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2 Corinthians 10 - IVP New Testament Commentaries

Paul Tackles His Opponents:

Paul rarely identifies himself by name in the body of his letters (2 Cor 10:1; Gal 5:2; Eph 3:1; Col 1:23; 1 Thess 2:18; Philem 9 are the sole exceptions). When he does, it inevitably carries special significance. I, Paul, . . . beg you that when I come I may not have to be as bold as I expect to be (10:1-2). This rather startling comment at 10:1 marks the transition to the last of the letter's three major sections (1:1--7:16; 8:1--9:15; 10:1--13:13[14]). Indeed, so startling is Paul's statement, coming after his plea for the Corinthians' affection (chapter 6), his expressions of joy and confidence (chapter 7) and his fundraising appeal (chapters 8--9), that many today find it hard to believe that 1:1--9:15 and 10:1--13:13 originally coexisted in the same letter.

This is not the only difficulty. There are other aspects of chapters 10--13 that seem to be at odds with the rest of the letter. For one, Paul's remarks about his critics become much more pointed and strident. The "some" who peddle the word of God for profit (2:17) and carry letters of recommendation (3:1-3) are now called "false apostles," "deceitful workmen" and "[Satan's] servants" (11:13-15) who are out to enslave, exploit and slap the Corinthians in the face (11:20). Also, Paul's defense becomes much more impassioned: "What anyone else dares to boast about . . . I also dare to boast about" (11:21)--so much so that he admits to being out of his mind to talk as he is doing (11:23). Moreover, his tone is marked by biting sarcasm and scathing irony (for example, 11:19: "You gladly put up with fools since you are so wise!"). Indeed, translations average six exclamation points in rendering the Greek of chapters 10--12. Finally, Paul's attitude toward the Corinthians becomes threatening: "On my return," he warns, "I will not spare those who sinned earlier" (13:2). "Examine yourselves," he commands, "to see whether you are in the faith" (13:5; see the introduction).

A number of proposals have been put forward to account for this state of affairs. Some think that the explanation lay in Paul's frame of mind--that he penned chapters 10--13 after a bad night's sleep or that a lengthy dictation pause intervened. Others suppose that he received fresh news of an alarming character, prompting him to abruptly shift gears. Different audiences are sometimes proposed. Perhaps chapters 1--9 are addressed to the Corinthian congregation, while chapters 10--13 are directed at certain false apostles who have forced themselves into the congregation. Or maybe chapters 1--9 are intended for the majority who supported Paul (2:6), and chapters 10--13 are aimed at the minority who were still against him. It is even surmised that the abrupt shift is the result of Paul's habit of picking up the pen from his secretary and writing the final comments and greeting in his own hand (compare 1 Cor 16:21).

The difficulty, though, is that there are no contextual clues to alert the reader to a bad night's sleep, the receipt of disturbing news ("I hear that . . ."), a change of audience ("Now, to the rest of you . . .") or a change of writers ("I write this in my own hand"). This has led some to suggest that Paul intentionally reserved his criticism until he had regained the Corinthians' trust or that he first consolidated his apostolic authority and then exercised it. Yet the earlier chapters do not lack for criticism (in 3:1, for example, he says, "Do we need, like some people, letters of recommendation to you or from you?"). And Paul's authority is hardly a settled issue in the final chapters ("since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me," 13:3).

The real problem that requires explanation is the sudden intensity of approach and stridency of tone at 10:1. How probable from a pastoral standpoint would it be for Paul to begin the letter with praise ("Praise be to the God and Father . . ." 1:3) and conclude with a sharp warning ("Examine yourselves," 13:5)? There is no real parallel to this in his other letters.

Many today consider the integrity of chapters 1--13 a hopeless cause and have abandoned ship in favor of one of too alternatives. One alternative is that chapters 10--13 are to be identified with Paul's "severe letter," sent prior to chapters 1--9 to rebuke the church for its lack of support and to call for the punishment of the individual who had challenged and humiliated Paul on his last visit (see, for example, Plummer 1915:xxxvi; Héring 1967:xii). The second alternative is that 2 Corinthians 10--13 was written after chapters 1--9 in response to reports of new developments at Corinth (e.g., Barrett 1973, Bruce 1971, Furnish 1984, Martin 1986, M. J. Harris 1976).

However, the lack of any manuscript or patristic evidence to suggest that chapters 10--13 circulated independently of chapters 1--9 is a major drawback of both of these alternatives (see the introduction). Also, it is not as if abrupt changes of tone do not occur elsewhere in Paul's letters (for example, Phil 3:2). Even so, "I am glad I can have complete confidence in you" (7:16) and "Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith" (13:5) do seem unlikely bedfellows.

As is often the case in life, the explanation probably lies in a combination of factors. "I, Paul," suggests that Paul now writes alone and with some urgency. Timothy, who is associated with Paul in the writing of 2 Corinthians (1:1), may well have served as secretary. Paul could have dismissed him at the conclusion of 9:15, intending to add a personal greeting and letter closing at his leisure. Disturbing news about the Corinthian church may have come in the meantime, leading Paul to confront the Corinthians in the personal and direct fashion that characterizes these final four chapters. His haste to address the problem may account, at least in part, for the abruptness of approach and stridency of tone.

Formally, 10:1--13:13 acts as a body closing section. It is the second such section in 2 Corinthians. Chapter 7:3-16 functions in much the same way (see the commentary). The presence of too body closing sections in a single letter is not without parallel in Paul's letters. Romans (1:10-15; 15:14-33) and 1 Corinthians (4:14-21; 16:1-18) are too noteworthy examples. First Corinthians, in particular, provides a close structural parallel. The question is, why too in this letter?

A careful look at both sections shows that they complement and balance one another. Chapter 7 states why Paul is not writing ("I do not say this to condemn you," v. 3), spells out the relationship betoeen Paul and the Corinthians ("you have such a place in our hearts," v. 3) and provides expressions of confidence (vv. 4-16). Chapters 10--13, on the other hand, give Paul's explicit reason for writing ("This is why I write these things," 13:10) and announce his impending visit ("when I come," 10:2; "This will be my third visit to you," 13:1). In fact, what 7:3-16 lacks by way of Paul's future travel plans, 10:1--13:13 pursues with a vengeance (see the note on 7:3-16). The phrase "when I come" begins the section, and "this will be my third visit" concludes it. Sandwiched in betoeen are expressions urging responsibility and threats of what will happen if responsible behavior is not forthcoming. Paul does obliquely speak of his upcoming visit at 9:4 ("if any Macedonians come with me"), but it is only in chapters 10--13 that an explicit announcement is made and details are given. Indeed, it would be a breach of epistolary etiquette for Paul to have written without formally announcing an upcoming visit. So chapters 10--13 fulfill a necessary function, without which chapters 1--9 would be incomplete.

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