Deceiver or Rhetorician? Nanos on I Cor 9:19-23

“The man who hypocritically pretends to be what he is not makes himself a liar in everything that he does. He disguises himself in a mask. He cheats those who are entitled to hear the truth. He assaults the soul’s comprehension by various tactics, and like any charlatan he wins the gullible over to his side… And if, therefore, this Paul is a Jew one minute and the next a Roman, or a student of the Jewish law now, but at another time an enemy of the law — then he is the adopted brother of everything false.” (Macarius Magnes, Apocritus 3.31; transl. R. Joseph Hoffmann, Porphyry’s Against the Christians: The Literary Remains [New York: Prometheus Books, 1994], 60-61).

Mark Nanos always tackles the big questions — and accusations, like the one above — and his essay on I Cor 9:19-23 has been a long time coming. “Paul’s Relationship to Torah in Light of His Strategy ‘to Become Everything to Everyone'” denies that Paul was describing his behavior in the infamous passage, arguing that the apostle was being rhetorically adaptive, reasoning from his audience’s premises without imitating their conduct.

“One works from the audiences’ premises or world-views, even though seeking to lead them to a conclusion that is based on another set of premises or world-views. Teachers normally seek to relate to students in this way. It is highly useful for making a persuasive argument in any context, especially in philosophical or religious debates, including recruitment and discipleship, as well as for apologetical purposes. That is just how Socrates approached his interlocutors… I propose Paul’s self-description here [I Cor 9:19-23] refers entirely to his evangelistic tactic of rhetorical adaptability, and did not include any level of lifestyle adaptability involving the adoption of conduct representing his various audiences’ convictional propositions. He could undertake this argumentative tactic as a Jew faithfully observing Torah, even when speaking to lawless Jews, Jews upholding different halakhic standards, and non-Jews of any stripe. Thus Paul’s behavior was free of the duplicitous conduct which serves as the basis for the charges of moral dishonesty, inconsistency, and so on, that arise logically from the prevailing views.” (pp 17-18)

So instead of behaving like a Gentile when winning Gentiles, Paul was just reasoning like one. “In this rhetorical, discursive sense Paul could actually become like—or even become—everything to everyone.” (p 25)

Nanos is thus able to resolve the tension hanging throughout I Cor 8 & 10 (see pp 20-22), noting that Paul begins by reasoning from very non-Jewish principles (that idols are nobodies and food offered to them may be eaten as profane) to Jewish conclusions (that there actually are daemons represented by these idols and food offered to them must not be eaten). By instructing his knowledgeable converts to avoid idol food on account of the “weak” (whom Nanos identifies with non-Christian pagans, though the present thesis doesn’t depend on this identity), Paul “becomes like” them, but only in theory, so as to lend force to his surprising conclusion.

Not only does this resolve argumentative tensions, it protects Paul’s image. It turns out the apostle wasn’t a deceptive chameleon after all, just a rhetorician. But I’m not convinced. Along with Mark Given I accept Paul for the cunning deceiver that he was, and it’s worth revisiting Given’s critique of the way scholars have domesticated I Cor 9:19-23. First is someone like Clarence Glad, who translates deception into accommodation: “I became like” really just means “I associated with”, and nothing more. But that’s twisting the language, and as Given notes, there’s not a single instance in the NT or LXX where the construction ἐγενόμην… ὡς is used to express a mere willingness to associate with someone (Paul’s True Rhetoric, p 109). Second is someone like E.P. Sanders, who dismisses Paul’s deception as hyperbole. But as Given points out, in order for a statement to appear as hyperbole it must have a significant amount of truth to begin with. “We can classify Paul’s claim to have fully preached the gospel from Jerusalem as far round as Illyricum as hyperbole rather than an empty boast because he truly had covered a lot of land and sea. If, however, Paul only on rare and exceptional occasions enslaved himself to others as Sanders thinks, I Cor 9:19-23 would not qualify as hyperbole, but hypocrisy.” (ibid, p 111)

Nanos is now offering a third way of domesticating Paul’s deception — via rhetorical adaptation — but it may have the same problem as the first. Can the “becoming” language of I Cor 9:19-23 plausibly be taken to mean that Paul was only reasoning like a Gentile instead of acting or behaving like one? Is the ἐγενόμην… ὡς expression ever used in the NT or LXX in this restrictive sense? The examples canvassed by Given (Gen 34:15, Jdt 12:13, Mic 7:1, Isa 63:19) all point to concrete, observable changes (see ibid, p 109). Nanos actually thinks his position may be somewhat compatible with Given’s. In the lengthy footnote on p 23 of his paper he writes, “I do not think that Given’s reading need be far from the one I propose, by dropping ‘acting like’ but keeping ‘speaking like'” — objecting to “acting like” on grounds that the idea of “mimicking” or “imitating” or “pretending to be” isn’t the lexical equivalent of “becoming like” (see pp 22-25). I’m hardly a Greek expert, so I can only again ask, can ἐγενόμην… ὡς realistically accommodate the meaning of “reasoning/speaking like” that Nanos is pushing for?

More generally, I wonder if we should we be breaking our backs to replace Christian apologetics with a Jewish one. Why is a deceptive Paul so difficult to accept? Because it darkens his moral compass? That’s hardly an historical reason — and far from a realistic one. Because it would have made for an impractical missionary strategy? That’s a better objection, and Nanos does claim that chameleon behavior would have made for “an ineffective bait and switch strategy”. Even if it sounds like an expedient solution for moving among different groups of people, “the inconsistency would almost certainly result in failure, giving truth to the lie he lives” (p 4). But failure is what resulted, if we can trust the testimony of Acts. It’s not hard to see a link between the strategy of I Cor 9:19-23 and repeated expulsions from the synagogue. Paul was lashed by his people for serious reasons (II Cor 11:24), let’s not forget, and he was accused of taking people in by deceit (II Cor 12:16). A face-value reading of I Cor 9:19-23 squares with the deceiver I know from the Pauline corpus.

Nanos is right that we shouldn’t be explaining away Paul’s deceptions and hypocrisies as if they’re okay for him. It’s time to put away Chrysostom once and for all. But his own solution seems weighed down by the same motive — to keep Paul clean from charges dating back to Porphyry. While Porphyry’s hostility was a bit overblown (show me someone who doesn’t lie and deceive about something), he at least knew what he saw. But decide for yourself. Nanos’ proposal does admittedly work wonders for interpreting I Cor 8 & 10, and who knows, maybe the apostle was “purer” than people like me are willing to credit.

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4 thoughts on “Deceiver or Rhetorician? Nanos on I Cor 9:19-23

  1. Loren,

    you seem to be saying that 1 Cor 9:19-23 shows that Paul was guilty of deceptions that were unacceptable in Porphyry's day. But if they were unacceptable in Porphyry's day, what makes you think that they would be acceptable in Paul's day? Or, if the deceptions that you claim are evinced by this passage were unacceptable to first century people, why would Paul be admitting to them in writing here?

    There is nothing inherently deceptive about being law observant among Jews and being unobservant among Gentiles (a westerner who wears a veil when visiting the Middle East does not claim to anyone that she wears a veil all the time). It would be deceptive only if he told the Jews that he was ALWAYS observant, or if the told the Gentiles that he was NEVER observant.

    You could argue, however, that Paul's policy of being all things to all people was not fully understood by the Galatians, for they ended up very confused about what it was that Paul actually believed (see Gal 5:11 and the letter generally). However, it is not clear to what extent Paul was responsible for this confusion. When he circumcised Timothy because of the Jews, he may not have been completely open with them about his opposition to circumcision.

    So I suspect that Galatians may provide you with more evidence for Paul's deceptiveness (or at least poor communication) than 1 Cor 9.

  2. Richard, you write:

    You seem to be saying that 1 Cor 9:19-23 shows that Paul was guilty of deceptions that were unacceptable in Porphyry's day. But if they were unacceptable in Porphyry's day, what makes you think that they would be acceptable in Paul's day?

    Lies and deceptions were naturally more acceptable in the agonistic world of the ancient Mediterranean (in which both Paul and Porphyry were at home), but only when employed against outsiders or enemies. It certainly wasn't any more appropriate to beguile one's potential converts in Paul's day than in Porphyry's. And we know that Paul was accused of taking people in by deceit (II Cor 12:16).

    Or, if the deceptions that you claim are evinced by this passage were unacceptable to first century people, why would Paul be admitting to them in writing here?

    Good question. In I Cor 9:19-23 Paul is being honest about his deceptions. And again, we know that he was accused of taking people in by deceit (II Cor 12:16), just as he was accused of teaching morally repugnant doctrine (such as “let us do evil that grace may abound”). Honor challenges like this can't go forever unanswered, and in the case of being deceptive Paul seems to have embraced the charge on grounds that the law was completely obsolete from a salvation point of view (the best it had to offer was now available by the route of the spirit), and so acting like a chameleon wasn't morally reprehensible. (Mark Given suggests an apocalyptic rationale: that on account of heightened daemonic influence in the world, Paul thought people needed to be deceived for their own good.) Needless to say, his kin looked at things differently, which is likely why he was lashed and thrown out of synagogues.

    There is nothing inherently deceptive about being law observant among Jews and being unobservant among Gentiles (a westerner who wears a veil when visiting the Middle East does not claim to anyone that she wears a veil all the time).

    Bad analogy. If Paul were a Gentile (~”westerner”) interacting with Jews (~”visiting the Middle-East”), your analogy would have more force. Paul was a Jew, which makes his behavior entirely unacceptable. From the standard point of view, there's no reason he couldn't have behaved like a proper Jew when evangelizing Gentiles, and still promoted a law-free gospel to them as Gentiles.

    It would be deceptive only if he told the Jews that he was ALWAYS observant, or if the told the Gentiles that he was NEVER observant.

    If he had said that it would have made him a bald-faced liar, but his strategy was still deceptive. Acting one way among one group of people precisely in order to win them easier, and vice-versa, is inherently deceptive.

  3. David Rudolph has recently done a doctorate on this issue, and takes what I think is a more nuanced approach than Nanos, viewing Paul as being flexible with regard to Pharisaic halakhah, while always Torah-bound:

    “For the ordinary Jew, occasional conformity to Pharisaic halakhah took place within the parameters of a lifestyle of covenant keeping … Occasional conformity to the Torah, however, was very different. Here the Jew burst the bounds of covenant keeping as a lifestyle by regular and intentional violation of his covenant responsibilities.” (Rudolph, A Jew to the Jews: Jewish Contours of Pauline Flexibility in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23; 196-97).

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