Summary 1 Corinthians Chapter 13

Of all that we’ve read so far, this chapter is by far the most cohesive. It feels very much like a unit, all dealing with the same theme: ‘agape’. As a result, on the one hand, the message and the meaning of this chapter are very straightforward and very obvious. I had little or nothing to add in the way of interpretation or comment. Given that the term ‘agape’ not well attested outside of the NT, we could spend a lot of time talking about what ‘agape’ love means; but to do so would be to admit that we missed the point. Paul tells us what he thinks ‘agape’ means. That is precisely what the chapter is about: Paul is defining the term for us.

So, given the apparent non-complexity of the topic, and the fact that this is all about Paul’s conception of divine love, what is there to say? To answer, I refer back to Ernest Hemingway. His stories are so simple in form that it’s very easy to breeze through it and then at the end say, ‘well not much to that, was there?’, thereby missing the whole point of the story. And so it would be easy to do that with this chapter. We could read it, marvel at the beauty of the imagery and of the thoughts conveyed and then go about our business, completely missing the point.

In the chapter, I mentioned that this word ‘agape’ was not found in profane authors, that its use was limited largely to the NT. Consider that for a moment or two. It means that Paul more or less invented this term.  As the author of the earliest parts of the NT, he set the stage for those who came after. Put this with the fact that the chapter is basically a definition of the word, and we come to realise that in this chapter, Paul ushered a brand- new concept of love into the world. I’m surely not the first person to make that observation, but I’m just as sure that I’ve never come across it, in print or in person. I’ve heard selections of this passage countless times, but no one has remarked on the novelty of it. Paul had to spend the entire chapter defining the word because the idea expressed had not existed prior to this chapter being written. We don’t need to know what Liddell & Scott think about the word; Paul tells us what ‘agape’ means very, very clearly.

I’ve read Classics; mostly historical writing, but I’ve read other things as well. In my opinion and in my, admittedly limited,  experience, in the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius perhaps comes closest to expressing something like this sort of love. In the end, however, he is talking about ‘philos-love’, the love that you attach as a prefix to wisdom, or humankind, or stamp collecting. IOW, it’s not at all the same thing as Paul is describing. The love in Marcus Aurelius is too detached and too bloodless. So this leads to the next point. In reading about the QHJ, I’ve come across theories that Jesus’ central message was eschatological, dealing with the end times he was predicting. Or, I’ve read that he was a Cynic sage in the mold of Diogenes, traveling about and spouting wisdom sayings which were neatly–if fictitiously–collected in “Q”. What I haven’t seen much discussed is the possibility that Jesus’ message was about this kind of ‘agape-love’. Why is that? Thinking about it we only vague allusions to it, perhaps, in Mark, with Jesus hanging with the tax-collectors in a very forgiving way. But the underlying concept of ‘agape-love’ is buried pretty effectively, so all we get are those hints. But think for a moment. Do we get the Cynic stuff, and the end-times stuff because they fit ever-so-well into the context of the times? They do, remarkably well. But maybe that is precisely the problem.

In discussing the Baptist, I suggested that John fit too well into the context of one of the varieties of Judaism that were current in the First Century. Because he fit so well into this thought-world, he lacked a wider appeal and so became something of a footnote while there are millions of Christians alive today. Why? Why Jesus, and not John, or any of the others that Josephus mentions, or someone like Apollonius of Tyana? My suggestion is that they have all faded into the background because they can be explained in terms of that background, in terms of their times. People heard them, or witnessed their wonders, and then promptly forgot them. Jesus, OTOH, they remembered. And I would suggest that the reason Jesus was remembered is due to the fact that his message was something so novel it startled people.

If you are a speaker of English, living in the US, and you meet someone new with the surname of Smith or Johnson, it’s often hard to recall the name later precisely because it is so usual. Someone with a name like Frazergrast, OTOH, will stick in your memory. Just so, I suggest, Jesus stuck out because he said something unusual. If the Lord’s Prayer, the Pater Noster, was truly Jesus’ signature piece–and this is a big ‘if’–then maybe this chapter is the working-out of the message of Jesus. This is the explanation of what Jesus meant when he said ‘our father’.

“Love is patient, love is kind”…even a century later, Marcus Aurelius had nothing comparable to this, and the Stoics were the ones who invented the idea of universal sibling-hood. Jesus took that a step–or two or three–further and crossed into truly novel territory. And in this chapter, perhaps, we get Paul explaining Jesus’ message. the message of  “our father”. We’ll return to this idea when we get to the relevant part of Matthew.


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 June 6, 2014, in 1 Corinthians, epistles, Historical Jesus, Paul's Letters, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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