2 Corinthians: Understanding the difference between “we” and we


For a discussion on 1 Corinthians 13 (“How not to love”), scroll down or go here.

Many commentaries state that 2 Corinthians 1-9 has a theme of reconciliation. In contrast 10-13 is commonly said to be almost the opposite, which has led to partition theories, that these two parts were written at different times and later put together as one book. Some commentators divide/partition 2 Corinthians into as many as five or six books.

Thrall, writing in the International Critical Commentary, divides it into three:

1-8, 13:11-13 (she sees several “digressions” in 1-7)



The Exegetical Summary of 2 Corinthians, published by SIL, while holding the interpretation that 2 Corinthians is one book, states: “The most serious challenge to the integrity of canonical 2 Corinthians comes from the sudden change of tone from the chapters 1–9 to chapters 10–13.”

Thrall, in the ICC, in her section on the “Arguments for and against the separation of chaps. 10-13 from chaps. 1-9,”on page 5 states the commonly held view that: “Paul’s attitude to his readers here and the general tone of these chapters are incompatible with the tone and attitude of the earlier chapters. In the first seven chapters he has written of reconciliation, and his joy of its achievement. But now, he suddenly bursts out into a torrent of reproaches, sarcastic self-vindication and stern warnings.”

The thesis of this short discussion is that there may not be quite the stark contrast between 1-9 and 10-13 that appears on the surface if one takes into account the interpretation of one concept which occurs over and over in 1-9. The concept is the correct understanding of the first person plural references (“we”) and their purpose in the rhetoric of 2 Corinthians. There are over 200 occurrences of the first person plural pronoun, and so the issue is of great importance.

In A Handbook on Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians, published by the United Bible Societies, Roger L. Omanson and John Ellington state on p. 8 that: “For many verses the context is so very ambiguous that it is not possible to be certain. In languages that use separate forms for inclusive and exclusive first person plural pronouns, the translation will involve a certain amount of guesswork.”

It is important to keep in mind that this issue is not only important for languages which distinguish between we inclusive and we exclusive, where the language forces the translator to one interpretation or the other. It also has an impact on languages without this distinction, since how the translator understands who Paul is referring to will affect the translation of these verses, as well as the overall rhetoric of the book.

The Mixtec language I work in does distinguish between first person plural inclusive and first person plural exclusive. The pronoun “yo” is inclusive, and “ndu” is exclusive. This concept was hard from me to grasp at the beginning since English does not have separate pronouns to make this distinction. In English, we can only go by the context. So if my wife and I are speaking to a church and saying “We are going to Mexico January 7”, then the people listening know that we are only talking about the two of us, and we are not including them. In Mixtec, we would have used the pronoun “ndu”, “we exclusive” to say that sentence. But if, in that same church, I say, “Today we are going to look at the 3rd chapter of John’s Gospel,” then people know the “we” includes everyone. we are all going to talk and think about it. In that instance, in Mixtec, I would have said “yo”, “we inclusive.”

Bible scholars have mostly dealt with this issue in the Bible when trying and decide if Paul sometimes uses “we” to talk about “we Jews” as opposed to “you Gentiles.” There are a number of verses where it is hard to know which he is referring to.  But the issue is vitally important in trying to understand 2 Corinthians, since the word “we” appears in this book over 200 times, much more than any other book in the New Testament.

As the Mixtec translation team worked through 2 Corinthians, the context led us to translate almost all of the first person plurals “we”, as exclusive, either referring to Paul himself, or to himself and Timothy. In Mixtec, when it is read this way, the tone is not reconciliatory. Paul is defending his ministry, urging the Corinthians to accept his apostleship and authority as God’s calling, and to quit listening to false teachers. We felt these decisions fit the overall context of the book, and brought unity to the book.

Later on, further research showed that SIL Mexico Branch member Velma Pickett wrote in the first and sixth Notes on Translation back in 1962 that almost all of the first person plurals of 2 Corinthians are probably exclusive. A number of other translators have come to the same conclusion. In each of these cases, the language they worked in required them to make an inclusive/exclusive decision.

Almost none of these earlier studies say what impact such an interpretation has on the rhetoric of the book. In Mixtec, the use of we exclusive helps to reflect Paul’s jealousy for God’s glory, the gospel and the believers. If one rejects the messenger, they end up rejecting the message.

This was further confirmed by an article in The Bible Translator, Vol 54, No 4, published in 2006, by Paul Ellingworth , where he sates that Paul “is concerned to defend his own and his companions’ ministry against harmful attacks, so the great majority of the occurrences of we in this letter exclude the Corinthians. Only occasionally does he appeal to deep convictions which he and his readers hold in common: e.g., when he writes “our Lord Jesus Christ” (1.3; 6.16); “we all…are being transformed into [Christ’s] likeness” (3.18); or “we are the temple of the living God” (6.16). These cases would use inclusive “we.”” I would also add 5:10: “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ….”

Philip Hughes, in The New International Commentary on the New Testament, written in 1962, also saw how the argument of Paul defending his apostleship brought unity to the entire book of 2 Corinthians, stating that: “The difficulty of the change of tone and content of the final four chapters is more imaginary than real. As we have shown, they fit in with the scheme of the epistle. But, what is more, it can be demonstrated that they harmonize with the pervading theme of the epistle–the theme, namely, of strength through weakness. In this theme is bound up the whole argument for the genuineness of Paul’s apostolic authority, which has been impugned by his adversaries in Corinth.”

While Hughes focuses on the theme of “strength through weakness” as tying the book together, I advocate that understanding almost all of the we’s as we exclusive, which give further evidence Paul is defending his apostleship, is further and even stronger evidence of the unity of the book, and which lessens the assumed change of tone between 1-9 and 10-13.

The following Scripture is well known, and fairly representative of chapters 1-9. Here, as in many passages in 2 Corinthians, Paul contrasts “we” and “you.” He is also validating his ministry, thus the Gospel, by telling how he has risked his life so that they might have life. In other passages he freely interchanges “we” and “I.” These and other cases add to the evidence that the majority of the first person plurals are exclusive.

7 “But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. 8 We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; 9 persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. 10 We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. 11 For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. 12 So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you.” 4:7-12 (NIV)

We can, and should, of course, apply these verses to our own lives, but it is also very important to understand what Paul is trying to do in the context of his writings. What was the impact on the original readers? I would challenge you to some day soon sit down and read 2 Corinthians, and each time you come across “we, our, etc.,” replace them with “I, my, etc.” As you do this, ask yourself what impact this has on the rhetoric and purpose of what Paul is writing. Also note how the reading flows better into the arguments found in chapters 10-13, where Paul does use “I” almost exclusively.

(I have written a much more detailed (unpublished) paper on this topic, where I deal with all the passages of 2 Corinthians and explain the reasons why I conclude Paul is using we exclusive. I, along with another colleague, led a workshop on 2 Corinthians in Spanish in 2012 where we went into even more detail.)


Abernathy, David. 2003. An Exegetical Summary of 2 Corinthians. Dallas: SIL International.

Ellingworth, Paul. 2006 “We” in Paul, The Bible Translator, Vol 54, No. 4. United Bible Societies.

Hughes, Philip E. 1962. The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Paul’s Second Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Thrall, Margaret E. 1994. The International Critical Commentary, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians, Vol. I. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Tuti yóꞌo kúú tôꞌon Ndios, ta xíꞌo ña kuenda saꞌâ Jesus. The New Testament in Tezoatlán Mixtec. 2006. Mexico, D.F.: La Liga Bíblica, A.C.

What the Corinthians teach us about how NOT to love

seb-group00The following is part of a presentation I gave at Bible Translation 2009, a conference held in Dallas, Texas. My next entry will be the other part of that presentation, on 2 Corinthians. The full paper can be found here.

Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is commonly understood as a love poem, but I believe it to be more of a strong rebuke and summary of their already mentioned shortcomings, especially in regards to spiritual gifts. Most people have probably never thought of chapter 13 as a “summary of shortcomings” but let’s look a little closer at the book and try to see what Paul is doing, through the eyes of the Mixtec language.

The Mixtec language I work with, like many languages of the world, does not have abstract nouns. As a result, the language requires a translation of love in its verb form. The verb love requires a subject, as well as a direct object. Mixtec must state who is loving whom. The translation team at first thought it could be God loving us, but we saw that after saying love is patient, love is kind, the next eight statements say what love is not. So we determined the focus is more on how the Corinthian Christians should love one another. Looking at the immediate context of chapter 12 and 14, as well as the context of the rest of the book led us to conclude that 1 Corinthians 13 is not a love poem, but more of a rebuke to the Corinthians, showing how they were not loving one another. This fresh understanding, to me at least, came as a result of Mixtec requiring us to look at the passage through new eyes. If this chapter is read as a rebuke, and since so many verses in the previous chapters have “rebuke” as the focus, when read in Mixtec, the entire book of I Corinthians sounds very much like a “severe” letter. (2 Cor. 2:4)

As I studied this list of the characteristics of love from the Mixtec language perspective, it brought to my mind previous verses in the book where Paul relates how the Corinthians did almost the opposite of what he is advocating here in chapter 13. I soon found verses stating how the Corinthians were not kind, how they were proud, boastful, envious, rejoiced in evil, etc. I soon developed a devotional to share this new discovery with my Mexico Branch colleagues during chapel times at the linguistic centers in Oaxaca and Tucson. (I think it is important that as translators make such new discoveries, that they share them with others.)

In preparation for this present study, I discovered a book by Michael Gorman called, Cruciformity: Paul’s narrative, Spirituality of the cross, where he has a very similar list. The following is a combination of his list and mine. The underlined words in the verses below either contain the Greek word found in the chapter 13 phrase indicated or a synonym of it (according to Gorman), while verses without underlines reflect a similar thought.

4Love is patient, (makrothumei)

20When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not! 33So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat wait for each other. ―11:20-22, 33

love is kind. (crēsteuetai)

Gorman says there is no direct parallel, but a possible play on words with Christ. I think there are many verses which state how unkind the Corinthians believers could be to one another, such as:

6But instead, one brother goes to law against another―and this in front of unbelievers!

7The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. ―6:6-8

is not envious/jealous, (zēloi)

3You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? ―3:3

15If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. ―12:15-16.

This is the first of quite a few of the characteristics of love in chapter 13 dealing with the misuse of the spiritual gifts. God gave these gifts to mature and edify the believers, but, on the contrary, they began getting either proud or, as stated here, envious of the gifts they didn’t have. The attitude seems to be, “Too bad God didn’t make me to be a head or to be an ear. Those would have been much better gifts than the gift I have now.”

is not boastful, (perpereuetai)

29so that no one may boast before him. 30It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” ―1:29-31 ((kauchēsētai)

“The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 21So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours…. ―3:20-21 (kauchasthō)

What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? ―4:7

6Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? ―5:6

In relationship to the gifts, a common attitude seemed to be: “My gift’s better than your gift,” from verses we find in both chapters 12 & 14.

it is not proud/arrogant. (phusioutai)

6Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. 18Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 19But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, ―4:6, 18,19

1It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. 2And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? ―5:1-2

1Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. ―8:1

5It is not rude, (ouk aschēmonei)

20As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” ―12:20-21

It does not insist on its own way, (ou zētei ta heautēs)

24Don’t seek out trying to live well yourselves, instead seek out that others live well. ―10:24 (heautou)

31So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God– 33even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. ―10:31-33

The main teaching of both chapters 8 and 10 deals with meat sacrificed to idols, and how, though they may have had the “right” to eat such meat, they must give up this right since it may cause a weaker Christian to fall into sin. By doing this they would show love for others. By insisting on their own way, they were not showing love toward their brothers and sisters.

it is not irritable, (paroxunetai)

3You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? ―3:3 (Gorman says it could refer to divisions and rivalries)

it keeps no record of wrongs/is not resentful. (ou logizetai to kakon)

5Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God. ―4:5 (Gorman says it could possibly refer to lawsuits)

6Love does not delight in evil/rejoice in wrongdoing, (ou chairei epi tē adikia)

7The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. 9Do you not know that the wicked/wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? ―6:7-9b

A man has his father’s wife. 2And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? ―5:1b-2

What others are saying

The vast majority of commentaries, especially older ones, and most sermons do not take this view of what Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 13. However, after some research I did find a few statements which confirmed that at least some others share this view of chapter 13. William D. [Bill] Mounce, who served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, wrote the following as he was sharing about the work his committee did on chapter 13: “I can hear Paul punctuate his words as they are being written down. Good grief, Corinthians. Love is patient. It is kind. Do you know anything about love? You are full of envy and boasting and arrogance and rudeness. You know nothing of love; all you know is self-serving resentment that works against the true meaning of love when you rejoice in wrongdoing. You think you are so important, but all the gifts you treasure will one day be gone, and you will be left with nothing because you have neither faith, hope, or love. Poetry? I don’t think so. Rhetoric? Powerful condemnation appropriate to a people who rejoice in their acceptance of the worse kinds of sexual immorality? Yes. I am glad that 1 Cor 13 was not read at my wedding. I am sorry that translations treat apostolic condemnation as pretty words.”

I want to emphasis again that the idea is not that we shouldn’t apply these verses to our own lives, as well as the lives of others. The point here is to discover what is Paul’s purpose, in the context, for writing the way he did, and how does that affect our understanding, not only of this chapter, but of the book as a whole.

John MacArthur, in his messages on Speaking in Tongues, The Permanence of Love–Part 1, gives this list of sins Paul has referred to in the book leading up to chapter 13: “…the Christians there resented each other, argued with each other, and shut each other out from their private little groups. They sexually violated each other, sued each other, boasted against each other, deprived each other in marriage, divorced each other, perverted the proper place of women within the church meeting, withheld food from the poor at the love feast, turned the Lord’s Table into a drunken orgy, offended each other, and fought each other for prominence in the use of their spiritual gifts.”

The issue as to whether 1 Corinthians is the “severe letter”, which used to be the prevailing view, is now rejected by most contemporary scholars because, as the Word Biblical Commentary notes on pg. xlvii, “Paul’s language describing his state of mind while writing it (2 Cor 2:4) is thought to be extravagant if 1 Corinthians is in his mind.” But looking at MacArthur’s list, and taking into account that chapter 13 can be considered apostolic condemnation, as well as chapters 12 & 14, I think this is further evidence that 1 Corinthians is the “severe letter”.

Gorman’s comments on chapter 13 summarize what I am advocating: “verses 4-8a provide a kind of “anti-description” of the Corinthians.” “As a corrective device, the text urges the Corinthians to reshape their communal narrative….” “…despite English translations and usage, Paul uses not a single adjective in his description of love; all the “characteristics of love” are expressed as verbs.”

Even if one may think that Mounce goes a little overboard in calling chapter 13 “apostolic condemnation”, it seems pretty clear that, at the very least Paul is unhappy with the Corinthians and what he writes here is “corrective”, as Gorman states. Earlier commentators even suggested that Paul wrote chapter 13 at some other time, and just kind of “stuck” it here. But chapter 13 is an integral part of the arguments of chapters 12 and 14, as well, as I advocate, of the book as a whole.

Here is the link to my YouTube video of this post: 1 Cor. 13


Gorman, Michael. 2001. Cruciformity: Paul’s narrative, Spirituality of the cross. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

MacArthur, John. Speaking in Tongues, The Permanence of Love–Part 1, as found at: http://www.biblebb.com/files/MAC/sg1868.htm

Mounce, William D. 2009. http://www.koinoniablog.net/2009/06/is-1-cor-13-poetrywe-had-an-interesting-experience-on-the-esv-translation-committee-when-we-were-doing-1-cor-13-we-were-wor.html