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.
In 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.