Modern scholars generally agree that at least seven New Testament letters can be attributed with reasonable certainty to Paul. Through his letters, and through his biography in Acts, Paul has become the most developed character in the New Testament. He exists for us not just as a towering religious figure, but as a deeply human personality. The letters give a startlingly clear picture of Paul— in his anger, despair, and triumph—throughout the many difficulties and victories he encounters during his ministry. Of all the New Testament books, 2 Corinthians is probably the most intensely personal. It is Paul’s cry from the heart, a testimony to his devoted ministry to his communities of converts, but it is also revelatory of his human imperfections, his deep-seated insecurity and his quick temper.

Paul is a gifted correspondent. He has a talent for producing concise epigrams, such as “what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal” (4:18). He is also a great poet. As he demonstrates in 2 Corinthians, he can be both gentle and severe at the same time. At one point, he says, “I am overjoyed in all our affliction” (7:4); later, he says, “If I come again, I will not be resilient” (13:2). He can also be self-effacingly humble and expansively boastful in the same breath, making comments such as, “I am not at all inferior to these super-apostles, even though I am nothing” (12:11).

In both 1 and 2 Corinthians, Paul spends a good deal of time rehearsing his qualifications for ministry and the extent of his martyrdom. Paul frequently seems insecure, perhaps as a result of the loose hierarchy of the early church. Paul may consider himself the equal of the “super-apostles,” the twelve disciples appointed by Jesus himself as the heads of the church, but the fact remains that he is not one of the original apostles. Paul develops the term “super-apostle” to account for calling himself simply an “apostle,” a title to which his claim was not well established. Paul believes that his epiphany on the road to Damascus in Acts 9 is as important a personal encounter with Jesus as any revelation experienced by the original Twelve Apostles. At one point, Paul’s ministry is contrasted with that of Peter, the greatest of the original Twelve Apostles—a moment that could not have been comfortable for Paul (1 Cor. 1:12). Paul’s dedication throughout the Corinthian correspondence to proving his equality with the “super-apostles” may well be a response to the implicit challenge to his apostolic station.