August 8: 2 Corinthians 3:7-11

This is the second of three notes on 2 Corinthians 3:1-18; yesterday’s note covered verses 1-6, today will focus on vv. 7-11, with special attention paid to verse 11.

2 Corinthians 3:7-11 [verse 11]

In this section, Paul 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). 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”) in Hebrew, a word which has a similar semantic range, especially when associated with YHWH.

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), and note also in Gal 3:10-14, 19-22; 1 Cor 15:56.

In vv. 7-8, 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” (cf. above).

As indicated above, the “glory” of the old covenant was marked by the shining of Moses’ face, 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. 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?”

The first verb 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. This word appears already at the end of verse 7 (and 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 in the next note.

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