How to read 1 Cor 11:14?

In the April, 2016 edition of the Calvin Theological Journal (41:1), Branson Parler writes a lengthy article entitled “Hair Length and Human Sexuality.”  The article is devoted to critiquing a number of recent studies (including my own[1]) regarding the appeal to “nature” in 1 Cor 11:14.  In the article, Parler argues that scholars have too quickly assumed that the appeal to “nature” in this verse is essentially an appeal to social custom or convention.  He believes that this is incorrect, and that even though the ancients were not completely correct in their assumptions about the relationship between hair length and physiology, Paul nonetheless was appealing, not to custom, but to physiology when he stated in 1 Cor 11:14f., “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?  For her hair is given to her for a covering.”

Parler goes on to cite a number of ancient sources which speculated on the relationship between hair and the male production of “seed” for procreation.  He argues, in a complex fashion, that ancients viewed human reproductive seed as being produced in the head, and that this seed was attracted to hair.  If a man wore his hair too long, the long hair would draw the seed to itself, keeping the seed in the head and impairing reproduction.  Instead, short hair on males would allow the seed to descend to the testicles, from which it could be passed to the woman, whose long hair would then draw the seed up to her uterus, where a child could be conceived and born.

Hence, Paul’s appeal to “nature” in 1 Cor 11:14 is not an appeal to social custom or convention, but rather to physiological sorts of considerations.  He writes “Paul’s underlying moral logic is an appeal to nature, understood as what is prior to and apart from human influence and not merely an appeal to custom.”[2] Parler goes on to argue that even though the specifics of Paul’s argument no longer bind us (since we know that reproductive processes work differently than the ancients thought), the root of Paul’s argument should still be conceived biologically:  the physiological differences between male and female should be respected and honored, and practices which obscure these differences (like gay marriage) must be resisted as contrary to the will of God.  Furthermore, he argues that when Paul characterizes same-sex eroticism in Romans 1 as “contrary to nature,” that language must be understood to focus on biological considerations, rather than on social convention or custom.  By this reading, what makes same-sex eroticism “contrary to nature” and thus wrong, in Paul’s view, is essentially not that it violates social standards of decency and propriety, but that it violates the will of God as revealed in the physiological differences between men and women.

So is it wrong to suggest that Paul is appealing to social custom, and not to biology in 1 Cor 11:14?  Well, the first thing to note is that the standard Greek Lexicon for New Testament studies lists, as its third definition of the Greek word phusis, “the regular or established order of things, nature.”[3]  So it is not immediately evident that all allusions to “custom” must necessarily be eliminated from Paul’s usage.  “Custom” can be another way of speaking of “the regular and established order of things.” This exclusion of “custom” becomes even more problematic when we read only two verses later, in 1 Cor 11:16, that Paul states “But if anyone is disposed to be contentious—we have no such custom (Greek sunētheia), nor do the churches of God.”  How is one to eliminate the notion of “custom” from “nature” when Paul explicitly speaks of custom in this same passage?

Secondly, Parler doesn’t say much about the overall intent of this chapter in 1 Corinthians, particularly about the sort of problem that Paul is seeking to address here.  These are complex questions, and I understand why he might regard them as peripheral to his more focused set of questions.  But I think a little more context will be helpful to this conversation.  Scholars have two different ways of reading the problem Paul is addressing here, and the solution he therefore proposes.  Some interpreters suggest that the problem was that women were not wearing veils, some sort of cloth covering over their heads, and Paul was trying to get them to wear veils.  Others see the problem somewhat differently.  They think that women in Corinth were wearing their hair loosely, rather than bundled up atop their heads, and that Paul was opposing this practice of loose hair for women.  In either case, it seems likely that the underlying issue had to do with sexual signals.  Whether their hair was uncovered or hanging loosely, the dress of women in the assembly was sending messages which were interpreted in that context in terms of sexual availability, and this, of course, was distracting (or worse) to the male members of the worship service, and bringing the focus away from the worship of God.  Thus Paul hoped to reduce this “distraction” so that the community could stay focused on what is central.

If there is any truth to this scenario, then Paul is not primarily concerned with upholding divinely intended gender roles in this passage (which he may well be addressing in some secondary sense); he is also deeply concerned with sexual desire.  And sexual desire, of course, is deeply shaped by cultural context (or custom).  What men find enticing or distracting about women in one context may be very different from what takes place in another context.

My third complaint about the elimination of “custom” from the notion of “nature” in 1 Cor 11:14 has to do with Parler’s own acknowledgement that we in the modern world regard the physiology of male-female differences in very different ways from the views we find embodied in this passage.  He writes, “In other words, we may continue to use Paul’s underlying moral logic even as we question some details of the first-century physiological paradigms he may have accepted.”[4]  In other words, Parler acknowledges that there are aspects of the ancient understanding of “nature” that we may rightly regard as incorrect (and culturally particular), but we must still retain something of Paul’s underlying moral logic.  And for Parler, of course, that underlying moral logic is the divinely intended difference between male and female evident in the biological differences between men and women.  We may disagree with the ancients about what those biological differences are, and thus disagree about hair length as central to male-female difference, but where such biological differences remain evident to us, we must respect them as revelatory of the will of God for male-female difference.  Hence the appeal to “nature” is an appeal to biology, even though that appeal is couched in cultural assumptions that may change over time.

This hardly seems like the elimination of “custom” from the category of “nature.”  Rather, it would seem like what we find here is an inextricable interweaving of “custom” and “physiology” in Paul’s use of “nature” in this passage.  This is, in fact, what I try to argue in my book, that “nature” in the Stoic vision represents the convergence of the personal, social, and physical worlds.”[5] I welcome Parler’s further explication of the physiological side of “nature” that is implicit in this text, but I do not accept his argument that there are no elements of custom or convention here.  Such a position is not warranted, even in the way that he frames his argument.

But that leads us to a deeper question of how we are to apply Parler’s interpretation of this passage to contemporary life.  He insists, on the one hand, that “Paul’s appeal to nature does not necessarily imply that his first-century application—hair length—is in force today.”[6]  But he goes on to say that “our acts of culture-making—including cutting of hair—should respond to that foundational diversity [i.e. of male and female] in a way that affirms rather than negates the male-female difference.”[7]  I can’t help but wonder, however, how such an argument would have sounded in 1920, however, when the United States was debating the 19th amendment to the Constitution, which gave women the right to vote.  It seems to me far more likely that it would have been used by those opposing the right of women to vote, rather than supporting such a change, since Parler’s view insists that innate physiological differences between men and women must be reflected in cultural practices.  One what basis, then, could one say that the cultural practice of male-only voting should be replaced by a practice that ignores the male-female distinction?  On a more personal level, I remember, as a young child, when my mother first stopped wearing a hat to church in the early 1960’s.  She was criticized extensively for her failure to uphold male-female distinctions, but within a few years, this became a non-issue everywhere in North America.  In other words, the advice to keep the principle, but be flexible about its cultural embodiment probably doesn’t give us sufficient guidance, in particular cases, for determining more precisely which cultural expressions or understandings of male-female identity or physiology should support universally binding practices, and which should not be understood in that way.  Why should physiological differences between men and women not apply to voting rights, when they do apply to marriage rights?

And this, of course, leads to the basic issue of the moral logic that undergirds Paul’s rejection of same-sex relationships in Romans 1.  I have tried to argue in my book that Paul’s own language suggests that he regarded such relationships as driven by excessive lust, a thirst for the exotic, and a shameful abandonment of customary gender roles, and that this (in addition to the fact that these relationships were non-procreative) was the basis for his rejection of these relationship as “contrary to nature,” where “nature” is conceived as the convergence of individual disposition, social consensus, and the biological world.  I tried to invite further discussion about how such a convergence between individual disposition, social consensus, and the biological world would look in our context today, given the changes in our experience and knowledge of all of these things.

Parler and others, however, take a very different reading, which focuses almost exclusively on biology.  Same-sex intimate relationships are wrong (“contrary to nature”) because they violate the biological complementarity of men and women intended by God in the creation of men and women.  My response has two sides.  On the one hand, this perspective fails to recognize the dispositional and customary dimensions to the category of “nature” in the ancient world, and thus does not engage all the relevant data.  On the other hand, this perspective fails to provide an adequate approach to male and female identity that can work across multiple times and places.  Parler acknowledges cultural variability and the possibility of growth in knowledge about men and women, but he doesn’t give us clear criteria for distinguishing between those male-female differences that are culturally particular (and thus negotiable) and those that are transcendent, requiring Christian obedience to them as equivalent to obedience to God.

This gap may, of course, be a sign that simply calls for more work.  But it may also be a sign that this entire line of argument moves in the wrong direction.  Or, to put it differently, Parler succeeds in his suggestion that there may be a component of the discussion of hair length in 1 Cor 11 that is biological (within the context of ancient understandings of biology), as well as customary.  But he has not succeeded in eliminating customary elements from the discussion of nature in this passage.  And once these remaining customary elements are acknowledged, the task of determining the moral logic of the text and its applicability to contemporary contexts becomes far more complex than Parler allows in his discussion.  It is completely inadequate to assert, on the one hand, that biological distinctions between male and female must be recognized and normatively applied to the social roles of men and women in society, while at the same time failing to identify those particular biological distinctions which deserve this normative status.

So let’s consider the most obvious biological issue in male-female distinctiveness:  procreation.  You need a male and a female to unite in order to produce children.  So, one might argue, only men and women should be allowed to marry.  But we don’t apply this principle with consistency in our society, even in the church.  We don’t refuse to allow a woman who has had a hysterectomy to be married, even though she will never have children.  We don’t refuse to marry older couples who are far beyond the age at which they could bear children.  In other words, we recognize that there are goods in marriage which justify marriage, even when procreation is not possible.  Or to put it more technically, while procreation may be part of the blessing of marriage, it is not essential to marriage.  The one thing that sets the biblical treatment of marriage apart from its ancient cultural context is the refusal to allow divorce on the basis of childlessness.  This was the primary reason, in the ancient world, why people would want to get divorced, but Scripture calls to a different path, focusing on covenant and faithfulness, rather than on procreation. So if we acknowledge that procreation is not essential to marriage for heterosexual couples, on what basis then can we appeal to the absence of procreative capacity as a rationale for denying to gay or lesbian couple the right to marry?  This sounds fundamentally inconsistent.

So in conclusion, my response to Parler’s essay has two sides.  On the one hand, Parler is probably correct in suggesting that the appeal to hair length in 1 Cor 11 may have assumed certain biological presuppositions as part of the rationale for this particular message.  On the other hand, I do not believe that Parler’s analysis excludes the more common interpretation of this passage in terms of custom.  Once we recognize that appeals to “nature” in the ancient world include assumptions about custom, as well as assumptions about biology, it becomes much more difficult to separate the biological elements as trans-culturally relevant.  What seems “natural” to us represents the convergence of assumptions involving social custom, individual disposition, and the biological world.  Unless we recognize all three of these elements, we won’t do justice to the usage of the term “nature” in the ancient world.

[1] Bible, Gender, Sexuality:  Reframing the Church’s Debate on Same-Sex Relationships (Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2013).

[2] P. 133.

[3] Frederick William Danker, rev. and ed., Walter Bauer original author, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Third Edition.  (Chicago and London:  University of Chicago Press, 2000), 1070.

[4] P. 134.

[5] Ibid., p. 255.

[6] P. 133.

[7] P. 134.

“Affinity Classes:” A Good Idea for the RCA?

I continue with another posting about denominational issues for the Reformed Church in America, which faces a range of complex issues this coming summer at its General Synod.

We now have the report from the “special council” that met in Chicago from April 15-18, 2016.  The group was convened to propose a way forward for the RCA in dealing with difficult and contentious issues surrounding sexual ethics.  In this reflection, however, I do not intend to speak to the question of the RCA’s position on sexual ethics (though I have published a book on that topic, and have many thoughts swirling in my head).  Instead, I want to speak to another issue addressed in the report, the option of so-called “affinity classes.”

This is an option advocated in several places in the report.  Group 2 includes it among their recommendations, as does group 4 and group 8.  The “group of five” that organized the assembly includes it in their summary recommendations to the General Synod.  They recommend “that Synod establish at least one affinity classis that includes people and congregations regardless of their perspective on human sexuality to ensure and allow relationship and mission together.”  They note that this action “might provide a way for those with differing interpretations of Scripture to remain in the RCA.”

Of course, there are some significant church order issues that immediately arise here, particularly whether the General Synod has any authority to create any classes at all.  Right now, our church order locates that responsibility exclusively within regional synods, the “mid-level” judicatory in the RCA.  The General Synod may “transfer classes and churches from one regional synod to another,” but apart from that, there is no authority granted to the General Synod to create a new classis of any sort.

But quite apart from those difficulties, this recommendation concerning affinity classes comes in the midst of a variety of tendencies, in the last ten years or so, to call into question what had been assumed in the RCA up to that point:  the geographic basis of the organization of the church into classes.  The Regional Synod of the Far West was the first to begin to call into question the regional bases of classes.  It created the City Classis, and defined the geographic boundaries of that classis to be the same as the boundaries of the Regional Synod.  This is a classis devoted to churches in metropolitan centers containing populations of more than 500,000.  Yet even this geographical boundary has not been entirely upheld.  The City Classis now includes churches in Philadelphia, for example, which is located outside the boundary of the Regional Synod of the Far West, and is exploring other church plants outside the region of the far west as well.

Other regional synods are also exploring this.  For example, the Regional Synod of the Great Lakes has made a number of moves which create ambiguity around geographic boundaries for classes.

So we stand at a crossroad of sorts.  If we move toward a full adoption of “affinity classes,” this move away from geographically defined classes will have finally reached official culmination in the order of the RCA.  It’s time for us to step back a bit from specific issues, to ask if this move away from a geographic understanding of classes is a good idea.

I understand why this is an attractive idea.  It allows people to avoid conflict that would diminish the effectiveness of the church overall in its mission.  It allows churches which are out of step with their surrounding churches in a classis to find a way to avoid discipline and other problems.  It allows churches to focus on issues that they think are important, without having to devote so much time and attention to issues they think are a waste of time.

Despite all these positive things, I think that affinity classes are not a good idea.  Let me offer a number of reasons for this conclusion.  First of all, a simple reading of the New Testament suggests that this is not the way the New Testament envisions groups of churches.  In the New Testament, multiple churches are very frequently envisioned and addressed in term of geography.  We hear of the “churches of Galatia” (1 Cor 16:1, Gal 1:2), the “churches of Asia” (1 Cor 16:19), the “churches of Macedonia” (2 Cor 8:1), the “churches of Judea” (Gal 1:22), and the “seven churches that are in Asia” (Rev 1:4).  There are no references to “churches” in the plural that reference anything apart from their geography (except for some that speak of the “churches of God” or “churches in Christ,” which are clearly references to the church in its totality).

Secondly, the use of “affinity” as a basis for grouping churches together runs into serious problems with Paul’s image of the diverse parts of the body of Christ in 1 Cor 12:12ff.  One might argue that Paul is speaking here of a local congregation, rather than clusters of churches, but do we really want to say that the diversity of the body of Christ is welcome at the local level, but unacceptable at the wider level of groups of churches?  Do we really want to undermine, at the organizational level, the celebration of diversity which Paul emphasizes at the local level in 1 Cor 12:12ff.?

This leads to my third concern.  If we are going to move toward “affinity classes,” we must decide what sorts of “affinities” constitute legitimate bases around which to organize clusters of churches, and which do not.  Is the recognition of women in ministry, or the refusal to do so, a sufficient basis for an “affinity classis?”  How about support of, or opposition to legalized abortion?  Would the use of, or resistance to charismatic gifts be a sufficient basis for an affinity classis?  What about worship styles?  What about eagerness to plant new churches?  Many of these have already been discussed in one context or another, and the explicit adoption of affinity classes would only encourage all these ways of dividing the body of Christ.  There are precedents here that lead to a very murky future, and to a church which doesn’t appear very healthy for a variety of reasons.  This looks like avoidance of conflict, rather than engagement of difference.

Finally, we have the problem of the interaction between classes that are more geographic in character and those that are structured in terms of affinity.  Who decides which churches get to opt out of geographic definitions and move toward affinity classes?  This becomes a complex problem for which easy solutions don’t seem evident.

In short, I recognize the extreme difficulty that questions of LGBT inclusion pose for the larger church, and the attractiveness of affinity classes as a strategy for diffusing to some extent this conflict.  I also recognize that there may be good reasons for assisting churches which share a common vision on a particular topic to affiliate in some way with each other.  I don’t believe that classis boundaries should be rigidly enforced, and there may be instances where a move of one church from its present classis to an adjacent classis may be well-advised.  However, I believe that adopting “affinity classes” will bring far more problems than it solves, and I urge the Reformed Church in America to avoid this strategy.

Luke 2:22-40; Feb 2 2014 lectionary gospel text

Luke 2:22-40

Gospel lection for Feb. 2, 2014

On the left is the SBL text (pretty close to the best Greek texts).  On the right is my translation–as literal as possible while maintaining at least roughly comprehensible English. (Words I’ve added that I think are implied in the text, but not actually present, are enclosed in [brackets].)  I’ve also added footnotes to the Greek text in places where I’ve offered brief comments.  The goal here is not to offer a complete commentary on the text, but simply to highlight some issues where looking at the original language may help to illumine what is going on overall here.  One of my purposes for this whole approach is to encourage those who are preaching and teaching the lectionary text to explore the original languages, and to give them a head start on what they might discover.

Lk 2:22  Καὶ ὅτε ἐπλήσθησαν αἱ ἡμέραι τοῦ καθαρισμοῦ αὐτῶν[A] κατὰ τὸν νόμον Μωϋσέως, ἀνήγαγον αὐτὸν εἰς Ἱεροσόλυμα παραστῆσαι τῷ κυρίῳ, And when the days of their purification were fulfilled according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem, to present [him] to the Lord,
Lk 2:23  καθὼς γέγραπται ἐν νόμῳ κυρίου ὅτι Πᾶν ἄρσεν[B] διανοῖγον μήτραν ἅγιον τῷ κυρίῳ κληθήσεται, just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male [child] opening a womb shall be called holy to the Lord,”
Lk 2:24  καὶ τοῦ δοῦναι[C] θυσίαν κατὰ τὸ εἰρημένον ἐν τῷ νόμῳ κυρίου, ζεῦγος τρυγόνων ἢ δύο νοσσοὺς περιστερῶν. and to offer a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, “a pair of pigeons or two young doves.”
Lk 2:25  Καὶ ἰδοὺ ἄνθρωπος ἦν ἐν Ἰερουσαλὴμ [D] ὄνομα Συμεών, καὶ ὁ ἄνθρωπος οὗτος δίκαιος καὶ εὐλαβής, προσδεχόμενος παράκλησιν τοῦ Ἰσραήλ, καὶ πνεῦμα ἦν ἅγιον[E] ἐπ’ αὐτόν· And look!  A man was in Jerusalem, whose name was Symeon, and this man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him.
Lk 2:26  καὶ ἦν αὐτῷ κεχρηματισμένον[F] ὑπὸ τοῦ[G] πνεύματος τοῦ ἁγίου μὴ ἰδεῖν θάνατον[H] πρὶν ἢ ἂν ἴδῃ τὸν χριστὸν κυρίου. And it was made known to him by the Spirit [that he would] not see death until he would see the Lord’s Christ [or Messiah].
Lk 2:27  καὶ ἦλθεν ἐν τῷ πνεύματι[I] εἰς τὸ ἱερόν· καὶ ἐν τῷ εἰσαγαγεῖν τοὺς γονεῖς[J] τὸ παιδίον Ἰησοῦν τοῦ[K] ποιῆσαι αὐτοὺς κατὰ τὸ εἰθισμένον[L] τοῦ νόμου περὶ αὐτοῦ And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and while the parents were bringing in the child Jesus, so that they might do concerning him according to what was customary [in] the law,
Lk 2:28  καὶ αὐτὸς ἐδέξατο αὐτὸ εἰς τὰς ἀγκάλας[M] καὶ εὐλόγησεν τὸν θεὸν καὶ εἶπεν· and he received [the child] into [his] arms, and blessed God, and said,
Lk 2:29  Νῦν ἀπολύεις[N] τὸν δοῦλόν σου, δέσποτα, κατὰ τὸ ῥῆμά σου ἐν εἰρήνῃ· Now, master, you are dismissing your servant, according to your word, in peace,
Lk 2:30  ὅτι εἶδον[O] οἱ ὀφθαλμοί μου τὸ σωτήριόν[P] σου because my eyes saw your saving act
Lk 2:31  ὃ ἡτοίμασας κατὰ πρόσωπον πάντων τῶν λαῶν[Q], which you prepared in the presence of all the peoples,
Lk 2:32  φῶς εἰς ἀποκάλυψιν ἐθνῶν[R] καὶ δόξαν λαοῦ σου Ἰσραήλ. a light for [the purpose of] revelation of Gentiles, and [for the purpose of the] glory of your people Israel.
Lk 2:33  καὶ ἦν ὁ πατὴρ αὐτοῦ καὶ ἡ μήτηρ θαυμάζοντες ἐπὶ τοῖς λαλουμένοις περὶ αὐτοῦ. And his father and mother were marveling at the things spoken about him,
Lk 2:34  καὶ εὐλόγησεν αὐτοὺς Συμεὼν καὶ εἶπεν πρὸς Μαριὰμ τὴν μητέρα αὐτοῦ· Ἰδοὺ οὗτος κεῖται εἰς πτῶσιν καὶ ἀνάστασιν πολλῶν ἐν τῷ Ἰσραὴλ καὶ εἰς σημεῖον ἀντιλεγόμενον[S], and Symeon blessed them and said to Mary his morther, “Look!  This one is appointed for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign [that is] opposed,
Lk 2:35  καὶ σοῦ δὲ αὐτῆς[T] τὴν ψυχὴν διελεύσεται ῥομφαία, ὅπως ἂν ἀποκαλυφθῶσιν ἐκ πολλῶν καρδιῶν διαλογισμοί. (and your own soul will be pierced with a sword), in order that the disputations [flowing from] many hearts may be revealed.
Lk 2:36  Καὶ ἦν Ἅννα προφῆτις[U], θυγάτηρ Φανουήλ, ἐκ φυλῆς Ἀσήρ (αὕτη προβεβηκυῖα ἐν ἡμέραις πολλαῖς, ζήσασα μετὰ ἀνδρὸς ἔτη ἑπτὰ ἀπὸ τῆς παρθενίας αὐτῆς, And there was a prophet Anna, daughter of Phanuel, from the tribe of Asher.  (She was advanced in many days, having lived with [her] husband seven years after her virginity,
Lk 2:37  καὶ αὐτὴ χήρα ἕως ἐτῶν ὀγδοήκοντα τεσσάρων,) ἣ οὐκ ἀφίστατο τοῦ ἱεροῦ νηστείαις καὶ δεήσεσιν λατρεύουσα νύκτα καὶ ἡμέραν. and [by] herself as a widow [all the way to] 84 years.)  She did not depart from the temple, worshipping night and day with fastings and prayers.
Lk 2:38  καὶ αὐτῇ[V] τῇ ὥρᾳ ἐπιστᾶσα ἀνθωμολογεῖτο[W] τῷ θεῷ καὶ ἐλάλει περὶ αὐτοῦ πᾶσιν τοῖς προσδεχομένοις λύτρωσιν Ἰερουσαλήμ. And she, coming upon [or standing above] [them] at that hour, began to give thanks to God and to speak about him to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.
Lk 2:39  Καὶ ὡς ἐτέλεσαν πάντα τὰ κατὰ τὸν νόμον κυρίου, ἐπέστρεψαν εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν εἰς πόλιν ἑαυτῶν Ναζαρέθ. And when they finished everything according to the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own city Nazareth.
Lk 2:40  Τὸ δὲ παιδίον ηὔξανεν[X] καὶ ἐκραταιοῦτο πληρούμενον σοφίᾳ, καὶ χάρις[Y] θεοῦ ἦν ἐπ’ αὐτό. And the child continued to grow and strengthen, filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him.

[A] I.e., both Jesus’ and Mary’s, apparently.

[B] This is neuter because the implied noun is “child,” which is neuter in gender in Greek.

[C] A second infinitive grammatically parallel to παραστῆσαι in 2:22.

[D] Greek never uses the genitive with respect to names, to speak of “his” name, but always the dative—the name “for him.”

[E] Note the absence of a definite article, making it ambiguous whether we should render “a holy Spirit was upon him,” or “the Holy Spirit was upon him.”

[F] Could be either “revealed to him” or “prophesied to him” by someone else.

[G] This time we get the article with the Holy Spirit! Go figure.

[H] Grammatically, could be either a command (“Don’t die until you see the Lord’s Messiah,”) or a promise (“you will not die until you see the Lord’s Messiah.”)  Most commentators rightly opt for the latter one.

[I] i.e., in the power, or by the direction of the Holy Spirit, rather than coming in some immaterial way.  The Spirit is active in these verses!

[J] Remember that in Greek, the subject of infinitive clauses is in the accusative case, which is what we see here.

[K] τοῦ with infinitive clauses commonly expresses purpose.

[L] A somewhat odd juxtaposition of “custom” and “law.”

[M] The only time this word occurs in the NT.  The focus is on bent arms cradling the child.

[N] Neither future nor imperative, but simple indicative second singular.  “You are dismissing . . .”

[O] Many translations render this as a perfect (“my eyes have seen”), but it is aorist tense—simple past.

[P] Not the abstract noun “salvation,” but neuter singular “saving act.”

[Q] i.e. people-groups, not just a general collective.  One of these “people groups”—Israel—is singled out in the next verse.

[R] Could be either “revelation of Gentiles [who belong to God], or “revelation directed to the Gentiles,” though the latter would be clearer if it were in the dative case.

[S] Note the strongly oppositional/controversial character of these words!

[T] This is probably the intensive use of autos.  “The soul of you yourself.”

[U] The feminine form.  Could also be rendered “prophetess.”

[V] A textual problem here.  Should we read this as a dative with an iota subscript under the last letter, or as a nominative?  If the latter, it reads as I have translated; if the former, it is better rendered “at that very hour.”

[W] This and the next verb are imperfect, which I have rendered as the inchoative imperfect (began to . . .), indicating the beginning of a continuous action in the past.

[X] Again, note the imperfect tenses here, which indicate ongoing or continuous action in the past.

[Y] Or “the favor of God was upon him.”

Feb 2 Epistle lection, 1 Cor 1:18-31

1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Epistle lection, Feb. 2, 2014

On the left is the SBL text (pretty close to the best Greek texts).  On the right is my translation–as literal as possible while maintaining at least roughly comprehensible English. (Words I’ve added that I think are implied in the text, but not actually present, are enclosed in [brackets].)  I’ve also added footnotes to the Greek text in places where I’ve offered brief comments.  The goal here is not to offer a complete commentary on the text, but simply to highlight some issues where looking at the original language may help to illumine what is going on overall here.  One of my purposes for this whole approach is to encourage those who are preaching and teaching the lectionary text to explore the original languages, and to give them a head start on what they might discover.

1Co 1:18          Ὁ λόγος[A] γὰρ ὁ τοῦ σταυροῦ τοῖς μὲν ἀπολλυμένοις μωρία ἐστίν, τοῖς δὲ σῳζομένοις ἡμῖν δύναμις θεοῦ ἐστιν. 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.
1Co 1:19          γέγραπται γάρ· Ἀπολῶ[B] τὴν σοφίαν τῶν σοφῶν, καὶ τὴν σύνεσιν[C] τῶν συνετῶν ἀθετήσω. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise ones, and the intelligence of the understanding ones I will nullify.
1Co 1:20          ποῦ σοφός; ποῦ γραμματεύς; ποῦ συζητητὴς τοῦ αἰῶνος τούτου; οὐχὶ ἐμώρανεν ὁ θεὸς τὴν σοφίαν τοῦ κόσμου; Where [is the] wise one?  Where is [the] scribe?  Where is [the] debater of this age?  Did not God make moronic the wisdom of the world?
1Co 1:21          ἐπειδὴ γὰρ ἐν τῇ σοφίᾳ τοῦ θεοῦ οὐκ ἔγνω ὁ κόσμος διὰ τῆς σοφίας τὸν θεόν, εὐδόκησεν ὁ θεὸς διὰ τῆς μωρίας τοῦ κηρύγματος[D] σῶσαι τοὺς πιστεύοντας. For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God was pleased, through the folly of what is preached, to save those who believe.
1Co 1:22          ἐπειδὴ καὶ[E] Ἰουδαῖοι σημεῖα αἰτοῦσιν καὶ Ἕλληνες σοφίαν ζητοῦσιν· Since Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek wisdom,
1Co 1:23          ἡμεῖς δὲ κηρύσσομεν Χριστὸν ἐσταυρωμένον[F], Ἰουδαίοις μὲν σκάνδαλον ἔθνεσιν δὲ μωρίαν, But we preach Christ crucified, on the one hand to Jews a stumbling block, and other the other hand, to gentiles, foolishness;
1Co 1:24          αὐτοῖς δὲ τοῖς κλητοῖς[G], Ἰουδαίοις τε καὶ Ἕλλησιν, Χριστὸν[H] θεοῦ δύναμιν[I] καὶ θεοῦ σοφίαν. But to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ [is the] power of God and [the] wisdom of God.
1Co 1:25          ὅτι τὸ μωρὸν[J] τοῦ θεοῦ σοφώτερον τῶν ἀνθρώπων[K] ἐστίν, καὶ τὸ ἀσθενὲς τοῦ θεοῦ ἰσχυρότερον τῶν ἀνθρώπων. For the folly of God is wiser than humans, and the weakness of God is stronger than humans.
1Co 1:26          Βλέπετε γὰρ τὴν κλῆσιν ὑμῶν, ἀδελφοί, ὅτι οὐ πολλοὶ σοφοὶ κατὰ σάρκα, οὐ πολλοὶ δυνατοί, οὐ πολλοὶ εὐγενεῖς[L]· Look at your calling, brothers [and sisters,]  since not many [were] wise according to the flesh; not many [were] strong; not many [were] well-born;
1Co 1:27          ἀλλὰ τὰ μωρὰ[M] τοῦ κόσμου ἐξελέξατο ὁ θεός, ἵνα καταισχύνῃ τοὺς σοφούς, καὶ τὰ ἀσθενῆ τοῦ κόσμου ἐξελέξατο ὁ θεός, ἵνα καταισχύνῃ τὰ ἰσχυρά[N], But God chose the foolish things of the world, in order that he might put the wise ones to shame, and God chose the weak things of the world, in order that he might put the strong things to shame.
1Co 1:28          καὶ τὰ ἀγενῆ[O] τοῦ κόσμου καὶ τὰ ἐξουθενημένα ἐξελέξατο ὁ θεός, τὰ μὴ ὄντα, ἵνα τὰ ὄντα καταργήσῃ,[P] Indeed, the common things of the world, and the despised things God chose—the things that are nothing, so that he might nullify the things that are something,
1Co 1:29          ὅπως μὴ καυχήσηται[Q] πᾶσα[R] σὰρξ ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ. So that no flesh [i.e. human being] might boast before God.
1Co 1:30          ἐξ αὐτοῦ δὲ ὑμεῖς ἐστε ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ,[S] ὃς ἐγενήθη σοφία ἡμῖν[T] ἀπὸ θεοῦ, δικαιοσύνη τε καὶ ἁγιασμὸς[U] καὶ ἀπολύτρωσις, But from him, you are in Christ Jesus, who became wisdom for us from God, and righteousness and holiness and redemption,
1Co 1:31          ἵνα καθὼς γέγραπται· Ὁ καυχώμενος ἐν κυρίῳ καυχάσθω. so that , as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

[A] λόγος has a wide range of meaning.    In this context, it could mean “word,” “meaning,” “message,” etc.

[B] Note that this is the same verb translated “perishing” in the previous verse (though in a different tense).  A search on this verb in Paul more widely will yield some interesting results.  You can do that online here:  When you click on the English word, the correct Greek word is highlighted.  Click on the Greek verb, scroll down, and click on “find all occurrences.”

[C] Definitions include intelligence, acuteness, shrewdness, insight, and understanding.

[D] Or possibly “the foolishness of preaching.”  Both the act and the content are possible meanings.

[E] The double καὶ construction is hard to translate, but the meaning is to treat Jews and Greeks in a parallel way to each other.

[F] A perfect passive participle—“in the present and enduring state of having been crucified.”

[G] Don’t miss the verbal allusion back to 1:2.

[H] The accusative case makes it clear that this verse looks back to the same Christ who is preached in the previous verse.  It’s hard to render this in translation into English.

[I] Interesting to speculate:  does Christ the power of God correspond to the “stumbling block” to Jews referenced above, and Christ the wisdom correspond to the foolishness of the gospel to Greeks in the previous verse?  In any case, we see a second theme introduced here.  In addition to the polarity of foolishness and wisdom, Paul begins to develop the contrast between strength and weakness.

[J] Note that these are both neuter singular noun substantives—“the foolish thing”  and “the weak thing—rather than the abstract noun “foolishness” which Paul has used earlier in vv. 21 & 23 (Paul doesn’t reference weakness earlier).

[K] Most likely just the genitive of comparison (as I have translated).  But it could also be a possessive genitive, with an implied noun, rendering the verse:   “For the folly of God is wiser than [the wisdom] of humans, and the weakness of God is stronger than [the strength] of humans.”

[L] Now Paul adds a third category:  not just wisdom and power, but social status/standing.

[M] Note the neuter gender.  It’s not foolish people but foolish things.

[N] Even here we see the neuter plural—it’s the strong things that are shamed, in contrast to the wise ones who are shamed earlier in the verse.

[O] Note again the high-born/commoner polarity here.

[P] Again—the neuter plurals are worth noting.  God does not nullify people, but things—values, assumptions, etc.  Also, check the Bauer lexicon on this verb—some interesting nuances.

[Q] One gets the sense that this negation of boasting is the goal toward which this whole passage has been moving.  C f. 1:31.

[R] The construction μὴ . . . πᾶσα does not suggest ‘not all, but perhaps some.”  Rather, it has the connotation “none at all.”

[S] This phrase could be understood several  ways.  The two most likely:  (1) By God’s doing, you are in Christ Jesus.” (2) “You are from God, in Christ Jesus.”

[T] A huge soteriological bundle is tied up in these words “who became for us . . .”  We access all these things (wisdom, power, and status) by becoming joined to the one who became for us righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (three huge soteriological terms).

[U] Could be “holiness” or “sanctification.”