Paul’s Third Missionary Journey – 3. Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians

In my last article in this series of articles on the life of Paul, I observed that “[s]ometime before making the decision [to revisit the churches in Macedonia and Greece and to go to Jerusalem] Paul had heard from the church in Corinth and written a letter to them. Now he sent that letter, 1 Corinthians, to them with Timothy and Erastus (1 Corinthians 16:10).” Later, while on his way to visit Corinth, Paul wrote 2 Corinthians. Moreover 1 Corinthians indicates that Paul wrote an even earlier letter than it to the church in Corinth, a letter of which no copy now exists. Moreover 2 Corinthians indicates that between writing 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians Paul wrote another letter to the church in Corinth of which no copy exists. Thus Paul wrote at least four letters to the church in Corinth, which I’ll call Corinthians A, Corinthians B (our 1 Corinthians), Corinthians C, and Corinthians D (our 2 Corinthians). In this article I’ll suggest why Paul wrote each of the four letters and indicate the actual or likely contents of each of them.

Corinthians A

Apparently Paul received reports of immorality, either actual or threatened, in the church at Corinth. He responded with a letter which hasn’t survived but is referred to in 1 Corinthians 5:9, “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people” (ESV; all Biblical quotations are from the ESV). Following the reference Paul explains that he hadn’t meant people of the world because that would requiring going out of the world but rather had meant professed Christians who are immoral.

Corinthians B

Paul received news from three sources (the references are to 1 Corinthians):
– Chloe’s people (1:11), reporting that the church in Corinth was divided into factions–“What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ’ (1:12).
– an oral report (5:1) of sexual immorality among them.
– a letter (7:1) raising questions on marriage, divorce, and celibacy; attending pagan banquets and eating food which had been sacrificed to idols; Christian worship, including exercise of the spiritual gifts; the resurrection of the body; the collection for the church in Jerusalem; and Apollos’ visiting them. A leading commentary on 1 Corinthians argues that the letter “makes most sense when viewed … as a response … to [Corinthians A]” (Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987, page 7). However in my opinion Paul’s response to the questions has an instructive tone rather than the apologetic tone that it would likely have if he were defending views expressed in an earlier letter, and thus I think that the questions in the Corinthians’ letter were ones which had occurred to them since Paul’s ministry to them and which they wanted his guidance on.

Paul responded with our 1 Corinthians to deal with the divisions in the church (dealt with in 1:10-4:21) and sexual immorality (dealt with in 5:1-6:20) and to answer the questions asked by the Corinthians (answered in 7:1-16:12, with Paul’s answer to each question opening with “now concerning”).

Despite its being written to deal with particular events in a particular church at a particular time, 1 Corinthians is relevant to us today because it deals with issues of perennial concern to Christians everywhere, “such issues as the relationship between Christians and their surrounding pagan culture, divisions within the church, the ordering of church practices such as the Lord’s Supper, and the use of spiritual gifts [and] with matters of personal morality such as sex, marriage, celibacy, and the virtues (esp. love)” (Frank S. Thielman, “Introduction to 1 Corinthians” in ESV Study Bible, Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2008, page 2190).

Corinthians C

Apparently 1 Corinthians failed in its intention with the result that Paul made a visit to Corinth not recorded in Acts which he refers to in 2 Corinthians 2:1 as a “painful visit.” (Twice in 2 Corinthians, in 12:14 and 13:1, Paul speaks of his going to visit the Corinthians for “the third time,” indicating that before writing that letter he had made a visit to Corinth besides the one in which the church was founded.) Apparently the visit also failed, Paul’s being defied by his opponent and the church’s not defending him. He responded with another letter which hasn’t survived but is referred to in 2 Corinthians 7:8, “I made you grieve with my letter.” The context of that passage indicates that Titus delivered the letter to the church in Corinth, after sending it Paul regretted sending it, on his way from Ephesus to Corinth Paul met Titus in Macedonia, Titus told Paul that the Corinthians had repented and turned back to Paul, and Paul rejoiced.

Corinthians D

Paul immediately wrote another letter, our 2 Corinthians. In chapters 1-9 he expresses his thanksgiving that all has turned out well, but in chapters 10-13 he attacks “false apostles,” outsiders who were challenging Paul’s authority and beginning to lead the church astray. The contrast between the two parts of the letter is such that many Bible scholars consider them to be separate letters. Some suggest that the second part actually constitutes Corinthians C or part of it, but others think that it was sent a little after 2 Corinthians and thus constitutes Corinthians E. The fullest discussion that I have of possible solutions to the problem is Ralph P. Martin’s excursus on the history of the composition of 2 Corinthians in his Word Biblical Commentary: 2 Corinthians (Waco, Texas, Word, 1986, pages xl-lii). He concludes that chapters 10-13 constitute Corinthians E, but since there is no evidence for the chapters appearing separate from chapters 1-9 I favour the view that Paul received unsettling news from Corinth after writing but before sending chapters 1-9 and added chapters 10-13 to them instead of rewriting them.

Scott J. Hafemann summarizes Paul’s purposes in writing and the content of 2 Corinthians thus: “It is intended to accomplish three overlapping purposes: (1) to strengthen the faithful majority and the purity of the church (primarily chs. 1-7); (2) to complete the collection as the expression of their repentance (primarily chs. 8-9); and (3) to offer the rebellious minority one more chance to repent before Paul returns to judge those still rejecting him and his message (primarily chs. 10-13).” (“Introduction to 2 Corinthians” in ESV Study Bible, Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Bibles, 2008, page 2220)

For Further Reading

As far as I can remember, I first realized that Paul wrote more than two letters to the Corinthians when I read Philip Carrington’s fascinating and enlightening account of his correspondence with them in The Early Christian Church (Cambridge University Press, 1957; volume 1, pages 133-44). Another account which influenced me early was F. F. Bruce’s in his Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1977; pages 258-79).

In preparing this article I reread those accounts of Paul’s correspondence with Corinthians and read the introductions to my commentaries on 1 and 2 Corinthians and these articles:
– Hafemann, Scott J. “Corinthians, Letters to the.” In Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, pages 165-79. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1993.
– Lacey, D. R. de. “Corinthians, Epistles to the.” In New Bible Dictionary, third edition, pages 224-28. Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996.
– Morris, Leon. “Corinthians, First Epistle to the” and “Corinthians, Second Epistle to the.” In The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, revised edition, pages 774-82. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publihsing Company, 1979.

Of course I also reread 1 and 2 Corinthians themselves.


2 thoughts on “Paul’s Third Missionary Journey – 3. Paul’s Letters to the Corinthians

  1. Allison

    Your writing about Paul’s letters, the news and issues he addressed, made me wonder what Paul might be like if he were a pastor today. Thanks for another good post!


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