In 2 Corinthians 11, Paul gives his apostolic resume, his reason for boasting, and it is mostly a catalog of suffering and opposition. It is also a rhetorically and symbolically rich catalog.
He begins with a fourfold summary of his privileges and status, and at each point he emphasizes that he holds the same status as the false apostles against whom he fights (vv. 22-23). He gives a triple designation for the Jews – Hebrew, Israelite, seed of Abraham (perhaps related to different stages of Israel’s history – patriarchal, exodus, back to patriarchal), and then climaxes the list with the name of the final Hebrew, Israelite, seed of Abraham – Christ. The fourfold list indicates the extend of his status; to every point of the compass, Paul has the same privileges as his opponents.
The reference to his service to Christ least into another fourfold list. He is “more” a servant in labors, imprisonment, beatings, dangers of death (v. 23). Again, his service is global, to the four corners of the earth. He offers himself as a living sacrifice in service to Jesus on the four-cornered altar of apostolic suffering.
Though Paul says he has been beaten “times without number,” he proceeds to enumerate the times (vv. 24-25). Five different sorts of suffering are listed (thirty-nine, rods, stones, shipwreck, in the deep), and the total number of attacks listed is 14 (5 lashings + 3 beatings + 1 stoning + 3 shipwrecks + 1 night and day on the deep). The list of 14 incidents suggests a Sabbath or new creation theme, which is also hinted at in the way he describes his time floating on the sea: “Night and day” evokes the “evening and morning” of creation week, and Paul spends that night and day not on the “sea” but in the “deep” ( buthos , the “bottom”). The night and day in the abyss of the sea evokes Jonah, prophet to the Gentiles, as well as the exodus, during which Pharaoh sank to the buthos like a stone (Exodus 15:5, LXX).
In verse 26, the word “peril” or “danger” ( kindunos ) is used 8 times, an eightfold peril that accompanies preachers of the “eighth day.” The perils come from natural dangers like rivers, wilderness, and sea, and also from human enemies of various sorts. It’s tempting to speculate that the list has some kind of chiastic order:
A’. False brothers
At least, we have a 1 + 3 + 3 + 1 rhythm: 1 impersonal/natural danger + 3 human dangers + 3 impersonal/natural danger + 1 human danger. If the particular items correspond chiastically, each of the impersonal items on the list is associated with a particular group: Rivers are false brothers, robbers are the sea, Jews are the wilderness, and Gentiles are the city. Gentiles make a natural match with the city, and the Jews that Paul deals with are like the Jews in the wilderness. Alternatively, the three human groups might correspond in parallel fashion with the three impersonal terms: Robbers with city, Jews with wilderness, Gentiles with sea. On any account of the structure of the list, the first and last items stand out because they invert the sequence of the other items on the list. The association of false brothers with rivers is intriguing; it may shed light on other uses of river symbolism in the New Testament, especially in Revelation, where potamos is used 8 times (8:10; 9:14; 12:15-16; 16:4, 12; 22:1, 2). False brothers are rivers because they promise life and irrigation, but end up drowning and destroying. “Uncertain as a wadi” seems almost proverbial in Jeremiah 15:18: False brothers are like a seasonal brook that promises the water of life but doesn’t provide it.
The penultimate section of the list (v. 27) describes Paul’s physical deprivation, and the list has a neat alteration between paired sufferings and single items:
A. Labor and hardship
B. Sleepless nights
A’. Hunger and thirst
A”. Cold and exposure
The whole resume culminates with Paul’s description of the continuous, daily pressure of concern for the church that weighs down on him. He has boasted of his weakness throughout the passage, and in the end he boasts of sharing in the weakness of the weak in the church, boasts of his intense concern for those who are led into sin (v. 28). Identifying with the weak, intense concern for the wayward – those form the capstone of Paul’s apostolic resume.