The Corinthian Crisis

A Narrative Model v 0.21


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Paul's Corinthian correspondence was an important feature of his pastoral ministry to the church in Corinth. In addition to 1 and 2 Corinthians, which we still possess, Paul mentions that he also wrote two other letters to the church: a letter written before 1 Corinthians, known as the Previous Letter (1 Cor 5:9-10), and a letter written between the canonical letters, variously known as the Letter of Tears, the Painful Letter or the Severe Letter (2 Cor 2:3-4; 7:8-12). [1] In the Previous Letter, Paul tells us, he warned the church not to associate with anyone who claims to be a believer but who is sexually immoral. In his second letter, canonical 1 Corinthians he repeats and expands upon this warning, as he addresses the church's tolerance of a particularly egregious case among them; and he demands that the offender be severely disciplined (1 Cor 5:1-13). A serious crisis followed 1 Corinthians, which Paul addressed in his third letter, the Letter of Tears. The crisis was resolved when the church disciplined a certain offender, and Paul then wrote 2 Corinthians, announcing his imminent return to Corinth. However, his authority was being challenged by a rival mission; he calls them 'false apostles' and 'servants of Satan' (2 Cor 11:13-15). In 1 Corinthians announced a plan to visit Corinth late in the year (1 Cor 16:5-9), but in 2 Corinthians he outlines another plan to visit Corinth twice (1:15-16), and explains why he did not carry this plan through. At various points in this turbulent period Paul's envoys, Timothy and Titus, visited Corinth, and brought back reports and responses from the church. It is clear from 2 Cor 12:14 and 13:1-2 that Paul did visit Corinth again, at some point, after he founded the church. Interpreters must therefore ask whether this visit occurred between the canonical letters, and if so, how this visit relates the crisis? At various points in this turbulent period Paul's envoys, Timothy and Titus, visited Corinth, and they brought him reports and responses from the church. What, then, can be deduced about their involvement in the crisis and its resolution?

The letters each presuppose many other elements of the story of the apostle's relationship with the church, as well as the reports and responses he received, and any serious attempt to understand them, especially 2 Corinthians, depends upon an equally serious effort to reconstruct what can known of these narrative elements. For example, should the immoral person who was to be severely disciplined in 1 Corinthians to be identified with the offender who has been disciplined, and is now to be restored to fellowship, in 2 Corinthians (2:5-11; (cf. 7:8-12)? The Letter of Tears, and the church's response to it, is also a vital element in the story of 2 Corinthians (1:12-14; 5:11-13); thus the reconstruction of what can be deduced about its goals and content is a major concern of the present study. Such questions are unavoidable, and the conclusions that we reach constrain our reading of 2 Corinthians, and ultimately, whether or not we are able to read the letter as a coherent and unified communication [2] and to reconstruct Paul's theological reasoning. Most commentaries attempt this, with varying levels of detail, in their introductory sections, and there is generally further discussion in the verse-by-verse exegesis. Not only does our reading of the letter depend upon our reconstruction of the back-story of the letter, but our detailed, verse-by-verse exegesis constrains that reconstruction. Inevitably, then, the interpreter is involved in a hermeneutical spiral, where advances in one's understanding of certain details of the text may force reconsideration of certain elements of the reconstruction on which one's reading of the letter as a whole ultimately depends. Conversely, any change in the underlying reconstruction, for whatever reason, may force a reconsideration of details of the text; and the cycle may repeat many times, until convergence is achieved. Of course, such a process requires both a careful methodology and a great deal of patience!

Individual elements of the story of Paul's ministry to the Corinthians have been addressed in isolation, in articles and monographs (for example, the identity of the offender of 2 Corinthians and the nature of his offence, Paul's travels and travel plans, and those of his envoys, the identity of the false apostles, and the story of Paul's collection for the church in Jerusalem and its place in the development of the crisis). Such studies are very essential, since the issues are often very complex. However, these questions are interrelated and interdependent, so that firm conclusions can be reached only on the basis of an adequate narrative model and a careful exegesis of the whole letter.

Second Corinthians is unique among the New Testament letters, in that First Corinthians was written only months earlier, making possible, along with the data from Acts, the reconstruction of a surprisingly detailed account of the back story of the letter. The credibility of the reconstruction offered here, like that of its rivals, must ultimately be assessed by the illumination that it brings to the text of the letter



1. Paul founds the church in Corinth, with the assistance of Timothy and Silas (Acts 18:1-17; 2 Cor 1:19; probably 51-52 AD).
2. Apollos ministers in Corinth building on the foundation Paul has laid (Acts 18:27-28; 1 Cor 3:6; AD 53?).
3. Paul visits Corinth in passing through, en route to Western Macedonia and perhaps Illyricum (Rom 15:19; 2 Cor 12:14; 13:1). He learns that some members of the church are involved in sexual immorality (2 Cor 12:21). He leaves the community with a stern warning: he will return, and he will not again spare those who sinned, or the rest (2 Cor 13:2; AD 54?).
4. Paul writes to the church (the now lost Previous Letter), warning them not to associate with those who claim to be believers but who practise sexual immorality or other serious sin (1 Cor 5:9).
5. Two elite members, both capable orators, compete in the manner of sophists for the leadership of the church. The two men's followers form rival factions, and the church becomes bitterly divided (1 Cor 1:12; 3:4; 4:6).
6. Arrogantly disregarding Paul's warnings, some socially elite members continue their secular customs of dining in idol temples, banqueting, and using prostitutes. One of the faction leaders even marries his step-mother; this provokes his rival to enter unsuccessfully into litigation against him, perhaps over a dowry (1 Cor 4:18-6:20; 10:1-23). The incestuous man's legal victory enhances his status in the church community, and diminishes that of his rival.

Unaware of the seriousness of the developing situation in Corinth, Paul sends Timothy to the churches of Macedonia (Phil 2:19-23) and perhaps Illyricum, then on to Achaia (1 Cor 4:17; 16:10f). The apostle himself plans to winter in Ephesus , then sail direct to Corinth, where he will rejoin Timothy. From Corinth he will visit Macedonia before passing through Corinth again en route to Judea; 2 Cor 1:15-16).

8. Before he can leave Ephesus, Paul receives visitors from Corinth, and is brought up to date. They bring a letter from the church, asking his advice on various matters (1 Cor 7:1; cf. 8:1; 12:1; 16:1). He revises his travel plan: he will remain in Ephesus until Pentecost, and will go first to Macedonia, but he hopes to spend the winter in Corinth. He asks the church to facilitate the return to Ephesus of Timothy and 'the brothers' (1 Cor 16:10-11; cf. 2 Cor 1:23). He composes 1 Corinthians, and demands immediate and severe disciplinary action be taken against the incestuous man (1 Cor 5:1-13; probably AD 55).
9. The church rejects Paul’s demand for the disciplining of the incestuous man. However, they inform Timothy that they have prepared for Paul a substantial financial gift, and they request that he come directly to Corinth (2 Cor 1:23-2:2). Timothy returns to Paul in Ephesus and reports.
10. As Paul intercedes for the Corinthians, a particularly severe persecution falls upon him; most likely he is imprisoned in Ephesus. In great anguish he dictates a third letter, the now lost Letter of Tears (2:3-4; 7:8, 12), in which he compares the church with Israel and himself with Moses at Sinai (Exodus 32), and with Jeremiah facing false prophets (Jer 23:9-40). In the letter Paul discloses his situation of 'great affliction' (2:4), and includes statements to the following effect:
    I have made up my mind not to return to you bringing sorrow. For if I cause you sorrow, who will make me glad, if not the one who has been made sorrowful by me?’ (2:1-3)
‘When Israel worshiped the golden calf Moses punished the people and broke the stone tablets of the covenant.
But if I come to Corinth now, I will break my own heart.

‘You have chosen to test the Lord. Nevertheless I am standing with you as we are chastised, for you are in my heart, to die together and to live together.’ (7:3; cf. 1 Cor 10:22).
11. Titus is sent to Corinth with the letter, and Paul reassures him that he will be well received (7:14). Meanwhile the persecution intensifies, and for a time Paul becomes convinced that he will not survive (2 Cor 1:8-9); but by divine intervention he is delivered (2 Cor 1:10).
12. The Letter of Tears distresses the Corinthians exceedingly, so that they are brought to repentance. They expel the incestuous man from their community, disassociating themselves from his sin (7:7-11).
13. A rival mission arrives in Corinth. They present themselves to the church in the manner of competing sophists (10:12-13), claiming to be servants of Christ (11:23). After some delay, Titus leaves Corinth for Macedonia.
Paul travels to the Troad, where he expects to meet Titus, and begins mission work there. When Titus fails to return as expected, Paul, driven by overwhelming anxiety, crosses over to Macedonia to search for him (2:12-13).  In Macedonia Paul's anxiety is undiminished until he finds Titus there. He is then comforted, first by his coming and then by the pleasing report he brings from Corinth (7:5-15). However, the expulsion of the incestuous man and his rival's legal defeat have left the intruders in a dominant position, and they are challenging Paul directly for the leadership of the church. Titus reports that they have charged, in effect, that Paul is a charlatan, a changeable, cunning opportunist:
  In his letters he employs the sophistic arts in order to deceive his readers (1:12-14; cf. 4:2; 5:11; 6:8; 7:2a; 10:10; 12:16b). However, in person he looks like a slave, and his rhetorical delivery is contemptible (10:10)!
  He is subservient when face to face, but bold when at a safe distance (10:1; 11:7).
  If the dire warnings he gave in his letters were justified - which they deny, then his handling of the recent crisis was reckless; a true leader would have come immediately to Corinth and taken charge (1:17-24).
  Though he dares to compare himself with Moses, Paul shows no trace of Moses' splendour. (3:7-11; 6:9).
  He talks about his readiness to die a heroic death, but in reality he is tired of his miserable life (4:13-5:10).
  Paul intends to defraud the church by means of the collection (7:2; 12:16-18).
  Christ does not speak through him (13:3).
In response to these allegations and to prepare for his visit, Paul composes 2 Corinthians, probably in October, AD 55.










































[1] A few scholars still hold to the traditional view that in these verses Paul is referring to 1 Corinthians. I maintain, with the great majority, that this identification is untenable.

[2] I assume, without apology, that 1 and 2 Corinthians is are precisely what they claim to be: letters written by the apostle Paul to the church in Corinth, and not (as in the twentieth century most scholars supposed, and some still suppose) the product of  a later redaction of Paul's correspondence. One criterion of the success or failure of this study will be its attempt to demonstrate that such partition theories are unnecessary.