A key principle of Biblical Criticism, and of a critical approach to Scripture, is that every verse and passage must be examined within the literary and historical context of the book as a whole. This relates specifically to the fields of literary criticism and historical criticism, but to other critical approaches as well. The principle is particularly important when dealing with well-known and popular passages. Some of the grandest and most memorable Scripture verses are precisely those which are most apt to being taken out of context.
In the Saturday Series studies for the first half of 2023, we will be looking at some of these famous passages, which are often cited and referenced altogether out of their literary and historical context. One such verse is 2 Corinthians 3:18, which actually serves as the climax, coming at the very end, of a discourse by Paul, essentially covering most of chapter 3. As grand as the declaration in verse 18 is, to ignore or neglect its place in the chapter 3 discourse, is to miss out on much of its significance.
The discourse that closes with the v. 18 declaration properly spans vv. 6b-18. It has its position within the broader section of 2:14-4:6, which, in turn, comprises a major portion of the literary work covering chapters 1-7. It is best to limit our study here to the first seven chapters, when defining the extent of the literary work (the letter by Paul) that is involved. According to the view of many commentators, 2 Corinthians is, or may be, composed of more than one letter by Paul. Most commonly, the bulk of chapters 1-7 and 10-13, respectively, are regarded as originally distinct and separate letters, written by Paul to the Corinthian churches, which were subsequently combined and edited together. Chapters 8-9 are also considered, by some, to comprise a third letter, and there are even more complicated theories regarding the composition of 2 Corinthians, involving more than three letters.
Following the epistolary prescript (letter opening) in 1:1-2, and exordium (introduction, with blessing/thanksgiving section) in 1:3-11, the body of the letter begins at 1:12. Indeed, verses 12-14 serve as the propositio—that is, the central proposition that Paul will be expounding in his letter, and an expression of his primary purpose (causa) in writing. In verse 12, Paul essentially declares that he (and his fellow ministers, “we”) have conducted themselves in a worthy manner, with an honest and genuine concern for the welfare of the Corinthian congregations. In verses 13-14, he further expresses the wish (and hope) that the Corinthians will fully understand and acknowledge his relationship to them (as an apostle).
The implication, as will become clear throughout the letter, is that there has been a disruption in the relationship between Paul and the Corinthians, which Paul seeks to restore. The breach in the relationship has come from the Corinthians’ side, and he writes in order to persuade them to restore things from their side.
What follows in 1:15-2:13 is the narratio, a narration and presentation of the facts of the case. Often in Paul’s letters, this takes the form of an autobiographical narration, related to the events of Paul’s own missionary work. Here, his narration spans certain events, only alluded to, which have contributed to the strained relationship. The summary of the changes to his itinerary (1:15-22), by which Paul put off his planned visit to Corinth, are related to an earlier conflict that took place among the churches. He mentions both a ‘sorrowful visit’ (2:1), as well as a ‘tearful letter’ (2:3-4), and these seem to have been in connection with a specific episode, involving the discipline of a particular believer (vv. 5-11).
Many commentators have identified this episode with the one described in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. While this is possible, it is unlikely that 1 Corinthians itself is the ‘tearful letter’ mentioned by Paul. Moreover, the place of this event within the overall context of Paul’s writing in chapters 1-7 makes more sense if the offense involved a personal attack or insult against Paul himself. This, indeed, is suggested by the careful wording in 2:5, in which Paul makes clear that any sorrow (vb lypéœ) brought to him was really brought to the Community as a whole. That is, by offending against a leading minister, one is actually committing an offense against all of the congregation.
The line of argument used by Paul throughout chapters 1-7 does, in fact, focus upon his status as an apostle (apóstolos), and the special relationship that he has—and should have—as an apostle, with the Corinthian churches.
Another source of conflict appears to be the presence/activity of certain apostolic rivals to Paul at Corinth. He only alludes to these in chapters 1-7, but the nature of the references to them, in context, allows us gain a sense of certain features, and the sort of conflict there may have been between they and Paul—see especially, 2:17; 3:1; 5:12-13a. Probably the same people are the target of Paul’s more pointed polemic in chapters 10-13; if chaps. 1-7 and 10-13 are originally part of the same letter, then we can be certain of the identification.
2 Corinthians 2:14ff
This brings us to Paul’s exposition, the probatio (“proving”) of the proposition, which contains the arguments by which he hopes to persuade the Corinthians. He begins this in 2:14-16, with a statement in the form of a thanksgiving, such as we find in the introductions of a number of Paul’s letters:
“Now to God (be thanks for His) favor, the (One) always leading us in a triumph in the Anointed, and the smell of the knowledge of Him shewing (forth) through us in every place, for a good scent of (the) Anointed we are to God among the (one)s being saved and (also) among the (one)s being destroyed—to the (one), a smell out of death into death, and to the (other), a smell out of life into life.”
Paul makes use of two images here to describe his apostolic ministry. The first, using the verb thriambeúœ, is that of people being led (and shown off) as part of a triumphal procession; while the second involves the spread of a distinctive smell/scent (osm¢¡) through the air. The latter is certainly the dominant image in vv. 14-16, and, for this reason, one should be cautious about reading too much into the first image.
The main question regarding the image of the triumphal procession is: are the people being shown off the victors (i.e. the general’s troops, etc) or the vanquished (captured prisoners, etc)? Commentators have been divided on this point—viz., whether Paul is emphasizing strength and victory or weakness and suffering. Overall, the latter seems more likely, in keeping with Paul’s specific emphases, both here in chapters 1-7, but also in chaps. 10-13. Probably the central idea being stressed is that the apostolic missionaries are led about (by God) from place to place, as people through whom God makes His presence manifest, showing it to all people.
The scent exuded by Christian missionaries is specifically that of Christ, “of the Anointed,” and doubtless there is a play on the idea of fragrant oil or perfume used for anointing (compare the imagery in John 12:3). An apostle—one who is “sent forth” by Christ, as his representative—gives out the aroma of Christ. Clearly, the proclamation of the Gospel is what Paul principally has in mind—the “good message” of Christ, given to us by God.
The Divine aspect of the apostolic ministry is certainly being emphasized in the question Paul poses at the close of verse 16: “And toward [i.e. for] these (thing)s, who (is) fit (to serve)?”. The adjective hikanós is related to the verb hiknéomai, which denotes coming to (and reaching) a certain point. Thus the adjective can refer to someone having a certain level of ability or competence to carry out a task. But who is fit for a ministry that involves life and death, of proclaiming a message (the Gospel) so powerful that it will confirm whether a person lives or dies?
The idea of a person’s fitness for the apostolic ministry leads to the apologetic testimony that follows in verse 17. Paul categorically denies being like those who use the word of God as a way to gain personal profit—the basic sense of the verb kap¢leúœ—and, in this regard, he probably has certain apostolic rivals in mind (see the discussion above). Instead, Paul affirms that he conducts himself with sincerity and integrity, as a true servant and minister of God. All throughout 2 Corinthians, there is an apologetic thrust to his discourse, as he defends his status as a true apostle.
In next week’s study, we will turn to 3:1-6, where Paul makes use of a different image to illustrate his fitness as an apostle.