Squaring Up Paul's Correspondence with Corinth

[The following is taken from Barclay's commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, with editing]

There was a letter which preceded 1 Corinthians. According to the Revised Standard Version, in 1 Corinthians 5:9 Paul writes: ‘I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral men.’ This obviously refers to some previous letter. Some scholars believe that letter is lost without trace. Others think it is contained in 2 Corinthians 6:14–7:1. Certainly, that passage suits what Paul said he wrote about. It occurs rather awkwardly in its context, and, if we take it out and read straight on from 2 Corinthians 6:13 to 7:2, we get excellent sense and connection. Scholars call this letter ‘the Previous Letter’. (In the original letters, there were no chapter or verse divisions. The chapters were not divided up until the thirteenth century and the verses not until the sixteenth century; and, because of that, the arranging of the collection of letters would be much more difficult.)

The result of the letter was that things became worse than ever; and, although we have no direct record of it, we can deduce that Paul paid a personal visit to Corinth. In 2 Corinthians 12:14, he writes: ‘Here I am, ready to come to you this third time.’ In 2 Corinthians 13:1–2, he says again that he is coming to them for the third time. Now, if there was a third time, there must have been a second time. We have the record of only one visit, the story of which is told in Acts 18:1–17. We have no record at all of the second, but it only took two or three days to sail from Ephesus to Corinth.

The visit did no good at all. Matters were only exacerbated, and the result was an exceedingly severe letter. We learn about that letter from certain passages in 2 Corinthians. In 2:4, Paul writes: ‘I wrote to you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears.’ In 7:8, he writes: ‘For even if I made you sorry with my letter, I do not regret it (though I did regret it, for I see that I grieved you with that letter, though only briefly).’ It was a letter which was the product of anguish of mind, a letter so severe that Paul was almost sorry that he ever sent it.

Scholars call this ‘the Severe Letter’. Have we got it? It obviously cannot be 1 Corinthians, because that is not a tear-stained and anguished letter. When Paul wrote it, it is clear enough that things were under control. Now, if we read through 2 Corinthians, we find an odd situation. In chapters 1–9, everyone has made up, there is complete reconciliation and all are friends again; but at chapter 10 comes the strangest break. Chapters 10–13 are the most heartbroken cry Paul ever wrote. They show that he has been hurt and insulted as he never was before or afterwards by any church. His appearance, his speech, his apostleship and his honesty have all been under attack.

Most scholars believe that chapters 10–13 are the severe letter, and that they became misplaced when Paul’s letters were put together. If we want the real chronological course of Paul’s correspondence with Corinth, we really ought to read chapters 10–13 of 2 Corinthians before chapters 1–9. We do know that this letter was sent off with Titus (2 Corinthians 2:13, 7:13).

Paul was worried about this letter. He could not wait until Titus came back with an answer, so he set out to meet him (2 Corinthians 2:13, 7:5, 7:13). Somewhere in Macedonia, he met him and learned that all was well; and, probably at Philippi, he sat down and wrote 2 Corinthians 1–9, the letter of reconciliation.

A summary of the progress of the Corinthian correspondence . . .
  • ‘The Previous Letter’, which may be contained in 2 Cor 6:14–7:1.
  • The arrival of Chloe’s people, Stephanas, Fortunatus & Achaicus, & the letter to Paul from Corinth.
  • 1 Corinthians is written in reply and is dispatched with Timothy.
  • The situation grows worse, and Paul pays a personal visit to Corinth which is such a complete failure that it almost breaks his heart.
  • The consequence is ‘the Severe Letter’, which is almost certainly contained in 2 Corinthians 10–13, and which was dispatched with Titus.
  • Unable to wait for an answer, Paul sets out to meet Titus. He meets him in Macedonia, learns all is well and, probably from Philippi, writes 2 Cor 1–9, ‘the Letter of Reconciliation’.[1]
  [1] Barclay, W. (2002). The Letters to the Corinthians (3rd ed., p. 9). Louisville, KY; London: Westminster John Knox Press