Paul wrote more than two letters to the Corinthians: it’s the only way of making sense of the letters he mentions in his correspondence with them. It’s just that we don’t have any more than two collected in our scriptures, and don’t know what happened to the other(s). We have no way of knowing exactly how many there were. Some scholars, observing that the letter in the Bible called Second Corinthians seems a bit of a patchwork, suggest that it could have been stitched together from at least two, and perhaps three original letters.
There’s no real evidence to say so. The changes of mood and direction could just as well come down to getting interrupted mid-dictation by some event or news which caused a swerve in the argument. Since no-one has ever found a fragment of manuscript that shows a version of the letter with a different beginning, middle or ending, I think I prefer the simplicity of an interruption causing Paul to alter course. Either way, it’s a reminder that there are simply gaps in our knowledge, and not everything Paul wrote ended up as scripture.
Selections from Paul’s second letter to Corinth are mainly read through in Year B following Eastertide. These are the 8 Sundays running from the 7th to the 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time.1 These are readings that tend to focus on Paul’s understanding of his apostolic ministry. Only on occasion does it become apparent that he is chiding the Corinthians for their behaviour. If you are reading from it in public worship, you should bear in mind that the main purpose of the letter is repair the breach between Paul and the Corinthians after they took his previous reprimands badly, while still reminding them of what they need to change. Ideally that will help you find an appropriate tone.
One thing that has changed since he wrote 1 Corinthians, is that the competition in Corinth has increased. There are more people, saying ever more strongly, that Paul is claiming an authority he shouldn’t have. These “super-apostles” (2 Cor 11:5) seem also to be arguing for a greater importance for Torah than Paul allows.
At the same time, Paul continues to teach the Corinthians many of the same themes as before. His ministry is marked by the pattern of the cross: his sufferings are borne in service to the Corinthians. His humility is patterned on the crucified Lord. Life in the present is to be marked by the hope and expectation of resurrection. “We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.” (2 Cor 4:18)2 Paul combines this with the great exchange he focused so much on in Romans. “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9)3
Those who truly appreciate the divine gift will reciprocate not only in obedience to God, but also in generosity to others. The collection, which he mentioned at the end of his first letter to them, now assumes a more central position. Their generosity, he complains, has fallen well short of an appropriate response to Christ’s generosity. It has not (Paul rather naughtily appeals to the competitive instincts he normally combats) even matched the generosity of their poorer Macedonian neighbours and rivals (2 Cor 9:1-5).
Paul also writes this letter in a spirit of reconciliation. A previous letter, where his tone was too strong, seems to have damaged their relationship (and perhaps made room for the super-apostles to denigrate him). He is seeking to repair the breach, and also presents his whole ministry as one of reconciliation: as an apostle he is an instrument of God’s reconciling work. His appeal, like his pattern of ministry, is based on this: God’s great exchange in Christ: “Christ was innocent of sin, and yet for our sake God made him one with human sinfulness, so that in him we might be made one with the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21 REB).”4
Yet in competing with the super-apostles, his tone is as angry as it ever gets. Perhaps one of the reasons he so often reminds others, and particularly the Corinthians, of the need to pattern oneself on the humble service of Christ, is that like most preachers, he needs to preach it to himself. In something of a parody of boasting, he lists all the humiliations he has suffered as an apostle (2 Cor 11:23-33), yet there is a deadly serious and equally competitive point underlying it: “Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one (2 Cor 11:23).”
It is not at all clear how the message of the super-apostles differed from what Paul preached: he clearly feels that both his message and his authority (and they are hard to separate) are being threatened. An angry Paul is not always the most attractive Paul, and the lectionary tends to edit this side of him out. He certainly believes what he is defending is the gospel, and says fiercely that how people treat him is unimportant. However, he is as human as the rest of us, and sometimes seems to take a slight against himself as an attack on the gospel he preaches. The lectionary gives us the most acceptable verses from the closing polemical chapters,5 which are also a fitting summary of Paul’s complexity:
“Three times I appealed to the Lord about [my thorn in the flesh], that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.2 Cor 12:8-10 NRSV
- The 7th Sunday in Ordinary Time is a week that can disappear as Easter shifts around.
- Proper 5, 10th Sunday in Ordinary Time
- 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 8
- Set for Lent 4, Year C, and therefore often not read by Anglicans who tend to go overboard on Mothering Sunday.
- Proper 9, 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time – the Lectionary for Mass leaves most of the polemic out, the ecumenical lectionary, as so often, lengthens the reading to bring some of it back in. The passage quoted is in both versions.