1 Corinthians 15:50-58

So we (finally) conclude Chapter 15.  The previous section got too long, so I had to break it up. This section is fairly short. Chapter 15 has been a very long chapter. However, this is the penultimate chapter, and the ultimate is fairly–or at least relatively–short.

50 Τοῦτο δέ φημι, ἀδελφοί, ὅτι σὰρξ καὶ αἷμα βασιλείαν θεοῦ κληρονομῆσαι οὐ δύναται, οὐδὲ ἡ φθορὰ τὴν ἀφθαρσίαν κληρονομεῖ.

But I say all this, brothers, that flesh and blood are not able to inherit the kingdom of God, nor are corruption and in-corruption able to inherit (i.e., the kingdom of God).

This is an interesting statement. Really, Paul is simply taking the position that he has laid out to the next level. He has said, several times, that the faithful must be spiritual and not tied to the things of the flesh, to worldly matters. And so, it makes sense that the flesh and blood, with their concomitant and inevitable corruption should not inherit the kingdom. But this also puts something of a new twist on the idea, now that we have been told about the spiritual bodies.

This also has implications for the quest for the historical Jesus. This tells us that preaching the kingdom probably does date back to Jesus himself. At least, the implication is there; however, given Paul’s willingness to go off the reservation and create his own doctrine (which is also, in the final analysis, only an inference based mostly on implication), we cannot be entirely certain. Despite this, I would put the probability as better than 75% that it does represent a part of Jesus’ teaching.

That being said, we have to ask how much of what Paul is saying coincides with anything that Jesus said. The probability of that, I think, goes way down. We can take it as given, I believe that Jesus preached a kingdom to come. That would follow pretty much a priori from the preaching of the kingdom. The question becomes, was Jesus’ kingdom to be of this world? Or was it to be something spiritual. Given this statement, I think Jesus was unclear on that, which makes me suspect that Jesus was preaching a kingdom of this world. That is, he was preaching a standard-issue sort of kingdom. I believe this to be a valid inference, very similar to Jesus’ lack of preaching about dietary laws: that there was an issue indicates that Jesus did not say anything about the topic. And so here, that Paul has to make this clarification is a very–very–strong indication that Jesus said nothing about a spiritual kingdom. His kingdom was to be of this world.

Which, in turn, implies a Messiah that was not divine, even if he had been selected by God. Honestly, this is not surprising. Jesus preaching about a human Messiah selected by God would put him squarely into Jewish tradition. The Messiah was to be a new David, which is why there came to be so much stress on Jesus being a scion of the house of David. It was only as time passed and the kingdom did not appear that explanations were required. And really, the language here, I think, is noticeably different from the language of 1 Thessalonians. There was nothing in the tale of the faithful being raised up to meet the Anointed that our bodies would be spiritual. Rather, Paul says nothing about it. Granted, if there’s one thing I learned it in Classics, it’s that the Argument from Silence is a very dangerous thing. However, when Paul goes to the other extreme, I think we can take this to mean that, in places, the silence has enormous implications.

What all of this means is that we are here getting the seeds of the doctrine of a spiritual, rather than a worldly kingdom. Later Christian thought, which reaches us in our own day, of a Kingdom of Heaven that will occur in the afterlife, or at the End Of The World, and be a spiritual kingdom, rather than a worldly one like that of the Romans.

50 Hoc autem dico, fratres, quoniam caro et sanguis regnum Dei possidere non possunt, neque corruptio incorruptelam possidebit.

51 ἰδοὺ μυστήριον ὑμῖν λέγω: πάντες οὐ κοιμηθησόμεθα, πάντες δὲ ἀλλαγησόμεθα,

Behold the mystery I relate to you: not all who have fallen asleep, but we all who have been changed.

And again we must ask what the silence means. Does it mean anything? Not all who die will inherit, but only those who have been transformed. This is fine, but what doesn’t it say? It doesn’t say anything about what will happen to those who have not been transformed. That is, there is no mention of a lake of fire or any of the other images of Hell, or even that the untransformed will even go anywhere. What it sounds like is that the untransformed will simply not be raised. Now, I sneaked a peek ahead, and this may hold, but bear it in mind as we proceed.

51 Ecce mysterium vobis dico: Non omnes quidem dormiemus, sed omnes immutabimur,

52 ἐν ἀτόμῳ, ἐν ῥιπῇ ὀφθαλμοῦ, ἐν τῇ ἐσχάτῃ σάλπιγγι: σαλπίσει γάρ, καὶ οἱ νεκροὶ ἐγερθήσονται ἄφθαρτοι, καὶ ἡμεῖς ἀλλαγησόμεθα.

In a tiny indivisible particle of time, in the blink of an eye, at the last trumpet; for a trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised uncorrupted, and we will be transformed.

OK, sorry, couldn’t resist. The first two words of the sentence are ‘en atomo’…Transliterated like this, it’s obviously the word from which we got ‘atoms’. In fact, ‘atom’ is a transliteration and not a translation. It simply means ‘indivisible’; and it has always blown my mind that some dude 2,000+ years ago simply deduced that this had to be the way matter was constructed. Now, the fact that we used the word to designate something that can be further divided does not detract from the beauty of this deduction. That what we call ‘quarks’ are a better candidate for the term ‘atoms’ takes nothing from Demosthenes. But the sense that Paul is trying to get across is that this will occur in the smallest amount of time possible. The time span is so small that it’s indivisible.

Secondly, “the trumpet will sound” does not exactly capture the Greek. “There will be a trumpeting” is actually better. The verb is ‘to trumpet’.

Finally, the message of the verse. This basic image has become enshrined and elaborated as the Last Judgement. Revelation picks up on this idea of the trumpet; and adds six more, in addition to seals, phials, & c. Two things: first, note the span of time so small that it’s indivisible. This is very different from the 1,000 year reign of the Antichrist, or even the extended days of tribulation described by Mark. What does this mean? It means, I think, that this is an excellent example of how stories grow with the telling. New sections are created, details are added, the story grows by becoming more elaborate.

I keep coming back to the Arthur legend, and for two reasons: 1) I know it very well, including its historical basis; and 2) it is so appropriate. Launcelot, Parzifal, Bors, all of these characters were invented by later minstrels and bards. Think of the elaboration of the saints, all the stories that developed–were invented–later. Doubting Thomas, who went to India (?) and became Jesus’ twin; Peter crucified upside down; St Christopher who carried the Christ-child. This invention was still going strong in 15th Century England when new saints dressed as old ones appeared, whose cult grew despite the lack of evidence that the particular saint ever lived. Or then, there’s the Song of Roland, based on an actual historical event. We know enough of the real history to know that the Chanson got the enemy wrong. So yes, the Arthur legend is an excellent example of what happens in retelling. 

52 in momento, in ictu oculi, in novissima tuba; canet enim, et mortui suscitabuntur incorrupti, et nos immutabimur.

53 δεῖ γὰρ τὸ φθαρτὸν τοῦτο ἐνδύσασθαι ἀφθαρσίαν καὶ τὸ θνητὸν τοῦτο ἐνδύσασθαι ἀθανασίαν.

For this corruptible (body) must put on (one that is) incorruptible, and this mortal (body) must put on (one that is) immortal.

I actually meant to discuss the bit about the dead being raised in the discussion of the last verse, but it’s probably more appropriate here. Dow, do you get the sense from …the dead will be raised…that he only means ‘the faithful’? Honestly, by not excluding, does he imply that all will be raised? I don’t think it follows necessarily that only the faithful will rise, but it’s not really a stretch to take it that way, either. Now, we are told that the corruptible/mortal body must become incorruptible/immortal. To do what? To be raised? Or to inherit the kingdom? 

We are conditioned to think in terms of all the dead being raised so that the guilty can be sent to Hell for punishment. Or am I completely misunderstanding how this works? Because Paul is does not seem to be saying anything like that here; there is no mention of punishment. I’m not quite sure how to take this. Again, I believe this is largely because Paul was not clear in his own mind about how this was going to work. Earlier, he had supposed the Parousia would occur soon. Now that time has continued to pass, more people who were faithful in the Christ have fallen asleep. This more or less compelled him, I think, to start coming up with alternatives. And perhaps it was especially imperative to do this here and now, since there is a teaching in the Community at Corinth that the dead are not to be raised. Paul has to counteract that, and quickly.

53 Oportet enim corruptibile hoc induere incorruptelam, et mortale induere immortalitatem.

54 ὅταν δὲ τὸ φθαρτὸν τοῦτο ἐνδύσηται ἀφθαρσίαν καὶ τὸ θνητὸν τοῦτο ἐνδύσηται ἀθανασίαν, τότε γενήσεται ὁ λόγος ὁ γεγραμμένος, Κατεπόθη ὁ θάνατος εἰς νῖκος.

When this corruption puts on incorruptibility and this mortality puts on immortality, then will be the word that has been written, “death has been devoured on the way to victory.”

The participle << εἰςεἰς >> usually has the sense of motion toward. But the motion is often figurative, so when paired with a verb it’s something like a gerund. Here, it’s paired with the noun for ‘victory’, so I chose “on the way to”. This puts across the sense of motion. And this is a cite of, or reference to Isaiah 25:8. This time, it’s the original Isaiah, and it talks about the destruction of death, and the subsequent alleviation of the misery of people.

I’m no OT scholar. Or an NT scholar for that matter. But the cite/ref (it’s not an exact quote, as far as I can tell) is situated in the middle of how the Lord is going to destroy the earth, and then raise up a banquet for all the peoples, at which time death will be destroyed forever (REB paraphrase). Then we are told that Moab will be destroyed to the benefit of Israel/Judah. Given this, the context seems to be more of a this-world, rather than an other-world scenario, in which life will be eternal. So we see how Paul is forging the connection between the two scriptures, and that Isaiah is one of the ones referred to the most.

54 Cum autem corruptibile hoc induerit incorruptelam, et mortale hoc induerit immortalitatem, tunc fiet sermo, qui scriptus est: “ Absorpta est mors in victoria.

55 ποῦ σου, θάνατε, τὸνῖκος; ποῦ σου, θάνατε, τὸ κέντρον;

“Where (is) yours, death? Where is your sting?”

Per the Vulgate below, this should read: ‘Where is your victory, death?’ And, given the context, I agree. 

This second question is a reasonably direct quote from Hosea 13:14. Now, here’s a bit of a sticky wicket.  My REB translates the beginning of 13:14 as “shall I redeem him from the grave?” This refers to Ephraim, presumably, a child too foolish to present himself at the opening of the womb at the proper time. Now M Calvin, and my NIV translate this as “I will redeem them…” The plural refers to people, a people. Now, I have to say that the REB is pretty much alone on this; the KJV, NASB, and ESV all follow the NIV.  

The thing is, the REB’s reading makes this feel very ironic, because the author seems to be saying that Ephraim is a chucklehead, and is beseeching death to come sting him. But, I think that is all an interesting sidelight; given the way Paul uses the quote, I believe he is reading it with the majority of English translations. But, once again, just because we’ve been reading this book for a few thousand years doesn’t mean we have it right.

55 Ubi est, mors, victoria tua? / Ubi est, mors, stimulus tuus? ”.

56 τὸ δὲ κέντρον τοῦ θανάτου ἡ ἁμαρτία, ἡ δὲ δύναμις τῆς ἁμαρτίας ὁ νόμος:

But the sting of death (is) the sin, the power is sin is the law.

Now we’re back to the Law.

56 Stimulus autem mortis peccatum est, virtus vero peccati lex.

57 τῷ δὲ θεῷ χάρις τῷ διδόντι ἡμῖν τὸ νῖκος διὰ τοῦ κυρίου ἡμῶν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ.

But thanks to God, by whom is given to us the victory through our lord Jesus the Anointed.

 Comment deferred.

57 Deo autem gratias, qui dedit nobis victoriam per Dominum nostrum Iesum Christum.

58 Ὥστε, ἀδελφοί μου ἀγαπητοί, ἑδραῖοι γίνεσθε, ἀμετακίνητοι, περισσεύοντες ἐν τῷ ἔργῳ τοῦ κυρίου πάντοτε, εἰδότες ὅτι  ὁκόπος ὑμῶν οὐκ ἔστιν κενὸς ἐν κυρίῳ.

In this way, my beloved brothers, become steadfast, immovable, abounding in the work of the lord always, (so) you know that your labour in the lord is not vain.

58 Itaque, fratres mei dilecti, stabiles estote, immobiles, abundantes in opere Domini semper, scientes quod labor vester non est inanis in Domino.

I really don’t get the part about the Law. Death has no sting, by the grace of God, our victory over death through the Anointed, be immovable–meaning, stick with my gospel, not that of someone else–and your efforts will be rewarded. My sense is that this jab at the Law, which he calls the power of sin, is a reference to whomever it was that was telling the Community that the dead do not rise. That is why they are to remain steadfast and immovable, so that they resist the seduction of this other message.

By which I ask: the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection of the body, as we are told by Josephus. Was Apollos a Sadducee? It’s possible, but likely not necessary. At this point in history, not believing in the resurrection of the body was the majority opinion. It is Paul who is in the minority. Perhaps not among Jews, nor among followers of Jesus, but a minority in the wider world that included the pagans.

One thing I would like to note. I have been told, countless times, that the followers of Jesus described themselves as followers of The Way. And yet, this term has not come up even once in three letters. That is the sort of situation in which, I think, the argument from silence is likely to be valid, rather than spurious. But this will be an ongoing discussion.

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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 August 5, 2014, in 1 Corinthians, epistles, Paul's Letters and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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