August 4, 2006

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

St. Paul: Still more letters to the Corinthians

Readers of St. Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians notice a difference in tone between the first nine chapters and the final four.

That’s because they were really two separate letters. Paul wrote the first one carefully during the winter of 54-55.

First, he again took aim at those who taught that Christians had to follow the law of Moses. He showed that the old covenant was insufficient, and cleverly attached the connotation of “old” to the figure of Moses.

Then he turned to some Christians in Corinth, who were repelled by the idea of a crucified savior, preferring “the Lord of glory.” Paul insisted on preaching the crucified Christ, saying that through his death—a deliberate sacrifice—Jesus demonstrated his love for humanity.

Paul then identified himself with Christ. He believed that he was destined to be executed, just as Christ was, and he thought of his sufferings as a prolongation of Christ’s sacrifice for humanity: “For while we live, we are always being given up to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be made visible in our mortal flesh” (2 Cor 4:10-11).

In the spring of 55, Titus took Paul’s letter to Corinth while Paul went to preach in Illyricum, probably modern Serbia. That’s where he was when Titus (or a messenger) returned with the news that Paul’s enemies in Corinth were still criticizing him for his uninspiring preaching. They also questioned Paul’s authority. Was he truly an Apostle?

That’s when Paul wrote chapters 10-13 of what we know as the Second Letter to the Corinthians. He was angry, and the letter shows it.

It is filled with sarcasm and irony. He had been forced to compare himself with his opponents, and he did so masterfully, writing about his sufferings and trials as he traveled from place to place. Speaking of himself in the third person, he also revealed visions that he had received.

He also wrote that, to keep him from being too elated by the revelations he received, he then received “a thorn in the flesh.”

What was this thorn? It seems doubtful that it could have been something physical because his constant travels demonstrated remarkable stamina.

Pauline scholar and author Father Jerome Murphy-O’Connor is convinced that the thorn was the opposition he continued to have within his communities. He wrote, in Paul: His Story, “None of his Churches measured up to his expectations. There was not a single community on which he could look with complacent pride. Despite the good things to be found in every Church, any tendency on Paul’s part to conceit, or even satisfaction, was immediately countered by evidence of some sort of dissent.”

In his letter, Paul again promised to visit Corinth. This time, he kept his promise. He returned to Corinth, where he spent the winter of 55-56.

He was already thinking about where he should go next. He decided that it should be Rome, and from there farther West.

But first he had some unfinished business to attend to in Jerusalem. †



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