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The X-Letter in 2 Corinthians (a)

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Lost or Found?  

This article* shares the widely held view that we have two major letter fragments in 2 Corinthians, namely in chapters 1–9 and in 10–13.1 We observe that in the one (10–13) the apostle is in the midst of a major controversy with Corinth, and in the other (1–9) there has been a resolution of a conflict. It does not take us long to inquire whether 10–13 (designated H, for the Harsh Letter, in this web site) might be the earlier, and 1–9 (designated R, for the Letter of Reconciliation) might be the later one; i.e. the conflict would precede its resolution.

Now we have in R/1-9 (excluding of course 6:14–7:1) several references to an earlier letter in which Paul had sought to make clear his love for the Corinthians, had wished to determine their test-worthiness, obedience and zeal, and had intended to avoid making his next visit a painful one (in contrast to the second visit, when Paul had suffered some injustice from one of the Corinthians). Is this mysterious letter, which I have dubbed the X-Letter—also known as “the tearful letter”—to be found at least in part in H/10–13, or is it now lost? These alternative positions may be labeled X=H/10–13, and X=Lost.

If one proposes that H/10–13 is actually a major fragment of the X-Letter (perhaps the fuselage recovered from the wreckage), we would expect H/10–13 to be a good match with the X-Letter, reflecting the concerns of the X-Letter and also free from inconsistencies with the X-Letter. But if we should discover serious discrepancies between H/10–13 and what Paul remembers having written in the X-Letter, it seems that we would have to reject the identification of H/10–13 with the X-Letter and resort to the notion of X as a lost letter, which of course is the position we are calling X=Lost.

Where then would H/10–13 fit in? Should we place it later than R/1–9, as advocates of Semler’s hypothesis maintain (the reader may click on Semler)? If so, are we to assume a second cycle of controversy and resolution?2 The resulting order would then be: the X=Lost, R/1–9, and H/10–13. But in this case, what are we to make of the remarkable match between the X-Letter and H/10–13? 

For some time I have been dissatisfied with the arguments made for H/10–13 and the arguments for X=Lost.I believe we could make better progress toward solving the problem of the X-Letter if we were to use somewhat tighter controls on what we acknowledge as X-Letter material. Using such controls, I argue that H/10–13 is a substantial part of the X-Letter.

   *The article is the revision of a paper delivered at the Eastern Great Lakes Biblical Society, on April 6, 2000, in Cleveland; it appeared as, “The Enigma of the X-Letter [=H]  in 2 Corinthians,” Proceedings: Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies 20 (2000) 35-49.
  1The arguments for two letter fragments in 2 Corinthians are ably set forth in Victor Paul Furnish, II Corinthians [Anchor Bible 32A] (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1984) 35-7.
   2Or are we to assume an unexpected worsening of the situation? or inadequate reporting to Paul by Titus?
   3One may refer to my earlier paper, “Paul and Corinth: A Study in Sequences,” Proceedings: Eastern Great Lakes and Midwest Biblical Societies 6 (1986) 40-56, the substance of which is presented in revised form in Paul and Corinth (1) and in Paul and Corinth (2).

Reconstructing the X-Letter: The Text That We Are Able to Recover

Our only source for reconstructing the X-Letter is of course R/1-9, where we find some allusive and elusive references to this earlier letter. These retrospective references provide us with only a modest account of its purposes and results, and only hints of its contents. It is necessary to keep these limitations in mind, since proponents of X=Lost seem to know more about the X-Letter than the texts justify, and proponents of X=H/10–13 seem to concede more than they need to about the contents of the X-Letter. In particular, we shall check whether Paul really did announce the cancellation of a visit in the X-Letter, and whether in the X-Letter he did demand the punishment of the offender in the unhappy episode during his intermediate visit.

   2 Corinthians 2:3-4, 9  3And I wrote as I did [kai egrapsa touto auto], so that when I came, I might not suffer pain [hina mê elthôn lupên schô] from those who should have made me rejoice; for I am confident about all of you, that my joy would be the joy of all of you. 4For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain [egrapsa humin . . . ouch hina lupêthête], but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you. . . . 9I wrote for this reason: to test you [literally, that I might know of your dokimê or test-worthiness] and to know whether you are obedient [hupêkoos] in everything.
  2 Corinthians 7:8, 12  8For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it, for I see that I grieved you with that letter, though only briefly). . . . 12So although I wrote to you, it was not on account of the one who did the wrong, nor on account of the one who was wronged, but in order that your zeal for us [tên spoudên humôn tên huper hêmôn] might be made known to you before God.

Summary Observation: These texts out of R/1-9 mostly express the purposes of the X-Letter, but not surprisingly they say little about its contents, since of course the Corinthians already had a copy of the letter.

The Purposes of the X-Letter

One of the ways of testing the hypothesis that the X-Letter is preserved in H/10–13 is to determine the extent of agreements between them. The retrospective references to the X-Letter in R/1-9 are informative about its purposes, whether or not we learn much of its contents.

     1. Paul remembers that he wrote the X-Letter to communicate to the Corinthians his abundant love for them: “For I wrote you . . . to let you know the abundant love that I have for you” (2 Corinthians 2:4). Surprisingly, given the hard-hitting character of H/10–13, we learn that it is also a letter in which his love twice comes to vivid expression. In light of this dual character of H/10–13, with its tug-of-war between his demands for setting things right and his evident love for them, it would be natural for the tears to flow during its composition.

2 Corinthians 11:11  [Refraining from accepting financial support from the Corinthians, Paul asks,] And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!
2 Corinthians 12:15  I will most gladly spend and be spent for you. If I love you more, am I to be loved less? (Compare 2 Corinthians 12:19, “. . . Everything we do, beloved [agapêtoi],4 is for the sake of building you up.”)

4Cp. 1 Corinthians 16:24, hê agapê mou meta pantôn humôn (“my love be with you”), which occurs in the letter-closing section, as a kind of greeting. Agapêtoi [my beloved ones] is an affectionate term of address which is used with some frequency in his letters, including 1 Corinthians—but not in Galatians!

     2. Paul also recalls that he wrote the X-Letter to find out about the test-worthiness (if we may use such a term for the Greek dokimê), about the obedience (hupakoê), and about the zeal (spoudê) of the Corinthians, especially on his behalf.

  2Corinthians 2:9  I wrote for this reason: to test you [literally, “that I might know of your dokimê or test-worthiness”] and to know whether you are obedient [hupêkoos] in everything.
  2 Corinthians 7:12  . . . [I wrote to you] in order that your zeal for us [tên spoudên tên hyper hêmôn] might be made known to you before God. See also 7:7, ton humôn zêlon huper emou.

From 2:9 it appears that Paul had an interest in a particular area of test-worthiness, namely, the obedience (hupakoê) of the Corinthians. If there was this concern about hupakoê, are we to suppose that the congregation had been in or close to a state of rebellion, or disobedience (parakoê)? and if so, what was the problem or problems? Was it a question of Paul’s apostolic authority, or apostolic characteristics, or his gospel? If Paul shows an interest in their zeal or diligence (spoudê) on his behalf (2 Corinthians 7:12) we may suppose that loyalty to the apostle was very much an issue.

If dokimê, hupakoê and spoudê are concerns in the X-Letter, what do we find in H/10-13? Regarding dokimê, it seems that the Corinthians had been putting Paul to the test (2 Corinthians 13:3); now Paul with delicious irony talks about the testing of the Corinthians (13:5)! Rather remarkably, he does not say that he will test them, but challenges them to test themselves, presumably to take control themselves of the disciplinary process, as might be needed. He had earlier exhorted the Corinthians to test themselves (1 Corinthians 11:28), in the context of eucharistic preparation; now they are to test themselves on their loyalty to apostolic authority. We do not need a more clear and pointed imperative than this of Paul’s demand for test-worthiness.5

Regarding a particular aspect of dokimê in H/10-13, namely hupakoê (obedience), there is evidence that rival teachers, individually or severally, had made considerable inroads among the Corinthians and were undermining Paul’s apostolic authority. Consider here Paul’s heated references to those who commend themselves (2 Corinthians 10:12), to one preaching another Jesus (2 Corinthians 11:4), to superlative apostles (2 Corinthians 11:5), or to “false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Corinthians 11:13). Furthermore, early on in H/10-13 Paul suggests that matters of obedience to apostolic authority are at stake. Not only does Paul offer himself as a model, taking “every thought captive to obey Christ [eis tên hupakoên Christou],” but he is ready “to punish every disobedience [ekdikêsai pasan parakoên], when your obedience [hupakoê] is complete” (2 Corinthians 10:5-6).6 Paul reminds them of their special relationship to himself: not only was he the first to have come all the way to them with the gospel (10:14), but the one who had betrothed them to Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2).7 Thus the issue of defection from loyalty to Paul seems to be common to the X-Letter and to H/10-13.

  5That the apostolic dokimê is also at issue is reflected not only by 2 Corinthians 13:3, but by his hope that they will know that he has not proved untestworthy (2 Corinthians 13:6, adokimos; cp. 13:7). In fact Paul documents his test-worthiness on the basis of his founding of the very congregation which is putting him to the test, while he acknowledges that the only commendation needed is the Lord’s (2 Corinthians 10:14, 18). Thus we observe a fascinating dialectic emerging from these texts: the challenge to Paul’s dokimê from Corinthian malcontents is answered by his boasting and by his challenge that they examine and test themselves.
  6Paul surely expects obedience to his apostolic admonitions and loyalty to himself, not simply a generalized obedience to Christ, as Furnish (459) suggests. The apostolic office of course implies more than exercising discipline; it is operative in the preaching of the gospel, in receiving the Spirit, and believing (2 Corinthians 11:4; 13:5; cp. 1:24). But given the nature of the problems at Corinth, it was inevitable that the disciplinary aspect should be prominent. The threat of punishment present in 10:2-6 is amply reinforced throughout H/10-13: he would prefer to use his authority “for building you up and not for tearing you down” (2 Corinthians 10:8); he establishes rules for a trial (2 Corinthians 13:1); he declares that “I will not spare them” (2 Corinthians 13:2); and he warns, “So I write these things while I am away from you, so that when I come, I may not have to be severe in using the authority that the Lord has given me for building up and for tearing down” (2 Corinthians 13:10). His threats to visit them (2 Corinthians 10:11; 12:14; 13:1, 10) are in part a rhetorical device to encourage their submission (one may compare the threat in 1 Corinthians 4:19-21, which is evidently not a realistic travel plan), as well as a way of avoiding unpleasantness upon his arrival.
  7In the aftermath of the dispute, when reconciliation has taken place, Paul acknowledges their hupakoê (2 Corinthians 7:15) and their spoudê on his behalf (2 Corinthians 7:7, 12), the Corinthians acting as Paul’s agent in remedying the situation, and especially in punishing the offender. He expresses complete confidence in them (2 Corinthians 7:16); i.e., they have passed the test, their test-worthiness (dokimê) has been demonstrated, so much so that Paul bases his collection appeal in 2 Corinthians 8:7-8 upon evidences of their spoudê and now invites them to prove (dokimazôn) their earnestness (spoudê).

     3. Paul also remembers that the purpose of the X-Letter was to make clear his determination that the next visit should not be a sorrowful one as the second visit had been (2 Corinthians 2:1-3; cp. 2:4), and thus to spare them his apostolic discipline (2 Corinthians 1:23).

We note here, anticipating a fuller discussion below [The X-Letter in 2 Corinthians (b)], that these texts need to be understood within the context of Paul’s interactions with Corinth during this period: the original travel plan, the intermediate visit which involves a change of travel plans, the challenge to Paul’s authority by rival apostles, the unhappy episode where Paul is unjustly treated by a member of the community, his return to Ephesus, the writing of the X-Letter (probably to be identified with H/10-13), the mission of Titus to Corinth, the resolution of the crisis, the writing of R/1-9, and the completion of the collection. On the basis of some such scenario, we may appreciate the fact that Paul writes the X-Letter to make sure that his next visit will not be a sorrowful one.8 The key text here is 2 Corinthians 2:3, “And I wrote as I did [kai egrapsa touto auto], so that when I came, I might not suffer pain [hina mê elthôn lupên schô] . . . .” The most obvious antecedent of touto auto is the touto, to of 2 Corinthians 2:1, “For I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit [ekrina gar emautôi touto, to mê palin en lupêi pros humas elthein].”9 Thus Paul is not canceling a visit but ensuring that the visit he is planning to make will be a joyful and not a painful one.

This intention to avoid another painful visit finds a tolerably good match with H/10-13, where Paul views a visit to the Corinthians with some apprehension ([phoboumai] mê palin elthontos mou), fearing that he would be humbled before them and would mourn over unrepentant sinners (2 Corinthians 12:21). Accordingly, in view of an anticipated visit, he writes a letter in which he makes every effort to persuade them to rectify their situation (2 Corinthians 13:11), so that when he does come—and he does need to come, to complete the collection there—he may use his apostolic authority for building up and not for tearing down (2 Corinthians 13:10). What results then is the following comparison:

The X-Letter


The painful visit to Corinth (visit #2)
The painful visit to Corinth (visit #2), implied
Paul writes the X-Letter, so that the next visit (#3) will not be painful



Paul writes H/10-13, in which he:
bulletAnnounces visit #3
bulletExpresses apprehension about the visit, and counsels reform lest the visit be difficult for him (tears, etc.) and for them (tearing down rather than building up)

Thus we have an impressive correlation between the purposes of the X-Letter and what we find in H/10-13: in both, Paul intends to express his love, to determine their test-worthiness, obedience and zeal, and to avoid unpleasantness on his next visit. This common pattern is noteworthy.10

  8J. H. Kennedy already recognized this point, in The Second and Third Epistles of St. Paul to the Corinthians: With Some Proofs of Their Independence and Mutual Relation (London: Methuen, 1900) pp. xx-xxi.
  9Did the prospect of his coming on a visit which would not be sorrowful provide some inducement for the Corinthians to return to obedience and to be more zealous in their support of him?
  10The scanty material that we are able to attribute to the X-Letter does not entitle us to make sweeping generalizations about the significance of this pattern of correlations. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that this pattern does not seem to be shared with 1 Corinthians (Letter L) or with R/1-9, contrary to the impression left by Furnish 37. Further, to the extent that interpreters support X=Lost, in which the X-Letter is represented as quite distinct from H/10–13, they face a different kind of problem, namely, how to account for the common pattern between the X-Letter and H/10–13 without the two letters appearing to be redundant, or repetitive.


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