2 Corinthians 3:1-6
In this study of the famous declaration by Paul in 2 Cor 3:18, we are examining the historical and literary context of the verse. It is to be considered, as we are doing, within the literary context of the section spanning 2:14-4:6. In last week’s study, we looked at 2:14-17, along with the portions of the letter (1:3-2:13) leading up to it. Paul’s main purpose in writing has to do with a disruption in the relationship between he (as an apostle) and the Corinthian churches. He mentions at least one significant episode (2:5-11) which seems to have led to some tension in the relationship.
Another factor which was apparently affecting the relationship negatively was the influence at Corinth of certain apostolic rivals to Paul. Specific (but unidentified) opponents are addressed far more directly (and harshly) in chapters 10-13. Most likely the same people are being alluded to in chapters 1-7 (e.g., 2:17; 3:1ff; 5:12-13), even if, as many commentators believe, chapters 10-13 are part of a separate letter written later than chaps. 1-7.
Almost certainly, Paul would not have introduced the theme of “letters of commendation” here in 3:1-6 if there were not such apostolic ‘rivals’, exerting some influence at Corinth, who were outside of Paul’s immediate missionary circle of friends and co-workers. The wording of verse 1 is important, if a bit difficult to translate literally:
“Do we begin again to present ourselves (as ministers) of (good) standing? (surely) we do not need (letter)s (showing our good) standing sent to you, or from you?”
Paul uses both the adjective systatikós and the related verb suníst¢mi/sunistáœ, which literally means “stand [together] with”, in the sense of placing things (or people) together (and presenting them) in front of someone. As a technical term, it came to be applied to letters a person carried, introducing him/her to another group or in a place where he/she was not known. It was a well-developed literary form in Paul’s time, models of which are provided, for example, by Demetrius (2nd/1st century B.C.) and Libanius (4th century A.D.); see Furnish, p. 180. Traveling missionaries and ministers would typically carry such letters of recommendation, whenever possible, particularly when they were visiting congregations and homes in places where they were not (well) known. Paul offers commendatory passages in his letters for specific individuals—see Philemon; Romans 16:1-2; Philippians 2:29-30.
In the ancient world, which lacked modern-day high-speed communication, such practice was necessary to establish a person’s identity and credentials; it also could serve as a source of authority and legitimacy. Naturally enough, the more impressive or prestigious the letter of recommendation, the more influence it provided; even today, the right letter of recommendation still carries tremendous weight for prospective employers, and so forth. It is possible that Paul’s opponents included visiting “apostles” who possessed such letters and credentials.
In vv. 1-6, Paul argues that neither he nor his colleagues require written letters recommending them to the believers of Corinth, since they are already well known—that is to say, this written authentication is already there in the hearts of the believers, having been written by the very Spirit of God (v. 4). He is referring primarily to the work of preaching the Gospel, which the Corinthian believers accepted; as a result they themselves become “the epistle of Christ”, under the service/ministry of Paul and his fellow missionaries. In verse 2, some manuscripts understandably read “written on your [hymœn] hearts,” but the correct reading almost certainly is “written on our [h¢mœn] hearts” —that is, the Corinthian believers (collectively) are a spiritual ‘letter’ written on the hearts of Paul and his colleagues, which they carry with them everywhere they go. Paul is, of course, emphasizing both aspects of the relationship, in connection with the apostolic ministry of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. In verse 3, he specifically declares that the Corinthians are “an epistle of Christ”:
“…being made to shine forth [i.e. made manifest/apparent] that you are a (letter) sent (forth) [epistol¢¡] of (the) Anointed (One), having been written, not with black (ink), but with (the) Spirit, not on (the) flat surfaces of stones, but on fleshy hearts.”
It is interesting the way that this image leads Paul so readily to the dualistic juxtaposition contrasting the old and new covenants, in terms of “the written (word/letter) [to grámma]” and “the Spirit [to pneúma]”. See how this contrast in made, twice, in vv. 1-3 and 4-6:
This is instructive as an example of the way that Paul is able to move from addressing practical matters into a deeper level of theological and spiritual discourse. Indeed, the entirety of verses 7-18 is such an expository discourse, which is not essential to the primary point Paul is making in the passage. To see this demonstrated, try reading up to verse 6a and then jump ahead immediately to 4:1 and continue on from there. The passage, and the argument Paul is making, would flow rather smoothly even if 3:7-18 were not present.
When examining verses 7-11, it will be necessary to consider just why Paul makes this connection here between his apostolic ministry and the old covenant established with Israel. For the time being, we should focus upon the formulation in verse 6, where, after identifying himself (and his colleagues) as “servants/ministers of a new covenant,” Paul adds:
“…not of (the) written (word), but of (the) Spirit; for the written (word) kills off, but the Spirit makes alive”
To someone unfamiliar with Galatians and Romans, this would be a striking declaration, especially his statement that the “written (word) kills” —that is, the Law, specifically in its written form, brings death. Paul explains and expounds this idea in Romans 5-7 (note, in particular, Rom 7:7ff); even so, it must have been rather shocking to believers at the time—as it still is for many today. For the particular identification of the Law with the written word (grámma), see Rom 2:27, 29; 7:6, and note also Col 2:14. In Rom 2:27-29 and 7:6 there is the same contrast between the Spirit and the written word.
The context of chs. 10-13 suggests that at least some of these opponents are Jewish Christians (11:21ff), as in Galatians (cf. also Phil 3:2ff and Col 2:11ff, 16-18), and this may inform the rhetorical approach in 2 Cor 3 as well. Already in 1 Corinthians (1:10-13ff), Paul is aware of certain tendencies toward factionalism among the believers at Corinth, whereby people identify themselves in relation to a prominent apostolic personality. We know that Apollos (see Acts 18:24-19:1) was a Jewish Christian apostle (missionary and traveling minister) who was active at Corinth (1 Cor 3:4-6; 4:6; 16:12). Paul treats Apollos as a legitimate fellow-minister, though one senses a certain tension in 1 Cor 3:4-6ff (compare the contrast between Apollos and the Pauline circle in Acts 18:24-19:1ff).
Paul felt that there was a special relationship between the apostolic missionary and those who came to believe as a result of his work, and he was certainly protective of the churches which he had helped to found. When he was not present, those churches were, at times, vulnerable to the influence of other traveling ministers, people over whom Paul did not have any control. The New Testament bears witness to a number of controversies involving ‘competing’ missionaries. In addition to the situations Paul addresses in his letters (especially in Galatians and 2 Corinthians), we have the noteworthy example of 1 John, in which the author is combating the influence of certain “false prophets”, who can be characterized as Christian ministers and prophet-teachers working (and traveling) throughout the territory of the Johannine churches (see especially the warning in 2 John 7-11).
If Paul’s apostolic ‘rivals’ among the Corinthians were indeed prominent Jewish Christians, then this might explain why he suddenly embarks on the discourse of vv. 7-18, contrasting the old and new covenants. It would be most appropriate if these people, like the opponents in Galatians, continued to emphasize the binding authority of the Torah regulations for believers in Christ. However, if such a ‘Judaizing’ tendency was present in the work of his rivals, one expect a clearer indication of this in the fierce polemic of chapters 10-13, akin to what we find in Galatians.
Perhaps more relevant to verses 1-6, is the possibility that Paul’s rivals possessed impressive letters of recommendation, perhaps even coming from the church(es) of Jerusalem. Some at Corinth might well have asked, “What sort of letters of recommendation does Paul carry, compared to these?” Instead, in this passage, Paul emphasizes a spiritual, rather than a written, pedigree. It is this emphasis on the Spirit that characterizes the entire New Covenant, and the apostolic ministry of proclaiming the Gospel. In next week’s study, we will examine the unique expository discourse that Paul embarks on (in verses 7-11ff), focusing on the Scriptural tradition(s) that he utilizes as the basis for his exposition.
References above marked “Furnish” are to Victor Paul Furnish, II Corinthians, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 32A (1984).