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The X-Letter in 2 Corinthians (b)

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Good News from Corinth 

In R/1-9 (especially 2 Corinthians 7:6-15), we learn of a dramatic improvement in the congregation’s attitude toward Paul, attributable in part to the X-Letter; in part, to the good offices of Titus, the probable bearer of the letter; and in part, to the Corinthians’ coming to their senses. Paul’s boasting seems to have been justified (7:14), and with good reason he rejoices in Titus’ good report (2 Corinthians 7:6-7, 13-15).11


Titus was received with fear and trembling (7:15), and was put at ease and graciously consoled by the Corinthians (7:7).


Their longing, their mourning, and their zeal for Paul were reported to him by Titus (7:7; cp. 7:11-12).


The X-Letter caused the Corinthians pain and godly grief (7:8-11; cp. 7:7).


This godly grief in turn led to repentance of the community (7:9-10).


Their godly grief also led the community to a corresponding earnestness or zeal [spoudê] (7:11-12; cp. 7:7).

Their zeal on behalf of Paul became evident in two ways, among others:

There was a renewal of their obedience to Paul’s apostolic authority (2 Corinthians 7:15);12 and


The Corinthians also took Paul’s side now, as they had not done before, in the affair of the offender, administering disciplinary action against the man who had caused Paul pain and aggravation (2 Corinthians 2:5-8 and 7:12).13

These actions, if in fact H/10-13 was the X-Letter, would have been an appropriate and welcome response to Paul’s plea for communal reform or restoration (cp. the katartisis he mentions in 2 Corinthians 13:9, or the katartizesthai of 13:11).

Whether this wrong-doer was mentioned or singled out for discipline in the X-Letter remains uncertain. The reasons for this caution may be briefly summarized:


Paul did not need to mention him in the X-Letter; Paul knew and they knew who the trouble-maker was and what had to be done. All that remained was the will of the Corinthians. Even in R/1-9 Paul refrains from recounting the details of the episode, and is content to encourage forgiveness and restoration of the person (2 Corinthians 2:6-11).


There was no compelling reason for Paul to have waited until he wrote the X-Letter if he wished to demand that the offender be disciplined; could he not have done so at the intermediate visit?


Though the offender’s punishment is mentioned retrospectively in 2 Corinthians 2:6, are we thereby entitled to assume that Paul had specifically requested it in the X-Letter?


2 Corinthians 7:12, with its oblique reference to the offender, is capable of being read as a denial that he had requested them to discipline the offender. But whatever we make of this possibility, the text is more allusive than conclusive. What it does say is that Paul was more interested in having the community’s zeal for himself revealed, than in savoring some kind of recompense for an injustice done.

Thus Paul and the Corinthians were well on their way to reconciliation: the disobedient had returned to obedience; order had been restored where there was disorder; and the unrepentant ones had been brought to repentance (see 2 Corinthians 7:9-10).14

  11The relativizing of Titus’ information as overly optimistic (Furnish 45, 397) seems to be a questionable procedure: would one not rather modify the hypothesis to fit the data? It should be added that Prof. Furnish offers two other possible explanations besides Titus’ overly optimistic report for the appearance of renewed controversy in Corinth: a) The situation had substantially deteriorated since Titus brought his report; or b) Paul had over-interpreted the encouraging aspects of his report (p. 45)—neither of which moves much beyond begging the question.
  12We are probably entitled to conclude that this return to obedience involved the rejection and possible expulsion of the rival teachers, as implied in 2 Corinthians 3:1.
  13See 2 Corinthians 13:1, for Paul’s laying the groundwork for this kind of action, and 10:6, for the prompting of the Corinthians to take action in completing their obedience.
     As for the nature of the offence against Paul, we can only speculate: it was most likely verbal abuse of some sort, perhaps questioning Paul’s apostolic credentials, or accusing him of embezzlement, or (perversely) claiming that Paul did not love the Corinthians because he refused to accept support from them, or an act of defiance against Paul’s leadership in favor of rival leaders.
  14It is worth noting that the members of the Corinthian community are not only penitents, whose repentance (for welcoming the rival apostles rather too enthusiastically?) brings joy to Paul; but the Corinthians are also judge and jury, imposing punishment upon the wrongdoer. This seems to be the Corinthian equivalent of Albert Camus’ Jean-Baptiste Clamence, a self-accused and self-confessed judge-penitent; see The Fall, tr. J. O’Brien (NY: Knopf, 1957) p. 8!

The Scenario, if the X-Letter Is Identified with H (2 Corinthians 10-13)

From the foregoing discussion, we may pull together the details of what was happening between Paul and Corinth during the period under consideration. [For a comprehensive survey, one may consult the chart in Paul and Corinth (1).]

     1. Titus’ Visit #1 to Corinth. Following the Jerusalem conference, and travel (perhaps accompanied by Titus) to Antioch, (then possibly to Galatia), and then to Ephesus, Paul writes Letter P, the Previous Letter, to Corinth (1 Corinthians 5:9), and probably dispatches Titus (with a brother) to Corinth to begin the collection project there (proenarchesthai, 2 Corinthians 8:6; cp. 12:18).15

     2. The Composition of 1 Corinthians. Paul gives directions on the collection, about which they already know, and announces his travel plan: in Ephesus until Pentecost; then Macedonia/ Corinth/ Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 16:1-8).

     3. Information Received from Corinth: Problems in the Congregation.16 The situation there is probably complex, including elements of community problems (2 Corinthians 12:19–13:10) and inroads by rival teachers.

     4. Intermediate Visit. This visit, Paul’s second to Corinth, represents de facto a change from the earlier travel plan, i.e. Ephesus/ Macedonia/ Corinth/ Jerusalem. Upon his arrival in Corinth, he probably announces a different plan, Ephesus/ Corinth/ Macedonia/ Corinth/ Jerusalem, the so-called double visit arrangement (2 Corinthians 1:15-17). This visit to Corinth is the first leg of the double visit; a visit to Macedonia follows, to work on the collection there; then, a return visit to Corinth, during which interval he might expect the Corinthian collection to have been completed;  and from Corinth his final visit to Jerusalem with the completed offering from Macedonia and Achaia.

If we inquire why Paul considers this visit and its attendant change of plans so urgent, the reasons are partly internal, having to do with problems within the congregation, and partly external, having to do with problems from without, i.e. the incursion of rival teachers. Paul already knows about certain internal problems before he arrives, but surely learns more about them when he is on the scene: disorder and immorality (2 Corinthians 12:20–13:2), concerning which he gives due warning during this visit; derogatory opinions about his bodily presence and his speech (2 Corinthians 10:10; 11:6); dissatisfaction of the Corinthians over Paul’s refusal of financial help from them; and (curiously inconsistent on their part) rumors concerning possible misappropriation of funds in connection with the collection project (2 Corinthians 11:7-12; 12:16-18).

These problems grievous as they are, probably do not require a special visit and a change in travel plans unless they are accompanied by (and probably aggravated by) the arrival in Corinth of rival teachers.17 These teachers are making extravagant claims for themselves and threatening Paul’s apostolic jurisdiction. Paul later feels justified in labeling them “super-apostles” and “false apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5, 13). With this new development, Paul is obliged to deal with the crisis promptly and personally. If to do so means a new travel plan which includes a double visit to Corinth, Paul is prepared to change his plans.

One problem which Paul can not anticipate is the unfortunate episode at some point during this second visit to Corinth when he is grievously wronged by a member of the community, a situation made worse by the people’s failure to come to his aid and support. It is possible that the offender is encouraged in this by the rival apostles, and is able to take advantage of Paul’s waning popularity to press his attack. Thus the offense against Paul is perhaps some act of defiance against Paul’s leadership in favor of rival leaders. Even if we do not go so far as to speak of the church’s being in open rebellion, Paul is perilously close to losing this congregation to his opponents.

Having earlier changed his original travel plan to deal with the crisis in Corinth, Paul now recognizes that his work on the collection in Corinth cannot proceed so long as the community has defaulted from its loyalty to him, and that a return visit will be futile until obedience is restored. So he has little alternative but to change his itinerary yet again and return to Ephesus; 18it is likely that, as he said his farewells, they knew that he was headed toward Ephesus, and not Macedonia. It remains more of an open question whether at this time he laid upon the congregation (at least implicitly) the obligation to discipline the offender.19 What is more certain is that he did not depart Corinth without sternly admonishing and warning the Corinthians, especially unrepentant sinners (2 Corinthians 13:2).

  15We have several variables here; for details one may consult Paul and Corinth (1) and (2), and Ephesian Headquarters (1). It probably fell to Titus to announce the collection, whether or not it was mentioned in Letter P. Titus may also have announced other results of the Jerusalem conference, at which he was “Exhibit A,” on behalf of the law-free gospel for the gentiles
  16Paul could have heard through the same kind of informal channels as in the period leading up to 1 Corinthians, and by report from Timothy on his return to Paul in Ephesus.
  17There seems to be no compelling reason to delay the appearance of rival teachers in Corinth until after the composition of R/1–9; in fact, their arrival this early would readily account for the change in travel plans just described. Paul’s heated references to them in H/10–13 may well reflect a heated confrontation he had had with them on the occasion of this intermediate visit, and R/1–9 may refer retrospectively to these same rivals.
  18These changes of plans seem to have been an additional source of contention between Paul and the congregation, as is still reflected in R/1–9 (2 Corinthians 1:15-20).
  19Whether he may have intimated this publicly, or to a few responsible people who still supported him, we do not know.

     5. The Composition of the X-Letter. Back in Ephesus, Paul knows that personal confrontation with his opponents has not worked (cp. 2 Corinthians 10:10). He determines instead to write a letter in which he will display the full dimensions of his apostolic authority (boasting of his apostolic credentials, in a manner quite out of character), unmask the rival apostles, establish procedures for disciplinary action to be carried out by the Corinthians, plead for a return to obedience, and at the same time assure them of his continuing love.

Paul, as we know, does write such a letter, H/10-13, which we are arguing is really the X-Letter (thus, X=H/10-13). This letter creates (for their own good!) the maximum amount of tension and apprehension, by the announcement that his visit, if and when he comes (ean elthô, 2 Corinthians 13:2; cp. hina mê elthôn, 2:3), will sternly correct any cases of immorality or rebellion not dealt with by the community; and that he will not spare them (ou pheisomai; cp. 1:23, pheidomenos humôn; thus they are given a reprieve, though conditionally, depending upon their response to the letter).

     6. Titus’ Visit #2 to Corinth. Titus again assumes an important rôle.


Paul, attempting to encourage Titus (who knows full well the difficulty of his task, whether he had been in Corinth earlier or not), boasts about the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 7:14; cp. 2:3), especially the good prospects for their positive response to his letter.20


Travel plans are revised again: Paul returns to a modified version of the earlier plan announced in 1 Corinthians, i.e. Paul to Troas; Titus to Corinth/ Troas; then Paul to Macedonia/ Corinth/ Jerusalem.


Titus delivers H/10-13, which we have identified as the X-Letter, and he helps resolve the crisis in Corinth. (Even if Paul had already made clear their obligation to discipline the offender, Titus now has the opportunity to remind them that this action would be an appropriate sign of their return to obedience.


There is a favorable reception for H/10-13 (the X-Letter), and for Titus (2 Corinthians 7:15); the Corinthians are moved to tearful repentance, obedience, zeal for Paul, and to the punishment of the offender. The controversy is resolved.

     7. Paul’s Visit to Troas and Macedonia. He is to meet Titus in Troas. Though the work there prospers, he becomes impatient and goes on to Macedonia to await Titus. (We must assume that Paul already knew the route Titus would take, and thus could intercept him in Macedonia.)

     8. Titus’ arrival in Macedonia. Paul hears his report, to the effect that the controversy in Corinth has been resolved.

     9. The Composition of R/1-9, the Letter of Reconciliation.


This letter refers retrospectively to the X-Letter (2 Corinthians 2:3, 4, 9; 7:8, 12).


It refers retrospectively to the rival apostles (2 Corinthians 2:17–3:1; 4:2).


It refers retrospectively to his earlier self-commendation and foolishness, contrasting with his present good humor (2 Corinthians 3:1-2; 5:12-13).21 Such retrospective references carry some probative weight for identifying H/10-13 as the X-Letter, especially as X=Lost has some difficulty finding a place for these references.


R/1-9 refers retrospectively to earlier insinuations of misappropriation of funds (2 Corinthians 12:16-18). Paul responds in R/1-9 by firmly denying that he had taken advantage (pleonektein) of any one, and by sending a kind of “auditing committee” of two brothers to accompany Titus for the collection work in Corinth (2 Corinthians 8:16-22). Such a precaution is more plausible as a response to previous insinuations of pleonektein than to suppose with Furnish that the insinuations arise (or continue) after the committee’s visit in spite of these precautions.22 The successful completion of the collection (Romans 15:26) tends to confirm the prudence of dispatching such a delegation; see further, The X-Letter and 2 Corinthians 12:16-18. As we have implied, R/1-9 sets the stage (2 Corinthians 1–7) for resumption of work on the collection (2 Corinthians 8–9).

  20It is doubtful whether at the time of this trip, in such an ugly atmosphere, Paul would have laid upon Titus the unpromising task of beginning or resuming work on the collection. The task of reviving the collection project would of necessity wait upon the resolution of the controversy, as we learn from R/1–9.
  21As Paul looked back on how he had played the fool in H/10–13, with boasting of his self-support, his accomplishments and sufferings, and his visions and revelations (2 Corinthians 11:1, 10, 16-19, 21-30; 12:1), he now is R/1–9 says that he will not play that game again, however justified his self-commendation and foolishness may have been earlier. In contrast to the intrusive teachers who presented impressive credentials, Paul did not need them: the Corinthians themselves were his letter of recommendation. These retrospective connections seem to be given insufficient weight by Furnish (192-3, 308, 323-5).
  22Furnish 38, 45-6, 565-6.

     10. Travel Plans at the Time of the Composition of R/1-9:


Titus is being sent to Corinth (visit #3) to complete work on the collection, and probably to deliver the letter. Because the earlier work of Titus and the brother on the collection (probably visit #1) had come under suspicion, Paul arranges for two brothers to travel with Titus.


Paul will in due course come to Corinth and will accompany the offering thence to Jerusalem, in the company of the former of the two brothers (2 Corinthians 8:19; cp. 1 Corinthians 16:3-4; 2 Corinthians 9:4-5).


If 2 Corinthians 9 is a separate letter from R/1-8, Paul writes F/9, a Follow-up Collection Letter, to alert the Corinthians to the urgency of completing the collection work and of avoiding embarrassment when Paul arrives in Corinth with companions from Macedonia (2 Corinthians 9:3-4).

What we have sketched out here provides an intelligible scenario for the difficult relationships of Paul with Corinth, as reflected in 2 Corinthians.


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