This does not seem plausible given the assumptions in the theory. It appears that the Corinthians were quite eager to vindicate themselves. This theory appears to be making the assumption that the letter(s) of 2 Corinthians is/are largely in response to 1 Corinthians (which is a possibility).
A few observations
- 1 Corinthians isn't actually the first letter(s) Paul wrote to the Corinthians (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:9; this letter is most likely no longer extant).
- Paul visited the Corinthian church twice prior to writing the letter(s) known as 2 Corinthians (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:14; 13:1).
- These letters may be composite, meaning that they each consist of multiple letters that may have different purposes, and they may not be compiled in chronological order (more on this below).
- Paul references a "severe letter" (cf. 2 Corinthians 2:3-4; 7:8) which this theory appears to be equating with 1 Corinthians.
A brief elaboration on this 'severe letter' is thus in order. Harris provides six candidates for it:
- an unattested letter written before the "previous letter" or before 1 Corinthians,
- the "previous letter" (cf. 1 Cor. 5:9, 11),
- 1 Corinthians,
- a letter, no longer extant, written between 1 and 2 Corinthians,
- a letter, partially preserved in 2 Corinthians 10–13, that preceded the writing of 2 Corinthians 1–9, or
- 2 Corinthians.1
Harris goes on to point out, however, that "The first, second, and sixth of these identifications are too improbable to warrant consideration. This leaves us with three possibilities."1 For the purposes of this question, it doesn't particularly matter which of these options you accept, because the response to the severe letter by the Corinthians is clear:
The Corinthians as a whole had felt concern (σπουδή, 7:11), remorse (ὀδυρμός, 7:7), and even apprehension (φόβος, 7:11, 15) over their behavior during the “painful visit.” They had longed to see Paul in person (ἐπιπόθησις, 7:7, 11) to assure him of their change of attitude (μετάνοια, 7:9–10) and of their desire to exculpate themselves (ἀπολογία, 7:11), and they had been zealous (ζῆλος, 7:7, 11) to avoid further complicity and to requite the offender (ἐκδίκησις, 7:11), whose scandalous action had now provoked their indignation (ἀγανάκτησις, 7:11). By the decision of the majority (οἱ πλείονες, 2:6), some penalty was inflicted on “the guilty party” (7:12), but whether publicly or privately, whether by reprimand or by exclusion, is not known. In opposition to a minority contrary view, Paul exhorted the Corinthians to accept his judgment that the penalty already imposed was sufficient retribution: ὁ ἀδικήσας would be rescued from inordinate grief and his reformation completed only if they forgave him and reaffirmed their love for him, thereby affording further evidence of their repentance and obedience (2:6–9).2
It should be clear that if 1 Corinthians is the severe letter, then Paul certainly did not 'lose his argument' with the Corinthians in the epistle(s). On the contrary, the Corinthians obeyed Paul and were eager to demonstrate this and vindicate themselves.
What is the purpose of 2 Corinthians?
But if you do not accept that 1 Corinthians was the 'severe letter', then this leaves us with the intended purpose of the letter(s) compiled under the title 2 Corinthians. But this is not a simple question to answer, because there may not be a unified purpose.
As previously stated, 2 Corinthians may be a composite of two or more letters (conversely, it may not be). Below is a summary of several notable hypotheses for the division/compilation of this work:
Depending on which view subscribed to, this text could be a composite consisting of up to five distinct letters,4 and thus may have multiple goals (I am also intentionally leaving out discussion of possible interpolations, notably 6:14-7:1).
For the sake of brevity, I will deal solely with the letter(s)/fragment(s) of 2 Corinthians which appears to be a letter of reconciliation,5 in an effort to affirm or deny the proposed theory that Paul was "attempting to patch up his relationship with the Corinthian church after his recommendations were soundly rejected by them."
2 Corinthians 2:1-4 (NRSV) elucidates the purpose of this letter (however defined):
So I made up my mind not to make you another painful visit. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came, I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice; for I am confident about all of you, that my joy would be the joy of all of you. For I wrote you out of much distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain, but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.
This brings us back to the identification of the severe letter. I've already established that if the letter is 1 Corinthians, this denies the theory that the Corinthian church rejected Paul's recommendation. While we have two remaining hypotheses for this letter (a letter, no longer extant, written between 1 and 2 Corinthians, or a letter, partially preserved in 2 Corinthians 10–13, that preceded the writing of 2 Corinthians 1–9), the end result is still the same: the Corinthians zealously demonstrated their obedience of Paul's 'recommendations':
For see what earnestness this godly grief has produced in you, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what zeal, what punishment! At every point you have proved yourselves guiltless in the matter (1 Corinthians 7:11, NRSV).
As such, I must deny that "2nd Corinthians was actually Paul attempting to patch up his relationship with the Corinthian church after his recommendations were soundly rejected by them," and that "Paul 'lost' his arguments in 1st Corinthians." I can find no plausible support for this perspective.
1 Murray J. Harris, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians: a Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Milton Keynes, UK: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.; Paternoster Press, 2005), 5.
A footnote in the text states: "For the difficulties in such identifications see Lake 154; Hurd 55–56." Full bibliographical references for each text are reproduced below from the bibliography:
J. C. Hurd, Jr., The Origin of I Corinthians (New York: Seabury, 1965), 55-6.
K. Lake, The Earlier Epistles of St Paul (London: Rivington, 1927), 154. (Freely available on archive.org.)
2 Harris, 4-5.
3 M.D. Coogan, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Books of the Bible: 2-Volume Set (Oxford Encyclopedias of the Bible) (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2011), 152.
4 W. Schmithals now believes there may be anywhere from seven to thirteen different fragments present between 1 and 2 Corinthians.
5 And I have intentionally avoided giving a precise definition of the letter(s)/fragment(s) of 2 Corinthians to which I'm specifically referring — I prefer the reader draw his own conclusions given the myriad of hypotheses set forth.