Skip to main content

Background Study of the Second Letter of Paul to the Corinthians



The Second letter to the Corinthians presents in a vivid way a summation of Paul’s ministry in a given Christian community, exposing the daily struggles and divisions that to a large extent shaped his life, apostolate and theology. Here in this chapter, a background study will be undertaken to give a smooth takeoff to examining Paul and the central discourse of this essay. There will be an examination of the authorship of the letter, source and characteristic literary features, Paul’s audience, date and composition of the letter and a look into the theology of Paul.


St. Paul is widely known and accepted as the author of the second letter to the Corinthians. The letter is engraved with his style and it contains materials that reflect the apostle’s life in an encompassing form. However, there is the discussion over whether the letter was originally one letter or a composite of two or more of Paul’s letters. The fact of agreement among the scholars that Paul wrote the letter is a clear sign that it is Pauline. This acceptance is hinged on the resources that are drawn from external sources and internal sources presented here under two distinct categories: external evidence and internal evidence.

External evidence

External evidences for ascribing the letter to Paul are quite present and significant. It is true that external witnesses for its genuineness are somewhat later than for the first epistle, but from the middle of the second century we find abundant testimonies in its favour. The earliest attestation to Second Corinthians is its inclusion in Marcion’s canon. Later it appears in the Muratorian Canon and it is known and used by Theophilus and by the author of the epistle to Diognetus. Some Fathers of the Church beginning with Clement of Rome down to St Augustine, made reference to the Second letter to the Corinthians in their writings. In Polycarp, we see in his writing, passages that suggest his familiarity with 2 Corinthians. ‘He that raised Him from the dead will raise us also’ (Poly., Ad Philip.ii.2). This is evidently a quote from 2Cor 4:14. Also, ‘Providing always for that which is honourable in the sight of God and of men’ (Poly., op. cit. vi. 1) is very much like 2Cor 8:21. Again, ‘among whom the blessed Paul laboured’ (Poly., op, cit. xi. 3) doubtless refers to 2Cor 4:14. Clement of Alexander quotes this letter more than forty times (cf. Strom. Iv. 16), and Tertullian over seventy times (cf. Adv. Marc. v, xi. xii; de Pud. xiii), St Cyprian quotes from every chapter of it, excepting i and x.

From the scriptures, we see the presence of Paul in Corinth (Acts 18:1-4), which is his first visit and the possible time for the founding of the Church in Corinth. He spent about eighteen months there preaching the Gospel while working too at the same time (Acts 18:11). Paul is not a stranger to the Church in Corinth. The acceptance of the first letter as truly from Paul and the interplay of visits and letters present in the epistle itself give credence to the Apostle Paul.

Internal evidence

On the internal evidence, first is the fact that the letter itself names Paul as its author (2Cor 1:1); and it gives names that are close associates of Paul such as Timothy, Titus and Silvanus found in other letters (1Cor 4:17, 2Cor 1:19, 8:23, 12:18, Rom 16:21, Phil 1:1, Col 1:1, 1Thess 1:1, Phlm 1:1). The familiar Pauline introduction and benediction is present in the letter (2Cor 1:3, Eph 1:3, Col 1:3, 1Cor 1:4, Rom 1:8). Scholars are of the same opinion that there are similarities between this letter and the Acts of the Apostles, and other letters of Paul, especially First Corinthians, Romans and Galatians (See 2Cor 1:3 & Eph 1:3; 2Cor 8: 21 & Rom 12 17; 2Cor 12:12 & Rom 15:19, 1Thess 1:5). The familiar Pauline introduction and benediction is present in the letter (2Cor 1:3, Eph 1:3, Col 1:3, 1Cor 1:4, Rom 1:8). The ‘holy kiss’ greeting is seen in 2Cor 13 12, 1Cor16:19, Rom 16:16, 1Thess 5:26. Present also is the final greeting: 2Cor 13:13, Rom 16:20, 1Cor 16:23, 1Thess 5:28. It is conceivable that the author of 1Tim 2:13-15 was familiar with 2Cor 11:1-3, same with 2Cor 6:16.

Strong internal evidence pointing to Paul as the writer is seen in the personality, the style and the peculiar characteristics of St. Paul plainly stamped on every page… his entire devotedness to the cause of Christ, his intense love for his children in the faith, his burning zeal and that fire of temperament which are so peculiar to the great Apostle. The flow of words; style, form, thoughts and theology in these letters all carry the Pauline character. It is easy to see elements of Paul’s teaching flowing in this second epistle as with the other letters outlined: It is more of Paul than less of Paul.

For a stronger claim, there is recourse to First Corinthians. Although 2 Corinthians is separated by only one year from First Corinthians (2Cor 8:10, 9:2, cf. 1Cor 16:1-4), this second epistle is said to be a sequel to the first epistle for it is addressed to the same community and if well examined, the subject matter are of like and or same issues present in the first, only that here, it had increased and developed in its intensity and consequence hence the change in the tone of the second epistle. The literary style and form are the same. They include antithetic parallelism (1Cor 15:22, 45ff; 2Cor 4:11), paradox (1Cor 1:26-28; 2Cor 4:8), anacolutha (1Cor 9:15; 2Cor 5:6ff), ellipsis (1Cor 7:29; 2Cor 9:6, chiasmus (1Cor 11:2-16; 2Cor 5:6-8) and litotes (1Cor 15:9; 2Cor 3:5). Pauline traditional themes such as justification by grace through faith, the Christian life lived in Christ and Christian suffering as sharing in Christ’s suffering are present. Pauline literary styles present in other Pauline letters are attested to as basis for the authenticity of Second Corinthians.

In this epistle there are clues that can lead to a hypothetical reconstruction of the events that led to its composition and thus help to connect the two epistles and affirm Paul as the author. Scholars such as Wilfrid Harrington and Victor Paul Furnish have interpreted these clues and given a reconstruction of the available resources. First is the affirmation of an intermediate visit. This visit the apostle recalls was made in sorrow. It cannot be said to be his first visit since that was when he founded the Church and he stayed there for a long period in joy. He clearly calls it his second visit and says that there will be a third (2Cor 2:1; 12:14; 13:2). Since no mention was made of this visit in the first epistle, this intermediate visit must have occurred between the composition of First Corinthians and that of Second Corinthians. Second, Paul talks about an incident where he was insulted by an ‘offender’ (2Cor 2: 5-10; 7:12). It was an insult to his apostolic authority. He demands that the individual be reprimanded. Scholars such as Charles Callan are of the opinion that this individual is different from the incestuous man in 1Cor 5:1 due to the disparity in offense. This was after the composition of First Corinthians. Third, Paul alludes to a letter he wrote in deep sorrow to the Corinthians to register his disappointment regarding the ‘offender’ and tests their obedience (2Cor 2:3-9; 7:8-12). This letter is entirely distinct from second Corinthians. From this there is the evidence that Paul wrote four letters to the Corinthians. The first letter called the “previous letter” was written before the canonical 1 Corinthians as highlighted in 1Cor 5:9. Second is 1 Corinthians. The third is called the “sorrowful letter” attested to in 2Cor 2:3-4, 7:8, written between First Corinthians and Second Corinthians. The fourth is 2 Corinthians.

Although virtually all scholars accept Paul as the writer of 2 Corinthians, there is the discourse whether it is one letter or a composite of several letters. This is as a result of the partitions and break in tone observed in the letter. For example, because 2Cor 7:5ff seems to be the natural continuation of 2Cor 2:12-13, it is argued that an editor forced them apart in order to insert 2Cor 2:14-7:4, which actually belonged to another letter written by Paul to Corinth. With this same explanation applied to similar problems (2Cor 1:1-2:13; 2Cor 6:14-7:1, 2Cor 8:1-24, 2Cor 9:1-15, 2Cor 10:1-13:10), there is the theory that 2 Corinthians is a combination of five originally distinct letters. Scholars in support of the oneness of 2Corinthians reject the notion of independent letters for there is the argument that 2 Corinthians has only one opening formula (2Cor 1: 1-2) and one concluding formula (2Cor 13: 11-13), and one cannot posit a simple gluing together of documents. There is the significant break and shift in tone between chapters 1-9 and chapters 10-13. These scholars such as Murphy O’Connor, Murray Harris and Victor Paul Furnish would argue for independent origins of at least two components.

In the first part of the letter, the apostle is speaking more directly to that portion of the Corinthian community which has remained faithful to him, or at least has returned to him; and to these he explains, in calm and moderate language. Towards the end, while still addressing the whole Church, he is speaking of his determined enemies, and therefore he uses more vigorous language and takes occasion to show his adversaries how superior to them he is. The last part appears to suppose the first part and could not have been written before it, at least in its entirety.

The integrity of 2 Corinthians has been defended by scholars such as Hans Lietzman, Werner Georg Kummel and Victor Paul Furnish on the grounds of a perceived thematic, structural, and functional coherence binding the thirteen chapters together. Paul’s authority as the apostle to and for the Corinthians is the pervasive underlying theme of the letter. Scholars like Murray Harris will say that there is a significant piece of internal evidence which is both present in the two available epistles to the Corinthians. This evidence is the fact that through the two epistles and particularly in the Second epistle, we see a humbled, frightened apostle trying to hold his community from falling into relapse. What was portrayed of Paul was not glorious, it was rather belittling. He believes that a pious imitator would be unlikely to portray Paul as an apostle in danger of losing his authority at Corinth or struggling to preserve the Corinthians from Apostasy. Both the internal and external evidences allot the author of the epistle to Paul.



A careful reading of this epistle will make ready to us the fact that there is a special character and style inherent in this letter. It is observed clearly in the abrupt shift inherent in the subject matter, the tone and also the style. This letter showcases a variety of thoughts and feelings. Its themes and progression is one continuous alternation of joy and depression, anxiety and hope, trust and resentment, anger and love. “The letter includes elements of various ancient letter styles: reproof, comfort and especially friendship.

Paul’s literary style deals with how Paul varies the style of his writing to aid communication. Although we can talk about Paul’s literary style as seen in his letters, we can also identify some important characteristics of this epistle as quite distinct in a way from his other letters. We can identify the use of imagery, logical diagrams, verb density, sentence changing, complexity of the writing, adverbs and adverbial clauses, propositional reduction, abstract versus concrete nouns, Leo Splitzer’s philosophical circle and variety of sentence length.

Paul does make use of autobiographical references in letters. First is simple autobiography, of which he presents himself as one with them (2Cor 7:5; Phil 1:2ff). Paul uses his life as an example to be imitated; apostolic autobiography (2Cor 1:8-10; 1Thess 2:1-12). Sometimes he is apologetic: making a defense of himself, his mission as against wrong charges made by others (2Cor 12:1ff; 1Cor 9). In Paul and in 2 Corinthians one finds parallelisms, easy interchange of prose form and metre form (cf 2Cor 5:13) ... He has a great range of allusions and striking metaphors not always easy to grasp (2Cor 6:14).

Paul uses imagery as a literary style to explain some of his thoughts (2Cor 4:16-5:10). “Paul expresses his thought about mortal existence and eschatological existence in allusive language that is not easy to decipher…some of Paul’s imagery gives an insight into what he expects in the other world. His teaching about the contrast between human living and living in Christ is couched in imagery. There is the use of parallel words and phrases such as life and death, flesh and spirit, body and soul, light and darkness (2 Cor 3:3; 5:10). The letter exhibits a tumult of contending emotions. Wounded affection, joy, self-respect, hatred of self-assertion, consciousness of authority, and the importance of his ministry, scorn of his opponents, toss themselves like waves on the troubled sea of his mind.…Strong language…figurative expressions, abrupt turns, phrases seized and flung at his assailants, words made up, iterated, played upon, mark this Epistle far more than any other of the Apostle’s letters.

There are traditional words that are Pauline and not found in other places. Special introductory formula such as ‘we all know…’ or ‘I handed on to you’, a list of virtues or vices, a set piece of ethical exhortation, a credal formula, an apocalyptic warning or judgment saying.

Scroll to Continue


The city of Corinth was an ancient Greek city that was blossoming in commercial activities. The city controlled two harbours, Cenchreae leading to Asia and Lechaeum to Italy, as well as major land route from the Peloponnese. Merchants, envoys, pilgrims and other travelers passed through the city. The city was a luxurious one. It was a centre of attraction and business. It had a high number of visitors who came in for trade. It soon became the sexual hub of the surrounding nations because of it tourist nature. We will see Paul’s teaching on immorality and the boasting of wealth and earthly possession in this epistle.

This letter was written to the believing community of the city of Corinth. They were relatively new converts to the faith catechized by Paul himself of which he had constant relationship with as attested to by the different letters preceding this second epistle. Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians is very complicated. Since he is the founder of the community, he is responsible for it just as a ‘father’ is responsible for the behaviour and well being of his children. The identity of the people of the Corinthian Church is quite contentious. Some scholars argue that this community is predominantly Gentile as attested to by Paul himself when he was rejected by the Jews (Acts 18: 6). However it is maintained that the Church in Corinth had both Jew and Gentile representation.

It is important to note that the audience of First Corinthians is the same with that of Second Corinthians in respect to geographical location and setting (2Cor 1:1), but pastorally, Second Corinthians has a special audience. It is true that the letter was addressed to the whole Church, yet, it was a form of apologetics to the opponents of Paul in Corinth. He addressed some salient issues that were of particular and or of personal nature. The mixture of commendation and reproach show that he was satisfied with some members of the community and had issues with others (2Cor 13:1-9).

Second Corinthians is a letter dear to the heart of Paul. It is filled with expressions of deep emotion and personal sentiments. Thus it helps us to access Paul more personally, gives us considerable insight into Paul’s inner self and enter deep into his person and ministry. He wrote to encourage the Church; giving them as an example, his life of courage and self sacrificing love. It may well be the most oratorically persuasive of all Paul’s writings. Paul exhausted his writing techniques and dynamics, all in the bid to convey his deep sentiments.

The purpose of this epistle would seem to be Paul’s desire to express relief at the good news that was communicated to him about the improved lifestyle and attitude of the Corinthians. However he addressed some issues that were not yet clarified using himself as a point of reference. These issues were about immorality, proper Christian living, understanding eschatology and the authenticity of his apostolate. There is also the collection for the poor ones in Jerusalem. Through 2Cor 8 and 9 he talks about this important Christian duty.

Paul’s purpose of writing this letter is said to be a response to the conditions of the Church in Corinth. “Although the present epistle is the only extant source from which we may gather the events and causes, scholars such as Charles Callan and Craig Keener find in the information which it affords reasons for two opposing conclusions. For Charles Callan, the first conclusion is the belief that this second epistle was written due to the information brought to Paul by Timothy and Titus from Corinth. The recent conclusion opines that this epistle was occasioned by the report that followed a letter written by Paul to the faithful of Corinth after their reception of First Corinthians.

Paul wrote a letter, known now as the ‘previous letter’ in which he admonished the Corinthians to stay away from immorality and immoral persons (1Cor 5:9). This letter seemed not to have been well understood and accepted by the Corinthians. At the same time as hearing of their misunderstanding of his previous letter Paul heard reports of disorder in the Church from the household of Chloe (1Cor 1:11). “He possibly received a delegation from the Church in the persons of Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus (1Cor 16:17) with issues that needed clarification. All these necessitated the writing of First Corinthians.

Timothy was not the bearer of First Corinthians, however he will be sent by Paul to Corinth (1Cor 16: 10). Although Paul had promised to pay them a visit in respect to the gift donations to Jerusalem on his way to Macedonia (1Cor 16:3; 5), it seemed he heard other reports and he immediately paid them a visit. This visit to the Corinthians was not a memorable one; it was a painful experience (2Cor 2:1). On his return, he sent a letter that was to convey his great distress, sorrow and anguish of heart (2Cor 2:4), and to rectify the problem. This letter, probably carried by Titus, is known as the ‘sorrowful letter’. Paul had in the meantime left Ephesus and was awaiting the arrival of Titus at Troas with the news of the reception of the letter. He failed to meet him there but they later met at Macedonia and there Titus expressed the good reception of the letter. Paul wrote Second Corinthians to express his relief at the reception of the sorrowful letter, the improved state of the Corinthian Church and the mission of Titus.

The Second letter to the Corinthians is a letter of recommendation of which Paul sought to amend the bonds of trust and friendship earlier established with the Church in Corinth. The Apostle expressed his satisfaction at the faithful who are true to him, explaining the reason for his previous letter and gives instructions for the collection for the poor. He also replied to the attacks of his adversaries, establishing on a final and unshaken basis, his apostolic authority. He writes a letter of self-commendation defending himself against the accusations leveled against him and authenticating his preaching and Apostolate.



The dating of this epistle is quite complicated, because of the historical background that is ascribed to it. We cannot talk about the dating of second Corinthians without talking about First Corinthians. The date of second Corinthians is inseparably linked to First Corinthians and also to some parts of the Acts of the Apostles. Different scholars have proposed dates for the composition of the second epistle drawing from the first epistle. The first epistle has an earlier date of 56AD, but Charles Callan prefers to pitch it on the year 57AD. In accordance with the first epistle, an earlier date such as 56 A.D is proposed for the second epistle too. Raymond Brown and Charles Callan are of the opinion that it should have been written between 57 and 58 AD. The most widely held and accepted dating of this epistle is 57AD.

The date and place of writing have a link to the conclusions on the purpose of the letter. If we go with the first conclusion that opined that the purpose of this epistle was due to the feedback given to Paul by Timothy and Titus, then the first epistle was written at Ephesus in the spring of perhaps the year 57 AD. Around Pentecost the same year St Paul left Ephesus and went to Troas. Not finding Titus, he passed over to Macedonia where he was soon met by Titus and informed of the conditions in Corinth. So, Charles Callan pitched the place of composition as Macedonia; and the probably date of the letter as written in the autumn of 57A.D.

An acceptance of the second conclusion that this epistle was occasioned by the report that followed a letter written by Paul to the faithful in Corinth after their reception of First Corinthians, will mean then that “enough time would have to be granted for the intervening visit of St. Paul to Corinth, for the intermediate letter which is supposed to have followed upon that visit, and the ensuring developments in the Corinthian Church. Thus to say that First Corinthians, the letter after it and then second Corinthians were written the same year will not be accepted due to time factor, mode of writing, reactions to the letter and the later replies. Probably this epistle would have been written during the middle of the year 58A.D. However, the widely accepted date for Second Corinthians is 57AD.


In the heart of Paul’s theology is eschatology. Hence, Paul’s understanding of Christ himself (Christology) and his understanding of the death and resurrection of Christ as God’s means of salvation (Soteriology) takes its framework from ‘Eschatology.’ All Paul’s teaching, his Christology, Soteriology, love, sacrifice, reconciliation, defense of the faith and Christian living all take their basis from the understanding of eschatology. In every step he enlightens them more to the knowledge of the world to come inaugurated by Jesus.

Paul talks about Christ devotion and soteriology. It is not that Paul has not mentioned Christ’s role in salvation heretofore; he has indeed. Most of what Paul had written explains either his understanding of the person of Christ or his Pasch as our means of salvation. However, what has not occurred to this point in the letters is some kind of exposition of the means and meaning of Christ’s death as ‘for us:’ the new covenant means of creating a people for God’s name. Who it is who died for us is absolutely crucial to Paul’s understanding of the story.

Paul elaborates upon the destiny of the Christian, the Christian’s future glory. For Paul, the earthly house in which we live is the body; the eternal house will be the glorified body, which is the glorified body of Christ, which will be the reward of those who are found worthy in Christ. The destiny of the Christian is in the final resurrection. If we are united with Christ in his suffering, we would also be united with him in his resurrection.

Paul was keen on the understanding and theology of the resurrection. First, Paul explains that denial of the believer’s resurrection is to deny also the resurrection of Christ: Consequently, it is denial of the Christian faith (2Cor 15:1-9). Second, he affirms that, based on Christ’s resurrection, the believer has the assurance of the final subjection of all things to him, and of his own ultimate resurrection (2Cor 15:20-34). Third, he answers the principal question as regards the resurrected body. The body will be a higher form of body than what we have now (2Cor 15:35-40). Finally he asserts that the resurrection will be at the parousia and in view of this he implored the Corinthians to be steadfast in God.

Paul talks about human weakness and God’s transcendent power: He acknowledges human weakness. He boasts of his weakness because in his weakness, he reflects the power of Christ (2Cor 12:8-9). Paul says that as Christians, we are made strong by God’s power made active in us. We are earthen vessels. We have this treasure in earthen vessels to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us (2Cor 4:7). For Paul, Christ and the Spirit’s power are more visible in him when he is weak than when he is strong.

Paul talks about the new covenant in Christ: What is required in the new dispensation is a total configuration of the individual to Christ. Paul describes the new covenant in Christ as one in which the glory of God is made manifest. Everyone who sees that glory will be changed into the glory of Christ who is the image of God. He who wants to be united to Christ no matter his status must seek to be changed in order to experience Christ anew. One who feels that just lip service or shallow relationship with God is enough is deluding his or herself. We share in the death of Christ and his glory through weakness and suffering.

Paul talks about faith and responsive Christian life. It is true that God has reconciled in Christ the world to himself. This work of redemption was consummated on the Cross by Christ, of which we are called to break from our old self and lead responsive Christian lives. Reconciliation goes with responsibility. Redemption goes with faith. Paul’s faith is a close identification with Christ in his death and rising that becomes part of the fabric of the Christian’s life as he or she thereby dies to self and rises to ‘walk’, to ‘serve’, to ‘live’ in newness under Christ’s lordship.

Grace for Paul, is a supernatural gift of God that is bestowed on us for our sanctification and salvation. “In the new dispensation, grace is mediated through human channels and Paul was conscious that his inadequacy could block the transmission of grace which enabled the Corinthians to respond to God’s invitation: he could rob the cross of Christ of its power; his ministry could be a stumbling block. Such is the awesome responsibility of ministers.


The Second letter to the Corinthians is no doubt the work and thought of Paul himself. The literary style, date, purpose and theology all allude to Paul. Although the debate about the compilation and integral oneness of the letter is still on, it is not really germane to what the essay seeks to treat and it also does not discredit the letter. The background study of this letter gives more understanding about the letter and the person of Paul and help in approaching the thoughts and theology contained in it.

Related Articles