In general, the external and internal evidence for Pauline authorship of 2 Corinthians are the same as for 1 Corinthians. The arguments and evidence discussed there do not need to be repeated in full. However, three brief comments should be made here.
(1) The external evidence is quite strong for 2 Corinthians, though not as strong as for 1 Corinthians. It is not quoted by Clement, but it is quoted by Polycarp, Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian. Further, it is listed in Marcion’s Apostolicon and the Muratorian Canon.
(2) Internally, using 1 Corinthians as a benchmark of authenticity, this epistle easily passes the test. The literary style and form of argumentation are the same.
(3) There is another significant piece of internal evidence which, though present in traces in 1 Corinthians, is found in spades here: “a pious imitator would be unlikely to portray Paul as an apostle in danger of losing his authority at Corinth or an apostle struggling to preserve the Corinthians from apostasy.”1
It may be helpful here to rehearse the contacts and correspondence between Paul and the Corinthians in toto.2
(1) Paul arrived in Corinth in the spring of 50 CE and stayed there one and one-half years (Acts 18:11).
(2) In the fall of 51 CE he sailed for Ephesus with Priscilla and Aquila. Priscilla and Aquila stayed in Ephesus while Paul returned to Antioch (Acts 18:18-22). While in Ephesus, Aquila and Priscilla met and trained Apollos, sending him back to Corinth to minister in Paul’s absence (Acts 18:24–19:1).
(3) A year later, in the summer/fall of 52 CE, Paul returned to Ephesus (after passing through the Phrygian-Galatian region) on his third missionary journey, and ministered there almost three years (Acts 20:31). Probably in the first year of his ministry in Ephesus, Paul wrote a letter to the Corinthians—a letter which is now lost (cf. 1 Cor 5:9).
(4) When Paul learned of other problems from Chloe (1 Cor 1:11) and the delegation of Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus (1 Cor 16:17), he wrote 1 Corinthians. This was probably in the second year of his ministry at Ephesus, in the spring of 54 CE (for reasons which will become evident below).
(5) He then visited the Corinthians in the summer/fall of 54, as he had indicated he would (1 Cor 16:6), but he was not able to spend the winter with them. Most likely, he was forewarned from Timothy that the Corinthians had not fully appreciated even his second letter (cf. 1 Cor 16:10). Hence, what was originally planned as a positive time ended up being Paul’s “painful visit” (2 Cor 2:1). It was painful because of a particular man who was acting immorally (2:5-11; cf. 7:12)—and was, indeed, creating doubts among the congregation about Paul’s apostolic authority. It was also painful because it was done in haste (he went directly to Corinth, bypassing Macedonia) and was much shorter than planned.
(6) After the painful visit, Paul returned to Ephesus (fall, 54). Because of his humiliation at Corinth, Paul wrote a “severe letter” (2 Cor 2:3-4; 7:8), which was apparently carried by Titus (cf. 2 Cor 7:5-8). We tentatively suggest a date of spring 55 for this severe letter.3
(7) Paul left Ephesus in the spring of 55 CE for Macedonia, probably Philippi (Acts 20:1). On the way he stopped at Troas, intending to meet Titus there on his way back from Corinth. But he could not find Titus and sailed for Macedonia without him (2 Cor 2:12-13), hoping to meet him there.
(8) Paul met Titus in Macedonia, learned from him that the Corinthians are getting straightened out (2 Cor 7:6-16), and while in Macedonia he writes 2 Corinthians. Most likely, it was written in the fall of 55 CE.
If this reconstruction is correct, Paul visited Corinth three times and wrote four letters to the Corinthians, the second and fourth of which have been preserved.
There are three possibilities for the identification of the “sorrowful/severe letter” (2 Cor 2:3-4; 7:8). First, it could be 1 Corinthians. Second, it might have become incorporated into 2 Corinthians (probably early in the second century). Third, it may be lost.
The evidence for this view is as follows: (1) No other interpretation existed in church history until comparatively recent times; (2) it is quite possible that the offenders of 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 2 are the same person, which would effectively equate the letter in 2 Cor 2:3-4 with 1 Corinthians; and (3) some argue that no letter the apostle ever wrote could have been lost or else inspiration/preservation is no longer true.
In response, it should be noted that in many respects the third argument has driven the other two. That is to say, once the possibility is accepted that Paul could have written letters which are now lost, there is no necessary reason for supposing that the severe letter is 1 Corinthians. We have argued elsewhere that inspiration does not at all guarantee that everything an apostle writes, nor everything that Jesus said, would be preserved.5 For example, in 2 Thess 3:17 Paul implies that he had written several letters, though the only canonical Pauline letters which antedate this are Galatians and 1 Thessalonians. Consequently, we need to examine afresh whether there is internal evidence for a letter between 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians—and if so, then the connection between 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 2 should be abandoned.
Perhaps the greatest evidence that the sorrowful letter was not 1 Corinthians is the high improbability that “the terms ‘great distress,’ ‘anguish of heart’ and ‘many tears’ could have described Paul’s state of mind when writing 1 Corinthians. The language suggests a time of intense emotional strain which does not appear very evident in that epistle.”6 Not only this, but “2 Corinthians 7:8 makes clear that the letter under review not only made the readers sorry but made the apostle regret ever sending it. It is difficult to believe that he had any such regrets over the sending of 1 Corinthians . . .”7
In light of this, the offender in 1 Corinthians 5 is most likely not the same as the offender in 2 Corinthians 2. This is corroborated by a careful exegesis of the two passages: the first offender sinned against the church (1 Cor 5:2); the second, against Paul (2 Cor 2:5, 10); the first was to suffer extreme discipline—resulting in his death (“deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” [1 Cor 5:5]),8 while the second who was apparently reprimanded by the church was now to be accepted back into the fold (2 Cor 2:6-7).
Perhaps the majority view today is that the sorrowful letter has been partially preserved in 2 Corinthians 10–13. There are three basic arguments for this. Essentially, however, this view entails a later editor piecing together the main portion of this sorrowful letter with Paul’s fourth letter (2 Cor 1–9).
(1) The tone changes dramatically between chs. 1–9 and 10–13. In the first half of the letter, Paul expresses relief over the changed attitude of the Corinthians, while in chs. 10–13 his attitude seems to change dramatically. He is defensive and scolding.
(2) The references to Paul’s visits between the two portions suggest a patchwork effort. Three couplets suggest that events described in chs. 10–13 as yet future are now referred to in the past in chs. 1–9.
(a) 10:6 with 2:9 (“once your obedience is complete”; “I wrote you to see if you would be obedient in everything”);
(b) 13:2 with 1:23 (“on my return I will not spare them”; “it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth”);
(c) 13:10 with 2:3 (“This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh”; “I wrote as I did so that when I came I should not be distressed”).
(3) The attitude towards self-commendation between the two halves is different. In chs. 1–9 Paul squelches any thought of self-commendation (3:1; 5:12)—and each time he does so with the implication that he had commended himself in writing before10; while in chs. 10–13 the main thrust of these four chapters is Paul’s self-commendation. This is a most compelling argument for the patchwork view.
In response, however, are a number of considerations.
(1) The change in tone is not as drastic as is often assumed. In the first nine chapters there are still hints of opposition to Paul (1:17-24; 2:17; 4:2-5; 5:12, 13). If these texts were laid side-by-side with even some of the strongest statements in chs. 10–13, one would be hard-pressed to see a difference in tone.
(2) The second argument can be dismissed because not only is it overly subtle, but the same themes of encouraging obedience and scolding in absence are found throughout Paul’s letters. In essence, all these references simply articulate Paul’s general principles of pastoral care as applied to his writing and personal ministries.
(3) The third argument is quite strong and cannot easily be overturned. However, there may be an indication that the self-commendation which Paul condemns in 3:1 and 5:12 is a self-condemnation via letters of commendation only. In 3:2-4 Paul explicitly states, “You yourselves are our letter of recommendation . . .” If 5:12 is picking up the same motif (though not explicitly),11 then what Paul is doing in chs. 10–13 is not necessarily the kind of self-commendation he refutes in 3:1 and 5:12. Nevertheless, the problem with this view is that self-commendation is the same as commendation by others (but can a person write his own letter of commendation?). In 3:1 Paul seems to make a distinction between the two.
There is another point to consider, however. Nowhere does Paul promise that he would not engage in self-commendation, just that in chs. 3 and 5 he is not there doing it. A number of circumstances could have led him to alter his course by the time he got to the end of the epistle (not the least of which is the possibility of more information coming from Corinth that the believers were waffling on Paul’s authority once again).12 Beyond this, however, are other considerations which may tip the scale in favor of unity.
(4) In 2 Cor 12:18 Paul refers to a visit by Titus to Corinth. But this visit could not be the same one in which he brought the severe letter, unless chs. 10–13 are not that letter. It has been suggested that the aorists here are epistolary, but as Guthrie rightly points out, “the question, ‘Titus did not exploit you, did he?’ cannot very intelligently be understood in this way.”13 This one piece of evidence, in fact, is so strong that by itself it virtually overturns all arguments on behalf of the patchwork theory.
(5) In 2 Cor 12:14 Paul says that he is about to make a third visit. In our reconstruction of the relationship between Paul and Corinth, this would be the visit mentioned in Acts 20:3 (which we argued earlier occurred shortly after Paul wrote this letter from Philippi). But if the patchwork theory were correct, this reference is wrong: Paul is about to make his second visit (viz., the “painful visit”).
(6) The patchwork view falls shipwreck on the rocks of textual criticism. No MSS, or patristic writers, of any kind even hint at two separate documents. What is most significant about this is that 46, which has recently been redated at c. 70s CE,14 has 2 Corinthians intact. If that dating is correct,15 the patchwork view cannot be true.
(7) Finally, related to the text-critical argument above: On the analogy of the “previous letter” mentioned in 1 Cor 5:9 being lost because of the embarrassment it caused both Paul and the Corinthians, why would his more severe letter be preserved? It is quite probable that the Corinthians did not circulate that previous letter to other churches. Instead, they probably filed it somewhere inaccessible. Would they somehow reverse their policy, or become more clumsy, with Paul’s stronger, more severe letter? And if so, who would have pieced it together with the canonical 2 Corinthians? And why? Unless some probable hypotheses surface, we must regard the patchwork view as highly suspect.
In conclusion, although the arguments for the patchwork view on the surface seem quite compelling, when all the data are taken into consideration this view has more problems than it solves.
If these other views are unsatisfactory, then the only alternative is that 2 Corinthians is a unity as it stands and the severe letter is now lost. Even though 2 Corinthians is digressive, this can be no more an argument against its unity than the digressive nature of 1 Corinthians is against that epistle’s unity.
In contrast with the self-interest of the false apostles is the self-effacement of Paul. As he both answers his critics and affirms his own apostleship, we see God’s glory shine through Paul’s sufferings. If there is in fact a theme verse it is 12:9: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”
Paul begins his second (canonical) letter to the Corinthians with a customary greeting (1:1-2), followed by a customary thanksgiving (1:3-11). But the thanksgiving this time is not for the church’s progress in the faith (as is usual in Paul’s salutations), but for God’s comfort of him in the midst of great hardships (1:3-11).
This note on God’s comfort in affliction is a natural bridge to the body of the epistle, for 2 Corinthians is supremely about God’s glory in the midst of suffering. There are three main sections to this epistle: (1) defense of Paul’s apostleship in the light of his critics’ charges (1:12–7:16), (2) exhortation of the Corinthians to give to the collection for the poor believers in Jerusalem (8:1–9:15), and (3) final affirmation of Paul’s apostolic authority (10:1–13:10). It will be seen that the first and third major sections are dealing with the same issue, though with a different tone (causing some scholars to argue that chapters 10–13 comprised a different letter, the “severe letter” [cf. 2:3-4; 7:8]). There are further differences: (1) in the first section Paul defends his altered plans to visit, while in the third section he again mentions his desire to visit; (2) the first section boasts of the Lord, while the third section boasts of Paul. In many ways this letter heats up toward the end, with the second section (dealing with the collection) functioning as a calm before the final storm!
First, Paul defends his apostleship in the light of his critics’ charges (1:12–7:16). In his defense, Paul uses two basic arguments: he defends his own conduct and character (1:12–2:13), then he discusses the nature of what a true apostleship really involves (2:14–7:16).
His critics were apparently charging that Paul was fickle, for he had altered his plans to visit the Corinthians (1:12–2:4). But Paul’s conscience is clear before God (1:12-14), for although he had planned a positive visit, one which would be a blessing to the Corinthians (1:15-22), he canceled his plans when it became obvious that such a visit would be another painful one (1:23–2:4, especially 2:1).
Paul’s critics may also have misunderstood (as the church certainly did) the apostle’s intentions, communicated in his “severe” letter (2:3-4, 9) regarding an offending brother (2:5-11). Paul now clears the air about him: forgiveness and restoration are in order (2:7-8). If the issue of the offending brother was not raised by his critics, at least there is a link with Paul’s non-visit, for both have caused grief (2:4-5).
Finally, the apostle mentions that he did not make contact with Titus in Troas (2:12-13) who would have informed Paul at the time about the Corinthian church. Although this seems an insignificant point, Titus plays a role in all three of the major sections of this epistle, serving as sort of a literary hinge.
For the rest of Paul’s defense, he focuses on the nature of a true apostleship (2:14–7:16). He begins by pointing out the grandeur of a genuine apostolic ministry (2:14–4:6), displaying evidence for it in the successful leading of the apostles by Christ (2:14-17) and the successful result of this ministry found in the lives of believers (who are a living letter of commendation) (3:1-3). The success of a true apostleship is due to the superiority of the new covenant (3:4-18) which far surpasses the glory of the old, giving light to those who believe (4:1-6), while the rest of the world still lives in darkness (4:4).
As glorious as this ministry is, the ministers of the new covenant themselves are equally frail (4:7–5:10). Paul thus skillfully contrasts the glory of the truth of grace with his own weakness, while his opponents no doubt held to a defective gospel though they themselves were strong. True ministers are mere clay vessels who have myriad trials (4:8-15), though they carry in their bodies the treasures of the gospel (4:7). They press on, knowing that their present afflictions do not compare to the eternal weight of glory which awaits them (4:6-18)—a fact which gives them a great deal of confidence in the face of death (5:1-10).
After outlining both the glory of the new covenant ministry, and the weakness of its ministers, Paul now is in a position to articulate more clearly what his message is (5:11–6:10), in essence: “Be reconciled to God” (5:16–6:2, especially 5:20). Such an appeal is truly based on the love of Christ (5:11-15), and its purity is seen by the hardships which Paul himself has suffered for the sake of the gospel (6:3-10).
The Corinthians not only should be reconciled to God; they also should be reconciled to Paul (6:11–7:4), by returning his affection (6:11-13; 7:2-4). And they should be reconciled to each other—that is, they should only be equally yoked with believers, for an unequal yoke can never produce a mutual response (6:14–7:1).
Paul concludes this second line of his defense with a positive note about meeting Titus in Macedonia (7:5-16), just as he concluded his first line about missing him in Troas (2:12-13).16
The second major section of the epistle is an appeal to give to the collection for poor believers in Jerusalem (8:1–9:15). This appeal seems to be wedged in here for one (or more) of three reasons: (1) it serves as a literary buffer zone between the two halves on Paul’s defense of his apostleship; (2) the defense of his apostleship is a necessary preface to his request for money (since otherwise he would be perceived by his critics as a peddler for profit); (3) regardless of how the Corinthians feel about him at the moment, there is still the business at hand which must be attended.17
Although Paul does not wish to command the Corinthians to give (8:8), he does show how important such an act is (8:1-15, especially 8:13). In his argument he uses both the example of the Macedonians—presumably especially the Philippians (8:1-5)—coupled with a reminder of how the Corinthians had performed in this duty in the past (8:6-15).
In the middle of this second major section is, once again, a statement about Titus (8:16–9:1-5). Titus’ character and desire are first commended (8:16-24)—perhaps as a preemptive strike against the critics’ attacks. Since Titus is coming, the Corinthians should be ready to give (9:1-5).
Having established the need to give, and the imminence of Titus’ coming to collect, Paul now can address the benefits of such giving (9:6-15)—benefits which are both for the giver himself (9:6-11) and are an offering of praise to God (9:12-15).
In the last major section Paul returns to the issue of his own apostolic authority (10:1–13:10)—this time, with a vengeance. Once again, he points out how God’s glory is displayed through his weakness (10:1-11; cf. 4:7-15)—a weakness which his opponents had been exploiting. The Corinthians had had a history of confusing true greatness with oratorical and physical power (cf. 10:3-4, 7 and 1 Cor 1:18–4:5). He then not-so-politely tells these “super apostles” to get out of his territory, for Corinth is his domain, assigned to him by God (10:12-18, especially v. 13). They have bragged about their accomplishments in Corinth, when they have really trespassed on Paul’s territory.
This leads to a counter-point in which the apostle finds himself fighting fire with fire—that is, foolish boasting with foolish boasting (11:1–12:13). He does this to vindicate his apostleship for the Corinthians who had apparently come to accept the self-commendation of Paul’s opponents as a good thing (cf. 11:18). It is evident that had the Corinthians been more mature, Paul would never have had to stoop to the level of his opponents in order to win back the church (cf. 11:5; 12:11). He first calls for their discernment as his labors vs. those of the “super apostles” (11:1-15). What is at stake is their pure devotion to Christ (11:3), since these “super apostles” are no apostles at all, but ministers of Satan (11:13-15; cf. 4-5).
Then he boasts (11:16–12:10). He boasts of his sufferings (11:16-33), which functions as a reminder that a true apostle suffers hardship (4:7-15). He also boasts about his own revelations (12:1-6),18 and the glory of God which shines through his own weaknesses (12:7-10), “for when I am weak, then I am strong” (12:10). Finally, as a coup de grce, he reminds the Corinthians of the signs of a true apostle: authenticating miracles (12:12-13).
Paul concludes this polemical defense by speaking of his plans for a third visit (12:14–13:10). Although he promises not to be a burden financially (12:14-18), he does expect the church to shape up spiritually (12:19–13:10). His fears about unrepentant sinners (12:19-21) lead him to warn of his own severe discipline of such people (13:1-4). Having established that he is truly an apostle—and can therefore exercise the most extreme discipline as a minister of a holy God (cf. 12:13; 1 Cor 5:5 and 11:30), the Corinthians should take this matter to heart and examine themselves before Paul ever arrives (13:5-10). Although they are professing believers, such profession is not, in every case, genuine (13:5). On this ominous note, the body of the epistle ends.
Paul concludes his letter with final exhortations and greetings (13:11-14).
I.. Salutation (1:1-11)
A. Greeting (1:1-2)
B. Thanksgiving for the Comfort of God in Affliction (1:3-11)
1. The Comfort of God (1:3-7)
2. Deliverance from Death (1:8-11)
II. Apologetic/Defense of Apostleship: Answering the Critics’ Charges (1:12–7:16)
A. The Defense of Paul’s Conduct (1:12–2:13)
1. Explanation of Altered Plans (1:12–2:4)
a. A Clear Conscience Claimed (1:12-14)
b. A Planned Profitable Visit (1:15-22)
c. A Canceled Painful Visit (1:23–2:4)
2. The Forgiveness of the Offending Brother (2:5-11)
3. Missing Titus in Troas (2:12-13)
B. The Nature of a True Apostleship (2:14–7:16)
1. The Glory of the Ministry (2:14–4:6)
a. The Triumph of Christ (2:14-17)
b. The Product of the Ministry (3:1-3)
c. The Superiority of the New Covenant (3:4-18)
d. The Light of the Gospel (4:1-6)
2. The Frailty of the Ministers (4:7–5:10)
a. Vessels of Clay: The Trials of the Ministers (4:7-15)
b. Unseen Glory: The Hope of the Ministers (4:16-18)
c. Earthly Tent: Confidence in the Face of Death (5:1-10)
3. The Message of Reconciliation (5:11–6:10)
a. Motivation: The Love of Christ (5:11-15)
b. Message: Be Reconciled to God (5:16–6:2)
c. Commendation: The Hardship of the Apostleship (6:3-10)
4. Paul’s Appeal to the Corinthians (6:11–7:4)
a. Mutual Affection Requested (6:11-13)
b. Equal Yoke (6:14–7:1)
c. Mutual Affection Repeated (7:2-4)
5. Meeting Titus in Macedonia (7:5-16)
III. Exhortation to Give: Collection for the Believers in Jerusalem (8:1–9:15)
A. The Necessity for Generosity (8:1-15)
1. The Example of the Macedonians (8:1-5)
2. The Exhortation to the Corinthians (8:6-15)
B. The Mission of Titus to Corinth (8:16–9:5)
1. The Commendation of Titus (8:16-24)
2. The Need for Readiness (9:1-5)
C. The Results of Generosity (9:6-15)
1. The Benefit to the Giver (9:6-11)
2. The Praise to God (9:12-15)
IV. Polemics: Affirmation of Apostolic Authority (10:1–13:10)
A. In Spite of an Unimpressive Appearance (10:1-11)
B. Invasion of False Apostles into Paul’s Territory (10:12-18)
C. Vindication of Authenticity of Paul’s Apostleship (11:1–12:13)
1. Justification of Paul’s Labors in Corinth (11:1-15)
2. The Bragging Rights of a True Apostle (11:16–12:10)
a. Boasting about Paul’s Sufferings (11:16-33)
b. Boasting about Paul’s Revelations (12:1-6)
c. Boasting about Paul’s Weaknesses (12:7-10)
d. Summary: The Proof of a True Apostle (12:11-13)
D. The Planned Third Visit (12:14–13:10)
1. Promise not to be a Burden (12:14-18)
2. Fears about the Unrepentant (12:19-21)
3. Warning of Discipline from Paul (13:1-4)
4. Expectation of Self-Examination (13:5-10)
V. Final Exhortation and Greetings (13:11-14)
2 All the dates mentioned here are somewhat flexible (by as much as a year or two), though I am in agreement with the majority of scholars, who date Paul’s initial visit to Corinth in 50 CE and the beginning of Gallio’s proconsulship in 51 CE. Further, the number of visits is complicated by several factors, including lack of data in Acts, change of plans in 1-2 Corinthians, etc. Our reconstruction is essentially that of R. P. Martin’s in his 2 Corinthians (WBC), xxxiv, with several notable differences.
3 If Paul arrived back in Ephesus in the fall, it would perhaps be too late for convenient travel if he were to dispatch Titus just before winter. Although the Mediterranean climate is quite mild, in the least it was not Paul’s practice to travel (especially by sea) during the winter months, nor, most likely, to send others on missions during this time.
4 It was during this winter stay in Corinth that Paul wrote Romans, most likely during the end of the stay after things had settled down in Corinth and Paul could resolve to move westward with the gospel.
7 Ibid. Significant corroborative evidence can also be found in the fact that 1 Corinthians is heavily quoted in patristic literature, showing that it was copied early on and frequently. Psychologically, there is excellent reason to suppose that a letter which both Paul and his audience regretted would hardly have such widespread appeal.
12 Against this, however, is the fact that there is no clue that Paul is responding to any letter or report in 10:1. If we can draw an analogy from his style in 1 Corinthians, this would be surprising if he were responding to a report.
16 Craig Blomberg, “The Structure of 2 Corinthians 1–7,” CTR 4 (1990) 3-20, sees a chiastic structure in the first seven chapters of 2 Corinthians (see especially 8–9). Although there are many intriguing parallels, especially the refrain about Titus, the chiasmus probably exists more in his mind than in Paul’s.
17 In many ways, the first seven chapters are dealing with the Corinthians’ subjective apprehension of Paul’s apostleship, while chapters 8–9 address the objective reality of the Jerusalem believers’ needs. Although overdrawn, this may be likened to a physician who hones his bedside manners because he has to perform surgery. In the least, we should recognize that Paul never neglected his sacred duty to the poor in Jerusalem—in spite of the great risk at which he put himself with some of his own churches.
18 Although in v. 5 Paul says that he “will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself,” he quickly adds that a thorn in his flesh was given to him “to keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations” (12:7, NIV).