The following is an exegesis paper I wrote for New Testament class last December. The assigned text was 1 Corinthians 2:1-16 which is a classic text for radical theologians so I was eager to explore it.
“True Wisdom of God”
1 Corinthians 2:1-16 Exegesis (NT Interpretation)
John Lein — December 7, 2016
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian church addresses specific pastoral concerns undergirded by his conviction that the believers there have not understood the subversive and radical wisdom of God made known specifically through the crucifixion of the Messiah. In this exegesis of the second chapter, we will focus on what Paul might have intended to be understood in the context of his time and place as he contrasted the wisdom and power of the God revealed through Christ with the world’s understanding of these attributes.
The first-century church in Corinth was located within “the heart of Roman imperial culture in Greece.” (1) Based on textual references and content, it’s likely that most of the congregants here were both Gentile as well as familiar with the Hebrew Scriptures. Both Greek philosophy and Roman training in and enjoyment of rhetoric would have been part of their cultural experience. It’s clear from the text of the letter that there is a mixture of social groups in the church made up of upper class and lower class populations. These cultural backgrounds come into play in our passage.
Our sixteen verses are located near the beginning of Paul’s letter but are difficult to treat separately from the previous section found in chapter 1 starting in verse 10. Here we see Paul address divisions in the church attached to specific teachers. In 1 Corinthians 1:17 Paul sets up the thread he will argue throughout our passage: “For Christ did not send me to baptize [individuals in his own name] but to proclaim the gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power.” Paul is concerned that the gospel for the Corinthians has become an abstract set of ideas which is debated intellectually on the level of Greek or Jewish philosophy rather than the deeply subversive and radically transformative event Paul has experienced. For Paul, the gospel embedded in the cross cannot be understood through the wisdom of Gentiles or the theology of the Jews—it is a destructive force breaking apart these approaches of meaning-making in the world.
Any attempt to understand the impact this letter would have had on Paul’s original audience requires further background for a modern audience. Christian readers in particular have been so over-exposed to the theological memory of the cross after 2,000 years of preaching that it fails to generate the reaction it would have had at the time.
Crucifixion developed as a “barbarian” execution, and was even recorded as such by Greek and Roman historians to distance themselves from its formulation. It was a punishment reserved primarily for crimes seen as a threat to the empire. It was reserved largely for lower class non-citizens, especially slaves, to the point that it was widely known as “slaves’ punishment”. The practice varied somewhat, but typically began with torturing the victim and then placing them high on a “stake” for an extended often days-long death by exhaustion and thirst in full exposure to mockery and the elements. Beyond the physical aspects of torture and an excruciating death, it was explicitly a means also of shaming and dehumanizing the victims.
Pagan writers in the immediately following centuries show their distaste for this specific element when reflecting on the Christian religion. They accuse Christians of worshiping “a criminal and his cross” in a “perverse and extravagant superstition.” They think them insane, counseling one husband that it was best to leave his Christian wife alone “...persisting in her vain delusions, and lamenting in song a god who died in delusions...”. (2) Not only is the god of the Christians dead, but executed as a criminal in the most shameful way. 20th-century German scholar Walter Bauer wrote: “The enemies of Christianity always referred to the disgracefulness of the death of Jesus with great emphasis and malicious pleasure. A god or son of god dying on a cross! That was enough to put paid to the new religion.” (3) Beyond the struggles of Gentile believers to understand a savior crucified would be the insistence of Jewish scripture that one way to be sure if a messenger was from God or not was in their death. If they were “hung on a tree” in public execution, then you would know God had cursed them rather than endorsed.
The message of the cross is one that early Christian communities truly struggled with. Early theologians came up with theories like docetism to soften the offense. It seems that the Corinthian community’s focus had also moved from the scandal of the cross to more philosophical debates and community rituals. Yet Paul insists on beginning his letter with an emphasis on this shameful and embarrassing element of the new religion. For him, the gospel itself can be summed up in one offensive and cringe-worthy phrase: “Christ and him crucified”.
Paul sets up a contrast in between what he calls the “wisdom of the world” (Greek: sophia) and the “folly of God”. It is important to recognize that this is not a simple description of how God is so wise he makes our wisdom look foolish. No, there is a reversal going on here. Paul contrasts the ideas of wisdom, civilization, power, nobility, and honor contained within the “current age” of Greek thought and Jewish theology with the folly, barbaric, weak, ignoble and shameful event found in the event of the cross. Later in the letter he emphasizes how we must become fools according to the age in order to be truly wise according to God (3:18).
The fool (μωρός) of the ancient world was a figure of popular ridicule. The local audience would have pictured someone of disfigured and ugly appearance as played by mimes, subject to spitting and abuse by the play-actors. He would be considered slow and confused of speech and thought, a simpleton, with a lack of self-control and civility in public. And he would be a penniless vagabond, on the level of prostitutes and thieves, a mockable parasite on the streets of the town. The fool would be considered the very opposite of the aspiration of beauty, intelligence, self-control and wealth sought as the pinnacle of humanity in the ancient Greco-Roman world. John Barclay writes: “We can now appreciate why Paul would associate crucifixion not only with weakness but also with folly. The crucified victim is the degraded human, the subhuman, an object of ridicule and contempt at the moment when he is ejected from the company of humans. Physically tortured and deformed, he is stripped of every last remnant of human dignity, debased to a condition in which all rational speech and thought are rendered impossible, and all emotions and bodily functions out of control.” (4)
This, then, forms the foundation of both Paul’s gospel and our passage in the letter to the Corinthians. His audience listening to it being read out loud would be appalled and disgusted by the dichotomy set up by this preacher of the “good news” in such deliberate contrast to the eloquent rhetoric and discourse of the other teachers they each appealed to. For Paul, the gospel hinged not on the philosophical tradition of the Gentiles nor on the system of signs and wonders of the Jews nor even on moral teachings, mystical encounters or the resurrection of classic Christianity, but in a concrete this-worldly event of monstrous physicality, torment and shame.
For radical theologians this text functions as a deconstruction of the systems of meaning that we religious humans seek to find in the world. Barclay writes: “The crucifixion is not just a temporary aberration in an otherwise well-functioning system: it is the clearest possible proof that the norms which pass for ‘wisdom’ are completely unable to grasp what God is doing in the world. To read the crucifixion with the eyes of Paul is like reading the systems of justice in the old American South with the eyes of Harper Lee (To Kill a Mockingbird): it is to expose a whole system of evaluation, a matrix of norms and judgments that prides itself on its advanced state of civilization, as blind, corrupt, and barbaric, utterly worthless in its judgment of worth.” (5)
For Paul the scandal of the cross puts into question all our assumptions about how the world is constructed and understood. Through this event, he has come to see the world with new eyes, revealed directly by the Spirit of God rather than human wisdom or religious texts. When we return to the stories of Jesus in the written Gospels with this lens in place we can see this system of reversal and subversion also in place. In Matthew chapter 25 he says you will find him, the savior of the world, in the body of the impoverished, homeless, and imprisoned. He insists that traitors of the people (tax collectors) and prostitutes will precede the righteous and the worldly-blessed into the kingdom. John Caputo writes: “A theology of the cross, pursued without compromise, requires a deconstruction of the metaphysics, the mythology, and the politics of power. Its watchword is the revolutionary texts of 1 Corinthians 1, where God systematically takes his stand with everyone on the lower end of these binary systems—with foolishness instead of wisdom...with weakness instead of power.” (6)
For us today in the United States, we might apply this lens by looking first at our prisons, our military operations, our homeless populations, our bankrupt sick and uneducated, and those outcast from our churches as mirrors that show the truth of our system of civilization. As the Brazilian archbishop Dom Helder Camara once said, “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.” Paul points us to understand the true depth of the gospel as found in the very midst of what we pride ourselves on as “civilization”, and calls us to see the subversive, radical wisdom of God that shows the wise of the world to be fools engaged in foolishness by the standards of the self-giving love of Christ. Instead, we are called to be fools for Christ, the “refuse and scum” of the world in 1 Cor 4.
Notes and Bibliography
- Lander, Shira. The Jewish Annotated New Testament, 287
- Felix and Porphyry quoted in Hengel, 3-4
- Quoted in Hengel, 19.
- Barclay, Kindle Locations 336-339.
- Barclay, Kindle Locations 364-369
- Caputo 2015, Kindle Locations 719-722
Barclay, John M. G., “Crucifixion as Wisdom: Exploring the Ideology of a Disreputable Social Movement.” In The Wisdom and Foolishness of God: First Corinthians 1-2 in Theological Exploration, edited by Christophe Chalamet. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015. Kindle Edition.
Caputo, John D., “The Weakness of God: A Radical Theology of the Cross.” In The Wisdom and Foolishness of God: First Corinthians 1-2 in Theological Exploration, edited by Christophe Chalamet. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015. Kindle Edition.
Caputo, John D. The Folly of God: A Theology of the Unconditional. Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2016.
Hengel, Martin. Crucifixion in the Ancient World and the Folly of the Message of the Cross. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1977.
Lander, Shira. Introduction to 1 Corinthians in The Jewish Annotated New Testament. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Rollins, Peter. Insurrection: To Believe is Human; To Doubt, Divine. New York, NY: Howard Books, 2011.