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The Corinthian Correspondence

Christian D. von Dehsen. Ph.D.
Carthage College, Kenosha, WI


First and Second Corinthians present the interpreter with a complex set of exegetical problems that must be addressed in order to examine the intricate connection between the theological tensions facing the congregation in Corinth and their impact on Paul's stormy relationship with that church.

Situated on an isthmus between the port cities of Lechaeum and Cenchreae, the city of Corinth (see map) was the capital of the Roman province of Achaia. Given this location and its proximity to Athens, Corinth had all of the characteristics of a cosmopolitan city with a diverse population, reflected in its containing both a synagogue and a temple devoted to Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

According to Acts 18:1–17 Paul arrived at Corinth when Gallio was proconsul (51–52 CE) and stayed there for eighteen months. Following a pattern typical in Acts, Paul first preached in the synagogue when he arrived at a new city. When he faced opposition there, he focused directly on Gentiles (Acts 13:46–47).

Nevertheless, unlike the epistles to the churches in Galatia and Rome, the Corinthian correspondence does not reflect any tensions between Jewish and Gentile factions over the Torah. Instead, this correspondence discloses a congregation fractured by pressures from within and without. In 1 Corinthians, Paul addresses a congregation beset by internal conflicts in which some members claim forms of spiritual superiority over others. In 2 Corinthians, Paul must defend his own apostolic authority against charges from other missionaries recently arrived.

First Corinthians

First Corinthians is misnamed; it is actually at least the second letter that Paul sent to this church (5:9). Writing from Ephesus (16:8), Paul responds to oral (5:1) and written (7:1; cf. 7:25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1,12) information brought to him by three emissaries from the church: Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:17). His serial attention to various matters confronting the Corinthians accounts for the disjunctive nature of the letter.

Paul opens this letter by acknowledging that the congregation consists of people from diverse social strata. He calls upon the Corinthians not to follow worldly standards of power and achievement, but to stand under the cross and acknowledge that God's wisdom seems folly to the "wisdom" of the world (2:1–13), that is, of those who do not belong to Christ (3:23; 15:23) but to the realm of the flesh (1:26; 3:1, 3). Moreover, no person should claim superiority over others based on allegiance to some individual (Paul, Apollos, Cephas, Christ) or on some special spiritual insight (2:9–3.4). Ultimately, Paul wants the Corinthians to understand that there is one Spirit unifying them as one body in Christ (12:1–30). Therefore, instead of boasting, they should build up the church and one another in love (12:30–13:13; 16:14).

This admonition for the church to be unified in faith and love undergirds all of Paul's advice in 1 Corinthians. As noted above, the letter is a disjunctive response to various issues splitting this congregation: sexual immorality (5:1–8); lawsuits among believers (6:1:8); prostitution (6:12–20); eating food offered to idols (8:1–13; 10:14–11:1); glossolalia (speaking in tongues) (14:1–40); and falsely interpreting the meaning of the resurrection (15:1–58). (In 11:1–16, the author admonishes women to cover their heads and be subservient to their husbands, but some think that this section is a later interpolation corresponding to the gender relationships presumed in the Pastoral Epistles.)

In the concluding chapter, Paul advises the Corinthians about how to complete the collection for the poor in Jerusalem, which he hopes to receive on his anticipated return to Corinth (16:1–9).

Second Corinthians

As 2 Corinthians discloses, that second visit did not go as planned, but ultimately became a "painful visit" (2:1). Before exploring this surprising reversal, one must consider some vexing literary problems.

Even a cursory reading of 2 Corinthians suggests that it vacillates in tone and intent. Certain themes are engaged, abruptly abandoned, and then unexpectedly taken up again later (e.g. 2:14–6:13; 7:2–4; 10:1–13.10; 1:1–2:13;; 7:5–16). In addition, chapters 8 and 9 seem to repeat unnecessarily Paul's continued solicitation for funds for the poor in Jerusalem. One could further argue that chapters 10–13 refer to a problem that seems to have been resolved in 7:5–16. One passage— 6:14–7.1—may itself be a misplaced section from the previous letter noted in 1 Cor 5:9. This literary complexity has led to several theories that build on the premise that 2 Corinthians is a compilation of sections, poorly reconstructed, taken from a series of letters Paul wrote to the Corinthian church. In summary, one can reconstruct the various portions of 2 Corinthians as follows:

The identification of these literary seams leads to a plausible reconstruction of the entire Corinthian correspondence as follows (based on the theory of Günther Bornkamm):

VISIT 1: Paul Establishes the Church at Corinth (according to Bornkamm)

LETTER "A": The Previous Letter (1 Cor 5:9)


LETTER "B": The Canonical 1 Corinthians


VISIT OF TIMOTHY: (1 Cor 4:17; 16:10)

LETTER "C": Paul's Apology of his Apostleship (2 Cor 2:14–6:13; 7:2–4) (Connecting term: "hearts")

VISIT 2: Paul Confronts the Congregation (the "Painful" Visit) (2 Cor 2:1; cf. 12:4; 13:1–2)

LETTER "D": The Letter of Tears (cf. 2 Cor 2.3–4, 9; 7:8, 12) 2 Cor 10–13 (after the second visit— 12:14; 13:1–2)

THE VISIT OF TITUS: (2 Cor 12:18; 7:6, 13–16)

LETTER "E": The Letter of Reconciliation (2 Cor 1:1–2:13;7:5-16) (Connecting term: "Macedonia"; this letter has to come after both the "painful visit" [Visit 2] and the "letter of tears" [Letter D] since it contains references to both)

LETTER "F": The First Letter about the Collection (2 Cor 8)

LETTER "G": The Second Letter about the Collection (2 Cor 9)

2 Cor 6:14–7:1: (1) A non-Pauline interpolation; or (2) A Fragment of Letter "A"?

VISIT 3: For the Collection (cf. Acts 20:2)

More recently, scholars have approached the epistle from its final canonical form, treating it as a whole, rather than as a compilation of disparate parts. As such, one might see in it an ABA pattern, in which a middle section about the collection (chapters. 8–9) is framed by two sections related to the appearance of the interlopers and Paul's strained relationship with the church (1–7; 10–13).

Nevertheless, in view of the chart offered above, one can reconstruct a general picture of the events presumed in 2 Corinthians. After Paul sent 1 Corinthians, Timothy arrived at Corinth (1:9; 1 Cor 16.10–11) to learn that certain other missionaries had arrived there and challenged Paul's apostolic authority (3:1–3; 5:11–15). These opponents, whom Paul sarcastically labels "super-apostles" (11:5), brought with them credentials, perhaps from the Jerusalem church, to establish their credibility. When Paul learns of this challenge, he travels to Corinth for the second time to confront his accusers face to face. This confrontation was so devastating that he describes the visit as "painful" (2:3–4). He then wrote another letter to the Corinthians, which he characterizes as a "letter of tears" (2:3–4). (Some scholars believe that a portion of this letter may be preserved in chapters 10–13). From Paul's comments in 7:5–16 one learns that (Titus returned from Corinth with good news. The letter of tears presumably had its desired effect and restored the relationship between Paul and this church 7:8-16). Paul then may have sent the letters preserved in chapters 8 and 9. Now he would have an opportunity to visit Corinth a third time (cf., 12:14; 13:1) to complete the collection for the poor and carry it on to the church in Jerusalem.

Taken as a whole, the Corinthian correspondence provides a window into Paul's longstanding and difficult relationship with that church. Despite the interpretive problems, it is clear that Paul's commitment to this church grows out of his passion as an apostle. He views the internal strife noted in 1 Corinthians and the disruptive influences introduced into the church by the "super-apostles" in 2 Corinthians destructive of the community grounded in the cross of Christ (1 Cor 2:2). In both documents Paul hopes to remind the Corinthians of the love of Christ which binds them together with him and "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Cor 13:4–7; cf. 2 Cor 5:14; 13:11, 13).

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