Printed from http://tektonics.org/2corirony.php
2 Cor. 11:8 I robbed other churches, taking wages of them, to do you service.
2 Cor. 11:23 Are they ministers of Christ? (I speak as a fool) I am more; in labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft.
I have deemed it efficient to write a short item here on Paul's use of sarcasm in 2 Corinthians. Certain critics read statements like the above and take them literally, as though Paul were actually a brigand, and talking as a fool whose words could not be inspired by God.
Our programmatic piece for this article is Holland's paper, "Paul's Use of Irony as a Rhetorical Technique" in The Rhetorical Analysis of Scripture, 1997 (234ff). Holland discerns in 2 Corinthians "multiple layers of irony" which "involves a much more complicated mental transaction on the part of the audience" than a "normal" letter -- and notes further the risk involved in such a technique, since it is widely open to misunderstanding.
Of course we see this in the repeated misunderstandings of critics. In summary, irony is the rhetorical art "of saying one thing while meaning another." This was a technique known and used by Greco-Roman writers.
Holland identifies several examples of irony, and our two cites above are typical. Irony often made uses of litotes (understatement) and exaggeration (overstatement). The first cite is an example of this: Paul exaggerates by referring to himself as a robber because he accepted gifts from other churches in order to preach to the Corinthians, from whom he received no support.
Irony also made use of "shocking" statements of value, the intended effect of which was to reinforce values shared by the writer and the reader/listener by "tricking" them into agreeing with the writer. Paul makes several statements like this in 2 Corinthians, as well as in other letters.
Other ironic techniques included the "direct warning" that one was speaking ironically -- our second cite is an example of this -- and the open proclamation of pure error. An example of this is where Paul refers to God's "foolishness" (1 Cor. 1:25)
Thus, anyone who takes Paul literally and thinks he actually robbed churches is reading Paul seriously out of context.