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The book known as 2 Corinthians is one of the fourteen New Testament letters that have traditionally been attributed to Paul, the great early Christian missionary preacher. While the authorship of many of these letters has been debated by modern scholars, there is a nearly unanimous consensus that 2 Corinthians was written by Paul. However, it was probably not written in the same form in which it appears today. Most scholars agree that 2 Corinthians is a combination of several letters written by Paul to the community of Christian believers in the Greek city of Corinth. These letters would have been written at intervals of several months.
Following the sending of 1 Corinthians, Paul’s disciple, Timothy, visited Corinth, and discovered that the situation there had not improved (Acts 19:21–22). Responding to this emergency, Paul paid an immediate visit to Corinth. He later refers to this visit as “painful” (2 Cor. 2:1). Apparently, an anonymous adversary publicly confronted Paul and undermined his authority. Whereas Paul had threatened to come to Corinth “with a stick” (1 Cor. 4:21), he was perceived on this later occasion as unimpressive and timid (2 Cor. 10:1). Leaving Corinth, Paul decided not to visit again until he had sent a letter “in much distress and anguish of the heart” (2 Cor. 2:4). It is possible that this letter has been lost. It is also possible that the letter was preserved and incorporated into the main body of 2 Corinthians as Chapters 10–13, an incongruous section whose shift in tone from the optimism of the preceding chapters is jarring, and which seems to rehash a controversy that has already been resolved. Soon after the Corinthians received this agonized letter, Titus, another disciple of Paul, visited Corinth, and found the community repentant as a result of Paul’s letter (2 Cor. 7:5–13). Returning to Paul in Macedonia, Titus brought the happy news. In the early fall of 57 a.d., rejoicing at the news of the Corinthian repentance, Paul then wrote the letter to the church at Corinth that became 2 Corinthians.
The letter that is 2 Corinthians begins with a long salutation and prayer of thanksgiving (1:1–11). Paul, writing with his disciple Timothy, thanks God for the encouragement he has received despite all the suffering he has recently undergone. The body of the letter begins with Paul’s assertion that his behavior, especially toward the Corinthian church, has been inspired by the grace of God. His decision not to visit the Corinthians, and instead to write them a chastising letter “in much distress and anguish of the heart,” is a decision made through God’s grace (2:4). The agonized letter is intended not “to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2:4). He demonstrates this love by urging the repentant community to show love and forgiveness to the unnamed adversary who shamed Paul on the occasion of his previous, unsuccessful visit.
Paul spends much of the body of the letter justifying his own apostolic calling. As an envoy of God, spreading the Gospel of God, Paul is empowered to speak “with great boldness” (3:12). Paul takes pride in his ministry. His pride and fearlessness persist despite the many hardships to which he has been subjected as an apostle. Guided by faith, Paul does not hesitate to devote his life to the benefit of his human flock. However oppressed the ministers of God may be, Paul remembers that “we have a building from God,” and that he will eventually be rewarded (5:1). Just as God will judge him justly, Paul asks the Corinthians to judge him justly: “We ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences” (5:11). Paul hopes to become “the righteousness of God,” charged with the spreading of the Gospel, and he urges the Corinthians to be attentive to this Gospel (5:21). He concludes the section on the importance and authenticity of his calling with a brilliant evocation of the paradoxical status of the oppressed minister of God.
Paul’s “heart is wide open” to the Corinthians, and he speaks honestly about his personal joy in his calling (6:11). He asks the Corinthians to reciprocally open their hearts, to treat him honestly, and to judge him fairly. After a brief interlude in which Paul pauses to warn the Corinthians against association with unbelievers, Paul continues with words of encouragement. Titus has told him of the Corinthian church’s positive response to the agonized letter of chastisement that Paul sent them. Through the distress they felt at receiving his letter, they were led to repentance. Paul is now confident in the Corinthian church, and as a result he makes a request of them. In Chapters 8–9, he speaks of taking up a collection to support the church in Jerusalem, and urges the Corinthians to give generously: “As you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking” (8:7).
It has been suggested that Chapters 10–13 are the remnants of the agonized letter that Paul earlier sent to the Corinthians. Certainly, these chapters represent an abrupt shift from the triumphant tone of reconciliation in Chapters 7–9: Chapters 10–13 are a vehement defense of Paul’s apostolic calling, and a strong repudiation of his critics. Paul speaks at length of the hardships he has undergone for the sake of his ministry: “I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death” (11:23). Paul asserts that he is not inferior in importance even to the “super-apostles,” the twelve original disciples appointed by Jesus. The favor of God is equally upon him, and he says that he has displayed “utmost patience, signs and wonders and mighty works” (12:12). Implicit is the idea that, since Paul is qualified as an apostle, the Corinthians should respect him and pay attention to his sermons. He is sending them this difficult letter, he tells them, “so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and not tearing down” (13:10). In conclusion, Paul wishes the Corinthians joy, communal harmony, and peace.