Though edited as two separate letters, the canonical letters of 1 and 2 Corinthians most likely consist of several shorter letters or notes written by Paul to the church at Corinth in the early 50s CE. Because of their length, content, and influence they rank among the major Pauline letters. Except for certain subsections, Pauline authorship is undisputed.
The Corinthian Church.
Not only do the letters contain reminiscences of his founding visit (1 Cor. 1.14–16; 2.1–5; 2 Cor. 11.9; 12.12), but the narrative account in Acts also provides independent confirmation of certain details about the church's beginning (Acts 18.1–17). Especially valuable for dating the letters is the mention in Acts of Paul's appearance before Gallio (Acts 18.12–17), whose proconsulship is reliably dated ca. 51–53 CE on the basis of an inscription discovered in 1905 at Delphi. Accordingly, Paul's founding visit, which lasted eighteen months (Acts 18.11), could have occurred as early as 50–51 CE during his ministry in the Aegean. After Paul's departure from Corinth, he remained in continual contact with the church, even though he was engaged in a mission in Ephesus, from which he wrote 1 Corinthians and at least part of 2 Corinthians (1 Cor. 16.8, 19; Acts 19.1–40; 2 Cor. 1.8; 7.6, 13). The letters reflect at least two different stages in Paul's relationship to the church after his founding visit.
In the first stage, Paul responds to the needs and questions of a fledgling church experiencing internal tensions (1 Cor. 1.10–13; 3.3; 11.18–19) and trying to work out the implications of Paul's gospel in a heterogenous setting. The relationship between Paul and the church is still, for the most part, amicable, even though his departure and absence seem to have diminished the church's loyalty to him. In the second stage, Paul's relationship with the church is severely strained, primarily because of the arrival in the church of outside teachers whom Paul regards as opponents of his gospel. He now has to deal with issues relating to the source, nature, legitimacy, and extent of his apostolic authority. Generally, 1 Corinthians relates to the first period, whereas 2 Corinthians relates to the second.
A letter preceded the writing of 1 Corinthians (1 Cor. 5.9, 11). This letter may be preserved in 2 Corinthians 6.14–7.1, a self‐contained literary unit that calls for Christians to keep their distance from non‐Christians.
1 Corinthians addresses a church divided not so much by doctrinal differences as by personal loyalties to different religious teachers and by interpersonal tensions (1 Cor. 1.10–13; 3.3; 11.18–19). Some in the church were self‐confident, indeed arrogant (4.19; 5.2), probably because they claimed special knowledge and spiritual wisdom (3.18; 8.1–2). Whether this outlook is “gnostic” in the nontechnical sense that it merely placed an unusually high premium on “knowledge” (gnōsis) and “wisdom” (sophia) or in the more technical sense that it stemmed from a system of thought resembling second‐century gnosticism is a matter of ongoing debate. In any case, such a claim to spiritual superiority grounded in a higher wisdom seems to be a common denominator of several problems addressed in the letter: the fragmentation beginning to appear within the church (1.10–13), the sense of perfection some were claiming to have achieved (4.8), a blasé attitude toward sexual immorality (5.1–2), a refusal to be conciliatory in dealing with internal disputes (6.1–8), an insistence on individual freedom (6.12; 10.23–30), an expressed preference for celibacy over marriage (chap. 7), an inability, or refusal, to consider the needs of weaker Christians in deciding how to behave (chaps. 8–10), an urge to be unconventional (11.2–16), a lack of sensitivity to the needs of others within worship (11.17–34), and an insistence on the superiority of the more visible gifts, most notably speaking in tongues (chaps. 12–14; See Glossolalia). Whether there is one group within the church whose theological outlook and ethic are the underlying problem or whether there are actually several groups with different theological outlooks and ethics it is difficult to say. But it is clear that the church is faced with an almost bewildering variety of pressing questions on which it needs further instruction.
Structure and content.
The letter exhibits three clear divisions: chaps. 1–4, 5–6, and 7–16.
The first section, introduced by Paul's characteristic greeting and opening prayer of thanksgiving (1 Cor. 1.1–9), is a formally constructed Pauline exhortation. It opens with an exhortation to unity (1.10–17) and closes with an exhortation to heed Paul's teaching, follow his example, and listen to his messenger Timothy (4.14–21). Within this exhortation, Paul articulates his theology of the cross as a message of divine power and wisdom (1.18–2.5), expounds the nature of the higher wisdom reserved for the mature (2.6–16), and delineates his own role and that of Apollos as God's ministers (3.1–4.13). Throughout this first section, Paul insists on the radical priority of God and thereby undercuts the arrogant self‐sufficiency that he sees within the church (1.18–2.5; 3.9, 23).
In the second section (1 Cor. 5–6), Paul provides the church with what appears to be unsolicited instruction. Two questions are treated: how the congregation should deal with a case of blatant sexual immorality (5.1–13) and how the congregation should resolve disputes that have been taken before courts (6.1–11). Paul then provides further teachings on sexual morality (6.12–20).
In the third section (1 Cor. 7–16), Paul addresses a list of questions that the church had written to him (7.1). His first response concerns marriage (7.1–40). A second extended response is given to the question of eating meat offered to idols (chaps. 8–10). A third topic treated is congregational worship (11.2–34). Two issues are treated: the proper attire (veils) to be worn in worship (11.2–16), and the proper observance of the Lord's Supper (11.17–34). The Corinthians had also inquired about spiritual gifts (or persons), to which Paul devotes extended treatment (chaps. 12–14). The final major topic treated is the Resurrection (15.1–58), in which Christ's own resurrection is presented as the basis for the resurrection of Christians (15.12–58). A final question concerned the collection for the poor Christians in Jerusalem, about which Paul provides brief procedural instructions (16.1–4). This third major section is then concluded with miscellaneous exhortations and personal greetings (16.5–24).
Scattered references in 2 Corinthians suggest that after the writing of 1 Corinthians, the situations of both the church and Paul had changed dramatically. Their relationship became severely strained, and the resulting turbulence is mirrored within the letter itself, which is much more uneven than 1 Corinthians. Abrupt changes in style, tone, and content suggest several self‐contained sections (6.14–7.1; chaps. 8–9; chaps. 10–13; perhaps 2.14–6.13), which some scholars regard as separate letters written by Paul to the church throughout this second period, as well as, in some cases, earlier. Consequently, numerous theories of composition have been suggested for this letter. The relationship between the historical situation and the literary structure of 2 Corinthians is a major question in interpreting the letter.
Generally, the letter reflects a worsened situation that was directly related to the arrival of outside teachers within the church (2 Cor. 3.2; 10.2, 7–12; 11.4–6, 11–15; 12.11). So seriously was Paul alienated from the church that he made a “painful,” and apparently unsuccessful, visit from Ephesus to the Corinthian church (2.1, 5–8; 13.2). This was followed by a “severe letter” sent by Paul to the church (2.4, 9; 7.9, 12).
One widely accepted reconstruction regards 2 Corinthians 10–13 as the “severe letter,” written from Ephesus after the unsuccessful “painful” visit. Shortly thereafter, Paul was forced to leave Ephesus (1.8–11), and journeyed to Troas anxious about the letter's reception (2.12–13). Still unrelieved, he went to Macedonia, where he eventually learned from Titus that the letter had been well received (7.5–16). Buoyed by this good news, while still in Macedonia he wrote to the church a much more positive letter of reconciliation (1.1–6.13; 7.2–16; perhaps 6.14–7.1 and chaps. 8–9), in which one still hears echoes of the earlier controversy.
Regardless of the theory of composition one adopts, and the historical reconstruction into which it is fitted, the canonical letter of 2 Corinthians reflects different concerns from those mentioned in 1 Corinthians. Throughout the letter, Paul himself is the focus of controversy. Criticism of Paul, which was subdued in the first letter (1 Cor. 4.3–5; 9.3), is much more open and pronounced. He is accused of being vacillating and acting inconsistently (2 Cor. 1.17; 10.1), of being intimidating (2 Cor. 10.9), crude in speech (2 Cor. 10.10; 11.6), and calculating and manipulative (12.16). “Acting according to the flesh” (2 Cor. 10.2) may serve as the general rubric for several criticisms, pointing to what his critics believed to be a boorish life‐style unbecoming someone with apostolic status.
As criticisms of Paul's behavior are more explicit in 2 Corinthians, so are polemical references to his opponents, who are Christian missionaries (2 Cor. 11.4, 23, 33) of Jewish background (2 Cor. 11.22). Whether they originated in Palestine or the Dispersion is much debated and still unresolved, as is their relationship to the original apostolic circle, most notably Simon Peter. Because they had gained an entrance into the church, Paul viewed them as evil forces set on undermining his authority. The opponents appear not to have been judaizing teachers who insisted on circumcision as a prerequisite to salvation, as was the case in Galatia (Gal. 5.1–12). The issue may have been one of territorial infringement (2 Cor. 10.13–16), which threatened the success of Paul's collection for the Jerusalem poor (2 Cor. 11.7–11; 12.14). In any case, what emerges from the letter is a debate about apostolic legitimacy: whether true apostleship is more properly authenticated by dazzling signs, rhetorical ability, and displays of power (2 Cor. 12.1–7, 12), or by divine power experienced through suffering, weakness, and deprivation (2 Cor. 11.23–33; 12.8–10; 13.3–4).
Structure and content of the letter.
The canonical form of the letter can be divided into three sections: chaps. 1–7, 8–9, and 10–13. Each of these sections may be a composite of smaller letters or fragments of letters.
The first section (chaps. 1–7) is introduced by a Pauline greeting and opening prayer of blessing (2 Cor. 1.1–7). This is followed by recollections of mortal threats experienced in Ephesus (1.8–11) and a defense of his recent behavior toward the church and actions on their behalf, including the “painful visit” and writing the “severe letter” (2.13).
There follows an extended set of reflections on Paul's theology of ministry (2 Cor. 2.14–6.13). The tone is apologetic (2.17–3.3; 4.2–3), but what unfolds is a positive treatment of Paul's self‐understanding. Basic features include his theology of the new covenant of Christ as superior to the old, Mosaic covenant (3.4–18), a ministry illuminated by the light of the new creation (4.1–6), Paul's suffering as manifesting the death and life of Jesus (4.7–15), outward change and inward transformation grounded in a future hope (4.16–5.10), ministry compelled by the love of Christ (5.11–15), existence in Christ and the ministry of reconciliation (5.16–21), and working with God in the new age as servants embodying the paradox of power experienced through suffering (6.1–10).
This first section concludes with Paul's final appeal for the Corinthians to receive him affectionately (2 Cor. 6.11–13; 7.2–4). His recollections of the encouraging report received from Titus and the effects of the “severe letter” (7.5–16) echo sentiments expressed earlier (1.8–2.13). Also included in this section is an arguably parenthetical set of instructions urging the separation of believers from unbelievers (2 Cor. 6.14–7.1).
The second section (chaps. 8–9) consists of instructions concerning the collection, a program of relief for poor Christians in Jerusalem.
The third section (chaps. 10–13) is marked by a conspicuous change in tone and content. The pervasive mood of the section is apologetic, as Paul defends his apostolic commission against the charges of detractors (e.g., 2 Cor. 10.1–12). Prominent within this section is the “fool's speech” (11.1–12.13), in which Paul insists that he has been motivated to act toward the Corinthians out of genuine love (11.1–6), as seen in his willingness to forfeit financial support for their sake (11.7–11). After characterizing the opponents as fraudulent apostles (11.12–15) and the church as undiscriminating hearers (11.16–21), Paul engages in “foolish boasting” by listing his vicissitudes (11.16–33). His supreme boast is of a heavenly vision (12.1–10), from which he learned the paradox of gaining strength through weakness. He concludes his defense by insisting on the adequacy of his apostolic witness within the church (12.11–13). Toward the conclusion of this section, Paul discusses his future plans with respect to the Corinthian church (12.14–13.10) and closes with miscellaneous appeals and a benediction (13.11–14).
Naturally these letters have figured prominently as sources for understanding Paul's life and thought. Because of the variety of topics treated, they touch on almost every aspect of Pauline theology, ranging from his theology of the cross to his theology of ministry, even though some major Pauline themes, such as justification by faith, play only a minor role. While he provides concrete instructions about such matters as sexual morality, settling disputes, marriage, eating sacrificial meats, liturgical protocol, and the collection, they are intended for congregational praxis. To be sure, Pauline theology emerges in these letters, but it does so in the service of the congregation. Even in those sections in which he treats more broadly his theology of ministry, he does so in order to clarify the nature of his apostolic commission vis‐à‐vis a local church.
Specifically, they serve as valuable sources for reconstructing Pauline Christianity and especially Christianity at Corinth. Sociological analysis of the New Testament and efforts at constructive social history of early Christianity have found the Corinthian letters to be especially valuable as sources. (See Social Sciences and the Bible, article on Sociology of the New Testament.)
The Corinthian letters have also figured prominently in discussions about gnostic influence in the New Testament. Such passages as 2 Corinthians 1–4 and 2 Corinthians 12 have figured centrally in such discussions. Another debate in which these letters have played a central role is the identification of Paul's opponents and their relationship to early Christian heresies; in particular, the polemical section of 2 Corinthians 10–13 has received extensive attention. Because of the amount of space devoted to the collection (1 Cor. 16.1–4; 2 Cor. 8–9), these letters are a primary source for understanding this project.
Carl R. Holladay