Dr IAN ELMER…
Over the next two weeks Dr Elmer turns his attention to St Paul's dealings with the churches of Corinth. He draws out the continuing parallels between the events we ought learn from this early history of the Church and events that are destablising of the institution today.
As modern readers we desire to find or create closure in a narrative, which influences our reading of ancient texts like Paul's Letter to Galatia. Having examined the crisis in Galatia, we are curious as to events that occurred in its aftermath. Did Paul carry the day? Was his response to the crisis successful in stopping the incursions of the Judaisers? Or did the agents of Jerusalem continue to dog Paul's tracks across Asia Minor and into Greece? It is questions such as these that will be the focus on over the next few weeks as we turn to consider Paul's dealings with the churches of Corinth.
The Corinthian Correspondence…
As we noted very early in this series, since the seminal work of the nineteenth-century Pauline scholar F. C. Baur, Paul's references to factional conflict that recur throughout the Corinthian correspondence have been taken as indicative of the presence of rival missionaries at Corinth.
The problem that confronts us here, however, is that while all commentators agree that at Corinth Paul faced significant opposition to his mission there is no consensus regarding the number or nature of those opponents (Gunther, 1973: 1-5; Georgi, 1986: 1-9). They have been variously named Jews, Christian Jews, Gnostics, Proto-Gnostics, Greek philosophers, and wandering charismatic "God-men".
This issue is further complicated by the fact that while Paul's letters to Corinth represent the longest extant correspondence to any single community in the Pauline corpus, there are important gaps in the available information.
Paul appears to have written more than what has been preserved (cf. 1 Cor 5:9, 11; 2 Cor 2:3, 4, 9; 7:12), and many scholars still hold that 2 Corinthians is probably an amalgam of several letter fragments (Bieringer & Lambrecht, 1994: 67-179). Most commentators, however, accept that all of the Corinthian letters were written within the short space of two or three years (ca. 53-55 CE), with 1 Corinthians assigned to 53/54 CE and the various, hypothetical, constituent parts of 2 Corinthians to 54/55 CE.
This widely-accepted chronology of events suggests that in examining these texts, and especially the hypothetical letter fragments contained in 2 Corinthians, we are dealing with the same complex of materials (Georgi, 1986: 14-18; Lüdemann, 1987: 80-81).
Such is the strength of this suggestion that a recent trend in New Testament studies has been to view 2 Corinthians as a single monograph addressing a single purpose, and not a combination of several letter fragments written on disparate occasions (Amador, 2000; Goulder, 2001: 240-248).
The Issues at Stake…
A cursory reading of the two letters suggest that the issues at stake in the ongoing dispute at Corinth changed very little throughout the entire interchange. The primary problem remained the issue of Paul's "competency" as an apostle (2 Cor 3:5-6; 5:11-13; 10:1-13:10).
In that regard, three matters appear to have been paramount. The first of these matters focused on the origins of Paul's apostolic "call". As noted above this issue came to the fore previously in 1 Corinthians (9:1; 15:5-7), where Paul was forced to defend the authenticity of his vision of the risen Christ. Similarly in 2 Corinthians (5:11-21), we find Paul attempting to demonstrate again that his claim to apostolic status was not simply a case of commending himself (5:12), but rather it was the result of a direct commission from God (5:19-20; cf. 3:4-6).
Initially, this dispute lead to internal strife and, hence, in 1 Corinthians we find Paul struggling with factional conflict within the Corinthian community (1:12-13). This struggle appears to have been incited by certain unnamed others (9:3) who have questioned Paul's missionary practices (9:1-27) and cast doubts on his apostolic authority (9:3-18; 15:5-9). But the situation seems to spiral rapidly into heated battle.
Second Corinthians, written a year later, bears testimony to an escalation in anti-Pauline opposition at Corinth during the intervening period between the writing of 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians. Unlike his response to the troublemakers in 1 Corinthians, in 2 Corinthians Paul is particularly scathing in his comments about his opponents.
Paul calls his opponents "false apostles", "deceitful workers", who disguise themselves as "apostles of Christ" (2 Cor 11:13). They seem to have presented themselves as superior to Paul, and they appear to have attacked Paul personally.
In particular, they apparently charged Paul with a number of improprieties: unseemly conduct (1:12); unworthy leadership (1:14; 5:12); erratic behaviour (1:17); possibly harshness or restrictiveness (2:1-4; 6:3, 12; 7:3; 7:8); insincerity and underhandedness (2:17; 4:2; 7:2); and self-commendation (3:1-6; 4:5; 5:12; 6:4).
It was in response to these personal attacks that Paul wrote 2 Corinthians, attempting to defend his apostolic status and, thereby, reclaim the allegiance of his Corinthian converts.
Attempting to Identify Paul's Opponents…
Who were these interlopers who caused Paul such grief? Were they the same troublemakers his Galatian communities had encountered?
Like the Galatian agitators, Paul's Corinthian opponents were outsiders. According to Paul, they came preaching "another Jesus" and a "different gospel" (2 Cor 11:4), which mirrors his opening lines in Galatians (1:6) where he accuses his rivals at Galatia of a similar charge.
Paul explicitly calls them "false apostles" who disguised themselves as "servants" of Christ (2 Cor 11:13, 23). This depiction reminds us of the "false brothers" at Jerusalem whom Paul describes in similar martial language as having "infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves" (Gal 2:4).
In 2 Corinthians (11:20), Paul admonishes his audience for tolerating the false apostles who would "enslave" them. This statement echoes not only Galatians 2:4, but also Galatians 4:24-25 where Paul speaks of Jerusalem and its children as presently serving as a slave to the Mosaic covenant.
This remarkable coincidence in terminology presents prima facie evidence for viewing the invasion of the false apostles at Corinth as an extension of the Christian Jewish counter-mission that had previously been launched by James' people at Antioch and the troublemakers at Galatia.
An important component of the Corinthian opponents' attack on Paul and his competency concerned the letters of recommendation carried by these opponents (3:1-6). Michael Goulder (2001: 33-35) plausibly argues that these commendatory letters are better understood as "letters of authorisation", since the discussion of these documents occurs within the context of a discussion of Paul's and his opponents' authority and competence as ministers of Christ (2:16b-17; 3:4-4:18; 5:11-6:13).
It seems that Paul's opponents challenged Paul's apostolic competency on the basis of the fact that, unlike they, Paul could not present any proper documentation authorising his apostolic ministry amongst the Corinthians. Accordingly, they appear to have denigrated Paul, citing his lack of documentation as one more proof that he was a self-appointed apostle who engaged in self-commendation (3:1-6; 4:5; 5:12; 6:4).
What was the source of these letters? Paul does not explicitly say. But we do know that Peter, James and the other Apostles figured prominently in the attacks made on Paul by his opponents referred to in 1 Corinthians 9 and 15. Thus, it is likely that any letters of authorisation carried by these opponents must have come from Jerusalem and/or congregations, such as Antioch, that were in communion with the Jerusalem Apostles. Once again, we are dealing with agents and spies who are operating with the tacit, even official, approval of the Jerusalem authorities.
If this theory should prove correct, then this series of conflicts at Jerusalem, Antioch, Galatia and Corinth are reminiscent of the present situation in the Australian Church where those Bishop Bill Morris has called "temple police" travel from community to community seeking to disturb and disrupt local communities who do not conform to their narrow understanding of Catholicism.
Certainly, the language Paul employs to denounce his antagonists would equally apply to the latter-day travelling spies — "false apostles", "deceitful workers", who disguise themselves as "apostles of Christ" (2 Cor 11:13).
And the moral of this story is...
Paul never names his Corinthian opponents and, as with the Galatian crisis, we have no extant correspondence from them. Like all "deceitful workers", they shunned direct confrontation. Preferring to operate in the shadows and undermine the good work of others, while doing little in the way of community building themselves.
This brings me back to a comment I have made on numerous occasions — but which bears repeating over and over.
The lesson to be learned from these first-century conflicts is that "false brothers", "spies" and tattletales such as Paul confronted (and many present-day, progressive Catholic communities must confront) can only function with the (tacit or overt) sanction of some authorities.
At Corinth they actually bore "letters of recommendation". The present-day "temple police" have none, and have even been known to turn their attentions upon bishops (with the tacit approval of Rome?).
If we truly want a united Church such subversion and espionage must be roundly and unequivocally condemned by the authorities. Moreover, the use of spies only undermines the authority of those who sanction their activities. Just as Paul seems to have reconsidered his appreciation of the apostles after their alliance with the false brothers, so too many in the Church today may reassess their allegiance to Rome (or Brisbane) if such nonsense is allowed to continue. The ramifications here are far wider than they at first appear. We have yet to learn the lessons of our own history!
Bibliography and Further Reading:
What are your thoughts on this commentary?
©2009 Ian Elmer