Reviews of

Pain and Paradox in 2 Corinthians

In 2 Corinthians, B. G. White, Benjamin G. White, Isaac T. Soon, Mohr Siebeck, paradox, suffering on February 21, 2022 at 3:28 pm

2022.02.02 | Benjamin G. White. Pain and Paradox in 2 Corinthians: The Transformative Function of Strength in Weakness. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament II 555. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2021. ISBN 9783161599118.

Review by Isaac T. Soon, Crandall University.

This monograph—a lightly revised version of the author’s dissertation at Durham University—offers a re-reading of 2 Corinthians through Paul’s strength in weakness paradox. The aim of the book is to correct the dominant approach to 2 Corinthians that conceives of Paul’s letter as fundamentally a defence of his apostleship and ministry. As an alternative, White argues that 2 Corinthians should be read primarily as a demonstration of Paul’s pastoral ministry to the Corinthian congregation. This is not to say, however, that Paul’s apologetic rhetoric is superfluous, but rather that it is in service of his ministerial goal, to comfort and provide concrete transformative strategies to a congregation in pain. 

Chapter 1 provides a rich literature review of previous scholarship who have worked or whose work as intersected significantly with the strength in weakness paradox in 2 Corinthians. In Chapter 2, White gives a detailed analysis of pain language (“λυπ- words”) in 2 Corinthians to show their relevance not just for establishing the strained relationship between Paul and the assemblies in Corinth but the ongoing conflict that White argues makes coherent Paul’s whole letter. After surveying the use of pain language in ancient Greek sources (particularly the LXX, Philo, Josephus, and Plutarch), White argues that 2 Cor 7:5–16 does not entail the cessation of Corinthian pain but rather Paul’s description of events before his writing 2 Corinthians. The chapter then turns toward the connection between λυπ- language in 2 Corinthians and its connection to suffering/hardship language, especially the language of “weakness” (ἀσθένεια and cognates). This leads White to conclude that pain is tethered to Paul’s wider paradoxical language of weakness and strength, which explains why he oscillates so frequently (in tone and topic) across 2 Corinthians. 

In Chapter 3 White analyzes the appearance of the strength in weakness paradox in 2 Cor 1:3–11, 4:7–15, and briefly 2 Cor 5:1–5, 14–15. Particularly valuable is the discussion about the nature of paradoxes both in ancient Graeco-Roman literature and among NT scholarship in the twentieth century (pp. 78–88), although a discussion of ancient Jewish conceptions of paradox is noticeably terse. Drawing on the work of Gerhard Hotze, White argues that there is little Jewish material that reflects on paradoxes useful for the study of Paul, and that Paul’s paradoxical language finds its closest analogue among the Stoics. However, a consideration of paradoxical language in, say, the Hodayot might serve as a relevant if not superior dialogue partner (see Michael Barré’s article in CBQ “Qumran and the Weakness of Paul,” 1980). White distinguishes between three types of paradox types: proto-, simultaneous, and co-inherent (p. 85). These types of paradoxes are differentiated by temporality and overlap. Proto-paradoxes, according to White, are those where two polarising contrasts are presented in temporal sequence, one after the other. Simultaneous paradoxes are those that occur at the same time. Co-inherent paradoxes are simultaneous, but are also distinctive because the two contrasting elements are not conflated with one another but yet are also dependent upon one another for their identity and definition. 

Chapter 4 continues White’s analysis of Paul’s paradoxical language, this time largely focusing on the hardship catalogue of 2 Cor 6:1–13. White portrays the Corinthians as being caught between strength and weakness, and Paul attempts to demonstrate through his hardship catalogue that both are essential for one another. Paul’s “defense” of his ministry is not so much an apologetic as much as it is a demonstration of transformative function of strength and weakness together. In the final chapter before he concludes the book, White takes on what is viewed as the centerpiece of Paul’s strength in weakness paradox, 2 Corinthians 10–13, especially the thorn in the flesh passage in 12:7–10. In opposition to prevailing characterizations of Paul’s paradoxical language established by Gerald O’Collins (e.g., revelatory, ontological), White argues that Paul’s conception of the paradox is transformative, encompassing both revelatory and ontological aspects. In other words, Paul’s paradoxical language is not just apocalyptic—that is, dependent upon divine knowledge—and it is not just about the changing of weakness amid God’s power, but it is about the transformation of believers in their weakness and pain. Paul offers his own journey with the “thorn in the flesh” as an example, first as he understands weakness and strength as two totally opposite polarities and then afterward when he realizes that his weakness is necessary for strength. Paul offers himself as a model for the Corinthians to follow so they can navigate their ongoing struggle with pain (and even heartache) with Paul. 

In the mind of this reviewer, the book offers two major contributions to knowledge in Corinthians scholarship. The first is its demonstration of the coherence of 2 Corinthians as a singular work despite the shifts in tone and circumstance to which scholars so often appeal to posit the letter’s composite nature. White shows—more cogently regarding Paul’s dizzying shifts in tone than with the seemingly disparate circumstances between partitions of 2 Corinthians—that the tonal polyphony in 2 Corinthians occurs to a greater degree than scholarship has recognized, even within so-called partitioned units of 2 Corinthians (about which there is no consensus). This raises doubt as to whether judgments of tone, subjective as they are, can be trusted to be reliable indicators of redaction or epistolary assemblage in the Pauline corpus. 

This book’s second major contribution is its robust theological re-reading of 2 Corinthians. White’s reading takes into account not only the historical and exegetical elements of the text, but also the underlying ideological framework that drives Paul’s thought. Engaging with theological interpreters from Martin Luther to Susannah Ticciati and Miroslav Volf, White uses later theological thought to interrogate and tease out nuances in Paul’s use of the strength in weakness paradox. Such a theological approach might not be as appealing to interpreters with predispositions toward exclusively historical-critical methodologies, but White’s book offers a challenging portrait of Paul’s main theological emphasis in 2 Corinthians that demands engagement.

Some might raise concerns about author’s use of mental health language and disabilities as analogies to Paul, the Corinthians, and the situation they find themselves in. White characterizes the Corinthian community as being in a “bipolar” crisis (p. 54), and elsewhere says “it as though the community is bipolar” (p. 59). He then suggests that the Corinthian experience of pain might be similar to depression (p. 59) and later suggests that “Far from a psychopath, Paul fills the role of psychopathologist, and the Corinthians are his patients” (p. 167). Diagnosis of conditions like bipolar disorder and depression require care, not least when retrodiagnosing into ancient sources (if it is possible at all). Given the important insights of disability studies to New Testament studies in the past two decades, it is important that scholars avoid caricaturing mental health conditions in their analogies and in portrayals of ancient people. It is important because caricatures only reinforce and reinscribe stigma toward such conditions, which can compound with the scriptural and therefore normative use of texts like the New Testament among communities today.

Nevertheless, White’s book will be beneficial for those working on Paul’s Corinthian correspondence and Pauline theology concerning strength and weakness. It is a rare work of synthesis on 2 Corinthians among a field that has a tendency to atomize the text and reduce the sum of its parts to a reconstructed conflict narrative imagined in the minds of interpreters. 

Isaac T. Soon
Crandall University
Isaac.soon [at] crandallu.ca

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