Summary 1 Corinthians Chapter 11

This is rather an odd chapter. The main points of interest turn out not to be the main topics Paul discusses. As a result, the main discourse, the main course of the letter rather gets shunted to the rear as what Paul intended as minor points loom very large in the subsequent history of the Church.

A good example of the lengthy discourse that, ultimately, is really only an insight into the views of the time, is Paul’s attitude towards women. At the beginning, we’re told how the man is the head of the woman, just as Jesus is the head of all humans, while God the Father is the head of Jesus. OK, great, women are, or ought to be subservient in his world-view. We get that. Nothing earth-shattering there. But the point of real salience, with the most theological impact is that Paul apparently sees a distinct hierarchy between the Anointed and God. Here we have a very clear indication, I think, of the way Jesus was seen by his earliest followers. In Mark, we saw a very definite ambivalence about Jesus’ divinity; turns out that this ambivalence was probably left over from the way Jesus was seen by Paul and his generation. Many others have suggested that, for Paul, Jesus only became divine, or even became the Anointed when he was raised from the dead by God. And remember the opening of Galatians, with its passive voice: Jesus was raised by God. So, as we discussed the idea of Adoptionism in Mark, who could be–and was–interpreted as saying that Jesus was adopted by God at the former’s baptism, so here in Paul we get what appears to be a definite case for Arianism: that Jesus was lesser than and subordinate to the Father. This is very, very different from “In the beginning was the Word…”

Another topic that occupies a significant amount of the chapter is the question of whether women should have their heads covered when they pray. To most modern readers, and certainly to me, this is very much peripheral to the topic at hand, which is how to be a follower of Jesus and a good member of the Community. This sort of artificial respectability is foreign to my thinking, and I lived through the end of the pre-Vatican II days in the Roman Church. It struck me as pointless then; it strikes me as pointless now. What matters is what is in our hearts, not what’s on our head. And it’s really very interesting to note that Paul, that champion of not following all the strictures of the Jewish law should get hung up on a detail like this. Again, though, there is a large amount of temporal/cultural determinism working on Paul here: men may be free, but women must be kept subservient and veiled. This passage would not have raised the eyebrows of many of the men who heard it.

We also discussed “there must be sects so that the true believers can stand out”. And the emphasis was on ‘there must’. John Calvin–who is one of the more interesting figures in Christian history, IMO (along with Jan Hus)–took this and ran with it in his commentary. Now, ‘there must’ can be read in a number of ways, and with a broad range of stricture in the ‘must’ part. Calvin took this all the way, interpreting the ‘must’ as indicating Divine Ordination of this. “Es muss sein”, as Beethoven said in his last string quartet. It must be. My sense is that Paul would have been horrified by this reading of his words. He wasn’t, I believe, making any sort of cosmic pronouncement; he was much more in a cajoling mode with these words. In this letter, Paul has talked about ‘being all things to all people’. We’ve discussed how this runs–and quickly–into ‘the end justifies the means’. Another way to put this would be ‘whatever works’. Here is a great example of that, I think. Throw out the idea of a dichotomy, and the use of the shadow to bring out the light; use the heretics to emphasize the true believers. It’s a way of diminishing their impact, or at least their importance. The heretics aren’t completely a waste: they can serve as an excellent bad example.

Really, though, the crux of this chapter is the Lordly Meal. Paul recites the words that we have come to associate with Jesus at the Last Supper: this is my body…this is my blood…do it for the remembrance of me. For centuries, readers of these words have taken them as a real link, and the closest link we have, to the living Jesus. I read them that way for years, right up to the point when I started discussing them in the previous section. Only then did it strike me that this may not exactly be what we think upon first glance. Perhaps, once again, Paul is putting thoughts–and this time actual words–into Jesus’ mouth. Again, let me stress that, at some level, I truly believe that Paul believed what he was saying. He has talked about receiving the gospel directly from Jesus, even though the two never met. Paul talked earlier in the chapter about what sounded like praying for guidance, which he then received. In short, I believe that Paul believed that he truly spoke for Jesus, to the point where he had no qualms about pretty much speaking on his own authority, as he did with divorce.

Given this, and given Paul’s comfort with ‘whatever works’, I think we really need to be careful about what we accept as genuinely handed down by Jesus, especially when it comes through the filter of Paul.

So, having said all this, what are we to make of this? It will come as no surprise that these words have been accepted as genuine for centuries, even millennia. So how dare I now, suddenly question the authhenticity? Especially since Paul tells us that he instituted the meal among the Corinthians, using the words he then recites that came to down to him from the Lord. He doesn’t say, however, that they came directly from the Lord, so we could take it that there were intermediaries, such as Cephas. But let’s stop and think about these words, especially those about the cup.

It s the cup of the New Covenant, sealed in Jesus’ own blood. Now, of course, this refers to the spilling of Jesus’ blood that was about to occur. The words are prophetic, a foreshadow of what will occur within the coming day, predicting that Jesus will be dead before the sun sets again. IOW, Jesus is foretelling his own death.

Now, this is certainly within the power of a divine individual, who knows the future. In the same way, it could easily be a prediction based on Jesus believing that he had so outraged the political authorities that he could reasonably predict that they would come after him and kill him. But if Jesus was a wonder-worker, who didn’t particularly see himself as divine, and who really had no reason to suspect that the authorities were coming after him (which, I think, is very possible, if not likely; more on that when we get to Matthew), then predicting a new covenant, sealed in his own blood, is a pretty bold statement. More, it’s an unlikely statement. It is not the sort of thing that a wonder-worker or a Cynic-style sage is likely to say?

In short, aren’t these the words of someone who already knows the outcome?

Remember, the approach here is historical, not doctrinal. The biographer Suetonius reports that, shortly before C. Julius Caesar died, people saw all sorts of portents presaging Caesar’s death.  As an historian, one reads such things and says, “sure they did”. And it’s no different for current-day situations. I remember when I was 14 and my grandfather died. The phone rang at 9:30 pm on a Tuesday night, and I immediately thought “Grandpa died”. No, I wasn’t prescient; the phone ringing at that time was unusual, so this tipped off that something unusual had happened. Gramps had been in poor health, so it was just putting one and one together. Jesus stating that the cup was the cup of the new covenant, sealed in his own blood is an entirely different phenomenon. There may have been a Last Supper, or a Last Seder (there is some discussion about this; some believe it was, some believe it wasn’t; I come down in the former camp), but it is highly unlikely that Jesus uttered these words. Even the idea of the body and blood is highly evocative of an animal sacrifice; but again, this is the sort of thing that makes most sense when one knows what is about to happen.

In short, I am very skeptical about the authenticity of the words. Now, it is entirely possible that Paul was told that Jesus had uttered these words, and Paul had no reason not to believe. They may well have come down to him ‘from the Lord’, in the sense that they were told to Paul by someone like Cephas, who had occasion to know what Jesus said. But it is more likely that the words were conceived at some point after the fact.

But, if Paul believed them authentic, that does not change, or affect the message he was trying to get across in this letter. That is what should interest us most. What does Paul mean? Based on a brief survey of commentaries, people like Tertullian thought that the Corinthians were having orgies or something; but Tertullian was one of those patristic thinkers who had sex on the brain an awful lot. As nearly as I can tell, my sense is that Paul is instructing the Corinthians to separate “the Lordly meal” from a regular meal. Rather than make the lordly meal one in which some dined to excess while others went hungry, all should eat before coming, and then partake of the lordly meal. In short, Paul was advising that the lordly meal should be symbolic, in the sense that, while all would eat and drink, it would be to satisfy a spiritual hunger, not a physical one. It should not be like a pagan sacrifice, at which people expected to be fully fed. Hence, what we’re getting is the beginning of the Eucharist in a form not entirely dissimilar to our own.

To close, I just want to mention a few other things. The first is Paul does talk about–or at least mention–the coming again of Jesus. This has been touched upon, briefly, a couple of times. But the idea feels like it’s a lot less urgent than it was in the previous letters. Has the idea begun to recede? Hard to say. Not necessarily, but it is not emphasized. In that vein, we also get some brief discussion about preparing ourselves by judging ourselves; this is the idea of repentance, but that is as old as religion itself. We are still not entirely sure, however, about the means (repentance) or the end (the Life?).

Finally, just a note to remind us that Paul is still not the most lucid writing going. Getting into the mindset of words 2,000 years old, written in another language, can be (is) very difficult. We need to keep this in mind when we start getting too confident that we know just exactly what Paul is saying.

About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on May 14, 2014, in 1 Corinthians, General / Overview, Historical Jesus, Paul's Letters, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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