Paul’s struggle against the imperial cult in 2 Corinthians 11:1-15

Paul’s struggle against the imperial cult in 2 Corinthians 11:1-15

Recently, while reading a new thread on the forum, I came across 2 Corinthians 11:3-4. My interest was aroused, not only for these two verses, but for the whole periscope 11:1-15, which I will discuss below.

There are quite some characters in this play, divided into two diametrically opposed parties. The central opposition seems to be between Christ one side and ‘another Jesus’ on the other. This opposition is quite bizarre, as one would expect ‘another Christ’ opposed to the Christ Paul is propagating. Moreover, except by name Jesus is totally absent in this fragment (which is in line with my theory that ‘Jesus’ is always forged in Paul’s letters as the latter is propagating a future Christ). If Paul was discussing two Christs, we might expect elements of an opposition between two Judeo-Christian factions, but there is not a single element in this fragment that points in this direction. I believe there is another option that fits better in the context (see below). For Paul the Χριστος is a ruler whom he frequently calls κυριος Χριστος. So maybe Paul opposes his Χριστος-who-is-the-κυριος with another κυριος. Who might this other κυριος be?

In verse 3 Paul stages the serpent, and he does so in quite a subtle way: “But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” Indirectly the serpent is associated with removing people from devotion to Christ. The serpent seems to be a human being, and indeed the Greek word ὄφις is used as a derogatory term to describe dangerous, reprehensible persons. In Sibylline Oracles book V:29 it is used to depict the Roman emperor Nero. So maybe here also the serpent is a disguise for Nero, the Roman emperor of Paul’s days. In verse 14 we encounter Satan, and here also the Roman emperor might be staged (see for example also ‘Satan’s seat’ in Pergamum in Revelation 2:13). In general, Paul sees the Christ as the savior of the world, so it is not illogical that he opposes his Christ with the Roman emperor, the savior and benefactor of the then world in the eyes of the propagators of his divinity.

A verse by verse discussion will further illuminate the original reasoning of this fragment:



1 I wish you would bear with me in a little foolishness. Do bear with me! 2 I feel a divine jealousy for you, for I betrothed you to Christ to present you as a pure bride to her one husband.

3 But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.

Paul couldn’t attack the Roman emperor frontally in a world dominated by Rome, so he uses an indirect way to do so. The Roman emperor seems to have something to do with leading the thoughts astray from devotion to Christ.

4 For if someone comes and preaches another Jesus (to be replaced by ‘lord’) than the one we preached, of if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept another gospel from the one you accepted, you submit to it readily enough.

Here the opposition is elaborated in detail. The preaching of the two lords is Paul’s preaching of a future Christ who will rule the world against the propagating of the Roman emperor as the benefactor and savior of the world. As Paul refers to ‘light’ and ‘righteousness’ at the end of this fragment, the opposition seems to be between the spirit of light / spirit of righteousness against the spirit of darkness / spirit of deceit, the core of Essene moral dualism. The word ‘gospel’ has a Christian connotation nowadays, but in Paul’s time it had a broader meaning. It was also used for the blessing of the emperor. There is for example a 9 BCE inscription from Asia Minor that describes the ευαγγελια of the emperor Augustus. So here the ‘good news’ of the arrival is opposed to the ‘good news’ of the emperor cult. The ‘you submit to it readily enough’ is translated in BDAG (p. 506) as ‘you put up with it all right’, with the ironical use of καλως. In summary:

  • Christ vs Roman emperor
  • Spirit of light vs spirit of darkness
  • Good news of the future Christ vs good news of the benefactions of the Roman emperor

5 I think I am not in the least inferior to these superlative apostles.

A good translation of ἀποστολοι in this context might be propagators. ‘Superlative’ is clearly cynical. Paul is loathing his opponents.

6 Even if I am unskilled in speaking, I am not in knowledge; in every way we have made this plain to you in all things.

The propagators of the imperial cult seem to be good orators.

7 Did I commit a sin in abasing myself so that you might be exalted, because I preached God’s gospel without cost to you? 8 I robbed other churches by accepting support from them in order to serve you. 9 And when I was with you and was in want, I did not burden any one, for my needs were supplied by the brethren who came from Macedonia. So I refrained and will refrain from burdening you in any way. 10 As the truth of Christ is in me, this boast of mine shall not be silenced in the regions of Achaia. 11 And why? Because I do not love you? God knows I do!

In verse 10 Paul expresses his combativeness for the propagation of the truth of Christ in Greece.

12 And what I do I will continue to do, in order to undermine the claim of those who would like to claim that in their boasted mission they work on the same terms as we do.

Here Paul is combative as well. He disputes the claim of equality of the ‘boasted mission’ of the imperial cult with his Christ mission.

13 For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.

These detested propagators of the imperial cult are perfidious: they propagate a positive message that has some similarity with the ‘good news’ of the Christ.

14 And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.

Indeed, the Roman emperor is depicted as the ultimate savior and benefactor.

15 So it is not strange if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.

The propagators of the imperial cult see themselves falsely as the messengers of good tidings. But their deeds are horrible, so Paul curses them: they will end (die) miserably in accordance with their deeds.

In conclusion: replacing the problematic word ‘Jesus’ in this paragraph turns this fragment into a veiled but quite recognizable attack against the hated Roman imperial cult and its propagators.

* For the connection between κυριος and the Roman emperors see BDAG p. 577: “Closely connected with the custom of applying the term κυριος to deities is that of honoring (deified) rulers with the same title. (…) From the time of Claudius we find the Roman emperors so designated in increasing measure; in isolated cases, even earlier.”