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

johnworkshopMany 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)

9

10:1-13:10

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 distinguishes between first personal 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.)

References:

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.

3 thoughts on “2 Corinthians: Understanding the difference between “we” and we

  1. Pingback: [ASK] biblical hermeneutics - 2 Corinthians – how do you tell where the first-person plural (we) is inclusive or exclusive? | Some Piece of Information

    • In the book of Second Corinthians, Paul is emphasizing that his apostleship is from God. He does this in a number of ways because he is very jealous for the glory of God and the purity of the message of Grace that God has given him. He is the “father” of the Corinthian church and shares how he has suffered greatly and risked his life so they can hear the message. He is thus very perturbed by the false messengers and how the people are allowing themselves to be deceived by them. As far as we can tell, these false teachers demanded payment for their “services” and since Paul refused any type of compensation, the teachers, and even many of the people, seem to have the attitude that with Paul, you get what you pay for. It is within this context that he writes this letter, and which has led me and more and more people to understand that at least 95% of the first person plural pronouns (we) in this book are we exclusive. There are over 200 occurrences of the first person plural pronoun in 2 Corinthians, and so if we do not clearly understand how they are used, we miss the main point of the letter.

      I have worked in two indigenous languages in Mexico where they have a separate pronoun for we inclusive and we exclusive, and so we had to make the we inclusive/we exclusive decision over 200 times. In many places it is clear because Paul combines “we” and “you”, so we know the “we” is exclusive. He also alternates “we” and “I” at times (among other examples, see 1:23-24). In fact “we exclusive” and “I” basically communicate the same thing. The only added information is if Paul has Timothy in mind or not.

      We know that in chapters 10-13, Paul almost exclusively uses “I”. His tone in these chapters seems to be harsh and there are many theories out there that it is a separate letter written at a separate time. I believe that this theory partly evolved because writers of commentaries do not grasp the dynamics of we inclusive and we exclusive since English, Greek, German, etc., do not make this distinction. As a result, they are caught in this muddled view of 2 Corinthians where they either label most of the first person plural pronouns as we inclusive or they don’t make a real detailed analysis of them and just proclaim that it is hard to know which is which.

      When I get a chance to present this topic, I ask the people present to read chapters 1-9 and to read “I” whenever they see “we”. If one does this, then Paul’s defense of his apostolic authority comes out clear. Yes, he is a bit more animated in 10-13, but I think this is because he is reacting to how he is criticized because he does not accept money, and his message is therefore demeaned, and he just hates that. Something that should be a plus becomes a liability and it really upsets him. But the point in both 1-9 and 10-13 is the same. Respect my apostolic authority, Believe in the message of Jesus and His grace, and do not listen to these false teachers and their distorted messages.

      My thesis is that we can know with utmost certainty which “we” he is using, and that the context and the grammar Paul uses reveals that at least 95% are we exclusive. This is hard for some to accept since Paul does say things which apply to all Christians. But as I have emphasized, context is the key, and while much of what he says is true of all devoted Christians, he is applying these things to himself to make a point, about his authority, his calling, his sacrifice, his zeal, etc.
      Among the verses which are for sure we inclusive include phrases like “our Lord”, “our God” etc. No doubt about these ones. Chapter 1 verse 3 is clearly we inclusive, while verse 4 could go either way, but verse 5 on is we exclusive, made clear in verse 6 when he mentions you all. In 3:16-18 he makes it pretty clear that it is we inclusive.

      The second part of chapter 4 and the fist part of chapter 5 is an interesting case. Towards the end of chapter 4 he shares about how he has risked his life to proclaim the message of the cross. Then chapter 5 talks about having this tent and looking forward to heaven. While this is true all true believers, Paul is focusing on what gives him hope in the midst of all his sufferings (sufferings for their benefit, so they can hear the Gospel). Then comes the famous verse 10 where he must add “all” to “We all must appear before the judgment seat of Christ” to show it is we inclusive. Other than these few examples, I am convinced that all the rest are we exclusive, and as mentioned earlier, this understanding also promotes the unity of the book. There may be less than five others which could be argued as we inclusive and I would not argue with too much vigor. But for all the rest, while he is clearly defending his apostleship in 10-13, he also, in a very deep emotional way, defends it in 1-9.

      Besides greatly weakening the “partition theory” of 1-9 and 10-13, a clear understanding of we exclusive also does away with the false idea that 1-7 has a theme of reconciliation, which you will find in most commentaries. Defense of his apostleship, not reconciliation, though if they do again recognize Paul’s authority is from God, this will promote reconciliation.

      I might also mention that chapters 8-9 also communicate Paul’s wariness about the Corinthians, since he is not happy that even though they promised over a year ago to take up an offering for the suffering in Judah, they hadn’t done it yet. So he has to help them make a detailed plan, and sends other brothers to help them accomplish it so they won’t be embarrassed when the brothers come along to collect it and they have almost nothing. He also plans to go along himself if needed, and even emphasizes that these other brothers will be with him in case they don’t trust him with all that money.

      A published article about this theme, which follows my line of reasoning is: Ellingworth, Paul. 2006 “We” in Paul, The Bible Translator, Vol 54, No. 4. United Bible Societies.

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