Corinth was a port city: along with grand economic gain and philosophical exchange came some questionable interpersonal behavior. Paul's letters to the church in Corinth show that the problems of the city also affected the Christian community. Among the myriad problems in the Corinthian church were: claims of spiritual superiority over one another, suing one another in public courts, abusing the communal meal, and sexual misbehavior. Paul wrote to demand higher ethical and moral standards.
After Paul, Timothy, and Silvanus left Thessalonica, they traveled to Corinth and began to preach the gospel. Luke's account of Paul's missionary tactics differ from Paul's account: Luke indicates that Paul began his ministry among local Jews and turned to the Gentiles only after he was rejected from the synagogue. Paul, however, insists that he was the apostle to the Gentiles-he says that he arrived in Corinth and preached to Gentiles about the one God and his son, Jesus. Most of the Corinthian converts were from the lower classes, but at least some of them must have been well-born, wealthy, and educated. This economic diversity helps explain some of the problems in this community: the wealthy members arrived at the communal meal before the others (because they didn't have to work); by the time the working class members arrived, the food and drink had been consumed. Another problem that may be traced back to the differing socioeconomic levels of the Christians at Corinth is the question of eating meat offered to idols. Those educated Christians recognized that the worship of pagan gods was a superstition and, thus, eating the sacrificial meat posed no theological problem for them. The less educated Christians among them, however, saw this as dangerous, perhaps because they believed that eating the meat was tantamount to idolatry.
Paul says that his primary message to the Corinthians was "Christ crucified." Interestingly, he gives little information about Jesus other than his death and resurrection. Many of the difficulties in the Corinthian community can be traced to a fundamental theological misunderstanding of the import of Jesus' death and resurrection: the Corinthians believed that they had died and risen with Christ. Thus, they believed that they already enjoyed the full benefits of salvation. Paul, on the other hand, insisted that salvation was not yet accomplished-it would occur when Jesus returned. (In 1 Cor 15:2, Paul tells the Corinthians that they "are being saved.") Rather than enjoying their salvation, Paul believed that this world continued to be ruled by evil forces and, thus, life would be full of pain and struggles until Jesus' return.
Paul "proved" his point by reminding the Corinthians of his teachings about Jesus' resurrection. Paul taught that Jesus' resurrected was a glorified spiritual body, but it was an actual body not a disembodied soul. His was a bodily resurrection; so, too, will theirs be. Jesus' resurrection, moreover, was the first fruit of the resurrection-there is going to be a future resurrection of the dead and it is at that time that Christians will enjoy their salvation.
According to Paul, the community's problems were the consequence of the Corinthians' mistaken belief that they had already been exalted. They failed to take seriously the power of evil; their behavior caused divisions in the church and led to a lack of concern for other members.
Many scholars believe that 2 Corinthians is a compilation of several letters because the tone of the letter changes significantly in places, alternating between anger, sorrow, judgment, and joy. Ehrman suggests that after Paul founded the church at Corinth, he wrote a letter that is no longer extant (see 1 Cor 5:9). Paul later received a letter from the Corinthians asking advice on several problems the community faced, and his response was the New Testament letter of 1 Corinthians. Apparently sometime later, Paul visited the church and was in some way publicly humiliated. He left angry and promised to return in judgment against them. Around this time, some missionaries (the "superapostles") came to town teaching that Christians were already exalted with Christ. Paul then wrote what is referred to as his "painful letter" (2 Cor 10-13) in which he expresses anger and hurt at the circumstances of his last visit: he attacks the person who publicly abused him and warns the congregation to deal with this person. He also vehemently attacks the superapostles and reasserts his views about the future salvation of believers. Finally, at the news of the Corinthians' repentance, Paul wrote a fourth letter (2 Cor 1-9) in which he expresses joy over the church's return to his gospel. Whether or not we read 2 Corinthians as a unified text, it certainly reflects the long and difficult relationship between Paul and the church at Corinth.