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Posts Tagged ‘Paul’

1 Corinthians & Acts

As I’m studying the BIble, I find it helpful to tie together different sections of the Bible to show how the writings complement each other. With Paul, it’s good to go back to Acts as you read his letters and see if there may be any helpful information that Acts provides. So, in Luke’s account of Paul’s ministry in Ephesus (Acts 19), you learn that Ephesus has a strong community dedicated to the cult and magic. When you read Ephesians, you notice that Paul, more than any other letter of his, uses language of our victory in Christ in the “heavenlies” and strong language of “spiritual warfare” (Eph 6:12-20). No coincidence. 

I’ve noticed a few parallels between its account of Paul’s ministry in Corinth (Acts 18) and Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians, some are minor, some helpful.

1. Acts 18:3 says that Paul worked in Corinth as a tentmaker, which fits with his account that he worked rather than have the Corinthians “pay his way” (1 Cor 4:12; 9:6, 18- see also 1 Thess 2:9- this seems to have been Paul’s modus operandi).

2. Acts 18:5-6 notes that Paul’s ministry to the Jews in the synagogues was largely unsuccessful, so much so that he declared “from now on I will go to the Gentiles.” Sure enough, it seems reasonably obvious that Paul’s Corinthian audience is mostly Gentile.

3. Luke tells us that “Crispus, the synagogue leader, and his entire household believed in the Lord; and many of the Corinthians who heard Paul believed and were baptized” (18:8). Paul mentions baptizing Crispus in 1 Cor 1:14.

4. While Paul was in Corinth, “the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision: ‘Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attach and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). It isn’t a stretch to assume, then, that Paul was afraid. In Paul’s own words, “I came to you in weakness with great and trembling” (1 Cor 2:3).

5. Luke also records the beating of Sosthenes, another synagogue leader, at the hands of an angry mob (18:17). He was, presumably, a believer, and eventual “cowriter” (using that term loosely) of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (1:1- I wonder if he left Corinth because of the beating?).

6. Finally, after they all leave Corinth, Priscilla and Aquilla, Paul’s coworkers, meet Apollos in Ephesus. Luke tells us “He was a learned man, with a thorough knowledge of the Scriptures…and he spoke with great fervor” (Acts 18:24-25), who was then taught more thoroughly by Priscilla and Aquilla. After this, Apollos ministered in Achaia and Corinth (Achaia is the overall region where Corinth was located) and “vigorously refuted the Jews in public debate” (18:28).

Interestingly, this seems to have caused some unintended problems within the church at Corinth. We learn that some chose to follow Apollos, while some chose to follow others (1 Cor 1:12). It seems that some of the Corinthians had rejected Paul on the basis of his lack of “wisdom” and “eloquence” (1 Cor 1:18-2:16; see also 2 Cor 10:10). Could it be that after experiencing Apollos’ rhetorical abilities and his knowledge that some had placed Apollos higher on the “spiritual” scale than Paul? It would seem that their love for wisdom and persuasive rhetoric would certainly make this possible, if not probable (1 Cor 1:22; 2:1-5). Of course, Paul doesn’t blame Apollos; he was, after all, doing his job of watering the seed that Paul had laid down (3:6). And it’s clear that Apollos was no longer in Corinth when this letter was written (16:12), so the divisions probably happened after his departure.

None of these 6 points, mind you, are necessarily crucial to understanding Paul’s letter. In fact, it seems to me that numbers 3 and 5 are purely incidental, number 1 confirms what we already know in other letters, number 2 gives us a good understanding why Paul’s audience in this letter seems so Gentile (and also confirms what we know from other letters- he was the apostle to the Gentiles, after all), and numbers 4 (on Paul’s fear) and 6 (on Apollos’ abilities) give us some interesting background that proves to be more helpful- especially the last point.

Note: this is a slightly revisted version of an older post.

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In Ephesians 4:8, Paul quotes Psalm 68:18:

“When he ascended on high,

he led captives in his train

and gave gifts to men.” (NIV)

If you flip to Ps.68:18 in your Bible, however, you’ll find that the text reads:

“When you ascended on high,

you led captives in your train;

you received gifts from men” (NIV)

What do we do about this?  The change of subject (i.e., from “you” to “he”), isn’t entirely alarming, since the NT frequently applies things said of God to Jesus (e.g., Peter’s sermon in Acts 2; never mind that we understand God to be Triune, so putting Jesus and God on the same footing is no offense).  The issue is “received” and “gave.”  Is Paul misquoting the text?  There are no easy answers.  Peter O’Brien, in his excellent commentary on Ephesians, admits as much.  After listing five major interpretations of this verse, he admits, “None of the above-mentioned suggestions fully solves this difficult crux” (Ephesians, PNTC, p.293).

We find no help here from textual criticism; the textual evidence is very strong for Paul’s use of “gave” in Eph.4:8.  We find less help when we refer to the Hebrew Masoretic text or the Septuagint.  Both write “received;” not “gave.”  The problem won’t go away that easily.

Historically, these types of things have shaken me, bringing up questions in the “is the Bible reliable?” vein.  Something helpful to me in such circumstances has been the mental equivalent of taking a deep breath, and reminding myself of what we know about Paul, and NT authors in general:

  1. Paul probably knew the OT (in Hebrew and Greek), better than most of us, let’s not forget that he was a Pharisee (Php.3:5).
  2. Paul probably held the OT in higher regard than most of us (this is the man who wrote 2 Tim.3:16, after all).
  3. Paul was probably writing to people who knew the OT, and had a high regard for it.
  4. Paul is no sloppy writer.  As literature, the structures, words and themes of Paul’s letters show amazing skill, purpose, thoughtfulness and depth.

Given the above, the most reasonable thing to conclude is that Paul’s use of “gave” in his quotation is intentional, serious, and with scriptural basis.  It is no accident, no light treatment of the OT, and no Biblical contradiction.  Also, it is worth reminding ourselves that it is dangerous to impose our contemporary ideas about quoting sources upon Paul, who comes from a vastly different culture than our own, with completely different technology, expectations, and assumptions about the transmission of ideas.  In our eye witness news days, with entire books written on how to properly quote a source, where we even insert special words to remind readers that we’re quoting a source exactly as the author wrote it (e.g., sic), it’s easy to lose sight of this.

So in the first instance, we can relax, and doubly so because I haven’t even mentioned yet that Paul is an apostle writing by the power of the Holy Spirit, a fact itself capable of allaying our fears.  But we still have a problem, namely, what is Paul saying and why?

The explanations I’ve read broadly fall into two categories.  The first suggests that Paul is applying some flavor of Jewish technique for Biblical interpretation, called a midrash.  There were targumim (i.e., midrashic interpretations of the OT) available to Paul at the time that actually use “gave” instead of “received” for the verse in question.

The second has to do with the words themselves.  The word for “receive,” it is argued, can mean “receive in order to give.”  In other words, the gifts are received, but only to be given back.  Expanding on this, some have made connections between Psalm 68 and Numbers 8 and 18.  In these texts, God takes or receives the Levites only to give them back to serve the community (c.f., Num. 8:16 and 8:19).   This explanation fits nicely in the context of Ephesians, because in Eph.4:7-16, Paul is talking about gifts that God has given to the church, specifically people (apostles, prophets, etc.), for the purpose of serving it.

My summaries above all require much defense, and again, as O’Brien notes in his commentary, none are without deficiencies.  The one unifying premise we might note, however, is that to say Paul “quotes” Ps.68:18 may be misleading in itself.  It might be better to say that Paul is interpreting the Psalm for us as much as he is quoting it.  He actually does this quite explicitly in the verses that follow (vv.9-10), when he shows how the Psalm points to the incarnation and ascension of Jesus.  Paul is in “interpretive mode,” as it were.

Finally, we should note that this text poses no great exegetical problem.  Had we no knowledge of Psalm 68, Paul’s point is in this passage is clear:  God (Jesus) has a history of giving gifts to us, in this case the gifts are people who help us grow to the unified maturity that has Christ-likeness as its ultimate goal.  And exhale.

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