The Good News Translation captures 2 Corinthians 11:25 well, “I do not think that I am the least bit inferior to those very special so-called ‘apostles’ of yours!” The term in Greek is huperlian apostolon, often rendered “super-apostles.” Their boasted qualifications led Paul to a fool’s speech in 2 Corinthians 11 and 12, boasting of his hardships and perseverance in trials. He says about his speech: “I am acting like a fool—but you have made me do it . . . For even if I am nothing, I am in no way inferior to those very special ‘apostles’ of yours” (2 Cor 12:11 GNT).
Who were these super-apostles who got under Paul’s skin? What were they teaching? What can we learn from the way Paul opposed them?
They came from outside of Corinth and boasted of their travels, comparing themselves to Paul. They had been through the same kinds of dangers as Paul with the same risks, according to their swagger. Paul wrote to “undermine the the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do” (2 Cor 11:12 ESV). That they were from somewhere besides Corinth is evident in some of Paul’s comments, such as “[we] will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to us” (2 Cor 10:13). His insinuation is that the super-apostles were not sent to Corinth by God, but only by their own ambitions. After all, the Corinthians first heard the message of Yeshua from Paul, “For we were the first to come all the way to you with the gospel of Christ” (2 Cor 10:14).
These super-apostles came from elsewhere and proclaimed something incompatible with Paul’s message: “if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed . . . you put up with it readily enough” (2 Cor 11:4). They came in and came on strong: “you bear it if someone makes slaves of you, or devours you, or takes advantage of you, or puts on airs, or strikes you in the face” (2 Cor 11:20). Their motives, according to Paul’s rhetoric was to gain advantage from the Corinthians and to take something from them.
They were clearly Jewish: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they offspring of Abraham? So am I” (2 Cor 11:22). And they claimed to be servants of Messiah: “Are they servants of Christ? I am a better one—I am talking like a madman—with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless beatings, and often near death” (2 Cor 11:23).
One of the joys of writing a book on Paul is getting to explore issues that relate to my faith and practice on a daily level. Like many Messianic Jews and Jewishly informed Christians I experienced at one time an apathy toward Paul’s writings. Having discovered the genius of Paul as a Jewish teacher, I think that way no more. Now I could say I wish he’d written more. If you’d like to stay in touch with the work I am doing there is no better way than signing up here for the MJ Musings weekly emails.
They said they were apostles: “such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ” (2 Cor 11:13). Paul countered their claim by reminding them of signs and wonders he had performed: “The signs of a true apostle were performed among you with utmost patience, with signs and wonders and mighty works” (2 Cor 12:12).
Judging from Paul’s pointed observations in his letter, they may have bragged about the ability to do miracles. Alternately, they may have been unable to perform any signs but talked a good talk about Yeshua as a wonder-worker, making empty promises of divine power available to people who followed their teaching.
They vaunted themselves as wise, as orators, as skilled in the rhetoric of speech. This is apparently why Paul said in his defense, “even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not so in knowledge” (2 Cor 11:6). They boasted of their sufficiency. They may have directly attacked Paul as insufficient, pointing to his imprisonments and trials. Thus Paul asks concerning the extreme deprivations he faced, going without food, in cold and exposure at times, “Who is sufficient for such things?” (2 Cor 2:16). According to Paul, sufficiency is not from our own abilities: “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God” (2 Cor 3:5).
Considering Paul’s language about the power of weakness and trials, it is likely that these super-apostles claimed all true representatives of God would be spared from trials. They may have said that miracles and Spirit-power should prevent true apostles from brushes with death and illnesses. Paul’s most powerful and emotional sayings in the letter relate to this theme of suffering and weakness. The compelling message of 2 Corinthians is that God prefers weak instruments and servants, because people see all the more that God’s love overcomes all things.
They may have fancied themselves expert Torah teachers. Perhaps Paul’s great midrash on the tablets of the Torah and the veil on Moses’ face (2 Cor 3:7 – 4:6) was intended to put these super-Torah-teachers in their place and, at the same time, to show how the ministry of Messiah surpasses Torah alone.
Paul accuses them of teaching another Yeshua and a different gospel. He makes much ado about signs and miracles. These clues suggest a hypothesis about the specific fallacy propounded by the super-apostles. The Yeshua they delivered fine speeches about was a wonder-worker, a sort of divine-man or demigod. They likely depicted him as possessed of divine power but utterly human. This depiction of Yeshua gets partially at the truth but stops short. While it may seem only a little distance shy of the real identity of Yeshua, it is, in fact, as far away as earth from heaven.
In part 2, Paul’s profound answer to the super-apostles.
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