Placed in the NT immediately after Paul’s letter to the Romans. One commentator described the problems surrounding the two extant letters sent by Paul to his turbulent converts as ‘excessively dull to all except those who find that literary criticism offers the same kind of interest as a game of chess’. This is surely a very pessimistic view of correspondence which yields fascinating information about the complex social organization of a newly founded, racially mixed, Christian community in the heart of Hellenistic culture. The letters also give unequalled information about Paul himself: his pastoral sensitivity, his human emotions, his guidance on worship, and his clarification of his teaching in reply to the Corinthians’ questions.

Paul came from Athens to Corinth, a seaport with a mixed population, including former serving soldiers of the Roman army after its refounding as a colony in 46 BCE, towards the end of 49 CE at about the same time as Aquila and Priscilla arrived. He converted Crispus, the ruler of the synagogue, and remained in the city for about eighteen months. An accusation against Paul brought by the Jews was dismissed by Gallio (Acts 18: 16). Still, Paul decided to move on to Ephesus, leaving behind a Church of about 40 members (able to meet as a body in one house) of mixed social status.

Paul had persuaded the Corinthian Christians that the End was at hand, before they could expect to die. So he discouraged them from long-term plans and advised an ascetic way of life in the interval that remained; like them, he himself spoke in tongues. The pagan worship which surrounded them was meaningless, of no account; and the Christians’ worship at Corinth was vibrant. But the news that reached Ephesus was disquieting. Paul was unhappy to hear that the Corinthians were proud of their exciting spiritual gifts and the special knowledge (gnosis) which they claimed to enjoy. He therefore wrote a letter to Corinth, sometimes called ‘the previous letter’ referred to at 1 Cor. 5: 9, (and consisting in part, according to one suggestion, of 2 Cor. 6–7: 11, which has been mistakenly attached out of its original context) warning them to be cautious about contacts with unbelievers, and mentioning resurrection of the dead, which seemed to imply that some at least would be dead before the End. Evidently this letter came as something of a shock to the Corinthians. They felt that their apostle had changed his views. The Church split into factions, under the banners of Paul, of Peter, and of Apollos, who had also visited Corinth. (Indeed Apollos may even have written a letter to Corinth which is preserved in the NT as the epistle to the Hebrews.) The divided Church at Corinth sent further information to Paul partly in writing and partly by word of mouth. There were questions requiring his answers, and there were tart comments on the Corinthian situation by those who carried the letters.

Paul replied in 1 Corinthians, though he dispatched Timothy to Corinth before it was finished. The letter deals with the enquiries about sexual relationships (1 Cor. 7), food sacrificed to idols (8–10), worship (11–14), and the resurrection of the dead (15). Finally he invites them to contribute to his collection for Jerusalem (16). Paul charges the Corinthians not to be satisfied with merely human wisdom (2: 5), and expounds a theology of the cross (as in Rom. 5: 6–11). The fundamental conviction of the central section of the epistle is the urgency to build up all who belong to the body of Christ; every gift they have is to be controlled by love—advice needed by leaders of a Church excessively proud of their spiritual gifts, and claiming an authority to eat regardless of the scruples of some fellow-members (6: 12). There were even some who did not regard physical actions as subject to moral restraint (19: 23). Paul deplores claims which flew in the face of human imperfections (4: 8–15; 13: 8–13).

Timothy rejoined Paul and reported that hostility to Paul had actually increased, seemingly by an intrusion of new and Judaizing opponents (11: 22), which obliged Paul to emphasize his apostolic credentials (2 Cor. 2: 17). But 2 Corinthians is remarkable for portraying Paul as working with a team—Timothy, Titus, Silvanus—and for the moving affirmation of the strength of superficial weakness. Paul himself paid a flying visit, and this too was unsuccessful. Back in Ephesus again he wrote a stern letter of rebuke; many scholars regard 2 Cor. 10–13 as this severe letter, which has somehow got attached to 2 Cor. 1–9 in the wrong place, as could easily have happened. At any rate, the letter, together with a visit paid by Titus, had better results (2 Cor. 7: 6), and when Paul got this news he sent 2 Cor. 1–9 with Titus (2 Cor. 8: 17), asking an over-zealous minority at Corinth who were unwilling to forgive a delinquent member to be more generous. Again, they were bidden to remember the poor in Jerusalem. Paul paid a third, and shorter, visit (Acts 20: 3), after which there is no information about the Church until 40 years later, when fresh quarrels provoked condemnation from the Church of Rome in the first epistle of Clement.