Unity of II Corinthians

Written on: June 1, 2024

Article by: Kevin Cleary

Should II Corinthians be just one book? Has it been edited and redacted by someone at a later time?

Does it consist of multiple letters penned by Paul to Corinth then later stitched together? Could it contain the sorrowful letter or previous letter referenced by Paul himself? One does not have to look far to find all of these theories and more offered to explain the content of II Corinthians we will consider if these theories are supported by the text and by good historical investigation. To begin we must establish the circumstances which prompted Paul to write.

  • 49-52 AD Paul’s 2nd missionary journey he spends 1.5 years in Corinth Acts 18:11 and 12-17
  • 52-55 AD Paul’s 3rd missionary journey he spends 3 years in Ephesus (Acts 19:1; I Cor 16:8) from there he received news of Corinth and writes 1 Corinthians.
  • He makes a brief painful visit to Corinth (2 Cor 2:1) then returns to Ephesus.
  • From Ephesus he writes a tearful letter which he sends via Titus
  • 55-56 AD Paul travels to Macedonia where he meets Titus (Acts 20:1; 2 Cor 2:12-13 writes 2 Corinthians
  • 57 AD Paul winters in Corinth from there he writes Romans (Acts 20:2-3; 2 Cor 9:4; from Corinth he travels to Jerusalem where he is arrested Acts 21:27-36

In addition to this background we must consider the challenge of having your influence and message rejected by those you love. Further that rejection is in favor of false teachers who advocate for syncretism with idolatry, and Judaism. Who are not interested in the well-being of the congregation but only their own selfish desires.

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In II Corinthians we find a book consisting of thirteen chapters purported to be composed by Paul to the Christians living and worshiping in the Achaean city of Corinth. The letter contains various discussions all of which relate to Paul’s relationship with these Christians and the strain placed on that relationship because of a few factors.

  • Certain opponents of Paul who have claimed superiority over Paul and gained considerable influence in the congregation.
  • A painful visit by Paul to Corinth in which the congregation sided with some church member engaging in immorality over and against the teaching of the Apostle (2:1-5; 7:5-8).
  • A painful / severe letter written in response to that situation (carried by Titus from Ephesus) (2:3-4; 7:8-16) in which Paul was quite forceful in his communication. In response to this letter the majority of the church repents as reported by Titus upon meeting Paul in Macedonia (7:5-16).
  • There remains a minority of the group who in allegiance to Paul’s opponents continue to stand against the apostle in promotion of immorality and syncretism.
  • Paul’s desire is for the congregation to turn away from false teaching and immorality and be reconciled to God and to a lesser degree himself.
  • The situation is made more pressing by Paul’s approaching return to Corinth along with some others who will collect the funds gathered for the saints in Judea. Paul wants to ensure the success of this visit and the faithfulness of the Church and so pens 2 Corinthians (Guthrie, 1990, p. 437).

This is the general outline we can arrive at by a careful reading of the letter along with the book of Acts. Some have looked at the book which is perhaps more personal and emotional than other of Paul’s writings and considered it to be somewhat disjointed. This they have accounted for by proposing multiple letters and various alternative historical reconstructions. II Corinthians is said to be not one letter based on one occasion, but a number of letters based on a number of occasions.

Here are some of the most common proposals:

It Is especially common to propose that chapters 1-9 are one letter which fit the occasion of Paul’s fourth correspondence with Corinth. In this scenario Chapters 10-13 constitute the painful letter referred to in 2:3 and 7:8. This suggestion was first made by J. S. Semler in 1776 and has continued to have some popularity up to present day (Barnett, 2011).

This is by no means the only proposal which has been suggested.

Some scholars have said removing 2:14-7:5 makes for a more natural reading and thus concluded that the content from 2:15-7:4 must be from a different letter which has been inserted.

Beyond this, others have said that 6:14-7:1 does not sound much like Paul at all and must have been taken from another source. Possibly Qumran writings, and then inserted into the book.

The similarity between chapters 8 and 9 have led some to suggest that they are different letters 9 being written to follow up and bolster the message of 8.

Finally, one further suggestion has been made, that chapters 10-13 do not constitute the painful letter but rather represent a fifth correspondence between Paul and Corinth authored upon receiving a bad report from Titus when he returned from delivering the Fourth letter which would be II Cor 1-9 (Long, 2004, p. 1).

If we accept these various theories, we are left with not one but potentially 5 fragments of letters which have been stitched together by redactors resulting in what we have as II Corinthians.

These letters / letter fragments would be;

  1. 1:1-2:14 with 7:5-9:15
  2. 2:15-6:13 with 7:2-7:4
  3. 6:13-7:1 Qumran Fragment
  4. 1:1-8:24
  5. 9:1-13
  6. 10-13 sorrowful letter sent between 1 and 2 Corinthians.
  7. 10-13 (not being the sorrowful letter but rather a follow up to II Cor 1-9)

The various constructions resulting in these fragments can be left to a different discussion as each commentator will offer a reconstruction which favours their particular theory. The question which draws our attention is not what historical reconstruction, but why the number and variety of reconstructions. For that answer we must look to the literary problems that some identify in the book.

The First issue to which most commentators point is a seemingly drastic change in tone between II Corinthians 1-9 and II Corinthians 10-13. Kruse explains the sentiment of many who hold this view when he says: “it is psychologically impossible for Paul to have written chapters 1-9 and 10-13 at the same time” (Kruse, 1987, p. 28). Kruse goes on to say “what we see in chapters 1-9 is Paul’s response to a crisis resolved. While in chapters 10-13 we have a fresh crisis which is far from resolution.” He adds to this a further point which is to say the initial crisis was caused by one individual but the later involves a whole group of intruders.

While any reader of 2 Corinthians will readily admit that a change of tone is evident as we begin chapter 10, most consider a number of good reasons to maintain the unity of the letter.

  1. The change of tone is not out of place given the aims of Paul in the letter, nor is it unknown for Paul to conclude his letters with strong appeals to action (Land, 2013, p. 348).
  2. The letter follows a common rhetorical pattern well attested in ancient writing known as “the apologetic.” In this form of writing, it was standard practice to conclude with a peroration which involved summarizing previous points in a strong emotional appeal (Burnett, 2018).
  3. There is considerable overlap of key concepts between chapters 1-9 and 10-13 including words found nowhere else in the Pauline corpus. Examples include: Ministry/minister, commend, deception/ trickery, appeal/ beg, confident, sufferings,
  4. The summary statement found in 12:19 refers to the whole of the letter, not just to the previous two chapters.

Other points raised have to do with time references and geography.

  • The references to sending vs having sent Titus are easily explained given the plans outlined by Paul to send Titus back to Corinth and do not necessitate two separate letters.
  • Passages which speak of past or future events: For example we read in 13:2 “On my return I will not spare them”, but in 1:23 Paul has said “It was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth.” Based on this and other passages (10:6; 2:9; 13:10; 2:3; 7:2; 12:17) it is said that chapters 10-13 must have been written before chapters 1-9.
  • The phrase “lands beyond you” in 10:6 is said to make more sense if written from Ephesus rather than Macedonia indicating again that chapters 10-13 are written before chapters 1-9. If Paul were in Macedonia, which most accept that he was when he wrote chapters 1-9, it is argued that he would have said “Lands beyond us.”

The are often combined with the previous points we have discussed to form a sort of preponderance of evidence. We have already addressed the weakness of those points. We will add that it was not at all uncommon in the ancient mind to consider Macedonia quite different from “Greece” and notice that these were different Roman provinces from the time of Augustus.

In support of the theory that 2:14-7:4 were inserted, it is said that reading 2:13 connected to 7:5 makes for a smoother reading. It’s worth noting however that similar points to those raised in regards to 10-13 can be made of 2:14-7:4. These chapters make sense where they are given what Paul is trying to do in the letter. Furthermore, it is reasonable that Paul re-introduce his travel in 7:5 because he is well aware that he has digressed and wants to remind his readers of the travel narrative.

In relation to 6:13-7:1, the passage forms a strong appeal for separation from Idolatry and it makes perfect sense that Paul, quoting the Old Testament, would sound similar to other contemporary Jewish sects using the same source. Again it is not warranted to suggest editorial modification in this case.

Lastly chapters 8 and 9 are sometimes said to be too similar and would therefore not likely be found in the same letter, and especially not in such close proximity. Furthermore, Paul’s use of the phrase “Now concerning” is said to indicate that he is introducing a new topic, showing that chapter 9 was at one time separate from chapter 8. Yet it has already been shown that the phrase works well as a resumption of the discussion in chapter 8:16-24 (D.A. Carson, 1992, p. 277).

To the previous point, the content of the chapters 8 and 9, while similar, make good sense when read together as a strong appeal to take action. Notice also that 9:3 relies on the previous introduction of the brothers that we have in 8:16-23. Thus, the alleged insertion of chapter 8 or 9 is not necessitated by the text but refuted instead.

Having considered not only the most prolific proposed separation between chapter 1-9 and 10-13, but also a number of others, we can safely conclude that these suggestions cause at least as many problems as they solve. Not only are they unwarranted by the internal evidence, they lack any support whatsoever from external evidence, which is arguably a weightier matter. There is no external evidence of any kind which would call the unity of II Corinthians into question.

There are no manuscripts which end at chapter 9, there are no fragments that contain only chapters 10-13 or 3-6 or 8 or 9 or which are missing 6:13-7:1. Not only that, there are no citations or allusions to these fragmented letters in any writings of the Church fathers. I am aware that Ignatius doesn’t mention 2 Corinthians but if there were 7 letters of Paul to Corinth in circulation, we would expect that to get some attention. If not by Ignatius, then by someone else, but we simply don’t see it.

Given that there is no external or manuscript evidence for these various fragment theories why are they so pervasive? Craig Evans once explained why such speculative theories were advanced in the field of Historical Jesus Research. He made the point that “with a large number of people pursuing terminal degrees and tenure and even notoriety, there is often a great temptation to push the facts beyond where they should go.” I might suggest a similar motive here. If you write a scholarly paper which says 2 Corinthians was written by Paul in basically the form we have in the NT nobody is likely to read that paper. If you claim to have uncovered Paul’s lost letters, that’s going to get some attention. Furthermore, we are in an area of Biblical studies which has little new by way of factual evidence to consider. This leaves it ripe for speculation and suggestion. I am not disparaging good detailed historical research or the field of biblical studies, but simply reminding us all to read widely and to examine our theories carefully. I might also point out that as with all fields it is possible even for scholars to be caught up in what is trendy.

A further note on historical reconstruction in general is also in order. It is good and helpful to dig into the historical context of any part of scripture. However, unless we are directly drawing on the text our reconstruction cannot be allowed to alter our application of revealed truth. Whether it be Kraig Keeners work on household codes applied to Eph 5 or John Boswell’s re-framing of Rom 1 or many others. We cannot allow an imagined historical reconstruction to overshadow revealed truth.

We conclude therefore, that efforts to understand 2 Corinthians as a series of literary fragments, clumsily stitched together by an unknown editor, are long on speculation, and short on fact. They offer no better interpretive approaches than the one suggested by the book itself. They lack compelling historical evidence and are completely undone by the absence of supporting textual evidence. Though most of these theories still attribute all of the book to the apostle Paul, they are unwarranted and unhelpful to anyone seeking a better understanding of the book.

What is helpful is the powerful example of Paul, as he pours out his heart to the Corinthians, making every effort to restore the fallen and protect those in danger. He doesn’t hide that he is upset and frustrated, rather he opens his heart to the very people who broke it in hopes that finally that will be enough to save them.

Works Cited

Barnett, Paul. Paul, Chronology and the unity of 2 Corinthians. Aug 2011. <http://paulbarnett.info/2011/09/paul-chronology-and-the-unity-of-2-corinthians/>.

Burnett, Paul. The New International Commentary On the New Testament The Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids MI: Erdmans , 2018.

D.A. Carson, Douglas J. Moo, Leon Morris. An Introduction to the New Testament. Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 1992.

Guthrie, Donald. New Testament Introduction. Dowers Grove Illinois USA: Intervarsity Press, 1990.

Kruse, Colin. Tyndale New Testament Commentaries 2 Corinthians. Leicester England: Intervarsity press , 1987.

Land, Christopher. The Integrity of 2 Corinthians from a Linguistic Perspective. Hamilton Ont, 2013.

Long, Fredrick J. Ancient Rhetoric and Paul’s Apology: The Compositional Unity of 2 Corinthian. Cambridge UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.