Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Paul and the Super-apostles at Corinth (NT 2.8),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified February 11, 2023, https://philipharland.com/Blog/?p=185.
“Form of . . . a rhetorically persuasive super-apostle!”
Paul’s relations with various groups of Christians at Corinth had its ups and downs, but mostly downs it seems. In the time leading up to his writing of what we call 1 Corinthians (actually at least his second letter to them — see 1 Cor 5:9), there were divisions among different groups meeting in different homes, and there were also divisions between those who, in Paul’s view, thought they were superior either socially or spiritually. Some wealthier members with time for leisure were arriving early for the Lord’s supper and consuming all the better food and wine before the arrival of the lower class Christians who had to work for a living (11:17-34). Some Corinthians who felt they had a special connection with things spiritual were viewing their ability to receive divine messages in the form of seemingly nonsensical languages (“tongues”) as a sign of superiority over those who did not receive such messages (12-14). Some other Corinthians, like the woman Chloe, who was likely a leader, were concerned about the situation and communicated this to Paul by messenger (1:11).
Rocky relations continued or even intensified afterwards when Paul made another visit to Corinth, one that he calls a “painful visit” (2 Cor 2:1). A “tearful letter” (2:4) was soon to follow, and it seems that this tearful letter is at least partially preserved in 2 Corinthians 10-13. (2 Corinthians is most likely more than one letter, with chapters 10-13 chronologically predating chapters 1-9).
In that tearful, angst-driven letter (2 Cor 10-13), Paul struggles with the problem that some among the Corinthian followers of Jesus were preferring some other travelling leaders who had arrived in Corinth after Paul’s departure. And these leaders were teaching about Jesus from another angle. Paul sarcastically calls these leaders “super-apostles” (12:11) and, like Paul, they were Jewish, not Gentile (11:22).
What were their super-powers? Not flying. For one, they gave good speeches — better than Paul’s in the view of at least the educated Corinthian Jesus-followers. Paul characterizes these Corinthians as complaining that Paul is “humble when face to face” but “bold” when away (10:1). Furthermore, some of the Corinthians “say ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech of no account.'” (10:10; RSV).
The derogatory view of Paul as a wimp may well be part of a larger problem of enmity which some Corinthians were showing towards the apostle. For, unlike the super-apostles who did accept the Corinthians’ financial support in their teaching endeavours (perhaps in line with the teaching of Jesus in Luke 10), Paul had blatantly rejected the Corinthians’ offer of a financial gift to support Paul’s activities. To top things off, he had rejected the Corinthians’ gift while accepting a similar gift from the more amicable Macedonians. He blatantly states this in the key passage 2 Cor 11:7-14 (likely the Philippians are in mind, as his letter to them clearly shows that he accepted gifts or benefactions from them). This sort of approach might only intensify the enmity.
In the Greco-Roman world, such benefaction or patronage should be accepted if one did not want to shame the giver and trigger precisely the enmity of the giver (i.e. you would be treated as an enemy). According to such reciprocal, societal conventions, the appropriate response to benefaction would be for Paul to accept the gift and offer some form of honour in return. Saying that you were rejecting the gift and support so as to avoid “burdening” someone, as does Paul, wouldn’t do much. So the reasons why the Corinthians preferred the super-apostles over Paul was somewhat complicated, involving rhetorical ability, economic relations, and cultural conventions.
This is the situation which leads Paul to his very sarcastic response, in which he argues that he is at least as good as these super-apostles (12:11) and in which he engages in all kinds of over-the-top boasting while asserting that he doesn’t like to. In essence he says: “I don’t like to boast, but if I were to boast like a madman then I would say that I am not only equal to but superior to these so-called super-apostles . . . I even took a trip to the third heaven (who of them can say that). I’m not such a wimp, and even if I am, God is on the side of wimps.”
The extremely rocky relations were not to last forever, though. For, if 2 Corinthians 1-9 actually post-dates chapters 10-13, then by the time Paul wrote that letter the Corinthians had been reconciled with Paul, partly as a result of his tearful letter:
“even if I made you sorry with my [tearful] letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it), for I see that that letter grieved you, though only for a while. As it is, I rejoice, not because you were grieved, but because you were grieved into repenting; for you felt a godly grief, so that you suffered no loss through us” (2 Cor 7:8-9).
All’s well that ends well.
(I won’t explain what I am alluding to in the opening line of this post, which, if I am lucky, will at most give one or two readers a retro-chuckle).