Crises at Corinth
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, OP
As he had expected, Paul and his companions were released from their imprisonment in the Praetorium of Ephesus. In the letters he had written from prison he had expressed the hope of going to Philippi, and had asked for a guest-room to be prepared for him at Colossae. He did not carry out either of these plans. Apparently the situation at Ephesus demanded all his attention, and forced him to spend the winter there.
In the spring of AD 54 Chloe, a businesswoman of Ephesus, sent some of her employees to Corinth. She hoped to have first pick of the new commodities arriving from the west when the sailing season opened. This sort of opportunity was precisely why Paul had settled in Ephesus. He asked them to bring back a report on the church in Corinth.
What they told him some weeks later stunned Paul. Murphy’s law had been completely verified. Apparently everything that could have gone wrong had in fact gone wrong.
Paul could not believe what he was hearing. He sent the experienced Timothy to Corinth to check the situation. As not infrequently happens, while Timothy was en route to Corinth, a delegation from the church there arrived in Ephesus with a letter for Paul.
The letter submitted a number of questions on which the Corinthians wanted Paul’s opinion. The group that carried it could answer all the questions arising out of the report of Chloe’s people. Paul now had all he needed to write to the Corinthians, which he did sometime between Passover and Pentecost AD 54.
Timothy was in Corinth when what we know as 1 Corinthians was read in public. He was dismayed at its impact. At one or two points Paul had been far too sarcastic. He alienated most of the community.
This could not have happened at a worst time. The Judaizers had finally arrived in Corinth, the last of the daughter churches of Antioch-on-the-Orontes. They won an easy hearing, precisely because they were opposed to Paul.
Timothy rushed back to Ephesus. In his view Paul had to go to Corinth immediately to deal with the deteriorating situation. Paul agreed and sent Timothy to see what had happened at Philippi and Thessalonica. They would have been the Judaizers next stops after Galatia.
In Paul’s debate with the leader of the Judaizers the Corinthians remained strictly neutral. The refusal of support from those whom he considered his children cut Paul to the quick. His explosion of temper did nothing to further his cause.
Eventually even Paul recognized that a time-out was necessary. He would go to Macedonia, and then return to Corinth. As he tramped north across the great double plain of Thessaly, the hottest place in Europe in the summer, he felt sure that Philippi and Thessalonica had fallen to the Judaizers.
His fears were not realized. The Judaizers had reached Corinth so quickly because they had been given short shrift in Philippi and Thessalonica. Paul’s converts had remained loyal to his gospel.
In Macedonia Paul linked up again with Timothy, who persuaded him not to return to Corinth as he had promised, but to write a carefully thought-out letter when he got back to Ephesus. This letter demanded great soul-searching. Paul had to crack the complacency of the Corinthians but not alienate them further.
While this letter was on its way to Corinth with Titus, Paul’s situation at Ephesus worsened. What precisely happened we do not know, but Paul had to leave the city in fear of his life. Two years and three months of most fruitful ministry had come to an end.
Desperate to know how his letter had been received in Corinth, Paul went north to Troas. When Titus had not arrived at the very end of the sailing season, Paul crossed to Macedonia. Otherwise they would have been separated for the whole winter.
They found each other either in Philippi or Thessalonica. To Paul’s great joy the report of Titus was entirely positive. The Corinthians had repented of the way they had treated Paul.
In response Paul wrote a letter, which we know as 2 Corinthians 1-9. His co-author this time was Timothy, and they had the whole winter to compose draft after draft. The letter was tricky to write. It had to celebrate a reconciliation, but it also had to deal with the Judaizers, who were still making trouble by criticizing Paul.
In the end Paul was so confident of his subtle text that he felt free to raise the question of Corinth’s contribution to the collection for the poor of Jerusalem. They had promised a year ago, but had done nothing because of the series of crises that had troubled the relationship with Paul.