Saturday Series: 2 Corinthians 3:1-6

2 Corinthians 3:1-6

In this study of the famous declaration by Paul in 2 Cor 3:18, we are examining the historical and literary context of the verse. It is to be considered, as we are doing, within the literary context of the section spanning 2:14-4:6. In last week’s study, we looked at 2:14-17, along with the portions of the letter (1:3-2:13) leading up to it. Paul’s main purpose in writing has to do with a disruption in the relationship between he (as an apostle) and the Corinthian churches. He mentions at least one significant episode (2:5-11) which seems to have led to some tension in the relationship.

Another factor which was apparently affecting the relationship negatively was the influence at Corinth of certain apostolic rivals to Paul. Specific (but unidentified) opponents are addressed far more directly (and harshly) in chapters 10-13. Most likely the same people are being alluded to in chapters 1-7 (e.g., 2:17; 3:1ff; 5:12-13), even if, as many commentators believe, chapters 10-13 are part of a separate letter written later than chaps. 1-7.

Almost certainly, Paul would not have introduced the theme of “letters of commendation” here in 3:1-6 if there were not such apostolic ‘rivals’, exerting some influence at Corinth, who were outside of Paul’s immediate missionary circle of friends and co-workers. The wording of verse 1 is important, if a bit difficult to translate literally:

“Do we begin again to present ourselves (as ministers) of (good) standing? (surely) we do not need (letter)s (showing our good) standing sent to you, or from you?”

Paul uses both the adjective systatikós and the related verb suníst¢mi/sunistáœ, which literally means “stand [together] with”, in the sense of placing things (or people) together (and presenting them) in front of someone. As a technical term, it came to be applied to letters a person carried, introducing him/her to another group or in a place where he/she was not known. It was a well-developed literary form in Paul’s time, models of which are provided, for example, by Demetrius (2nd/1st century B.C.) and Libanius (4th century A.D.); see Furnish, p. 180. Traveling missionaries and ministers would typically carry such letters of recommendation, whenever possible, particularly when they were visiting congregations and homes in places where they were not (well) known. Paul offers commendatory passages in his letters for specific individuals—see Philemon; Romans 16:1-2; Philippians 2:29-30.

In the ancient world, which lacked modern-day high-speed communication, such practice was necessary to establish a person’s identity and credentials; it also could serve as a source of authority and legitimacy. Naturally enough, the more impressive or prestigious the letter of recommendation, the more influence it provided; even today, the right letter of recommendation still carries tremendous weight for prospective employers, and so forth. It is possible that Paul’s opponents included visiting “apostles” who possessed such letters and credentials.

In vv. 1-6, Paul argues that neither he nor his colleagues require written letters recommending them to the believers of Corinth, since they are already well known—that is to say, this written authentication is already there in the hearts of the believers, having been written by the very Spirit of God (v. 4). He is referring primarily to the work of preaching the Gospel, which the Corinthian believers accepted; as a result they themselves become “the epistle of Christ”, under the service/ministry of Paul and his fellow missionaries. In verse 2, some manuscripts understandably read “written on your [hymœn] hearts,” but the correct reading almost certainly is “written on our [h¢mœn] hearts” —that is, the Corinthian believers (collectively) are a spiritual ‘letter’ written on the hearts of Paul and his colleagues, which they carry with them everywhere they go. Paul is, of course, emphasizing both aspects of the relationship, in connection with the apostolic ministry of proclaiming the Gospel of Christ. In verse 3, he specifically declares that the Corinthians are “an epistle of Christ”:

“…being made to shine forth [i.e. made manifest/apparent] that you are a (letter) sent (forth) [epistol¢¡] of (the) Anointed (One), having been written, not with black (ink), but with (the) Spirit, not on (the) flat surfaces of stones, but on fleshy hearts.”

It is interesting the way that this image leads Paul so readily to the dualistic juxtaposition contrasting the old and new covenants, in terms of “the written (word/letter) [to grámma]” and “the Spirit [to pneúma]”. See how this contrast in made, twice, in vv. 1-3 and 4-6:

    • Commendatory letters for apostles—believers under their ministry
      • written in the heart
        • contrast with being written in tablets of stone (v. 3)
    • Confidence for apostles before God—ministers of a new covenant
      • of the Spirit
        • contrast with the written word (v. 6)

This is instructive as an example of the way that Paul is able to move from addressing practical matters into a deeper level of theological and spiritual discourse. Indeed, the entirety of verses 7-18 is such an expository discourse, which is not essential to the primary point Paul is making in the passage. To see this demonstrated, try reading up to verse 6a and then jump ahead immediately to 4:1 and continue on from there. The passage, and the argument Paul is making, would flow rather smoothly even if 3:7-18 were not present.

When examining verses 7-11, it will be necessary to consider just why Paul makes this connection here between his apostolic ministry and the old covenant established with Israel. For the time being, we should focus upon the formulation in verse 6, where, after identifying himself (and his colleagues) as “servants/ministers of a new covenant,” Paul adds:

“…not of (the) written (word), but of (the) Spirit; for the written (word) kills off, but the Spirit makes alive”

To someone unfamiliar with Galatians and Romans, this would be a striking declaration, especially his statement that the “written (word) kills” —that is, the Law, specifically in its written form, brings death. Paul explains and expounds this idea in Romans 5-7 (note, in particular, Rom 7:7ff); even so, it must have been rather shocking to believers at the time—as it still is for many today. For the particular identification of the Law with the written word (grámma), see Rom 2:27, 29; 7:6, and note also Col 2:14. In Rom 2:27-29 and 7:6 there is the same contrast between the Spirit and the written word.

The context of chs. 10-13 suggests that at least some of these opponents are Jewish Christians (11:21ff), as in Galatians (cf. also Phil 3:2ff and Col 2:11ff, 16-18), and this may inform the rhetorical approach in 2 Cor 3 as well. Already in 1 Corinthians (1:10-13ff), Paul is aware of certain tendencies toward factionalism among the believers at Corinth, whereby people identify themselves in relation to a prominent apostolic personality. We know that Apollos (see Acts 18:24-19:1) was a Jewish Christian apostle (missionary and traveling minister) who was active at Corinth (1 Cor 3:4-6; 4:6; 16:12). Paul treats Apollos as a legitimate fellow-minister, though one senses a certain tension in 1 Cor 3:4-6ff (compare the contrast between Apollos and the Pauline circle in Acts 18:24-19:1ff).

Paul felt that there was a special relationship between the apostolic missionary and those who came to believe as a result of his work, and he was certainly protective of the churches which he had helped to found. When he was not present, those churches were, at times, vulnerable to the influence of other traveling ministers, people over whom Paul did not have any control. The New Testament bears witness to a number of controversies involving ‘competing’ missionaries. In addition to the situations Paul addresses in his letters (especially in Galatians and 2 Corinthians), we have the noteworthy example of 1 John, in which the author is combating the influence of certain “false prophets”, who can be characterized as Christian ministers and prophet-teachers working (and traveling) throughout the territory of the Johannine churches (see especially the warning in 2 John 7-11).

If Paul’s apostolic ‘rivals’ among the Corinthians were indeed prominent Jewish Christians, then this might explain why he suddenly embarks on the discourse of vv. 7-18, contrasting the old and new covenants. It would be most appropriate if these people, like the opponents in Galatians, continued to emphasize the binding authority of the Torah regulations for believers in Christ. However, if such a ‘Judaizing’ tendency was present in the work of his rivals, one expect a clearer indication of this in the fierce polemic of chapters 10-13, akin to what we find in Galatians.

Perhaps more relevant to verses 1-6, is the possibility that Paul’s rivals possessed impressive letters of recommendation, perhaps even coming from the church(es) of Jerusalem. Some at Corinth might well have asked, “What sort of letters of recommendation does Paul carry, compared to these?” Instead, in this passage, Paul emphasizes a spiritual, rather than a written, pedigree. It is this emphasis on the Spirit that characterizes the entire New Covenant, and the apostolic ministry of proclaiming the Gospel. In next week’s study, we will examine the unique expository discourse that Paul embarks on (in verses 7-11ff), focusing on the Scriptural tradition(s) that he utilizes as the basis for his exposition.

References above marked “Furnish” are to Victor Paul Furnish, II Corinthians, Anchor Bible [AB] Vol. 32A (1984).

February 3: 2 Corinthians 3:17

[These notes are part of the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”; the previous note discussed verse 16; for an overview of the passage, cf. the main article.]

2 Corinthians 3:17

“Now, the Lord is the Spirit; and the (place) at which the Spirit of the Lord (is), (there is) freedom.”

The expository declaration by Paul in verse 17 builds upon the statement in v. 16 (cf. the previous note), by which the detail of the Moses tradition in Exod 34:34 is applied to believers in Christ. When a person turns to God—which, for Paul, means accepting the Gospel and trusting in Christ—the “covering” is removed from one’s mind and heart. In vv. 14-15, the veil over Moses’ face was applied to the Israelite/Jewish people as a whole, and to their inability (and/or unwillingness) to recognize the new covenant that is now in effect (replacing the old covenant) in the person of Jesus Christ. Now, in verse 16, while this interpretive aspect is maintained (that is, believing Israelites and Jews have the covering removed), Paul also reverts back to the motif of Moses’ visionary encounter with YHWH. The believer in Christ, in a sense, fulfills the figure-type of Moses.

And what is the nature of this visionary encounter for believers? Paul offers an explanation here in verse 17, when he declares that “the Lord is the Spirit” (o( ku/rio$ to\ pneu=ma/ e)stin). One is reminded of the Johannine statement made by Jesus (to the Samaritan woman) in John 4:24: “God is Spirit” (pneu=ma o( qeo/$). In my view, both the Pauline and Johannine lines of tradition reflect a fundamental spiritualism, though with rather different points of emphasis. Here, for Paul, the emphasis, and his reason for identifying “the Lord” with the Spirit, is twofold: (1) it builds upon the dualistic contrast between the old and new covenants which runs through the discourse, and (2) it makes clear that the believer’s encounter with God takes place in/through the Spirit.

It is difficult to say whether this encounter is to be understood as qualitatively different from Moses’ encounters with YHWH in the Tent. Since the same “Lord” (ku/rio$) is involved, probably we should understand both encounters as spiritual in nature—that is, encounters with God’s Spirit. The difference lies elsewhere, in two primary respects: (a) the effect of the believer’s encounter is permanent and abiding, and (b) it applies to every believer, not merely to chosen minister(s) like Moses. Both of these points will be developed by Paul in verse 18.

The second part of the declaration in verse 17 introduces the theme of freedom (e)leuqeri/a). This is somewhat unexpected, as it is a theme that Paul has not really dealt with in the discourse thus far. The context suggests that we should understand its introduction here in two ways:

First, the idea of freedom relates to the immediate context of Jewish believers having the Mosaic “covering” removed from their hearts and minds. When this occurs they are freed to recognize the truth and reality of the new covenant in Christ. Second, we should look to Paul’s use of the noun e)leuqeri/a (and the related verb e)leuqero/w) in Galatians and Romans. In Christ, and through the presence of the Spirit, believers are freed from bondage to the power of sin (and death), and, at the same time, freed from the binding authority of the Torah regulations of the old covenant. The emphasis on freedom from the Torah is, quite naturally, more prominent in Galatians (esp. 5:1ff, 14; also 2:4; 4:21-31), but is also part of the discussion in Romans (7:1-6; 8:2, etc). The broader soteriological aspect of freedom from sin and death is a fundamental component of the exposition in Romans (5:12-17ff; 6:6-10ff, 15-23; 8:21, etc). The complex relationship between the Law, sin, and death in Paul’s thought is expounded in chapter 7, in particular; note also the way that the two aspects of the bondage/freedom motif are joined together in 8:2ff.

Both in Romans and Galatians, this freedom for believers is specifically defined in terms of the abiding presence and power of the Spirit. The main passages are the climactic exposition in chapter 8 of Romans (beginning with the declaration in verse 2), and the ethical-religious instruction in chapter 5 of Galatians (especially vv. 16-25, which will be discussed in an upcoming article in this series). The centrality of the Spirit in this regard is also emphasized here in verse 17:

“and where [ou!] the Spirit of (the) Lord (is), (there is) freedom”

In other words, this freedom is realized when believers encounter and experience the Spirit of the Lord. This verse is seminal to an understanding of the spiritualism of Paul, and needs to be examined further (in the next daily note). Three specific points will be discussed:

    1. The theological and Christological significance of Paul’s repeated identification of the Spirit with “the Lord”
    2. The relation of the key word “freedom” (e)leuqeri/a) with the earlier term “outspokenness” (parrhsi/a) in verse 12, and
    3. A further consideration on the spiritual nature of the new covenant in Christ

February 2: 2 Corinthians 3:16

[These notes are part of the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”; the previous note discussed verses 14-15; for an overview of the passage, cf. the main article.]

2 Corinthians 3:16

Verse 16, continues the statement from verse 15 (cf. the previous note):

“…but whenever (anyone) should turn about (back) to (the) Lord, the covering is taken (from) around (him).”

The verb e)pistre/fw, “turn upon/about,” is often used, in the LXX and NT, in the specific ethical-religious sense of a person turning back (i.e., returning) to God, implying repentance and a renewed commitment to following Him; cf. Deut 4:30; Psalm 22:27; Isa 19:22; Luke 1:16; Acts 9:35; 14:15; 15:19; 26:20, etc. There is, of course, a certain ambiguity in an early Christian use of the noun ku/rio$ (“Lord”), since it can refer to both God (YHWH) and Jesus Christ, almost interchangeably. Normally, when he uses ku/rio$, Paul refers to Jesus, but the Old Testament setting of the discourse in vv. 7-18—the Moses tradition(s) in Exodus 34:29-35—increases the likelihood that ku/rio$ here (without the definite article) refers to God (YHWH). Even so, from Paul’s standpoint, turning to God meant accepting the Gospel and turning to Jesus, so both aspects of the term ku/rio$ in early Christianity need to be considered here.

The verb form e)pistre/yh| is subjunctive and singular, and refers to any time that an individual Israelite or Jew turns to God by accepting the Gospel of Jesus. Paul tended to begin his missionary work in a city or region by first speaking to Jews in the synagogue, and many of the churches that were established as a result of the apostolic mission contained a mixture of Jewish and Gentile believers. This certainly was the case in major urban centers such as Ephesus and Rome, though less so in a thoroughly Greek city like Corinth. Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians especially emphasizes the theme of unity between Jewish and Gentile believers.

When a person accepts the Gospel, the “covering” (ka/lumma) is taken away from around him. Paul makes use of the relatively rare compound verb periaire/w, with the prefixed prepositional element peri– denoting the removal of something all around. The covering is removed from around the person’s mind and heart (vv. 14-15), allowing them to accept the Gospel and trust in Jesus. The passive of the verb should probably be understood as a divine passive (passivum divinum), in which God is the implied actor.

The associated tradition of the veil covering Moses’ face, in context, also means that the removal of the covering allows the believing Israelite or Jew to recognize that the old covenant has passed, having coming to its end (and fulfillment) in the person of Jesus. There is now a new covenant, which is no longer governed by the binding authority of the Torah regulations. This goes a step beyond simply recognizing Jesus as the Messiah, and there can be no doubt that Paul’s view of the Law, as expressed in his letters, has proven to be problematic for many Jewish Christians (and even non-Jewish Christians) down to the present day.

In verse 16, Paul may be giving a clever interpretive spin on Exodus 34:34, in which it is narrated how Moses would remove the covering from his face before going into the Tent to communicate with God. In the LXX, the same verb (periaire/w) is used; this verb is rare in the New Testament, and is used nowhere else by Paul, so it is likely that the wording derives from the LXX of Exod 34:34. This is significant, in light of what follows in vv. 17-18, as Paul is clearly drawing upon the similar idea of a direct visionary encounter, between believers and God, in the new covenant. It is to this that we shall turn in our next daily note.

February 1: 2 Corinthians 3:14-15

[These notes are part of the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”; the previous note discussed verses 12-13; for an overview of the passage, cf. the main article.]

2 Corinthians 3:14-15

The ‘veil’ (ka/lumma) covering Moses’ face (cf. the previous note on vv. 12-13) finds its parallel in the hardening of the hearts and minds of the Israelite people:

“But their minds were hard(ened) as stone; for, until th(is) day today the same covering remains over the a)na/gnwsi$ of the old diaqh/kh, the covering not being (lift)ed up, that is made inactive in (the) Anointed” (v. 14)

The minds of the people of Israel, as a whole, were literally made “hard as stone” (vb pwro/w), a traditional metaphor, usually applied (as in v. 15) to a person’s heart (e.g., Exod 4:21; 14:17 et al; Deut 15:18; 1 Sam 6:6; Job 41:24; Prov 28:14; Isa 63:17, etc). Mind and heart refer equally to a person’s reasoning and ability (and willingness) to understand; Paul also uses the terms, specifically, in relation to acceptance of the Gospel and trust in Jesus, and certainly the same is intended here. Theological tradition alternates between attributing such hardening to a person’s own rebellious tendencies and the overriding power of God’s sovereignty. Early Christians famously applied the prophecy in Isaiah 6:9-10ff in a similar manner, as a way of explaining how so many Israelites and Jews could refuse to accept the Gospel of Jesus—cf. Mark 4:12 par; John 12:40; Acts 28:26-27 (Paul speaking), and see also Paul’s discussion in Romans 11:7-8ff.

The blindness/dullness of vision that comes from the veil (over Moses) is thus matched by the hardness of mind/heart that has come upon the people—and it is a hardness that has lasted, from Paul’s standpoint, “until [a&xri] this day today”. Both metaphors illustrate the inability (and/or unwillingness) of Israelites and Jews to trust in Jesus as God’s Anointed (Messiah). They continue to devote themselves to the old covenant, unaware that the old covenant (of Moses, Sinai, and the Torah) has come to an end in Jesus Christ. Paul makes the point more directly (and famously) in Romans 10:4, but there can be no doubt that he saying the same thing here in verse 14:

“the old covenant [palai/a diaqh/kh]…is made inactive [katargei=tai] in (the) Anointed”

The same verb (katarge/w), meaning “cease working,” i.e., be(come) inactive/ineffective, was used earlier in the passage—cf. the prior notes on vv. 7, 11, and 13. This the first (and only) time in the New Testament that the specific expression “old covenant” (palai/a diaqh/kh) is used, though it is, of course, implied by the expression “new covenant” (kainh/ diaqh/kh), as in verse 6. I have translated the adjective palaio/$ above as “old”, in order to preserve the contrast with the “new” covenant; however, the adjective properly denotes something in the past, at times also carrying the specific sense of being (or becoming) worn out. With the coming of Christ and the Gospel, the time of the old covenant has passed, and there is no question but that, in Paul’s mind, the new covenant replaces the old.

The noun a)na/gnwsi$, which I left untranslated above, derives from the verb a)naginw/skw (used in verse 15, cf. below), which literally means “know again” —or, if one treats the prefix a)na– as an emphatic/intensive element, it can denote “know accurately,” or something similar. It typically refers to knowing something through the reading (and hearing) of it. Thus, Paul is here referring to the public reading of the Scriptures (the Torah) in the synagogue. The motif is not limited to the Law (that is, the Torah regulations), but applies to the entirety of the Scriptures of the old covenant (i.e., the Old Testament). Probably the books of the Torah are specifically in mind; with Paul’s sense of irony, he may be envisioning the reading of the very Moses tradition (Exod 34:29-35) that involves the veil over Moses’ face. Even as this story is read, a veil covers the people of Israel, and, as a result, they are unable/unwilling to recognize that the old covenant as come to an end in Christ. Paul states this rather directly in verse 15:

“…but (even) until today, whenever Moshe is known again (through the reading of him), a covering [ka/lumma] lies stretched over their heart”

Here “Moses” is a comprehensive figure representing the Torah regulations, the books of the Torah (the Scriptures), and the old covenant as a whole. The verb kei=mai (“lay out, stretch [out]”) suggests that the covering upon Moses’ face is turned into a much larger garment, capable of encompassing many people.

This certainly reflects the experience of Paul (and other early Christians), that many, if not most, Israelites and Jews had rejected the Gospel, or had otherwise not (yet) come to trust in Jesus. There were, of course, a good number of Israelites and Jews who had accepted the Gospel—including Paul himself and many other Jewish Christians. Paul recognizes this and holds out hope that many more might yet come to believe, alluding to this in verse 16, which we will examine in the next daily note. On the Pauline expectation of a great end-time conversion of Israel, cf. my article on Romans 9-11 in the series “Prophecy and Eschatology in the New Testament”.

January 31: 2 Corinthians 3:12-13

[These notes are part of the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”; the previous note discussed verses 9-11; for an overview of the passage, cf. the main article.]

2 Corinthians 3:12-18

Verses 12-13

After the exposition and application of Exod 34:29-35 in verses 7-11 (cf. the previous note), using a series of qal wa-homer arguments to contrast the old covenant (and the Law) with the new, Paul returns to the primary theme of his role as an apostle:

“Therefore, holding such (a) hope, we use much outspokenness [parrhsi/a]…” (v. 12)

The word parrhsi/a indicates something “uttered with all (openness/boldness)”; it can refer specifically to speaking openly in public, or openly as “with boldness”, or some combination of the two. Paul contrasts the openness of ministers of the Gospel (such as he and his fellow missionaries), with Moses who put a covering (ka/lumma) over his face. The noun ka/lumma in the LXX translates Hebrew hw#s=m^, which only occurs in Exod 34:33, and the meaning of which remains uncertain, having to be determined largely from the narrative context. It is presumably related to the noun tWs (cf. Gen 49:11), for which a cognate term is attested in Phoenician.

The implication is that Moses put the veil over his face when he met with the people after speaking to God; however, this is not entirely clear from the Exodus narrative (34:29-34)—it may be inferred from vv. 34-35, but at least once Moses addressed the people without the veil, i.e. before putting it on (vv. 31-33). Indeed, it is possible to read the narrative as indicating that Moses would regularly communicate the prophetic message to the people without a veil, only putting on the covering after he had spoken. Cf. the discussion below.

In 2 Cor 3:13, Paul essentially repeats what he said in verse 8, though here the language is more difficult, since he is effectively summarizing the entire line of argument from vv. 7-11 in a single verse:

“…and not according to (the way) that Moses set a covering upon his face, toward the sons of Israel (so that they) not stretch (to see) [i.e. gaze] into the end/completion of the (thing) being made inactive.”

For the verb katarge/w (“make [something] cease working”, i.e. made inactive, render ineffective), which Paul uses on other occasions in relation to the Law, see the previous notes on vv. 7-11. The word te/lo$ (“completion, finish, end”) is also used in reference to the Law, especially in Romans 10:4 (“Christ is the end [te/lo$] of the Law”); Paul typically means it in the sense of the termination of a period of time, or of the state of things at the end of such a period. Elsewhere, it is clear that the Law (Torah) of the old covenant is only binding and in force until the coming of Christ (see esp. the illustrations in Galatians 3-4 and in Romans 7:1-6).

The idea here in 2 Cor 3:13 seems to be that the covering makes it so the Israelites cannot see that the old covenant has come to an end in Christ. This uniquely Christian interpretation is then applied in verses 14-16 to the people of Israel as a whole: even as they continue in their religious devotion to the Law and the old covenant, a covering remains over their eyes (and their heart), and they cannot see that the old covenant finds it end (and fulfillment) in the person and work of Christ. There are exceptions, of course, as the number of Jewish believers (even in Paul’s time) attest, and as is expressed in verse 16: “but if they turn toward the Lord, the covering is taken (away from) around (their eyes)”.

Paul’s interpretation of the covering of Moses’ face, and the reason for it, is peculiar. Perhaps Paul is following the logic of the Exodus narrative, with the understanding that Moses put on the veil only after he had spoken to the people. They could see the radiant glory upon his face (while he spoke), but his covering of it with the veil was so that they would not see the glory fade (until his next encounter with YHWH). This line of interpretation, however, conflicts with the idea of the outspokenness of the apostolic ministers, whereby the point of contrast with Moses’ veil would seem to imply that Moses wore it when communicating the prophetic message (received from God) to the people.

As in verse 11, the substantive participle to\ katargou/menon (“the [thing] being made inactive/ineffective”) is neuter, implying that it relates, not merely to the Law (the Torah), but rather, in a general and comprehensive sense, to the entirety of the old covenant. This will be discussed further in the next daily note.

Sunday Psalm Studies: Psalm 64

Psalm 64

Dead Sea MSS: No surviving manuscripts.

It is appropriate that Psalm 64 follows 63 in the canonical collection, since it effectively serves as an exposition of the final line (v. 12 [11]) of Ps 63 (cf. the previous study). The characteristic tone of lament, with an emphasis on a prayer for deliverance from the Psalmist’s enemies, is common to many of the Psalms we have studied. The imprecatory elements, calling for a curse/judgment upon the wicked, are also familiar, however uncomfortable they may make us, as Christian readers, today.

Thematically, this Psalm can be divided into two portions, in a manner that is typical of the Psalms we have been studying. The first portion (vv. 2-7a [1-6a]) begins with the lamenting plea, and includes a description of the behavior of the Psalmist’s adversaries (i.e., the wicked). In the second portion (vv. 7b-11 [6b-10]), the emphasis shifts to a call for judgment upon the wicked, with an expectation that YHWH will answer the Psalmist’s prayer.

 The superscription simply marks this as another musical composition (romz+m!) “belonging to David”.

VERSES 2-7a [1-6a]

Verse 2 [1]

“Hear, O Mightiest,
my voice in my complaint:
from dread of (the) hostile (ones),
may you guard my life.”

As noted above, this opening verse establishes the tone of lament for the Psalm, at least in its first portion. It can be read either as a 4-beat (4+4) couplet or a 2-beat (2+2+2+2) quatrain; for a cleaner poetic presentation, and because it seems to fit the syntax somewhat better, I have opted for the latter. The noun j^yc! is a bit difficult to translate with precision; the basic denotation is of a speech (or set of words/thoughts) that a person goes over (repeating/rehearsing). In the context of a prayer-setting, such as this, we should probably understand j^yc! in the sense of a petition, which would also fit the quasi-legal aspect of calling on YHWH (as Judge) to render judgment. For poetic concision, and to add to the dramatic moment, I have translated the word above as “complaint”.

The expression “dread [dj^P^] of (the one) being hostile”, presumably should be understood in terms of the enemy’s fearfulness, and of the danger that the wicked one presents. However, Dahood (I, p. 81f; II, p. 104), both here and in 14:5, would render dj^P^ instead as “pack” (e.g., of wolves), in light of cognate p—d in Ugaritic and Palmyrene paµda. It is an intriguing suggestion, mainly because it provides a far more vivid and specific image of the danger posed by the wicked, requiring protection (vb rx^n`, “guard”) from God.

Verse 3 [2]

“Hide me from (the) council of (those) causing evil,
from (the) conspiring of (those) making trouble”

This couplet establishes the theme of the protection that YHWH provides, and for which the Psalmist prays. The idea of protection is expressed here in terms being “hidden” (vb rt^s*), either in the sense of God covering him (like a shield), or of his being taken away to a safe and secluded location.

There is synonymous parallelism in this couplet, particularly in the two expressions:

    • “council of | (those) causing evil”
    • “conspiring of | (those) making | trouble”.

The nouns dos and hv*g+r! are roughly synonymous, both referring to a gathering of the wicked for an evil purpose. With dos, the emphasis is on plotting in secret, while the root vgr suggests a large or prominent (perhaps even violent) throng of conspirators.

Verse 4 [3]

“they who sharpen as a sword their tongue,
(and) tread (for) their arrows (of) bitter word(s)”

This couplet continues the thought of v. 3, and could have been included with it above.

Here the Psalmist cleverly blends together two aspects of the wicked that are found throughout the Psalms: (1) the threat of physical violence, utilizing military imagery, and (2) harsh and slanderous attacks by speech (with the “tongue”). The tongue, both in its physical shape and the pointedness of one’s speech, rather naturally resembles a sword which the wicked “sharpens” (/n~v*), giving it a pointed edge like a sharp tooth. The second image is a bit more complex, as it involves preparing the bow (by stepping/treading on it, vb Er^D*) for the arrows that one shoots—the ‘arrows’ obviously referring to harsh and wicked words. I have translated the adjective rm* literally as “bitter,” but there is no doubt that the allusion is the bitterness of poison (cf. Gen 49:23; Job 20:14; cp. Job 6:4)—i.e., the words of the wicked are poisoned arrows.

Metrically, after the 3-beat (3+3) couplet of v. 3, here there is essentially a return to the 4-beat meter of v. 2 (cf. above).

Verse 5 [4]

“to shoot in their secret (place) at (the) pure,
suddenly they shoot at him, and do not fear.”

The thought from vv. 3-4 continues here, with this slightly irregular couplet (loosely 3+4). Having prepared their poisoned arrows, the wicked shoot (vb hr*y`) them at the righteous; the adjective <T* literally means “complete” (as a characteristic of the righteous), but for poetic concision I have translated it above as “pure”, which also suggests the idea of “innocence”. There is likely a bit of word play assonance here, between <T* (t¹m) and <a)t=P! (pi¾°œm) in the next line. There is also some conceptual word play involving the root rts (“hide, be hidden”), which was also used in v. 2 (cf. above); in the earlier reference, God is asked to hide the Psalmist (meaning to protect him), but here the wicked are attacking the righteous from their hidden place (rT*s=m!) of ambush.

Verse 6-7a [5-6a]

“They seized for themselves an evil word,
and gave account to hide (deadly) snares,
(and) they say: ‘Who shall see them?’
They search out crooked (thing)s (to) complete.”

These lines are somewhat problematic, and it would be nice if there were surviving portions among the Dead Sea manuscripts to compare with the MT. I treat vv. 6-7a as a unit, a pair of 3-beat couplets. They complete the description of the wicked in the first half of the Psalms.

After the motif of shooting poisoned arrows at the righteous, the wicked here are depicted as laying deadly traps and snares (<yv!q=om). Again there is a play on the idea of something being hidden, only here a different verb (/m^f*) is used. In this instance, the words of the wicked do not represent the weapons they use, but rather it seems to reflect the process by which they work together to lay the traps. They grab firm hold (vb qz~j*) of an “evil word” (the expression ur* rb*D* being parallel with rm* rb*D*, “bitter [i.e. poisonous] word” in v. 4). Then they “count” (i.e., give an account of, or recount) how they have (or intend to) secretly lay these traps, so that no one, least of all the unsuspecting righteous victims, will see them.

In the final line, I read a pair of third person plural verb forms, indicating how the wicked complete (vb <m^T*) what they have planned. The verb <m^T* is related to the adjective <T* (“complete”) used as a characteristic of the righteous in v. 5, the same sort of antithetical (ironic) wordplay the Psalmist employed with the root rts (cf. above).

Verses 7b-11 [6b-10]

Verse 7bc [6bc]

“(The One) searching (all) searches
(the) inner(most part) of man,
and (the) heart (in its) depth.”

I generally follow Dahood (II, pp. 103, 105-6) in treating the remainder of verse 7 as a distinct unit, marking the beginning of the second half of the Psalm. It seems to me fitting, and typical of the conceptual wordplay and irony employed throughout by the Psalmist, that the “searching out” (vb vp^j*) by the wicked would be contrasted by the searching (same verb) of all humankind by YHWH. In this light, I am also inclined to follow Dahood in reading an active (piel) participle (referring to YHWH as the one who searches all things), rather than the passive (pual) participle of the Masoretic pointing.

Metrically, I treat this verse as a 2-beat (2+2+2) tricolon, which generally matches the 2-beat quatrain that opens the first half (v. 2).

Verse 8 [7]

“And (the) Mightiest shall shoot at them (His) arrow,
(and) suddenly they will be struck!”

The irony continues in this next couplet, as YHWH parallels the action of the wicked, shooting His deadly arrow at them, just as they sought to shoot the righteous with poisoned arrows. The parallelism extends to the use of the adverb <oat=P! (“suddenly”), as in v. 5.

It is possible to read the perfect form of the verb in the second line as a precative perfect, expressing the Psalmist’s wish: “may they be struck suddenly!” This certainly would fit the imprecatory character of vv. 7-11 (cf. below), and I have found numerous instances in previous Psalms where I have read a precative perfect.

Verse 9 [8]

“May He cause them to fall over their own tongue!
Every one seeing them shall fly away”

The MT of the first line would seem to be corrupt, or at least the text was misunderstood, particularly with regard to the initial verb form. One possible solution is offered by Dahood (II, p. 106), reading Wlyv!k=y~ as a third person singular form, with an archaic W– suffix retained, the following Wh– suffix being an example of dativus commodi. Also attractive is the proposal by Michael J. Barré (1996, cf. Hossfeld-Zenger, p. 130), that an instance of the Divine name (hwhy, YHWH), originally present, was partially lost, resulting in a corrupted text. The beginning of the line would have read hwhy lyvkyw, (“YHWH caused [them] to fall”). This is almost certainly the proper meaning.

Again, there is a parallelistic irony, as the wicked trip over their tongues, just as (with their speech) they sought to lay traps for the righteous. Their downfall will be so damaging and ignoble that every one seeing it will “fly (away)” (vb dd^n`). This should probably be understood in relation to the boast of the wicked that “no one shall see” the traps they lay.

Verse 10 [9]

“And all men shall be afraid,
and shall set forth (the) deed(s) of (the) Mightiest
and His work(s) they shall consider.”

As it stands, this is a metrically irregular 2+3+2 tricolon. The first line continues the thought from the last line of v. 9. In their fear (and reverence), they will make known the great things YHWH has done; the verb dg~n` properly denotes putting something “in front” (of someone). They will proceed then to consider the deeds/works of YHWH, paying attention to them (vb lk^c*), implying that human beings, for the most part, had not done this previously.

Verse 11 [10]

“And (the) righteous will be glad in YHWH,
and shall find protection in Him—
let all (the) straight of heart give a shout!”

The Psalm ends with a traditional wisdom-contrast between the (contrasting) fates of the wicked and the righteous. While the wicked will come to an ignoble end, falling to their death/destruction, the righteous will find blessing and security under the protection of YHWH. The verb hs*j*, which occurs frequently in the Psalms (26 times, out of 37 OT occurrences), carries the basic idea of taking refuge, of seeking (and finding) protection. Here, the Psalmist’s expectation is that YHWH will answer his prayer, and so the emphasis should be on the righteous finding protection.

In this light, we should take the prepositional expression hw`hyB^ (“in YHWH”) more or less at face value—that is, the righteous find their safety and protection in God Himself, He is their/our protective shelter and shield. Under God’s protection, the righteous are able to rejoice and give up a shout of praise.

The irregular meter of this verse—loosely, a 3+2+3 tricolon, provides a balance to the 2+3+2 rhythm of verse 10. In this case, however, we may also find a certain theological significance to the chiasm of the verse:

    • the righteous are able to rejoice (line 1)
      • having found protection in YHWH (line 2)
    • the upright of are can give a shout (line 3)

The centrality of the Divine protection, and the importance of placing our trust in God Himself, is clear enough.

References marked “Dahood, I” and “Dahood, II” above are to, respectively, Mitchell Dahood, S.J., Psalms I: 1-50, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 16 (1965), and Psalms II: 51-100, vol. 17 (1968).
Those marked “Hossfeld-Zenger” are to Frank-Lothar Hossfeld and Erich Zenger, Psalms 2: A Commentary on Psalms 51-100, translated from the German by Linda M. Maloney, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2005).

Saturday Series: 2 Corinthians 2:14ff

A key principle of Biblical Criticism, and of a critical approach to Scripture, is that every verse and passage must be examined within the literary and historical context of the book as a whole. This relates specifically to the fields of literary criticism and historical criticism, but to other critical approaches as well. The principle is particularly important when dealing with well-known and popular passages. Some of the grandest and most memorable Scripture verses are precisely those which are most apt to being taken out of context.

In the Saturday Series studies for the first half of 2023, we will be looking at some of these famous passages, which are often cited and referenced altogether out of their literary and historical context. One such verse is 2 Corinthians 3:18, which actually serves as the climax, coming at the very end, of a discourse by Paul, essentially covering most of chapter 3. As grand as the declaration in verse 18 is, to ignore or neglect its place in the chapter 3 discourse, is to miss out on much of its significance.

The discourse that closes with the v. 18 declaration properly spans vv. 6b-18. It has its position within the broader section of 2:14-4:6, which, in turn, comprises a major portion of the literary work covering chapters 1-7. It is best to limit our study here to the first seven chapters, when defining the extent of the literary work (the letter by Paul) that is involved. According to the view of many commentators, 2 Corinthians is, or may be, composed of more than one letter by Paul. Most commonly, the bulk of chapters 1-7 and 10-13, respectively, are regarded as originally distinct and separate letters, written by Paul to the Corinthian churches, which were subsequently combined and edited together. Chapters 8-9 are also considered, by some, to comprise a third letter, and there are even more complicated theories regarding the composition of 2 Corinthians, involving more than three letters.

Following the epistolary prescript (letter opening) in 1:1-2, and exordium (introduction, with blessing/thanksgiving section) in 1:3-11, the body of the letter begins at 1:12. Indeed, verses 12-14 serve as the propositio—that is, the central proposition that Paul will be expounding in his letter, and an expression of his primary purpose (causa) in writing. In verse 12, Paul essentially declares that he (and his fellow ministers, “we”) have conducted themselves in a worthy manner, with an honest and genuine concern for the welfare of the Corinthian congregations. In verses 13-14, he further expresses the wish (and hope) that the Corinthians will fully understand and acknowledge his relationship to them (as an apostle).

The implication, as will become clear throughout the letter, is that there has been a disruption in the relationship between Paul and the Corinthians, which Paul seeks to restore. The breach in the relationship has come from the Corinthians’ side, and he writes in order to persuade them to restore things from their side.

What follows in 1:15-2:13 is the narratio, a narration and presentation of the facts of the case. Often in Paul’s letters, this takes the form of an autobiographical narration, related to the events of Paul’s own missionary work. Here, his narration spans certain events, only alluded to, which have contributed to the strained relationship. The summary of the changes to his itinerary (1:15-22), by which Paul put off his planned visit to Corinth, are related to an earlier conflict that took place among the churches. He mentions both a ‘sorrowful visit’ (2:1), as well as a ‘tearful letter’ (2:3-4), and these seem to have been in connection with a specific episode, involving the discipline of a particular believer (vv. 5-11).

Many commentators have identified this episode with the one described in 1 Corinthians 5:1-5. While this is possible, it is unlikely that 1 Corinthians itself is the ‘tearful letter’ mentioned by Paul. Moreover, the place of this event within the overall context of Paul’s writing in chapters 1-7 makes more sense if the offense involved a personal attack or insult against Paul himself. This, indeed, is suggested by the careful wording in 2:5, in which Paul makes clear that any sorrow (vb lypéœ) brought to him was really brought to the Community as a whole. That is, by offending against a leading minister, one is actually committing an offense against all of the congregation.

The line of argument used by Paul throughout chapters 1-7 does, in fact, focus upon his status as an apostle (apóstolos), and the special relationship that he has—and should have—as an apostle, with the Corinthian churches.

Another source of conflict appears to be the presence/activity of certain apostolic rivals to Paul at Corinth. He only alludes to these in chapters 1-7, but the nature of the references to them, in context, allows us gain a sense of certain features, and the sort of conflict there may have been between they and Paul—see especially, 2:17; 3:1; 5:12-13a. Probably the same people are the target of Paul’s more pointed polemic in chapters 10-13; if chaps. 1-7 and 10-13 are originally part of the same letter, then we can be certain of the identification.

2 Corinthians 2:14ff

This brings us to Paul’s exposition, the probatio (“proving”) of the proposition, which contains the arguments by which he hopes to persuade the Corinthians. He begins this in 2:14-16, with a statement in the form of a thanksgiving, such as we find in the introductions of a number of Paul’s letters:

“Now to God (be thanks for His) favor, the (One) always leading us in a triumph in the Anointed, and the smell of the knowledge of Him shewing (forth) through us in every place, for a good scent of (the) Anointed we are to God among the (one)s being saved and (also) among the (one)s being destroyed—to the (one), a smell out of death into death, and to the (other), a smell out of life into life.”

Paul makes use of two images here to describe his apostolic ministry. The first, using the verb thriambeúœ, is that of people being led (and shown off) as part of a triumphal procession; while the second involves the spread of a distinctive smell/scent (osm¢¡) through the air. The latter is certainly the dominant image in vv. 14-16, and, for this reason, one should be cautious about reading too much into the first image.

The main question regarding the image of the triumphal procession is: are the people being shown off the victors (i.e. the general’s troops, etc) or the vanquished (captured prisoners, etc)? Commentators have been divided on this point—viz., whether Paul is emphasizing strength and victory or weakness and suffering. Overall, the latter seems more likely, in keeping with Paul’s specific emphases, both here in chapters 1-7, but also in chaps. 10-13. Probably the central idea being stressed is that the apostolic missionaries are led about (by God) from place to place, as people through whom God makes His presence manifest, showing it to all people.

The scent exuded by Christian missionaries is specifically that of Christ, “of the Anointed,” and doubtless there is a play on the idea of fragrant oil or perfume used for anointing (compare the imagery in John 12:3). An apostle—one who is “sent forth” by Christ, as his representative—gives out the aroma of Christ. Clearly, the proclamation of the Gospel is what Paul principally has in mind—the “good message” of Christ, given to us by God.

The Divine aspect of the apostolic ministry is certainly being emphasized in the question Paul poses at the close of verse 16: “And toward [i.e. for] these (thing)s, who (is) fit (to serve)?”. The adjective hikanós is related to the verb hiknéomai, which denotes coming to (and reaching) a certain point. Thus the adjective can refer to someone having a certain level of ability or competence to carry out a task. But who is fit for a ministry that involves life and death, of proclaiming a message (the Gospel) so powerful that it will confirm whether a person lives or dies?

The idea of a person’s fitness for the apostolic ministry leads to the apologetic testimony that follows in verse 17. Paul categorically denies being like those who use the word of God as a way to gain personal profit—the basic sense of the verb kap¢leúœ—and, in this regard, he probably has certain apostolic rivals in mind (see the discussion above). Instead, Paul affirms that he conducts himself with sincerity and integrity, as a true servant and minister of God. All throughout 2 Corinthians, there is an apologetic thrust to his discourse, as he defends his status as a true apostle.

In next week’s study, we will turn to 3:1-6, where Paul makes use of a different image to illustrate his fitness as an apostle.


January 27: 2 Corinthians 3:9-11

[These notes are part of the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”; the previous note discussed verses 7-8; for an overview of the passage, cf. the main article.]

2 Corinthians 3:9-11

As discussed in the previous note, in 2 Cor 3:7-11, Paul makes use of a series of qal wa-homer arguments—a traditional (Jewish) principle of interpretation, which argues from the lesser to the greater: if something is true in this (lesser) case, then how much more is it to be so regarded in the (greater) case. According to this mode of argument (a fortiori), Paul is working from the basic assumption that the new covenant is superior to the old covenant which God established with Israel at Sinai. The first two arguments (in vv. 7-9) involve the diakoni/a (“service, ministry”), that is, the administration of the covenant—in the case of the old covenant this began with Moses (and Aaron) and continued through the established priesthood and ritual apparatus (Temple, sacrificial offerings, purity regulations, etc), as well as through teaching and tradition. Note the contrast:

    • Vv. 7-8: service/ministry of death [h( diakoni/a tou= qana/tou]
      • service/ministry of the Spirit [h( diakoni/a tou= pneu/mato$]
    • Vers. 9: service/ministry of judgment against [h( diakoni/a th=$ katakri/sew$]
      • service/ministry of justice/righteousness [h( diakoni/a th=$ dikaiosu/nh$]

The characterization of the old covenant as “the ministry of death” is striking; for the uniquely Pauline view on the relationship between the Law, sin and death, read carefully Romans 5-7 (cf. the articles on 5:12-21 and 7:7-25 in the series “Paul’s View of the Law”), and note also in Gal 3:10-14, 19-22; 1 Cor 15:56.

In vv. 7-8 (cf. the previous note), the qal wa-homer argument is:

“If the ministry of death came to be in (such) esteem [do/ca]… how will the ministry of the Spirit not (even) more be in esteem?”

Similarly, in verse 9:

“If (there was) esteem in the ministry of judgment against (us), how (much) more is the ministry of justice/righteousness over (and above this) in esteem?”

I have translated do/ca here as “esteem” (i.e. honor, dignity, grandeur, etc); more commonly it is rendered “glory”. Given the use of the traditional motif of the appearance of Moses’ face, it may be that an emphasis on the visual aspect of do/ca (i.e., “splendor”) would be at least as appropriate.

The noun kata/krisi$ (“judgment against”) is related to the realm of the old covenant which embodies, according to Paul, death. The Law (Torah) brings judgment, and confirms to human beings that they are in bondage to sin (and death). This noun (kata/krisi$) occurs only twice in the New Testament, nor is it used at all in the LXX; apart from this verse, Paul uses it later at 7:3. If this “judgment against” us is a product of the old covenant, the contrasting noun dikaiosu/nh (“right[eous]ness, justice”) is related to the new covenant of the Spirit. The noun dikaiosu/nh is, of course, especially prominent in Paul’s writings, with more than half of the NT occurrences found in the undisputed Pauline letters. This righteousness is “of God” (Rom 1:17; 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21, etc), but Paul specifically connects it with the person of Jesus Christ, to whom believers are united through the Spirit. Especially noteworthy is the similar contrast between the Law and the ‘new covenant’ in Christ, expressed by Paul in Rom 10:3-4. In 2 Cor 5:21, the flip side of this relationship is emphasized, by which Paul declares that believers themselves come to be the “righteousness of God” in Christ.

As indicated above, the “glory” of the old covenant was marked by the shining of Moses’ face (in Exod 34:29-35), as Paul describes in v. 7, mentioning both: (a) the stone tablets on which the commands of the Law had been written, and (b) that the Israelites were not able to gaze directly at the glory in Moses’ face. This last detail is implied as the reason that the veil (ka/lumma) was introduced. The superiority of the new covenant is marked by use of the comparative/superlative adverb ma=llon (“more, greater”) and the verb perisseu/w (“to have [in excess] over [and above]”). This is specified even more precisely in verse 10:

“For (indeed) the (thing) having come to be esteemed (now) has been made of no esteem, in this part [i.e. in this respect]—because of the overcasting glory/esteem”

The old covenant came to have glory/esteem (perf. of the verb doca/zw), but now it has come to have no glory/esteem (again, with the perfect of doca/zw). It is hard to imagine a more antinomian statement by Paul—the old covenant, with its written Law, now has no glory. However, he makes clear that this is true only in one respect: because the glory of the new covenant goes so far beyond it (the verb u(perba/llw means to throw or cast something over/beyond, i.e. past a particular distance or measure). This is an important principle for understanding Paul’s apparently negative statements regarding the Law—its binding force has come to an end because of Christ (cf. Rom 10:4). He says much the same thing, in a more personalized context, in Philippians 3:7-11: all that was of value in his prior religious life (under the Law and the old covenant) he now regards as mere rubbish in comparison with Christ. To neglect or ignore this overwhelming Christocentric emphasis leaves the commentator with no hope of properly understanding Paul’s thought.

If there was any doubt that, in his mind, the old covenant has come to an end, he makes this clear in verse 11:

“For if the (thing) being made inactive/ineffective (was) through glory, how (much) more (is) the (thing) remaining in glory?”

As in verse 7 (cf. again the discussion in the previous note),  the key verb here is katarge/w, literally to “make (something) cease working”, i.e. render inactive, ineffective, often in the technical (legal) sense of “nullify, invalidate, make void”, etc. It will be used again in vv. 13-14; for its use by Paul elsewhere (with regard to the Law), see Rom 3:31; 4:14; 7:2, 6; Gal 3:17; 5:4, 11; and also Eph 2:15. The second verb is me/nw, “remain (in place), abide”. The contrast is clear enough: the old covenant ceases to be in effect, the new covenant remains and lasts; one is temporary, the other permanent. There is also an interesting distinction in the use of prepositions:

    • the old covenant was (or came) through glory [dia\ do/ch$]
    • the new covenant is (and remains) in glory [e)n do/ch|]

The precise meaning of dia/ is uncertain; it could be instrumental (“by means of glory, accompanied by glory”), or could indicate purpose (“because of glory”). Both are possible, but the context of verse 10 suggests the latter—if so, then the idea might be that the glory of the old covenant is ultimately fulfilled in the glory of the new. This will be discussed further when we turn to examine verses 12-18, beginning in the next note.

It is important to keep in mind the primary and contextual basis of this contrast between the old and new covenants—it is based upon the reality that the new covenant is manifest through the presence and power of the Spirit. Paul established this contrast in verse 3 (and again in verse 6), and it is reflective of a spiritualistic dualism that runs through his thought, and is certainly expressed, as such, in this passage. In what remains of the discourse, in verses 12-18, Paul expresses this spiritual principle through the interpretation (and application) of the Scriptural tradition in Exodus 34:29-35. It is to this interpretation that we turn in our next note.

January 26: 2 Corinthians 3:7-8

[These notes are part of the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”; the previous note discussed verse 6; for an overview of the passage, cf. the main article.]

2 Corinthians 3:7-11

The declaration in verse 6b (discussed in the previous note) provides the springboard for the discourse that follows in verses 7-18. Paul embarks on an exposition, much in the Rabbinic style, drawing upon traditions associated with a specific Scripture passage (Exodus 34:29-35). This is typical of the early Christian use of Scripture, in a homiletic and expository setting, to support and confirm the truth of the Gospel. In this instance, Paul adopts this approach to expound upon his view of the apostolic ministry.

However, it is not at all clear just why Paul embarks on this expository discourse at this point. He could have made his point by following verse 6a with what he says in 4:1ff, without suffering any loss to his basic line of argument. What, then, prompted him to branch off onto the discourse of vv. 7-18? This will be considered further as we proceed with our exegesis.

Verses 7-8

“Now if the ministry of death in letters engraved on stones came to be in (such) esteem [do/ca], so as (for) the sons of Yisrael not to be able to (look) straining at the face of Moshe, through the splendor of his face th(at is) being made inactive [katargoume/nhn], how shall not (all the) more the ministry of the Spirit be in esteem [do/ca]?”

Verses 7-8 clearly develop the contrastive juxtaposition of old vs new covenant from v. 6—represented by the contrast of “letter” vs Spirit—including the additional contrast from v. 6b, of the “letter” that kills, and the Spirit that makes alive. Both points of contrast are combined here, with the complex expression “the service of death in letters having been engraved on stones. ” The idea of letters written on stone comes from the initial contrast in verse 3, establishing a contrastive dualism that runs through the entire discourse.

These verses also introduce two key elements of the discourse: (1) the verb katarge/w, and (2) the tradition of Moses’ face from Exod 34:29-35.

The verb katarge/w literally means “make (something) cease working”, i.e. render inactive, ineffective, often in the technical (legal) sense of “nullify, invalidate, make void”, etc. I have translated it above as “make inactive,” but “make ineffective” might be more appropriate. This word is something of a special Pauline term; of the 27 NT occurrences, all but two are in the Pauline letters, being concentrated in the letters of 1 Corinthians (9), 2 Corinthians (4), Galatians (3) and Romans (6). All 4 occurrences in 2 Corinthians are in the passage we are considering (here in v. 7 and again in vv. 11, 13-14). Paul uses it here in reference to the idea of the annulment (and/or replacement) of the old covenant (and the Torah). For its use by Paul elsewhere with regard to the Law, see Rom 3:31; 4:14; 7:2, 6; Gal 3:17; 5:4, 11; and also Eph 2:15.

In this section, Paul also takes a midrashic interpretive approach to Exodus 34:29-35, which describes Moses’ return from Mount Sinai carrying the two tablets of the Covenant. In v. 29-30 it is narrated that the skin of Moses’ face shone with an aura, indicating that he had been in the presence of God and that YHWH had spoken with him. Once Moses communicated to the people what had been revealed to him, he put a veil or curtain/covering (hw#s=m^, LXX ka/lumma) over his face (v. 33); this was repeated each time Moses received communication in the presence of YHWH (vv. 34-35). I will be discussing Paul’s use of this tradition in more detail in my Saturday Series studies on 2 Corinthians 3.

Paul draws upon this narrative and uses it as a way to compare and contrast the old and new covenants, centered on the idea of “glory” (do/ca). In Greek, the word do/ca has the basic meaning of “what one thinks” about something, how it is considered or regarded, often in the (positive) sense of “reputation, renown, honor, esteem, dignity”, etc. It can also carry the more objective meaning “appearance”, including various visual phenomena, especially involving light, brightness, and so forth. It can be applied to God in both primary senses—(1) as the esteem and honor which is (to be) accorded to him, and (2) the brightness and visual phenomena which is manifested by his presence. Do/ca is frequently used to render dobK* (lit. “weight,” i.e., worth, value, and figuratively as “honor, esteem,” etc) in Hebrew, a word which has a similar semantic range, especially when associated with YHWH. I have translated it above as “esteem,” though the visual aspect of “splendor” would be just as appropriate, especially in the Scriptural context of the appearance of Moses’ face; typically the translation “glory” is used.

In 2 Cor 3:7-11, Paul makes use of a series of qal wa-homer arguments—a traditional (Jewish) principle of interpretation, which argues from the lesser to the greater: if something is true in this (lesser) case, then how much more is it to be so regarded in the (greater) case. According to this mode of argument (a fortiori), Paul is working from the basic assumption that the new covenant is superior to the old covenant which God established with Israel at Sinai.  This will be discussed further in the next daily note.

Of special significance is the the way that Paul summarizes the entirety of the Sinaitic covenant—the old covenant—by the term “death” (qa/nato$). This stems from the wording in v. 6b, with his statement that the “letter” kills, but it also functions as a shorthand for Paul’s distinctive, complex (and controversial) view regarding the nature and purpose of the Torah. This was discussed briefly in the previous note, and will be mentioned again as we continue through the passage; for a detailed study on the subject, consult my series on “Paul’s View of the Law”. On the relationship between the Law, sin, and death in Paul’s thought, read carefully Romans 5-7 (cf. the articles on 5:12-21 and 7:7-25), and note also in Gal 3:10-14, 19-22; 1 Cor 15:56.

Death, of course, being antithetical and opposed to life, means that, by implication, the old covenant (and the Torah) are essentially opposed to the Spirit. The consequences of this line of logic are startling, especially when we consider Paul’s statement in Romans 7:14 that the Law (that is, the Torah of the old covenant) is spiritual (pneumatiko/$). We will have occasion to give further consideration to this antithetical juxtaposition of the new covenant (of the Spirit) and the old covenant as we continue through this series of notes.

January 25: 2 Corinthians 3:6

[These notes are part of the series “Spiritualism and the New Testament”; the previous note discussed verses 4-6a; for an overview of the passage, cf. the main article.]

2 Corinthians 3:6

 Verse 6a was considered briefly in the previous note, as part of the discussion on vv. 4-5; indeed, v. 6a represents the second part of a statement that begins with verse 5, and should be presented as a single sentence:

“Not that from ourselves are we fit to count anything as (coming) out of ourselves, but (rather) our fitness (to serve comes) out of God, who indeed (has) made us fit (to be) servants of a new diaqh/kh, not of (the) letter, but of (the) Spirit”

Paul describes the (true) apostle as a servant (dia/kono$) of a “new covenant” (kainh/ diaqh/kh). The noun diaqh/kh literally means something “set/put through,” the action being expressed in English idiom as “putting (things) in order”, and can refer to a (last) will or testament, but also to any number of other kinds of agreements or arrangements made between parties. The word is used to translate Hebrew tyr!B=, which denotes a binding agreement, and is typically translated in English as “covenant”.

The idea of a “new covenant” between God and His people is part of a line of Prophetic tradition, from the exilic and post-exilic periods, expressed most clearly in Jeremiah 31:31-34. The concept developed in Jewish tradition, so that, by the 1st century B.C./A.D., the Qumran Community could use it as a self-designation, referring to themselves as the faithful ones of the end-time (cf. CD 6:19; 18:21; 19:33f; 20:12). Early Christians more or less adopted the concept in the same way, though with the distinctive and special connection to the person of Jesus. The Gospel tradition of Jesus’ words at the ‘Last Supper’ (Mark 14:24 par) certainly were highly influential on early Christian thought; Paul cites this tradition in 1 Cor 11:25, but never uses the actual expression “new covenant” elsewhere in his letters, apart from the passage here. Indeed, the expression only rarely occurs elsewhere in the New Testament (Hebrews 8:8; 9:15; cf. 12:24).

Paul is beginning to develop the dualistic contrast established in verse 3 (cf. the discussion in the prior note), now contrasting the old and new covenants, in terms of “the written (word/letter) [to\ gra/mma]” and “the Spirit [to\ pneu=ma]”. See how this contrast in made, twice, in vv. 1-3 and 4-6:

    • Commendatory letters for apostles—believers under their ministry
      • written in the heart
        • contrast with being written in tablets of stone (v. 3)
    • Confidence for apostles before God—ministers of a new covenant
      • of the Spirit
        • contrast with the written word (v. 6)

When examining verses 7-11, it will be necessary to consider just why Paul makes this connection here between his apostolic ministry and the old covenant established with Israel. For the time being, we should focus upon the formulation in verse 6, where, after identifying himself (and his colleagues) as “servants/ministers of a new covenant“, Paul adds:

“…not of (the) written (word), but of (the) Spirit; for the written (word) kills off, but the Spirit makes alive

The portion in bold represents verse 6b, a striking (and somewhat unexpected) addition to the statement made in vv. 5-6a. It is unexpected because nothing up to this point in the letter prepares us for it, but also because the main point Paul is making would come through just fine if he had followed v. 6a with 4:1ff. At first glance, not only v. 6b, but the entire discourse in vv. 7-18, seems unnecessary to his line of argument. In the next note, we will consider what may have prompted Paul to branch off onto this discourse.

To someone unfamiliar with Galatians and Romans, verse 6 would be a most surprising declaration, especially his statement that the “written (word) kills” —that is, the Law, specifically in its written form, brings death. Paul explains and expounds this idea in Romans 5-7 (note, in particular, Rom 7:7ff); even so, it must have been rather shocking to believers at the time—as it still is for many today. For the particular identification of the Law with the written word (gra/mma), see Rom 2:27, 29; 7:6, and note also Col 2:14. In Rom 2:27-29 and 7:6 there is the same contrast between the Spirit and the written word.

How are we to understand this stark distinction between the written word and the Spirit? On the surface, it would seem to raise question as to the authority and role of Scripture itself. But one must be cautious about proceeding in this direction; Paul is referring primarily to the written record of the Law (in the Pentateuch), which is also, secondarily, expounded and declared in the Prophets (and Psalms)—this accords squarely with Jewish and early Christian tradition. It is noteworthy how rarely Paul cites the Old Testament Scriptures for the purpose of instruction; his usage is limited mainly to (prophetic) support of the Gospel—and his particular exposition and application of the Gospel.I have discussed the subject in recent studies on the Protestant principle of Sola Scriptura in the “Reformation Fridays” feature on this site.

To this must be added Paul’s remarkable teaching regarding the fundamental purpose of the Law—which is to bring knowledge and awareness of sin (Rom 3:20); that is to say, it makes fully manifest the reality that human beings are enslaved under the power of sin (Gal 3:19ff, also Rom 7:7ff). Without a recognition of God’s saving work in Christ, even those scrupulously observing the commands of the Law (and studying Scripture) remain fully in bondage under sin. In this sense, the Law leads to death, not life (Rom 7:9-11ff). This Paul will explain again in more detail, continuing with verses 7-11, which I will discuss in the next daily note.