Paul’s “boasts” in 2 Corinthians 11

February 21, 2012

Rembrandt's Paul, looking anguished.


As I was preparing last Sunday’s sermon on 2 Corinthians 12:2-10, I reacquainted myself with the conflict Paul was addressing in his letter (as best scholars can reconstruct it). Since we never have the other side of Paul’s correspondence with his churches, we’re always guessing what the exact issues are.

In the case of 2 Corinthians, it seems clear, as I said in my sermon, that these so-called “super-apostles” have come into the Corinthian church and questioned Paul’s authority and leadership style. They have boasted about their own credentials, authority, and power.

So, after saying in Chapter 10 that boasting isn’t allowed for Christians, except for “boasting in the Lord,” Paul begins “boasting” about himself in Chapter 11. There he describes the various dangers he’s faced and suffering he’s endured for the sake of the gospel. To be clear: Paul is not truly boasting here. Quite the opposite: the beatings, stonings, hunger, and nakedness Paul suffered are, in the Greco-Roman world, occasions for embarrassment, not boasting.

In other words, Paul is boasting of all the things that make him look not heroic or vainglorious (as would be expected of any Roman hero) but weak.

As if to put an exclamation point on his anti-boasting, he concludes his list of trials with these words: “At Damascus the governor under King Aretas was guarding the city of Damascus in order to capture me, but I got away from him by being lowered in a basket through a window in the city wall” (vv. 32-33).

In his For Everyone commentary on this passage, N.T. Wright describes the significance of this small but specific detail. The highest military award in the Roman world, he writes, was the corona muralis (“crown of the wall”). It was awarded, often posthumously, to the first soldier who, when laying siege to a city, made it over the enemy’s fortified wall. It was usually a suicide mission, since he would be outnumbered by enemy soldiers down below. (For the sake of comparison, it’s hard not to think of those first soldiers who landed on the beach at Normandy.)

For Paul, the incident described in verses 32-33 was the corona muralis in reverse.

Throughout the two letters to Corinth, Paul has been aware that the young church is in danger of being sucked in to the ordinary cultural life of their city and district. And the teachers who have influenced the church in his absence have been going in exactly that direction. They have commended themselves, they have boasted of their achievements, they have wallowed in a culture of fame and success and showy rhetoric. Now, to answer them, Paul lists his own ‘achievements,’ all of them things that any normal person in the Roman world would be too ashamed even to mention, let alone celebrate. And as the climax of the whole list, he declares with a solemn oath that when the going got really tough he was the first one over the wall—running away, being let down on a rope in a basket. He is claiming an upside-down corona muralis.

N.T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 127-8.

6 Responses to “Paul’s “boasts” in 2 Corinthians 11”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, this is a very interesting and tricky subject, I think. I never thought of the “insight” given to what Paul was saying about himself based on the “let down in a basket” conclusion. It would seem, standing alone, to lend itself to an “opposite-from-boasting” slant on what Paul is saying.

    However, the general tenor of Paul’s statements suggests to me that he in fact “boasting” that he has a superior basis “to be listened to” over the “false super-apostles.” Certainly Jesus’ own sufferings were part of what put him in “first place.” See Hebrews 12:2; Philippians 2:5-11. Therefore, Paul’s willingness to go through extreme hardships for the sake of Christ and his Church were something that “elevated” him in his apostleship over the “fakers.” This is also further supported, I think, by his referring to someone taken up into the “third heaven,” of whom one could properly boast (generally considered to be Paul).

    So, is it always wrong for a Christian to “boast”? I think Paul’s “back-to-back” discussion that you reference here indicates the type of thing that I refer to under the rubric, “Doctrine of Competing Principles.” Sometimes there is a focus on one thing, and sometimes on another, in a seemingly inconsistent fashion, but which in fact indicate that “to everything there is a season.”

    Consider Solomon’s admonition: “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes. Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou be like unto him.” What gives? Well, there can be more than one type of fool, one who might benefit from reproof, and another who will only argue with you and perhaps make you look foolish in the bargain. Or, there are “competing principles”: There may be a reason to correct fools, but you have to be careful about it. Similarly, Solomon tells us not to be deceived, because bad company corrupts good morals; yet, Jesus “rubbed shoulders” with the “wrong crowd,” because he came “not to call the righteous, but the sinners to repentance.” Those who are whole don’t need a doctor, but those who are sick. Once again, there may be a need, but there is a danger at the same time, and both have to be kept in mind.

    Similarly with “boasting,” I think. Certainly the ultimate thing we have to keep in mind on the subject is that Christ, and what he has done for us, is so much greater than us that on the one hand it seems inappropriate to boast in anything in ourselves by comparison. Yet, turn around, and it becomes appropriate to boast somewhat to “shut the mouths of fools” (though Paul seems even to be cautioning himself in that respect by saying, “I speak as a fool”).

    My own opinion is that, in fact, there are those as to whom it may be proper to “be thought more highly of.” Ezekiel quotes God as saying, “Though Job, Noah, and Daniel were here, they would save nobody else in this establishment except themselves” (I think those are the three he mentioned), which suggests they may be of some higher honor. In fact, in a very interesting instance, Judah says of Tamar after her “seduction” to gain a child that “she is more righteous than I am, since I would not give her my son.” I don’t think there is any question but that God has a “hierarchy” based on our levels of devotion to him. In fact, when his disciples argued over who was the greatest, Jesus did not say, “You’ve got it all wrong! Nobody is greater!” No, instead he pointed out that the path to spiritual greatness is exactly contrary to the path that the Gentiles follow. Hence, to that extent Paul exactly would boast over “weaknesses”–not that those did not make one great, but that, in fact, those were TRUE signs of REAL greatness. Nevertheless, except as in such rare instances as Paul faced, it is USUALLY not correct for us to be the ones who are doing the bragging–instead, we are to let that be done by someone else.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I get your point. Of course Paul’s words about his suffering ought to stop the mouths of his opponents and shame the Corinthians who bought into what they were saying. But I think we’re in danger of reading this passage through such a thoroughly Christian lens that the “right way” of seeing things is clear to us in a way that it wasn’t to this young church.

      Even Paul’s words about his heavenly vision served his point about emphasizing his weakness. Like Paul’s opponents, he too has had amazing visions and revelations (although, for Paul, it happened a long time ago). Surely someone who had such a vision ought to have the spiritual power to pray this thorn in the flesh away. But no… Even here Paul fails to measure up to his opponents. God refuses to give Paul what he asks for. All this “boasting” is the correct kind: boasting in the Lord. It’s God who has all the power, not Paul.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Brent, I agree that power ultimately comes from God. But I think we have to be careful here lest we prove too much by that recognition. Paul, with respect to the thorn, referred to that affliction as a way to keep himself humble because of the tendency to pride which might come from other things about himself, such as his abundant revelations. Thus, it is the weak things about ourselves which remind us of our ultimate dependence on the great and awesome God, and therefore are good things because they do so. With thorns in the flesh, we “know our place,” so to speak, and exalt those because they are the reminders that our ability to accomplish much of anything, given such weaknesses, bespeaks the power of God at work in us.

        But we can’t attribute anything and everything to God, obviously, since, for one thing, we sin. Thus, there is an extent to which we “fit into the equation.” And that cannot be “negative only”; otherwise, it would be “God’s fault” that he does not intervene regularly enough to keep our weaknesses to fall into sin from occurring. Free choice demands some capacity for choosing good on our part, and I know you agree with me that we have free choice.

        There are a number of biblical examples of “goodness” of the person in view being extolled by God. “Consider my servant Job.” “Noah was a just man” (and therefore he was selected to be the one to survive the Flood). The Roman centurion was selected to prove salvation could extend to the Gentiles because he prayed and gave alms to the poor. The Ethiopian eunuch received salvation as a result of his being willing to travel from Africa to Jerusalem in search of the truth, buy a scroll of Isaiah (likely a pretty penny), and spend his time returning home reading it. Jesus repeatedly said, “Go your way–YOUR FAITH has saved you.” Hebrews 11 is a roll call of the “faith-full.”

        So, the “equation” cannot be: “God 100%, Christian 0%,” when anything good results. Not only cannot be, but scripturally indicated not to be. Now, it may well be, “God 99%, Christian 1%.” And, in fact, Paul extols the “reminder” in that regard with respect to his thorn in the flesh. Anyone who thinks he has the power to stand on his own should “take heed, lest he fall.” Humility is itself a virtue, and a substantial one, which may well be why Paul referenced being let down over the wall (“Look, I was even willing to suffer humiliation for the advancement of the cause of Christ.”).

        Well, sorry to go on so long on this issue, but I guess this is a “pet peeve” of mine. When we stand before God on Judgment Day, is he going to say, “I hereby reward you with the following because that is the extent to which I did all the good that you did”? Or, is he rather going to look particularly to that very “sliver” that we ourselves contributed to what got done to reward us (including the humility itself). Consider the parable of the talents. God gave all three the talents that they had, yet he rewarded them according to the extent that they used what he gave them to result in an “increase.” I think that is the ultimate picture of how God interacts with his children.

      • brentwhite Says:

        I agree, Tom. We Methodists talk about “responsible” grace. Inasmuch as we do good for God’s kingdom, it’s always in response to God’s grace, which initiates and enables our good action. In a sense, it’s always appropriate to give God full credit, recognizing at the same time that God’s Spirit worked through us because we said “yes” to God’s prompting.

        All that to say that its not “either God/or us”; it’s both/and. But we will be judged based on how we respond.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Totally agree with, “we will be judged based on how we respond.” To me, though, that seems to be “my part.” However, I won’t belabor the point further.

      • brentwhite Says:

        It absolutely is our part—for which we are fully responsible. We don’t disagree. 🙂


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