Lesson 4 of 5
In Progress

Introductory Issues in 2 Corinthians

Authority of Paul as an apostle

Part of the critique that Paul is responding to in 2 Corinthians is that he is an authoritarian, especially in his letters. Paul certainly expects his letters to be received with as much deference and obedience as his presence would inspire. In this way, his letters are an extension of his apostolic authority. In 2 Corinthians 10:8 and 13:10, Paul explicitly defends his use of authority on the basis of the fact that it comes from the Lord. Furthermore, he says, he uses that authority for building up the Corinthians rather than tearing them down.


Paul speaks of boasting in nearly every chapter of 2 Corinthians. In his day as well as ours, boasting would be a dangerous rhetorical move in public speaking since one’s audience may be distanced by proud statements of one’s success. Paul is in the difficult position, however, of needing to argue for his own authority and competence as an apostle while holding fast to his conviction that the one who boasts should “boast in the Lord” (see 1 Corinthians 1:31 and 2 Corinthians 10:17).

Paul resolves this tension three different ways in 2 Corinthians. Sometimes he boasts in the Corinthians, the church he founded, rather than himself (2 Corinthians 7:4, 14; 8:24). Sometimes he boasts in his own weakness, thereby bearing witness to Christ’s power within him to accomplish what he has accomplished (2 Corinthians 12:9). Sometimes he gives in and boasts about his own experiences, but when he does, he admits that he is “speaking as a fool” (2 Corinthians 11:21).

Integrity of 2 Corinthians

Most New Testament scholars believe that the letter we know as 2 Corinthians is actually a blend of two or more fragments of letters that Paul wrote to the church at Corinth. Chapters 8 and 9 are oddly repetitive if they were originally part of the same letter, and they seem to say different things about the status of the Macedonians’ collection. Paul’s angry tone as he defends his ministry is very different from the pleading tone of his appeal for affection. The early central theme of God reconciling the world to God’s self and entrusting Paul and others with a ministry of reconciliation is not mentioned or alluded to in 2 Corinthians 8-13. The letter of 2 Corinthians as we have it is probably a patchwork of multiple letters. Even so, no consensus exists either about how many letters may be represented or where precisely the one fragment ends and another begins.

“Letter of Tears” 

In 2 Corinthians 2:4, Paul refers to a letter he wrote “out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.” This letter, which was likely written between 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians and after a visit from Paul, is lost to us. Whatever it contained, Paul wants the Corinthians to know that his motives for sending the letter were honorable, even if the letter caused pain also among its recipients.

New creation

The Greek text of 2 Corinthians 5:17a says only, “If anyone is in Christ, a new creation.” In other words, in Greek there is no subject and verb in the second half of the sentence. To fill in what is missing, some translations look to the subject and verb from the first half of the verse (“anyone is”), thus translating the second half, “he is a new creation” (see NIV, for instance). Other translations look to the second half of the verse for the subject and verb: in 2 Corinthians 5:17b, Paul writes, “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Taking a cue from Paul’s use of “everything,” these translations of 2 Corinthians 5:17a read, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation” (see NRSV, for instance). The second choice does a better job of making the point that no matter what those in Christ look at, they are able to see God making all things new. The idea is not that Christians are individually “new creations.” Rather, it is that Christians, by virtue of their being in Christ, regard everything from the perspective of God’s having made everything new in Christ.

Opponents of Paul in 2 Corinthians

We do not have sources beyond 2 Corinthians that describe the opponents Paul speaks of in this letter, so the evidence is thin for who these people were or what they taught. In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul’s comment about letters of recommendation leads to speculation that teachers had followed Paul’s departure and had arrived with such letters or had asked what Paul’s letters of recommendation had included. In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul compares his background to theirs, saying that like him, they were Jewish Christian teachers. We know almost nothing about their teaching. What we know about their practice, namely, that they were criticizing Paul and treating the Corinthians shabbily, we know only from Paul’s report.

Third heaven

As he talks about the extraordinary vision and revelation given to “someone,” Paul says he was transported to the third heaven and paradise. In Jewish and Christian writings of the time, “heaven” and “paradise” both describe a place above the earth where God reigns and where God’s people are safe from harm. Other New Testament writings also speak of layers of heaven or of “heavens” in the plural. (See, for example, Luke 21:26, Ephesians 4:10; Hebrews 1:10; 4:14.) As Revelation 2:7 describes “paradise,” it is a garden, comparable to the garden of Eden. Paul is claiming to have been granted a vision of this place while he was yet alive, on earth.

Thorn in the flesh

In 2 Corinthians 12:7, Paul speaks of a “thorn in the flesh” that effectively tempered his elation at having seen and heard life in heaven ahead of time. Paul does not explain anything about the reality to which he refers. The description, “in the flesh,” has led to speculation that Paul is referring to a physical ailment. Paul’s report that he appealed for relief from this “thorn” multiple times has led to further speculation that he is speaking of a chronic condition. Beyond these generalizations, however, we have no information about what exactly Paul is describing.