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Is 2 Corinthians *FIVE* Letters?

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).

To see the evidence, you need to belong to the blog.  HEY, it’s a New Year.  Why not give yourself your first 2018 treat?  Join the Blog.  There is not much time left, the end is near — so why not???

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  1. Avatar
    billsturm  January 2, 2018

    It’s an interesting article to me, specifically, because I have recently completed a commentary on 2 Corinthians. I appreciate the evidence and the tone.

  2. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  January 2, 2018

    For those new to the blog, I strongly recommend Dr Ehrman’s textbook on the New Testament. It is a terrific book, both in format and content, and not hard to read and understand. It also serves as a nice summary of some of his other books, putting a lot of his work together in one place,.

    • NulliusInVerba
      NulliusInVerba  January 3, 2018

      Is this the one titled “Brief Introduction…”?

      • Bart
        Bart  January 5, 2018

        I think he means the other one, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings.

    • Avatar
      NancyGKnapp  January 3, 2018

      I just ordered the NT textbook yesterday; it’s on its way. Bart refers to it often in posts. I agree it should be a good resource for anyone who studies and/or teaches the NT.

  3. Avatar
    Todd  January 2, 2018

    I think this makes sense. The writers of these letter, such as Paul, never considered that they were writing what would become scripture that would be analyzed 2000 years in the future. They were writing to human communities about issues important to those communities at that moment in time. It is very reasonable that someone would pass along those portions that were important to all of the communities in one document for sharing. We’re dealing here with human dynamics and that was the only way to spread these teachings. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this.

  4. Avatar
    Silver  January 2, 2018

    Re: Are we able to help what we believe? (Forgive me for returning to this but it is forefront in my mind)
    I can agree with SidDhartha1953 [Blog 24/12/17] (and with Bart’s view) that we can change perhaps from a fundamentalist to a Marxist but is that not just changing our BEHAVIOUR i.e. we now ACT according to our new belief? Have we actually been in control of what we now believe or has that belief come about through a process of accommodating or assimilating new information which has come to us and then through, perhaps, cognitive dissonance we have been unable to resist the need to change?
    I think here of those who recanted their faith under extreme torture to save themselves from further agony. Did those unfortunates actually CHANGE their BELIEF or simply do as was demanded of them? Did tortured Catholics stop believing in transubstantiation or the efficacy of prayers to the Virgin or did they just say they did?
    Can you, Bart, after all your study contemplate ever now being able believe in the Nativity? You may be free to change but are you conceptually/cognitively able to choose so to do?
    Did Winston Smith in ‘1984’ after Room 101 REALLY believe that 2+2=5 or whatever it was they made him say?

  5. Avatar
    dwcriswell  January 2, 2018

    Bart a question about a previous post and overall question. We understand the importance of the blog to the charities but do you often get new insight or information from interacting with others on the blog? Is this a valuable aspect of the blog or is just interaction with others mainly just discussing issues you have previously discussed?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2018

      Ah, I think I’ll add that one to the mailbag!

      • Avatar
        Judith  January 3, 2018

        Also, would you add to that whether or not you feel some support from certain bloggers? My hope is that you do.

  6. Avatar
    mjordan20149  January 2, 2018

    John Crossan asserted that 2 Corinthians included 6 separate letters! I don’t think that there is much scholarly support for that, but it was interesting nevertheless.

  7. Avatar
    fishician  January 2, 2018

    I hadn’t noticed the oddness of the 6:14 passage before, but it does seem out of place. Kind of like the woman-caught-in-adultery story in John 8, where the narrative flows smoother without that insert. Does the 6:14 passage echo any specific early Christian writing that we know of (e.g. the Didache)? Any other major examples of significant insertions into the NT books? (I know there is a lot of editing and smaller insertions.)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2018

      No, no echoes that I can think of. And yes, there are other interpolations: for example, 1 Cor. 14:34-35 probably. I think I’ll deal with this in a blog post!

  8. Avatar
    stokerslodge  January 2, 2018

    Bart, are there similar views among scholars with regard to 1 Corinthians?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2018

      None that is widely held. It is almost always seen as a unity.

  9. Avatar
    joncopeland  January 2, 2018

    You mentioned that 2 Cor 10-13 is part of the painful letter. I assume this is the same “tearful” letter mentioned in 1 Cor. How do scholars make the case for 2 Cor 10-13 being this letter?

    Thanks Dr. Ehrman.

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2018

      Because of the tenor and tone of the letter and it’s subject matter. It *appears* to presuppose the kind of situation that Paul is referring to prior to the resolution of the problems he was having with the church before the issues were resolved, as I tried to explain in my previous post on it.

  10. Avatar
    seahawk41  January 2, 2018

    Interesting. I’m petty sure that back in the day when I read the Bible regularly, I noticed some of these discontinuities. I thought that was just the way Paul wrote, or the way the ancients wrote, or … Until someone suggests a letter might be composite, you don’t consider that possibility, or at least I didn’t! I’ll have to read it again and see what I think now!

  11. Avatar
    ask21771  January 2, 2018

    How many secular bible scholars besides you believe Jesus didn’t have a tomb

    • Bart
      Bart  January 3, 2018

      Ha! I have no idea. There are very, very few secular Bible scholars. In fact, I’m wondering if I need more than my ten digits to count off the ones I know. My guess is that most of them are fairly sympathetic with my view on this one.

      • Robert
        Robert  January 3, 2018

        “There are very, very few secular Bible scholars. In fact, I’m wondering if I need more than my ten digits to count off the ones I know.”

        Really? I’ve been out of the business of biblical scholarship for 25 years, but my impression at the time was that most of us, meaning my fellow doctoral students and our professors and their colleagues at other major universities, were completely secular in our methodology. Yes, some were nominally religious, but it never ever seemed to affect their methodology or conclusions, which would never have been accepted among professional colleagues and students. For the most part, we completely avoided seminary or confessional ‘scholars’ when seeking out diverse scholarly views. Perhaps my experience was skewed by studying in universities of central and northern Europe, far away from both the Bible Belt and Roman authorities. Was my ‘scholarly milieu’ relatively unique or have things changed dramatically in the past 25 years?

        • Bart
          Bart  January 5, 2018

          It’s always been the case that the vast majority of New Testament scholars have been, on one level or another, committed Christians.

          • Robert
            Robert  January 5, 2018

            “It’s always been the case that the vast majority of New Testament scholars have been, on one level or another, committed Christians.”

            I’m sure that’s true, especially if one includes all the seminary and confessional ‘scholars’ who make up an organization like SBL (much less so STNS), but what about among the higher echelons of elite, world-class scholars in the top, let’s say 5-10% of scholarship in the Hebrew scriptures and Greek New Testament? Do you think their ‘Christian faith’ really dictates their methodologies and conclusions? I didn’t think so 25 years ago and would have hoped that would still be the case today. Is it not?

          • Bart
            Bart  January 7, 2018

            Greek NT, top 5-10% — absolutely it’s true. Again, I can think of exceptions enough to fill up the digits of one hand. Who are your favorite NT scholars? Almost all of them, in one way or another, would identify themselves as followers of Jesus.

          • Robert
            Robert  January 7, 2018

            “Greek NT, top 5-10% — absolutely it’s true. … Who are your favorite NT scholars? Almost all of them, in one way or another, would identify themselves as followers of Jesus.”

            I already agreed that the majority are at least nominally Christian, but note that I was talking about whether the methodology and conclusions of the top 5-10% of scholars were in fact dictated by their Christian faith.

            So, in terms of NT source criticism, I think the best scholar of recent times was perhaps Frans Neirynck of the University of Leuven. I know he was once an ordained Catholic priest, apparently not active as such for very many years, but I cannot think of a single way in which his methodology or conclusions were not completely secular and not at all dictated in any way by Christian faith. Perhaps not in the same caliber as Neirynck, but the leading proponent of the second most prominent NT source-critical theory, Mark Goodacre (who I hope is not reading this), is even more radical in his conclusions with respect to the lack of independent attestation among the various Jesus traditions. I am not as familiar with Mark’s scholarly work so I don’t know to what extent, if any, his methodology or conclusions may be dictated by his Christian faith, but from what I have seen of his source-critical scholarship, it plays no role whatsoever. Can you point to anything in the methodologies and conclusions of Neirynck or Goodacre that were dictated by their Christian faith? My favorite Pauline scholars, at least for the moment, are Jewish and atheist, but that is much less of a specialty of mine. I also think Phillip Sigal had perhaps the most important insight into the Pharisees of Jesus’ time, ‘though Jesus of history ‘scholarship’ was by no means his specialty. Proponent of the empty tomb: Geza Vermes.

            If you really want to claim that the methodologies and conclusions of the top 5-10% of NT scholars is dictated by their Christian faith, please give some counter-examples. I would merely respond that such are clearly not top scholars if their methodologies and conclusions are dictated by their Christian faith–they would be at best shoddy apologists.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 8, 2018

            No, I’ve never said that their methodologies and conclusions were dictated by their Christian faith. Why would you assume that’s my view?

          • Robert
            Robert  January 8, 2018

            “No, I’ve never said that their methodologies and conclusions were dictated by their Christian faith. Why would you assume that’s my view?”

            I actually didn’t think you really thought that, in fact I was pretty sure you had misread my question and was trying to let you clarify so we could get back on track.

            “… my fellow doctoral students and our professors and their colleagues at other major universities, were completely secular in our methodology. … Do you think their ‘Christian faith’ really dictates their methodologies and conclusions?”

            “Greek NT, top 5-10% — absolutely it’s true.”

            I think it is important to evaluate scholars based on their methodologies and how they draw their conclusions, and if they meet those standards, it hardly matters if they come from Jewish, Christian, agnostic, or atheist background or worldview.

          • Bart
            Bart  January 9, 2018

            Sorry — I misread your original question. No, I don’t think the top 5-10% have their methodologies driven by their faith. Their conclusions? Sometimes, but not always.

      • Greg Matthews
        Greg Matthews  January 4, 2018

        I’ve often wondered which scholars are secular aside from you (not counting mythicists and the like). I’ve never asked anyone because I thought maybe it was a bit intrusive. Since you can think of so few can you name them? I’ve read a lot of books and articles both scholarly and for general audience and I’ve never been able to figure out the authors who are secular, but there are a few religious scholars who clearly wear their opinions on their sleeve -or- are open about it (like Larry Hurtado) while still being critical of what is written in the Bible.

        • Bart
          Bart  January 5, 2018

          I’m disinclined to name names since I don’t know if they would want me to do so. Sorry. But just now I can really think of only half a dozen at most!

          • Greg Matthews
            Greg Matthews  January 5, 2018

            No problem. I’ve wondered if maybe not all of them were willing to say they were secular. I just draw my own conclusions based on what I read between the lines then!

  12. Avatar
    Tony  January 2, 2018

    Again, we find ourselves in the weeds. 2 Cor is pretty interesting as is. Paul says plenty about early Christianity, without having to look for fragments.

    – Paul knows nothing about the Jesus of the Gospels. Not a hint about any knowledge of Jesus having an earthly ministry, disciples or performing miracles. Paul does not know anything about the Baptist, Pilate, Jerusalem Crucifixion, tomb issues – you name it.

    – Paul hustles for money in 2 Cor 9. He encourages the Corinthians to meet the generosity of the Macedonians. God loves a cheerful giver. Paul – the forerunner of televangelists.

    – Paul fights the other Jesus competition. Writes that he preached to the Corinthians for free! Paul calls his competition false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. Their end will correspond to their death. 2 Cor 11:13-15

    – The indestructible Paul. Countless beatings often near death, five time forty lashes less one, three time beaten with rods, once stoned (!), three times shipwrecked, dangers everywhere. 2 Cor 11:23-28

    – Paul, the believer in multiple heavens. Went to the third heaven and was caught up in Paradise, 2 Cor 12.

    – Paul never identifies a revelation from the Lord in 2 Cor, and with good reason! Church members wanted proof that Christ was indeed speaking to him, as in 2 Cor 13:3, (the real purpose behind 2 Corinthians). Hats off to the Corinthians! Paul threatens that Jesus will get them and deal with Paul’s accusers.

  13. Avatar
    Wilusa  January 3, 2018

    OT…but at least, someone else has mentioned belief in Jesus’s “tomb” here!

    I just had a really radical thought. I think most of us who post here believe Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead, but some of his disciples became convinced that he had. Because they had vivid dreams or “visions,” or possibly because his body had “disappeared” – with a natural explanation – from a tomb in which it had been placed.

    What if *none* of the disciples thought he’d risen from the dead – they made the whole thing up?

    Consider: Maybe these men had believed John the Baptist was the Messiah. He was executed – so OK, he *wasn’t* the Messiah. They latched onto another charismatic preacher, Jesus. Decided *he* was the Messiah. But it ended the same way. And they didn’t have another charismatic preacher.

    However…they wanted to continue on the path Jesus had urged: telling people the “Kingdom” was coming soon, and they should “live as if it was already here.” They all really believed in a coming “general resurrection.” So why not try claiming Jesus had risen from the dead – the “first fruit” of the general resurrection – and had then “ascended into Heaven”?

    They tried…and it worked. (After all, no one ever *did* produce any “evidence” that Jesus had risen from the dead! The only point at issue here is whether the disciples actually believed he had.)

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2018

      That was the argument, back in the 1770s, of Hermann Samuel Reimarus, the first scholar to write a critical examination of the life of Jesus (and argued numerous times since then)

  14. Avatar
    mannix  January 3, 2018

    The New American Bible (St. Joseph Edition) pretty much supports your views on partitioning. In the Introduction (which nobody* reads): “Many judge…that this letter…incorporates several briefer letters sent to Corinth over a certain span of time…Paul himself or, more likely, some other editor clearly took care to gather those letters together and impose some literary unity upon the collection…”. OTOH, “Others continue to regard it as a single letter, attributing its inconsistencies to changes of perspective in Paul that may have been occasioned by the arrival of fresh news from Corinth during its composition”.

    More specifically, in the footnotes (which, again, nobody* reads): “Chapters 8 and 9 contain what appears to be two letters…”. Ch. 6,17-7:1; “”vocabulary and thought…are more characteristic of Qumran documents or the book of Revelation than… Paul. Hence critics suspect that this section was inserted by another hand”.

    As you know, the NAB is a Catholic Bible, and this edition first published around 50 years ago. Do other bibles generally offer similar interpretation?

    * an exaggeration, of course…but not that much!

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2018

      Those edited by critical scholars, yes.

    • Avatar
      HawksJ  January 6, 2018

      “attributing its inconsistencies to changes of perspective in Paul that may have been occasioned by the arrival of fresh news from Corinth during its composition”.

      Bart, this note from the NAB brought to mind a question I’ve long wondered: due to their complexity and length, Paul’s epistles don’t seem at all like what we think of today as personal letters of correspondence that one would sit down and quickly knock out.

      I know it would vary greatly, but what is your sense of how long it would’ve taken him to complete one of these epistles – a day or two, a week, a few weeks, or even months? The note referenced above about ‘the arrival of fresh news during it’s composition’ seems to presume many days, if not weeks.

  15. Avatar
    J.J.  January 5, 2018

    Just curious. You didn’t mention one of the common seams that many partition theories include, how 2:1-13 and 7:5-16 appear to fit together smoothly. In 2:1-13, Paul is writing about his contacts with Corinth and his last words in this section are regarding Titus and Macedonia. And then there is nothing more about these contacts or his travel itinerary or personal details or names of places or mention of people, until suddenly in 7:5-16 he resumes all this as he writes about Titus and Macedonia, right where he left off 5 chapters earlier in 2:13. If one reads 2:1-13 and 7:5-16 consecutively, it seems (no pun intended) to flow together very smoothly. Because of this, many scholars (all the way back into the 19th century) consider 2:1-13 and 7:5-16 to be originally connected in one of the smaller original letters. I presume you don’t think this is a legitimate seam? If not, why not?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 7, 2018

      I’ve debated the issue and am not sure what I think!

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