Quote for the Day: Serpent-like Sentences

“One accustoms himself to writing short sentences as a rule. At times he may indulge himself in a long one, but he will make sure that there are no folds in it, no vagueness, no parenthetical interruptions of its view as a whole; when he is done with it, it won’t be a sea-serpent with half of its arches under the water, it will be a torch-light procession.” (Mark Twain)

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Paul and the "Weak"

Mark Nanos’ latest essay about the “weak” in Corinth is that rare example of thinking outside the box which makes us wonder, “Gee, why didn’t we see this before?” It’s the essay I’ve been waiting for since the author’s The Mystery of Romans accomplished the same thing over a decade ago.

In I Cor 8:1-11 Paul tells his “knowledgeable” converts to avoid idol food on account of the “weak”. Who are the “weak”? Denying the near universal assumption that they are Christian — that is, insecure Christians who are unable to treat idol food as meaningless and eat it with a clean conscience — Nanos demonstrates, with enviable ease, that they are non-Christian — pagans who eat idol food without any qualms.

“I propose that the impaired [weak] are polytheist idolaters with whom the Christ-believers in Corinth interact, even those to whom they are proclaiming the gospel message. The impaired [weak] are not resistant to eating idol food; rather, they have always eaten idol food as an act of religious significance. After all, is it not more logical to suppose that Christ-believers “know” the truth about idols now, by definition, being Christ-believers? In what sense have they become Christ-believers if not by confessing the truth of the One, thus turning from the truth they had supposed before about idols and other gods and lords?… They are not troubled by eating idol food; that is what they do and have always done as a matter of course, ‘until now’… Paul’s concern is not that the impaired [weak] will revert to idolatry, but that they will never turn away from it.” (pp 12-13)

That makes sense, for if these potential converts were to see Christians eating idol food, their sensibilities would be confirmed instead of challenged to be wrong (p 14), and they would end up “ruined” (I Cor 8:11). They would fail to understand that Christianity makes exclusive claims for God and Christ, and perhaps get the idea that they could add the Jewish God to their pagan pantheon. Alternatively, they might not take Christians seriously, supposing that its adherents were hypocrites who eat idol food to appease gods they otherwise disdain as non-existent or inferior (see pp 15-17).

Thus our setting: the weak ate idol food without reservation (that’s what idolaters do), and the knowledgeable didn’t eat it — though they were now wondering if it would be acceptable, “most likely for a host of the socio-economic and psychological reasons associated with remaining ‘in the world'” (pp 18-19). Paul’s response was an emphatic “no” for the above reasons. So why have commentators always assumed that the weak were fellow Christian believers insecure in their faith?

I can think of three reasons. Nanos lights on two of them, and we’ll return to a third at the end. (1) Interpreters have been driven by over-arching needs for a Pauline Christianity which trumps “Jewish” Christianities (see p 9). I agree that the latter shouldn’t be used as a foil in our historical reconstructions (one isn’t inherently better than the other), though unlike Nanos, I do think Paul’s version of the Christ-faith was at odds with more traditionally Jewish versions being promoted by the pillars. (2) An understandably misleading factor is the text at I Cor 8:11-12, where Paul speaks of the weak as “brothers” and “family”. This has lead some translators of modern bibles to replace “brothers” with “believers” (like the NRSV), thus perpetuating the notion that the weak were Christian insiders.

Nanos demolishes this supposition, showing that the use of “brothers” doesn’t point to Christian believers in this particular context. First of all, we need to remember that Paul believed Christ died for the “weak” and “ungodly” who didn’t yet believe in him (Rom 5:6-10) (pp 20-21). Secondly, fictive kinship language, while usually applied to insiders, also reached across group boundaries in the ancient Mediterranean. For instance, the writer of I Maccabees referred to the bond between the Judeans and Spartans (I Macc 11:30; 12:10,17), and Philo universalized brotherhood (Q and A on Gen 2:60) (pp 26-27).

But thirdly, and most conclusively, Paul’s instructions regarding Christian brothers in I Cor 5:9-12 makes plain that idolatrous sensibilities are not to be accommodated in the church. Only outsiders can be so accommodated:

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons — not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and the robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother who is sexually immoral or greedy, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber. Do not even eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging those outside? Is it not those who are inside that you are to judge? God will judge those outside. Drive out the wicked person from among you.” (I Cor 5:9-13)

There it is, under our noses. Since Christian idolaters should be expelled from the assembly, the advice of I Cor 8 cannot apply to them. It must apply to pagans who stand as potential converts. In the company of such polytheists the Corinthians should neither be judgmental (“only God judges those outside”) nor exercise their freedoms indiscriminately. Nanos is right:

“The accommodation Paul expresses in chapter 8 toward the [weak] corresponds to the position he champions in chapter 5 toward polytheists, not toward fellow Christ-believers.” (p 31)

Stop now, and flash back a dozen years when a book called The Mystery of Romans appeared out of nowhere, written by an unknown scholar who was about to show the world he meant business. Knowing that the “mystery” of Romans hinged on Paul’s concern for unbelieving Israel (Rom 11), Nanos saw Rom 14-15 as the practical application of this. The “weak in faith” in Rome were non-Christian Jews, weak because they lacked faith in Christ, not because they followed the works of the law. The language of Rom 14-15 couldn’t be clearer: those who observed purity laws, fasting, and sabbath should be “fully convinced in their own minds what is right” (Rom 14:5) and should continue “observing sabbath in honor of the Lord” (Rom 14:6a) and “abstaining from meat in honor of the Lord” (Rom 14:6b).

Paul in fact wanted the (Gentile) Roman Christians to accommodate unbelieving Jews as a means of attracting them to Christianity: “If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love” (Rom. 14:15). “It is good not to eat meat, or drink wine, or do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (Rom. 14:21). Note again the unusual application of “brother” for an unbeliever. Paul wanted the strong to accommodate the weak and “not please themselves” (Rom. 15:1), so that, hopefully, more Jews would embrace Christianity and both groups could worship as “one voice” (Rom. 15:5-6). The Jews weren’t weak in practice or opinions, in Paul’s view, but in faith — refusing to believe that Israel’s redeemer had arrived and inaugurated the messianic age.

And at this point Nanos played a monster hand. He went back to Paul’s theology (Rom 2-11) to find confirmation of his interpretation, and found it in Rom 4:19-25:

“Abraham did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was already as good as dead (for he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb. No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith was reckoned to him as righteousness. Now the words, ‘it was reckoned to him’, were written not for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be reckoned to us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead, who was handed over to death for our trespasses and was raised for our justification.” (Rom 4:19-25)

There again, under our noses. Being weak in faith, for Paul, had nothing to do with Torah-observance (the subject of Rom 3:21-4:17) but rather a doubt in God’s ability to give life to the dead. Just as Abraham was strong for believing that Isaac would be born from a dead womb, the Romans are strong for believing that Jesus was raised from a dead corpse. The strong are believers, the weak unbelievers, by definition.

Fast-forward back to the present, where we just saw Nanos play another power hand with I Cor 5:9-13. That passage confirms what I Cor 8 implies (as Rom 4:18-25 does for Rom 14-15). The knowledgeable are Christian, the weak non-Christian, and the former should cater to the sensibilities of the latter (and expel their own kind from the assembly). After all, Paul wanted to convert as many people as possible before the world’s end (and subsequently keep the faithful under an iron fist). He didn’t want Christians broadcasting their freedoms. Eating idol food would cause confusion among potential converts, just as eating meat alienated the heirs of Israel. It was inherently dangerous besides for involving a relationship with evil forces (in the hands of pagans) that should be avoided (I Cor 10:14-22) (see pp 18-19). Outsiders should be massaged, insiders held to unbending standards.

Perhaps it is this conclusion, more than anything else, which makes commentators resist the idea that the weak were pagans (my third reason). That Paul had a dual standard — the lenient one reserved for unbelievers — could arouse unease. But as Nanos points out, Paul is candid about his willingness to become “all things to all men” in order to save them (I Cor 9:19-23). Deception was his hallmark. I doubt Nanos would care for putting it that way, but another Mark, Mark Given, argues that Paul thought people must be “deceived for their own good”. That’s why he acted like a chameleon, to the Jew arguing like a Jew, to the Gentile like a lawless pagan, and to the polytheist like one with idolatrous sensibilities (p 32).

It must also chafe some people that Paul insists on not judging outsiders (leaving that to God), while coming down so hard on the faithful (I Cor 5:9-13). But again, that’s a staple of zealous charismatics: put on a smooth front to the outside world, make conversion appealing, then show your true colors on the inside. I don’t intend that as a criticism (like any pastor, Paul had to keep his flock in line), just an observation which when appreciated allows us to read the identity of the weak properly.

Nanos has shown that in two letters (Romans and I Corinthians) Paul urged Christians to forsake their freedoms in the company of outsiders. For the Romans that meant accommodating Jewish sensibilities (abstaining from meat) in hopes that unbelievers would see Christianity compatible with their Israelite heritage. For the Corinthians it meant acting (abstaining from idol food) so that pagans wouldn’t misunderstand Christianity as a syncrestic religion — or perceive its followers as hypocrites — and compromise monotheism. Unlike Nanos, I believe these were largely deceptive strategies. The apostle really believed that the law was finished, and the best it ever had to offer was available by another route (the spirit); that pagan deities had nothing on the One, regardless of what one ate. At the same time, they were realistic strategies and commendable, perhaps, for that reason alone.

Nanos Strikes Again

Mark Nanos has added yet another essay to his website, called “The Polytheist Identity of the ‘Weak,’ And Paul’s Strategy to ‘Gain’ Them: A New Reading of I Corinthians 8:1-11:1”. I’ll be reviewing it in full sometime next week, but would urge in the meantime that everyone read it. I think it’s easily Mark’s best essay, and his strongest piece of writing since The Mystery of Romans.

In The Mystery of Romans, Mark showed that the “weak in faith” of Rom 14-15 were non-Christian Judeans rather than Christian Judeans. Now he shows that the “weak” in I Cor 8 were non-Christian idolaters rather than Christian idolaters. It makes perfect sense, and I see I Cor 8-11 as somewhat parallel to Rom 14-15. In Romans Paul is concerned about the fate of non-believing Israel (Rom 11), and Rom 14-15 is the practical application of this. A similar thing seems to be going on in I Corinthians. Paul wants to get pagan outsiders converted, and the behavior of his converts must aid in this cause. In both cases, Christians must forsake their freedoms according to the outside company they keep. In the case of Romans, forsaking that freedom means accomodating Judean sensibilities in hopes that unbelievers would see Christianity compatible with their Israelite heritage after all. In the case of I Corinthians, forsaking the freedom means acting so that pagans wouldn’t misunderstand Christianity as a syncrestic religion (or perceive its followers as hypocrites) and compromise monotheism.

Those Foolish Galatians — Where Were They?

Doug Chaplin is asking for a “good argument” for the North Galatian hypothesis from someone who advocates it. I’ll give it a shot.

The North Galatian hypothesis is preferable on the basis of a sound dating of the letter. If we agree that after the Jerusalem conference (Gal 2:1-10 ~ Acts 15, though issues pertaining to the apostolic decree are either unhistorical or happened later, like at Acts 18:23) and Antioch incident (Gal 2:1-14) Paul went to the region of Phrygia and Galatia (as reported in Acts 16:6 (which distinguishes these regions from the “South Galatian” places he just visited), and later wrote to the Galatians in between the writing of I & II Corinthians (Mark Goodacre makes a persuasive case for this), then the theory works fine and makes perfect sense.

The South Galatian hypothesis derives from an agenda to save Luke’s testimony and chronology as much as possible (for instance by equating Gal 2:1-10 with Acts 11:27-30 rather than Acts 15) and thus downward dating Galatians as early as possible. I once flirted with this scheme in my early years on Corpus Paulinum, but quickly abandoned it. There are problems with confining Paul’s activity to the regions of Syria and Cilicia for a 14-year period (prior to the conference, as Luke would have it), followed by Herculean accomplishments across Greece and Asia Minor during the closing years. Luke, in any case, certainly doesn’t refer to the southern regions in Acts 13-14 as “Galatia”.

Our conclusions must depend on how we reconstruct Pauline chronology more generally, since nothing in Galatians specifies what region Paul really has in mind. This is how I see events unfolding:

Second Jerusalem visit (agreement on the collection and to exempt Gentiles from circumcision)

Antioch Incident (pillars revoke their decision to exempt Gentiles from circumcision)

In (North) Galatia (collection begun there)

In Ephesus

Writing of I Corinthians (directions given for the collection there)

Crisis in Galatia (lapse of collection there)

Writing of Galatians

Crisis in Corinth (lapse of collection there)

Writing of II Corinthians (more than one letter?)

In Corinth

Crisis in Rome

Writing of Romans

Third Jerusalem visit (presumed delivery of the collection, though not from the Galatians)

Galatians has always been a difficult letter to date, but once we appreciate that Paul failed in Galatia everything falls into place. Esler sensed that Paul failed based on dramatic argumentative shifts in Romans, and Goodacre confirmed it based on an analysis of the Corinthian letters. I think they’re both right — Goodacre in particular that Galatians was written between I & II Corinthians. There’s just no need to postulate “South Galatia” as the region for Paul’s addressees.

UPDATE: Doug Chaplin responds, claiming the North Galatian hypothesis is too speculative. I find this amusing since the South originated only because certain scholars wanted to correlate everything Paul says with everything Luke says. But in any case, I don’t buy Doug’s treatment of Acts 16:6, where Luke is obviously referring to the northern tribal area. He also claims that “ethnic Galatia seems a little too far off the beaten track” given Paul’s usual itinerary, but as Esler and others have pointed out, both Paul and Luke vaguley account for this. Paul says that he came to Galatia because of a “weakness in the flesh” (Gal 4:13). Luke says that he travelled through the tribal region “having been prevented by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in Asia” — in other words, barred from continuing westward along the Cilician Road. I have no idea why Paul would have left the road and headed north to Galatia on account of an illness of the eyes. Maybe he just wanted to escape the urban scene for a while?

Dark Truths from the Darkling Thrush

Peter Kirby, recently back under the wings of Catholicism after a long hiatus in atheism, posts a two-question theology quiz on The Darkling Thrush.

Question #1

God is

• A) Real
• B) A dangerous idea
• C) Both A and B
• D) Neither A nor B

Question #2

Jesus

• A) Spins sophistry
• B) Finds fault
• C) Joins with us
• D) Tripped, fell, landed on a stick

Kirby says the answers are (A) and (C) and gives his reasons why.

Here are my answers.

Question (1): God could be real, just as he could be a projection of our hopes for things we can’t realistically expect. God provides what the sciences and humankind cannot. In this sense he is certainly comforting, whether real or imagined. But he’s also a dangerous idea, because in the wrong hands he becomes a tool of human authority. Then too (if he’s real) he’s dangerous on a personal level, in the sense that no one is off the hook. Everyone’s accountable for all their shortcomings, no matter how short.

Since God isn’t empirically verifiable, the right answer is “maybe A, and partly B”.

Question (2): In my view, (B) is the only answer that makes sense of a reasonably constructed historical Jesus, though it’s obviously not the whole picture. Jesus found fault with plenty around him and was judgmental when he needed to be. But he was also exceptionally forgiving depending on the people and circumstances. I don’t see him as a sophist. Sometimes he spoke in hidden transcripts (for sake of self-preservation), but the message was loud and clear to most. Choice (C) is too confessional to be of any use in assessing the historical Jesus, and (D) is, well, amusing.

Jesus found fault with a vengeance, balanced it with forgiveness and compassion (especially for the dispossessed), and above all dreamed for a better world where God would crush the kingdoms of men and reign supreme. No doubting how he would have answered question (1).

But if Jesus was wrong about the particulars (the apocalypse didn’t come and still hasn’t), was he wrong to believe more broadly in a god and hope for a Good Time Coming? Are modern religionists wrong? I think people may be deluded for believing such things, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. David Livingstone Smith warns against coming down too hard on self-deception. The deluded are often mentally healthier than those who are honest with themselves:

“Lying to oneself promotes psychological well-being. Research shows that depressed people deceive themselves less than those who are mentally healthy. Frankly, if we did not deceive ourselves, I think we would go mad from distress. For example, the simple fact that we’re all going to die, that there are various people in the world out to get us, that a good deal of the world lives in unrelenting misery and hunger — it’s all enough to drive everyone bonkers. Unless we are capable of shielding ourselves from that, we would be constantly disturbed.

“Also, self-deception relieves us from a sense that we’re constantly living in contradiction. We each have a set of values that we constantly violate. When you’re aware of transgressing one of those values that you hold dear, you tend to feel bad about yourself. In deceiving ourselves, we relieve ourselves of that burden, making life a lot easier and lot more pleasant for ourselves. It’s quite wonderful.”

The gnostics had it wrong: self-knowledge doesn’t lead to salvation. Science sure doesn’t either. Each puts us brutally in touch with reality, and reality can be depressing. Religion is a godsend for escaping reality. No wonder people who pray often feel good.

Dark truths.

Joel Willitts on the Meaning of Israel

On Euangelion Joel Willitts has some interesting comments about Mark Nanos’ work, and he asks good questions about the meaning of the term “Israel” in Rom 9-11:

“I have been wondering these days about the term ‘Israel’ especially Romans 9-11. What is the difference for Paul between the terms ‘Jew’ and ‘Israelite’ that surface in Romans? Why does Paul use the term Jew elsewhere in Romans, but in the context of Romans 9-11 he uses the term Israelite/Israel? Now most, as far as I can tell, see this change as one of election: who are the true chosen people? Most of course think Paul at best is saying that both Jew and non-Jew are now God’s chosen people and the election term ‘Israel’ can be applied to both or at worst that the non-Jews have now taken ancient Israel’s place as God’s true Israel (quoting Paul ‘not all Israel is Israel’).”

I think Paul’s statement that “not all Israelites truly belong to Israel” (Rom 9:6) means simply that “not all Israelites are presently faithful”. Thomas Tobin cautions that the passage shouldn’t be pressed beyond this loose meaning (Paul’s Rhetoric in its Contexts, p 327). It doesn’t mean literally that unbelieving Judeans are no longer part of Israel, and it doesn’t mean that Gentiles should be considered part of Israel — even if Paul comes very close to suggesting that in the context of election.

Philip Esler says similarly: “Despite the inclusive message of Rom 9:6-13, Paul does not identify the Christ-movement with Israel. He comes perilously close, but avoids taking that final step.” (Conflict and Identity in Romans, p 279.) Likewise, in Rom. 9:14-29, Paul refrains from calling the remnant of faithful Christians “Israel”. He did so years before, in Galatians (Gal 6:16), but he won’t go there now. He’s a new man.

We know this because Rom 9:30-11:14 is explicit about ethnic Israel. Paul contrasts Israel with the Gentiles (Rom 9:30-10:4) and then insists that despite all appearances, God has really not abandoned the Judean people (Rom 11:1-12). And he then develops his olive tree metaphor (Rom 11:17-24), returning to the view of faithful Judeans and Gentiles (9:6-29), the remnant who have turned to Christ. But again, he does not refer to this group as Israel. In fact, this new Christian entity is distinguished from what immediately follows in Rom 11:25-27: “All Israel” will be saved after the Gentiles have been evangelized and joined the faithful Judean remnant. So the Judean people as a whole can count on an apocalyptic miracle in the end to save them from the consequences of unbelief. There is no spiritualized (Christian) Israel in view here.

Joel suggests, however, that ethnic Israel may encompass Gentiles residing in the northern kingdom of old under David and Solomon, and that the meaning of Israel is not so contingent on Jacob and his descendants:

“The meaning of the term ‘Israel’ is thought to go back to the story of Jacob and his descendants. Indeed this view seems surely possible and perhaps even likely given that Paul references them in the context. Yet I question such a quick assumption when we come to Paul’s statement ‘all Israel will be saved’ (Rom 11:26)… Isn’t it at least possible that when Paul says that ‘all Israel will be saved’ he envisages the restoration of political-national Israel that included the restoration of the twelve-tribe kingdom of David and included non-Judeans and non-Israelites — that is those of the northern kingdom? Thus the term ‘Israel’ as a political term can encompass at least three groups: Israelites, Judeans and those who are neither, but within the kingdom of Israel (=kingdom of David).”

That’s an interesting suggestion, but I think a superficial one. As Joel concedes, Jacob is referenced in Rom 9-11 (9:13, 11:26), and the question throughout is whether or not (and if so how) stumbling Israelite heirs will be saved in the end. We’re in danger of trivializing Paul’s anguish over the failure of his own people to accept (who he considers to be) the messiah if we stretch ethnic Israel to encompass Gentile territories subject to David’s census. When he says that “all Israel” will be saved, he means the Judeans — the heirs of Jacob (11:26) — will be saved precisely “for the sake of their [Judean] ancestors” (11:28).

To me, the most important thing we can take from Paul’s meaning of Israel in Rom 9-11 is that it corrects his earlier usage in Gal 6:16. There he was comfortable thinking of Gentiles (and the remnant of believing Judeans) as the new “Israel”. As Joel points out, most critics assume that’s what he’s getting at in Rom 9-11 too, but that’s not true. What Paul doesn’t say in Rom 9:6 is as important as what he does say… and the rest of Rom 9-11 speaks for itself.