Book Write-Up: The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians

Dieter Georgi.  The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians.  Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

This book is a 1986 English translation of Georgi’s 1964 work in German, with new epilogues in which Georgi clarifies and refines his positions.  The book is about the apostle Paul’s opponents in II Corinthians2:14-7:4 and II Corinthians 10-13, the superapostles about whom Paul complains.

Some scholars have argued that the superapostles were associated with the Jerusalem church, where James and Peter were influential, and that the letters of recommendation that the superapostles presented to the church in Corinth were from the Christian church in Jerusalem.  Some contend that Paul was fighting the legalism of the Jerusalem church in writing II Corinthians, particularly the Jerusalem church’s (alleged) attempt to get Gentile Christians to be circumcised and obey the law of Moses.  Georgi, however, disagrees with this view, noting that the issue of legalism does not come up in II Corinthians.  Georgi still believes, however, that the superapostles’ activity was related to Judaism, particularly Hellenistic Jewish apologetics and missionary activity.

According to Georgi, in the New Testament period, there were itinerant Jewish missionaries who prophesied and impressed people with their magic and wonders.  Not only did itinerant Jewish missionaries do this, but so did wandering philosophers and teachers.  They got money from people who were impressed by their works, and they competed for prominence and influence.  Moreover, within Jewish Apologetic literature, such as Philo, there is the concept of a divine man: a person so in tune with God that he actually partakes of the divine.  This was true of Moses, according to Jewish Apologists, and the hope was expressed that others, too, could partake of the divine, as Moses did.  Jewish Apologetic literature also stressed biblical interpretation as a way to experience the divine, and it revered antiquity, claiming that it represented the old and the true.

It is against this background that one can understand the superapostles in II Corinthians, Georgi argues.  The superapostles were trying to impress the Corinthian church with their wonders and power, and the Corinthian church was responding by paying them, showing their appreciation that the superapostles were working in their midst.  The letters of recommendation that the superapostles were bringing were not from the Jerusalem church, as far as Georgi was concerned, but were from other places, and they were a way to advertise the power of the superapostles; George states that the superapostles actually wanted a letter of recommendation from the Corinthian church, as well!  The superapostles also maintained that interpreting the law of Moses could lift the Corinthian Christians to higher spiritual levels, transforming them from one degree to another.  Moreover, the superapostles admired Jesus on account of Jesus’ wonders.

According to Georgi, Paul in II Corinthians is responding to these sorts of claims and beliefs.  Paul contrasts himself with the superapostles by saying that, while the superapostles wanted money for their wonders, Paul did not demand money from the Corinthian church but got a job to support himself.  While the superapostles were primarily interested in their own prestige, Paul cared for the Corinthian church and had a relationship with it.  The superapostles stressed impressive wonders, and they tended to skip over Christ’s crucifixion when they talked about Christ, focusing instead on Christ’s power.  Paul, however, emphasized humility, how God shined forth in Paul’s own weakness, and the importance of Christ’s crucifixion.  The superapostles looked to the law of Moses as a path to spiritual progress, noting its antiquity as an indication of its authority.  Paul, by contrast, said that the Old Covenant of condemnation was nullified, and that it was by looking to Christ that believers spiritually progress.  Paul, according to Georgi, was quite revolutionary in supporting the new over the old.

A number of scholars might question some of Georgi’s claims.  First, there is debate about whether or not Second Temple Judaism even had an active missionary program (see here).  Georgi is on the “yes” side of this debate, but there are scholars on the “no” side.  Second, there is debate about whether Christianity was unique (or at least rare) in terms of its miracle claims, and whether pagans and other non-Christians in the New Testament period technically performed miracles (see here and here).  Some scholars, therefore, might challenge any notion that Hellenistic Jewish missionaries were out there doing miracles, competing among themselves and with other itinerants.  Third, while Georgi refers to Apollonius, who did miracles, Apollonius’ story was written a few centuries after the New Testament period and may reflect Christian influence.

I also have questions about whether or not Georgi can conflate itinerant Jewish missionaries with things written in Philo about the divine man, or biblical interpretation.

Still, I do think that Georgi’s case is plausible.  The itinerant missionaries could have agreed with Philo about the divine man and biblical interpretation.  Georgi also refers to Jewish magicians in the Book of Acts, which was the New Testament period, and so such a phenomenon may very well have existed in the time of Paul.  In my opinion, the wonder-workers in Josephus whom Georgi discusses also deserve consideration; there is some debate about whether or not they were miracle-workers in the sense that Jesus and the early Christians were, but I think that there is good reason to believe that they were, on some level.

There were other issues in Georgi’s book that intrigued me.  First, there was Georgi’s argument on page 12 that II Corinthians 7:1 was not from Paul but may reflect the thoughts of Palestinian Jewish Christians.  In II Corinthians 7:1, there is an exhortation to people to purify themselves of defilement of flesh and spirit, and Georgi contends that this sentiment differs from Paul, who maintained that the flesh was corrupt rather than calling for Christians to cleanse it.  Whether or not Georgi is correct that there is a contradiction here could probably be debated, but I like it when scholars talk about diverse ideas in Scripture.  Second, Georgi interacts with such issues as the cessation of prophecy in Second Temple Judaism, as well as how a belief in miracles could coincide with rationalistic attempts to downplay miracles (particularly in Josephus).  Georgi makes a pretty convincing case that pneumatic activity was alive and well in Second Temple Judaism.

I decided to buy this book.  I got it for 17 cents on Amazon, and I am glad that I gobbled it up, since the next lowest price was in the $10 range!  I think that this book will be useful to me in terms of my own area of research, which concerns Gentile conversion to Judaism.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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1 Response to Book Write-Up: The Opponents of Paul in Second Corinthians

  1. It seems to help with understanding the politics surrounding the early church; great review James 🙂


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