Judith A. Diehl, 2 Corinthians (Story of God)

Diehl, Judith A. 2 Corinthians. Story of God Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2020. 414 pp. Hb; $39.99.   Link to Zondervan

Judith A. Diehl (PhD University of Edinburgh) retired as professor of New Testament and hermeneutics at Denver Seminary. Her contribution to the Story of God series is a solid commentary on 2 Corinthians, which both explains the text well but also draws application from the text to contemporary Christian life. The Story of God series is based on the NIV 2011 and is designed to address the present generation with the word of God. As the title implies, these commentaries use biblical and narrative theology, although they are not examples of theological interpretation of Scripture. Commentators give significant attention to “living out the story” of the Bible. But this is not as much application suggestions for pastors as asking how a text, in the light of the story of God, compels us to live in our world so that our lives line up with the Bible’s story.

Diehl, 2 CorinthiansIn the introduction to the commentary, Diehl visualizes 2 Corinthians an apologia or courtroom scene with prosecutors accusing Paul of certain things (he is not qualified to be an apostle). The church is courtroom spectators and Paul makes his defense by calling witnesses (his friends and coworkers), presenting evidence and answer charges against him. After the verdict, there’s a twist: it was the congregation that was on trial the whole time!

There is very little doubt Paul wrote the letter. Regarding the background, Diehl begins with Bruce Winter’s excellent monograph, After Paul Left Corinth (Eerdmans, 2001). Winter argued the social, political, religious, and cultural background to the Corinthian letters as entirely Roman, but Paul’s theological background is Jewish. The Corinthian believers did not immediately become Christian in a single day. Following Winter, Diehl surveys the usual causes of the problems in the Corinthian letters: Gnosticism (mentioned and quickly dismissed), grain shortages, imperial cult, the promise of Pax Romana, etc. The source of the problem was Roman power, which stands in contrast to Jesus, who is the very picture of weakness, crucified like a criminal. How does Jesus “Israel centric mission,” which is characterized by weakness and humility suffering in death, shed light into the darkness of the Roman world?

With respect to the audience of the letter, she provides a sketch of 1st century Corinth. Paul’s gospel conflicted with the Roman world in every aspect. What mattered most to a Roman citizen of Corinth in the mid-50s AD was radically different from the theological, social, and ethical teachings Paul delivered. Of primary importance is the well known crusus honorum, “path to fortune and fame,” from Roman cultural studies (and easily applies to modern western pursuit of wealth). Social status was everything to a citizen or Corinth, but the pursuit of honor did not include becoming like a humble crucified Jew. Following Crossan and Reed, Diehl briefly discusses the imperial cult as it appeared in first century Corinth. The imperial cult was “the glue that held the civilized world together” (39).

Following Linda Belleville, Diehl suggests the purpose of 2 Corinthians was to establish a closer, more trusting relationship with the congregation who were “under the spell of evil and deceptive leaders.” She calls the opponents in Corinthians the “adversarial rival missionaries.” Mind, one of the key themes of the letter is Paul’s defense against these adversarial rival missionaries. Paul shows his ministry and leadership heart throughout 2 Corinthians. For Diehl, “Paul was the consummate pastor, educating, encouraging, warning, correcting, loving, and caring for his people as much as he could under the circumstances of the first century” (40).

Most commentaries on Corinthians must deal with the unity and integrity of the letter. Standard scholarly commentaries divide the letter into two major sections (usually chapters 1-9; 10-13). The smaller units circulated separately until someone finally edited together the units into a single letter sometime between AD 96-125. Following Bellville, Diehl disagrees with these partition theories. There is no manuscript evidence that any portion of the book circulated separately. As David deSilva said, every argument advanced by supporters of partition theories can be plausibly countered. Diehl concludes: “The more complicated the theory the less we perceive the composition accurately (52). But there does seem to be a serious difference between the larger units. She argues Paul composed the letter with time gap between chapters 9 and 10. In this gap, Titus returns from Corinth and reports to Paul what happened in the Corinthian church. Paul knows more from Titus’s report after he wrote chapter 9, explaining the differences in chapters 10-13. This seems like a partition theory without the complicated steps. Diehl offers a suggestion timeline, sorting out four letters written to Corinth and three visits. She observes nothing is known about the Corinthian church after Paul leaves with the collection in the summer of AD 57 until Clement writes to Corinth in AD 96.

Diehl argues Paul deals with more than one opponent in the letter. Along with the adversarial rival missionaries, Paul must deal with former pagans focused on worldly status and first century sophists who find Paul’s presentation of the gospel lacking in rhetorical nuance. In addition, there is Jewish opposition. Is likely some viewed their Jewish heritage as superior to the gentiles. Whoever the opponents are in the letter, they are proclaiming a deceptive theology and claiming superiority over Paul. They are false apostles because they are not preaching the gospel and building up the congregation. Rather, they are inflating their own egos for financial gain and have a desire to dominate others (64).

The body of the commentary is broken into three parts. First, “Listen to the Story” prints the text of the NIV 2011 with suggested parallel Old and New Testament passages. These cross references are often helpful. For 2 Corinthians 2:14-3:6, Diehl divides the references into categories, but this is the only place in the entire commentary with these helpful divisions. Sometimes the Scripture is followed by a quote from the Bible, a famous theologian or writer, and an introduction as an opening illustration.

The second part of the commentary, “Explain the Story,” is a traditional commentary on the unit. The commentary covers whole verses rather than words and phrases. Diehl based the commentary on the text of the NIV 2011, although she occasionally refers to alternative English translations. Although her comments reflect a deep study of Corinthians in the original language, there are no Greek lexical or syntactical comments because the NIV 2011 is intentionally the target of the exegesis in the Story of God series. This makes reading the exegetically sections easier to read for readers without Greek language skills. She makes good use of the Old Testament when Paul alludes to it and includes references to Roman cultural background to explain the text. For example, in 2:14-17, the “pleasing aroma” refers to Old Testament sacrifices (Exodus 29:18). She explains the Roman military triumph and explains the negative connotations of a peddler in the Roman world.

The third section, “Live the Story,” contains several short meditations focusing on application, or perhaps better, bridging the world of Paul to the modern western reader. This section often includes personal observations from someone involved in both academics and ministry. She sometimes cites writers like John Stott or Eugene Peterson in these reflections. For example, commenting on 2 Corinthians 2:14-3:6 Diehl addresses divisive messages and evaluating the success of a church. Is a pastor a great speaker? Is the church growing like crazy? For Paul, Jesus must be the focus of all teaching, preaching, and worship in a church. Later in the commentary, in the context of the collection, she asks “how do we translate God’s overflowing love and grace into our giving and serving in the church today?” (281; using the example of George Müller, 290).

Conclusion. Diehl’s commentary on 2 Corinthians combines solid exposition of the text with clear personal application to Christian life in a modern context. This volume should be a delight to anyone teaching or preaching the difficult text of 2 Corinthians in the local church or a small group Bible study.

 

Reviews of other commentaries in the Story of God series:

  • Dean Pinter, Acts (forthcoming)

NB: Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Paul’s Sorrow for Corinth – 2 Corinthians 7:5–9

After sending the tearful letter with Titus, Paul planned to meet with Titus in Troas for a report. When this meeting did not happen, Paul grew concerned the Corinthian church was upset with him. Titus was a Greek co-worker of Paul mentioned in several letters, including a short letter written to him while he was working with churches in Crete. Titus is a long-time co-worker, since Paul had taken Titus to Jerusalem before Acts 15 to show that God was working among the Gentiles (Gal 2:3).

Image result for apostle Paul weepingPaul said in 2 Corinthians 1:8-11 he was in “deadly peril in Asia,” probably indicating a time of suffering in Ephesus. This may have included an arrest although it is not mentioned directly in Acts, Philippians may imply Paul was arrested and placed in custody in Ephesus. In 1 Corinthians 15:32 he refers to “fighting the wild beasts in Ephesus,” which could refer to literal animals, or vicious opponents who behaved like animals. Paul listed many afflictions described in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9, and perhaps even his “thorn in the flesh” (12:7) is in mind here.

“Fightings without and fears within” implies he had considerable internal fear concerning this persecution or even the success of his mission in Ephesus and later in Troas. Why world Paul be afraid? “It probably seemed to Paul that from the human point of view his whole future as apostle to the Gentiles was related to the Corinthians’ reaction to his assertion of authority in the letter delivered by Titus. And now the non-arrival of Titus tended to confirm his worst fears.” (Garland, 351, citing Harris).

Paul’s missed connection with Titus may have aroused fears for Titus’s own safety, since many thing could have happened to him when he traveled to Troas. This tends to be human nature, if someone is very late arriving we tend to create a worst case scenario and worry about that (perhaps unlikely) possibility.

Another aspect of this fear may have been a result of the attacks he faced in Corinth. What if his opponents convinced the church to reject Paul as an apostle and no longer listen to him as the Lord’s appointed representative? The very fact he is being challenged by someone in the congregation was humiliating to him personally, he has lost honor and been humbled by his challengers in the church.

Titus was not sent to the church to attack them or forcibly get them back in line with Paul’s orders. He was sent to deal with a serious spiritual challenge, there was real sin in the church that needed to be confronted and excised from the congregation. Paul is not like a medieval bishop who imposes an unwelcome order on a fearful congregation!

Paul describes his time of uncertainty as “mourning,” but the news from Titus was a cause for rejoicing. The church was not upset from the tearful letter, they were in fact comforted, Titus was comforted by their response, and finally Paul himself was comforted by the news from the church. This church was on grief over the letter, but the grief is “contrition over their past behavior or a sense of loss from Paul’s decision to continue to stay clear of Corinth” (Garland, 353).

In summary, the “tearful letter” was a necessary thing, but now that they have responded positively, Paul apologizes for the pain he caused the church. Paul was confident the church world respond to his tearful letter, even if there was come fear it might cause them pain. But not all grief and pain is bad, in fact godly grief produces a great deal of positive virtues. If Paul had upset them with his strong challenge, that pain is a positive benefit if they are reconciled to him.

 

Make Room in Your Hearts – 2 Corinthians 7:2–4

In 2 Corinthians 2:12-13 Paul says he went to Troas and after a long digression he picks up that thread again in 7:5. If we were reading the letter straight through, or hearing the letter read to us for the first time, we might have expected Paul’s response to meeting Titus and hearing the report that of a favorable response to the tearful letter.

Paul seems a little defensive in this verse, he claims to have wronged no one.

  • “We wronged no one.” To “wrong” someone (ἀδικέω) can refer to physically mistreating someone, but can also refer to a legal injury, with the sense of doing an injustice to someone. Perhaps Paul’s opponents in the Corinthian church accused Paul of being too harsh in dealing with the incestuous man, perhaps treating him in a way that damaged his honor in the city of Corinth.
  • “We have corrupted no one.” The verb φθείρω can mean either “ruin financially” or “corrupt” in the matter of doctrine or morals” (Harris, 517). This accusation has the connotation of ruining someone financially. It is true Paul has told his congregations to be wary of business relationships with the unsaved. If some in the church followed that recommendation, then his opponents could accuse Paul of intentionally ruining people financially.
  • “We have taken advantage of no one.” The verb (πλεονεκτέω) has the sense of cheating someone financially. This might be a hint of some accusation about the collection for the poor saints in Jerusalem, a topic Paul will shift to after this section of the book. Paul’s opponents may have been suspicious of this collection since it was not at all common for someone to collect money and even less common to give collected money to another city.

Since he has behaved properly toward the church, Paul asks the church to open up to him so that he may be reconciled with the church. This is a common metaphor even in contemporary English, to be “in someone’s heart” is to have a close personal relationship; “openheartedness” implies such a close relationship that being completely transparent is possible.

Image result for open heartPaul had already opened his heart to them when he confronted them about their sin and what they needed to do to deal with that sin. Paul is now hopeful the church would also find some room for him so reconciliation can happen.

Paul’s love for the congregation leads to a level of frankness which could be understood as offensive. Since Paul had to correct obvious sins, the church could potentially be hurt by his words (v. 3-4).

The tone of the tearful letter could be interpreted as “putting them in their place.” Tone is almost impossible to convey in writing, and after the Paul’s last visit to the church it would have been easy to read the tearful letter as a harsh condemnation.

A factor modern readers may overlook is the social status of Paul and the church at Corinth. By speaking frankly, Paul could be interpreted as asserting his higher social status, perhaps “pulling rank” on the Corinthians. This was not the relationship Paul wanted to have with his churches. Paul and the Corinthians are “fellow-servants” of Christ and Paul regularly calls them “brothers.” Paul’s love is so deep for the Corinthian believers that he is willing to “live or die with them (v. 3). Some might think of this as a rhetorical flourish, but Paul was genuinely willing to lay his life down on behalf of the church, something he often demonstrated in ministry.

In summary, at the beginning of the letter Paul was concerned the tearful letter had caused the church sorrow, and perhaps caused the rift between himself and the church. After 2:14 he drops this feeling, only now expressing joy in the positive response from the church. But there was a long, tense period of time when Paul was unsure how the letter would be received, so in this next section he describes the depth of his sorrow and how that sorrow turned to joy when he finally heard from Titus the good news from the church.

Our Letter of Recommendation – 2 Corinthians 3:1-6

Unlike other peddlers of the Gospel, Paul does not need “letters of recommendation” to introduce himself to the church (2 Cor 3:1-3). This is a metaphor drawn from the common Roman practice of having a letter of introduction when visiting someone, especially if you intended to instruct and correct the new group. A letter of recommendation or introduction was common in the ancient world. A letter (συστατικός) would confirm a person’s identity and qualifications.

If a Christian teacher arrived in a church, it would not be considered rude at all to ask to see a letter of recommendation in order to confirm they are a legitimate teacher and qualified to teach. In the modern world, we might ask a pastor where they were educated and through what organization they were ordained. This confirms they are trained and authorized in a particular denomination. Paul wonders (sarcastically) if he needs to get a new letter of recommendation to the congregation, as if he were coming to the church as a complete outsider for the first time. This is to say, “Are we starting all over again”?

Instead of physical letters of recommendation, Paul says the church at Corinth itself his recommendation. He calls on the church to remember the fact he was the one who brought the gospel in Corinth in the first place and established the church. He spent eighteen months training the leaders of the church before moving on to Ephesus. He does not need a letter of recommendation, since the people in the church itself are his letter! The whole world can read Paul’s letter by looking at the Corinthian church.

“Written with ink” would refer to a letter written on papyri, but written on stone would recall the Law of Moses to a Jewish reader. If a Gentile was unfamiliar with the story of Moses receiving the Commandments in Exodus 31:18, then they might have thought of a physical inscription on a monument. These were so common they could not walk through Corinth without seeing an inscribed monument, placed in a public place for all to see.

Rather than written in a physical form, God has written this letter of recommendation in the hearts of the Corinthians by the Spirit of God. “Engraved on hearts of flesh not stone” is an allusion to Ezekiel 11:19, 36:26. In Ezekiel, the new covenant would be written on the heart, not stone as the old covenant was.

Paul has moved from a letter of recommendation to the idea of the covenant. He does not need a physical letter to be qualified to minister to the church because he has been appointed a minister of the New Covenant, which the Corinthian believers themselves participate in by having the Holy Spirit.

Rather than having authority coming from a letter of recommendation or a document like the Torah, Paul’s authority come from God through the Holy Spirit. God himself has recommended Paul through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and he has enabled him to be a ministry of this new covenant through the power of the Holy Spirit.

If we think about the metaphor of a letter of recommendation, the content of the letter is usually your qualifications and accomplishments. Paul has already said he does not have any personal qualifications to be the Apostle to the Gentiles, yet God called him anyway; now he denies any accomplishments since God has done everything, and apart from God Paul has done nothing!

If Paul were writing a letter of recommendation for himself, it would be something like: “I am not qualified for this job, but God thinks I am and he will accomplish the tasks assigned.” This is the opposite of the way the Roman world would think about leadership. For the Romans, one was worthy of respect because they had accumulated honors and held the right offices. For Paul, he is a minister, a servant, of the New Covenant rather than the Apostle to the Gentiles appointed personally by God, with 30 years experience as a church planter, and all the other resume-padding typical of the world.

Humble leadership like this is something often talked about in the contemporary church, but it is not as often practiced. It is easy for the leader to think too highly of themselves, to think of themselves as the boss, or worse, a CEO of a major corporation who expects an impressive compensation package all the perks that come with an executive position. By shifting his perspective from the way the Roman world thought to the way God thinks, Paul revolutionizes pastoral leadership.

A Captive in Christ’s Triumphal Procession – 2 Corinthians 2:12-17

In contrast to the uncertainty Paul faced in his daily work, God is always leading him in a “triumphal procession” (2:14-16). Paul uses a series of metaphors to describe his ministry drawn from the Greco-Roman world. Paul uses a Latin loan-word (θριαμβεύω) which refers to the Roman military triumph. The same idea appears in Col 2:15, although Paul’s point is different there since God is leading the disarmed “powers and authorities.”

A Roman general who has conquered an enemy is given the honor of a “Triumph.” Like an American “ticker-tape parade,” virtually everyone in the culture knew what this event looked like, even if they never witnessed one themselves. This was a very special honor originally only granted by the Senate, but in imperial times the triumph was highly politicized in order to reinforce imperial authority and legitimacy.

During the triumph, the general wore a crown of laurel and a purple, gold-embroidered triumphal toga picta which identified him as near-divine or near-king. He rode a four-horse chariot, leading his army, captives and spoils war through the streets of Rome in unarmed procession. At Jupiter’s temple on the Capitoline Hill he offered sacrifice and the tokens of his victory to the god. The general was described as vir triumphalis (“man of triumph”) for the rest of his life.

At the time Paul wrote, had been no triumphs in Rome between the triumph of Claudius for his conquest of Britain (A.D. 44, future Vespasian was awarded triumphal regalia as the general during this campaign); Titus will be awarded a triumph after his destruction of Jerusalem in 70 (and also a Triumphal Arch built by Domitian in 83). Even though Claudius’s triumph was more than ten years past, the imagery would have been clear in everyone’s mind. Roman power was on display in order to demonstrate to the entire empire how powerful the emperor and the empire was.

Is Paul using this metaphor in a positive sense (he is riding along with Jesus as the victorious conqueror) or is he a captive slave being led to his death? It is possible to argue both ways, but it the context Paul has been describing his dishonor as a suffering servant of Jesus (1:8, the “troubles in Asia” and later, 12:7, his “thorn in the flesh”).

Paul’s opponents in Corinth would expect to be sitting in a place of prominence in Jesus’ triumph over his enemies, but Paul pictures himself ironically as a capture slave being led away to his death!

The fragrance of the sacrifices in this triumph is the “knowledge of God.” A “fragrance” sounds positive, but the Greek word (ὀσμή) can refer to a pleasing odor or a stench. In v. 15 it is used for the positive “fragrance of life” and negative “odor of death.”  Paul’s ministry is to preach the Gospel of the Grace of God, a pleasant thing for those who accept Christ and pass from death to life, but a stench to those who reject it since the same knowledge of God condemns them.

Ralph Martin points out similar rabbinical views of the Torah. In b.Yoma 72b, the Torah is like medicine, which can heal or can be a deadly poison. For the Jewish people, the Torah is an elixir of life, but for the Gentiles is it is a poison. As with any use of the Talmud in New Testament studies, there are potential problems with dating this tradition, and it must be proven that one can move from an odor to a medicine for this analogy to really work.

To me, it is better to stay within the world of Paul’s metaphor, a sacrifice. The sacrifice might produce an odor that pleases the god, or offends the god. If the sacrifice pleases the god then the worshiper will find favor, if they offend the god they are in grave danger.

In the context, the sacrifice is Jesus’s death on the cross, which Paul describes as a “pleasing aroma” (εὐωδία, the same word for odor with “good” prefixed). This word is used in the Septuagint frequently for pleasing sacrifices to God. For example, in Genesis 8:21 Noah’s sacrifice after the flood pleases the Lord (רֵיחַ הַנִּיחוֹחַ). Paul calls the sacrifice of Christ on the cross a pleasing aroma in Philippians 4:18 and Ephesians 5:2 as well, but here Paul and his fellow workers are the “pleasing aroma.”

From a Greco-Roman perspective it would be shocking to describe a crucifixion as a sacrifice and even more shocking as a sacrifice which pleases God. This is counter-cultural and another example of God choosing a foolish thing from the perspective of the world to reveal his plan of salvation.