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An Introduction to the New Testament



Occasion. First Corinthians has always stood so high in popular esteem, especially by reason of the thirteenth and fifteenth chapters, that it is difficult for us to understand why it should not have been welcomed by the Corinthians whom it immortalized. But it was not. Its effect was not at all what Paul intended. So far from ending the opposition and hostility to himself and the Corinthian factions, it intensified both. The parties opposed to Paul united in opposition to him, as the party of Christ, and matters there went from bad to worse.

It is only when we examine the letter from what must have been the point of view of its original recipients that this development can be understood. If we look at it for a moment from the Corinthians' position, the situation soon becomes clear. To begin with, Paul hardly acknowledges their letter. He is so full of what Chloe's people have told him that he does not mention it until he is a third of the way through. Imagine the effect upon the assembled Corinthian church of the reading of this long criticism of themselves, based upon what some third party had told Paul about them! Whatever steps Paul may have


taken to satisfy himself of the truth of all these charges, the Corinthians would have been very much annoyed at them. In fact, the truer the charges were, the more vexed they would have been.

Paul's tone in dealing with them was also far from conciliatory. Again and again he seeks to bring the Corinthians into line with the practice of other churches, or asks them whether they think they are the only Christian church in the world. 11:16; 14:33, 36. It was no doubt quite true that not many of them were what men call wise, or influential, or of high birth, and that Paul had to treat them like babies in Christian living, 1:26; 3:1, but we should not have liked being reminded of it, if we had been the Corinthians, and they evidently liked it just as little as we should have done. The severity of Paul's rebuke, 5:1; 6:1-11; 11:17, 22, and his threat in 4:21, "Shall I come to you with a stick?" coupled with his steadily depreciatory way of speaking of them—"Who sees anything special in you? And what have you got that you have not been given?" 4:7—must have stung the Corinthians and put them in no mood to think reasonably and patiently of Paul's instructions. At any rate, as compared with what Paul meant it to accomplish in Corinth, I Corinthians seems to have been a failure, no matter how greatly it has been prized elsewhere ever since the first century.

The next stage of the correspondence is reflected in Paul's words in the early part of II Corinthians, where he tells them of his distress in Asia, when he was so utterly and unendurably crushed that he actually


despaired of life itself and felt in his heart that the end must be death, 1:8, 9. It is not like Paul to use strong language like this of physical hardship or peril, but where sacred personal loyalties and understandings were at stake, he might well speak in this way. It there appears that, in the effort to straighten out matters with them, in view of their reaction to I Corinthians, he has made them a visit, for he says he had made up his mind not to make them another painful visit, 2:1; compare 12:14; 13:1. He had finally written another letter, 2:3, 4, so painful and distressing that it was bound to hurt their feelings; in fact, after it was sent, Paul regretted having written it, 7:8. He had sent it to Corinth by the hand of Titus, and then completed his long ministry at Ephesus and proceeded to Troas, where he expected to meet Titus with news of how the letter had been received, 2:12, 13. It was evidently one of those letters which most of us have sometimes to write—letters which are so frank, personal, and severe that we know they will either mend matters or make the breach irreparable. That seems to have been Paul's feeling about this harsh, painful letter, written with many tears and regretted after it was sent, 7:8.

What has become of this third letter of Paul's to the Corinthians? For this description will not fit our I Corinthians at all. It cannot be described as particularly painful to Paul, or hurtful to the Corinthians' feelings, or likely to have been regretted by him after he had sent it. I Corinthians is not the letter written with many tears.


Problems. The problem of II Corinthians is its unity; is it one letter? From the beginning through chapter 9 it is pervaded by a sense of harmony, reconciliation, and comfort. Paul's mind is at last completely at rest. The Corinthians and he are fully reconciled. The letter opens with a commanding statement of the comfort he feels, 1:3-7; the Corinthians are not only on Paul's side, they are in danger of going too far in their enthusiasm for him, 2:5-11. Paul cannot say enough about their present devotion to him, 7:7, 11, 12. "I have the greatest confidence in you. I take the greatest pride in you. I am fully comforted. After all my trouble, I am overjoyed," 7:4.

But suddenly, without any warning at all, this mood of harmony and reconciliation gives place to the very opposite. With the beginning of chapter 10 we are once more in the midst of personal misunderstanding and bitterness, and these continue to dominate the letter to the end. This sudden change of tone is the greatest problem about II Corinthians. Efforts have been made to explain how Paul could have felt so differently in the two parts of the letter. If the parts were arranged in the other order, with the harshness first and the reconciliation second, the matter might be somewhat easier. As it is, it seems impossible that Paul should have sent by the same messenger and as parts of one letter two representations of his own frame of mind so fundamentally contradictory. He cannot have felt as thoroughly satisfied with the Corinthians as he declares in chapters 1-9 and at the same time have been so deeply injured and profoundly incensed


as he appears in chapters 10-13. It is psychologically impossible.

This undeniable incongruity between the two parts of II Corinthians naturally suggests that we have in it two letters instead of one—one conciliatory and gratified, the Other injured and incensed. And as the early part of II Corinthians clearly looks back upon a painful, regretted letter, the possibility suggests itself that we actually have that letter in chapters 10-13. As we proceed to examine it with that possibility in mind, the possibility grows to a probability. We cannot say a certainty, but no other explanation meets the peculiar conditions so well—the manifest incongruity of the two parts of II Corinthians and the fact that a harsh and painful letter intervened between our I Corinthians and the early part of our II Corinthians. Let us examine the latter part, chapters 10-13, on the theory that it is the missing letter or part of it, always remembering that, when we really hit upon the historical situation that called forth an ancient document, especially a personal letter, it should gain greatly in intelligibility and meaning.

Contents. This four-chapter letter is one long apologia. Paul is on the defensive. Chapter 10 opens with an ironic reference to what was evidently a Corinthian slur upon Paul—that he was humble enough when face to face with them but bold in dealing with them when he was far away. The claim of the Christ party at Corinth that it "belonged to Christ" leads Paul, 10:7, to declare that he "belongs to Christ" just as much as any of them. Other charges and criticisms


gleam through these paragraphs: that he boasts too much of his authority, 10:8; that his letters are impressive and telling, but his personal appearance is insignificant, and as a speaker he amounts to nothing, 10:10; that he is beyond his proper missionary field when he tries to control the Corinthians, 10:13; that their present religious authorities are his superiors, 11:5.

The Corinthians are annoyed because Paul will not follow the Greek practice of accepting a fee or at least his support for his preaching, 11:7, 8. And we can understand this, for most of us would much prefer to pay our minister a salary to having him earn his living as a neighborhood artisan or by working in some brother's shop. But the sting of this matter at Corinth lay in the fact that they believed that Paul had accepted money from other churches; in fact, while he was at Corinth, brothers from Macedonia had brought him money. This made them feel that their standing was inferior to that of the Macedonian churches—probably Philippi, in particular, for we know from the letter to the Philippians that they had sent him money repeatedly. Paul probably felt that a gift from his friends there was not at all the same thing as accepting his support from week to week from the Corinthians or anybody else.

The Corinthian way of putting it, however, was that he robbed other churches, letting them pay him to work for the Corinthians, 11:8. But Paul insisted that he would not give up this policy; he would never become a burden to them, and by following this course


he would expose their new religious masters, their superfine apostles, for the unprincipled masqueraders they were, 11:12, 13.

The situation roused Paul as he was probably never roused before. The ungrateful belittling of his work by the Corinthians, for whom he had done so much, stirs him to boast like his rivals, foolish as it is to do it. The result is a passage of the most amazing force and vigor—the catalogue of hardships, 11:21-33, which leaves the reader simply breathless at the end. These few informal lines, deeply imbued with Paul's intense feeling, have a power and effectiveness seldom equaled in any literature. Paul will not tell of visions and revelations of the Lord; that would be a profanation of them. He will rather boast of his weaknesses, for it is when he is weak that he is really strong, 12:1-10.

The fires of his indignation have not yet burned out, however, and he resumes his invective against the superfine apostles and his ironic defense of his financial course at Corinth, 12:11-13. They must forgive him that wrong! He insists that neither he nor his lieutenants have ever taken any financial advantage of the Corinthians: "I was clever about it, you say, and took you in by a trick! Yet did I make anything out of you by anybody that I sent to you? .... Did Titus make anything out of you?" 12:16b-18.

These piercing thrusts alternate strangely with emotional outbursts of great affection for the Corinthians; indeed, it was clearly his deep personal attachment to them that made him feel their defection so deeply. It is not your money but yourselves that I want.


.... I will be glad to spend all I have and all I am for your sakes," 12:14b, 15a. But in general the severe tone is maintained almost to the end of the thirteenth chapter. Yet Paul has no desire to be proved right at their expense. "Be what you ought to be, listen to my appeal, agree with one another, live in peace," 13:11b.

It is at once apparent that this letter, or part of a letter, was a painful one to write and must have hurt the feelings of the Corinthians. We can also easily understand that, after writing it, Paul might well have felt regret and misgivings about it. In short, it fits remarkably well the picture of the lost intervening letter given us in the early part of II Corinthians. Moreover, without it, chapters 1-9 (with the exception of 6:14-7:1) form a thoroughly intelligible and harmonious unit, ending in chapters 8, 9 with business and personal matters. To recognize in chapters 10-13 the lost third letter to Corinth relieves II Corinthians of its greatest difficulty—the incongruity of its two parts with each other—and restores to us the missing letter or the bulk of it. And so understood the two letters at once take on new clearness and significance. For there are some things in II Corinthians, chapters 1-9, which become clear only as the sequels of other things in chapters 10-13. Thus the catalogue of hardships in II Cor. 6:4-10 (cf. 4:7-11) is a milder form of the great catalogue in 11:21-33.

Such in all probability was the letter sent by the hand of Titus (2:13; 7:6-9, 13, 14) and reflected in II Cof. 2:3, 4; 7:&-12. After writing it, Paul stayed


on for a time in Ephesus, concluding his work there, and then proceeded to Troas where he expected to meet Titus with news of the effect the letter had had upon the strained situation. But Titus did not appear, 2:12, 13. There was a good opening for the Christian mission in Troas, but Paul had no heart to establish new churches when his old ones were crumbling beneath his feet, so he said goodbye to them and went on in great distress of mind to Macedonia. His poor human nature could get no relief—there was trouble at every turn, fighting without and fear within, 7:5.

It was then and there in Macedonia that God, who comforts the downcast, comforted him by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but by the comfort the Corinthians had given him, for he told Paul bow they longed to see him, how sorry they were for what had happened, and how they now took his part, 7:5-7. The long, painful misunderstanding was over. Paul and the Corinthians were reconciled.

So somewhere in Macedonia, perhaps among his loyal Philippians, Paul wrote the fourth letter in this extraordinary correspondence, the letter of reconciliation. From the first sentence it breathes the serene air of harmony, understanding, and comfort. It is no conventional commonplace that it begins with a cry of gratitude to God. The fact that the same great expression was repeated later in Ephesians and I Peter has made it seem little more than a form, but it was more. It was a heartfelt outburst of relief and thanksgiving. "Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the merciful Father and the God


always ready to comfort! He comforts me in all my trouble, so that I can comfort people who are in any trouble with the comfort with which I myself am comforted by God." He goes on striking this note of comfort until in this paragraph he has used it, as verb or noun, ten times, 1:3-7, and he returns to it again later in 7:6,7, 13, 14.

The letter is addressed to the Christians not only of Corinth but of all Greece, 1:1, 2; as though Paul wanted the widest possible circle to share in his joy over his reconciliation with the Corinthians. His jubilant expression of relief and comfort, 1:3-7, is followed by a dark picture of the anguish of spirit he endured before that relief came, 1:8-11.

Just as after any heated controversy it seems necessary to review the main points of misunderstanding in a gentler vein, before cordial personal relations can once more be happily resumed, so to cement the new understanding Paul reviews some of his differences with the Corinthians in a milder tone. They do not need to read between the lines of his letters; there is no ulterior meaning in them, 1:12-14. He is not vacillating, as they have sometimes thought, though he had planned to go to see them before visiting Macedonia and then to revisit them after leaving Macedonia, 1:15-22. As it is, he has stayed away from Corinth and gone to Macedonia first simply to spare them what, before their misunderstandings were cleared up, would have been a painful visit, 1:23-2:3. He refers to his previous letter, 2:4, almost in an apologetic tone: "I was in great trouble and distress of mind,


when I wrote you, and I shed many tears as I did it, yet it was not to hurt your feelings, but to make you realize the extraordinary affection I have for you."

The Corinthians have turned about so completely that their former leader in attacking Paul must now be protected by the apostle from their indignation. Paul has forgiven him, and they must restore him to his place in their affections, 2:5-11.

Paul proceeds to tell of his anxiety at not hearing from them through Titus, and soon finds his way, informally and naturally, into one of the most remarkable things anywhere in his letters—an account of his motives and methods in his ministry, 2:12-6:10. This statement of the ideals of the Christian missionary as they appeared to the greatest Christian missionary of the first century, though generally overlooked, is certainly one of the great treasures of Christian literature.

Paul thinks of himself as one of those incense bearers who accompanied triumphal processions through the ancient streets, filling the air with a divine fragrance. He is no peddler of God's message, but like a man of sincerity, commissioned by God and in hit presence, in union with Christ he utters Christ's message, 2:12-17.

He needs no credentials with the Corinthians. His authorization is from God, who has qualified him to serve him in the interests of a new agreement, not in writing but of the Spirit, 3:1-6. A greater splendor than shone on Moses' face attends this new revelation, 3:7-18. In such a service Paul never loses heart. He


disowns disgraceful, underhanded ways. He will not practice cunning or tamper with God's message, "It is by the open statement of the truth that I would commend myself to every human conscience in the sight of God." It is not himself but Christ Jesus that he is proclaiming as Lord. Paul is the bearer of the heavenly light, 4:1-6.

Much as he has suffered, he has never really known defeat, 4:7-15. He never loses heart. His eyes are on the unseen, eternal values, 4:16-5:5. His hope of a heavenly dwelling gives him confidence, 5:6-10. Christ's love controls him. In union with Christ we are new beings. God has commissioned Paul to proclaim reconciliation—how God through Christ reconciled the world to himself and intrusted Paul with the message of reconciliation, 5:11-21.

In a gentler but still vigorous and dramatic way Paul reviews his hardships, 6:1-10, another grander catalogue of which had formed the climax of the third letter (11:23-33). We can hardly suppose he would have put two such lists into the same letter. Then he looks back and realizes how he has laid bare his inmost emotions and calls upon them to reciprocate. Yet they have already done so; he has the greatest confidence in them; he takes the greatest pride in them. He is fully comforted. After all his trouble he is overjoyed, 6:11-13; 7:2-4. [1]

In a more matter-of-fact tone he resumes the account, broken off at 2:13, of his movements after leaving Ephesus and Troas. At last, in Macedonia, Titus

[1] This paragraph is interrupted by the fragment of the first letter to Corinth, 6:14-7:1, which seems to have no possible connection with it.


had rejoined him, and his long suspense was over. The Corinthians had come over to his side without reserve. The harsh letter had indeed hurt their feelings but to good purpose, for it led them to repent. "See how earnest this God-given pain has made you! how eager to clear yourselves, how indignant, how alarmed, how eager to see me, how zealous, how avenging! At every point you have proved that you are clear of this matter." Titus shares his gladness over their changed attitude. Paul can now feel perfect confidence in them. The reconciliation is complete, 7:5-16.

Paul is preparing to return to the east, to Antioch and Jerusalem, and the fund for the Jerusalem Christians, mentioned in I Cor. 16:1, must be ready for him to take with him. It is decidedly interesting for us moderns to see Paul as a money-raiser, chapters 8, 9. He has already told the Corinthians of his instructions to the Galatians about this fund, and now he tells of his efforts to interest the Macedonians in it. It was destined to have a decisive influence upon Paul's life and fate.

As we look back over this correspondence with Corinth, the fullest that we possess from Paul's hand, we therefore recognize four letters written by Paul to the Corinthians:

1. The letter mentioned in I Cor. 5:9, written from Ephesus about A.D. 54 and probably preserved in part in II Cor. 6:14-7:1. The Corinthians replied with a letter asking further questions, which is mentioned in I Cor. 7:1.

2. I Corinthians, written from Ephesus in answer to this letter from Corinth about A.D. 54.


3. The painful letter, mentioned in II Cor. 2:3, 4, 9; 7:8, written from Ephesus about A.D. 55, probably preserved, at least in part, in II Corinthians, chapters 10-13.

4. The letter of reconciliation, written from Macedonia about A.D. 55, preserved in II Corinthians, chapters 1-9.

The intensity of feeling revealed in the third letter has been obscured by traditional forms of translation and even more by its location at the end of II Corinthians, where its sharpness of tone is blanketed and masked by the opposite character of chapters 1-9. It is a proof of the completeness of the Corinthians' repentance that they preserved in their church chest a letter that so gravely reflected upon them. When, a generation later, some great admirer of Paul undertook to assemble what could still be found of his letters, it was natural to mask the indignant reproof of the third letter with the serenity and friendliness of the fourth. Historical situations and chronological sequence did not so much interest the collector of the letters as practical religious values.

As for Paul himself, nowhere else have we such a full-length self-portrait as in the Corinthian correspondence. Its length, variety, and intensity, together with the heights to which it sometimes rises, give it a unique place in the Pauline literature.


Lietzmann, Hans. Handbuch zum Neuen Testament: An die Korinther I-II. (2d ed.; Tübingen, 1923).

Plummer, Alfred. Second Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians (New York, 1915).

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