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.