Lenten Reading Challenge: 2nd Corinthians 1-13 (whole letter)
• When and Where
Borg, like most scholars, sees 2nd Corinthians not as one coherent letter, but a collection drawn from at least three different sets of correspondence from the early to mid-50’s, with each section having much different tone from the other two. However, there is less agreement on how to break up the combined parts. Borg suggests looking at chapters 1-7, 8-9, and 10-13 as sections.
• Key Insights
However we break it, seeing the different letters is important for interpretation. This is not, and was not intended to be, one flowing line of thought, but a collection of key parts of an ongoing conversation (of which we still only hear one side). Recall that Paul founded this community around 50AD and had written several previous letters. Paul’s “painful visit” mentioned in Chapter 2 and subsequent letter with “many tears” may be lost or may well be some of the material found in Chapters 10-13.
2nd Corinthians is a complex letter, featuring both some of the most angry passages in the NT, and some of the most radiant. These multiple letters to Corinth provide a window into the life of one early Christ-community and Paul’s passionate, affectionate, and sometimes troubled relationship with them. Like Galatians, we see the early communities were not ideal but very human, with plenty of conflict and struggle. Notice how God’s grace is not a simplistic healing of all ailments, not even for Paul.
Note too how the treasure of the Gospel is held, and always comes to us, in “earthen vessels.” Humanity is affirmed as a mediator of the sacred. Thus, made new “in Christ,” we are to live lives “worthy of the gospel.”
• Big Picture
Both this text and Philippians before it illustrate the 1st Century view of creation as a “three-tiered universe.” We who live in an age where amazing images from the Hubble telescope are almost routine may need to remind ourselves that the people of the first century had a very different experience. They could see the stars at night better than most of us, but thought them to be set in a fixed dome or firmament above the earth. Then there was the world, finally the underworld or place of the dead. As indicated here, sometimes the heavens were thought to have multiple levels. I encourage you to google “Milky Way over Mount Sinai” and see the amazing photos. With no city lights and likely clearer air, what a view the people of the Ancient Near East would have had each night – I find photos like that help me understand why the ancients would have thought this way.
Consider how Paul’s report of a vision of a 3rd heaven and experience there compare and contrast with his telling of meeting the risen Christ on the road to Damascus (thus far we’ve read that in Galatians, but you probably well know the story we will read later in Acts).
Blessings on your reading!