Thursday, 29 November 2007

A bit of Bible study to pass the time.

I have just finished writing a reflection on this passage, and some of it struck me as being relevant to where many of us are today, so here it is for you all to read.

! Corinthians 1:18-31.

18. For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19. For it is written: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."
20. Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21. For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. 22. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, 23. but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, 24. but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.
26. Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29. so that no one may boast before him. 30. It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31. Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord."

Paul writes to the Christian Community in Corinth, a powerful trading centre with ports in both the Aegean and Adriatic seas. Homer, in the Iliad was the first author to mention its wealth. It was destroyed and rebuilt (latterly by Julius Caesar) within one hundred years, so the population by the time of Paul’s letter was from many different nations, attracted by the work and the trading. Religiously, there was a sizable Jewish Community (according to Philo) and there have been temples discovered dedicated to the Emperor Cult as well as Greek and Egyptian deities. It is this city, ethnically and religiously mixed, which Paul chooses to preach Christ crucified and to house a sizeable part of the new ‘Jesus cult’.

Like many towns which rely on the sea for their wealth, Corinth had a reputation as a place of great sexual immorality, although this seems to be more hearsay and grammatical conceit (for example korinthiastes was used as a word for a person who lived off immoral earnings) as is often the case with seaside towns. To these people, Paul wrote his first letter in the Spring of AD 54 or thereabouts from Ephesus in answer to communication from Corinth to him, brought by Stephanas, as well as Chloe’s people, also, no doubt, spiced up by gossip concerning the Corinthians misunderstanding of some of his teachings.

This section we are looking at comes after the greeting and heavily stressed reminder of God’s grace, poured out for the people of Corinth, which is followed by a warning about division in the Church. He addresses this division in verse 18 by offering the example of the Cross of Christ as the most important thing for them. He offers it as an example of reconciliation and peace which would have spoken powerfully to the wide variety of humanity involved in the Jesus Cult at Corinth. It is a powerful symbol to show the people that God Himself has different standards for different people. They have been saved by the Cross, therefore they have to adhere to the higher standard and live by it as well. This contradicts predestination as well by the simple precedent of acceptance or rejection of the salvific power of the Cross.

This message is apocalyptic in a way which is unusual to Paul. He is not one to generally employ this style of rhetoric but here is an apocalyptic openness, it is important to note that he talks not of the ‘saved’ and the ‘unsaved’ but those who are being saved, it is an ongoing, but urgent process which rings true with his own account of salvation by revelation and his subsequent urgent missions in the aftermath of that.

So do not boast, Paul says, of your salvation which is given through the cross, by Christ. Do not allow yourselves to be split into any factions except the saved and those (theoretically) yet to be saved. The cause of the divisions, Paul asserts in this text, is the life of the people who have not been saved in Corinth, which is the standard of fallen humanity. To split into factions is, in fact, to fall.

This danger of falling by entering into worldliness has already been dealt with in Isaiah, which Paul reiterates to the Corinthians in verse 19. He follows this short extract by questions inspired by further pieces of Jewish Scripture (Isaiah 19:11; 33:18; 44:25; Job 12:17). These as stand alone rhetorical questions make little sense, and like the rest of this passage, point to an alternative view of the cosmos which itself make little sense unless the Cross is applied over it, as lens as well as rule. The application of the Cross over these rhetorical questions is shown by verses 22-25, which syntaxically strike one as being like parables, in that they are direct answers to contemporary questions. Indeed, in a wider but still Trinitarian context, God the Father showed wisdom by sending Jesus into the world and giving the world the salvific power of the Cross, which is then, by our accepting of that aforementioned Cross, passed to us to show to others by being Godly and wise ourselves. God the Father did not show worldly wisdom by sending His Son to be crucified, nor did His Son show worldly wisdom by speaking in parables and being crucified, but these two salvific actions gave the Corinthians exactly what they are now moaning about and using to cause factions. Paul is in fact using very simple language to explain the mystery of salvation. What seems weak in God is, in fact, wiser than human strength.

The rhetorical questions, then, make sense when we realise that God’s wisdom and the Good News of that wisdom is more than human knowledge. To digress slightly, the Gospel is not reasonable in human terms, from Mary and Joseph onwards, the manner of the Birth of Christ, the marital status of the couple and the rest of the story do not reflect the standards with which non-Christians would generally judge themselves and the world around them, due to their rationalism or the Jewish peoples Messianic expectations.

Paul’s rhetoric reaches a paradoxical climax in verse 25, where he once more underlines the need to use the eyes of faith to read the signs of the times when he stresses the difference between worldly wisdom and God’s wisdom in a final, extreme form.

The second part of this extract, verses 26 to 31, illustrates the point that we have just made above, by referencing the salvific action and wisdom of God to the lives of the people of Corinth and, by inference, even bearing in mind their eschatological expectations, us as well. He explains that we are given the means of salvation and Grace freely, irrespective of our position in society. Therefore, if we are likely to boast, to feel superior to our neighbours, then we should boast ‘in the Lord’. This is a tricky passage because we would not boast of God, but maybe evangelise for Him. I would read this as saying that ‘because what you have received is not of your own workings, but rather because of something which has been done to you, then be proud only of He who has wrought those changes within you, for He is Lord of all’. Verse 29 for example stresses that what has happened to these members of the Jesus Cult at Corinth, the changes wrought divinely in their souls as well as their expectation of eternal life is not due to anything they have done, but rather, once again, to the work of God.

Another reading of this passage is to take quite literally, (as a letter might, anyhow, expect us to by reason of its authorship, ablative syntax and purpose) verse twenty six and reflect that this is an accusation which has haunted the Christian Church through the Centuries, that most Christians (particularly Catholic Christians) are of a low social class and education level. Indeed, the pagan author Celsus begins a tradition by complaining that the religion is only attractive to the idiotic and illiterate, to the deliberate exclusion of the upper classes. He also accuses those who evangelise the Faith of being of a similar class, listing a number of supposedly derogative jobs as a catalogue of their supposed abilities. However, from a Christian viewpoint there really is nothing wrong in any of this, and as Paul points out in verse thirty, with the acceptance of this new old Faith, comes release from the power of sin (redemption) and a place in the Kingdom of Heaven (redemption) which is preferable to high office and boastworthy if, indeed, such a gift can be attained by the humblest of classes.

There is a need to briefly look at the issue of intertextuality here as well between this text and Jeremiah 9, 23-24. Paul offers, through his clear awareness of the earlier text, a Christocentric argument to the Corinthians, based on the interweaving of pre-Christian texts and teaching meant to lay foundations of a Christian Church, even if only for a short time pre-parousia. By doing so, he references to God’s activity in history and the rightness of the Jesus Cult as well as giving his letter, at this early stage (to remove ourselves once more from a close analysis) weight and authority; which was particularly important socially as well as culturally.

It is difficult to take a short extract from a long letter and try to weigh up what it might have to say to people outside of the context in which it is written, but that would be to misunderstand the context which is that of a letter written to people who are attempting to live Christian lives in an environment which, if not hostile, is certainly disinterested. We know that eventually, all matter will realise it’s subjection to God, through self discovery and revelation. However, like the Corinthians, we sometimes separate ourselves from the world by vanity or we separate ourselves by pride in the detailed individual responses to God’s call which we make without reference to our own place in the all enveloping theme of salvation history. We demand signs and wonders when, in fact, within our very soul is the mysterium fidei, imprinted by our acceptance of the saving power of the Cross of Christ, the same acceptance or subjection to God through the Cross as opposed to through Jewish faith and practice, which the people in Corinth made. They had to make sacrifices, these very varied people in that great trading city which are very similar to ours, to be humble, acceptant of God’s will, ready to subordinate our desires for His, as God subordinated His natural desires for His Son by the Cross.

We learn humility and through that, like Paul, earn the right to preach humility through application of this passage and the apocalyptic message of the Cross to our lives. If the world considers us wise, then we are clearly not showing the truth of Christ in our lives. If we have position and status in society, then we are hypocrites and unworthy of the message of eternal life.