St. Paul mosaic

Studying 1 Corinthians 1 18-31

We’re studying 1 Corinthians 1:18-31 this week. This is near the beginning of Paul’s theological preamble, which informs his practical consideration of issues facing the Corinthian church in subsequent chapters. We took a closer look at 1 Corinthians 1:26-30 a couple of years ago; I’ve added my notes on verses 18-25 below, with a couple of additional notes on verses 26-31 that came up this time around. Some questions on the text are here.

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: As we’ve noted before, this is the beginning of a letter – a long and major one – written by Paul to the early Christian church in the city of Corinth. Commentators tells us that makes it written in the early 50s CE, maybe from Ephesus. We probably imagine Paul as a busy, dynamic, mission-oriented person, writing to a church he was instrumental in starting – or at least, organizing and teaching in a particular way – so, with these people on his mind who are known to him. Responding to messages or reports about what’s going on in the church. [That probably sounds familiar to people these days. “People are saying …” “There have been complaints about …”]

All these people live in the same socio-historical world, the world of the first century Mediterranean; the “Greco-Roman world.” So, they all know the same popular culture, of their time. I’m almost done reading Dominion by Tom Holland; he points out, I think rightly, that all of us [contemporary westerners] will have been raised with Christian values and assumptions as the air we breathe, whether or not we grew up in a church. The extent to which neither Paul nor the Corinthians would have had that common culture seems really significant.

Especially here, where Paul is setting “the cross” front and center as the emblem of the Christian message, and all its meaning for ordinary life, its practical social implications. We probably consistently underestimate just how viscerally and unapologetically elitist the ancient world was. That background assumption – that there are better and worse people and things, and we all know who and what “better” is – seems really central to what Paul is doing in these verses. And how completely the message of “the cross” changes that.

As usual with Paul, there is some genius rhetoric at work in these verses, starting with an extended play on the notion of “calling” in the greeting. That set-up will be paid out in the last paragraph, when Paul will bring the readers/hearers back to their “call” and God’s “choosing” (which is a kind of call). Already this kind of calling is to “holiness” – which is effected by Christ – in v4, and to “common life” (fellowship, partnership, communion – the koinonia word) with Christ in v9. For which the Corinthians – “called” – have every provision, by grace: words, ideas, knowledge. At first this might sound like he is flattering their philosophical side. But no, as we’ll see, more like the opposite.

In vv10-17, he addresses the “divisions” – the cuts, the tears – in the church. We’d probably say, the cliques. He appeals to them to be repaired, mended together, to overcome that division. [NRSV’s “knit together” seems like the wrong image here; “knitting” is very specific, more specific than this verb, and also more like bringing something into being for the first time. This seems like a more general kind of repairing or putting back together, of something that has been torn apart … like, what we might do with super glue.] Then, verse 17 makes a turn: FROM baptism – ritual sign, which we might gather is getting too much emphasis in the life of this group, as maybe it is giving energy to the cliquishness – TO Paul’s proclamation about the cross, and the signal that he is about to contrast wisdom and power.

These are surprising contrast terms – we probably expected wisdom and foolishness. There will be plenty of contrast between wisdom and foolishness in the next verses. Along with the continuing contrast of wisdom and power, which will, again, be cashed out in the last paragraph.

These verses show up in the lectionary, and in fact might have made a nice series of epistle readings this year in the Second through Fourth Sundays after Epiphany – so perhaps we’ve just heard them in church. Plus, verses 18-24 are a reading for Holy Cross every year, if we celebrate that. So – we should know they’re in the Bible.

CLOSER READING: The word translated “message” of the cross in v18 is a big word. We could think of the “word” or the “central organizing idea” of the cross just as easily as, or all at once together with, this “message.”

Something or someone is being destroyed (NRSV “perishing”) by it – the root word “destroy” repeats in the next verse, where it’s explicitly the wisdom of the wise that’s being destroyed.

[In the way we usually read v18, we probably tend to think of what’s being destroyed as “unbelievers” or non-Christians, but we might want to reserve judgment about that.]

Foolishness is a repetitive idea here: the cross seems to be foolish (v18); God has made foolish (v20) the wisdom of the world; and has been pleased through foolishness (v21) – the foolishness of this preaching – to save the faithful; and this preaching seems like foolishness (v24) to gentiles; but the foolishness (v25) of God is wiser than human wisdom. Foolishness is indeed contrasted with wisdom, or perhaps “wisdom,” all through here. But wisdom (“wisdom”), in turn, is contrasted with the power of God.

V19 quotes Isaiah 29:14 [some notes on that here] – in its original context, a reference to the sages and leaders of pre-exilic Jerusalem. Here, we might guess, a reference to Greek or Greco-Roman philosophy. Or perhaps, simply “what EVERYONE who knows ANYTHING,” “any rational person,” “any fool,” knows.

V20 is a series of rhetorical questions – where are these people, three different categories of people respected for their intellectual achievement? “The wise,” “the scribe” (learned), “the debater of this age.” Paul may have “sophists” in mind when he says “debater,” but we might need to think of professional writers of op-ed pieces, pundits, “news analysts” like Tucker Carlson or Rachel Maddow … The answer Paul the Rhetorician seems to be after is “they’re nowhere,” or “we’re not seeing them.”

Jews – here, maybe, with an emphasis on the Jewish system of knowledge, in contrast to the Greeks academic philosophical one – demand signs (v22) – that is, demonstrations of divine authenticity, perhaps. A paradigmatic sign in this context might be something like one of the plagues visited on the Egyptians, or Elijah’s fire from heaven. A “mighty act of God.” This would help make sense of the “scandal” or “stumbling block” of the cross, which doesn’t seem at all mighty.

[Resurrection would seem mighty. And that will come up, much later, in chapter 15. But … people have to get to that by way of the cross.]

Greeks, on the other hand, according to this contrast pairing, “seek wisdom,” (v22), and again, from most of the accessible intellectual angles we can imagine (logic; arguments based on reasoning our way to good ends; consistency with anything desirable; analogies; …), within any conventional ancient world value system, “the cross” can’t make good sense (v23).

“The called” (v24) – a new category of person, neither Jew nor Gentile, or both Jew and Gentile, but not identical to what those categories mean prior to this calling – see something in the cross that transcends divine signs or philosophical argument, but is rather “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” Divine power and wisdom is personal, and effective.

The world is upside down. The power of God and the wisdom of God looks like foolishness and weakness – from the ordinary human perspective. Which “the called” no longer have.

That brings us back to vv26-31. This time around, here’s something else I notice about those verses:

God’s choosing is a form of “call.” Etymologically, which we can’t always go by, but here we might be able to because of the way it fits, it incorporates the idea of “word” or “speaking.”

In vv27-28, God chooses (or calls out) a set of disvalues: foolish things, weak things, “nothings.” This is for the express purpose of “shaming,” or disvaluing, the contrasting set of values: the wise, the strong, whatever is Something or Someone.

So that – we get the conclusive purpose statement in v29 – “all flesh” would not boast in the presence of God. There is more than one way to read that. NRSV reads it as “no one might boast.” But a different way to read it seems to be this: nothing of “all flesh,” nothing of the flesh, is to be able to boast before God. Nothing identified as “the best” or “the good” by any ordinary way of thinking, no “flesh-ly” or “world-ly” merits, would imagine they have any standing or claim before God. And God is going to make sure we “get” that lesson.

Referring back to vv18-19, what is being destroyed here is every system of values other than the one found in common life with Christ. Crucified. [And resurrected. By the power of God.]

That actually isn’t only radical for the ancient world. It’s still just as radical these days.

Saint Paul writing

Images: “Casa de Convalescència, arrambador ceràmic,” Enfo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons;”Saint Paul Writing His Epistles,” Valentin de Boulogne / Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

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