Is Canonical 2 Corinthians a Hypothetical Reconstruction?

Is Canonical 2 Corinthians a Hypothetical Reconstruction?

As I’ve noted before, I’m now reading Calvin J. Roetzel, 2 Corinthians, in the Abingdon New Testament Commantaries series.  I want to emphasize here that I accept the use of historical-critical methodology in Bible study.  That does not, however, force me to find all critical theories plausible.  I’m arguing against this specific set of theories, not against historical-critical methodologies generally.

In arguing against the unity of the book, Roetzel says:

… Most [scholars who argue for the integrity of the book] side with Kümmel that the canonical version of 2 Corinthians was Paul’s original epistle, and they tend to ignore the hypothetical nature of their own construction even while repudiating the hypotheses of others (Kümmel 1965 [Introduction to the New Testament. Nashville: Abingdon, 1965], 292).  — p. 25

This seems to me to be an odd statement.  Though it is not explicit, it appears to aim to place all views on a level playing field, from unity to the five letter hypothesis.  But that doesn’t seem the correct approach.

If I have a letter with an essentially unified textual history, in this case meaning that the partitioning of the letter is nowhere evident in the textual history as we have it, then we might give at least slight preference to the notion that it is, in fact a letter.  When it fulfills all the forms, that suggestion is strengthened.

I suppose that the idea that the letter is a unity is, indeed, an hypothesis, but it seems a rather obvious one.  Suggestions of Paul’s changes of mood and/or rhetorical intention are based on observing the text based on this first and most obvious hypothesis.

On the other hand multiple letter hypotheses are immediately much more complicated.  First one has to assume that someone combined multiple letters into one, cutting out the salutation of at least one and the conclusion of another.  If we assume five letters, then the situation becomes more complicated.

There are clearly shifts or seams in 2 Corinthians.  The question is why?  The problem for multiple letter hypotheses, I think, is to answer the question not just of why such seams are there (which they answer by proposing multiple letters), but also just why someone should put the document together in this way.

I don’t see this addressed anywhere.  What is the purpose of the redactor?  If he wishes to preserve all the letters why not just copy them in succession?  If he has some theological purpose, then the question goes right back to the start–what is the meaning of the text as it stands?  (I would welcome comment from someone who has spent more time studying New Testament than I have.)

I’m suggesting two things.  First, that the hypothesis that the letter as we have it is a unity should be privileged in discussion to some extent, because it is supported by the best possible evidence–that’s what the letter looks like now.  Second, that a theory that involves redaction must also explain the actions of the redactor.  Simply producing plausible pieces and providing a chronology for them does little without some reason why they would have been combined as they were.

Let me illustrate from some texts where I feel I’m on more solid ground.  Many people try to solve the chronological differences between Genesis 1 and 2 by attributing them to two sources.  Now I believe they are from two sources.  I think the evidence is fairly solid for that.  But having said that, I have solved nothing regarding the difference in chronology between the two chapters, because I still must think about a redactor who somehow thought that putting them together made sense.  So now I must ask about his motivations and what message he intended to convey bringing them together.

In the case of Isaiah, we again have a composite book, but here were have a hypothesis for why redactors would want to add to the book.  Very likely there was a school of prophets or scribes who preserved Isaiah’s work and added to it from time to time.  Their motivation is to preserve the prophet’s (or prophets’) words. They are not cutting pieces out and combining them, but rather putting the pieces together, generally as they were.

I don’t see any similarly plausible hypothesis for 2 Corinthians, which makes me find the arguments for unity much more plausible in view of the lack of solid reasons for someone to sew the book together from two to five pieces as various theories suggest.

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