Paul, Chronology and the Unity of 2 Corinthians

Chronology for Paul and the Corinthians

(a paper given at Macquarie University Society for the Study of Early Christianity 9 August 2011)

It is generally agreed that Paul’s engagement with the church in Corinth was extensive and intensive, more so than with any Pauline congregation.  This short paper addresses the question of the chronology of Paul’s relationship with the church in Corinth and the related issue of the unity of Second Corinthians.[1]

Paul’s Letters and World History

There is only one direct linkage between Paul’s letters and world history:

At Damascus, the governor [ethnarch] under king Aretas, was guarding the city of Damascus in order to seize me (2 Cor. 11:32).

Aretas IV, king of the Nabateans died AD 41[2] so that we must date Paul’s presence in Damascus before AD 41.

This reminds us how dependent we are on the book of Acts in establishing any sense of sequence or dating for Paul.[3] It is only the Acts of the Apostles that gives us a sense sequence of Paul’s activities, including the order in which he established the churches identified in his letters – in Corinth, Galatia, Philippi, Thessalonica.  Without the Acts of the Apostles we have little idea about Paul’s life or his relationships with the churches to whom he writes.

The Author of Luke-Acts and Paul

Many, however, place no confidence in the Acts of the Apostles.  Crossan, for example, in his Birth of Christianity, has not one reference to the Acts in his index.[4] He observes that the first thirty years are ‘dark decades…cloaked in silence’.  These years are indeed very dark without the light cast on them by the book of Acts.

Let me say one or two things regarding Luke-Acts for its use to the historian.

First, there is the Prologue that is so similar to the prologues of other history-based works (e.g., Josephus’s Contra Apion) that we must regard the genre of this 2-volume work by classification as ‘history-based’.  It is, of course, an apologetic work, perhaps also a pastoral work but its matrix is sequential, beginning with the birth of the Baptist and concluding with Paul’s two-year imprisonment in Rome.  It connects with world history in the course of its narrative with references to Herod the king, Augustus, Tiberius, Herod the Tetrarch, Pontius Pilate, Caiaphas and Annas, Claudius, the great famine, Herod Agrippa I, Herod Agrippa II, Felix, Festus.  Furthermore, it anchors its unfolding story in geography – Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, Damascus, Caesarea, Antioch, etc.  Hengel is right in calling the author a ‘theological historian’.[5]

Second, as Sherwin-White pointed out, the diverse references to officials like the Politarchs in Thessalonica, the Asiarchs in Ephesus and the ‘First Man’ in Malta fit within the era before Roman policy had unified and homogenized the administrative bureaucracies within the provinces.[6] In case after case he finds that the ‘narrative agrees with the evidence of the earlier period’.[7] In summary, Sherwin-White states with regard to Acts that, ‘any attempt to reject its basic historicity even in matters of detail must now appear absurd.  Roman historians have long since taken it for granted’.[8] In short, according to this noted Roman historian, the Acts descriptions fit the era they narrate (i.e., 30s-60s) and not those of half a century later when some argue the Acts was written.

Third, the ‘we’ passages (which dominate from chapter 20 onwards) indicate that the author was himself part of the narrative.  The density of gratuitous detail especially in the journey from Philippi to Jerusalem (Acts 21) and from Jerusalem to Rome (Acts 27-28) is difficult to dismiss as merely ‘stylistic’.  What possible motive could there be for the easy to miss change from the third to the first person pronouns, except to signal that the one who wrote the prologue himself had became part of the unfolding story?  Hengel and Fitzmyer are amongst the weighty authorities who argue that the ‘we’ passages indicate the presence of the author in those chapters.[9]

This means the author had long periods of personal contact with Paul, in fact for those five or so years before the close of the Acts of the Apostles (in Rome in AD 62).  From this we reasonably conclude that Paul himself was the main source of the information about Paul that appears in the book of Acts.

In this regard we note also that the anonymous author was not far from Paul during the apostle’s Aegean ministry in Corinth and Ephesus.  During those years – approximately seven as we shall suggest – the author was in Macedonia (between Acts 16:10 and 20:6).  The first ‘we’-passage ends in Philippi in 50 and the next one begins in Philippi in 57 suggesting that the author was in Philippi throughout those years.  In short, he was within the orbit of Paul’s Aegean ministry with several opportunities to meet him, especially in Macedonia during AD 56.

Many scholars distinguish between Paul’s letters as ‘primary’ and Luke-Acts as ‘secondary’, observing that the latter is therefore an inferior if not questionable source.  This would be true if the author had little or no contact with Paul, but this is not the case.  Given the close and extensive relations between the two men it is better to regard Acts references to Paul on a higher plane, as a reliable source for Paul’s movements.

According to Hengel the author’s ‘account always remains within the limits of what was considered reliable by the standards of antiquity’.[10] If we ignore Acts (as Crossan does), or radically revise his narrative (as many do) we really are left without very little basis for reconstructing a chronology for Paul.

Chronology according to Luke-Acts

The author of Luke-Acts provides two invaluable pointers to the chronology of early Christianity:

(i)            The commencement of the ministry of John the Baptist in the fifteenth year of Tiberius, that is, in AD 28/9 (Luke 3:1).[11] The three-four year ministry of Jesus overlapped with John’s suggesting AD 33 as the date of the first Easter.  The alternative date is AD 30.

(ii)            According to the Gallio inscription in Delphi the Proconsul arrived in Corinth in AD 51 or 52 (Acts 18:12).[12] This dovetails with Acts 18:2 noting the presence in Corinth of Aquila and Priscilla ‘because Claudius had expelled all the Jews to leave Rome’.

According to Dio in AD 41 Claudius ‘did not drive them out’ but forbade the Jews ‘to hold meetings’ (History 60.6.6), whereas according to Suetonius he ‘expelled the Jews from Rome’ (Claudius 25.4).  The two actions are to be distinguished.

We depend on Orosius for dating the expulsion to AD 49, a date that is doubted by some, e.g., Murphy-O’Connor.[13] However, the conjunction of Aquila’s and Priscilla’s uncertain arrival date and Gallio’s known arrival date makes it likely that the two arrivals occurred with in a year or two of each other and that Paul’s arrival in Corinth occurred in between, that is, in AD 50.[14]

Chronology for Paul

Granted these critical markers – AD 33 for the ‘birth’ date of Christianity and AD 50 for Paul’s arrival in Corinth – we are able to plot Paul’s movements based on data within his letters.  Galatians 2:1 mentions that ‘fourteen years’ after the Damascus event[15] Paul visited Jerusalem whereupon the ‘pillar’ apostles agreed that Paul should ‘go to the Gentiles’.  Seventeen or so years lie between 33 and 50.  If we subtract the ‘fourteen years’ (Gal. 2:1) from the seventeen we have a period in which to locate the date of Paul’s conversion, his mission to Southern Galatia and his journey from Antioch to Corinth.

33                                         1st Easter

33 + 1    > 34                        Damascus Event

34 +14    > 47                        Jerusalem meeting

47 + 1.5 >  48                        1st Missionary Journey

49 + 1.5 >  50                        Arrival in Corinth

The dating of Paul’s conversion (a year after the first Easter), the time involved in the Galatian mission (one and a half years), and the journey from Antioch to Corinth (one and a half years[16]) are estimates.  If the first Easter is to be dated to AD 30 it would not materially affect the likelihood of Paul arriving in Corinth in AD 50 a year or so before Gallio’s arrival.

Paul’s Corinthian Years

What was the time span of Paul’s ‘Corinthian’ years?

According to the surviving letters there were three visits, although the Acts mentions only two.  Interspersed between the three visits were four letters (assuming Second Corinthians was a single letter – about which I will say more shortly).

Visit 1 Acts 18:1-18

Letter 1 (‘previous’) 1 Cor. 5:9

Letter 2 (First Corinthians)

Visit 2 (‘painful’) 2 Cor. 2:1

Letter 3 (‘tearful’) 2 Cor. 2:3-4; 7:8, 12; 10:8-11

Letter 4 (Second Corinthians)

Visit 3 Acts 20:2-3

The following information from Acts helps us work out the sequence and chronology:

Acts                                                                                    AD

18:11                  1.5 plus years in Corinth                  50-52

19:10; 20:31    2-3    years in Ephesus                      53-55

20:2-3               3   months in Corinth (‘Greece’)      56/57


Paul’s Decision to go to Jerusalem en route to Rome

Acts 19:21 Paul resolved to travel from Ephesus to Macedonia, Achaia, Jerusalem, then Rome (which he began to do according to Acts 20:1).

1 Cor. 16:3-9 Paul outlines this plan, without mentioning Rome.

2 Cor. 8:6 Paul had earlier despatched Titus to ‘start’ the Collection in Corinth.

Note: Claudius died in October 54 suggesting that Paul made his decision to go to Rome after that date.[17]

This suggests that Paul wrote First Corinthians in early 55.

2 Cor. 8:10 Titus commenced Collection a year earlier than writing 2 Corinthians.

This points to (say):

Late 54 Titus in Corinth to ‘start’ the Collection ahead of Paul’s arrival.

Early 55 Paul wrote 1 Cor. 16:1-9 answering questions about the Collection.

Note: The failed ‘painful’ visit and Paul’s decision to revert to his initial plan (Ephesus >Macedonia >Corinth) delayed his initial plan to arrive in Corinth (1 Cor. 16:5-8; Acts 19:21) by many months.

Late 55 Paul traveled Ephesus>Troas>Macedonia (2 Cor. 2:12-13; Acts 20:1).

Paul wrote Second Corinthians.[18]

Winter 56 Paul in Corinth.

Spring 57 Paul leaves for Jerusalem.

Expressed globally:

50-52              Paul established church in Corinth

52-55                 Paul in Ephesus

‘Previous’ letter

Titus’ visit to Corinth for the collection

First Corinthians

Timothy’s visit to Corinth

Paul’s ‘painful’ visit to Corinth

Paul’s ‘tearful’ letter

First Corinthians

Timothy’s visit to Corinth

Paul’s ‘painful’ visit to Corinth

Late 55                Paul’s journey via Troas to Macedonia

Paul traveling in Macedonia Paul wrote Second Corinthians

Winter 56             Paul in Corinth; wrote Romans.

The limitations to sea travel in winter (December-February) need to be factored into any consideration of Paul’s itinerary.[19] Paul’s decision to remain in Ephesus until Pentecost (1 Cor. 16:8) – a spring festival – was probably dictated by the restrictions on sea travel in the preceding (winter) months.  The non-arrival of Titus in Alexandria Troas and Paul’s departure from there to Macedonia (2 Cor. 2:12-13) may also have influenced by the approaching end of the sailing season – i.e., October-November.  I assume that the ‘three months’ Paul spent in ‘Greece’ occupied the winter, when the seas were closed to shipboard travel, after which the delegates could travel  (cf. Acts 28:11 – ‘After three months we set sail in a ship that had wintered in [Malta]…’).

During the ‘painful’ visit to Corinth Paul intimated a return to Corinth in the shorter term.  When back in Ephesus, however, he decided to revert to the original plan to come via Macedonia and to spend a rather longer time there, perhaps nine months.  During this period the gospel seems to have extended throughout Macedonia up to the borders of Illyricum (Rom. 15:19).

It is not clear the degree to which Paul himself was directly involved in such a Macedonia mission.  We know of others who were active in Macedonia apart from Paul, for example, Timothy and Erastus (Acts 19:22), the two unnamed ‘brothers’ who, with Titus, brought Second Corinthians to Corinth (2 Cor. 8:16-24; 9:3, 5), the Macedonians who accompanied Paul to Corinth (2 Cor. 9:4; Acts 20:4 – Sopater of Berea and the Thessalonians Aristarchus and Secundus).  And to these we must add the author of Acts who seems to have been based in Philippi, unless he is the unnamed brother who is ‘famous amongst the churches for his preaching of the gospel’ (2 Cor. 8:18).

Admittedly from this distance we are unable to be absolutely certain of the dates for Paul’s relationships with the Corinthians, but this reconstruction seems to be reasonable:  Paul began his Corinthian ministry in AD 50 and visited the Corinthians for the last time late 56/early in 57.  Between 50-52 and 56/57 he visited them once (55?) and wrote four letters (two of them lost).

This is not an eccentric opinion as it is rather similar to the chronology in major but diverse commentaries like by V.P. Furnish (Anchor Bible Commentary, 54-55); M.E. Thrall (ICC Commentary, 74-77); M. J. Harris (NIGTC Commentary, 64-66).[20]

The Question of the Unity of Second Corinthians

The chronology of Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians after the writing of First Corinthians is inextricably connected with the question of the unity of Second Corinthians.  If the partition theories asserting that Second Corinthians was reassembled from as many as seven shorter letters is correct it would complicate the chronology between Paul’s second and third visits.

Was our Second Corinthians always as we have it now or was it originally a number of letters that were later redacted as Second Corinthians?  Both views have their champions.

Second Corinthians is the most disjointed and jerky of Paul’s letters so that it is not difficult to understand that various partition theories that have arisen.[21] In 1776 J. S. Semler argued (in broad terms) that chapters 10-13 represented a separate letter[22], a view followed by many including C.K. Barrett.[23]

The most striking problem related to its literary integrity is the contrast in tone between chapters 7 and chapters 10-13.  In the former passage Paul rejoices that the conflict between the Corinthians and him over the ‘tearful’ letter has been resolved whereas in the latter passage the bitterly ironic words indicates that, if anything, things are even worse.

Many have followed Semler’s basic argument in one form or another, including those who have regarded chapters 10-13 as the ‘tearful’ letter, representing an earlier stage in the conflict.  Some who argue for the unity of the letter attribute the change of tone in chapters 10-13 to news recently to hand prompting that change,[24] or that Paul wrote different parts of the letter in different places as he travelled from Neapolis to Berea.[25]

Other scholars noting changes in content suggest that various sections were originally discrete fragments, including 2:14-7:4 (Paul’s new covenant ministry); 6:14-7:1 (his appeal, ‘Do not be unequally yoked…’); and chapters 8 and 9 which appear repetitious (his exhortation to complete the Collection).  Whereas the Semler hypothesis was relatively straightforward many subsequent theories that address the issues of content are more complex.  For example, Bornkamm proposed five original letters and Schmithals argued for no less than seven.[26]

A Recent Partition Theory

A recent advocate of partition theory is L.L. Welborn, An End to Enmity.  Paul and the Wrongdoer in Second Corinthians (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2011).  Welborn regards Second Corinthians as a later compilation of five genuine Pauline letters plus a non-Pauline interpolation (6:14-7:1).  In consequence he rearranges the sequence of the letters, beginning with 2 Corinthians 8 (encouraging the resumption of the Collection).  Inevitably Welborn establishes a different Sitz im Leben for each fragment and a new overall sequence and chronology.

Amongst Welborn’s arguments (set out in his Preface) are the following:

(a)            Chapters 10-13 represent the ‘tearful’ letter, written earlier than other ‘letters’.  He draws attention, for example, to 13:2b (‘If I come again I will not spare you’) as making better sense if written before 1:23 (‘It was to spare you that I refrained from coming again to Corinth’).  Comment: This fails to recognise (i) that 1:23 is Paul’s explanation why he wrote the ‘tearful’ letter instead of returning immediately as he had promised during the ‘painful’ visit, and (ii) that 13:2b is written to caution those who behaved so badly during the second visit when he would come for his delayed third visit (12:20-13:2a).  A minority remained in support of the wrongdoer and hostile to Paul despite the ‘majority’ who excluded him from the fellowship (2:6).

(b)            He argues that 7:15 (‘Titus…remembers the obedience of you all’) is at odds with 10:6 (‘[We]…being ready to punish every disobedience when your obedience is complete’).  In his view 10:6 belongs to the original ‘tearful’ letter, which Paul wrote earlier than the letter in which 7:15 occurs.  Comment: 10:6 expresses concern that some will remain disobedient when ‘your obedience is complete’, that is, the obedience that most likely he expects from the ‘majority’ (2:6).  In other words, Paul understood from Titus that a minority remain in support of the wrongdoer (implied by 2:6).  Paul is pleading not to be forced to drive out those who continue as disobedient to him (10:8; 13:10).  Paul may have overstated Titus’ reported confidence (7:15) as a positive platform from which to mount his appeal for the completion of the Collection.  Having encouraged the completion of the Collection (8-9) Paul then, ahead of his impending final visit, needs to deal with (i) the minority group that remains sarcastically hostile (10:9-10), (ii) the other group (Jewish members?) that has welcomed the ‘super apostles’ (10:12-11:6), and (iii) those who rebelled against Paul during the ‘painful’ visit (12:20-13:2a).

(c)            Following Johannes Weiss Welborn finds the argument that 2:14-7:4 is a digression between the ‘Macedonia’ references (2:12-13 and 7:5) as ‘unconvincing’.  Comment: This overlooks the fact that 2:14-7:1 is Paul’s sustained contrast between Paul’s ‘new covenant’ ministry and the peddlers’ ‘back-to-Moses’ ministry, something Paul will re-state later as the contrast between himself as ‘weak’ and a ‘fool’ and the Jewish intruders (‘super apostles…false-apostles)’ who are ‘strong’ and ‘wise’ (10:12-12:13).  Furthermore, it fails to recognise that 2:12-13 and 7:1 creates an inclusio within which Paul is contrasting the peddlers with himself.

Furthermore, 7:2-4 merely picks up elements in 6:11-14 to resume the line of thought following the exhortations in 6:14-7:1.  It is not denied that Paul’s organization of his material is clumsy but clumsiness is not necessarily an argument for partition theories.

(d)            Welborn thinks that because of repetitions chapters 8 and 9 were originally separate letters.  Comment: The opening words of chapter 9 can be translated (‘Now concerning ministry for the saints it is unnecessary for me to write to you for I know your readiness…’).  These words pick up his argument from 8:8-15 that had been interrupted by his commendation of the three bearers of the letter (8:16-24).  Many authorities argue for the unity of chapters 8 and 9.[27]

In response to Welborn my argument is that the resolution of the ‘wrong’ done to Paul (7:12) – about which Paul had written the ‘tearful’ letter – was only resolved by a ‘majority’ (2:6 – by vote?) leaving a ‘minority’ unhappy and hostile to Paul.  Thus although Titus made a fulsome report of the Corinthian ‘repentance’ a distinct group remained very critical of Paul (10:9-10 – irresolute in person, a bully by letter).  As well, there were others (or maybe the same group) who misbehaved during the ‘painful’ visit whom Paul cautions ahead of his upcoming and final visit (12:20-13:2).

In short, Welborn understands 7:10-16 as implying a ‘neat, clean and final’ resolution to the situation in Corinth whereas I regard the situation after the ‘tearful’ letter as only partially resolved, in a word ‘messy’.  In the real world of ecclesiastical politics resolutions are seldom ‘neat, clean and final’!

A Rhetorical Solution?

Some have defended the unity of the letter on rhetorical grounds.  That is to say, they have compared Second Corinthians with apologetic letters and political speeches from the era and concluded that Second Corinthians can be located in one or another class of literature from the period.[28] Thus, for example, we would be able to explain the problematic final chapters as a more or less typical peroration bringing a speech to a dramatic conclusion.  However, these final chapters are not so much a peroration to an existing speech as a cluster of new and separate topics that bring the letter to its conclusion.

The Problem an Edited Second Corinthians

There is, however, a significant problem with the partition theories.  Paul commenced and concluded his letters in more or less uniform ways, broadly following current epistolary conventions.  The partition theories require that the final redactor had removed various beginnings and endings of the constituent letters prior to reassembling them as Second Corinthians.  Apart from a large task for the copyist there would have been the theological issue involved in cutting away the words the apostle from that final redaction.  Editing, cutting and pasting are now instantaneous and we think nothing of removing or relocating words at the press of a button.  In NT times, however, editing and redacting was a laborious and expensive task and one that may have presented a moral difficulty in view of the respect for the apostolic text.

Dunn’s question is even more basic.[29]

My only problem is with envisaging the situation and motivation which caused some anonymous collector or editor to chop off the introductions and conclusions to each letter and simply to stick the torsos together in such an awkward way as to raise the questions which the various amalgamation  hypotheses are designed to resolve.  Why not retain them as complete letters?

Why indeed?


From the middle of the second century there are references to Paul’s ‘Second Letter to the Corinthians’,[30] though earlier (AD 110-140) Polycarp quotes extensively from the letter in Philippians without identifying it as ‘Second Corinthians’.[31] In P46 2 Corinthians 1:1-9:6 is missing but 9:7-13:14 is intact, suggesting that by ca 200 the letter was in the form that we have.

The second century quotes from and references to Second Corinthians do not resolve the unity versus partition theories.  Nonetheless, if the alleged separate letters were edited and reassembled it seems more likely this would have been done in Corinth within a generation or so of Paul’s final visit rather than elsewhere and later.  Against this hypothesis, however, is the question why it would have been thought necessary to do this.  As Dunn asks, why not retain them as complete letters?

Paul’s Circumstances

It is worth reflecting on Paul’s circumstances when he and Timothy came to write the letter.  Soon after Paul dispatched First Corinthians to Corinth Timothy brought news back from Corinth that caused the apostle himself to visit the city for what proved to be a ‘painful’ visit.  A Corinthian man ‘wronged’ Paul but the church failed to support the apostle.  On his return he wrote them his ‘tearful’ letter which he immediately regretted writing.  He was then faced with the city riot in Ephesus (2 Cor. 8-11; Acts 19:21-20:1) that forced him to travel to Troas where he had planned to meet Titus who, however, was not there (2:12-13).  He crossed over to Neapolis where, again, he was anxious at the non-appearance of Titus (7:5).  Eventually Titus did come, but with mostly bad news from Corinth.

Paul and Titus (and Timothy?) travelled ‘through…regions’ of Macedonia, including Philippi, Thessalonica and Berea giving [the churches] ‘much encouragement’ (Acts 20:2, 4a).  Most likely it was at the end of the journey in Macedonia that Paul and Timothy wrote Second Corinthians (Thessalonica or Berea), which they sent with Titus and the two noted ‘brothers’ (8:16-24).

News from Corinth

The news Titus brought from Corinth was mostly negative.  On one hand, a majority had at last disciplined the man who had ‘wronged’ Paul during the ‘painful’ visit (7:12).  Titus’ report implied that a minority remained in support of the offender and thus unmoved in their hostility towards Paul (2:6).

Titus reported a raft of criticisms of Paul’s ‘painful’ second visit and the ‘tearful’ letter: (a) he was insincere in promising to return immediately (1:15-2:1); (b) his personal presence in disciplinary matters is inconsequential, only in absentia by letter is he powerful (1:13; 2:1-4; 10:1-11); (c) in declining payment for ministry he is crafty and self-seeking (4:2a; 11:7-12; 12:14-18).

Furthermore, a group whom Paul confronted during the second visit over sexual misdemeanours remain unrepentant (12:20-13:3).

Worst of all, however, is Titus’s news of the coming to Corinth of rival Jewish preachers whose powerful presence threatened Paul’s relationships with the church (2:17).  He refers to them as ‘peddlers’ (to indicate the shoddiness of their message), as ‘super-apostles’ (to indicate their pretentious triumphalism – 11:5; 12:11) and as ‘false-apostles’ (to indicate the falsity of their teaching on Christology and ‘righteousness’ – 11:13; cf. 11:4, 15).

The Collection and the Unity of the Letter

Paul was locked into plans to depart from Corinth to bring money from churches in the four provinces to Jerusalem and to travel from there to Rome and beyond to Spain (Rom. 15:24, 2-28).  It was critical that Paul finalise the Collection that had recently been suspended in Corinth due to the ‘painful’ visit and the ‘tearful’ letter.

A measure of the priority Paul gave to the Collection can be discerned in the dispatch of the letter with Titus and two local high profile ‘brothers’ and the three Macedonians with Timothy who later accompanied Paul to Corinth (2 Cor. 8:16-9:5; Acts 20:2, 4).  This large contingent is evidence of Paul’s determination.

Once we have noted the importance to Paul of the Collection the remainder of the letter, which admittedly appears rather disjointed, begins to fall into place.  In order to finalise the Collection Paul must do two things.  Somehow Paul must (a) re-connect with the Corinthians for them to be reconciled to him (6:11-13), whilst at the same time (b) deflecting the Corinthians away from the spurious influence of the rival ministers (5:11-13; 10:12-12:13).

The letter is complex because the situation was complex.

1:12-2:13            Paul explains to his critics why he wrote the                                                                         ‘tearful’ letter instead of returning directly to Corinth.

It was to ‘spare’ them.

2:14-7:4            Paul defends his new covenant ministry against the                                                             claims of the triumphalist ‘peddlers’ who are urging a ‘back-to-Moses’ theology.

7:5-16                        Paul rejoices that the Corinthians (i.e., the ‘majority’ – 2:6)                                                                       have now supported him against the ‘wrongdoer’.

8:1-9:15            Paul encourages them to complete the Collection.

10:1-11            Paul responds to sarcastic criticism about the ‘painful’ visit and the ‘tearful’ letter, pleading not to have to employ  ‘destructive’ discipline when he comes.

10:12-12:13            Paul shows that he is a christo-formed apostle who                                                      preaches the true Jesus and that the [Jewish] ‘super apostles’  are dangerous ‘false-apostles’ who preach a ‘different gospel’.

12:14-19            Paul defends himself about money matters.

12:20-13:4            Paul warns the unrepentant about his determination to                                                 discipline the wayward from the second visit.

13:5-14            Paul calls on them, ‘Test yourselves…that Jesus Christ is in                                                 you’; and makes his farewell greetings.

The essential unity of the letter begins to emerge once we understand it as Paul’s strategy in fulfilling his objective to finalise the Collection.  Paul defends himself to the Corinthians in seeking their reconciliation with him whilst at the same time directing them away from the destructive influence of the newcomers.

Paul’s Pastoral Method

As noted, the strongest reason to think that Second Corinthians originally existed as fragments is the apparently contradictory difference in tone between chapters 7 and chapters 10-13.

Against this, however, we should recognise the pastoral approach Paul took in this difficult situation.  In 7:5-16 Paul seized upon the good news that Titus brought him about the repentance of the wrongdoer (7:12; 2:5-11) and warmly praised the Corinthians for that repentance for their further encouragement.  His expression of joy at their response appears calculated to reinforce their further positive response.  By analogy modern signage ‘thanks’ us for our ‘co-operation’ in (for example) not putting our feet on the train seats.  The words, ‘Your cooperation is appreciated’ serve as thanks in advance of an action they are seeking to reinforce.

The reconciliation of the Corinthians with Paul their father, for which he pleaded (6:11-13), is now a reality.  At least that is the surface meaning of the words in chapter 7.  Beneath that surface, however, by a rhetorical convention his words of praise were also an implied admonition to his children.[32] In reality, not all the Corinthians are reconciled to Paul, as later passages show (10:1-11; 12:20-13:4).

The location of Paul’s praise of the Corinthians within the letter is important.  It comes immediately before the crux of the letter, Paul’s appeal for the completion of the Collection. It was important for Paul to launch into this appeal from a positive base.  Paul was probably confident that the combined force of his written admonitions, the arrival of Titus and the two eminent brothers (9:3, 5) and his own arrival accompanied by three Macedonians and Timothy would be effective in achieving his objective in Corinth.

Bolstered by this confidence Paul could then address outstanding long-term issues in Corinth in chapters 10-13: (i) the sarcastic criticism about the failed ‘painful’ visit and the ‘tearful’ letter (10:1-11), and (ii) his policies about money (12:14-18).  Then he could proceed to portray himself as ‘weak’ and a ‘fool’ as a true ‘minister of righteousness’ to expose the newcomers as impressive (hyperlian – ‘extra-super’) in manner and ‘false’ in theology (11:1-15).  Paul understood that their presence and their doctrines were destructive to the Corinthians’ apprehension of the grace of God.

Understanding these pastoral considerations helps answer the Partition Argument.

Verbal Issues

Scattered throughout the various sections of the letters that were said to have originally been separate we find vocabulary that is either not found elsewhere in Paul’s letters or only rarely so.[33]

(a)            The verb ‘commend’ (3:1-2; 4:2; 6:4 and 10:18; 12:11).

(b)            Paul ‘speaking in Christ in the sight of God” (2:17 and 12:19).

(c)            Paul in a ‘ministry of righteousness’ and the rivals as spurious ‘ministers            of             righteousness’ (3:9; cf. 5:21 and 11:15).

(d)            The vocabulary of deception, craftiness and trickery (4:2 and 12:16).

(e)            The combination ‘I appeal…I beg’ (5:20 and 10:1-2).

(f)            The vocabulary of confidence (1:15; 3:4; 8:22 and 10:2).

(g)            Repetition of suffering language throughout the peristasis (suffering) passages (1:7-11; 4:8-10; 6:4-10 and 11:23-12:10).

In brief, we note that the above language which is not used by Paul in other letters, or rarely so, appears throughout this letter in chapters 1-9 and chapter 10-13, passages that many argue arose independently.  Of course, it could be pointed out that the supposedly separate letters may have been written at the same time (more or less) so that the verbal similarity argument is not decisive.  Yet the cumulative effect of the overlapping but unusual language throughout the letter remains a consideration, especially when combined with the pastoral observation noted above.


The apparent contradictions of tone and content within Second Corinthians have inspired many scholars over more than two centuries to find explanation in various partition theories.  In response, however, we should reflect on the practicalities of the redaction of the fragments into a consolidated epistle.  Not least we ask why the redactor didn’t smooth out the difficulties we continue to encounter within the text or simply leave the original letters as they were (so, Dunn).

In any discussion of the tone and content of the letter we should note (a) the trying circumstances that Paul had faced prior to his eventual meeting with Titus, (b) the (mostly) grim news Titus brought about the Corinthian response to the ‘tearful’ letter and their welcome to the new ministers, (c) the minority in Corinth still opposed to Paul after the restoration of the wrongdoer, and (d) the unexpected readiness of the Macedonian congregations in contributing to the Collection that Paul encountered as he travelled from Neapolis to Berea.

The major argument for the unity of the letter is to be found in the pastoral method Paul used to reinforce the Corinthians in the progress they had made in being reconciled to Paul (7:5-16).  Paul can spring from this to urge the completion of the Collection (8-9) whilst also being free to confront the Corinthians with remaining issues in chapters 10-13.  The distribution of rare words throughout the supposedly discrete sections of the letter contributes to the argument for the unity of Second Corinthians.


Based on Acts references to the expulsion of Jews from Italy and the arrival of Gallio we reasonably argue that Paul began his eighteen (plus) months visit to Corinth in AD 50.  Combining chronological references in Acts and Second Corinthians (considered as a single letter) we conclude that Paul wrote First Corinthians in early 55, travelled to Macedonia later in that year and arrived in Corinth for the winter of 56 prior to travelling to Jerusalem.

Paul Barnett

August, 2011.








[1]See P.W. Barnett, The Corinthian Question.  Why did the Church Oppose Paul? (Leicester: IVP/UK, 2011).  For a survey of opinion regarding overall Pauline chronology see R. Riesner, Paul’s Early Period (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998 ET), 3-28.

[2]D.F. Graf, ‘Aretas’, ABD 1, 373-375.

[3]An indirect linkage is Paul’s reference to ‘Christ crucified’ (Gal. 3:1), which we know from Tacitus occurred at the hands of Pontius Pilate, Prefect of Judea AD 26-36 (Annals, xv.44).

[4]J.D. Crossan, The Birth of Christianity.  Discovering What Happened Immediately After the Execution of Jesus (San Franciso: HarperCollins, 1998).

[5]M. Hengel, Acts and the History of Earliest Christianity (London: SCM, 1979 ET), 59.

[6]A.N. Sherwin-White, Roman Society and Roman Law in the New Testament (Oxford: OUP, 1963).

[7]Sherwin-White, Roman Society, 70 (my italics); cf. 76, 85, 101, 173, 174.

[8]Sherwin-White, Roman Society, 189.   Mommsen commented in similar vein: ‘The numerous small features – features not really necessary for the actual course of the action, and which fit so well there – are internal witnesses for his reliability’ (quoted in Riesner, Early Period, 326).

[9]Hengel, Acts, 66; J. Fitzmyer, Luke the Theologian: Aspects of his Teaching (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1989), 22.  For extended discussion on the ‘we’ passages see C.J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in its Hellenistic Setting WUNT 49 (Tübingen: Mohr, 1989), 312-334.

[10]Hengel, Acts, 61.

[11]H.E. Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 29-37.

[12]C. J. Hemer, ‘Observations on Pauline Chronology’ in D.A. Hagner and M.J. Harris, Pauline Studies (Exeter, Devon: Paternoster, 1980), 3-18.

[13]J. Murphy-O’Connor, St Paul’s Corinth (Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1983), 130-132 who points  out that Orosius depends on information for this dating on Josephus who, however, is silent on this.

[14]For detailed discussion see Hemer, Acts, 167-168; Riesner, Early Period, 157-201.

[15]This reasonably assumes that ‘after three years’ (Gal. 1:18) and ‘after fourteen years’ (Gal. 2:1) are each counted from the pivotal Damascus event and that part years are counted as full years, according to custom.

[16]For discussion of the length of this journey see Riesner, Early Period, 312-313.

[17]According to F.F. Bruce, New Testament History (Bristol: Oliphants, 1971), 283 Claudius’s expulsion of Jews from Rome became a ‘dead letter’ after the acclamation of Nero Caesar.

[18]Titus ‘started’ the Collection ‘a year ago’, that is, before the writing of Second Corinthians (2 Cor. 8:10).  Those words (apo perusi), however, can mean ‘in the previous calendar year’, that is, as much as almost two years earlier or as little as a few weeks earlier.

[19]Riesner, Early Period, 308-309.

[20]For a detailed argument for Paul’s movements AD 52-57 see Hemer, The Book of Acts, 256-270.

[21]For extended surveys of the literary integrity of Second Corinthians see Harris, Second Corinthians 8-51; I. Vegge, 2 Corinthians – a Letter about Reconciliation WUNT 239 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008), 12-34.

[22]To be more precise, Semler thought there were originally three letters: (a) chapters 1-8 + 13:11-13; (b) chapter 9; (c) chapter 10:1-13:10.

[23]A. Hausrath and J.H. Kennedy independently argued that chs 10-13 were the ‘tearful’ letter written prior to chs 1-9 (Vegge, 2 Corinthians 13-15).  C.K. Barrett regarded chapters 1-9 and chapters 10-13 as separate letters based respectively on Paul’s conflicts with the Corinthians (chapters 1-9) and the visitors (chapters10-13).

[24]D.A. Carson, D.J. Moo and L.L. Morris, An Introduction to the New Testament (Leicester: Apollos, 1999), 271-272.

[25]Harris, Second Corinthians, 50.

[26]Reviewed by Harris, Second Corinthians, 8-10.

[27]Including S.K. Stowers, ‘Peri men gar’ and the Integrity of 2 Corinthians 8 and 9’, NTS 32 (1980), 340-348.

[28]For a review of the hypotheses of F. Young and D.F. Ford, F.W. Danker, P. Marshall and S.N. Olson see Vegge, 2 Corinthians, 28-31.

[29]J.D.G. Dunn, Beginning from Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 835.

[30]Anti-Marcionite Prologues (in F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture, Glasgow: Chapter House, 1988, 141); Irenaeus, Against Heresies, 4.28.3; 5.3.1; Muratorian Canon ca 190 (in J. Stevenson, New Eusebius, London: S.P.C.K, 1960, 145-6.

[31]Polycarp, Philippians 11:3 (2 Cor. 4:14); 2:2 (2 Cor. 5:10); 6:2 (2 Cor. 5:10); 4:1 (2 Cor. 6:7?); 6:1 (2 Cor. 8:21).

[32]This is the argument in a brief but influential article by S.N. Olson, ‘Pauline Expressions of Confidence in his Addressees’, CBQ 47 (1985), 282-295, and is amplified throughout his monograph by I. Vegge, 2 Corinthians, passim.

[33]See P.W. Barnett, The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 19- 23.