The paradox of “the word of the cross” in Corinth (1 Cor 1; Epiphany 4A)

The cross is the benchmark for understanding how believers are to behave, how they are to relate to one another, and how the community that they form is to be described. This is the thesis that Paul and Sosthenes propose near the start of their lengthy letter to “the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:1–2), and also to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2). And as we have already noted, “the word of the cross” features prominently in the authentic letters of Paul.

The thesis is stated in a rhetorically balanced, theologically incisive two-part statement, the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God (1:18). The claim is worked out in the first two chapters of the letter, in passages that we will hear this week (1 Cor 1:18–31) and then next week (2:1–12). It then serves as the basis for much of the ethical and theological discussion that follows in later chapters of the letter.

In the two passages currently in view, Sosthenes and Paul remind the Corinthians that “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23), that they “decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (2:2), and that the paradoxical wisdom that is at the heart of the story of Jesus, “none of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (2:8).

The rhetorical structuring of this paradoxical argument is evident throughout the whole of the passage that the lectionary offers for this Sunday (1:18–31). There is a neat symmetry of clauses in each verse of the passage, with frequent use of balancing subsidiary phrases continuing the symmetrical structure. I’ve attempted to show this schematically as follows:

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To begin, Sosthenes and Paul ground their argument in prophetic declarations drawn from the Hebrew scriptures—in fact, explicit citations bookmark their argument at 1:19 (quoting Isaiah) and 1:31 (quoting Jeremiah). This is typical of rabbinic literature, where an initial citation (a subsidiary text) begins an argument, and then the primary text for the matter being addressed concludes the argument. This was the fourth of Rabbi Hillel’s seven principles for scripture interpretation (Aboth de Rabbi Nathan 37).

So there should be no surprise that we find such a technique employed in a letter written by Sosthenes, a leader of the synagogue (the place where scripture interpretation was taught and debates about scripture flourished), and Paul, trained as a Pharisee (at the feet of Gamaliel, if Acts 22:3 reflects historical reality) and well-versed in the Torah, the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Phil 3:5; Rom 7:12, 22). As Jews immersed in the knowledge of Torah and the application of scripture to daily life, this way of speaking and writing was second nature to them.

After stating their thesis (1:18), Sosthenes and Paul cited the prophet Isaiah in support (Isa 29:14). In the typical rabbinic fashion of arguing a point, this first quotation is the subsidiary text for their argument. The words come from an oracle that the prophet delivers when Israel and Judah had been invaded by the Assyrian power to the north (2 Kings 17–19). This invasion of 721 BCE is characterised by Isaiah as an expression of God’s judgement (Isa 28:21–22). The northern kingdom had been conquered (2 Kings 17) and the southern kingdom was invaded (2 Kings 18). Two decades later, under Sennacherib, the city of Jerusalem itself was under siege (Isa 29:1–3). Ultimately Sennacherib withdrew his army back to Nineveh and was killed by his sons (2 Kings 19:36–37).

Whilst the experience of the people in the besieged city of Jerusalem was one of “moaning and lamentation” (Isa 29:2), the prophet presses the claim that this is brought about by God himself: “the Lord has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep; he has closed your eyes, you prophets, and covered your heads, you seers” (Isa 29:10). This, the prophet insists, “comes from the Lord of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom” (Isa 28:29).

Because the people claim allegiance to God but fail to live according to the covenant they have made with God—“their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote” (Isa 29:13)–God’s intervention through the Assyrian encirclement of Jerusalem will mean that “the wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden” (Isa 29:14). Eventually, through this intense hardship, “those who err in spirit will come to understanding, and those who grumble will accept instruction” (Isa 29:24).

It is this message of the paradoxical inversion of the widely-accepted wisdom by divine intervention that the apostle and his co-author draw on, when they remind the Corinthians of God’s way: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart” (1 Cor 1:19, quoting Isa 29:14b).

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In developing their argument in the following verses, Sosthenes and Paul explain this inversion to the Corinthians in three compact sequences. First, they pose a series of three rhetorical questions ending with a fourth question that expounds the paradoxical nature of how God acts:

The implied answer, of course, is “yes”.

Then follows a doublet with matching halves (wisdom of God, wisdom of the world; foolishness, salvation):

The pattern of wisdom-wisdom, folly-?? is broken with the declaration of salvation for believers; this is what “God decided”.

The third sequence contrasts Jews with Greeks (that is, Gentiles) but then places both of them in contrast to the proclamation of “Christ crucified”. The word of the cross functions as the definitive marker; this is the pivot on which the section turns.

The word of the cross—the proclamation of “Christ crucified”—might be understood as a stumbling block and a folly, but is actually a demonstration of divine power and wisdom. It is in the cross that the age-old dynamic of how God works is seen: it is an upheaval, a reversal, an overturning of received wisdom—just as Isaiah had been proclaiming to his fellow Judahites eight centuries earlier.

The conclusion is made clear in a punchy doublet in parallel paradox:

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In what follows next, attention turns to the actual community of believers in Corinth. The letter writers invite the believers in Corinth to “consider your own call, brothers and sisters”, followed by two triplets of rhetorically powerful statements:

That few were wise, powerful, or born as nobles in Corinth should come as no surprise. Certainly, a number of high-status names are mentioned in the letter (Stephanus, Fortunatus, and Acaicus at 16:17; and perhaps Chloe, if “Chloe’s people” at 1:11 are her servants), and other letters demonstrate a similar presence of high-status people, such as those who host “the church in the house of” Aquila and Priscilla (1 Cor 16:19; Rom 16:3), as well as a number of those mentioned in the string of names in Rom 16:3–16.

However, later in the letter we learn that when the community of believers comes together, some enjoy a rich meal and get drunk, while others starve (1 Cor 11:21). The condemnation is on those who “humiliate those who have nothing” (11:22); they are instructed, “when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (11:33). Here, as in a number of other places in the letter, the teaching is given that all members of the community are to be regarded as equal, for “in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (12:13).

Indeed, in the second century, Pliny would describe Christians as being “of every age, of every rank, of both sexes” and “not only in the towns, but also in the villages and farms” (Pliny, Epist. 10.96.9). And social-scientific commentators on the early Jesus movement have published careful analyses that support the notion that early Christian communities contained a cross-section of society (see Gerd Thiessen, The First Followers of Jesus, on the rural origins of the movement, and Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians, on its consolidation in the cities of the Roman Empire).

So in the rhetorically powerful argument of 1:18–31, God’s paradoxical choice is emphasised; God chose fools, weaklings, and lowly despised people, not wise, powerful, noble-born. In the second triplet, the final affirmation is extended with another rhetorical intensifier, reinforcing “the wisdom from God” with three additional theological claims (righteousness, sanctification, and redemption).

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At the end of the argument, in typical rabbinic style, a closing citation clinches the case, with words from the prophet Jeremiah (Jer 9:23–24): “as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor 1:31). This is the primary scripture passage which undergirds the argument that commenced in 1 Cor 1:19 with the citation of the subsidiary passage from Isaiah.

Jeremiah lived at a turning point in the history of Israel. The northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE; the elite classes were taken into exile, the land was repopulated with people from other nations (2 Kings 17). The southern kingdom had been invaded by the Assyrians in 701 BCE, but they were repelled (2 Kings 18:13–19:37). King Hezekiah made a pact with the Babylonians, but the prophet Isaiah warned that the nation would eventually fall to the Babylonians (2 Kings 20:12–19). Babylon conquered Assyria in 607 BCE and pressed hard to the south; the southern kingdom fell in 587 BCE (2 Kings 24–25) and “Judah went into exile out of its land” (2 Kings 25:21).

Jeremiah lived in the latter years of the southern kingdom, through into the time of exile. He was sent into exile in Egypt (Jer 43:1–8), even though most of his fellow Judahites were taken to Babylon. The difficult experiences of Jeremiah as a prophet colour many of his pronouncements. That is certainly the case for the long oracle from which the one-line quotation at 1 Cor 1:31 is drawn.

“My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick”, the prophet laments (Jer 8:18), posing a question that has come into popular speech in later times: “Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (Jer 8:22).

Jeremiah warns of the coming devastation that the Babylonians will bring, framing it as God’s righteous judgement: “I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals; and I will make the towns of Judah a desolation, without inhabitant” (Jer 9:11). Accordingly, the prophet poses the question, “who is wise enough to understand this?” (Jer 9:12), calls for the people to mourn (Jer 9:17–23), and advises them that the Lord declares, “Do not let the wise boast in their wisdom, do not let the mighty boast in their might, do not let the wealthy boast in their wealth; but let those who boast boast in this, that they understand and know me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord” (Jer 9:23–24).

This is the declaration from which Sosthenes and Paul take the one line to draw the argument to a close, pressing the paradoxical way by which God overturns the power of the world and inverts the wisdom of the world. There can be no boasting in human wisdom. Trust can only be placed in the wisdom of God, which has its own logic and distinctive purpose. Boasting is feasible only in this context: “as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor 1:31). That is what “the word of the cross” is, to the believers in Corinth–and to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”.

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The rhetoric of the cross (1 Cor 1; Advent 3A)

This coming Sunday, the third Sunday in Epiphany, the lectionary offers focus on the themes of illumination and revelation which are to the fore during this season. The Psalmist writes of his seeking the face of the Lord; “your face, Lord, do I seek; do not hide your face from me” (Ps 27:8–9). It is a prayer that may well serve as the theme prayer for the season of Epiphany.

The prophet Isaiah speaks of the Lord “making glorious” the land of Israel, for “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined” (Isa 9:2). That same prophetic oracle is then quoted in the excerpt from the Gospel of Matthew (Matt 4:15–16), as the commencement of the ministry of Jesus is seen to be “what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled” (Matt 4:14). The light shining in the darkness is indeed the Epiphany motif.

In the Epistle that is being read during these weeks in Epiphany, 1 Corinthians, there is no specific reference to illumination or revelation, as per the theme of the season. Sosthenes has joined with Paul to write quite specifically to “the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints” (1 Cor 1:1–2); the letter certainly indicates a good awareness of the situation in Corinth.

However, Sosthenes and Paul then add to that specific address, indicating that they write also to “all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:2), wishing them grace and peace (1:3). It is a letter sent with all good intentions to encourage and support the believers in Corinth; but the addition of this wider scope of believers “in every place” broadens the intended audience. We are explicitly invited into that wider audience through this additional phrase.

The apostle Paul is known as a letter writer; there are 13 letters attributed to him in the New Testament—although it is likely that almost half of them were written by students of Paul after his lifetime, drawing on his authority to give force to what they write. See https://johntsquires.com/2020/11/18/what-do-we-know-about-who-wrote-the-letters-attributed-to-paul-3/

Paul collaborated in the writing of many of his letters—of the seven agreed authentic letters, only two are written by Paul alone. The others are written in association with Timothy (2 Cor, Phil, 1 Thess and Phlm), Silvanus (1 Thess), and Sosthenes (1 Cor). It is this latter letter that the creators of the lectionary, in their wisdom, have offered us during the season of Epiphany. We read the opening chapters in sequence through these weeks.

Sosthenes and Paul tell the Corinthians that they write to “give thanks” (1:4) and also to “appeal to you” (1:10); and later, to “admonish you as my beloved children” (4:14). The constructive approach that they bring is made clear in the opening prayer of thanksgiving (1:4–9).

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In the passage we hear this Sunday (1 Cor 1:10–18), there is an unequivocal statement about what undergirds the constructive intention that Sosthenes and Paul bring as they write. It is “the cross of Christ” (1:18) that shapes the discussion and directions that Paul will present to the believers in Corinth in the ensuing 16 chapters. (This letter is longer than all other Pauline letters, except for Romans—also 16 chapters in length.)

Given the reference to an earlier letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 5:9), there may already have been discussion of the cross of Christ—either in that letter, or in a presumed response from the Corinthians, or in personal discussions and sermons during the period that Paul and others were in Corinth. Acts 18 indicates that Paul was there for 18 months, along with Aquila and Priscilla, Silas and Timothy, as well Titus Justus, a godfearer and Crispus, the leader of the synagogue (archisynagogos), and also Sosthenes, also identified as a leader of the synagogue (archisynagogos) who was seized and beaten in the presence of Gallio, the proconsul (Acts 18:17).

Acts reports that Paul left Corinth in company with Priscilla and Aquila (Acts 18:18), moving to Ephesus, in which city the letter to Corinth was written (1 Cor 16:8). There is no further mention of Sosthenes, although the co-authorship of 1 Corinthians might suggest that Sosthenes also left his home town of Corinth—at least for a time, to escape the persecution he had experienced there.

Sosthenes, like Crispus, would have been high-status in the Jewish community in Corinth. Sosthenes and Paul indicate that they have received other high-status visitors from Corinth, travelling to Ephesus: Stephanas, Fortunatus, and Achaicus (16:17), as well as “the people from Chloe” (1:11)—were they, perhaps, slaves from the household in which Chloe was patron? Female patrons, of course, were known at the time—witness Phoebe (Rom 16:1–2), and see the excellent overview of Marg Mowczko at https://margmowczko.com/new-testament-women-church-leaders/

So Paul and Sosthenes were well-informed as they write this letter to the Corinthians. There are problems aplenty in Corinth. In the few verses set for this coming Sunday, they write about division and the quarrels that have resulted. They plead for agreement and unity. They remind the Corinthians about baptism. In subsequent chapters, they will range over a long list of matters, often introducing them with the formulaic “now concerning …” (7:1, 25; 8:1; 12:1; 16:1, 12). That formula may suggest they are responding to specific information brought by their visitors.

So, in verse 18, the last verse of the selection offered for this Sunday, Sosthenes and Paul sound out the key theme of this letter, which is about the cross of Christ: “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). The verses immediately following develop this motif of the paradox inherent in the cross with rhetorical finesse. (See next week’s blog.)

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“The cross” is a theme that was sounded by Paul in his preaching and his writing. He had written to the Galatians, “may I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal 6:14). He had written to the Philippians, urging them to “have the same mind” as Christ Jesus, who “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8), and warning them that those who opposed Paul’s preaching were “enemies of the cross” (Phil 3:18).

He would later inform the Corinthians that he models his own ministry on that of Christ; “he was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God; for we are weak in him, but in dealing with you we will live with him by the power of God” (2 Cor 13:4)—just as he had told the Galatians that “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:19–20).

He would also later exhort the believers in Rome to see their baptism as the means by which they were linked with Jesus in his death and resurrection, instructing them that “our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:3–6). In the central theological argumentation of this important letter, Paul places the cross as the means by which the good news is known: “God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).

He would remind them that “Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (Rom 14:9), and he deals with the conflict in Rome between weak and strong by proposing that the quarrelling parties follow the pattern established by Christ, who “did not please himself; but, as it is written, ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me’” (Rom 15:3). The cross informed his instructions to the Romans for their daily living.

The same process is employed in the earlier letter to the Corinthians. The cross is the benchmark for understanding how believers are to behave, how they are to relate to one another, and how the community that they form is to be described. All of this is worked out in the first two chapters of the letter, in passages that we will hear in the coming two weeks (1 Cor 1:18–31; 2:1–12).

There, Paul will remind the Corinthians that “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1:23), that “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (2:2), and that the paradoxical wisdom that is at the heart of the story of Jesus, “none of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (2:8).

Perhaps the cross is the way par excellence for the Lord God to communicate, illuminate, reveal? Perhaps Epiphany revelation is strongest through this crucifixion?

Stay tuned for further discussion in coming weeks … … …

I give thanks to my God always for you: Paul’s opening address to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1; Epiphany 2A)

We have seen that the letters of Paul each follow a recognisably similar outline, mostly including all the main sections and often adhering to the major conventions of the day. See

There are variations, of course, in each letter, so that no one letter follows this pattern exactly. This is especially so in the largest section, the “body”, in the middle of the letter. The excerpt from 1 Corinthians we hear on Sunday demonstrates this in a very clear way.

In opening his letters, Paul characteristically modified the simple verb “greetings” to read “grace and peace to you”. We find that is the case at 1 Cor 1:3. What usually followed in letters of the day was a prayer of thanks to a particular god or goddess; Paul’s letters followed this convention in most cases, with a prayer specifically to “God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Col 1:3).

This prayer often contained clear pointers to some of the key topics in the letter that follows, such as “I am eager to preach the gospel” (Rom 1:15), or “you were enriched in him with all speech and knowledge” (1 Cor 1:5), or “I thank my God…because of your partnership in the gospel” (Phil 1:5); and see also “we always give thanks to God … remembering … your work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope” (1 Thess 1:3) and “God gave us … a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline” (2 Tim 1:7).

Galatians stands as a noteworthy exception, for Paul substituted a condemnation in place of the traditional thanksgiving: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you … and are turning to a different gospel” (Gal 1:6).

So as we read through the first nine verses of his letter “to the church of God that is in Corinth”, 1 Corinthians, we hear sounded some key themes in Paul’s theology, which receive attention in subsequent chapters of this letter, as the observations below indicate.

A. “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus” (1:4).

This is the same grace that Paul himself has experienced through his calling to proclaim the good news: “according to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it” (1 Cor 3:10); “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain” (15:10).

Paul refers also to “the grace of God” as the motivator for how he has “behaved in the world with frankness and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God” (2 Cor 1:12). This grace undergirds all that Paul says and does, so he returns to it at the close of the letter with a repetition of the opening prayer, “the grace of the Lord Jesus be with you” (16:23; cf. 1:3).

B. “In every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind” (1:5).

This statement appears to be a straightforward commendation of the believers in Corinth, but actually conceals a degree of sarcasm in how Paul assesses some, at least, of them. They appear to have been enriched by God; but the depth of Paul’s feeling about this is revealed in a strident passage in chapter 4, after Paul has discussed the earlier work of Apollos and Cephas amongst the Corinthians (3:5–4:7), and the resultant formation of sectarian groups amongst the believers (1:11–12).

Paul regrets this development; earlier, he has lamented, “has Christ been divided? was Paul crucified for you? were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1:13). A note of sarcasm is already evident in his disappointment. He returns to this sarcastic tone when he berates the Corinthians: “Already you have all you want! Already you have become rich! Quite apart from us you have become kings! Indeed, I wish that you had become kings, so that we might be kings with you!” (4:8). Clearly, the “enriching” that the Corinthians felt they had was not in accord with Paul’s understanding of the Gospel.

That understanding is evident in 2 Corinthians, when Paul writes of “the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9), and thus of the life of the believer “as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything” (2 Cor 6:10). The Corinthian “enrichment” needs to be corrected.

A much-loved passage in this letter, chapter 13, actually continues this sarcastic commentary on the Corinthians. A careful reading of the whole letter reveals that the various characteristics which Paul extols in “love”—patience and kindness, with no boastfulness or envy, for instance—are actually in short supply in Corinth.

C. “Just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you, so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift” (1:6–7).

Spiritual gifts come into focus in the later sections of Paul’s letter, in chapters 12 to 14. The terms “speech” and “knowledge” that appear at 1:5 pick up two of the “spiritual gifts” (1:7) that are specifically discussed in more detail in chapter 14 of the letter. The reference to “spiritual gifts” in 1:7 is initially developed in chapter 2, when Paul writes, “we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit that is from God, so that we may understand the gifts bestowed on us by God. And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.” (2:12–13).

Paul makes a clear differentiation between “those who are unspiritual [who] do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit” and “those who are spiritual [who] discern all things” (2:14–15). So both Paul and the Corinthians exhibit spiritual gifts which have been given by God. But Paul is not happy with the way that some in Corinth are exercising those gifts, particularly in the community gatherings. So his discussion in chapters 12–14 identifies and corrects these bad practices. Thus, the opening reference to the Corinthians as “not lacking in any spiritual gift” (1:7) has a barbed undertone—perhaps not evident at first hearing, but becoming clear with the benefit of hindsight after the whole letter has been heard.

The gift of “speech” signals the exercise, within the Corinthian community, of the gifts of prophecy (speaking the word of the Lord) and its interpretation, as well as the gift of tongues and their interpretation. The fact that Paul is intending to address the way these gifts are exercised, and to offer corrections to the Corinthians in his critical analysis of chapter 14, is thus signalled explicitly in the opening prayer.

The gift of “knowledge” (1:5) receives consideration in a passage (8:1–11) which begins, “all of us possess knowledge”. This appears to be quoted by Paul as a slogan which had currency in Corinth, but which Paul wishes to critique. He ends his discussion with the punchline, “by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed” (8:11). Sadly, the kind of “knowledge” demonstrated by some believers in Corinth served to destroy the faith of others in their community.

D. “As you wait for the revealing of our Lord … he will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:7–8).

The concept of being “blameless” derives from ancient Israelite piety, which would have been taught to Paul as he grew up within Judaism. The psalmist sings, “happy are those whose way is blameless,who walk in the law of the Lord” (Ps 119:1), and prays, “may my heart be blameless in your statutes,

so that I may not be put to shame” (Ps 119:80). The sages note that “the righteousness of the blameless keeps their ways straight” (Prov 11:5) and rejoices that “the blameless will have a goodly inheritance” (Prov 28:10). In the historical sagas of Israel, those noted as being blameless include Noah (Gen 6:9), Abram (Gen 17:1), and David (1 Sam 29:9), as are Daniel (Dan 6:22) and Job (Job 1:1, 8; 2:3).

Paul therefore upheld the standard of being blameless in his upbringing (Phil 3:6) and in his behaviour (1 Thess 2:10), and he prays that believers also might be “blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints” (1 Thess 3:13). Paul, like many of his Jewish contemporaries, held to an eschatological view of time; “the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31), “the appointed time has grown short” (1 Cor 7:29), there is an imminent “impending crisis l (1 Cor 7:26).

Paul thus connects his eschatological framework with this goal of being blameless, exhorting the Philippians “to determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless” (Phil 1:10), and advising the Corinthians that “the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done” (1 Cor 3:13). The judgement that comes on this day is clear; so he advises the Corinthians that a man living with his father’s wife is to be “handed over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:5).

This Day expounded in greater detail towards the end of his letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor 15:12–58). The fundamental belief is that “as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (15:22); accordingly that Day

will be the time when those who have sinned, but trusted in Christ, will be found blameless; “just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we will also bear the image of the man of heaven” (15:49).

Paul’s affirmation of this eschatological viewpoint in the opening prayer (1:7–8) thus foreshadows one of his most extensive discussions of eschatology, Christology, and soteriology—the most theologically-complex section of this letter to the Corinthians.

E. “God is faithful” (1:9).

This is a short credal-like affirmation that Paul makes in his opening prayer, which occurs elsewhere in Paul’s writings. It may thus have been a fundamental element in Paul’s own belief system—God is the one who keeps faith with God’s people—rather than reflecting anything amongst the Corinthians. In this regard, Paul stands with the prophets of Israel, who consistently proclaimed that God do not want to abandon the expel of God, for God held steadfastly to his covenant with them.

Later in 1 Corinthians, Paul reflects this element of belief in God’s fidelity, when discussing “testing”. “God is faithful”, he writes, “and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it” (10:13). The phrase recurs in 2 Corinthians: “as surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been “Yes and No’l (2 Cor 1:18). Paul had already written similar in his earliest extant letter, 1 Thessalonians, affirming that “the one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (5:24).

The phrase also appears at 2 Thess 3:3; 1 Peter 4:19; and perhaps most famously at 1 John 1:9 (“if we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”). Finally, the rider of the white horse in a vision seen by the seer on Patmos was called “Faithful and True” (Rev 19:11).

F. “By him [God] you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:9).

The term “fellowship” (Greek koinonia) appears later in this letter, when Paul refers to “sharing (koinonia) in the body of Christ … sharing (koinonia) in the blood of Christ” (1 Cor 10:16). Paul uses this word elsewhere to refer to the nature of Christian community (Phil 1:5; 2:1), as well as to the shared relationship that believers have with Jesus (Phil 3:10), fellowship,with the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13:14), and the offering from Gentile believers for their “ministry for the saints” (2 Cor 9:13). At both Gal 2:9 and Phlm 6 the term refers to fellowship or community amongst believers.

In his longest letter (to the saints in Rome), Paul describes the nature of Christian community without reference to the term koinonia, but using the common hellenistic topos of “the body”: “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another; we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Rom 12:4–5).

Before writing this letter, Paul had provided a much more extensive discussion of this image in chapter 12 of his letter to “the church of God that is in Corinth”, when he wrote, “just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ; for in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor 12:12–13).

Thus, no one part of the body is superior to any other part; “God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another; if one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Cor 12:24–26). This is the essential nature of the Christian community, a fellowship of interrelated parts.

Thus, in exploring the matter of how gifts are (mis)used in Corinth, Paul has a clear concern to ensure that all the members “build up the body” (1 Cor 14:4, 12, 26; and see earlier at 3:5–15). This concern has been clearly flagged in the final sentence of his opening prayer: “by God you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1:9).

*****

As we read through the first nine verses of his letter “to the church of God that is in Corinth”, 1 Corinthians, we hear sounded some key themes in Paul’s theology, which receive attention in subsequent chapters of this letter, as the above observations indicate.

I give thanks to my God always for you: Paul’s relationship with the Corinthians (1 Cor 1; Epiphany 2A)

In the Epistle reading offered by the lectionary for this coming Sunday (1 Cor 1:1–9), we begin a sequence of Sundays when we will read the early chapters of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. The first four chapters are offered during the season of Epiphany (although, as it is a shorter season this year, the latter part is not heard in worship).

Paul, of course, is well-known as a writer of letters. In ancient times, as today, the general format of a letter was reasonably standard. Paul, as we shall see, follows this format and includes many conventions familiar from other letters. The way that he contextualises and makes specific each letter, therefore, is quite instructive.

Each ancient letter contained a number of standard sections and there were common conventions to be followed in constructing a letter. Opening and closing sections followed a formulaic pattern (“greetings” and “farewell”); a prayer or wish introduced the main topic(s) for discussion; and practical advice was often included.

Standard Elements in the Structure of Ancient Letters

1 Opening address: Publius to Demetrius, greetings

2 Preliminary prayer or wish: I give thanks to the god… or I wish that…

3 Body (the substance of the letter; news, and topics for discussion)

4 Exhortation (practical and ethical guidance)

5 Greetings to individuals: Greet A and B

6 Greetings from individuals: C and D greet you

7 Closing prayer: Farewell

The letters of Paul each follow a recognisably similar outline, mostly including all the main sections and often adhering to the major conventions of the day. There are variations, of course, in each letter, so that no one letter follows this pattern exactly. This is especially so in the largest section, the “body”, in the middle of the letter. The excerpt from 1 Corinthians we hear on Sunday demonstrates this in a very clear way.

Openings of letters

Ancient letters began by identifying the parties involved in a short opening address; in regular letters, something like “Publius to Demetrius, greetings”. Nine of Paul’s letters began with a greeting from the writer to members of the church at the designated location. In one letter (Philemon), three individuals were named as the recipients (Philemon, Apphia and Archippus) as well as the whole church community. The three “pastoral letters” (1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus) were addressed to an individual person.

It is often overlooked that seven of the letters specified co-writers along with Paul: Timothy (2 Cor, Phil, 1 Thess and Phlm; Col and 2 Thess), Sosthenes (1 Cor) and Silvanus (1 Thess and 2 Thess). Paul was the sole designated writer in only two “authentic” letters (Rom and Gal) and in four “debated” letters (Eph, 1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus). So “Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians” was actually “a letter from Paul and Sosthenes to the Corinthians” (see 1 Cor 1:1).

However, later in this letter, Paul refers to his “previous letter” to Corinth (1 Cor 5:9); so it seems that 1 Corinthians was probably the second of his letters to Corinth, and what we know as 2 Corinthians might actually be 3 Corinthians! Yet 2 Corinthians then refers to a second visit which Paul made to Corinth—the “painful visit” (2 Cor 2:1)—followed by another letter from Paul to the Corinthians—the “tearful letter” (2 Cor 2:4; 7:8). So what we know as 2 Corinthians was probably the fourth letter that Paul wrote to the Corinthians, just as what we know as 1 Corinthians was probably the second letter sent by Paul (with someone else—Sosthenes) to the Corinthians.

We are able to reconstruct many elements of the profile and character of the community of believers in Corinth by reading Paul’s letters carefully and considering what it was that he might have been responding to. In addition, we know much about the ancient city of Corinth from archaeology and ancient literature. It was one of the great cities of the ancient world. If we put the letters of Paul together with this information about ancient Corinth, we can create a kind of album of snapshots in the life of an early Christian community. We can also see many elements of the hellenistic society and culture at the time when Paul was active.

Paul in Corinth

We know about Paul’s time in Corinth, not only from his letters to the church in that city, but also from the account in Acts 18:1–18. They tell us that Paul concentrated his mission in Corinth on Gentiles, non-Jews, and it would seem that he had significant success there. Paul stayed in Corinth for some time, earning his own living and working with other people in the early Christian movement, such as Peter, Apollos, and the tentmakers, Aquila and his wife Priscilla, two of the Jews expelled from Rome by Emperor Claudius in a general expulsion a few years earlier.

Paul was successful in establishing a new Christian community in Corinth. This undoubtedly caused tension with the local synagogue, as Paul was preaching that Jesus was the Messiah, whom Jews were expecting to come (Acts 18:4). This success may have led to his being dragged before Gallio, the Roman proconsul, by the local Jews, charged with heresy. Gallio dismissed the charge as a matter of concern to the Jews alone; it was not a matter for the Roman authorities to be involved with (Acts 18:12–17). Gallio was proconsul in Corinth in the years 50–51, so this provides the date for Paul’s visit there.

Soon afterwards, Paul left Corinth, accompanied by Aquila and Pricilla, bound for Antioch, but on the way they stopped over in Ephesus (Acts 18:18–21). After Paul left Corinth, he remained in contact with the community of believers there, as the two extant letters of Paul to the Corinthians attest. He indicates that he wrote the first one whilst in Ephesus (1 Cor 16:8).

Matters addressed in 1 Corinthians

In this letter, Paul spends time addressing the serious divisions emerging within the Corinthian community. Paul declares that this matter “has been reported to me by Chloe’s people” (1:11); it is thought that this must have been a verbal report passed on to Paul when he met with a group from Corinth, perhaps slaves, sent by Chloe (about whom nothing else is revealed).

A second matter is introduced by a similar phrase, “it is actually reported…” (5:1), although the informant is not named. Some scholars think that the similarity of wording suggests that this news may also have been conveyed by “Chloe’s people”. A little later on, another matter is introduced by Paul with the phrase, “now concerning the matters about which you wrote” (7:1). Clearly, there had been written correspondence with Paul as well as the verbal report already indicated.

The reference to “the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaichus” (16:17) might suggest that they visited Paul; perhaps they bore a letter from the community (or a section of it), asking for Paul’s opinions about these matters? The fact that their names are Roman names reflecting an educated status, would lend support to this hypothesis.

Regardless of who actually brought this news, Paul is willing to deal with the matters raised, introducing them in turn by the shorthand formula, “now concerning”. Such matters include “food sacrificed to idols” (8:1), “spiritual matters” (12:1), “the collection for the saints” (16:1), and “our brother Apollos” (16:12). A rather stronger formula is used to introduce a major theological issue at 15:1: “now I would remind you, brothers and sisters, of the good news that I proclaimed to you…”.

These formulae suggests that the agenda for 1 Corinthians has largely been set by the news which Paul had received of the happenings in Corinth. How he deals with these matters, however, is entirely up to him; and he brings his theological and ethical insights to bear in forceful ways.

After Paul

In the mass of literature which early Christianity produced in the centuries after the first century, there is a short letter allegedly from Paul to the Corinthians— this is known as 3 Corinthians. However, there is widespread consensus that this was a later creation by Christians wanting to evoke the authority of Paul. There is also a letter to the Corinthians, attributed to Clement, third bishop of Rome, written about four decades after Paul’s first letter to Corinth. Together, these letters show the significance of the Corinthians for the early church.

Descended from David according to the flesh (Rom 1; Advent 4A)

In the selection from Paul’s letter to the Romans that is offered by this Sunday’s lectionary, Paul refers explicitly to the gospel concerning [God’s] Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh (Rom 1:3). In the midst of the Christmas carols and Christmas cake, the Christmas cards and the Christmas parties, there stands this stark affirmation: Jesus was a Jew. And, more specifically, that Jesus was a descendant of David.

It is noteworthy that Paul makes very little reference in his letters to the earthly life of Jesus; he is much more focussed on the death and the resurrection of Jesus, rather than his life of teaching, preaching, story-telling and miracle-working. In his letter to the Galatians, however, he makes a similar affirmation about the humanity, and the Jewishness, of Jesus: when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law (Gal 4:4).

Descended from David, born under the law: Jesus was clearly a Jew. That needs to sit at the heart of the story that we recall each year at this time. The Jewishness of Jesus is an essential element of the Christmas story.

Those who recount the story of Jesus, in the documents we know as the Gospels of the New Testament, are clear about this fact. Mark locates Jesus in Galilee, the northern part of the land of Israel, and identifies his home town as Nazareth (Mark 1:9; 10:47; 14:67; 16:6). Matthew and Luke follow the pattern established by Mark, in locating the vast majority of the activity of the adult Jesus in the northern regions of Israel.

Matthew intensifies this picture, however. At the start of his book of origins, he traces the lineage of Jesus back to David, and further back to Abraham (Matt 1:1-17). He traces this lineage of Jesus, not through his mother, Mary, but through Joseph—because it was Joseph who was of the lineage of David. This Davidic heritage of Jesus is central and important for Matthew, for he, most of all the evangelists, has characters in the story address Jesus as “Son of David” (1:1, 20; 9:27; 12:24; 15:22; 20:30–31; 21:9, 15, 42). He wants to advocate, as he tells his story, that it is through Jesus that the ancient promises to David will come to fruition.

At the start of his story, and at various places further on, Matthew notes that the actions and words of Jesus occur as fulfilment of prophetic words (Matt 1:22; 2:5, 15, 17, 23; 3:3; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:14, 35; 21:4; 26:56; 27:9).

Twice in his account of Jesus, Matthew is insistent that his active ministry and that of his first followers took place only amongst “the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:6; 15:24). For Matthew, Jesus was resolutely, scrupulously, Jewish.

The Gospel of John also reinforces the Jewish identity of Jesus. The Samaritan woman describes Jesus as “a Jew” (John 4:9), Jesus regularly travels to Jerusalem for Jewish festivals (John 2:13, 6:4, 7:1-10, 10:22, 12:12, 13:1), in conformity with Jewish piety. When Pilate questions Jesus, he recognises him as King of the Jews (18:33-35) and refers Jesus to Jewish leaders for their decision (18:31, 19:6-7, 19:14). Pilate then has him crucified under a sign identifying him as “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews” (as, indeed, the other three Gospels also report).

In the Gospel of Luke, the Jewish identity of Jesus is recounted, repeated, and intensified. Although often touted as the evangelist who most strongly orients the story of Jesus towards Gentiles throughout the hellenistic world of the Roman Empire, Luke actually sets his orderly account in the heart of Jewish piety, from the very opening scene of the Gospel which reveals a pair of righteous Jews who faithfully keep the commandments of God (Luke 1:5–6).

The man, Zechariah, is devoted to the service of God in the Temple (1:8–9). His wife, Elizabeth, expresses an attitude of deep faith in God, accepting her surprise pregnancy as “what the Lord has done for me” (1:25). Her relative, Mary, demonstrates a similar faith as she submits to a similar fate with the words, “here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38).

In turn, the traditional hopes and expectations of the people are articulated in spirit-inspired hymns sung by Mary (1:46–55), Zechariah (1:67–79) and Simeon the righteous (2:29–32). These are, by rights, the first Christmas carols—songs which sing of the one to come, which tell of the birth of one promised, which look with hope to the change he will effect. And they are resolutely Jewish.

The children whose births are recounted in these early chapters of Luke—Jesus and his cousin John—bear the weight of traditional Jewish hopes and expectations as they come into being. They are born as faithful Jews. They both lived in fidelity to the Jewish law. The mission of Jesus to fulfil the hopes articulated by Jewish prophets (Luke 4:18-21) and to point to the promise of the kingdom ruled by God (Mark 1:15; Matt 4:17) which, he proclaimed, was already becoming a reality in his own time (Luke 17:20).

The sense of deeply devoted and strongly conventional Jewish piety continues in the reports of the early years of Jesus. Luke’s Gospel reports that Jesus was circumcised (2:21) and dedicated in the Temple (2:22–24) in accordance with Jewish custom, and that he showed an early interest in the Law (2:41–51).

So we would do well not to skirt away from this very particular and specific aspect of the Christmas story.

As we come to the celebration of the child in the manger, let us remember that he spoke with a voice that called people—his people in Israel, and people beyond his people—to the enticing vision (sourced from the Hebrew prophets) of a world renewed and reconciled, where righteousness and justice were realities, where the hopes of Israel could flourish and come to fruition. That is the thoroughly Jewish vision that the story of Jesus offers.

…….

The featured picture portrays a Judean man from Jesus’s time, based on archaeological findings, and is often used as an image for what the historical Jesus may have looked like.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/11/the-origins-of-jesus-in-the-book-of-origins-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/17/now-the-birth-of-jesus-the-messiah-took-place-in-this-way-matthew-1/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/04/for-our-instruction-that-we-might-have-hope-rom-15-isa-11-matt-3/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/11/28/leaving-luke-meeting-matthew/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/12/19/what-can-we-know-about-the-birth-of-jesus/

Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right (2 Thess 2 and 3; Pentecost 22C and 23C)

The closing words in the passage from 2 Thessalonians that appear in this Sunday’s lectionary offerings (2 Thess 3:6–13) exhort the believers in Thessaloniki to “do what is right”. It concludes a section telling them not to be idle, but to “do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (3:12), which itself has picked up the direction given in the earlier letter to Thessaloniki, “to aspire to live quietly, to mind your own affairs, and to work with your hands, as we directed you, so that you may behave properly toward outsiders and be dependent on no one” (1 Thess 4:11–12).

This could well be another instance in 2 Thess where a later writer, a follower of Paul, has mined the earlier letter of 1 Thess, authentic to Paul, to shape a letter drawing on the apostle’s authority to reinforce teachings for his own time. A clear way in which the letter deviates from Paul’s authentic thought is its apocalyptic content.

Paul himself (like Jesus) did have an apocalyptic view of the world. He affirms that “the appointed time has grown short” (1 Cor 7:29), “the night is far gone, the day is near” (Rom 13:12), and looks to the coming “day of the Lord” (1 Cor 1:8; Phil 1:10; 1 Thess 5:2), the “the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom 2:6; 1 Cor 3:13).

He foresees that “the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed” (1 Cor 15:52) and asserts that “the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first; then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever” (1 Thess 4:16–17).

However, this letter develops from those views in ways most uncharacteristic of Paul—more like the kind of hardline developments that we find in Jewish apocalypses of the general time. The “righteous judgment of God” (2 Thess 1:5) will be “when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (1:7–8), bringing “the punishment of eternal destruction” (1:9). This is an extreme position, beyond the hope for a return of Jesus to reconcile believers with God; this presses the notion of divine judgement into callous retribution.

Further consideration of that day of judgement is given in chapter 2; we had excerpts from this chapter in last week’s lectionary—but the critical verses, 2:6–12, were omitted in that offering! There, we read that this day “will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction” (2:3). The Greek word translated as “rebellion” is apostasies, from which we get apostasy. It was used to describe those who wandered from the keeping of the Torah (1 Mac 2:15).

The writer continues, declaring that “the lawless one” (2:8) who brings “a powerful delusion” (2:11) will result in “all who have not believed the truth but took pleasure in unrighteousness will be condemned” (2:12). This portrayal resonates strongly with scenes in Jewish apocalyptic literature of the late Second Temple period, or soon thereafter, attributed to (but not actually written by) great luminaries in the history of Israel; see 4 Ezra 4:27–5:13; 2 Baruch 27; 1 Enoch 91; and also, in the Dea Sea Scrolls, 1QpHab 2:1–10.

On other ways that the letter indicates a later, non-Pauline authorship which goes well beyond Paul’s thinking—see

*****

To return to chapter 3; here we find a set of instructions, buttressed by Paul’s authority, in which the Thessalonians are encouraged to maintain “the tradition” they received from Paul (3:6), the “command” which he had given them (3:10), and are admonished to “have nothing to do with … those who do not obey what we say in this letter” (3:14).

A key verse in this section (3:13) draws strongly on a theme running through Hebrew Scripture, to “not be weary in doing what is right”. The Psalmist, for instance, sings that those who may abide on God’s holy hill are “those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right, and speak the truth from their heart” (Ps 15:2), and in a later psalm, sings that “I have done what is just and right; do not leave me to my oppressors” (Ps 119:131). Yet another psalm questions the gods: “do you indeed decree what is right, you gods? do you judge people fairly?” and immediately provides the answer, “no, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth” (Ps 58:1–2). The alignment of doing what is right with the Lord God of Israel is clear.

Accordingly, that deity is depicted in some of the foundational stories of Israel as requiring people to do what is right. At Marah in the wilderness, the Lord God tells the people, “if you will listen carefully to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in his sight, and give heed to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians; for I am the Lord who heals you” (Exod 15:26).

Likewise, when reminding the people “not to put the Lord your God to the test, as you tested him at Massah” (referring to Exod 17:1–7), Moses instructs them to “do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, so that it may go well with you, and so that you may go in and occupy the good land that the LORD swore to your ancestors to give you” (Deut 6:18). That message is reinforced later in the long speech of Moses, when he gives instructions relating to the discovery of a murder whose perpetrator is unknown, concluding that “you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from your midst, because you must do what is right in the sight of the Lord” (Deut 21:9).

The same instruction that is attributed to Moses is given by the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite, when Jeroboam led a rebellion against King Solomon: “if you will listen to all that I command you, walk in my ways, and do what is right in my sight by keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you, and will build you an enduring house, as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you” (1 Kings 11:38). The equation of “doing what is right “ with “keeping [God’s] statutes and commandments” in this passage, as also in the account of the incident at Marah (Exod 15:26), indicates the centrality of this command within the life of Israel.

Two prophets reinforce the importance of this command. Ezekiel declares that, “if the wicked turn away from all their sins that they have committed and keep all my statutes and do what is lawful and right, they shall surely live; they shall not die” (Ezek 18:21; see also 18:27; 33:14, 19; 45:9). Likewise, the opening oracle of the unnamed post-exiled prophet whose words are collected at the end of the scroll of Isaiah begins with the declaration, “maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed” (Isa 56:1). This important text equates “do what is right” with divine justice; the two prophetic texts indicate that “doing what is right” is the prerequisite for life (Ezekiel) and salvation (Trito-Isaiah).

Finally, we note that the story of Tobit ends with his prayer of blessing to God (Tob 13:1–17), including the admonition, “turn back, you sinners, and do what is right before him; perhaps he may look with favor upon you and show you mercy” (Tob 13:6); followed by his farewell words to his son, Tobias, and the seven sons of Tobias, in which he declares, “so now, my children, I command you, serve God faithfully and do what is pleasing in his sight; your children are also to be commanded to do what is right and to give alms, and to be mindful of God and to bless his name at all times with sincerity and with all their strengths (Tob 14:9). This final passage explains that “doing what is right” includes both central religious activities (bless God) and helpful social activities (give alms).

To Jewish listeners, the simple instruction, “do not be weary in doing what is right” (2 Thess 3:13) evokes central aspects of faith: obedience, following God’s way, keeping the commandments, speaking the right words, enacting the required behaviours, receiving the gift of life, being assured of salvation, and doing justice. Beyond the authority of Paul, reinforced a number of times in this chapter, the resonances of Hebrew Scripture voices sound loudly.

The sincerest form of flattery? Or a later, imperfect imitation? (2 Thessalonians; Pentecost 21C to 23C)

Paul, Silas and Timothy arrived in Thessalonika in the year 50 CE. Acts indicates that they went to the synagogue, where Paul declared that the Jewish scriptures pointed to Jesus as Messiah (Acts 17:2–3). This stirred up antagonism amongst the Jews of the city (Acts 17:5).

Those who accepted Paul’s message, realising that he was just recovering from the experience of prison in Philippi (Acts 16:19–24), sent him and Silas on to their next stop in Beroea after only three weeks in Thessalonica (Acts 17:2). Paul then travelled to Athens (Acts 17:15) and Corinth (Acts 18:1).

Little of this is reflected in Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians, apart from a direct comment about his difficulties in Philippi (1 Thess 2:2) and some generalised references to the persecution he was suffering (1 Thess 3:4, 7). Although it is likely that Paul wrote letters before he had visited Thessalonica, none of them are known to us.

1 Thessalonians, dating from the same year (50 CE) as his visit to Thessalonica, is the earliest example of Paul’s letter writing that we have. The letter itself contains no explicit indication of the time or place of its writing; tradition has it that Paul wrote from Athens, although it is more likely that he penned it in Corinth just months after his departure from Thessalonica. His visit was still fresh in Paul’s mind, and he writes with love and concern for the community of believers that he left behind in Thessalonica.

It is obvious that Paul had developed a strong bond with this community, and he is anxious to keep in touch with them (3:5). The letter was in reply to what he had learned from Timothy about their recent progress (3:6).

The letter known as 2 Thessalonians appears in the lectionary this Sunday and in the two following weeks. It seems to run in parallel to 1 Thessalonians in a number of ways. Some of the themes from the first letter are replicated, and varied, in the second letter to the Thessalonians. Both letters present Paul as a role model (1 Thess 1:6; 2 Thess 3:7); both criticise the Thessalonians for the idleness evident in their community (1 Thess 5:14; 2 Thess 3:6–12); and both letters contain reminders about Paul’s teachings (1 Thess 2:5–7, 12; 4:1–2; 5:1–2; 2 Thess 2:15). The general eschatological orientation is present in both letters (1 Thess 4:13–5:11; 2 Thess 1:5–2:16), but there are significant developments–a hardening of the apocalyptic mindset–in 2 Thessalonians.

The commonality of both general themes and specific words and phrases leads to a question about the relationship between these two letters: is this stylistic variation on common themes written by the same author, or a deliberate attempt to copy the first letter by another scribe at a later date?

Scholars answer the question differently; there are different views on the authorship of 2 Thessalonians. The opening and closing sections of 2 Thessalonians are revealing.

The letter concludes with an insistence that it was written by Paul: “I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand” (3:17). At first glance, this looks similar to the reference to Paul’s “large letters” in his “own hand” at Gal 6:11; but this is a brief passing comment, whereas the claim is laboured in 2 Thessalonians by the addition of extra phrases, so that we start to have a sense of “methinks he doth protest too much”.

The first twenty words of the opening address of 1 Thess 1:1 are repeated exactly in 2 Thess 1:1–2a; this is unusual amongst the seven authentic letters of Paul, for in every other case there are variations of both minor and major significance in this opening section. (See Rom 1:2–6; 1 Cor 1:2b; 2 Cor 1:b; Gal 1:1 and 1:4; Phil 1:1b; Phlmn 2.)

In the thanksgiving (2 Thess 1:3–4), a string of key words evokes themes from 1 Thessalonians. There is virtually nothing in the thanksgiving of 2 Thessalonians which is not present, in some way, in 1 Thessalonians. This is unparalleled amongst the authentic letters of Paul; his usual practice was to contextualise this section of the letter by indicating key issues which will be dealt with in the body of the letter.

There are differences in content in the bodies of the two letters. The friendly relationship evident throughout the first letter differs from the highly critical attitude towards the community in 2 Thessalonians. The eschatological orientation of 1 Thessalonians is present in general terms in 2 Thessalonians, but the difference is that the second letter is marked by a much stronger apocalyptic character. And twice in 2 Thessalonians (2:15 and 3:6), claims are made that Paul taught the Thessalonians material which is not found in 1 Thessalonians.

In my assessment, then, these differences mark 2 Thessalonians as coming from a different hand, in a situation where different issues were at stake. It appears to be a later imitation of 1 Thessalonians. We still read it in the cycle of readings provided by the Revised Common Lectionary–it is still an integral part of Christian scripture–but we read it with a critical lens, aware of the way that this particular writer is developing the earlier thought of Paul.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2019/06/17/harness-the-passion-but-restrain-the-rhetoric-musing-on-the-role-model-which-paul-offers-in-galatians/

https://johntsquires.com/2018/11/17/let-your-gentleness-be-known-to-everyone/

https://johntsquires.com/2019/10/01/in-the-name-of-the-apostle/

Personal notes from Paul (II): Luke and John Mark (2 Tim 4; Pentecost 20C)

The second letter in the New Testament that is addressed to Timothy presents a scenario that sees Paul in prison (1:8; 2:9), where he is in contact with a group otherwise unknown from his letters—Phygelus and Hermogenes (1:15), Crescens (4:10), Carpus (4:13), Eubulus, Pudens, Linus and Claudia (4:21)—as well as with others known from letters of Paul and/or that narrative of Acts—Onesiphorus (1:16), Demas and Titus (4:10), Luke and Mark (4:11), Tychicus (4:12), Prisca and Aquila (4:19), Erastus (4:20), Trophimus (4:20), and Timothy himself (1:2).

We have already considered a number of these people connected with Paul; see https://johntsquires.com/2022/10/19/personal-notes-from-paul-i-timothy-and-titus-demas-and-crescens-2-tim-4-pentecost-20c/

In this post, we encounter two figures who are well-known in Christian history—because their names have been attached to two of the four Gospels that are included in the New Testament.

Luke

The author appears to have been a part of a larger group of co-workers, now somewhat diminished; “only Luke is with me” (4:11). There are two other mentions of Luke in Pauline material. One comes at the end of the personal letter to Philemon: “Epaphras, my fellow prisoner in Christ Jesus, sends greetings to you, and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, my fellow workers” (Phlm 23–24). So Luke was a real historical figure, and a fellow worker alongside Paul at some stage.

The other is in the letter to the Colossians, where the writer reports that “Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas greet you” (Col 4:14). This short note appears in a longer concluding section (Col 4:10–18) which shares many qualities with 2 Tim 4:9–22, since a number of individuals are identified as a way of strengthening relationships across the communities of faith as a way to conclude the letter.

The Colossians description of Luke as “the beloved physician” was swiftly adopted in the developing second century apologetic which sought to identify each of the four canonical Gospels with figures in the apostolic age. Matthew and John were attributed to individuals named within “the twelve”, whilst Mark was associated with Peter, another of “the twelve”. (Outside the canon, the same apologetic move is undertaken in relation to the Letter of Barnabas; similar apologetic claims are placed in opening verse of the Gospel of Thomas.)

The third Gospel was linked with Paul through the purported author, “Luke, the beloved physician, companion of Paul”—a description which collates the mentions of Luke in Philemon, Colossians, and 2 Timothy, into one person, claimed (with no supporting evidence in the actual manuscript texts) to have been the author of “the orderly account of the things being fulfilled” which was addressed to “most excellent Theophilus” (Luke 1:1–4).

The authorship of Colossians is debated; I see this as a letter written by a student of Paul after his life, evoking many of his ideas and using much of his familiar language, although reworked for the different context that was in view in that letter. (Others claim it as an authentic letter of the historical Paul). The description of Luke as a physician is thus, in my view, later than Paul’s time. Likewise, the notion that Luke, the companion of Paul, is reflected in the “we passages” in Acts, is based on a misreading of the purpose of those passages.

John Mark

Alongside Luke, the letter mentions Mark: “get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry” (4:11). The figure of Mark appears at various places in other New Testament documents. In Acts, where he is introduced as John Mark, he is accompanying Barnabas and Saul (as he was then known) as they return to Jerusalem (Acts 12:25) after the year they have spent in Antioch (Acts 11:25–26).

Some time later, we are told, after a meeting in Jerusalem concerning preaching activity amongst the Gentiles (Acts 15:1–36), as Paul invites Barnabas to revisit the places they had been previously, “Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark” (15:37), but Paul disagreed. “Paul decided not to take with them one who had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not accompanied them in the work” (15:38). This refers to the fact that John Mark left them in Perga, before they went on to Antioch in Pisidia (13:13–14).

“The disagreement became so sharp”, the author of Acts reports, “that they parted company; Barnabas took Mark with him and sailed away to Cyprus; Paul chose Silas and set out” through Syria and Cilicia (15:41), and eventually across into Macedonia (16:9-10). Why John Mark had decided to leave the group in Perga is never explained. Presumably Barnabas and Mark were active in Cyprus and other places, not reported in Acts.

Two documents dated to the 5th and 6th centuries respectively, the Acts of Barnabas and the Encomium of the Apostle St. Barnabas, do pick up from Acts 13:14, recounting the missionary journey and indeed the martyrdom of Barnabas in Cyprus. In the Encomium, John Mark continues on from Cyprus to Ephesus, and eventually writes the second Gospel. But none of this is evident in any New Testament text.

In both Philemon (1:24) and Colossians (4:10), Mark is mentioned along with Aristarchus; the latter reference identifies Aristarchus as “my fellow prisoner” and Mark as “the cousin of Barnabas” (4:10). Whatever breach had occurred between Paul and Mark appears not to have been enduring, as the directive to the Colossians concerning Mark is, “if he comes to you, welcome him”.

Mark is also mentioned at the end of the first letter attributed to Peter, where greetings are sent to “the exiles of the dispersion” from “your sister church in Babylon … and my son Mark” (1 Pet 5:13). The relationship evident here between Peter and Mark seems to have contributed to the second century perception, attributed to Papias of Heirapolis, who in turn claimed that “John the Elder … in his capacity as Peter’s interpreter, wrote down accurately as many things as he recalled from memory—though not in an ordered form—of the things either said or done by the Lord” (quoted by Eusebius of Caesarea in his Ecclestiastical History 3.39).

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still more to come … … …