Summary 1 Corinthians Chapter 12

Unlike some of the chapters we’ve read, this one was fairly consistent in theme and topic. Far and away, the bulk of the chapter revolved around the theme that could be summarized as ‘e pluribus unum’. As I mentioned, this is the motto on US coinage, and it means ‘of many, one’. The idea is that the US is made up of many different groups that have come together to form a single unit, a union. As with most matters political, theory and practice may not always match, but that is the point of the motto.

And so it is with Chapter 12. In fact, we get this in two different ways. The first is the many gifts all coming from the same spirit. Or Spirit. It was never called the ‘Holy Spirit” (or sacred breath). The gifts are varied: prophecy, discernment of spirits (good from bad), tongues, healing, miracle, and others. The second iteration involved the theme of one body with many members. The two are complementary, they are mutually reinforcing. And Paul uses this to establish a paradigm for what he was trying to accomplish in Corinth, and probably elsewhere for that matter.

Recall that we met the theme of divisions in the Community of Corinth already in Chapters 1 and 2. Just as the body is composed of many members, so it seems that the Community of Corinth was composed of many different types of people. In particular, we seem to have some fairly extreme class divisions. We got this from previous chapters dealing with the eating of idol food and the manner of how the lordly supper should be celebrated. And it would seem that the Community is coming apart at the seams where the various groups are joined together. To rectify this, Paul has resorted to the idea of the body with the various members: hands, feet, eyes, etc. Some of these body parts may seem to be more important than others, but this apparent difference is illusory. The body needs all its members to function to its fullest capacity. Just so, the Community of Corinth–or any Community–needs all its members to attain its optimal level of function. The lesser members of the Community should not be scorned any more than the less honourable parts of the body should be scorned. Each plays a unique function, each is necessary. In the same way, the various gifts given by the spirit each play a role in the Community: each is important, each should be given its proper due.

Having read not a little of the literature of the pagan world that was written in the years before and after this letter, I can say that the sentiment expressed here is unusual for the time. It is not entirely unique, or entirely novel, but the emphasis placed on a multi-faceted community made up of members from very different backgrounds is bordering on unique. We ran across this in Galatians as well, the famous Jew/Greek, Slave/Free dichotomies, so the idea is not something Paul thought up to deal with the problems in Corinth. Chances are, this was a fairly integral part of Paul’s message to all his Communities. The difference here, I think, is that the divisions along income lines were more pronounced than in other places, or that the upper echelon comprised a bigger portion of the whole than elsewhere, so the fault lines were more acute. Recall the strictures against eating idol food: Paul was concerned that seeing some members eating at idol meals would have undue influence. The point was that it was almost certainly the upper echelon that was participating, since the upper crust would never deign to follow the example of the poor members.

I do want to refer back to the quote Paul gives of Jesus’ words at the Last Supper. I do not believe the words can be ascribed to Jesus. They have a strong ex post facto feel to them; they are the words of someone who knows that Jesus was crucified, was indeed ‘sacrificed’ on the cross. But I think that Paul’s use of the body metaphor here is further indication that he invented the words of Jesus. This sort of invention was very common in the Ancient World; it’s why the Gospel of Judas was not written until 200-300 years after the nominal Judas was dead. Herodotus and Thucydides, the founders of the historical method, routinely put quoted words into the mouth of someone long dead. It was pretty much standard practice for writers at the time.

Moreover, in previous chapters we have seen that Paul is not at all abashed to ‘correct’ Jesus; and he is willing to put forth his own interpretation even though he has no guidance from the words of Jesus. We have discussed Paul’s conversion experience, we have seen how he claims that he did not receive the gospel from any human, but that it came directly from God. Recently, while reading some Mediaeval Latin, I came across a reference 2 Corinthians 2:12. In that passage Paul talks about how he was taken up to ‘third heaven’. This was, possibly, some sort of vision.  My suspicion–and that’s all it is–is that Paul had something like a “Road to Damascus” moment, except that it didn’t actually occur on the road to Damascus. I touched on this in the discussion of Galatians, in which I speculated that the new interpretation of, or relation to The Law; that he suddenly understood Jesus’ message as it pertained to the Law, and this was what set him off on his campaign of conversion. Given this, I think Paul may have been the sort to look inward–to pray, however one defines that term, whether in terms of religion or psychology–and experience continued revelation of Jesus’ message. Now, whether this resembled anything Jesus actually said, as we define historical reality, is wholly another story. But, to Paul, the factual reality of Jesus simply didn’t matter. This is, to some degree, why he seems so unconcerned with anything Jesus did while the latter was alive. For Paul, Jesus was always with him. This, I think, is what Paul means when he talks about the spirit, about ‘being in the spirit’. In short, being in the spirit was probably not dissimilar to being taken up to third heaven. Paul has God and Jesus on speed-dial.

There are a few minor points I’d like to mention. I do not know how culturally Greek Paul was. Being from Tarsus, he was removed from the Jewish heartland, and, as a result, was likely exposed to more Greek ideas than say, James or Cephas. And one very Greek concept was the differentiation between the spirit and the flesh. This distinction, and the emphasis on this distinction was, I believe, much more Greek than Jewish. And, since he is writing to an audience that he tells is largely pagan in origin, I wonder how much he tailored his message to put it in terms a pagan–a Greek pagan–would understand. That is, he put the religious sphere in terms of the distinction between flesh and spirit. As such, Plato got a toehold into Christian thought almost from the start. And, one wonders, if this wasn’t part of the problem that the James Gang in Jerusalem had with his message.

Finally, there was a passage in Verse 13 in which Paul says that the Community was baptised into one body. I wanted to mention this at the time, but I went off on a different tangent and it slipped my mind. This is interesting, largely because Paul seemed so dismissive of the idea of baptism at the beginning of the letter. He was, he told us, not sent to baptise, but to preach the good news (1:17). Given this, I think we must take the idea and practice of baptism very seriously as something historical. This is strong evidence, I think, that Jesus probably was baptised. I have suggested that the gospel writers played up–rather than played down–Jesus’ relation to John the Dunker, but I think that the central point of Jesus’ baptism is likely to be factually accurate. As for Paul’s distaste, the epistle reading in church recently was from 1 Peter, including 3:21, in which the author describes baptism as, not for the cleansing of the flesh, but as an appeal to God for good conscience. Recall that Josephus told us that John’s baptism was not for repentance; one was baptised only after repenting. The actual submersion was intended actually to clean the body, perhaps to symbolise that the spirit was already clean. Given that 1 Peter was probably written 40 years (+/-) after Paul, we get the sense that John’s idea or conception of baptism was still out there. How much more prevalent was it during Paul’s time? Given this, perhaps Paul’s aversion to the practice stemmed from this aspect. It was of the flesh, not of the spirit.

Just a note: When I used terms like “John the Dunker”, or “sacred breath” or the “Anointed”, the purpose is not to be irreverent, or humorous or in any way disparaging. The intent is to make us remember that the words with which we are so familiar were understood very differently by the contemporaries. We are in a rut with these words; they have a very specific meaning for us. These meanings were not present in the First Century. We need to hear them with fresh ears, to realize that “baptism” didn’t mean “christening”, for example, or that the sacred breath was not an entity, or that Christ was not a surname.



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 31, 2014, in 1 Corinthians, Paul's Letters, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. The Jews were exposed to the dualism of flesh and spirit from the Persians through their close religious connections to Mesopotamia and their previous occupation by the Persians.

    • Well, yes. The Jews probably did first encounter dualism at close quarters during the Persian occupation. However, the occupation by the successors of Alexander was much more…intimate. The Greeks, per Alexander’s policy, made deliberate and persistent attempts to introduce Greek culture and thought into the subject populations to a degree well beyond what the Persians would have introduced. They were much more hands-off culturally. The Greeks had the requisite level of chauvinism to believe that their culture was superior to that of then non-Greek-speakers.

      However. I’m not trying to say it came from one and not the other; rather. Perhaps the best way to put it is that Persians introduced it, but the Greeks continued to apply the pressure.

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