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.

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