, we have noted that some of the problems that afflict our church were present in the experience of the earliest Christians. Paul was an itinerant preacher who normally traveled from community to community preaching the gospel. But Paul lived among the Corinthians longer than with any other community (eighteen months [Acts 18, 11 ]). He invested enormous energy in this community and could not be indifferent to their problems and questions and mistakes. No one can doubt that this is a problematic relationship, yet it was not severed. The deliberate rhetorical contrast in this letter is between the apparently conflicting data of 2 Corinthians 1, 12–7, 16 : the lofty statements about the ministry of the new covenant as well as the insinuations of distrust, discouragement, and anxiety between apostle and community. Paul describes the Christian ministry as a ministry of reconciliation, but he also reminds us of the fragility of the human agents, as earthen vessels holding the treasure. All the hardships are apparently forgotten in Paul's exuberant conclusion: “I rejoice, because I have confidence in you in every respect” ( 7, 16 ).

The Collection for Jerusalem ( 8, 1–9, 15 )

Chapters 8 and 9 appear originally to have been two independent “fund‐raising letters” on the importance of a generous and substantial offering to the Jerusalem church. This collection for Jerusalem presumably was the condition for acceptance there of Paul's mission to the Gentiles in Gal 2, 10 . Jerusalem may have been a collection center for distribution of relief to other churches of Palestine and Syria. This collection is important because it represents the full participation of the Gentile Christians in the community of the new Israel, the Church. On the one hand Paul encourages the Corinthians to give generously, seeing this request as a “test [of] the genuineness of your love by your concern for others” ( 8, 8 ). On the other hand Paul will see the acceptance of the Gentiles' offering as evidence of the Jewish Christians', and specifically of the Jerusalem church's, willingness to accept the Gentile mission (Rom 15, 22–33 ).

Paul uses the tactic of creating competition among the Gentile churches. He encourages the Corinthians to give as generously as the Macedonians (Philippi and Thessalonica), who were generous even when they themselves were “tested by affliction” ( 8, 2 ). But in 9, 2 Paul claims that he has boasted of the Corinthians' generosity to the Macedonians. In Romans he says that both the Achaians (the Corinthians) and the Macedonians were only too happy to contribute because they understood it as their obligation (Rom 15, 27 ). The Gentiles were “indebted” to the mother church in Jerusalem and to the other Jewish Christian churches whose spiritual heritage they shared. The language of wealth and poverty in these passages is rhetorical and should not be taken as economic indicators. At the end of the chapter Paul speaks of envoys or messengers from and to the churches, among whom is Titus. The others are unnamed but probably known to the recipients of the letter. They are in fact called “apostles” of the churches ( 8, 23 ). Along with this title applied to Epaphroditus in Philippians 2, 25 and to Andronicus and Junia in Romans 16, 7 , it indicates that the title of apostle was held by many in the Pauline churches.

Paul begins chapter 9 as if he has not written chapter 8 . Although he has just encouraged generosity in the collection, he says in 9, 1 , “It is superfluous for me to write to you” about the collection. There are many other ideas repeated in chapter 9 that were raised in chapter 8 . It would be very strange for Paul to say the difficult things he says to the Corinthians before and after these chapters and even deal with their accusations against him (chapter 10 ), while here in the middle asking them for money! These arguments, and the apparent independence of these chapters not only from each other but also from the context of the rest of the letter, prompt many interpreters to consider them as originally separate letters or letter fragments. For us, however, they represent a crucial example of the importance of Paul's role as apostle to the Corinthians. This is the role he reviewed in chapters 1 through 7 and ardently defends in chapters 10 through 13 , to which we now turn.

Paul's Defense of His Ministry ( 10, 1–13, 10 )

In the course of defending his ministry again, Paul can be seen following the A‐B‐A' pattern, by which he introduced arguments in 10, 1–18 (A), which he will continue in a concluding section in 12, 19–13, 10 (A'). Between these he interjects 11, l—12, 18 (B), his own experience with the Corinthians and his sufferings as an apostle. Thus Paul's development includes responses to accusations that continue among the Corinthians: he is weak ( 10, l–2 ), not an eloquent speaker ( 10, 10 ), not supported by the community ( 11, 7–10 ). Paul reminds the Corinthians at the beginning ( 10, 2.11 ) and end ( 12, 20–13, 2.10 ) that he intends to visit them soon and deal with such issues in person. In the midst of his responses to charges, Paul develops in a famous and memorable passage ( 11, 1–12, 18 ) his own lived theology of the cross.

Paul's Response ( 10, 1–18; 12, 19–13, 10 )

Paul's impatient tone in chapters 10 through 13 suggests that he has already dealt with their accusations against him, and they ought to have been laid to rest. The Corinthians appear to be elitists, perceiving themselves to be superior in knowledge and gravitating toward those they suppose possess superior gifts. These include eloquence and an impressive appearance. Some of the Corinthians apparently favored Apollos' eloquence over the “contemptible speech” of Paul (see 1 Cor 3, 4–5; 4, 6–7 ). They noted Peter's freedom, his authority, the fact that he accepts support from the community (see 1 Cor 9, 6 ), and challenged Paul's reasons for refusing community support. Apparently the Corinthians are affronted by Paul's refusal to accept their patronage and continue to see Paul's forfeiture of this “apostolic right” to support as an admission that Paul is not of the same stature as Peter.

The Corinthians' complaint that Paul is an impressive writer but that his presence is disappointing ( 10, 1.10 ) is arrogant but perhaps speaks a truth that led him to rely so strongly on the written word. Oratory was highly prized; perhaps Paul did not measure up to expectations in that regard. In response, Paul warned that he was empowered by Christ to “act boldly.” He would use spiritual weapons to subdue in the end every enemy and disobedient thought in all to make all things subject to Christ ( 10, 2–6 ). Paul warned the Corinthians against false pride and conceits and jealousies. He had earlier told the Corinthians to decide whether he came peacefully or “with a rod” (1 Cor 4, 21 ). Now he promises to visit again soon and warns that he shall not be lenient with them ( 13, 1–10 ). The Corinthians should examine themselves and see whether Christ is in them. For his part Paul is confident that Christ is with him. This warning tone is difficult to imagine in the same letter with and following the reconciling tone of 7, 5–10 .

Paul Boasts of His Labors and His Weakness ( 11, 1–12, 18 )

Since the Corinthians are attracted by knowledge, Paul proposes to speak of “foolishness,” and asks their indulgence. Remember that in 1 Corinthians 1–3 Paul described the wisdom of God as folly for humans and added that God confounds the wise with the wisdom of the cross. In this section of 2 Corinthians, Paul talks about the role of the cross in his own life.

Again, it is Paul's opponents who draw out this vehement testimony about the source of his authority. There are those Paul sarcastically calls the “superapostles” ( 11, 5 ), with the same tone with which one might say “supermouse” or “superrabbit”; a few verses later, they are labeled for what Paul really thinks of them, as “false apostles” ( 11, 13; see the “false brothers” of Gal 2, 4 ). In any case, others are leading the Corinthians astray; Paul fears that the Corinthians are like Eve ( 11, 3 ), deceived by the serpent's cunning. This little aside indicated Paul's acceptance of the prevailing male wisdom of his time, since Sirach 25, 23 , that Eve represented the more easily seduced segment of humankind. The comparison with Eve, so regarded, would be insulting to the lofty Corinthians, a strategy Paul uses to bring them back to humility.

Continuing his paradoxical development of knowledge and foolishness, Paul describes the wisdom he has learned through suffering. His beautiful testimony can hardly be adequately paraphrased. It must be read and reflected upon. The experiences which the Corinthians construe as “failures”—the beatings, humiliations, imprisonments, dangers‐are Paul's apostolic credentials. He has experienced visions and revelations and ecstasies. He might have been tempted to pride in these (as he suggests the Corinthians would be). But Paul also experienced a “thorn in the flesh…an angel of Satan, to beat me” (2 Cor 12, 7 ). The wisdom Paul learned from this suffering, so beautifully expressed, is that God's power is made perfect in his human weakness. In the end we can understand why Paul says, “I boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me” ( 12, 9 ).

Conclusion ( 13, 11–13 )

The conclusion is brief and encouraging, and could be the conclusion to any Pauline letter. It does not reveal the depth of pain involved in some of its earlier content. By following Paul's apparently circuitous arguments, we are enriched far beyond the effort of understanding the specific situation Paul addressed in Corinth centuries ago. An outcome of studying 2 Corinthians is the realization that all the suffering involved in creating the church among limited human beings bears fruit in fidelity and hope. From 2 Corinthians we are brought to a whole new appreciation of the role of the cross in the Christian vocation to holiness.

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