Introducing the New Testament, 2nd Edition

A Historical, Literary, and Theological Survey

Materials available for professors by request only


15. 2 Corinthians


This chapter should enable the student to

  • summarize what modern scholarship has to say regarding the historical background for 2 Corinthians, including information about the city and church to which this letter was addressed, the possible date of its composition, and the circumstances that prompted Paul to write the letter.
  • identify the key critical issues involving the “integrity of 2 Corinthians” (that is, the question of whether the letter is a single work or a compilation of multiple letters) and summarize the views that modern scholars hold in this regard.
  • indicate what Paul says in this letter regarding the exercise of his ministry.
  • enumerate key principles of fund-raising that Paul offers in two chapters of 2 Corinthians devoted to the collection he is taking for Jerusalem.
  • describe Paul’s contest with the super-apostles in Corinth and explain Paul’s statements about apostolic authority and boasting against the background of that conflict.

Pedagogical Suggestions

1. Multiple Letter Theories

Evaluate the evidence for “multiple letter theories” posited for 2 Corinthians. Divide the class into two groups. Have half of the class open their text to box 15.2 and look carefully at the arguments for multiple letters in 2 Corinthians. What are the arguments? Now, read through the content of 2 Corinthians and identify the places scholars pinpoint as containing “abrupt changes” or disjointed content. Does the letter read more consistently given the proposed letter joints?

Have the other half of the class read and outline the content of 2 Corinthians. Ask them to look for the themes or images that recur through the letter. What do they find? How do they account for the “abrupt” changes or lack of transition in particular parts of the letter? Have students pair up and work in groups of four, two from each “side” of the room. The two “multiple letter theorists” will teach the two “integral” letter supporters; then have them switch, the integral letter supporters teach the theorists what they see in the letter and how the letter works. Is one position more convincing than the other? Is there more evidence on one side or the other?

After the class has had time to discuss in groups, bring the class back together to reflect on what they have seen in their small groups and what they have learned about working with ancient texts. Who has the burden of proof? Are there examples of manuscripts in which letters have been stitched together in patchwork fashion? Do other letters of Paul have a similar patchwork character?


Here is another theory students can “test” in the laboratory of the classroom. Are there multiple letters edited together in 2 Corinthians? To test this theory, students analyze the rhetorical unity of the text, as well as the thematic contents and structures, and weigh the evidence in discussion.

2. Unity of the Body

Read through 2 Corinthians and identify all of the language of shared unity. For example: “you are in our hearts, to die together and to live together” (7:3), “for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (5:21), “for I am confident about all of you, that my joy would be the joy of all of you” (2:3), and “by the generosity of your sharing with them and with all others, while they long for you and pray for you” (9:13–14). What do students notice about the levels and layers of unity and sharing Paul describes, points to, and exhorts in this letter? Having read 1 Corinthians, what might prompt Paul’s use of unity language? And, if Paul’s two main concerns in this letter are his own reconciliation with the Corinthians and the collection of funds from Gentile Christians for the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem to demonstrate God’s reconciling of all people, how does the language of unity function to support these two concerns?


Exercise 2 can provide further information for the debate in exercise 1. This approach invites students to work through the letter in relation to the theme of unity, combined with the rhetorical analysis students have learned—how certain themes may function to address various problems.

Discussion Prompts

  1. Identify examples of humility and weakness in 2 Corinthians. Do these examples recur throughout the entire letter? What is Paul’s understanding of “humility” and “weakness” and of their opposites “glory” and “power”? How do the themes of humility and weakness bind the entire composition together?
  2. Why does Paul refer to “boasting” in so much of this letter, and how does he apply the idea of boasting to so many different topics?
  3. Are there themes that connect 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians? Or do the letters treat very different situations?
  4. Reread 2 Corinthians 8–9, where Paul argues in support of a financial collection for the poor in Jerusalem. What does the collection symbolize or signify for Paul? How is this collection a “thank-you gift” from the Gentile Christian churches to the Jewish-Christian assemblies in Jerusalem? What did Jerusalem do for Corinth and why give a “thank-you gift”? Do we have similar kinds of economic packages today? Is there a situation today where such a collection or exchange between people of different ethnic backgrounds, or geographical backgrounds, would be appropriate? Is this a useful model in other spheres of modern life (the world bank, survivors of war atrocities or genocide, Nobel Peace prizes)?