Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Paul and the Apocrypha

Some time ago, I was visiting the chapel of a young pastor in Detroit. On the wall of his sanctuary was a framed tractate that caught my attention, since it said something to the effect that the New Testament appealed only to the canon of the Hebrew Bible (the Christian Old Testament), but never to any of the works in the so-called Apocrypha. The point of this display was to underscore the legitimacy of the Protestant canon as opposed to the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canon of Old Testament Scriptures, both the latter of which recognize the Apocrypha as Scripture. While I am neither Roman Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox, it seems to me that this tractate said either too much or too little, too much if it intended that the New Testament writers never used the Apocrypha at all or too little if they did not take the trouble to even investigate the possibility. Now, I will frankly concede that there are no uncontested quotations from the Apocrypha in the New Testament, but it should at least be admitted that Paul (and others) on occasion appealed to ideas that were first expressed in the Apocrypha. A good example is Paul’s argument in Romans 1:20-29, where he states that a rudimentary knowledge of God is available from the created universe, and while not in itself redemptive, it is sufficient to render humans as without excuse when they rebel against it. 
Paul here seems to be drawing upon traditional Jewish theology, especially the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon (13:5, 8-9, RSV). His language is too strikingly similar to this ancient text to be coincidental.
For from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator. 
Yet again, not even they are to be excused; for if they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things?
Later, in 9:20, Paul again probably alludes to the Wisdom of Solomon (12:12), when he says, “One of you will say to me, ‘Then why does God still blame us? For who resists his will?’”
             For who will say, ‘What hast thou done? Or who will resist thy judgment?
He goes on in 9:21, using the analogy of the potter, where God makes vessels for different reasons, some for noble purposes and some for common use. This analogy, also, has its parallel in the Wisdom of Solomon (15:7).
For when a potter kneads the soft earth and laboriously molds each vessel for our service, he fashions out of the same clay both the vessels that serve clean uses and those for contrary use, making all in like manner; but which shall be the use of each, of these the worker in clay decides.
In 2 Corinthians 5:1, 4, Paul uses the unusual metaphor describing the human body as a perishable tent, once again, echoing language from the Wisdom of Solomon (9:15).
…for a perishable body weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind.
None of these allusions demonstrate beyond argument that Paul regarded the Wisdom of Solomon as Scripture, but at the same time, his usage of this intertestamental work does suggest that he valued it and thought it worth referencing. At the very least, no one makes allusions to literary works he hasn’t been reading!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

St. Paul's "Other" Letters

Thirteen letters in the New Testament bear the name of Paul. However, they were not the only correspondence written by the great apostle-missionary. We know by his own words, for instance, that he wrote a letter to the Corinthians prior to what we know as 1 Corinthians (1 Co. 5:9). Between what we know as 1 Corinthians and 2 Corinthians, he also wrote what he describes as a “painful letter” to this same church (2 Co. 2:3-4), and this letter is unlikely to be 1 Corinthians. We know he also wrote a letter to the Laodecians (Col. 4:16). Some have speculated that it may have been what we know as Ephesians, based on the fact that our earliest copy of Ephesians (p46 ca. AD 200) as well as several other early manuscripts do not have the words “in Ephesus” in the Greek text. Indeed, I have personally examined p46 at the University of Michigan where it is housed in the Hatcher library, and indeed, this early papyrus copy is missing those words. The Ephesian letter may have been a circular letter to several congregations, but then again, Paul may have written to the Laodecians completely apart from what we know as Ephesians. Ephesians also contains the intriguing parenthetical statement, “as I wrote before in a few words”, which might refer to what he said earlier in the same letter but might also refer to some other letter he wrote. All these are phrases actually appear in Paul’s known letters, and it is certainly not a stretch to suppose that he may have written other letters of which we know nothing.

This, then, raises an interesting speculative question. Though by this late date it is unlikely, what if one or more of these other correspondences of Paul were discovered? Would we consider them canonical? Would they be of merely historical interest? I, for one, would be riveted by what other things he may have written, but at the same time, I would be doubtful about including them in the canon of the New Testament. I think the long canonical tradition of the church is better left undisturbed, and at a more theological level, I am content that the Holy Spirit has preserved through the vicissitudes of history those writings which were necessary. Still, it is an intriguing idea!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Paul's Form of Letter Writing

The Apostle Paul inherited—and modified—the practice and style of Hellenistic letter writing common to the Roman world of the first century.

I. Common Greek letters in the first-century CE were structured in three sections.

Introduction (prescript or salutation) including sender, addressee, greetings, and often additional greetings or wishes for good health.

Text or Body introduced with a characteristic introductory formula.

Conclusion including greetings, wishes, especially for persons other than the addressee, final greeting or prayer sentence, and sometimes dating.

Consider this typical example:

Irenaeus to Apollinarius his dearest brother many greetings. I pray continually for your health. And I myself am well. I wish you to know that I reached land on the sixth of the month and we unloaded our cargo on the eighteenth of the same month. The place welcomed us as the god willed, and we are daily expecting our discharge, it so being that up till today that nobody in the corn fleet has been released. Many salutations to your wife, and to Serenus and to all who love you, each by name. Goodbye.

Divergences from this style are few, but may include (1) more ornamented language, (2) more extensive expressions of relationship, and (3) multiplication of greetings.

The Greek letter was built around a previous relationship. Friendship or family relation was presumed by most private correspondence. Private letters presumed a reply in action or letter.

II. Paul's letters build on these standard letter-writing conventions.

Paul's letters fell well within these basic standard forms.

Remember: (1) Paul's letters were not simply private letters, but were written to communities of believers—to be read aloud—for their common life, and (2) Paul's letters must be understood by the "life situation" to which or about which he was writing. Each letter speaks to a specific sociological and historical situation.

Paul was rarely the sole author listed in his letters. Note the multiple authors:  I Corinthians with Sosthenes; II Corinthians, Philippians, Philemon, and Colossians with Timothy; and I and II Thessalonians with Timothy and Silvanus (probably Silas) .

The letters of Paul were the earliest Christian literature dating from approximately the middle of the first century. Paul's use of the letter-form was so effective that many other Christian leaders also began expressing themselves in this way. Also many copied Paul's specific style and vocabulary. (This imitation of Paul's style continued well beyond the apostolic age. Compare the letters of Ignatius and Clement in the second century.)

Paul's Modified Letter Form
  1. Opening - Sender, addressee, and greeting—most often with multiple authors.
  2. Thanksgiving or Blessing - Often with intercession and/or eschatological climax.
  3. Body - Introductory formula, often with an eschatological conclusion and/or an indication of future plans.
  4. Paraenesis - Ethical, edifying material often associated with moral instruction or preaching.
  5. Closing - Benedictory formula and greetings. Sometimes mention of the writing process.
For more information, consult Stanley Stowers, Letter Writing in Greco-Roman Antiquity (Westminster, 1986) and William Doty, Letters in Primitive Christianity (Fortress, 1973).

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Paul's Categories of Flesh and Spirit - Part 2 or 2

The opposite field of force is the realm of the Spirit, by which Paul means God’s Holy Spirit. The Spirit was the gift of the divine presence to believers (Ro. 8:15; 1 Co. 2:12; Ga. 3:2), an eschatological deposit in view of the things to come at Christ’s return (Ro. 8:23; 2 Co. 1:22; 5:5; Ep. 1:13-14). It was not merely phenomenological, producing periodic ecstasy, but functional, serving as a working dynamic in the daily lives of believers (Ro. 8:1-2, 5, 9, 13, 26-27; Ga. 5:22-25; Ep. 3:16-17). The work of the Holy Spirit was relational, which is what Paul intends by his use of the verb “to dwell” or “to live” (Ro. 8:9, 11; 1 Co. 3:16; 6:19; 2 Co. 6:16; Ep. 3:17; 2 Ti. 1:14). Such language is not intended to be spatial, as though the Spirit were a gas. Rather, in keeping with his Hebrew tradition, Paul uses concrete expressions to describe abstract realities.

For Paul, a spiritual person is one who cooperates with the dynamic inward work of the Spirit to produce maturity and godliness (1 Co. 2:14-15; 14:37-38; Ga. 5:22-23; 6:1). In fact, it is to the point that Paul can say that the Corinthians did not lack any spiritual gift (1 Co. 1:7) but at the same time describe them as worldly (1 Co. 3:1, 3). Spiritual phenomena did not equal spiritual maturity!

The polarity between flesh and Spirit—between weakness and power—becomes a daily challenge to Christians. To live “after the flesh” is to live in weakness and the susceptibility toward sin (Ro. 7:5, 18-20; 8:4-9). The appetites of the flesh are markedly different than the desires of the Spirit. The Christian, who both lives in the flesh but who is indwelled by the Spirit, cannot satisfy the desires of both (Ga. 5:17). One or the other must have ascendancy. The difference between being “in the flesh” and “in the Spirit” is not the difference between a higher nature and a lower nature, but rather, the difference between the self, in its weakness, and Christ, in his strength. It is the inadequacy of the creature as opposed to the complete adequacy of the Lord. The Spirit is the power-sphere of the new creation and the new age, while the flesh is the power-sphere of the old creation and the old age. Paul’s language of dynamis (= power) in this regard refers to being enabled by God to live above the weakness of the flesh by being filled with hope (Ro. 15:13; Ep. 1:18-19), wisdom (1 Co. 1:24), saving faith (1 Co. 1:17-18; 2:4-5), godliness (1 Co. 4:19-20), endurance (2 Co. 4:7-10; 12:9-10; 13:4; Col. 1:11) and love (Ep. 3:14-21).

Out of this tension between flesh and Spirit Paul offers his ethic of freedom. Christ has freed the believer from the power-sphere of sin that uses the weakness of the flesh as its tool (Ro. 8:2). He challenges the believer to fully live out this freedom (Ro.8:3-4; Ga. 5:13). Human volition plays a critical role in whether the believer exercises this freedom in order to rise above sin through Christ’s empowerment or falls back into fleshly living through the inadequacy of self (Ro. 8:6-8; 1 Co. 3:1-4; 2 Co. 10:4). True spirituality, of course, is not simply a matter of will power, but rather, a dependence on Christ’s power that gives freedom. Will power alone is only another expression of the flesh (Ro. 7:18b-20).

Paul's Categories of Flesh and Spirit - Part 1 of 2

One of the easiest subjects to misunderstand in Pauline theology is his flesh and spirit polarity. A common misconception is that by “flesh” Paul refers to the human lower nature, and by “spirit” he refers to the higher nature. This assumption seems to underlie the translation of sarx in the NIVs rendering of Paul’s letters. Though most standard English versions use the more literal translation of “flesh” (so KJV, RSV, ASV, NAB, NASB), the NIV opts for a dynamic equivalency and consistently renders it as “sinful nature” some twenty-four times, all but two of which are in the Pauline corpus. I must agree with Leander Keck when he says, “This is precisely what Paul does not mean!” To be sure, the Greek word sarx  (= flesh) carries several nuances. At the simplest level, it refers to the fleshly material that covers the bones of a human or animal, and at times it can serve as a synonym for the body itself. At other times, the word clearly has a more metaphorical meaning and approximates the mortality of humans. Translators who attempt to find dynamic equivalencies for this word in Paul offer two renderings, one that emphasizes the earthly, mortal nature of humans, and the other that seeks to make human flesh the locus of sin.

There is no doubt that in Paul there is a connection between flesh and sin, but just what is that connection? Paul says, for instance, that in our former life “in the flesh” our sinful passions were aroused and expressed, bearing fruit toward death (Ro. 7:5). He offers a long litany of sins that he labels the “acts of the flesh” (Ga. 5:19). After coming to Christ, believers no longer live “according to the flesh” (Ro. 8:4) even though they live “in the flesh” (Ga. 2:20). Nevertheless, Paul’s letters fall short of saying that the flesh is the actual locus of sin. Rather, he says that the flesh is the arena of human weakness, and because it is weak, it becomes the tool of sin (Ro. 8:3; cf. 7:11). Sin is successful because of the flesh’s weakness. It is the field of force—the weak field of force--in which sin operates.

Paul’s understanding of the flesh derives from the Hebrew tradition, where humans are a unity, rather than the Greek tradition, where humans are a dichotomy. Sarx, which follows the Hebrew basar (= flesh, body), is Paul’s way of characterizing the human self in distinction from God (cf. Is. 31:3; 40:6-8; Je. 17:5, etc.). Human beings are flesh, that is, they are transitory, mortal and finite. The flesh, in itself, is morally neutral. Of his own susceptibility to illness, Paul can say that this was a “weakness of the flesh” (Ga. 4:13; cf. 2 Co. 12:7). Of the normal troubles that all married couples face, Paul can say that these are “afflictions of the flesh” (1 Co. 7:28). Paul can speak of his “kinsmen according to the flesh” with no moral overtone (Ro. 9:3). He can speak of other people as creatures of “flesh and blood” with no moral overtone (Ga. 1:16). He can even speak of Christ in his incarnation as descended from David “according to the flesh”, but one should hardly wish to read that Christ was descended from David “according to the sinful nature” (Ro. 1:3; 9:5).  Hence, the flesh is the human self in all its powerlessness and limitation. In it, there is no power to do good (Ro. 7:18). In fleshly weakness, humans cannot please God (Ro. 8:8).