This focus of this article is the structure and themes of the Book of 2 Corinthians. For general information about the city of Corinth, and its culture and religions, please go to the Corinth page in the NT Background section. For information about establishment of the church in Corinth, Paul’s troubled relationship with that church, and the correspondence between them, please go to the 1 Corinthians page in the NT Books section.
The Unusual Structure of 2 Corinthians
There seems to be a double digression, where Paul appears to go off on a tangent, away from his subject, before returning to it later.
The first digression is a long passage from 2:14 to 7:4, about the glorious new covenant, and his message of reconciliation, which comes in earthen vessels. Without the digression, 2.13 seems to flow directly into 7:5. It almost appears that someone could have cut the letter there and inserted the section from 2:14 - 7:4. In 2:12-13, Paul is anxiously waiting in Troas for Titus, before moving on to Macedonia, then in 7:5, it continues with Paul waiting for Titus in Macedonia, then being consoled by his arrival with good news from Corinth.
Many scholars have suggested that this digression was not part of the original letter, but has been added in by a later editor. However, there is a strong theme joining the digression to the rest of chapters 1 to 7, the theme of God's consolation in affliction. In the first section (1:1 - 2:13) he speaks about consolation (1:3-11). In the digression (2:14 - 7:4), the theme of consolation continues (4:7 - 5:8, 6:1-10, 7:4). Then in the third section (7:4-16), consolation is also mentioned (7:5-7, 12-13).
It appears that the digression was deliberately included by Paul, perhaps to express his thankfulness to God when he was relived to find Titus in Macedonia (7:5), as well as to describe the theological basis for the restoration of his relationship with the Corinthian church.
The second digression is a shorter passage from 6:14 to 7:1, about separation from idols, set within the first digression. Before the digression, Paul appeals to the Corinthians to open wide their hearts to him (6:11-13), and afterwards he continues this appeal, followed by a defence of his behaviour among them (7:2).
Some also suggest that second digression (6:14 - 7:1) about separation from idols is not part of the original letter. Some doubt it was genuinely by Paul, others suggest that it is the part of the first letter, the "previous letter", calling them not to associate with immoral people (1 Cor 5:9-10). The problem with this is that this section is calling for separation from idols, rather than from believers who were behaving immorally.
A possible reason for the digression is that the main hindrance to a restoration of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians is their unwillingness to renounce all compromise to paganism, so he included this appeal for separation from idols, in the middle of this plea for reconciliation. He was also warning the Corinthians not to join the false apostles. To join them in their opposition to Paul would be the same as supporting Satan (or Belial) in his opposition to Christ.
Chapters 10 - 13
The final section of the book seems to have a totally different tone. Chapters 1-9 are joyful and conciliatory, but chapters 10-13 are sad and severe. Because of these differences, many scholars do not think 2 Corinthians is a single letter, but a number of letters combined together by a later editor. Some have suggested that chapters 10 to 13 is the "severe letter" which Paul wrote to Corinth earlier (2:3). Other people suggest that chapters 10 to 13 is a different letter written later than chapters 1 to 9, following Titus' visit to Corinth, by which the opposition to Paul had become more serious.
The problem with this, is how do we account for the present form of the letter. We do not know the identity of the editor who took the end off one letter (ch 1-9), and the beginning off another letter (ch 10-13), or the reason he joined them together. It is probably best to say that 2 Corinthians was written by Paul, and sent as a single letter.
Reasons for the sudden change in tone
If this was a single letter, then there was probably a good reason for the change at the beginning of chapter ten. Paul is probably addressing two different situations in one book. The first was his response to the good news brought by Titus concerning the response of the majority at Corinth, especially the repentance of the one person who had previously caused trouble (2:13, 7:5-7,13-16, 2:5-8). This is described in chapters 1 to 7. The second is his response to a further report that there was also a minority of people in the church who were strongly opposed to Paul, This is described in chapters 10 to 13. He refers to the majority by the words, “all”, or “you all” (2:3-5, 3:18, 7:13, 13:13), and the words “some” for the minority (3:1, 10:2,7,12, 11:4, 12:21), as well as expressions such as, "they say" (10:10) and "let such people" (11:11).
Opposition to Paul in Corinth
There appear to be two phases in the opposition to Paul in the church in Corinth. In the first phase the opposition primarily came from one individual, addressed in chapters 1 to 7. Paul rejoiced that the church had disciplined this individual, and this problem had been brought to an end. He now urges that this person is forgiven and restored to fellowship. However, there are hints of continuing opposition in the background.
The second phase of opposition came from people Paul described as "false apostles" or "super apostles". This opposition became stronger and more obvious after the disciplining of the individual, and addresses this opposition in chapters 10 to 13.
Opposition found in chapters 1 to 7
In the first part of the book, the opposition was particularly from one individual, but with hints of wider opposition in the background. On Paul's second visit to Corinth, which he refers to as “the painful visit”, he was personally attacked by this particular individual. He refers to, "the one whom I have pained" (2:2), and, "if anyone has caused pain ... punishment by the majority is enough for such a person, now you should forgive and console him ... and reaffirm you love for him” (2:5), and to “the one who did the wrong” (7:12). He was disappointed that the remainder of the congregation did not support him, saying, “I wrote as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice” (2:3). After this attack, Paul had to withdraw, after he had given a severe warning of discipline, "I warned those who sinned previously and all the others, and I warn them now while absent, as I did when present on my second visit.” (13:2). On his return to Ephesus, he wrote the "severe letter" (2:4).
It has been suggested that this person opposing Paul may be the incestuous person (1 Cor 5) who Paul commanded to be expelled from the church, but this man was expelled because of immorality, rather than for attacking Paul personally. However, he may have resisted this discipline, and when Paul made the painful visit, rather than coming to repentance, he may have made a strong personal attack against Paul, challenging his authority and status as an apostle. The remainder of the church did not support Paul as they should have done. At the time 1 Corinthians, we already see criticisms of Paul and questioning of his apostolic authority.
Opposition found in chapters 10 to 13
In the second section of the book Paul vigorously defends himself against the attacks from those he calls "false apostles", referred to by the pronoun “them” (10:2,9-11,12,17, 11:4-6,13-15,18-20,21-23, 12:11,21). There are also several references to these opponents in the first part of the letter, such as, “we are not peddlers of God's word like so many” (2:17), “surely we do not need, as some do, letters of ecommendation” (3:1), and, “answer those who boast in outward appearance” (5:12).
These people are not mentioned in the sections referring to the "painful visit", or the "severe letter". This would suggest that they had not arrived in Corinth by the time of Paul's painful visit. Evidently Titus had encountered them on his visit, and reported their arrival to Paul. Paul does not address chapters 10 to 13 directly to these false teachers, but addresses them indirectly.
Who are they?
From within the book Paul describes these opponents as, “Hebrews, Israelites, and descendants of Abraham" (11:22), so we see that they were Jewish, probably boasting of their impeccable Jewish heritage and connections. He says that they, “call themselves ministers of righteousness” (11:15), probably because they are eager to make people obey the Jewish law, but Paul calls them ministers of Satan! (11:15).
They were proud to belong to Christ (10:7), and were boasters (10:13), commending themselves (10:12,18), boasting according to human standards (11:18). They boasted of the distance they had travelled to come to Corinth (from Jerusalem) (10:13-16). They also boasted of visions and revelations they had received (12:1-6) to validate their ministry. They measured themselves by one another (10:12), making comparisons. They were proud of their speaking ability (11:6), and wanted to be recognised as Paul's equals (11:12), measuring their apostolic authority by their acts of power (13:3, also 12:12-13), but they treated the Corinthians badly (11:19-20). These false Apostles were claiming their authentic Jewish heritage, and how greatly God had used them.
Paul refers to “false apostles” (11:12-15), as well as to “super apostles” (11:5, 12:11), leaving the question as to whether these refer to the same people. It has been suggested that the false apostles were the opponents in Corinth, and the super apostles were the leadership of the Jerusalem church (including James and Peter). Twice Paul says he is not inferior to these "super apostles", but does not attack or criticise them, as the does the "false apostles". However, he refers to "super apostles" in the context of rebuking the Corinthians for receiving a different gospel, a different Jesus, and a different spirit (11:1-6). It is more likely that Paul is using two different descriptions of the same group of people. His term “super apostle” could well be a word Paul invented, as it is unknown in the Greek language, which he is using sarcastically.
What were they teaching?
It is difficult to identify exactly what message these teachers brought. Paul says, “If someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit ... or a different gospel - you submit to it readily enough" (11:4). This reminds us of Galatians (Gal 1:9), where people were bringing a different gospel. This may explain why Paul calls them "ministers of Satan" (11:15).
From Paul's lengthy digression on the glory of the new covenant, and its superior glory when compared with the old, we can safely guess that they taught some form of Jewish legalism, and need for the believers to obey the law of Moses. They call themselves "ministers of righteousness" (11:15).
It is also clear from the letter that they were making serious accusations against Paul, and undermining his apostolic authority. Paul defends himself against these, particularly in his "boasting as a fool" section in ch 11. The charges against cover his calling as an apostle, his teaching, his actions, and his character. They claim that Paul is an inferior apostle because of his afflictions (1:4-6), and that he was vacillating and worldly because he twice changed his plans to visit them, making plans according to the flesh (1:17-18), acting according to worldly standards (10:2). They accuse him of deliberately hurting them and causing them pain with his letter (2:2). They say that Paul is a peddler of God's Word (2:17), who commends himself, and has no letters of recommendation (3:1, 4:5, 5:12). They say that Paul's gospel is veiled and obscure (4:3), and that Paul is a fool, not of sound mind (11:16-21, 12:6).
They say that Paul's presence and speech is weak and unimpressive, but his letters are weighty and strong (10:1,10, 11:6, 30). This is one of their strongest objections to Paul. They were impressed with oratory and presence, and despised Paul's humble presence (10:1). The Greek world admired physical beauty and leisure, while despising imperfection and physical labour. In Greek terms, Paul the tentmaker, of amateurish speech and doubtful appearance, had little to commend him. Therefore they thought Paul was an inferior apostle (11:5, 12:11). He had offended the Corinthians because he refused to accept money from them (11:7-8, also 1 Cor 9:6,14). This also showed them that he and his message were inferior. It showed that he rejected the Greek social convention of patronage, where wealthy people supported travelling teachers.
Because he did not accept money from them, they said he did not love the Corinthians (11:11). They claimed that Paul was not righteous in the use of money, he was crafty and deceived them financially (11:7, 12:13-18). He had also wronged, corrupted and taken advantage of them (7:2). This is probably a reference to his collection for the Jewish believers Jerusalem.
What effect did they have in the church?
The false teachers were leading the people away from a sincere devotion to Christ (11:3), because they were proclaiming a different Jesus, and they received a different spirit (11:4), and submit to a different gospel. They had also severely eroded Paul's authority and credibility in the church.
Some scholars have seen similarities between Paul’s boasting as a fool in chapter 11 with an apology made by the Greek philosopher Socrates. When Socrates came under attack by his opponents, instead of giving his great merits in defence, he used a sense of irony, and pointed to his weaknesses to validate his knowledge. In this type of defence it was not permitted for the defender to speak of his own merits. He must speak to them as if it was a someone else, a fool, or a madman, who is foolishly boasting.
Paul did not remind them of Ephesus when people were healed by touching his handkerchiefs, or when God powerfully delivered him from prison in Philippi. Instead he tells about his being let down from the wall in a basket. Paul comes in the opposite spirit and defuses these boasters. He begins his argument by playing their game, by saying, “They are servants of Christ, I am more!”, but then goes on to talk about his weaknesses with this fool motif. Paul then changes to the third person and tells of his visions and revelations (12:1-6), and his thorn in the flesh to keep him humble.