The Best Scholarship on 2 Corinthians

As I am working my way (chronologically) through Paul’s letters, I just completed 2 Corinthians and have begun on Romans. Thus, it is time to share my thoughts on this very rich, but also very controversial epistle. Where to begin?


There are several satisfactory introductory essays or articles to allow one to ‘dip their toes’ into 2 Corinthians. I would recommend two things: Either Scott Hafemann’s ‘Letters to the Corinthians’ in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, or a short article by Gerald Borchert entitled ‘Introduction to 2 Corinthians’ in Review & Expositor (86.3; 1998 – available in PDF on ATLA if you use EBSCO).


Although 2 Corinthians is not as well served in terms of commentaries as the first canonical letter, there are still several very good ones.

In terms of short commentaries, I would suggest Linda Belleville’s volume in the IVPNT series. For a medium size one, Jan Lambrecht (Sacra Pagina), Scott Hafemann (NIV Application), or Ben Witherington (Socio-rhetorical). Each of these has its strengths. Lambrecht is good on dealing with a number of thorny exegetical passages and isn’t afraid to question ‘consensus’ views; also good on the letter’s theology. Hafemann’s is great especially for pastors and anyone who really wants to follow Paul’s train of thought in the letter. Witherington is great with…well, the sociology and rhetorical aspects of Paul’s writing.

Now, when it comes to the massive commentaries, I think nothing can outdo Murray Harris’ NIGTC volume. It is excellent across the board. If you had to buy one commentary, I would suggest this one. If you had money to buy two, I would say pick up Hafemann as well.

Theology of 2 Corinthians

As for the theological dynamics of this letter, several items come to mind. First, Tim Savage’s Power through Weakness – a published thesis that explores this central theme. Not too distant is Hafemann’s Suffering and Ministry in the Spirit – a piece that I have turned to time and time again for insight. And, one cannot ignore the 2nd volume of Fortress Press’s Pauline Theology that contains an important engagement between David Hay, Steven Kraftchick and Beverly Gaventa – a must read (especially Kraftchick).

Special Studies

Finally, special attention should be given to the edited volume (Bieringer) on the Corinthian Correspondence which contains a number of interesting essays:

Paul’s argument from the Old Testament and christology in 2 Cor 1-9: the salvation-history/restoration structure of Paul’s apologetic, by S Hafemann.

Dangerous boasting: Paul’s self-commendation in 2 Corinthians 10-13, by J Lambrecht.

Paul’s journey to paradise: some exegetical issues in 2 Cor 12,2-4, by M Thrall.

Paul’s use of Exodus in the Corinthian correspondence, by C Hickling.

Knowledge of Christ and knowledge of God in the Corinthian correspondence, by V Koperski.

Reconciliation and 2 Cor 5,18-21, by S Porter.

2 Cor 5,21: the interpretive key to Paul’s use of dikaiosynē theou?, by R Moore.

Final Thoughts

I found that there is still a lot of work to be done in 2 Corinthians and I hope to see more students engage in this letter. So much more attention is given to 1 Corinthians, I think because the background of the second letter is so elusive. But, let’s not give up learning! Also, though I think many have focused on 2 Corinthians 2-6 and 8-9, we could use more research on the other portions of the letter, especially chapters 1 and 10-13.

What kind of problems did the Roman Christians have?

I am currently studying Romans.  The questions of why Paul wrote the letter (the so-called ‘Romans Debate’) is still wide-open and scholarship is still far from generating a consensus view. There are, though a few very popular theories and one that is continually gaining steam is that the letter is audience-centered with special attention to the matter of the weak and strong (see 14-15). I think this approach has many merits as Paul (though not the founder of the church) knew a number of people there and addresses contingent issues (especially if you accept the literary stability of the whole letter).

Wedderburn has convinced many that a search for THE ONE purpose of Romans is doomed to fail. I agree. There are probably a number of reasons, but one could easily say the same about 1 Corinthians.

That Paul is expounding upon the gospel message he regularly preaches is pretty clear (especially from 3-8). The epistolary framework of the letter draws attention to some of Paul’s personal reasons (that involve himself directly): the hope to visit them and the wish to go to Spain (as well as the delivery of the collection).

A few scholars are hinting at the idea that Paul also needed to defend his apostleship (not as polemically as in 2 Corinthians, but there are some similarities). I point to Stanley Porter’s essay on ‘opponents in Rome’ in the collection Paul and his Opponents, where he explores the neglected possibility that Paul was reacting (possible pre-emptively) to opponents and had to defend his own integrity and apostleship in the process. This is not a new contribution, but Porter applies stricter methodology to the question and is more cautious. Actually, Moo’s commentary hints at Paul having to address Romans concerns based on hearing ‘rumors’ about him. For a more extreme position (that posits a more direct threat, see Stuhlmacher’s English version of his commentary, pp. 9-10; more recently Doug Campbell [Duke]). I am hesitant to jump on an oppositional bandwagon without solid evidence, but I do think Paul some of his statement’s in Romans have an unusually hostile tone (3.8). Stuhlmacher and others specifically point to 16.17: Romans 16:17, ‘I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. ‘ That they were aliens (foreigners) is suggested by Paul’s call to avoid them altogether. This adds a more urgent purpose to Romans, one I think needs to be more recognized.

The particular contribution I want to make is this: Did Paul know of particular moral problems in the church in Rome? Specifically, did he know of sexual problems? Perhaps it may have been that he could assume they would struggle with such common issues, but there may be reason to believe he wished to present his gospel as a way of addressing these problems (in addition to other problems as well). What is the evidence? First of all, in 1.18-32 he narrates a down-spiral of humanity that traded God out for a lie and worshipped human creations. But, the results of this idolatry was sexual deviances (1.26ff.).  That idolater are morally wicked was something the Romans would have agreed with.  Surely even any Jew would have been able to tell the same story.  But, what does Paul say to his Jewish interlocuter: if you know his will because you are instructed by the law (2.18), do you not teach against adultery and then commit it yourself (2.22)?  If, in fact, that was not the case, certainly Paul’s line of argumentation would fail!

And, 6.12: ‘Let not sin reign in your mortal bodies that you obey its lusts (epithumia)’ (cf. 7.8)

Paul’s rhetoric may be simply cautionary (preventative, rather than corrective), but consider his eschatological statements: such as  Romans 13.11: ‘it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first became believers.’  Is this about their moral behavior?  Consider the next verses (13.12-14): ‘The night is far gone, the day is near.  Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.  Let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkeness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy.  Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.’

Could such an imperatives be ‘generic paraenesis’?   Consider also that in ROmans 12.1-2 (the most well-known ethical imperative in Paul) he talks about renewal of the mind for the discernment of God’s will (12.2).  Here he uses the same language as in 2.18, but claiming that spiritual discernment does not come from the law, but from renewal by the Spirit.  Even here he might be claiming that the law can bring knowledge of sins, but not the power to overcome Sin’s seduction.  Only the gospel of Christ can destroy Sin’s power.  This reading would support seeing Romans as a type of protrepsis (as Aune argues) which encourages the readers to adopt a certain course of life (or ethos).

I welcome comments on this and I hope this generates some thought on the purpose of Romans.

Bockmuehl on NT Studies

I recently finished reading Markus Bockmuehl’s Seeing the Word – a book that wishes to ‘refocus’ New Testament study.  He surveys the state of the field and finds it bewilderingly fragmented, compartmentalised, methodologically lost, and unclear about what it (the discipline) wishes to study and what it might accomplish.  He suggests that some new directions (such as canonical criticism) are illuminating, but not a centripedal force in the discipline.  He suggests two things: first, that we pay more attention to the reception history of the NT – especially to the period up to 150 AD.  Secondly, he encourages the guild to have a more direct interest in the implied readers of the texts.  These are his major points, but he also frequently makes note of the unity of the NT canon and how, in his opinion, it begs one to read it as a unified whole – even if the unification is sometimes elusive and very general.  His personification of the NT canon is at times a bit off-putting as if the guild will agree that the NT is a hoping and wishing entity.  Nevertheless, whenever a group is looking at a dismal future (as some may foresee NT studies), a prophetic message such as Bockmuehl’s will be welcomed by many.

Bockmuehl hopes, I suppose, for a coming together of scholars who can approach the text with more of a hermeneutic of trust (he does not use this terminology, but I think this is along the same lines).  I appreciate his desire, but I find it unrealistic.  There are some scholars who wish to engage in the academy for the end purpose of seeing the Word better and growing the church in maturity.  For these kinds of people (of whom I include myself) I say “amen” to Bockmuehl.  But, there are many scholars who probably once felt very excited about how ‘theology’ informs ‘faith’, but that flame is gone and they remain in the field because they find the text still interesting (but not the ‘Word’).  For this latter group, I presume they are not interested in consensus or a common cause in the pursuit of better understanding the NT texts.

I fear that Bockmuehl will mostly find cheers among evangelicals and conservative catholics (and a few ‘tweeners).  Perhaps I can be optimistic knowing that he is part of a new circle (who promote “theological interpretation”, whatever that means) such as Richard Hays, Walter Moberly, Francis Watson, Beverly Gaventa, Steven Fowl, and Joel Green who are respected in both Evangelicalism (maybe not Watson) and in the wider academy.

If you have not picked up this book – I suggest you at least borrow a copy.  Let me warn you – you will be ashamed of both how you do NT studies and what your methodological tells are.  Bockmuehl everywhere exposes the pathetic shortcuts scholars take in their research.  Be prepared for an academic audit.  Also, it is not an easy read.  He very casually spouts out idioms and references to scholars, books, movements, groups and methods that I have never heard of.  It seems his book, in one sense, is a closed conversation for those that know the history of interpretation of the NT quite well and a broad range of hermeneutical approaches and terms.  I turned to the internet for more information and ‘background’ on a number of occasions.  Yet, Bockmuehl is one of the most elegant (perhaps even magisterial) NT authors I know.  He is a model to scholars in NT.  His knowledge of scholarship past (both near past and far past) and present is outstanding and unmatched even by scholars decades older than him.  This book seems like something read aloud at SNTS to a response of thunderous applause and also some ‘humpfs’ and sneers.  All in all, it is not easy reading, but a book I think that will continue to resurface in the guild as conversations continue about where we are going in the discipline.

How we analyze ancient texts – are we letting the cart pull the horse?

Currently I am studying 2 Corinthians and particularly Paul’s temple language in 6.14-7.1.  Scholars have struggled over this ‘fragment’.  It contains an unusual number of hapax, it seems to use language about separation from (Gentile) unbelievers in a way we wouldn’t expect of Paul.  It does not seem to fit neatly into its literary context and further Paul’s argument about reconciliation and the nature of apostolic ministry.  So, many, if not most, scholars feel the need to do something with it.

For some, they see the hand of a Qumranist and somehow this Essenic fragment found its way into Paul’s letter (Fitzmyer; similar to Gnilka).  For others, it belongs to another of Paul’s letters.  Betz suggests that it is actually written by Paul’s opponents and some later redactor stitched it into the text for no clear reason; he labels this an ‘anti-Pauline’ fragment!

What does this say about how biblical scholars analyze ancient texts?  Well, first consider that we have found NO mss of 2 Corinthians that displace or omit 6.14-7.1.  So, decisions to excise this portion are purely ‘internal’.  Consider Bornkamm’s hypothesis that in the canonical 2 Corinthians we have parts of 5 different letters:

(1) Letter of defense – 2.14-6.13; 7.2-4

(2) Letter of tears – 10-13.10

(3) Letter of reconciliation  – 1-2.13; 7.5-16

(4) Letter of commendation for Titus et al – 8.1-24

(5) Letter concerning the collection – 9.1-15

(6) Redactor added 6.14-7.1 to letter # 1

(7) Redactor added 13.11-13 to letter # 3

Such fanciful divisions, hypotheses, and reconstructions are quite popular now, though few tend to go as far as Bornkamm (though some still do).   In an essay I am working on I came across a very important statement made by F.W. Wisse

“redactional theory that steps outside the bounds of textual evidence and minimizes the burden of proof is counter-productive and a hindrance to Pauline studies” ( ‘Textual Limits to Redactional Activity in the Pauline Corpus’ in Gospel Origins [ed. Goehring]: 178).

So, when we teach exegesis to our students, what is driving partition theories – textual proof, or what we think Paul was capable of saying and doing?

Think about it this way.  Is Paul capable of writing in a very complex and unique way that we must take for granted that we may not understand why he wrote in the style or with the particular vocabulary that he did?  When we force partitionary theories, we seem to be precluding this possibility.  Is it not strange that those who want to smooth out ‘letters’ in Paul by separating them into logical bits are actually looking for a rational and completely coherent Paul that always writes in a very intuitive fashion.  Isn’t this a bit lazy?

Is not the best practice to try and come up with a reasonable understanding of the flow of Paul’s thought as the text (based on external evidence) bears no clear signs of later redaction?

Is there the possibility that a redactor stitched together between 2 and 5 bits of different letters (and maybe added a bit in from someone or something else)?  Yes, it is a possibility.  But theories regarding alien insertion when no textual evidence supports them are tentative at best.  It seems to best way to approach this concern is as follows:

(1) Analyze the text as is and try to come up with a rhetorical scenario that can account for the flow of the text

(2) If this seems impossible (as in the transition to chapter 10 of 2 COrinthians), consider historical scenarios that can account for this without assuming redaction: So, Paul may have heard some distressing news between finishing chapter 9 and beginning chapter 10).

(3) Consider, but only tentatively, other options that involve later and non-Pauline redaction.

This seems, to me, like the best way of analyzing ancient texts.  There is a certain arrogance, I think, involved in the promotion of endless partition theories, because we assume that if (as modern westerners) cannot comprehend what Paul is saying and how he is saying it, then something is wrong with the text.  The assumption that we are smarter now than generations before or is called ‘chronological snobbery’ by C.S. Lewis.  I think that applies here.

I  hope that future discussions of passages like 6.14-7.1 will take place and what it is doing in 2 Corinthians.  But, I also hope that theories regarding where it was ‘originally’ or who ‘originally’ wrote it will remain tentative and the primary goal will be trying to understand  how it could be true to its context.  I hope that goal will not be seen as an ‘evangelical agenda’, but as good historical inquiry.