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‘We do Not Want You to Be Unaware …’: Disclosure, Concealment and Suffering in 2 Cor 1–7

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 March 2014

David I. Starling*
Morling College (Australian College of Theology and University of Divinity), 120 Herring Road, Macquarie Park, NSW 2113, Australia. email:


This article argues that the double negative form of the ‘disclosure formula’ in 2 Cor 1.8 (οὐ … θέλομεν ὑμᾶς ἀγνοεῖν) is not merely a stylistic variation on θέλομεν ὑμᾶς γινώσκειν but performs the additional rhetorical function of disavowing any attempt on Paul's part to hide the story of his sufferings from the church in Corinth. The transition from 1.8–11 to 1.12–14 (which many commentators struggle to explain) thus becomes a smooth and obvious one, suggesting a close interconnection between Paul's defence of his transparency and integrity in 1.12–2.13 and his apology for his sufferings in 2.14–7.4.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2014 

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1 Cf. the similar expressions in Rom 1.13; 11.25; 1 Cor 10.1; 12.1; 1 Thess 4.13 and the discussions in Mullins, T. Y., ‘Disclosure: A Literary Form in the New Testament’, NovT 7 (1964) 4450Google Scholar; White, J. L., ‘Introductory Formulae in the Body of the Pauline Letter’, JBL 90 (1971) 91–7Google Scholar; The Form and Function of the Body of the Greek Letter: A Study of the Letter-Body in the Non-Literary Papyri and in Paul the Apostle (SBLDS; Missoula: SBL, 1972) 1115Google Scholar, 85, 123–4, 155–8.

2 Cf. Tertullian, On the Resurrection of the Flesh 48.12. Margaret Thrall surveys the main options and argues persuasively that ‘violent persecution, perhaps in the form of incarceration, remains the most probable explanation of the θλῖψις’. Thrall, M. E., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (2 vols.; ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1994)Google Scholari.115–17. Unless otherwise indicated, biblical quotations are from the NRSV.

3 E.g. Furnish, V. P., II Corinthians (AB; Garden City: Doubleday, 1984)Google Scholar 122: ‘The use of a disclosure formula … suggests that the Corinthians are learning of it for the first time.’ Margaret Thrall reserves judgement on the question of whether the incident is news to the Corinthians, but inclines towards the view that ‘the opening phrase … does suggest their prior ignorance’ (2 Corinthians, i.114).

4 Commentators who explicitly argue that the Corinthians are hearing of the incident for the first time include Furnish, II Corinthians, 122; Lietzmann, H. and Kümmel, W. G., An die Korinther i–ii (HNT; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1949 4)Google Scholar 100; Barrett, C. K., A Commentary on the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (BNTC; London: A&C Black, 1990 2) 63–4Google Scholar; Belleville, L. L., 2 Corinthians (IVPNTC; Downers Grove: IVP, 1996)Google Scholar 58; Scott, J. M., 2 Corinthians (NIBCNT; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1998)Google Scholar 28. Commentators who appear to operate on the tacit assumption that this is the case include Bultmann, R. K., The Second Letter to the Corinthians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1985)Google Scholar 27; Martin, R. P., 2 Corinthians (WBC; Waco: Word, 1985)Google Scholar lxii, 14; Garland, D. E., 2 Corinthians (NAC; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999) 72–4.Google Scholar

5 Bultmann, The Second Letter to the Corinthians, 27; Furnish, II Corinthians, 123–4; Garland, 2 Corinthians, 73; Vegge, I., 2 Corinthians – A Letter About Reconciliation: A Psychagogical, Epistolographical and Rhetorical Analysis (WUNT; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008) 162.Google Scholar

6 Furnish, II Corinthians, 123–4.

7 Cf. Schmeller, Th., Der Zweite Brief an die Korinther (EKK; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Patmos, 2010) 68.Google Scholar

8 Belleville, L. L., ‘A Letter of Apologetic Self-Commendation: 2 Cor 1:8–7:16’, NovT 31 (1989) 142–63, at 146Google Scholar; similarly, Furnish, II Corinthians, 122; Garland, 2 Corinthians, 74; Thrall, 2 Corinthians, i.114.

9 Cf. Head, P. M., ‘Named Letter-Carriers among the Oxyrhynchus Papyri’, JSNT 31 (2009) 279–99.Google Scholar

10 Cf. the discussion below about the rhetorical and epistolary function of 1.8–11.

11 E.g. Plummer, A., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Second Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians (ICC; Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1915) 1516Google Scholar; similarly Hughes, P. E., Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1962)Google Scholar 16; Ch. Wolff, Der Zweite Brief des Paulus an die Korinther (THKNT; Berlin: Evangelische Verlagsanstalt, 1989) 25–6Google Scholar; Harris, M. J., The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (NIGTC; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005) 153Google Scholar; Barnett, P., The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997)Google Scholar 83. Thrall leaves the question open: ‘The fact that Paul does not say what it was, coupled with the use of the definite article, might suggest that they did know, perhaps from Titus. The opening phrase, however, does suggest their prior ignorance … Perhaps Paul expected the bearer of his letter to provide the details, but it remains possible that something was already known about the occurrence itself, and that what he wants his readers now to know of is what had been its extreme gravity’ (2 Corinthians, i.114).

12 Cf. von Schlatter, A., Paulus, der Bote Jesu: Eine Deutung seiner Briefe an die Korinther (Stuttgart: Calwer, 1934)Google Scholar 466; Strachan, R. H., The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians (MNTC; London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1935)Google Scholar 51; Kistemaker, S., Exposition of the Second Epistle to the Corinthians (NTC; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1997)Google Scholar 48; Schmeller, Der Zweite Brief an die Korinther, 68.

13 Der Zweite Brief an die Korinther, 68.

14 Thrall correctly observes that ‘Paul now gives a specific instance of the affliction to which he has referred [in vv. 3–7] in general terms’ (2 Corinthians, i.114). The linking function of the γάρ, however, is a little closer than the ‘loosely connective’ function that she attributes to it (‘I talk about our suffering, for we have just experienced an almost fatal affliction …’). Given that vv. 3–7 are as much about κοινωνία as they are about suffering, the connection implied by the γάρ is more likely to be something like: ‘When we suffer, you participate as partners in our suffering and our comfort, for we make the news of our sufferings known to you, enabling you to help us by your prayers and join us in your thanksgivings.’

15 White, ‘Introductory Formulae’, 97; Mullins, ‘Disclosure’, 49; Belleville, ‘A Letter of Apologetic Self-Commendation’, 145–50; Witherington, B. III, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1995)Google Scholar 335; Garland, 2 Corinthians, 72.

16 E.g. O'Brien, P. T., Introductory Thanksgivings in the Letters of Paul (Leiden: Brill, 1977)CrossRefGoogle Scholar 235; Furnish, II Corinthians, 129; Martin, 2 Corinthians, 13; Harris, Second Corinthians, 183; Barnett, 2 Corinthians, 91; Bultmann, The Second Letter to the Corinthians, 27; Schmeller, Der Zweite Brief an die Korinther, 79; Hafemann, S. J., 2 Corinthians (NIVAC; Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000)Google Scholar 80.

17 Sanders, J. T., ‘The Transition from Opening Epistolary Thanksgiving to Body in the Letters of the Pauline Corpus’, JBL 81 (1962) 348–62Google Scholar, at 361.

18 Cf. the arguments for translating γάρ as ‘now’ or ‘indeed’ in Furnish, II Corinthians, 126, and the convincing counter-arguments in Hall, D. R., The Unity of the Corinthian Correspondence (JSNTSup; London: T&T Clark 2003) 124–28.Google Scholar

19 Belleville, ‘A Letter of Apologetic Self-Commendation’, 148; cf. Thrall, 2 Corinthians, i.123; Wiles, Gordon P., Paul's Intercessory Prayers: The Significance of the Intercessory Prayer Passages in the Letters of St Paul (SNTSMS; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974)CrossRefGoogle Scholar 273.

20 White, ‘Introductory Formulae’, 97.

21 For summaries of the main arguments in favour of reading 2 Corinthians as a compilation of multiple letters or letter-fragments, see Thrall, 2 Corinthians, i.3–49 and Barclay, J. M. G., ‘2 Corinthians’, Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (ed. Dunn, James D. G. and Rogerson, J. W.; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003) 1353–73Google Scholar, esp. 1353–6. For arguments in favour of the unity of the letter, see Hall, The Unity of the Corinthian Correspondence, 95–112 and Harris, , Second Corinthians, 853Google Scholar. In my opinion, the case for the unity of the letter has been well made, but even if one of the various partition-hypotheses is accepted, it is still plausible, in the light of comments such as those made by Paul in 2 Cor 3.1 and 5.12, to assume that the criticisms which Paul addresses head-on in 2 Corinthians 10–13 contribute in some measure to the rhetorical exigence of chapters 1–7 – either as the early smoulderings of a conflict that flares up more heatedly in chapters 10–13 (if those chapters are taken as having been written later than chapters 1–7) or as the lingering embers of a fire that has largely but not entirely been extinguished (if chapters 10–13 are taken as having been written earlier than chapters 1–7).

22 Cf. Garland, 2 Corinthians, 73; Hafemann, S. J., Suffering and Ministry in the Spirit: Paul's Defense of His Ministry in II Corinthians 2:14–3:3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1990) 226–7.Google Scholar

23 Garland, 2 Corinthians, 78.

24 Cf. the similar strengths and limitations of the discussion in Lim, Kar Yong, 'The Sufferings of Christ are Abundant in us' (2 Corinthians 1:5): A Narrative Dynamics Investigation of Paul's Sufferings in 2 Corinthians (LNTS; London: T&T Clark, 2009) 2839.Google Scholar

25 Harvey, A. E., Renewal through Suffering: A Study of 2 Corinthians (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1996)Google Scholar 107; cf. 114.

26 Renewal through Suffering, 40 (emphasis original).

27 See especially Renewal through Suffering, 13–14.

28 John White, for example, comments briefly on ‘the verb ἀγνοέω and the peculiar use of the double negative’ in Rom 1.13 (Form and Function, 85, 157), but treats this difference as merely ‘formal’ without raising the question of whether it might carry any rhetorical significance.

29 BGU xii 2173; P.Brem. 6; P.Cair.Zen. iii 59530; P.Col. iv 87; P.Mich. i 6; P.Mich. i 57; P.Petr. iii 53; P.Ryl. iv 565; P.Tebt. ii 314.

30 White, Form and Function, 85. White erroneously cites the letter as ‘P.Mich. 6,1’, but he is clearly referring to P.Mich. i 6.

31 BGU xii 2173 is a complaint document from Hermoupolis, written in 498 ce.

32 A search of the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae turned up one (arguably) pre-Pauline instance of ἀγνοεῖν used with the double negative construction and θέλω, but the context (a paraphrase of the serpent's words in the temptation narrative, in Vita Adam et Evae 18) was a long way removed from anything that could be categorised as an epistolary formula.

33 Arzt-Grabner, Peter et al. (1. Korinther (Papyrologische Kommentare zum Neuen Testament; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006) 362)Google Scholar comment on the unusualness of the similar expression in 1 Cor 10.1. They correctly observe that the Pauline phrase and the οἶμαι and πιστεύω expressions in the papyri both have the effect of directing the attention of the addressees to what follows, but they do not comment on the differences between the way in which this is done by the Pauline phrase (which says, ‘I do not want you to be ignorant …’) and the way in which it is done by the expressions in the papyri (which say, ‘I know that you are not ignorant …’).

34 Witherington III describes the latter instance (1 Cor 12.1) as functioning rhetorically ‘like a slap in the face’ for the Corinthians (Witherington III, Conflict and Community, 256).

35 Martin, 2 Corinthians, 19.

36 Cf. Paul's repudiation of any suggestion that he and Titus have practised such schemes in relation to their financial dealings with the Corinthians, in 2 Cor 12.16–18.

37 The translation offered here departs from the NRSV to read ‘holiness’ (ἁγιότητι; cf. P46א* A B C Ψ K al.) rather than ‘frankness’ (ἁπλότητι; cf. א2 D F G al.) as original; cf. the text-critical arguments in Harris, Second Corinthians, 183 in favour of this reading. Of course, if ἁπλότητι is judged to be original, the substance of my argument is unaffected.

38 It is also worth noting the way in which 11.28 includes ‘daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches’ within a catalogue of Paul's sufferings and weaknesses, tying together the emotional turmoil to which he refers in 2.12–13 and the experiences of affliction that stand behind 1.3–11.

39 And is also present in chapters 10–13 (cf. 10.2–4; 11.18).

40 The second half of the contrast commenced in 3.1 is supplied by the emphatically asyndetonic v. 2, and hammered home in the οὐκ ... ἀλλά contrasts of v. 3.

41 As Ivar Vegge has convincingly argued (cf. 2 Corinthians, 360–75), the apologetic rhetoric of chapters 1–7 is directed towards a larger, conciliatory purpose – Paul's aim is not simply to defend his ministry, but to win back his relationship with the Corinthians. In chapters 6–7 that conciliatory purpose becomes the explicit aim of Paul's rhetoric. Unlike Vegge, I would place the transition from apology to appeal for reconciliation at 6.1 rather than at 5.11. Reasons for this decision include the continued apologetic focus of 5.11–13, the καί (‘also’) and ὑμᾶς (‘you’, in emphatic final position) in 6.1, marking a transition from the universal missionary appeal described in 5.20 to the direct appeal issued to the Corinthians in 6.1, and the perfect tenses of ἀνέωγεν (‘we have opened [our mouth to you]’) and πεπλάτυνται (‘we have widened [our heart]’) in 6.11, which suggest that 6.4–10 should be read as a summary of the apology in 1.8–5.21, relating it to the appeal for reconciliation in 6.1–7.16. In the final paragraphs of the section (7.5–16) the ‘idealised description of reconciliation’ (Vegge, 2 Corinthians, 374–5) functions rhetorically as an implied appeal for full reconciliation, building on Paul's expressions of confidence in 7.3–4.

42 For a discussion of the function of 6.14–7.1 within the rhetoric of chapters 6–7, see Starling, D. I., ‘The Apistoi of 2 Cor. 6:14: Beyond the Impasse’, NT 55 (2012) 117.Google Scholar

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