The rivals of Paul who were followers of Jesus

2 Corinthians 11:4 provides a clue to the existence of a powerful rival group that opposed Pauline Christianity

by Ibn Anwar BHsc (Hons), MCollT

The text of 2 Corinthians 11:4 reads as follows:

“For if someone comes and proclaims another Jesus than the one we proclaimed, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or if you accept a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it readily enough.”

From this verse, we may glean that there was at least one group that was prominent enough to receive Paul’s attention and compel him to spend ink on it that was teaching a different Jesus and a different gospel than what Paul was teaching as James Dunn writes, “Similarly in 2 Cor. 11.4 the “other Jesus” preached could refer to a differently interpreted Jesus tradition.” [1]Though little detail is given concerning this group, we may reasonably speculate about their fundamental beliefs that disconcerted Paul by looking at the content of the context of 2 Corinthians 11:4, with particular focus on what points that Paul emphasise therein.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, one of his primary concerns is with the crucifixion of Jesus, the belief that Jesus suffered and died as a sin offering. As James Dunn writes, “The most distinctive emphasis of Paul’s preaching on Jesus, however, was on Jesus’ crucifixion… in 1 Cor. 2.2 Paul recalls how ‘I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. For in Cor. 15:2 he recalls the message he had preached to the Corinthians, including the message that ‘Christ died for our sins…” [2] From the emphasis Paul puts on this theme, we may discern that those mentioned in 2 Corinthians 11:4 may well have opposed this belief that Paul was propagating. To this effect, commenting on the phrase “another Jesus” in 2 Corinthians 11:4 the scholar Colin Kruse writes:

“It may well be that in their preaching Paul’s opponents stressed the power and glory of Christ to the virtual exclusion of the fact that he had also known weakness, humiliation, persecution, suffering and death. Paul preached Christ crucified as Lord, so a proclamation like that outlined above would seem to him to be the preaching of another Jesus.” [3]

This means that anyone who did not preach that Christ was crucified as Lord, that he suffered humiliation, persecution, suffering and ultimately death on the cross were antithetical to Paul’s ministry and were therefore preaching another Jesus.

David Garland who is Dean of George W. Truett Theological Seminary at Baylor University, likewise, writes:

“Another Jesus” refers to a different interpretation of Jesus that is not congruent with with the facts of Jesus’ life and death. Paul’s emphasis in 13:4, that Christ was “crucified in weakness,” suggests the possibility that the rivals presented a Jesus who was not “weak, suffering and humiliated.” They may talk about Christ, but Christ crucified is not the heart of their gospel nor does it influence the way they live.” [4]

From the above, we learn that this group gave no importance to the crucifixion of Jesus and it was certainly not part of their fundamental beliefs.

Michael Gorman however, tells us that this group’s teachings may well have amounted to the repudiation of the crucifixion rather than a mere disinterested detachment. They in fact abandoned the belief in the crucified Christ.

“What is very likely, however, is that Paul saw a massive incongruence between their gospel and their lifestyle (since for Paul an apostle was his or her message, and vice versa), between a message of Christ’s death for sin (s) and a preoccupation with powerful manifestations of the Spirit. Is this grounds for a charge of heresey? Yes, it is, at least for Paul, if it amounts to the repudiation of the cross as both the foundation and the form of life in Christ… to abandon the crucified Christ and the God-given Spirit of cruciformity is to offer another gospel.” [5]

The scholarly understanding that this group that Paul regarded as preaching another Jesus and another gospel disassociated themselves from the “suffering servant” image of Jesus that is so prominent in the Pauline portrayal of Jesus’ purpose and ministry seems to be across the board. Their detachment from any theological significance given to the cross seems to be one of their hallmarks. The massive New Jerusalem Biblical commentary comments:

“4. This is perhaps the most important clue in the quest for the identity of Paul’s opponents: if someone comes : his adversaries were from outside Corinth (3:1, 10:14-16), preaches a Jesus other than the one we preached. The sudden switch from “Christ” ( 10:1,5,7,14; 11:2,3) gives Jesus a special significance; the emphasis is on his earthly existence. Since the intruders claimed to “belong to Christ,” they must have shared the tendency of the “spirit-people” to downgrade the importance of Christ’s humanity, which was displayed in service, suffering, and death…

The Judaizers (3:3) preached a different gospel (Gal. 1:6-9). Since Paul’s ministry was a “ministry of the Spirit” (3:8) and of freedom (3:17), his opponents must have given their allegiance to a different spirit, viz., that of the new covenant, which they understood in a way that Paul could not accept (see comment on 3:6). The Judaizers would have shared common ground with the “spirit-people” (-> 1 Corinthians , 49:18) insofar as the wisdom tradition of the latter was rooted in the law.” [6]

From the above, we may discern, as we did from preceding scholarly references that this group of preachers had no interest in the suffering and alleged death and Jesus. Additionally, O’Connor tells us that they had a firm belief in the importance of the law in direct opposition to Paul who primarily concerned himself with “freeing” people from the “bondage” of the law through his version of Christ’s ministry.

Jan Lambrecht gives us an even greater insight as to the identity of this opponents of Paul who uniquely opposed him in his fundamental beliefs: the crucifixion and the law.

“Let us listen to what Paul himself says. The most pertinent text is 2 Corinthians 11:22-23a: “Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they servants of Christ? – I am talking as out of my mind – I am more.” For Paul these people are decidedly Jewish Christians, even ministers of Christ.” [7]

From the above we see that Paul himself in the immediate context of 2 Corinthians 11:4 identifies these individuals as Jewish Christians. And though he labels them “Satan”, “deceivers”, and “false apostles”, he is unable to forthrightly deny them as real ministers or servants of Christ. He sees himself as a better servant (“I am more”) but this necessarily implies that he sees them as equally servants of Christ but of lower status and inferior. Lambrecht continues:

“The opponents were probably not very numerous. It is, we think, is not completely impossible that there were connections between them  and the Jerusalem authorities (see our discussion of 10:12-18), nor, as most scholars hold, is it absolutely certain that they were wholly from Paul’s opponents in Galatia, those who compelled the Gentile Christians to live like Jews (Gal 2:14; see our discussion of 2 Cor 10:4-6; cf. Gal 1:7-9).” [8]

The above tells us that there is possibility that this group had links to the Jerusalem Church which was headed and lead by the direct apostles of Jesus and it also tells us that their movement was quite widespread as it is possible that the opposition Paul faced from opponents in Galatia were the same people as they had similar traits to those who went to Corinth to challenge Paul. This group was in fact quite successful in their ministry, at least in the early days, prior to the victory of Pauline Christianity over all others, pulling many, even the Gentiles, to their fold:

“Many Christians of Corinth must taken sides with the intruders and detached themselves from Paul, at least during a certain period of time. Second Corinthians shows us a Paul who, above all, wants to win them back.” [9]

The People’s New Testament Commentary by New Testament scholars Eugene Boring and Fred Craddock provides an even better overview of this group, what they believed and why Paul opposed them so.

11:4 Another Jesusspiritgospel: These may be only general descriptions of the false message and ministry of the rival apostles, or in Paul’s mind they may have had specific content. “Another Jesus” has been understood in several ways:

1. The opponents may have emphasized the life and teachings of the earthly Jesus, whom Paul had not known. The details of Jesus’ earthly life did not play a role in Paul’s own gospel, which focused on the act of God in the whole Christ event, not on stories about and sayings of the earthly Jesus.

2. The opponents may have contrasted the exalted heavenly Christ and the purely human Jesus, one who could be disdained and even cursed (see on 1 Cor. 12:3). If so, it means that before their arrival in Corinth some Corinthians already leaned toward this view which the new missionaries elaborated and exploited.

3. Since Paul places their Christology in contrast to his own, which emphasizes the vulnarability and weakness of the crucified Christ (see 1 Cor. 1:18-2:5; 2 Cor. 13:4; Phil. 2:5-11), they may have emphasized the power of the miracle-working “divine man” Jesus, a view that had no place in Paul’s own understanding. It may be that they saw the power at work in Jesus’ life as continued in their own powerful ministry, just as Paul saw the self-giving of a victimized and crucified Jesus as continued in his ministry. Neither group saw a way of combining the pictures of Jesus the divinelike miracle worker and the Jesus who died a human death on the cross. Paul chose the weakness of the crucified Jesus as the power of God; they chose the power of the miracle-working of Jesus as representing the power of God. [10]

This group then had access to stories concerning Jesus and his words during his ministry while Paul did not. They also had difficulty allowing Jesus to be the victim of some curse and exalted Jesus over above Paul’s victimized Jesus model. They adopted Jesus’ deeds of miracle as important to the person of Jesus and completely abandoned any attachments to the crucifixion while Paul fixates himself on the crucifixion to the subtraction of all else. Even though Paul identifies them as “false apostles” as we have seen above and even called them ministers of Satan (contradicting himself as we illustrated that he couldn’t help but recognise that they were ministers of Christ), Boring and Craddock write, “Though Paul considers them false, they were probably sincere Christian leaders whose differences with the Pauline mission were so great they considered him a false apostle, a danger to the churches, whose converts had to be “corrected.” ” [11]

In the foregoing discussion we have seen the many shades of colour of this mysterious and nameless group found in 2 Corinthians 11:4. Although we may never know exactly what they believed and who they were in precise terms (unless some new early manuscripts that document their existence and beliefs are unearthed), we have gleaned from Paul’s own writing, as we have done above, what they may very well have believed. In all likelihood, this was a group that completely detached themselves from the alleged crucifixion of Jesus and emphasised the earthly ministry of Jesus. This was probably the utter most sticking point that irked Paul so much to the extent that he labels them not only false apostles but the servants of Satan himself. The rift between Paul and this group must have been quite significant and their beliefs must have greatly agitated Paul for he would not have been so harsh in the epithets that he affords them which he affords to none of his other numerous opponents elsewhere. Despite Paul’s meanderings about their supposed distasteful behaviour that were incongruent to the gospel they were preaching, which is something that we cannot confirm as there are absolutely no independent corroborating eyewitnesses to justify Paul’s appraisal regarding this, what is evidently clear is that his theology of the cross was completely disregarded by this group and this was probably the unpardonable sin that led Paul to identify them as servants of Satan. This removes the Christian apologetics critique on Islam that it brought something new when it put doubt on the crucifixion of Jesus by seemingly denying that it actually took place. It would appear that denial of the crucifixion and/or any importance attached to it was in vogue even at the time of Paul. This then corroborates the Qur’anic crucifixion narrative as historical rather than merely mythical.


[1] Dunn, J. D. G. (1998). The Theology of Paul the Apostle. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 196

[2] Dunn, J. D. G. (2009). Christianity in the Making, Volume 2: Beginning from Jerusalem. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 576

[3] Kruse, C. (1987). The Second Epistle of Paul to the Corinthians: An Introduction and Commentary. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 184

[4] Garland, D. E. (1999). The New American Commentary: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of the Holy Scripture, 2 Corinthians. Nashville, Tennessee: B & H Publishing Group. p. 464

[5] Gorman, M. J. (2004). Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and his Letters. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 322

[6] O’Connor, J. M. (1990). 2 Corinthians. In Raymond E. Brown (Ed.), The New Jerome Biblical Commentary. New Jersey: Prentice Hall. pp. 826-827

[7] Lambrecht, J. (1998). Second Corinthians. In Daniel J. Harrington (Ed.), Sacra Pagina Series. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press. p. 7

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Boring, M. E. & Craddock, F. B. (2010). The People’s New Testament Commentary. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press. p. 570

[11] Ibid. p. 571

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