In my previous post I tried to show why most critical scholars think that the letter of 2 Corinthians is actually two different letters that have been spliced together. When I was back in graduate school, I learned – to my surprise – that there were scholars who thought that in fact 2 Corinthians was made up of five different letters, all spliced together. At first that struck me as a bit crazy, but as I looked at the evidence I began to see that it made a good bit of sense.
I’m not completely committed to that idea, but I’m inclined toward it. My sense is that this is the view of a sizeable minority of critical scholars, but I have no data, only anecdotal evidence, to back that up.
In any case, what matters more is what you yourself might think of it. I won’t be giving the evidence in full, but here is how I lay it out for students to consider in my textbook on the New Testament for undergraduates. To see the force of the evidence, you would need actually to look carefully at the letter itself, in light of the considerations I suggest here.
(Incidentally: a reader has asked me whether any of the letters allegedly found in 2 Corinthians could have originally been written by someone other than Paul. You’ll see here that this is widely believed by scholars for one small chunk of the letter. On this particular question, there is a much larger critical agreement on the matter, though not complete consensus).
The Partitioning of 2 Corinthians
A number of New Testament scholars believe that 2 Corinthians comprises not just two of Paul’s letters but four or five of them, all edited together into one larger composition for distribution among the Pauline churches. Most of the “partition theories,” as they are called (since they partition the one letter into a number of others), maintain that chapters 1–9 are not a unity but are made up of several letters spliced together. Read the chapters for yourself and answer the following questions:
- Does the beginning of chapter 8 appear to shift abruptly to a new subject, away from the good news Titus has just brought Paul (about the reconciliatory attitude of the Corinthians) to Paul’s decision to send Titus to collect money for the needy among the Christians? There is no transition to this new subject, and 8:1 sounds like the beginning of the body of a letter. Could it have been taken from a different writing?
- Do the words of 9:1 seem strange after what Paul has said in all of chapter 8? He has been talking for twenty-four verses about the collection for the saints, and then in 9:1 he begins to talk about it again as if it were a new subject that had not yet been broached. Could chapter 9 also, then, have come from a separate letter?
- Does the paragraph found in 6:14–7:1 seem odd in its context? The verse immediately preceding it (6:13) urges the Corinthians to be open to Paul, as does the verse immediately following it (7:2). But the paragraph itself is on an entirely different and unannounced topic: Christians should not associate with nonbelievers. Moreover, there are aspects of this passage that appear unlike anything Paul himself says anywhere else in his writings. Nowhere else, for example, does he call the Devil “Beliar” (v. 15). Has this passage come from some other piece of correspondence (possibly one that Paul didn’t write) and been inserted in the midst of Paul’s warm admonition to the Corinthians to think kindly of him?
If you answered yes to all three of these questions, then you agree with those scholars who see fragments of at least five letters in 2 Corinthians: (a) 1:1–6:13; 7:2–16 (part of the conciliatory letter); (b) 6:14–7:1 (part of a non-Pauline letter?); (c) 8: 1–24 (a letter for the collection, to the Corinthians) (d) 9:1–15 (a letter for the collection, to some other church?); and (e) 10:1–13:13 (part of the painful letter).