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.