Paul, Hell, and the Problem of Evil: An Exploratory Sketch

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Note: this paper was given at the Rethinking Hell symposium on January 26, 2019.

As someone who wound up rather circuitously in pastoral ministry, the problem of evil is not one that is lost on me, especially as a graduate of Biola University. I have seen a half dozen of my friends and acquaintances leave the faith over various issues, but I believe these issues can largely be traced back to the question of evil. It would be impossible to try and answer all of the philosophical questions concerning that question in this paper, and I believe there have been sufficient theological and philosophical responses to such questions from adept theologians like Alvin Plantinga, William Lane Craig, and John C. Peckham most recently in his masterful work Theodicy of Love. As such, it is my goal to sketch out a Pauline theodicy that seeks to answer the question of evil. In essence I am taking Jerry Walls admonition for annihilationists to take seriously other various doctrines and concepts and show how they can be integrated. I hope this attempt warms his Wesleyan heart. I know it has warmed mine.

Three theses can be deduced from the Pauline literature, but more could be mentioned: first, the question of the materialization of evil. Second, the promulgation of evil. Third and finally, the end of evil as it relates to our doctrine of annihilationism. The doctrine of hell for evangelicals has been largely relegated to something that happens at the end. What we need is a worldview shift concerning that question: how does God respond to the evil in his world? Does he incarcerate it or destroy it? Those are some of the questions I will explore in this paper.

It is worth noting, simply for the sake of transparency, that I do operate from a specific side of the Christian tradition and so my commentary is intentionally reflective of my own views, not the views of Rethinking Hell as a whole. But I'm right so there is that.

1. Paul's Narrative World

First, we must consider Paul's own reality as it relates to his theodicy. The narrative of Paul the Apostle centers on a lifetime of brutality and anguish, mirroring the narrative of Israel's Scriptures. Often we focus upon the beatings sustained by Paul as depicted in 2 Cor 11:23ff: imprisonments, severe beatings, death ever present, forty lashes minus the one, beaten by a rod three times, danger from rivers, robbers, the hostility from the people of the nations, his own people, city, sea and false family members: "in toil and trouble, in sleeplessness, in hunger and thirst, often fasting, in cold and nakedness." This all occurring during a time where to assert that Jesus the Anointed One is indeed Lord of all was an affront to Caesar's reign was death. The early martyrs attest to this reality in Pliny's letter to Trajan:

An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ--none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do--these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty-five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.

Trajan responded to Pliny with this:

That whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it--that is, by worshiping our gods--even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance.

The ancient world was an inherently political reality, a world built upon the backs of slaves. It did not pay to be a Christian during this time. Death loomed over every person. Paul gained nothing by being a "slave of Christ." At a time when the wealthiest among the Roman elite held a majority of the land and wealth, we need to be reminded that when we read Paul we are not stepping into a vacuum. Every step Paul took on his missionary journeys was on contested soil. So when one thinks about what non-Christians say about the problem of pain and evil, one can hardly find a better first century source than Paul the Apostle—a man who lived the terror and pain and wrestled through these questions. If one imagines the trial this takes on the human body, one is free to envision a broken, bloody, brutalized figure whose body was evermore being conformed to the image of the crucified Christ. Perhaps that is why Paul boasted in his sufferings.

2. The Materialization of Evil

Concerning the materialization or origin of sin and evil—and I am using the two synonymously for the sake of brevity, the closest we get to a "fall" narrative in Paul's thought is Romans 1:18ff. God's wrath is being "apocalyptically unveiled" against what is considered "godless" and "human unrighteousness." What follows is what can be called a "decline of civilization narrative," where an author dictates the downfall of an empire or a specific reality or nation. Despite "knowing God," these people changed or "bartered" the glory of the immortal God for images in the image of corruptible humanity, and birds, and four-footed creatures and reptiles" (1:23). Paul is clearly echoing the creation account in Genesis 1-3 and the notion of idolatry is ever-present—the lack of the presence of the noun or verb for "sin" or "to sin" is irrelevant because we know Paul is operating with an Adamic narrative. I am also assuming that "unrighteousness" is a sin. This sin manifests itself in the mind and deeds of human beings and becomes, we might say, an organic reality. Seneca writes the following concerning the decline of civilization narrative

But the first men and those who sprang from them, still unspoiled, followed nature, having one man as both their leader and their law, entrusting themselves to the control of one better than themselves. For nature has the habit of subjecting the weaker to the stronger… It was avarice that introduced poverty and, by craving much, lost all…we once possessed the whole world! (Epistles 90)

Similarly, Paul reflects on the origin of sin in Rom 5:12 when he writes—in typical controversial and debated fashion—"For this reason, just as sin entered into the world through the one man [Adam], and death through sin, and so death crept to all people because all sinned." I rendered the verb διέρχομαι ("to spread, travel") as "crept" because I believe it fits contextually—sin is a living thing, and it feeds on living things. But here we see a glimpse into the Adamic narrative, especially as it relates to Death being a ruler over us (Rom 5:14ff) and I would argue this Adamic narrative carries on into Romans 7. Sin came into being because we sinned. Here, we might say, is the beginning of what is often called the "free will" defense: even though humanity was granted all things except to eat from that pesky tree, even though they knew God, they frittered God away for things that do not even resemble God. Thus, the original sin, as it were, came into the world because of a desire for autonomy apart from God. We all worship something, and these days you can see idol worship just by turning on the news. What we can determine quite clearly is that Paul believed that sin was something organic and structural, a personification that takes a whole host of metaphors and analogies. A key verse for this is Rom 6:6:

We know that our old self was crucified along with him, so that the body of sin might be utterly destroyed, so that we might no longer be enslaved to sin.

The slave-master analogy requires a real socio-historical grounding. Slavery was incredibly common in the ancient world, with estimates of around 300,00 of them existing in the Roman Empire during Paul's time. Hence, the presence and materialization of sin not only abounded across the Roman Empire, it manifested itself in the very bodies of the early Christians who were slaves and slave-masters. As such, the question of the emergence of evil is clear. Sin, as a cosmic oppressor, comes to birth through the sinful activity of humanity. Death feeds on life. Sin feeds on life. As such, the materialization of sin and death and evil stems from the desires of creature who have forsaken God—it is not God who created evil; that falls upon us. As Beverley Gaventa writes, "humanities refusal of God's lordship meant that God conceded humanity for a time to the lordship of another."[1]

3. The Reality and Promulgation of Evil

The second point concerns the reality and promulgation of evil. From whence evil came, we know. The reality of evil is more pressing, as it is the straw that broken many a former Christians back. The sin of racism, violence, greed, avarice, and so forth remains ever present in our world. For many, Paul is often considered to be the source of Christian anti-Semitism, slavery, and sexism. This list of Paul's alleged sins increases expansively if one consider the impact of government sanctioned violence (Rom 13:1-7). This is not the place to defend Paul on every point but a few words are needed. If we are to take Paul seriously as a theologian, we must be certain of his character. What good is a theologian if he or she ignores the things of Christ? What good is the apocalyptic vision is that vision is tainted by the worst wiles of the ancient world? First, Paul's Judaism and comments about Judaism reside within, I would argue, the prophetic tradition and I am not inclined to argue that Isaiah or Ezekiel are Anti-Semitic. Paul sees himself within this prophetic strain (c.f. Rom 1:1) and criticism and condemnation of sinful behavior is not limited exclusively to Paul. As it concerns slavery and women, one cannot find a single ancient source that advocated for the abolition of slavery. But, one can find this little Epistle addressed to a certain Philemon that—I would argue—plants the seeds of emancipation for slaves. The famous text in Galatians 3:26-29 about the abolition of hierarchy through baptism in the church, for the Jew and the Gentile, for the slave and the free person, for male and female, is a strong hindrance to the notion that Paul was intent on maintaining a hierarchical social order. If one includes the activity of early Christian women in Romans 16 for example, one would not expect to find a sexist commending such women for their work in the Gospel. That will suffice for now to assure us of Paul's good character toward 'the least of these.' As such, I would argue that Paul's moral character as it relates to the reality of evil is of use to us. Paul, as an ethical theologian, is an excellent source for understanding the reality of evil insofar as he was aware of evil and that he worked to overcome it as he was able in his time.

Moving to the reality of evil, Paul certainly believed that individuals participated in evil activities. But, I think the problem is far greater than being about individual sin. For Paul, evil has a personality to it—it seeks to subordinate and oppress us (Rom 6). It seizes opportunities to enslave and to kill (Rom 7). Although the powers were created as good (Col 1:15ff), they have since become fraught with violence and oppressive power. What was once good at least in terms of concession (recall that whole "give us a king" moment from the Old Testament) has become corrupt. For Paul, this age or this reality is symbolic of the destructive power of Satan and competing sovereignties. This is the reason Paul calls the "rulers" or "sovereignties" as being of "this age" (1 Cor 2:6-8), and not of the unfolding age to come. As Paul recognizes in Galatians 1:3-5:

Favor to you and peace from God the Father and Jesus Christ our Lord, who delivered himself over for our sins so that he might rescue us from this present wicked age in accordance with the will/resolve of our God and Father, to whom is glory for ages upon ages. Amen.

Several points must be noted about this fascinating little text. First, notice the distinction between ages: the apocalyptic age of God includes the liberation of humanity from bondage. Only God's glory and favor and peace can reign "for ages upon ages," with no hit to God's sovereignty. There are no other sovereignties to usurp God's power. Second, the notion of liberation includes distinct echoes of the Exodus narrative where God emancipated Israel from bondage, taking them from death into new life. Third, this age is characterized as "wicked" or "evil;" (πονηροῦ) as opposed to good or holy (Eph 2:2). Throughout the Synoptic Gospels the language of "ruler" (ἄρχων) is often linked with demonic realities and powers (Matt 9:34; 12:24) and human powers that enslave (Matt 20:25). What this tell us is that human and supernatural powers have been corrupted and in turn have become corrosive toward God's creation. And they wield immense power in our world. With the Adamic narrative and the decline of civilization narrative in mind, what is Paul's response when the person in Adam cries, "Wretched human that I am, who will liberate me from this body of Death?" (Rom 7:24).

4. The Vanishing of Evil

For many Christians, the question of the "end" of all things is ultimately a question about hell and suffering. Very little is usually said about what this "end" contains, only that there is pain and anguish and a form of torment as it relates to evil. However, it must be said that Paul did not envision the "end" in a way where people and entities are kept alive forever and ever. Paul's vision of "hell" or the "end" must be reframed in broader and more precise ways. Paul has a much bigger picture in mind. For the apostle, the question is not about whether or not God torments people forever and ever. Rather, the question should be seen as, "what is God's ultimate response to evil in the world?" How does God respond to injustice and violence and oppression and exploitation? Hence, theodicy is at the center of Paul's thought world as it relates to sanctification and God's ultimate act in response to the terrors that bind and enslave us. This reconceptualization will press us toward a more robust biblical theology that takes seriously the evils of our world and God's ultimate answer to the terrors and the trials. Apocalyptic theology or eschatology cannot be projected into the future, as if God is not at work now in our world to redeem and wage a cosmic battle against evil.

Questions, of course, arise when we consider such things. For example, one might suggest that sinners continue in sin in hell. This is the view asserted by D.A. Carson among others, and this view has found little support among New Testament scholars. Other views have softened the traditional formulation of hell as eternal brimstone, fire, and torture to something like separation or compared it to 'warm beer.' Ronnie Demler, my colleague and sometimes-cuddly curmudgeon, has documented this sort of argumentation in the Rethinking Hell anthology, so I point you to that for substantiation.

As one can see, often the apologetic impulse in much of evangelicalism deals not with a grand vision of God's sovereignty and holiness and powerful war against sin, but with the individual being consigned and incarcerated to a small corner of the cosmos. Such a framework does not work well at all with Paul's grand vision. So, allow me a few moments to offer a tentative sketch of the Pauline data as it relates to the problem of evil.

Paul's words in Romans 8:18-23 are an appropriate lens by which we begin our conversation. The text reads as follows:

[EXT] 18 For I think that the sufferings of the present time are not worthy to compare to the coming glory to be apocalyptically disclosed to us. 19 Because the created order is eagerly waiting with anticipation for the revealing of the sons of God, 20 for creation was subjected with frustration, not willingly, but because of the one who subjected it in hope 21 that even creation itself would be emancipated from its enslavement of destruction for the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that all creation has joined together in groaning and suffers the pain of childbirth until now. 23 And not only this, but also we ourselves—the ones who possess the first-fruits of the Spirit—groan amongst ourselves, anticipating adoption as sons,[2] the emancipation of our bodies. [EXT]

All of creation is subjected in turmoil and anguish and the evidence of this can be found on whatever news channel you prefer. The present reality of suffering and anguish is a prime element of early Christian thought, although the notion of escapism is to be ignored. For Paul in Rom 8:18-23 we see an active reality—the created order—responding to corruption and the process of destruction, where the cosmos is cognizant of its own status and anguish amidst corruption and degradation. Rather, creation is in need of liberation by means of humanity and our work as agents of liberation. God's own hope for a liberated cosmos (vv.20-21) is set in opposition to agents of destruction and corruption, who seek to subordinate and dominate the created realm. God's act of subordination is assumed to be for the benefit of the oppressed, with the ultimate goal of "adoption" and "emancipation." Thinking ecclesiologically and ecologically, the church is to be God's agent of redemption in a world beset by violence and horror. The church is united to this cosmic reality and we participate with it, groaning and eagerly anticipating and even suffering with the created order. The goal of glory is the final culmination of perfection in God's cosmic order, where sin and evil is ultimately removed from all reality. God's process of rectification assumes a new reality (Gal 6:15; 2 Cor 5:16-17) where the kingly image of the eternal Son is supreme above all other orders and realities and principalities and sovereignties (Col 1:15ff). God's perfection of the cosmos is the ultimate restoration of the original design in creation and Eden.

In an often-disregarded verse, Paul outlines the specific end of a principle agent in the rebellion against God: Satan. Paul writes

[EXT] But the God of peace will crush (συντρίψει) Satan beneath your feet in swiftness. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you." [EXT]

What is compelling about this verse is that it directly matches the fate of Satan that is proclaimed elsewhere in Scripture (Heb 2:14-15): as the principle evil actor in the divine drama, Satan maintains a significant presence in the New Testament. The language Paul uses in this text is fascinating on two accounts. First, the language of being placed "under your feet" suggests destruction (Psalm 109:1 LXX)[3] and the church is the agent in doing this. Second, the verb συντρίψει is used throughout Second Temple literature to denote destruction, especially as it relates to warfare. 1 Macc 4:32 and 2 Macc 12:28 are specific in their vision of the "destruction" of their enemies: "but they called upon the Sovereign who with great power shatters (συντρίβοντα) the might of his enemies" (12:28). The Book of Odes also speaks of "The Lord shattering (συντρίβων) [enemies in] wars" (1:3; 7:44)[4] a view that is also echoed in Judith 9:7 and 16:2. In Judith specifically, God is the specific agent who "crushed" or "destroys" various warriors and nations who rebel against God. This suggests linguistic and thematic continuity with Rom 16:20 and that Satan's fate is utter decimation from where there is no life, vitality, or remnant. Hence, the final end of Satan in Pauline thought coordinates best with the view that those who participate in evil against God's call to participate in sanctification and victory in Christ will ultimately be undone in death (Rom 6:23).

Paul's magnum apocalyptic opus in 1 Cor 15:24-26 reads as follows

[EXT] 24 Then the final End: when he hands over the Kingdom to God, even the Father, after he has annihilated all rulership and all sovereignty and power 25 For he will continue to reign until he has placed all of the adversaries beneath his feet. 26 The final enemy to be utterly annihilated is Death. [EXT]

These verses in the larger pericope of 1 Cor 15:20-28 represent a master vision where Paul outlines in some detail what will happen to all evil things, particularly the fate of the powers and the sovereignties. The notion of dueling sovereignties is a question that Paul has wrestled with throughout his entire surviving corpus: Jesus the Lord versus Caesar and the Empires of this world, and the problem of competing imperial ideologies in the ancient world are finally confronted here. Christ's kingship is predicated upon his sole exercise of sovereignty and the annihilation of all (πᾶσαν) of the universal realities that have shaped the cosmos; nothing evil has escaped Christ's grasp. A key Greek verb bookends our section here (v.24: καταργήσῃ in relation to the annihilation of the powers) and in the complete annihilation (v.26: καταργεῖται) of the final enemy.[5] These realities (the Powers) and the final enemy (Death) will cease to exist when Christ finally and decisively acts in response to their tyranny. Similarly, the various "rulers" will also be "destroyed" or "brought to nothing"[6] (καταργουμένων) in 1 Cor 2:6. Thiselton notes, "the present tense underlines that they are in the process of being reduced to nothing; this process remains continuous as an unstoppable process, i.e., they are doomed to come to nothing, or doomed to pass away."[7] The perfection of creation and the call for holiness means that the current world order is in direct conflict with God's desires. God's will for a world without sin is predicated upon the free actions of creatures who refuse God's gift of Christ, and all who have aligned themselves with the sovereignties will be given over finally into death. The hostility of the powers—both human and non-human—are doomed to nothingness, as sin cannot co-exist with God and God's people in New Creation. This word group (καταργέω) is also applied to the "lawless one" or the "person of lawlessness" (ὁ ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἀνομίας) in 2 Thess 2:7-10. In response to the evil done by this figure, Jesus will "kill" (ἀνελεῖ) him and "annihilate" (καταργήσει) him when he comes in glory (2 Thess 2:8). The discontinuity procured by Sin and Death means that Paul's vision of a triumphant God entails the annihilation of all things hostile to God: the final enemy of God is that which seeks to dominate all of creation, this ultimate adversary of Death. The removal of sin from the body of the believer (Rom 6:6) echoes the removal of sin and evil from the cosmic order here. In responding to the created powers, God renders them null and void, with utter decimation and final obliteration for the benefit of those who were oppressed by them and enslaved to them.

A few closing points:

·      To assert that God maintains old vestiges of sin and evil entities somewhere in the cosmos does not comport at all with the Pauline data. Evil cannot exist with a good and sovereign God at the helm of history. Evil and Death, as powers that enslave and corrode, cannot exist within God's creation.

·      To assert that evil and sin and death are eternally existent in the bodies of those who rejected Christ is miss out on the military language utilized by Paul. Paul's use of incarceration imagery is never used in an apocalyptic sense to refer to people being eternally existent in a state of agony or boredom. Rather, in all of Paul's apocalyptic discourses, annihilationist or destructionist language is used.

5. The Sea will be as Glass

The question, in conclusion, is how Paul's vision concerning the destruction of evil affects our theological consideration. The integration of various issues in theodicy and the apocalyptic fall of Satan and the powers are actually vital for Pauline theology. To introduce various other questions about the eternal existence of people in a state of hell is to miss out on the point of Paul's theological outlook. There are no other sovereignties or powers to press against God's sovereignty. In the chaos of this world, Paul's perspective gives us hope—especially to those of us who are pastors—in that evil and sin and death exist, and they are at war with God. As John Peckham has stated, "The suffering God of the cross himself took on death in order to destroy it, and he will indeed destroy death and the enemy who has its power (Heb 2:14). In the meantime, we can maintain faith in the goodness of this God of love while raging against the (temporary) "dying of the light."[8] One is not immune from suffering simply by privilege of being born or being a Christian. Evil is overwhelming because it is evil. Evil does that. But God did not hide himself from such evil. And Paul didn't either. Chaos reigns but it cannot reign eternally.

As John the Seer said some thirty years after Paul, "And I saw what looked like a sea of glass glowing with fire and, standing beside the sea, those who had been victorious over the beast and its image and over the number of its name" (15:2). Let us live into that.

 NQ

[1] Beverley Gaventa, "The Cosmic Power of Sin in Paul's Letter to the Romans: Toward a Widescreen Edition," Interpretation 58.3 (2004): 229-240, 233.

[2] Here, Paul is addressing a mixed audience and hence women are included with the status of first-born sons.

[3] Specifically, the language of "corpses" (πτῶμα) and and the verb for "shattering" (συνθλάω) in vv.5-6 of the LXX denote annihilation. This victory is envisioned as a military conquest, not a passive or peaceful submission.

[4] The verb can also be used to denote metaphorical destruction; cf Sir 13:2 and 27:2. 

[5] Louw-Nida glosses this verb as "to cause to cease to exist - 'to cause to come to an end, to cause to become nothing, to put an end to.' " 13.100.

[6] Richard Hays observes the following: "this parallel [with 1:28] shows that it is God who is acting to destroy these rulers and to establish his sovereignty over the world." First Corinthians, 43.

[7] Thiselton, First Corinthians, 231-232.

[8] Peckham, Theodicy of Love, 170.

Did Ishmael abuse Isaac? Exploring Paul's Interpretation of Genesis 21:9 in Galatians 4:29

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In light of various sinful patterns and movements (#MeToo, #ChurchToo) that have been illuminated in the church, I felt it might be appropriate to offer a paper I wrote for my Galatians class at Fuller.

Nestled in the center of Paul's retelling of the story of Hagar and Sarah in Gal 4:21-31 lies a lingering question (among many!) with which all commentators continue to grapple: how did Ishmael "persecute" Isaac, and what is the relevance of the differing verbs in Gen 21:9 (παίζοντα: LXX) and Paul's interpolation of ἐδίωκε in 4:29? Perhaps Douglas Moo best represents the persistent speculation amongst commentators when he writes that the LXX rendering of παίζοντα μετὰ Ισαακ in Gen 21:9 "could be construed as a form of persecution…" and "[this verse] is the basis for Paul's claim about persecution."[1] Other commentators concur with Moo's perspective in some sense,[2] but most modern commentators seem to be in basic agreement that Ishmael did not persecute Isaac in the original Genesis narrative.[3] This paper will pursue three independent strands of argumentation that will be synthesized: first, I will survey the use of the verb παίζω in the LXX and in the relevant Second Temple literature, beginning with a lexical survey. Second, I will investigate how Paul interprets the event by his uses of διώκω within the context of Galatians (1:13, 23; 5:11; 6:12), specifically the text under question (4:29): what is the relationship between both verbs? Third and finally, I will offer a provisional thematic re-reading of Galatians with the intent of showing the consistency of my research. Thus, the language of "persecution" in Galatians is not contextually different from Gen 21:9, but reflects something closer to a "rhetorical tease" and Paul's own application of the verb under question.[4]

παίζω: A MODERN LEXICAL SUMMARY

Due to the fact that the verb παίζω occurs only once in the New Testament (1 Cor 10:7, which is a citation of Exo 32:6 LXX), great care must be exercised if one is to fully understand the semantic scope of the verb. Various lexicons have offered glosses and there are significant overlapping definitions:

50.8 παίζω engage in an activity for the sake of amusement and/or recreation – "to play." ἐκάθισεν ὁ λαὸς φαγεῖν καὶ πεῖν, καὶ ἀνέστησαν παίζειν "the people sat down to eat and drink and got up to play" 1 Cor 10.7.[5]

παίζω play, amuse oneself, dance 1 Cor 10:7.[6]

παίζω, Dor. παίσδω: f. παιξοῦμαι and παίξομαι: aor. i ἔπαισα: pf. πέπαικα, later πέπαιχα:—Pass., pf. πέπαισμαι, later πέπαιγμαι: (παῖς):-properly, to play like a child, to sport, play, Od., Hdt., etc.

2. to dance, Od., Pind.:-so in Med., Hes.

3. to play [a game], σφαίρῃ π. to play at ball, Od.; also, π. σφαῖραν Plut.

4. to play (on an instrument), h. Hom.

II. to sport, play, jest, joke, Hdt., Xen., etc.; π. πρός τινα to make sport of one, mock him, Eur.; π. εἴς τι to jest upon a thing, Plat.: the part. παίζων is used absol. in jest, jestingly, Id.:-Pass., ὁ λόγος πέπαισται is jocularly told, Hdt.; ταῦτα πεπαίσθω ὑμῖν enough of jest, Plat.

2. c. acc. to play with, Anth., Luc.[7]

20329 παίζω as giving way to hilarity play, amuse oneself; as idolatrous worship dance, carry on in boisterous revelry (1C 10.7).[8]

A brief review of these resources offers multiple nuances within ancient literature, especially as it relates to the ambiguous context of Gen 21:9 LXX and Paul's own citation of the verse. Does παίζοντα μετὰ Ισαακ refer to Ishmael simply "playing" with his friend, an innocuous and innocent affair? Is there a sinister subtlety of violence involved, in the sense that Moo has inferred? Is there a more troublesome aspect involving violence, sex or sexual abuse as suggested by the secondary interpretive gloss in Louw & Nida[9] and Paul's sole use of the same verb in 1 Cor 10:7? For instance, Paul's clarifying comments in v.8 explicitly evoke sexual immorality: "neither should we commit sexual immorality (μηδὲ πορνεύωμεν), just as some of them committed sexual immorality (ἐπόρνευσαν) [my translation]" show that this verb can be used in a context of sexual depravity,[10] although the verb's principal meaning is not concerned with being a euphemism for sexual (mis)conduct: all words are conditioned and defined by their context, as well as by the broader corpus of relevant literature. 

παίζω: THE EVIDENCE OF THE LXX

The LXX utilizes the verb about 21 times, and there are several different categories where παίζω is used in the Greek Old Testament. The placement of each instance should not be seen as concretized, but as a potential location as there is some significant overlap with many individual citations.[11] I have deliberately excluded Gen 21:9 from categorization until the end of this section, where I will offer a suggestion about its placement, and a subsequent reading of Galatians with my placement in mind.

1.     Sexual (Mis) Conduct / Idolatry/ Revelry[12]

The Greek text of Gen 26:8b speaks of Isaac "playing" (παίζοντα) with Rebecca. This verse shares the same syntactical structure as Gen 21:9b:[13]

      Gen 26:8b: παίζοντα μετὰ Ρεβεκκας τῆς γυναικὸς αὐτοῦ

      Gen 21:9b: παίζοντα μετὰ Ισαακ τοῦ υἱοῦ αὐτῆς[14]

This near exact linguistic parallel suggests a coordinate meaning for παίζοντα, which contextually in Gen 26:8 likely refers to some sort of sexual intimacy: Abimelech sees Isaac and Rebecca engaged in some sort of activity that reveals to him that they are not merely brother and sister.[15] The text is not as forthright as we might like,[16] but because the text emphasizes her beauty (v.7: ὡραία) and Abimelech's implied desire to "lie with" (v.10, κοιμάω)[17] Rebecca, the most likely explanation is that the participle is used within a subtle sexual context. Similarly in Exo 32:6, the infinitive is used in reference to the people of Israel: ὁ λαὸς φαγεῖν καὶ πιεῖν καὶ ἀνέστησαν παίζειν: "the people ate and drank and rose up to play." Contextually, the focus is on a "festival" (v.5, ἑορτή) suggests revelry and excessiveness, but not necessarily sexual depravity.[18]

2.     Military and War, Judgment and Violence

Multiple uses of παίζω occur in the context of warfare and violent judgment, sometimes from God. In 1 Sam 13:4, the author notes that "all Israel heard" that Saul had "played" (πεπαικεν: perfect active) with an enemy garrison: contextually, this most likely refers to violent destruction (see also 13:3). Likewise, in 2 Kings 9:15 we have the aorist form of ἔπαισαν in a related context of "making war" (v.15, πολεμεῖν), suggesting that ἔπαισαν is being used in a battle context and thus carries violent connotations.[19] Isa 3:15-16 begins with God's response to the "humiliation of the poor" (v.15b, πτωχῶν καταισχύνετε), which sets the stage for the explanatory Ἀνθ (taking it as causal: "because"). V.16 then speaks of God's exacting judgment against an entire city for oppressing the poor, and specific phrase ποσὶν ἅμα παίζουσαι ("[dancing] together [with] their feet") likely refers to a "pompous attitude" (v.16, ὑψηλῷ).[20] As a counter to God's judgment in Jer 14:19 the prophet responds with, "Why have you played with us?" (ἵνα τί ἔπαισας ἡμᾶς). The use of ἔπαισας may denote 'toying with,' but the context seems to be far more violent (see the image of violence [μαχαίρας, "sword;" λιμοῦ "famine"]) and the text reflects God's violent retribution against Jerusalem, his "vehement affliction" of his sinful people. In Jer 30:14, God smites Israel: "For I have played you with a plague[21] of the enemy " (ὅτι πληγὴν ἐχθροῦ ἔπαισά σε). In the context of God's judgment, this verb most likely refers to God not innocently 'rejoicing' with Israel, but harshly judging them.[22]

3.     Being Toyed With/ Mocking

In Judg 16:25 Samson is "ordered" (καλέσατε)[23] before the entire assembly—who are engaged in revelry[24]—and is forced to "perform before [them]" (καὶ παιξάτω ἐνώπιον ἡμῶν). This citation certainly carries connotations of "mockery" and the idea of being "toyed" with (ἐνέπαιζον: "mocked, ridiculed"). 2 Sam 2:14-15 concerns an event where Abner and the others force the "boys to play" (παιξάτωσαν: imperative) before them. The boys are then slain, reflecting both a military conquest and the element of being "toyed with,"[25] as a superior torments a subordinate or God "toys" with a beast.[26] An additional sinister element might be found in Prov 26:19, where in a poetic flourish, the people lying in wait to betray the righteous man is caught and they say, "I acted playfully!" The use of παίζων (active participle) in the context of "betrayal" (φωραθῶσιν) suggests a mocking and deflective response at being caught in the act. Jer 15:17 captures a response of the prophet against God: "I did not sit in their Sanhedrin playing" (οὐκ ἐκάθισα ἐν συνεδρίῳ αὐτῶν παιζόντων): this citation is used sarcastically, in the sense of wasting time—in some sense, the prophet is mocking both himself and God for assuming such things.

4.     Innocent Playing and Dancing/ Worship

This section includes most of the undisputed examples. In 2 Sam 6:5,[27] 6:21 and 1 Chron 13:8[28] and 15:29[29] the verb refers to David (and sometimes the Sons of Israel) "dancing" before the Lord in a context of worship and celebration. In response to God "showing mercy" (ἐλεήσω) in Jer 30:18-19, the people of Israel rejoice and the celebration of singing and playfulness (παιζόντων) will return after the judgment, and this is captured beautifully in Jer 31:4 where God rebuilds Israel whom he has been judging, and the synagogue will be celebrating and "playing" (παιζόντων) as the judgment has ceased and reconciliation has commenced. Finally, in Zech 8:8 God predicts a time of peace for Israel, and an image used is the "playing" (παιζόντων) of boys and girls in the streets, without fear or malice in their hearts: the author puts forth a penultimate and picturesque vision of boys and girls playing together, without contempt or mockery or revelry. Innocence thrives and shalom has been achieved. In Jewish literature outside of the LXX, we have two uses of the verb. In both instances (1 Esdras 5:3; Sirach 32:12) the verb is used in a similar context of worship and merriment, although Sirach 32:12 includes an admonition to "not sin" which may suggest the possibility of revelry and put Sirach in category 1, but this is by no means explicit.

In summation, the evidence of the LXX and Jewish literature is variegated and subtle, often employing multiple ideas within a single text; hence the intentional overlapping of the stated categories. However, it seems reasonable to exclude section 4 from consideration in interpreting Gen 21:9, while including sections 1, 2 and 3 for this reason: Sarah's visceral response in 21:10 does not seem warranted if Ishmael simply "play[ed] or "jest[ed]" with Isaac.[30] Category 3 is possible because of the rabbinic and targumic history of interpretation,[31] but it seems less likely because the verb μυκτηρίζω (c.f. Gal 6:7, "to mock") does not seem to be used in the LXX to refer to disinheritance and the question about "mocking" raises more questions than it answers. However, given Sarah's deeply hostile response to this "playing" in the LXX (which Paul approvingly cites in Gal 4:30), it seems likely that the most historically plausible explanation includes some sort of violent (perhaps sexual) misconduct, as disinheritance for sexual sin is a chief issue for early Judaism and especially for Paul—hence Sarah's hostile response. For instance, "disinheritance" is commonly a result of sexual immorality (c.f. 1 Cor 6:9-10; Eph 5:5-6). However, this is not to suggest that sexual sins are an exclusive category worthy of disinheritance, but that they are involved in the wide range of general sins (c.f. Sirach 9:6 and perhaps Psa 72:27 and Pro 29:3 LXX). Similarly, categories 1 explains the syntactical parallel in Gen 26:8[32] to 21:9 and suggests a correspondence with sexual conduct and violence given the preponderance of evidence within category 2; however, the primacy of category 1 and 2 appear to be tentatively and thematically appropriate because of Sarah's response,[33] the Jewish evidence for sexual sin resulting in disinheritance, and the explicit parallel in Gen 26:8. How this impacts Paul's use of the Ishmael and Isaac narrative in Galatians, especially in chapter 4, will be explored below, but only after we explore Paul's interpretation.

PAUL'S INTERPRETATION OF GEN 21:9

The Old Testament was Paul's Bible.[34] Regarding the coherence of the relationship between the Hebrew and Greek text, J. Ross Wagner astutely notes the following: "the Septuagint, as a whole, renders the Hebrew in a fairly conservative manner."[35] Thus, any modern attempt to grapple with the significance of Paul's citation of Gen 21:10 must account for his interpretative use of ἐδίωκε ("persecute") in Gal 4:29. This has lead many commentators to express puzzlement over Paul's seemingly arbitrary use of the Ishmael/Isaac event. Philip Esler concurs with most commentators when he writes, "in relation to Gal. 4:29, however, one looks in vain in the Old Testament for any indication that Ishmael persecuted Isaac…"[36] Brigitte Kahl puts the dilemma forth as "the term persecute in Gal 4:29 differs from Gen 21:9 where Ishmael "plays" with Isaac."[37] Is there a coordinate meaning between ἐδίωκε and παίζοντα? Semantically and lexically, this cannot be, so the question must be answered thematically, even theologically. However, as has been shown above, there are good indications that cast doubt on the first part of Ensler's largely representative comments. For instance, given the close proximity of the verb and Paul's citation (a mere nine words apart in the LXX text) as well as the syntactical parallel in Gen 26:8 and the preponderance of LXX evidence suggesting some sort of inchoate violence, the logical connection seems quite strong: παίζοντα thus most probably forms the basis for Paul's use of ἐδίωκε, and "playing" most probably carries a negative and even violent connotation in the original context of Genesis and Paul's exploits this in his argument in 4:21-31. Thus, while Moo was correct to draw attention to the verb in Gen 21:9 (see above), his generic application does not help explain the visceral reaction of both Sarah and Paul, and he misses the potential identification of Paul with Sarah and Isaac.

Therefore, as Paul re-imagines and interprets the actions of Ishmael,[38] one can see several lines of theological reasoning being teased out. If Ishmael was (sexually?) abusing Isaac in Gen 21:9, then Paul intentionally sided with the victim in this historical circumstance, and in the new apocalyptic landscape, he also sides with the "persecuted" in Galatia. Additionally, Paul's ethical alignment with Sarah and Isaac and against Hagar and Ishmael takes on a different moral dimension: any sort of oppression (whether sexual or not) is immediately labeled as "persecution," and the rhetorical power of this line of argumentation being applied to the "teachers" is something they would surely find rhetorically offensive—hence, perhaps his point in using it.[39] This may also suggest that Paul is running counter to the dominant interpretation of Ishmael in his typological use, or is at least zeroing in on a specific neglected aspect. Therefore, Paul's seemingly harsh citation of Gen 21:10 places him as a type of rhetorical punctiliar mother figure,[40] casting away an oppressive force with her authority.[41] Read in this hypothetical light, Paul can be seen as taking the side of the abused in his epistle to the Galatians, siding with the gentiles over and against the 'teachers.' This may also indicate a moral alignment with gentiles in Gal 3:26-29 as "sons" and "heirs of God; their inclusion means no person, regardless of a presupposed social hierarchy, is excluded from God's invitation to 'sonship' and the "altered" status of being 'one in Christ'[42] (perhaps specifically also with slaves and women in Gal 3:28)[43] and especially table fellowship with Gentiles in 2:11-14. Paul re-casts the Genesis narrative in terms of violent/sexual dynamics that even his Jewish interlocutors would have found disquieting, especially since he equates them with being among the abusive, troubled, disinherited sons of Hagar and Ishmael, specifically as analogical punctiliar types.[44] As Asano has astutely noted, "the application of [Gal 4:29] is denouncement and exclusion of the circumcisors as unauthentic descendents,"[45] or as people acting in a coordinate matter with the historical abusive Ishmael.

A BRIEF AND PROVISIONAL REFRAMING OF GALATIANS

While certainly not explicitly violent or sexual in his own context, Paul's interpretive use of ἐδίωκε in 4:29 helps elucidate what he thinks παίζοντα means in Gen 21:9. This "playing" takes on a negative connotation, which Paul asserts as "persecution." This is to be compared to Paul's own "persecution" of the church in 1:13 and 1:23 in terms of "destructive power" (πορθέω),[46] of a person exacting violence over others (4 Macc 11:4). Specifically, the reference of "destroying" used in 4 Macc 11:4 suggests a correlation with Paul's violent authoritarianism against the fledgling Jesus movement/s in Acts, a history he clearly repudiates in Gal 1:13 and 1:23 (see also Phil 3:6), and the subsequent "persecution" he receives via oppressive forces (2 Cor 4:9; 12:10). The additional language of "persecution" in Galatians refers to Paul being "persecuted" in some ambiguous sense (5:11, διώκομαι), and to the 'teachers' "not wanting to be persecuted" (6:12, μὴ διώκωνται). To be fair, Paul never directly says that the Galatians are being "persecuted" by the 'teachers,' only "compelled" (Gal 2:3, ἠναγκάσθη) and "disturbed" (Gal 1:7; 5:10)—thus the Genesis citation suggests oppressive compulsion and abuse that can, in turn, be interpreted as "persecution," drawing a direct literary link between them. This may also suggest that the 'teachers' were on the ecclesiological inside, according to Paul—rather than being cast out from the church, the mere fact of their association as potentially being persecuted for their faith is an aspect that Paul assumes—perhaps grudgingly. In other words, Paul's insinuation of the 'teachers' saying "I do not want to be persecuted" assumes that one is already involved within a specific organization, although they may not remain in the organization due to the encroaching oppression.

Paul's use of ἀνάθεμα in Gal 1:8-9 in relation to his "gospel" may be a rhetorical hyperbolic condemnation, but it may also suggest that Paul may be of two minds on the ecclesiological nature of the 'teachers.' It also may function as a rhetorical wake-up call for a Jewish-Christian mind, as the Old Testament image of being "accursed" is often used in a context of violent destruction of Gentiles from YHWH (c.f. Num 21:3 LXX). In other words, these "teachers" are included within the sphere of the church, which suggests—perhaps—that Paul's language is intended for their instruction, not their destruction.

Before his own experience of the Christ-event Paul was, in essence, functioning as a type of Ishmael, "persecuting" and "destroying" the powerless.[47] Thus, Paul's confrontation of Peter in 2:11-14 explicitly reveals a shift in power and the dissolution of force and "coercion to live like a Jew [i.e. another ethnic person]" (2:14, ἀναγκάζεις Ἰουδαΐζειν) with the subsequent inclusion of both Jew and Gentile are "sons" (υἱοί: 2:20, 3:7, 26; 4:6-7) under the familial promise made to Abraham. Therefore, Jesus is the penultimate "son" who was "born from a woman" (Gal 4:4) and is the One who liberates people from "the present wicked age" (1:4, ἐκ τοῦ αἰῶνος τοῦ ἐνεστῶτος πονηροῦ), an age now dominated by Christological mutuality and "bearing one another's burdens" (Gal 5:13, 6:2). Violence has no currency in Christ's kingdom. Thus, we now participate in a new life as a liberated family under the Spirit. Hence, for Paul, we are children of the oppressed (Isaac and Sarah), not the oppressor (Hagar and Ishmael).[48]

CHILDREN OF ISAAC: A CONCLUSION

Interpreting Paul's own interpretation of παίζοντα reveals a great subtlety: it helps the reader clarify the seemingly harsh responses of both Sarah and Paul toward both Ishmael and the 'teachers,' especially in light of Second Temple Jewish views of sexual ethics and inheritance rights. While tentative, we have seen that while there are significant linguistic nuances to the verb παίζω in the LXX, Paul's own understanding likely refers to violence and/or sexual misconduct –i.e. abuse (c.f. 1 Cor 10:7-8), strongly suggesting a repudiation of violence, especially as it relates to the church. We have also seen that this verb performs a dual function in his discourse: Paul's interpretation of the ancient Ishmae/Isaac event is proleptic,[49] impacting his own application of the citation of Sarah's disinheritance of Ishmael and Hagar, and consequentially of the 'teachers.'[50] The context of Paul's citation is thus consistent with his application because his use is both true then and immediately related to a situation in Paul's present, even if it lacks the same specific context. Paul's imagination of the Ishmael narrative brims with dynamic possibilities.[51] Thus, the interpretive ground is fertile for a potential reframing of the totality of Galatians in light of this stated hypothesis, especially with the abused and oppressed at the interpretive forefront of the narrative discourse as those most in need of the liberating freedom found in Christ according to the power of the Spirit.

NQ

_________

[1] Douglas J. Moo, Galatians (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013), 310.

[2] Moo cites James D.G. Dunn, 1993a, 256 as agreeing with him, as well as "most commentators." Moo, Galatians, 310.

[3] C.f. Martinus C. de Boers, Galatians: A Commentary (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001), 306-307, 306. He states the issue very succinctly: "The Genesis account does not indicate that Ishmael persecuted Isaac." J. Louis Martyn, Galatians (New York: Doubleday, 1997), 444 passim. F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Galatians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 223-224. Philip F. Ensler, Galatians: New Testament Readings (New York: Routledge, 1998), 214. Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians (Word: Dallas, 1990), 217. Longenecker also includes various targumic and rabbinic literature for post-Pauline interpretations of the Ishmael/Isaac story.

[4] The phrase bears repeating that I am offering this as a "provisional" reading, and only as such.

[5] Johannes E. Louw and Eugene A. Nida. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains. 2 vols. 2nd ed. (New York: United Bible Societies), 1989. BibleWorks, v.10. Louw-Nida offers the following clarifying gloss: "the specific reference of παίζω in 1 Cor 10.7 is probably to dancing, but some scholars interpret παίζω in this context as a euphemism for sex."

[6] Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Edited by Frederick W. Danker. 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). BibleWorks. v.10.  

[7] Henry George Liddel, and Robert Scott. A Greek-English Lexicon: With a Revised Supplement. Edited by Sir Henry Stuart Jones and Roderick McKenzie. 9th ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1996). BibleWorks, v.10.  

[8] Timothy Friberg, Barbara Friberg, and Neva F. Miller, Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament, Baker's Greek New Testament Library (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), BibleWorks, v.10.

[9] See n.5.

[10] The citation of Exo 32:6 LXX passim is intriguing, as the sin does not seem to be explicitly about sexual sinfulness. YHWH speaks of Moses' people being involved in "lawlessness" (ἠνόμησεν) in v.7 and "commit[ing] transgressions" (παρέβησαν) in v.8. Certainly, "lawlessness" and "transgressions" does not exclude sexual sin (see perhaps Isa 57:3 LXX), but the context is concerned principally with idolatry.

[11] To categorize these citations according to 'negative' or 'positive' uses appears overly narrow, and does not account for narrative or genre nuances. A word may be negative, but to whom exactly? The perspectival nature of Greek is a force to be considered here, hence my caution.

[12] Due to idolatry and sexual immorality often being corresponding phenomena in the Biblical literature, it seems appropriate to place them together in this singular category, albeit with the noted caveat that they can be distinguished from another.

[13] They also share the same root (εἴδω—21:9, ἰδοῦσα; 26:8, εἶδεν) for a person "seeing" or "witnessing" the actions of another.

[14] Specifically: active participle + preposition + genitive singular proper noun + definite article + genitive singular common noun + personal pronoun. The differing genders of the singular common nouns, definite articles, and personal pronouns are the only divergent grammatical aspects, which suggests literary overlap.

[15] Jewish literature roundly condemned incest: c.f. Psalms of Solomon 8:7-10, Pseudo-Phocylides 182 and Jubilees 33:10-20. See also Lev 18:6-18. Paul's own worldview seems to fit with the broader Jewish perspective on incest (1 Cor 5:1-5) and other perceived sexual sins (Rom 1:26-27).

[16] To be fair, there are other options: perhaps they were indeed 'playing' or 'dancing' and Abimelech simply deduced that they were more than brothers and sister. However, it seems more likely that Isaac and Rebecca were engaging in 'married activity' that is common to married couples. 

[17] While this verb is most often used to refer to literally "lying down" (Gen 19:4) it seems like it can also be used as a euphemism for sexual activity (c.f. Gen 19:32-34; 30:16); if this is the case, then my argument may be strengthened by the similar use of παίζοντα in Gen 26:8.

[18] The idiomatic use of "eat and drink" throughout the LXX normally refers to that: the consumption of food and drink. It does not appear to include revelry except for this context. Paul's own interpretation of Exo 32:6 clearly includes sexual immorality, but the Exodus text itself is unclear.

[19] To press in further, the immediate context of Gen 21:9 does not have any contextual markers indicating that this was a generic 'violent' event as if an instance of sexual misconduct would not perhaps be violent.

[20] This citation may also have some overlapping characteristics with section 1: perhaps revelry is additionally involved as the following verses speak of specific (festive?) jewelry and attire.

[21] The semantic nuances of the singular noun πληγή seem elusive: I rendered it as 'plague' via the lexicons, but I am not at all confident in my understanding of the noun here.

[22] This citation may also belong in section 3 below, for while the context is about judgment and violence, the notion of being "toyed with" is also possible.

[23] Samson is not beckoned or merely 'called;' the imperative form of καλέω is used so "ordered" seems contextually appropriate, especially to a captive humiliated judge of Israel.

[24] V.15a: "and when their hearts had become merry." (καὶ ἐγένετο ὅτε ἠγαθύνθη ἡ καρδία αὐτῶν), which may suggest revelry and debauchery.

[25] The "boys" are called παιδάρια, suggesting that they are younger than Abner and Joab; the context most probably includes a power dynamic, but it is unlikely that rape or sexual misconduct is in view. Bruce notes that Jewish reception history of this verse likely denotes "bloodshed." Galatians, 224.

[26] Job 41:5 speaks of God "toying" (παίξῃ) with Leviathan, displaying God's sovereign power over a mythic beast.

[27] David and the Sons of Israel "were playing before the Lord" (παίζοντες ἐνώπιον κυρίου). The author uses the same participial form as Gen 21:9.

[28] Here the author, instead of saying David was playing "before" the Lord, has ἐναντίον, which may add a subtle hint of perspectival hostility from God's perspective.

[29] Perspectivally, Michal is the one who sees David "dancing" and playing" (ὀρχούμενον, παίζοντα), and this fills her wholeheartedly with contempt (ἐξουδένωσεν αὐτὸν ἐν τῇ ψυχῇ αὐτῆς). I suspect this is in reference to the display of the King before all people, and the reception of his "playing" is seen as negative by her; the author is less forthcoming about his or her own perspective.

[30] Per Martyn's designation, which seems fairly unlikely given the evidence of the LXX. See Galatians, 444.

[31] C.f. Martyn, Galatians, 444 n.155.

[32] See n.13. However, the marital relationship between Isaac and Rebecca is not equivalent to two same-sex youths, so this parallel is not as thematically precise as I would hope. Nevertheless, the sexual nature of Gen 26:8 provides some basis for my tentative proposal because of the precise parallelism.

[33] The LXX uses ἐκβάλλω for Sarah's command, a verb that has strong connotations (c.f. Gen 3:24), especially as it relates as a consequence to violence (c.f. Gen 4:14).

[34] C.f. Moisés Silva, "Old Testament in Paul" in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (ed. Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid; Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1993), 630-642. For a specific and imaginative reference, see Richard B. Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul and Interpreter of Israel's Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005).

[35] J. Ross Wagner, "The Septuagint and the 'Search for the Christian Bible,'" in Scripture's Doctrine and Theology's Bible: How the New Testament Shapes Christian Dogmatics (ed. Markus Bockmuehl and Alan J. Torrance; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 5-28, 21.

[36] Ensler, Galatians, 214. See also John Calvin who writes, "Moses says that…Ishmael ridiculed his brother Isaac" and this is affirmed by the use of the participle. John Calvin, The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians. Translated by T.H.L. Parker (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 89.

[37] Brigitte Kahl, "Hagar's Babylonian Captivity: A Roman Re-Imagining of Galatians 4:21-31," Interpretation 68.3 (2014), 257-269, 269 n.40. Kahl's interpretation is fascinating and deserves far more interaction than I can offer.

[38] This would not be a reinterpretation, as Paul likely viewed the original historical event in a violent and/or sexual manner. This would also most likely not be an allegory but perhaps an analogy. Contra Michael B. Cover, "Now and Above; Then and Now: Platonizing and Apocalyptic Polarities in Paul's Eschatology" in Galatians and Christian Theology: Justification, The Gospel, and Ethics in Paul's Letter (ed. Mark W. Elliott, Scott J. Hafemann, N.T. Wright, and John Frederick; Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014), 220-238, 224 who views Paul's use as an allegory; this seems to be too broad a category—Paul seems to be drawing a contemporary comparison, hence 'analogy' seems like a more appropriate fit, one that fits well with 'typology.'

[39] This may also be a cause for division between the "teachers" and the general assembly, where the "teachers" are caught in the rhetorical cross hairs, and the assembly is viewed as "free."

[40] As Beverley Gaventa and Susan Eastman have persuasively noted, this is not uncommon for Paul. C.f. Gaventa, Our Mother Saint Paul (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2007) and Susan G. Eastman, Recovering Paul's Mother Tongue: Language and Theology in Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007). See also the incisive work by Margaret Aymer on this point: "Mother Knows Best: The Story of Mother Paul Revisited" in Mother Goose, Mother Jones, Mommie Dearest: Biblical Mothers and Their Children (ed. Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan and Tina Pippin; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 187-198.

[41] Paul's imaginative interpretation, if I am correct, leaves a multitude of questions lingering about the status of Hagar, who was able to give Abraham a son when Sarah was unable to do so. Status symbols and cultural markers are far more deeply embedded in the narrative, and perhaps Paul saw something we have missed.

[42] "What is altered," according to John Barclay, "…is the evaluative freight carried by these labels, the encoded distinctions of superiority and inferiority." Paul and the Gift (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2015), 396-397, 397.

[43] For instance, Paul consistently advocates for women (1 Cor 11:5; Rom 16:1-16; Phil 4:2-3) and slaves (The Epistle to Philemon; perhaps 1 Cor 7:21) elsewhere, so this adds some support for my contention. C.f. both John Jefferson Davis, "Some Reflections on Galatians 3:28, Sexual Roles, and Biblical Hermeneutics," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 19.3 (1976): 201-208 and Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle's Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 166-172 for this crucial issue of women's equality in the church via Gal 3:28. See also Barclay's applicable comment in n.43.

[44] Contra Ben Witherington III, who sees Gen 21:8-14 as being "at most" about "Ishmael playing with Isaac." While Witherington does mention the "metaphorical" nature of the verb in question, he seems to mistakenly downplay the context of Genesis 21. See Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on St Paul's Letter to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 337-338.

[45] Atsuhiro Asano, Community-Identity Constructiojn in Galatians: Exegetical, Social-Anthropological and Socio-Historical Studies (London: T&T Clark, 2005), 177.

[46] Sexual depravity can, of course, take on a corrupting influence: c.f the imagery in Col 3:5 and Eph 5:5.

[47] C.f. Acts 8:1-3. The word διωγμός can be used in a violent context (2 Macc 12:23).

[48] This is where Brigitte Kahl's incisive article can begin to shed additional light. See n.37.

[49] Martyn, Galatians, 436 states that Paul's typology is not "timeless." It might be more helpful to say that Paul's use of the Ishmael/Isaac event is timely and in this way timeless. Typology and analogy are not separate interpretive spheres, as Martyn seems to suggest.

[50] This may also help reframe the perspective of the 'teachers' without downplaying their potentially abusive tactics or removing Paul's deep concern over their enforced Torah observance on Gentiles.

[51] For a work that explores this, see Bruce W. Longenecker, ed., Narrative Dynamics in Paul: A Critical Assessment (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002).

The "Ifs" of the Resurrection: Particles and Hope in 1 Corinthians 15:12-19

Resurrection1.jpg

My friend Graham Ware posted something on Facebook about 1 Corinthians 15 and the language of the "ifs." So this post is inspired by his comment and I wanted to give him that shout out.

Almost every verse in vv.12-19 begins with the particle εἰ (ei, "if"): only v.15 and v.18 are excluded from this. The significance of these particles is that they are rhetorically conditional. Paul is offering the idea of a possible counter fact: "what if" X happened or did not happen?

12 Εἰ δὲ Χριστὸς κηρύσσεται ὅτι ἐκ νεκρῶν ἐγήγερται…

"But if Christ is proclaimed that he has been raised from the dead…"

13 εἰ δὲ ἀνάστασις νεκρῶν οὐκ ἔστιν, οὐδὲ Χριστὸς ἐγήγερται·

"But if there is no resurrection from the dead, then Christ has not been raised."

14 εἰ δὲ Χριστὸς οὐκ ἐγήγερται, κενὸν⸀ἄρα τὸ κήρυγμα ἡμῶν, κενὴ καὶ ἡ πίστις ὑμῶν,

"But if Christ is not raised, then our preaching is empty and our faith is empty."

15 εὑρισκόμεθα δὲ καὶ ψευδομάρτυρες τοῦ θεοῦ, ὅτι ἐμαρτυρήσαμεν κατὰ τοῦ θεοῦ ὅτι ἤγειρεν τὸν Χριστόν, ὃν οὐκ ἤγειρεν εἴπερ ἄρα νεκροὶ οὐκ ἐγείρονται.

"And we are even found to be bearing false witness against God, for we testified concerning God that he raised the Messiah, whom he did not raise, if indeed the dead are not raised"

16 εἰ γὰρ νεκροὶ οὐκ ἐγείρονται, οὐδὲ Χριστὸς ἐγήγερται·

"For if the dead are not raised, nor has Christ not been raised."

17 εἰ δὲ Χριστὸς οὐκ ἐγήγερται, ματαία ἡ πίστις ὑμῶν, ἔτι ἐστὲ ἐν ταῖς ἁμαρτίαις ὑμῶν.

"And if Christ is not raised, your faith is futile, you are still in your sins."

18 ἄρα καὶ οἱ κοιμηθέντες ἐν Χριστῷ ἀπώλοντο.

"Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have utterly perished."

19 εἰ ἐν τῇ ζωῇ ταύτῃ ἐν Χριστῷ ἠλπικότες ἐσμὲν μόνον, ἐλεεινότεροι πάντων ἀνθρώπων ἐσμέν.

"If in Christ we have hope this life only, we are people to be utterly pitied."

The Christian faith is predicated upon the historical fact of Jesus' bodily resurrection from the dead. Paul's use of these six conditional particles should cause us to stop and tremble at these thoughts. "If Christ is not raised…" should force us to reflect upon the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus, and his subsequent vindication as Lord and Messiah.

Now, in the days before Easter, we live in these "ifs," hoping in the blessed hope of the resurrection. If indeed Christ was not raised on that one day, then those of us who are "in Christ" will perish utterly, dust back to dust, life into darkness.

May it never be.

But let it sit and linger with us, that Christ himself sat where we sit, and took upon himself the full enfleshment of the human race, for our future glory, for our life itself.

As Paul says in Colossians, our lives are hidden "in Christ" (Col 3:1-4), and he is our treasure chest, the one who locks us away with him for the hope of glory.

But now, as the early Christian men and women did, we wait. And we sit in the dust of the earth, awaiting the God of the Living to beckon us home.

There are no more "ifs," only "whens." So we wait. And we hope.

Nick

"Useless" or "Helpless?" Rethinking Paul's Perspective of Onesimus in Philemon 1:11

I took a course on Philippians and Philemon this summer, and I decided to write my final exegetical paper on Philemon—my favorite epistle in the entire New Testament. This little epistle offers a lot of complexity, considering its overall size, and one is left asking a multitude of questions that lack any sort of discernible answer. I still do not have all the answers!

However, something that many commentators agree upon is that Paul is using a pun in 1:11. Ὀνήσιμον (Onēsimos) was a very common slave name in the ancient world, and it meant something like "useful." So in Paul's advocating for Onesimus freedom (another disputable area), he uses the adjective ἄχρηστον, which commonly means "useless" and many translations render the term as such. "At one time, he was 'useless' to you" is the pun.

The Greek text reads like this:

τόν ποτέ σοι ἄχρηστον νυνὶ δὲ σοὶ καὶ ἐμοὶ εὔχρηστον

At one time [Onesimus] was useless to you, but he is useful to you and especially to me (my translation)

However, I think there is another dimension to ἄχρηστον that has not been explored and so I offer this idea as a modest proposal. Perspectivally, Onesimus was likely sent to Paul because he was "useless" to Philemon: so in the eyes of his master, Onesimus is "useless" to him, perhaps able to function in some sort of helpful way to a (likely) imprisoned Paul. Paul, I will suggest, may have his own perspective on his use of ἄχρηστον, but that will come out later.

However, the adjective is a hapax legomena in the New Testament, as in it appears only once. The same can be said of the cognate verb ἀχρειόω (c.f. Rom 3:12). It appears elsewhere in Second Temple Jewish literature and in the LXX.

Something else worthy of note is the difference between an adjective modifying a human agent and an adjective modifying a non-human object: for instance, a stone is different than a human being. Just wanted to note this.

The Second Book of Maccabees is about the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire. In 2 Maccabees 7:5 a Jewish family (a mother and her seven sons) are captured and they refuse to capitulate to the king. In 7:5, we have the following text:

ἄχρηστον δὲ αὐτὸν τοῖς ὅλοις γενόμενον: "but he became entirely helpless..."

In the previous verses, the person is said to be scalped and mutilated in the presence of the King and many others. It is safe to say that this person is not "useless," but "helpless" before his torturers before he is burned alive. The context is clear that the man is not "useless;" He is an oppressed person, trapped and tortured and ultimately killed. The language of oppression and power is key to understanding this passage, so this use is a vital citation.

The Book of Wisdom (Apocrypha) contains three uses of the adjective. 2:11 is written, seemingly, from the perspective of the 'UnGodly' who speaks of 'oppressing the righteous poor man' in v.10. I am using the NRSV translation.

Let us oppress the righteous poor man;
let us not spare the widow
or regard the gray hairs of the aged.

But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be useless.

“Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.

The voice speaks of "might" (ἰσχυρός) being their "law" (νόμος), and "what is weak proves itself to be useless (ἄχρηστον). In Wisdom literature, this is clearly a poetic way of contrasting "power" and "weak," which may sway our reading from "useless" to "helpless," as the context of v.10 and v.12 speaks of "oppressing" and "waiting" for the "righteous man." Given the language of power and hierarchy, "helpless" seems like a more contextually sensitive rendering of the adjective—especially in light of 2 Maccabees 7:5.

Wisdom 13:11 speaks in the context of idolatry, with descriptions of "gold and silver" cluing us into the difference between the God of Israel (living, powerful, dynamic) versus a "useless stone" (λίθον ἄχρηστον).

But miserable, with their hopes set on dead things, are those
who give the name “gods” to the works of human hands,
gold and silver fashioned with skill,
and likenesses of animals,
or a useless stone, the work of an ancient hand.

The contrast between the God of power and might and glory and the created corporeal nature of idols makes for a stark relationship. A stone, of course, is not comparable to the previous subjects (a person being tortured, and a poetic description of a wicked person oppressing a righteous person), but the idea of a non-living stone being of no use in terms of worship is a helpful reminder of the differences between creation and Creator.

Wisdom 16:29 is within a context of praise, where Israel speaks to God: " you gave your people food of angels" (v.20). The entire pericope concerns the goodness of God and the strength of God, preserving his people from a multitude of violence and peril (vv.22-23).

For the hope of an ungrateful person will melt like wintry frost, and flow away like waste water.

The conclusion focuses on the "hope of an ungrateful person," and the final dishonoring of the hope of that figurative person. The final phrase that is particularly relevant is the closing statement about their hope, which "flow[s] away like waste water" (ὕδωρ ἄχρηστον). Since water is, of course, not comparable to a living person, one can safely say that the context refers to "useless" water, wasted hope by the person who does not love God (c.f. v.26). It speaks to the misused or even exploited nature of something given by God, which seems to result in judgment (17:1 passim).

Hosea 8:8 (LXX) is somewhat complex. It uses similar language as Wisdom 13:11 ("vessel"), but it deploys it in a different fashion. In speaking of Israel's unfaithfulness, we see:

For they sow the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. The standing grain has no heads, it shall yield no meal; if it were to yield, foreigners would devour it.

Israel is swallowed up; now they are among the nations as a useless vessel.

Both meanings are likely in use here. "Useless" makes good contextual sense, as Israel is unable (or unwilling) to fulfill her vocation as a light to the Nations. Her compromise and failure thus render her vocation "useless" in the eyes of Hosea. However, the other element is also embedded within the text. Israel is "helpless amongst the Nations" (ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν). Given the powerful presence of other nations, it seems likely that Israel is seen as helpless before the mighty foreign powers. The use of the preposition ἐν could have a dual meaning here: "in the nations" as in Hosea has already assumed their apostasy has resulted in their being 'within' the various foreign powers. Or, as more likely, "among" is the more acceptable rendering as she is located as "helpless" amongst the nations. Israel, being a small assortment of people, has a little political power within the various kingdoms.

The final relevant New Testament citation comes in Romans 3:12, where the verb ἠχρεώθησαν (aorist middle-passive) is used:

All have turned away, together they have become helpless, there is not one who makes kindness, there is not one (my translation).  

Romans 3:9-20 is a deeply complicated passage, but the main thrust—in my opinion—is on the utter helplessness of the human person, the one's who do not know peace (v.17) and who do not fear God (v.18).

The important—the most important!—point is this, however: Νυνὶ δὲ in v.21: "but now!" The human person, the corporate body of humanity who is subject to Sin and Death, these cosmic and person powers who dominate our lives, are confronted by the apocalyptic Christ in vv.21-26. V.22 states this eloquently:

But the righteousness of God through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ, into all of the one's being faithful: for there is not difference.

V.24 is the focal point of my modest proposal:

Being declared righteous freely by his gift, through liberation in Christ Jesus.

The declaration of God for us is this: while we were still helpless, mired in Sin, subject to Death and the Powers of this world, we were given the gift of liberation in Christ Jesus. Therefore, 3:12 seems fairly decisive in proving my point: the helplessness of the human person, who is in need of the liberation of Christ, is the focal point of the passage.

This same liberation cannot be denied to Onesimus, if one holds to a coherent element of Pauline theology - what applies in Romans cannot be excluded from Philemon.

All of this data helps us reconsider the use of the adjective in Philemon.

This is my point: Paul could be using the adjective in two different ways here: he could be speaking of Philemon's own perspective ("useless"), but also of his own ("helpless"). Paul does in fact say "useless to you," which indicates that Paul does not and perhaps never shared this perspective.

Imagine this.

Onesimus: the one whom Paul 'birthed' in his bonds (v.10), the one who represents him bodily (v.12), the one whom Paul advocates (v.9-10), is to Paul "helpless." We do not know of the mental of physical state of Onesimus, but slavery in the ancient world was a deeply brutal practice. Imagine the years of abuse inflicted upon Onesimus, even at the hands of his Christian master, Philemon.

Imagine Paul receiving him, this "helpless" slave, he himself a prisoner.

Imagine Paul converting him to the Lord Jesus, speaking to him, nourishing him, seeking his well-being.

Paul had every authority "to order/command" (v. ἐπιτάσσειν) Philemon to release Onesimus, but that is too easy. Perhaps, perhaps, Paul believed reconciliation must occur before the vocation to which Onesimus was called. Whatever, the case, aspectivally, Paul cared about the body of Onesimus to the point where he identified with him, called him his own child (v.10), and said that Onesimus was "no longer a slave, but far beyond a slave, a beloved brother" (v.16).

A revolutionary idea, likely birthed by Gal 3:28 and 4:7.

3:28 - There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

4:7 - So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

The linguistic parallels between Philemon and Galatians 4:7 cannot be denied, and it appears Paul acted upon them in a consistent manner.

In any case, the idea of Paul receiving a "helpless" slave, a person subjected to brutality and oppression cannot be dismissed. Indeed, given Paul's own theology, the Gospel was immediately necessary to the bodies of slaves, as even the Messiah - the savior of the world - became one of them (Phil 2:6-7).

Just a modest proposal. Nothing more.

NQ

Sex, Sin, and Inheritance in Paul: Personal Reflections

Initially, I was going to limit this blog post exclusively to the New Testament. But, at the risk of sounding like a one-string banjo, I decided to include only Paul. Sorry to those who really want my thoughts on Hebrews!

Onward and onward.

In the Modern world, sex can largely be described as a type of currency, or even as a type of reality. Pornography is rampant and one needn't search too hard to find it. Personally, having struggled with that for most of my life (including now), it is never hard to find. So sex and sin are often linked together. Of course, this does not begin to describe the New Testament's positive view of sex (c.f. 1 Cor 7:1-16), but it does suggest that a good and holy thing can be corrupted and marred by external influences and forces. Just a note.

So, in Paul (I have to start with my boy Paul!) we have the Greek word πόρνος (pornos). This word is largely defined and understood to concern sexual sinners, regardless of gender or age. One could say this noun describes a "sexually immoral person."

We do not have this word used as often in the New Testament as we would think, but it does occur in some interesting contexts. A large concentration of the noun occurs in 1 Corinthians 5-6 where Paul is discussing the issue of the man who is "having" (ἔχειν) his father's wife. This sort of sexual sin (πορνεία) is not even known amongst the Gentiles (5:1), which suggests that this sort of sexual deviancy was being applauded by the Corinthian church and was particularly debaucherous. Richard Hays states that, "here in 1 Corinthians 5…Paul simply assumes the reality of corporate responsibility."[1] In other words, everyone in the fledgling Corinthian church is responsible for this man's sin.

Continuing on in 1 Corinthians 6:9 (the train of thought is not broken from the sexual issues in 1 Corinthians 5), Paul speaks of the following people "not inheriting" (οὐ κληρονομήσουσιν: negated future verb) the "Kingdom of God." The list itself is disputed regarding exactly the 'types' of people therein, but suffice to say, sexual sin as a rampant aspect of the early church and the broader first century society makes this sort of language quite appropriate today. The language includes an element of exploitation in 1 Corinthians 5, as the woman likely did not have authority over her own body – an aspect Paul quickly remedies in 1 Corinthians 7:3-4 (ἡ γυνὴ τοῦ ἰδίου σώματος οὐκ ἐξουσιάζει ἀλλὰ ὁ ἀνήρ· ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ ὁ ἀνὴρ τοῦ ἰδίου σώματος οὐκ ἐξουσιάζει ἀλλὰ ἡ γυνή—neither spouse has a claim of supremacy over the flesh and mind of the other). This sort of radical egalitarianism includes the negation of sexual privilege and of rape and of a husband demanding or "having" the body of his wife. Rather, Paul's vision of marital egalitarianism shines through despite the sexual sin in Corinth.

Paul's other use of "inheritance" language is in Ephesians 5:4-5. Personally, I am now persuaded that Paul wrote Ephesians so I shall carry on as if there is not debate about this subject (there is). The text reads as follows:

5:5 – τοῦτο γὰρ ἴστε γινώσκοντες ὅτι πᾶς πόρνος ἢ ἀκάθαρτος ἢ πλεονέκτης, ὅ ἐστιν εἰδωλολάτρης, οὐκ ἔχει κληρονομίαν ἐν τῇ βασιλείᾳ τοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ θεοῦ

My translation –  "for I want you to be aware of this, that every sexually immoral person, [every] unclean person, [every] greedy person,[2] who is an idolater: he or she does not possess an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God."

An issue of fascination for me is the genitive use of τοῦ Χριστοῦ καὶ θεοῦ. It seems that, if one adopts a Granville Sharp's rule, then Paul is rather explicit in calling Jesus 'God' here. But, that aside, the ethical issues remain. In Ephesians, sexual sin is not particularly highlighted, although inheritance is (c.f. Eph 1:14, 18). In both instances, it most likely refers to the present down payment of God's gift of Christ to the "saints." So the language is not quite about soteriology, but it concerns the inclusion of the people of God as the transitory nature of "liberation" (ἀπολύτρωσιν: 1:14) implies. That is, God has a storehouse of wealth for his people that he desires to bestow upon them, and to live in a righteous manner means that one is and will continue to be a recipient of such a gift.

Paul's final word on this subject occurs in the Pastoral Epistles, where πόρνοις in the plural occurs alongside "slave-traders" and other vices. In other words, acting in a sexually immoral manner puts one on the same category as a slave-trader and as a person who exploits others. If one wants to consider a modern example, the slave trade and human trafficking provide a particularly vivid example of how we exploit and pervert one another. A vice list is not intended to be exhausted, but illustrative of the intricate power of exploitation that occurs when people have forsaken God and one another.

In short, Paul's condemnation of sexual immorality does not prioritize the individual, but also the victim. His stark rebuttal of sexual exploitation in Cor 7:1-16 is a strong condemnation of sexual exploitation and rape between spouses, and forces us to consider the implications of sexual sin in our own lives.

So I will go first.

Beginning when I was around 6 or 7, I had my first experience with pornography as a neighbor's house. My parents were unaware and I was quite good and hiding this sort of sin. It was not until I was 22(ish) and met a really pretty and intelligent woman who I would later marry did I actually stop and consider my sexual sin. Until that point, it had become a daily if not hourly event.

It still haunts me to this day, and affects how I interact with women. I still struggle daily and will likely struggle for the rest of my life because of how I chose to act throughout that decade. This sort of unrepentant sin does not affect just me: it affects how I relate to my wife and could cause a lot of problems within my relationship with her. In order to maintain a sense of accountability, I have forced myself to confess each failure to her. Thankfully, she is always forgiving and always encouraging. Personally, I've had to really forsake certain elements of what I have seen and grow up with in order to have a healthy and God-glorifying relationship with her. For the better!

So sexual sin, for those of us who are πόρνοις (myself included), salvation and redemption are never far from our grasp. God has offered his love to all of us and has provided a way out of our sinful desires (c.f. 1 John 2:2). God's love, a love that demands so much, calls us out of exploitation and depravity, and into a world that is not guided by the 'Self,' but by the Spirit.

So, condemn Sin. Condemn it for what it is. Never stop doing so. But never equate the Sin with the Person. A person, once they are made aware like I was, wants nothing to do with Sin and must be reminded daily to forsake his desires and pursue the Cross of Christ.

It will take a lifetime, or perhaps an eternity, but it is worth it. The inheritance of God is a down payment for our failures, our history, and our desires, and nothing short of the gift of God in Christ can help us forsake such sins. God did not come only for those who were perfect, he came for those who are sick (Mark 2:17; parallel Matthew 9:12-13 and Luke 5:31-32).

Pray for me, yourself, and all of us πόρνοις. God has not forsaken us, even when we fall, and we must be firmly gracious to those who do fall. That's the lame thing about the gift of Christ: He is more than being just for you, and for me.

While we were still sinners…

NQ

[1] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 82.

[2] The "all" (πᾶς) is implied by the initial use, carrying over to the next personal categories.

The Incorruptible God: Corruption, Mortality and the Triumph of Paul's Eschatology

Only in Paul's epistles do we have the Greek word ἀφθαρσία (aftharsia). Many believe it refers to 'immortality' and has been translated as such in numerous Bible translations. However, there is reason to expand the semantic range of this word to include concepts of "imperishability" or "incorruptibility." I will walk through several of Paul's epistles, and we will see that this word has an eschatological flavor—not because of the word itself per se, but because of how Paul uses the word.

I will translate the following Pauline texts, with some commentary on why I chose to render certain terms in the way I do, and then I will explain the significance of the word in Paul's narrative. Finally, I will attempt a synthesis on why this word is important and what it means for Christians today.

Also, Merry Christmas.

Rom 2:7 τοῖς μὲν καθ᾽ ὑπομονὴν ἔργου ἀγαθοῦ δόξαν καὶ τιμὴν καὶ ἀφθαρσίαν ζητοῦσιν ζωὴν αἰώνιον·

"And those who persevere by good work, seeking glory and honor and incorruptibility, will gain life eternal"

The noun ὑπομονὴν refers to 'perseverance,' especially within certain Pauline contexts. For instance, 2 Thessalonians 1:4 refers to those enduring διωγμοῖς ("persecution") and θλίψεσιν ("oppression"). Paul elsewhere tells the church to "pursue" (δίωκε) good things in 1 Timothy 6:11—among these attributes is ὑπομονήν. The conjunction καὶ linking δόξαν καὶ τιμὴν καὶ ἀφθαρσίαν suggests these attributes are a unit, or at least are meant to be taken as a single concept. Glory and honor are comparable to incorruptibility, and if one seeks after these things, there is "life eternal."

Immortality, while a likely facet of incorruptibility, is too narrow here. Rather, glory and honor suggest a kind of virtue that lacks corruptibility, especially of the human (Gentile) person not identified by the sins of Romans 1:18-32. 

1Cor 15:42 Οὕτως καὶ ἡ ἀνάστασις τῶν νεκρῶν. σπείρεται ἐν φθορᾷ, ἐγείρεται ἐν ἀφθαρσίᾳ·

"In this same way also the resurrection of the dead. It is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption."

Most of the uses of our noun in question occur in the discourse of 1 Corinthians 15.

The verbal linkage is fairly obvious with the contrast: both verbs (singular third person middle) refer to an object via the preposition ἐν ("in," "by," "among"). The contrast is highlighted by the comparative noun φθορᾷ, which in other contexts refers to slavery (Romans 8:21) and general depravity and destructive tendencies (Colossians 2:22). Paul seems to imply that the human person—the body—is born into a world of depravity and subjection by foreign powers (Death and Sin being two sides of that coin: c.f. 15:26), and instead of the person in Christ being raised again into corruption and death, she is raised instead to incorruptibility. Mortality, driven by the kingship of Death, is what is sown naturally according to the known rules of the world.

However, for Paul, to be raised by Christ is to participate in his incorruptible body: where glory and honor and an inability to be subjected to Death's reign.

We will see a further Pauline contrast in 15:50 and 53.

1Cor 15:50, 53, 54 Τοῦτο δέ φημι, ἀδελφοί, ὅτι σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομῆσαι οὐ δύναται, οὐδὲ ἡ φθορὰ τὴν ἀφθαρσίαν κληρονομεῖ…δεῖ γὰρ τὸ φθαρτὸν τοῦτο ἐνδύσασθαι ἀφθαρσίαν καὶ τὸ θνητὸν τοῦτο ἐνδύσασθαι ἀθανασίαν. ὅταν δὲ τὸ φθαρτὸν τοῦτο ἐνδύσηται ἀφθαρσίαν καὶ τὸ ⸃ θνητὸν τοῦτο ἐνδύσηται ἀθανασίαν, τότε γενήσεται ὁ λόγος ὁ γεγραμμένος· Κατεπόθη ὁ θάνατος εἰς νῖκος.

"But this I say, my brothers and sisters, that flesh and blood is unable to inherit the Kingdom of God, not can corruption inherit incorruption…for it is necessary for this corruption to put on incorruptibility and this Mortal to put on immortality, but whenever this corruption should have put on incorruptibility, and this Mortal should have put on incorruptibility, then this word that has been written will come to pass: Death has been devoured in victory."

Whole monographs could be written on this particular section, and I believe it is a concretized exposition of 1 Corinthians 15:26, where Death is utterly annihilated. However, some exposition is needed. The contrastive nature of φθορά and ἀφθαρσία confirms Paul's distinction between a present reality (φθορά) guided by the dictatorship of Death, and Paul's hope in ἀφθαρσία, where Death cannot exercise rule over any Mortal.

Paul uses similar words that are complementary, but they are not synonymous. He uses ἀθανασίαν which does refer to immortality (literally 'not dying'), which displays an affinity with his chosen vocabulary. The corruptible Mortal must be clothed in both incorruptibility and immortality, in order that both concepts may abolish Death. One can be immortal, and still sin, at least in theory. However, to be incorruptible suggests that the future eschatological age is a place where all of those in Christ are in a state of 'not dying' and also in a state of being unable to be corrupted by Sin and Death.

No longer does Death reign, nor will Death have any presence in God's Kingdom. Rather, the mortal person, she is enveloped by Christ in the power of the Spirit, where Death has no sting.

Eph 6:24 ἡ χάρις μετὰ πάντων τῶν ἀγαπώντων τὸν κύριον ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦν Χριστὸν ἐν ἀφθαρσίᾳ.

"Favor be with all of the one's who are loving our Lord Jesus Christ in incorruptibility."

Paul ends his exhortation to the church with battle imagery earlier in chapter 6. Paul, here, is capitalizing on said imagery and exhorting the believers to remain incorruptible. Instead of referring in a blanket sense to immortality, Paul desires that they live a life "loving" God and the Messiah. This is characterized by εἰρήνη ("peace") in 6:23, and suggests that warfare, spiritual or literal, should not characterize the believer's identity: for these things corrupt, but faithfulness to God is incorruptible.

2Ti 1:10 φανερωθεῖσαν δὲ νῦν διὰ τῆς ἐπιφανείας τοῦ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ ⸃, καταργήσαντος μὲν τὸν θάνατον φωτίσαντος δὲ ζωὴν καὶ ἀφθαρσίαν διὰ τοῦ εὐαγγελίου,

"And made manifest now through the appearance of our Savior Jesus Christ, the one indeed annihilating Death, and having illuminated life and incorruptibility through the Gospel."

The theophany of the Messiah signals something interesting. Life and incorruptibility are connected (same case ending) and suggest, in already similar fashion, that Paul is playing these terms together in a complementary way. To have the life of Christ is to have incorruptibility. Death being utterly annihilated, removed from the cosmos, suggests that now life and incorruptibility may reign. Only once Death has been destroyed can these two things thrive. This suggests a coordinate meaning with 1 Corinthians 15, where Death/Mortality/Corruption are first destroyed, so that Life/Immortality/Incorruptibly may reign supreme in the Kingdom of God and Christ.

Tit 2:7 περὶ πάντα σεαυτὸν παρεχόμενος τύπον καλῶν ἔργων, ἐν τῇ διδασκαλίᾳ ἀφθορίαν, σεμνότητα,

"In all things making yourself a model of good works by teaching, incorruptibility, dignity."

In a short word, this pericope is concerned with how one lives as a minority within a world of oppression. By living in a manner worthy of the name of Christ, one must live by these three nouns (though one is not limited by them). I translate the preposition ἐν as "by" because I think the active agency on the part of the recipients of Titus are enjoined to live a certain way: hence, make yourself a model "by" doing these three things.

Immortality, unlike elsewhere, is not in view in most of Paul's uses of ἀφθαρσία. Rather, the noun in question refers to the conduct and character of one's witness to the world: not being guided by corruption or falsity, but rather through the incorruptibility of Christ.

In short, the term ἀφθαρσία, while it may denote a concept of immortality, is far more concerned with the character of how one lives, and what one inherits. Incorruptibility refers to something given by God eschatologically, it must be sought after (Romans 2:7), and Death and depravity are the chief opponents to this ἀφθαρσία. Death, with its reign of decay and slavery, cannot co-exist with ἀφθαρσία. Only one may win, and one might say, one already has.

Thus, ἀφθαρσία has an ethical component that cannot be ignored or dismissed. Eschatology, at least in Pauline perspective, is about ethics and the life of hope lived for future anticipation.

Merry Christmas again.

NQ

What Christmas is all about: Paul, ἀπολύτρωσις and the Grinch

I was baking dark chocolate chip peanut butter cookies (sprinkled with sea salt) and had a thought. Well. I had many thoughts, but the one I wanted to write down and share was this:

What did Paul say about Christmas?

Obviously, this is rather dumb, but roll with me for another paragraph or two.

Paul has been called many things throughout Church history. Thomas Jefferson believed he "corrupted" the doctrines of Jesus. In short, many think Jesus is Cindy Lou Who and Paul is the Grinch, except Paul's heart never grew.

Paul obviously did not have a doctrine of Christmas, nor would he likely be down with American Christmas—not that there is anything wrong with that. Rather, I'm curious about how Paul approached something similar to how we celebrate Christmas. In celebrating the birth of the Messiah of Israel, I harken back to two Pauline texts:

Ephesians 4:30: καὶ μὴ λυπεῖτε τὸ πνεῦμα τὸ ἅγιον τοῦ θεοῦ, ἐν ᾧ ἐσφραγίσθητε εἰς ἡμέραν ἀπολυτρώσεως—"and do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, in whom you have been sealed for the Day of Liberation."                                                                                 

Galatians 4:4: ὅτε δὲ ἦλθεν τὸ πλήρωμα τοῦ χρόνου, ἐξαπέστειλεν ὁ θεὸς τὸν υἱὸν αὐτοῦ, γενόμενον ἐκ γυναικός, γενόμενον ὑπὸ νόμον—"but when the fullness of time came, God sent his son, born from a woman, born under the law."

Monographs have been written exploring these two texts, but taken together on the eve of Christmas Eve, they convey a powerful Pauline truth: the day of Liberation (ἀπολύτρωσις), the Day of being set free from Sin and Death has been inaugurated. These powers have been capsized. The birth of Christ codifies the hope of liberation, and Christmas is one small part of that. That is worth remembering.

Paul, far from being a Grinch during the holiday season, gives us cause to rejoice, to laugh, and to consider our own status as being "bought back" from the Powers of Sin and Death. This makes sense of Galatians 4:5 where the aorist verb ἐξαγοράσῃ is used to speak about us being bought back from the law and from being enslaved. Everything, for Paul, was about liberation.

Plus, Paul was totally down with wine. How could he be a Grinch after that?

Christmas, then, is liberation from the sins of the world. This is actualized in the birth of the Messiah, and our hope of resurrection.

So. Yeah, this was kinda silly, but I was thinking a lot about it, and I suspect Paul has a lot more to say about Christmas than I can offer in this blog post.

Blessings and Merry Christmas!

NQ

The Conundrum of Christ's Faithfulness: A Brief Introduction of the "Πίστις Χριστοῦ" Debate and its Implications

In the often contentious world of Pauline studies, one of the major debates that has been raging concerns a specific grammatical phrase: Πίστις Χριστοῦ ("the faith of Christ" or "faith in Christ"). Πίστις is the normative Pauline word for 'faith' or 'trust.' Χριστοῦ is the genitive form of Christ, or "Messiah." So when you see either term used hereafter, that is what they mean.

There are generally two options for Pauline interpreters:

  • The objective genitive: "faith in Christ."

  • The subjective genitive: "the faith of Christ."

What is curious about this entire debate is that it transcends the so-called New Perspective/Old Perspective divide and also transcends the Reformed/Arminian debate as well. For example, James D.G. Dunn (objective) and N.T. Wright (subjective) disagree with one another on this, and both also differ on their traditions. Dunn is a Methodist and Wright is a Calvinist. So this debate is not about one's soteriology or traditions per se.

So this is a debate I recently came into contact with during a Directed Study with Tommy Givens. Both Banning and Chad also are swimming in it, and this is due to our reading John Barclay who briefly covers the debate.

Many Pauline texts are involved in this. Some of these texts are more debated than others, specifically the texts in Romans and Galatians. I suspect this is mostly due to Romans and Galatians being given undue priority in the study of Paul, but that's my own snarky hang up.

Here are the main representative texts:

  • Romans 3:22—" διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ"

  • Galatians 2:16—"διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ"

  • Galatians 3:22—"ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ"

  • Galatians 3:26—"διὰ τῆς πίστεως ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ"

  • Philippians 3:9—"διὰ πίστεως Χριστοῦ"

In all of these examples, we have a specific preposition: διὰ ("through," or "by means of") and ἐκ ("from," or "by") that precedes the genitive nouns, clarifying the nouns. In two instances we have an additional preposition ἐν ("in," or "by" sometimes). In each instance, the debate comes down to intricate grammatical arguments that sometimes fail to see the forest for the trees. In any sense, as I look over these various papers and presentations, I am left with a thought:

Why is this significant? Why have entire books been written on this particular phrase?

Much of the debate boils down to the particular emphasis of the noun πίστεως. Whose faith is Paul usually concerned with? Sometimes it is Christ's faith (Rom. 3:22; Phil. 3:9) and other times Paul clarifies after with our faith (Gal. 2:20). He does this specifically in Colossians 1:4 ("ἀκούσαντες τὴν πίστιν ὑμῶν ἐν Χριστῷ Ἰησοῦ: having heard of your faith in Christ Jesus"). Christ is the lens or matrix by which faith is given, but the participatory nature of faith requires our partaking of Christ's faith.

So with many issues in Paul, it is not an 'either/or.' Christ's faith is sometimes emphasized but an emphasis on Christ's faith does not negate or obliterate the faith of believers. Neither does a person's faith in Christ render faith 'anthropocentric,' as Christ is the one in whom we believe.

What is at stake?

What is as stake is how Paul emphasizes one and the other, and how we too should emphasize either option, not to the exclusion of both but in balance. For my money, I lean toward the subjective genitive for most of these texts, but I also believe one must exercise the gift of faith, and any emphasis to the exclusion of either option simply leaves one divorced from the richness of Paul's language. The human person is freed to participate in Christ, and if Paul chooses to emphasize our participation, so be it.

For a helpful book that goes over this debate, see Bird and Sprinkle.

NQ