Gnosis and the New Testament, Part 6: Dualism

In this final part of the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”, I will be discussing the aspect of Gnosticism that is perhaps best known to people generally—their dualistic worldview and mode of expression. In an earlier article defining and explaining the term (cf. also the main article on “Gnosticism”), I outlined the four main kinds or types of dualism:

    1. Cosmological—There are two opposing principles which control and govern the world.
    2. Metaphysical—There two contrasting (and opposing) principles which make up the structure of the universe.
    3. Anthropological—The human being is made up of two contrasting principles.
    4. Ethical—The human being chooses (and must choose) between two contrasting/opposing principles.

When we turn to the dualism that exists in early Christian thought, and in the writings of the New Testament, it is the first and last of these types which are most common and widespread. For the most part, such early Christian dualism was simply inherited from the language and imagery of the Old Testament Scriptures and subsequent Jewish writings—especially from the (later) Prophets and Wisdom tradition. In the Gospels, and the earliest strands of Christian tradition, we can isolate two areas of dualistic thought and expression:

    • The conflict between God and the Devil (Satan), which can be understood as a kind of partial or qualified cosmic (cosmological) dualism. There is a sense in which the current (fallen) order of creation has come under the control or dominion of the Devil—cf. Matt 4:1-11 (esp. verse 8); Mk 3:26ff; 4:15; Lk 13:16 etc, and pars, along with the overall context of the many healing (exorcism) miracles narrated in the Gospel (and Acts). This means that the world is controlled by evil and darkness, and is generally in conflict with, and opposed to, the ways and things of God (Mark 8:33 par). Jesus’ presence on earth reflects this sense of conflict against the forces of sin and evil, etc (cf. Lk 10:18; Heb 2:14), a struggle which is continued in the lives of believers (James 4:7; 1 Pet 5:8, etc).
    • More common is the ethical dualism such as we see in the sayings and teachings of Jesus, expressed in language and images largely inherited from Old Testament and Jewish tradition. Sayings such as Matt 6:24; 7:13-14, 17-20, 24-27 par, or the Lukan form of the Beatitudes (Lk 6:20-26), as well as the contrasting figures and settings in a number of the parables (e.g., Matt 13:24-30, 36-43; 21:28-32 par; chap 25; Lk 16:19-31; 18:9-14), present two different (opposite) “paths” or examples a person may follow. Under the direct influence of Jesus’ teaching, this developed into the so-called “Two Ways” conceptual framework in early Christianity, preserved within several different lines of tradition (cf. Didache 1-16; Epistle of Barnabas 18-21). The earliest Christians, like the Qumran Community, understood their identity in light of Isa 40:3ff and apparently referred to themselves as “the Way” (Acts 9:2; 19:9, 23; 22:4; 24:14, 22). On the expressions “way of truth”, “way of God”, etc, see Acts 16:17; 18:26; 2 Pet 2:2, 15, 21. The ethical instruction in the letter of James is almost entirely dependent on the teaching of Jesus as found in the Sermon on the Mount. Paul draws upon this as well, though he also expresses the “two ways” in the traditional language of the “virtue and vice” lists from Greco-Roman (and Jewish) tradition.

Both of these aspects—cosmological and ethical—are found blended together in Jewish writings roughly contemporary with the time of Jesus, especially in the Qumran texts (the Dead Sea Scrolls). The Community represented in these texts had a strongly dualistic worldview, best expressed in the so-called Community Rule (1QS) 3:13-4:26, a section often referred to as the “treatise of the Two Spirits”. There are two Spirits at work in the world—one of Truth and one of Falsehood, of light and darkness, God and Belial. Human beings are characterized by one of these two “worlds”, ultimately choosing the follow the path of one or the other. The Elect or faithful ones, the true believers, are the “sons of light”, while those who refuse (or are unable) to join the Community remain among the “sons of darkness”. Needless to say, as has been amply documented, in spite of many differences, there is a good deal in common between early Christians and the Community of the Qumran texts.

The most pronounced dualism in the New Testament is found in the letters of Paul and the Johannine writings, respectively. As we shall see, the dualism expressed in the latter is closer both to that of the Qumran texts, and to gnostic modes of expression.

Pauline Dualism

In Paul’s letters, we see very distinctive forms of both cosmological and ethical dualism (on these in the New Testament generally, cf. above).

Cosmological

Paul has more or less inherited the Christian worldview outlined above—that there is a fundamental conflict between God and the Devil, with the current condition/order of the world being under the dominion of sin and evil. Paul’s direct references to Satan or the Devil are relatively rare; indeed, the term dia/bolo$ (i.e. devil) does not occur in the undisputed letters (only in Eph 4:27; 6:11; 1 Tim 3:6-7; 2 Tim 2:26). The transliterated Semitic title Satan[a$] (/f*C*h^, ha´´¹‰¹n, “the adversary, accuser”) is the term Paul regularly uses (Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 5:5; 7:5; 2 Cor 2:11; 11:14; 12:7; 1 Thess 2:18; 2 Thess 2:9; also 1 Tim 1:20; 5:15). Though he does not often state it directly, there can be no doubt that Paul believed that the current age or “world” was wicked and corrupt, under the effective control of evil (2 Cor 4:4; Gal 1:4, also Eph 2:2; 3:10; 6:12), characterized by a definite (cosmological) structure and hierarchy (Gal 4:3, 9 [Col 2:8, 20]; Col 1:16; 2:15). For more on Paul’s understanding and use of the term “world” (ko/smo$), cf. 1 Cor 1:18-2:16; 3:19; 6:2; 7:31; Gal 6:14; Rom 12:2, etc. The most distinctive Pauline teaching is that the world—and, in particular, humankind—is under the dominion of sin, in bondage to it. This theme is most prominent in Romans (3:9, 19-20; 5:12-21; 7:7-24; 8:18-22; 11:32) and Galatians (3:19-24; 4:1-3, 21ff, etc); for the relation between sin and the Law in Paul’s thought, cf. my earlier articles on “Paul’s View of the Law”. God, through Christ, has freed us from this bondage; occasionally this is expressed in terms of being delivered out of the world of sin and darkness (Col 1:13; 1 Thess 5:4-5, and note Eph 5:8). However, it is only at the end of this current Age that God will finally destroy the power of evil (Rom 16:20).

Ethical

As noted above, Paul occasionally draws upon the “two ways” tradition, usually expressing it in the “virtue/vice list” format known from Greco-Roman philosophy and also found frequently in other early Christian writings—cf. Rom 1:29-31; 1 Cor 5:9-11; 6:9-10; Gal 5:19-23, etc. Paul’s unique contribution is in his frequent contrast between “flesh” and “(the) Spirit”. Read carelessly, in a superficial manner, one might think that Paul is espousing a kind of metaphysical dualism, such as is known from certain Gnostic writings and teachings, whereby the good spiritual realm is contrasted with the evil material world. He is, perhaps, somewhat closer in thought to the anthropological dualism in some version of Greek ascetic philosophy. The key to Paul’s Spirit/Flesh contrast is found in a careful reading of Romans 5-7. The “flesh” (sa/rc) represents the aspect of the human soul (i.e. the human being or person) that is under bondage to the power of sin. Even after the believer in Christ is freed from this power, he/she is still prone to the old, habitual patterns of thought and behavior (i.e. the “flesh”, or the ‘impulse[s]’ of the flesh). Thus the believer must consciously allow him/herself to be guided by the (Holy) Spirit, rather than by the impulses of the flesh. In Galatians 5:19-23, Paul applies this Spirit/Flesh contrast to the “two ways” ethical tradition, describing the “works” (or “fruit”) of the flesh and the Spirit, respectively. His ethical instruction is summed up in verse 25: “If we live in/by the Spirit, we must also walk [lit. step in line] in/by the Spirit”. The Johannine idiom (cf. below) would be “walk in the light”, but it has much the same meaning.

Rather more difficult is Paul’s contrast between the Law and the Gospel, letter vs. Spirit, etc., which is perhaps best described as a kind of religious dualism, whereby the religious identity of believers in Christ (the new covenant) is contrasted with the old ethnic-religious identity of Israelites and Jews (the old covenant). Much of Paul’s writing and teaching on this point is rooted in the specific historical circumstances and background of the early Christian missionary work, but remains important for us to consider and study today. I have dealt with it extensively in the articles on Paul’s view of the Law in the series “The Law and the New Testament”.

Perhaps the most dualistic portion of ethical teaching in the Pauline corpus is 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, which has many points of contact with the language and imagery of the Qumran texts. The precise relationship of this section with the surrounding material in 2 Corinthians remains a matter of considerable discussion and debate among commentators. It appears suddenly, and seems very much to interrupt the train of thought. Many scholars consider it to be an interpolation, or part of a composite document (i.e. portions of Paul’s Corinthian correspondence collected together). However, there has never been any convincing explanation as to how such a fragment came to be inserted between 2 Cor 6:13 and 7:2; nor, for that matter, as to just why Paul (as the author) would have ‘interrupted’ his address to include it as he does. It remains one of unexplained ‘mysteries’ of New Testament and Pauline studies. For more on this passage, see the current Saturday Series studies.

Johannine Dualism

There are three main themes or motifs by which a dualistic contrast is expressed in the Gospel and letters of John. So distinctive was the dualism of the Johannine writings that an earlier generation of scholars (prior to the discovery and publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls) could theorize that these writings were influenced by a primitive form of Gnosticism, or by way of similar dualistic tendencies in Greco-Roman religion and philosophy. The Qumran texts have since made abundantly clear that commentators need not look further afield for the background of this dualism than to the Old Testament Scriptures and subsequent Jewish tradition (on this, cf. above). However, in at least two of three themes discussed here, very distinctive theological (and Christological) elements have been incorporated into the mode of expression. As in the Qumran texts, there is a blending of cosmological and ethical dualism.

Light/Darkness

The first theme is the contrast between light (fw=$) and darkness (skoti/a). It is a natural contrastive pairing, and can be found in many religious and philosophical traditions, including the Old Testament Scriptures—of the numerous passages, cf. Gen 1:4ff; Job 17:12; 29:3; 30:26; 38:19; Psalm 18:28; 112:4; 139:12; Eccl 2:13; Isa 5:20; 9:2; 42:16; 58:10; Mic 7:8; Dan 2:22; Matt 4:16; Lk 1:79. This dualistic motif is quite prominent at several points in the Gospel and Letters of John, and carries a theological (and Christological) meaning. In the Prologue of the Gospel (1:4-9), the pre-existent Christ (the Word) is the Light which shines into the darkness of the world (cf. below). Jesus applies the image to himself in the discourses—he is the light, and those who come to him are in the light, while those who do not remain in darkness (3:19-21; 11:9-10; 12:35-36, 46). Since he is the true, eternal light which shines in the darkness of the world, Jesus identifies himself as “the light of the world” (11:10), including in two famous “I am” declarations (8:12; 9:4-5). This is related to the Johannine motif of seeing (and not seeing, i.e. blindness, cf. chap. 9), along with the idea of revelation as bringing light, causing to shine, etc. On this, see the article “Knowledge and Revelation in the Gospel of John”.

An interesting detail in the Gospel narrative is the night-time setting of the Passion scene (the Last Supper and arrest/trial of Jesus). After Satan enters Judas and he departs from the disciples, the author states simply “…and it was night” (13:30). A similar description of Peter warming himself in the cold darkness occurs in 18:18. Again, when the women come to the tomb the morning after Jesus’ death (20:1), the setting is described as “it being still dark [skoti/a]”. These are basic narrative details of the Gospel, but in the Johannine context they almost certainly carry a deeper symbolism as well.

In the First Letter, this same light/darkness contrast occurs in two key passages—1:5-7 and 2:8-11. If we count the book of Revelation among the same Johannine writings, then we may have the motif in the vision of the New Jerusalem in chapter 21, where the very glory/splendor of God and the Lamb (Christ) gives continual light and “there will not be (any) night there” (vv. 23-25).

According to a common Gnostic way of understanding, Jesus brings knowledge and awareness to believers of their (true) identity as offspring of the Divine, eternal Light. This is similar to the teaching in John, only in the Gospel the emphasis is squarely on Christ as the light—believers come to the light, walk in the light, and come to be “sons/children of light”.

Above/Below

The second dualistic theme is spatial, drawing upon the ancient cosmological pairing of heaven and earth—heaven above, earth below. This conceptual framework had already been given a theological interpretation in the Old Testament and Jewish tradition, which early Christians inherited; but in the Johannine discourses of Jesus, it has an even more distinctive Christological emphasis. The fundamental dualism is: God above, the World below. Christ comes from God, from above (a&nwqen), while the world is in darkness below (ka/tw). He has come down into the world, as light shining in the darkness (cf. above), one sent by God, come to show people (believers) the way out of darkness, back to the Father. The main passages illustrating this spatial dualism are: 3:13f, 31; 6:33, 38, 50-51, 58, 62; 8:23, (28); 10:17f; (12:32ff); 20:17. Those (believers) who come to Jesus and trust in him, are also born a&nwqen (“from above”, cf. 3:3ff), and thus are, or come to be, from above, just as he is; on the other hand, those who refuse to trust in him remain below (8:23, etc).

Closely related to the spatial motif is the specific idea of Jesus descending from the Father, and ascending back to Him. This is expressed through the use of the verbs katabai/nw (“step down”) and a)nabai/nw (“step up”). This ascent/descent theme is introduced in the description of the Baptism scene (1:32-33) and again with the vision of the Son of Man promised by Jesus in 1:51. In the discourses, these verbs are used in 3:13; 6:33, 38, 41-42, 50-51, 58, 62; 10:1; 20:17. The verb a)nabai/nw is common in narration, used for a person “going up” (to Jerusalem, etc), but because of the special meaning elsewhere in John, it is possible that the references to Jesus “stepping up” to Jerusalem may carry a deeper significance (cf. especially in 7:8ff). In the great Last Discourse (chaps. 13-17), Jesus expresses the idea of his going away (back to the Father), and then coming again to his disciples—cf. throughout ch. 14, 16 and again in the prayer-discourse of chap. 17. His reason for coming to his disciples is to bring them with him back to the Father (14:1-4; 17:24, etc); at the same time, in Jesus’ absence, the Spirit comes to reside in and among believers—a ‘realized’ union with God the Father, prior to the (final) ascent with Jesus at the end-time.

The World

The term ko/smo$ (kósmos), usually translated “world”, refers to the visible universe, in the sense that it is “decorated”, but also in its apparent and structured “order”. Often, in the New Testament, it would be fair to render ko/smo$ as “world order“—i.e., how things are ordered and arranged. This can have a decidedly negative connotation, as a (dualistic) term set in contrast with God (his will, ways, Kingdom, etc). On this cosmological dualism, cf. above.

In the Gospel of John, ko/smo$ (“world”) occurs 78 times, with another 24 in the Letters—the 102 combined representing more than half of all occurrences in the NT (186). There are two main aspects to its usage in the Gospel: (a) in reference to Jesus coming into the world (i.e. the Incarnation, etc), and (b) as the domain of darkness, etc, which is hostile and opposed to the Light. Both of these aspects can be seen already in the Prologue:

    • “the light shines in the darkness
      …and the darkness did not take down (hold of) it” (1:5)
    • “he was the true light coming into [ei)$] the world…he was in [e)n] the world…
      …and the world did not know him” (1:9-10)

For the specific connection between the world (ko/smo$) and the light/darkness motif, cf. 3:19ff; 8:12; 9:5; 11:9; 12:46. This aspect of opposition is found throughout the Gospel, though occasionally the word is used in the more general (neutral) sense, for humankind (and, specifically, believers), cf. 3:16-17; 6:33, etc. The “world” is associated with sin in 1:29 (cf. also 16:8, etc), but more commonly we find a direct contrast between Christ and the world. Jesus comes into the world bringing judgment and to testify against it (3:19; 7:7; 8:26; 9:39; 12:31, etc., but see also 3:17; 12:47); and, because he (the Light) shines into the darkness, the world, which loves the darkness, hates him (3:19; 7:7). Even more fundamental is the idea that the “world” can have no part of Christ, since he is not “of the world” (8:23ff).

As the death of Jesus approaches in the Gospel narrative, the motif of opposition and conflict with the world becomes more prominent, even drawing upon the more traditional dualism of God vs. Satan (the “ruler” of the world). This begins with the declaration in 12:31, and runs through the Last Discourse (chaps. 13-17), in which the word ko/smo$ occurs no less than 38 times. Jesus’ closing declaration in 16:33 provides a suitable parallel to that in 12:31:

    • “Now is the judgment of this world, now the chief (ruler) of this world will be cast out” (12:31)
    • “…have courage! I have been victorious (over) the world!” (16:33)

This harkens back to 1:5 in the Prologue and the ambiguity of the verb katalamba/nw, which means literally “take down”, but which, however, can be understood in several possible ways, in the sense of: (a) “bring down, overtake, overcome”, (b) “take down, grasp [with one’s mind]”, i.e. “understand, comprehend”, or (c) with kata/ as an intensive, “take/receive fully, eagerly”, etc. The statement in 1:5 thus can mean: (a) “the darkness did not overcome it”, (b) “the darkness did not understand/recognize it”, or (c) “the darkness did not receive it”. The immediate context of the passage suggests some combination of (b) and (c), but the theme of opposition which runs through the Gospel also makes (a) a possibility.

What is true of the conflict between Christ and the world, also applies to the Spirit, and to those who follow Christ (believers). These two points are important themes in the Last Discourse—cf. 14:17; 15:18ff; 16:8, 11, 20, 33. Especially significant is the emphasis on Christian identity—that believers, like Jesus, are not “of the world”. The preposition involved is e)k, literally “out of”, which can indicate one’s origin (being from), but also that to which one belongs (being of). The birth motif (3:3ff, and frequently in 1 John) uses the concrete sense of the preposition—i.e. born out of another. This specific theme is introduced in 15:19 and then becomes a major point of emphasis in the prayer-discourse of chapter 17. I have discussed this in earlier notes, as well as in Part 5 of this series.

Jesus’ final reference to the “world”, in the dialogue with Pilate, brings together both the dualistic contrast, as well as the theme of the believer’s identity as being “of God” (and not the world):

    • 18:36: “My kingdom is not of [e)k] this world…”
    • 18:37: “…I have come into the world that I might bear witness to the truth; everyone being [i.e. who is] of [e)k] the truth hears my voice”

In Gnostic thought, there is a similar negative sense of the “world”, but typically with a more pronounced metaphysical dualism (cf. above). In the Gospel of John, Jesus calls believers “out of” the world, in a manner similar to the role of Jesus as Savior in certain Gnostic systems. There can be no mistaking, however, the Christological emphasis in John—it is not that believers are “not of the world” because they are offspring of the divine Light, but because they belong to Christ.

Special Note: “Truth” in the Writings of John

As an appendix to the just-concluded series “Gnosis and the New Testament”, in which I gave special attention to the Gospel (and Letters) of John, I felt it worth added a note on the Johannine use of the term truth. This is expressed by three related Greek words:

    • a)lh/qeia (al¢¡theia, “truth”)—25 times in the Gospel, 20 in the letters (out of 109 in the NT)
    • a)lhqh/$ (al¢th¢¡s, “true”)—14 times in the Gospel, 3 in the letters (out of 26 in the NT)
    • a)lhqino/$ (al¢thinós, “true, truthful”)—9 times in the Gospel, 4 in the letters + 10 in Revelation (out of 28 in the NT)

While the Johannine concept of “truth” is not, strictly speaking, part of a contrasting pair (i.e. truth vs. falsehood), it is very much part of the dualistic language and imagery which we find in the Gospel (including the discourses of Jesus) and First Letter—on this topic, cf. Part 6 of this series. In particular, I would point to the basic contrast between God (or Christ) and the world (ko/smo$). The world is characterized by darkness, but also in the way that its thinking and acting is limited by that which is apparent, i.e. immediately visible or available to touch, etc. On the other hand, Jesus, as the one who comes from God, the Son sent by the Father, makes manifest what is eternal and Divine. That which comes from God is the Spirit and truth, just as He Himself is Spirit and Truth (4:23-24; 7:28; 8:26); indeed, the Spirit is referred to by Jesus as “the Spirit of truth” (14:17; 15:26; 16:13). When Jesus declares that he is the truth (14:6), this is essentially the same as declaring his (Divine) identity with God the Father (as Son). He has already stated that he speaks the truth from the Father (5:31-32; 8:14ff, 40-46). This truthfulness is, I think, also implicit in the frequent use of the double a)mh\n a)mh\n (am¢n am¢n) which transliterates the Hebrew /m@a*, a word derived from the root /ma, and which essentially refers to something which is firm, reliable, sure, etc. The Semitic idiom, preserved in Greek, and as used by Jesus in the Johannine discourses, emphasizes the truthfulness of Jesus’ words.

Another aspect of the “amen, amen” formula, is that it is often used to introduce specific teachings or sayings by Jesus regarding his own identity, especially of his relationship to the Father and the revelation (of the Father) which he brings—cf. 1:51; 5:19, 24ff; 6:26ff; 8:51, 58; 10:1ff; 13:16, 20, etc. This applies as well to his use of the adjectives a)lhqh/$ and a)lhqino/$. The first of these tends to be used in reference to the truth (and truthfulness) of Jesus’ words and testimony regarding the Father (5:31-32; 7:18; 8:13-14, etc), as well as to others (believers) who testify regarding Jesus (3:33; 10:41; 19:35; 21:24). The second (a)lhqino/$) has much the same meaning, but also carries the connotation of something that is genuine or real. This particular aspect has important Christological significance in the discourses, where Jesus draws upon images from ordinary human (earthly) experience and applies them to himself; for example—

    • the true bread (from heaven, i.e. manna) (6:32); similarly expressed with a)lhqh/$ in 6:55:
    • “my flesh is true food, and blood is true drink”
    • the true vine (15:1)

The same could be understood as implicit in all the “I am” declarations of Jesus—”I am the (true) light… shepherd… door…” etc. The Gospel writer had already made the first association explicit in 1:9, and it is also stated in 1 Jn 2:8:

“…the darkness passes along and the true light already shines (forth)”

This adjective is applied directly to God (the Father), as part of key Christological statements, in John 17:3 (cf. my earlier note on this verse) and 1 Jn 5:20; this latter verse, in particular, encapsulates a powerful summary of Johannine theology:

“And we have seen [i.e. known] that the Son of God comes (here) and has given us (understand)ing through (our) mind, (so) that we should know the true (One), and we are in the true (One), in His Son Yeshua (the Anointed). This One is the true God and (the) Life of-the-Age [i.e. eternal life].”

The word truth (a)lh/qeia) is also important in terms of the believer’s identity in Christ. On this, cf. especially 3:21; 8:31-32 (and my note on v. 32), 44ff; 14:6; 16:13; 17:8, 17ff. I have already discussed Jesus’ declaration in 18:36-37 on several occasions (cf. Part 5 and the note on 8:32). In the letters of John, this aspect of the believer’s identity is expressed through several different idioms used by Jesus in the Gospel:

2 Cor 6:14-7:1 and the Dead Sea Scrolls

This article is meant to supplement the discussion on 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 in the current Saturday Series studies, especially with regard to the source-critical question—whether, or in what manner, the passage may derive from a separate early Jewish-Christian source. The most recent study addresses the evidence regarding the Jewish-Christian character of the passage. In some ways, this must be considered separately from the question of Pauline authorship, since Paul himself certainly could have made use of pre-existing material in his letter. However, many commentators consider 6:14-7:1 to have more affinity with other Jewish writings of the period than to the other (undisputed) Pauline letters. In particular, parallels have been pointed out with the Qumran (Dead Sea Scroll) texts. This article will briefly examine this in relation to three specific areas:

    1. The thematic/conceptual framework of ritual purity, and its importance for religious identity in terms of separation from non-believers
    2. The strong dualism of the passage, especially as applied to the contrast between dikaiosýn¢ (“righteousness, justice”) and anomía (“lawlessness”)
    3. Use of the name Belíal

As the last of these is simplest to address, I will discuss it first.

The name Belíal

The word Belíal (Beli/al), here in the variant spelling Belíar (Beli/ar), is never used by Paul elsewhere in his letters, even in situations where he may have had occasion to; in fact, it does not occur elsewhere in the New Testament at all. It is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew lu^Y^l!B= (b®liyya±al), a (proper) noun occurring 27 times in the Old Testament. In the Greek Septuagint (LXX) version, it is always translated, rather than transliterated, except in the A-text of Judges 20:13. Unfortunately the exact meaning and derivation of the word remains uncertain; two theories have been the most popular:

    • As a compound of: (1) the verbal form b®lî (yl!B=), “be(com)ing old, worn”, used as an adverb/particle of negation (i.e., “not, without”), together with (2) a (verbal) form of the root y±l (lu^y`), “(be of) benefit”. Thus the word would mean something like “(of) no benefit, worthless(ness)”.
    • A noun from the root b¹la± (ul^B*), with the fundamental meaning “swallow”, presumably relating to the ancient image of Death/Sheol as a devouring power with a ravenous appetite (and wide gulping mouth), or to the consumption/decay associated with death and grave generally.

Neither explanation is especially convincing, though it would seem that b®liyya±al is a compound noun/name, akin to ±¦z¹°z¢l (Lev 16:8ff), and perhaps formed according to a similar pattern. Ultimately, the meaning has to be determined by the context of its use in the Old Testament. The oldest usage would seem to be preserved in several examples of early poetry, especially in Psalm 18:5[4] (= 2 Sam 22:5), where it is synonymous with “Death” (m¹we¾) and “Sheol” (š®°ôl, see my recent article for more on this term). The expression “deadly (poison) of Beliyya’al” (d®»ar b®liyya±al) in Psalm 41:9[8] (also 101:3) likely stems from the same use of b®liyya±al as a name for Death.

Much more frequent is the expression “son/s of Beliyya’al”, ben / b®nê b®liyya±al (Deut 13:14; Judg 19:22; 20:13; 1 Sam 2:12; 10:27; 25:17; 1 Kings 21:10, 13; 2 Chron 13:7), along with the parallel (and more or less equivalent) expression “man/men of Beliyya’al”, °îš / °anšê b®liyya±al (1 Sam 25:25; 30:22; 2 Sam 16:7; 20:1; 1 Kings 21:13; Prov 16:27), °¹¼¹m b®liyya±al (Prov 6:12); also “daughter [ba¾] of Beliyya’al” in 1 Sam 1:16. In Hebrew, the word ben (“son”) is often used in the sense of a person belonging to a particular group or category, i.e. possessing a set of certain characteristics in common, and so it must be understood in these instances. It refers to a Beliyya’al-like person, someone who “belongs” to Beliyya’al, with evidence (by his/her attitudes and behavior) of similar characteristics. The context of the passages cited above makes clear that a “son/man of Beliyya’al” essentially refers to a person who violates and disrupts the order of things—either in a specific social (or religious) setting, or within society at large. This relates more to the idea of hostility, chaos, and confusion (i.e. disorder), rather than the more direct association with Death in the (older?) poetic references mentioned above.

It is hard to say whether, in the expression “son/man of Beliyya’al”, the word b®liyya±al is used in an abstract sense, or as a proper noun (i.e. personal name). Both are possible, though the parallel with Death/Sheol in Psalm 18:5, etc, suggests that an ancient (mythological) personification of death (and the grave) informs the usage. This figurative association would naturally extend to encompass the idea of chaos, confusion, and destruction—all related to the realm of death and “non-existence”, i.e. the primal condition of the universe (as a dark, formless mass [see Gen 1:2 etc]) prior to the establishment of the created order by God. At the same time, b®liyya±al is clearly synonymous with the more abstract concepts of “evil” (r¹±), “wickedness” (reša±) and “trouble” (°¹wen), especially in the Wisdom writings (Prov 6:12; 16:27; 19:28; Job 34:18). Most likely, this is a secondary development, from the expression “son/man of Beliyya’al”, and the characteristic of a such a person as a wicked trouble-maker (see the generalized usage, where the expression is implied, in 2 Sam 23:6; Nahum 1:11; 2:1 [1:15]). A wicked/evil thought, expressed by d¹»¹r b®liyya±al (Deut 15:9; Psalm 101:3 [?]), may involve wordplay with an older poetic expression “deadly (poison) [dbr] of Beliyya’al” (Ps 41:9, cf. above).

We do not encounter the word/name Beliyya’al again until the first centuries B.C., when it appears in a number of surviving Jewish texts of the period. (e.g., Jubilees 1:20). Already in Greek texts (and translations) of the time, the variant spelling Belíar (instead of Belíal) is attested as a transliteration of the Hebrew word. Most notably, b®liyya±al occurs frequently in the Qumran texts, where it is used to refer to an evil figure opposed to God, personifying (and governing) the darkness and wickedness of the current (evil) Age. As such, the name is more or less synonymous (though not necessarily equivalent) with “(the) Sa‰an” or “Devil” (diabólos in Greek). This is a significant development from the earlier Hebrew expression “son(s) of Beliyya’al”. Now, those who ‘belong’ to Beliyya’al are defined in a most pronounced dualistic sense as the “sons of darkness”, opposed to God and the “sons of light” (i.e. the Qumran Community); and the wicked “sons of darkness” will be destroyed (along with Beliyya’al) by God’s end-time Judgment that is about to be ushered in. Not surprisingly, Beliyya’al features prominently in the War Scroll (1QM 1:1, 5, 13; 13:2, 4-5, 11); for other passages, I would note: the Community Rule [1QS] 1:18; 2:4-5, 19; the Damascus Document [CD/QD] 4:13ff; 5:18-19; 12:2; the Florilegium [4Q174] col. i. 8f and Testimonia [4Q175] 23.

There is even a closer parallel with 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 to be found in the so-called Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, a collection of Jewish pseudepigraphic writings, inspired by Genesis 49. The underlying material and tradition is Jewish, but there are signs of subsequent Christian editing and adaptation as well. The name Beliyya’al occurs frequently in the Testaments—Greek form regularly Belíar, as in 2 Cor 6:15—nearly 30 times: Asher 1:8; 3:2; Benjamin 3:3, 5, 8; 6:1, 7; 7:1-2; Dan 1:7; 4:7; 5:1, 10-11; Issachar 6:1; 7:7; Joseph 7:4; 20:2; Judah 25:3; Levi 3:3; 18:12; 19:2; Naphtali 2:6; 3:2; Reuben 4:8, 11; 6:4; Simeon 5:3; Zebulun 9:8. There is also here a dualistic contrast between the Law of God and the “works of Beliar”, with an exhortation throughout for people to shun and flee (i.e. separate from) this wickedness of Beliar, especially in light of the Judgment about to come upon the world. The exhortation in Test. Levi 19:1-2 is perhaps the closest in form and substance to 2 Cor 6:14ff:

“…choose for yourselves light or darkness, the Law of the Lord or the works of Belial!”

As noted above, in the Septuagint, the Hebrew word b®liyya±al is always translated, rather than transliterated, using a number of different Greek words, such as: loimós (“pest[ilence]”), paránomos (one who “[step]s alongside [i.e. violates] the law”), aseb¢¡s (“without [proper] reverence”), anomía (“without law, lawless[ness]”), hamartœlós (“erring, sinful”), and áphrœn (“without [good] sense”). Especially in the expression “son/man of Beliyya’al”, the word b®liyya±al indicates a violation or disruption of order in society, and thus suggests a semantic range reasonably close to anomía (“without law, lawlessness”) in Greek. As such, Belíal (or Belíar) is a fitting parallel to anomía in 2 Cor 6:14-15. It is possible that Paul has the Hebrew idiom in mind in 2 Thessalonians 2 (vv. 3, 8), when he uses the expressions “the lawless (one)” (ho ánomos), “the man of lawlessness” (ho ánthrœpos t¢s anomías), and “the son of ruin/destruction” (ho huiós t¢s apœleías); if so, he translates b®liyya±al for his Greek audience rather than using a transliterated form.

The Idea of Ritual Purity

In my view, the question of Pauline authorship of 6:14-7:1 ultimately hinges on the motif of ritual purity in the section, how it applied to believers, and whether (or not) this accords with Paul’s thought as expressed elsewhere in his letters. As it happens, 1 and 2 Corinthians are the most relevant writings, since they are by far the longest and most extensive letters written by Paul, to congregations with whom he was intimately familiar, and which address many practical ethical issues facing believers as they conduct their lives (and govern their congregations) within the wider Greco-Roman society. I will be discussing this aspect of 6:14-7:1 in considerable detail in the next Saturday Series study on the passage; here I will only summarize the evidence briefly, before turning to the Qumran texts.

As far as the regulations in the Torah relating to ritual purity, Paul’s view on the matter seems quite clear (for detailed studies on this, cf. my series “Paul’s View of the Law”). Believers are free from the Law, and the Torah regulations are no longer binding; this is as true of the various purity laws not mentioned by Paul as it is of circumcision and dietary laws (which he does discuss). His relationship with the apostolic “decree” from the Jerusalem Council is uncertain at best, since he never once refers to it in his letters, and may have been unaware of it at the time(s) of writing (despite the notice in Acts 16:4 [compare 21:25]). More important would be examples in his letters where Paul uses ideas or language related to ritual purity, applying it (figuratively) to believers. I would note the following:

    • Rom 6:12-13, 19—there is perhaps a faint allusion to the purity of sacrificial offerings (i.e. service at the altar) in the idea of believers presenting themselves before (vb paríst¢mi, lit. “[make] stand alongside”) God (cf. also the quasi-ritual context of the image in 2 Cor 11:2); it is noteworthy that v. 19 contains the same juxtaposition of dikaiosýn¢ (“righteousness”) and anomía (“lawlessness”) that we find in 2 Cor 6:14 (see below).
    • 1 Cor 5:6-8—Passover imagery (esp. that of unleavened bread) is applied to believers, exhorting them not to associate with persons engaged in sexual immorality (vv. 1-2, 9-13f); the main difference with 2 Cor 6:14ff is that here it directed specifically against believers engaged in sinful behavior and not non-believers.
    • 1 Cor 6:19—the bodies of believers are identified (symbolically) with the Temple, which had to be kept ceremonially pure (a primary concern of the Torah purity laws); here we find perhaps the closest example of ritual purity meant to symbolize believers separating themselves from the immorality of the surrounding society (vv. 9ff, 13-18).
    • 1 Cor 10:6-13—the application of the Golden Calf episode (Exod 32; note the implicit context of ceremonial purity in 19:10-15) to the very matter addressed in 2 Cor 6:14-7:1, namely, believers separating from the idolatrous culture around them (vv. 7-8, 14ff).

When we consider the situation in the Qumran texts, there is naturally a much greater emphasis on holiness in terms of ritual purity, since (a) the Community’s religious identity was based on strict observance of the Torah (including the purity regulations), and (b) it also identified itself with the Priestly line (“sons of Zadok”), including many priests who has separated from the ruling priesthood and Temple establishment, which itself was viewed as impure and corrupt. The very idea of the Community involved separation from the surrounding society—both the Greco-Roman world and other Israelites (“sons of darkness”, dominated by Belial [see above])—to join with the “sons of light”. This was a real separation, into a communalistic, sectarian organization, much moreso than was the case with early Christian congregations (though the initial Jerusalem community was perhaps closer to this model). The so-called “Community Rule” document (1QS) is perhaps the best source for the religious self-identity of the Qumran Community—e.g., 5:1f, 6, 13-20; 8:5ff; 9:5f, 8-9. Cf. also the Damascus Document [CD] 6:14-18; 12:19-20, and many other passages.

Dualism

For a definition and explanation of the term “dualism”, see my recent article on the subject. There is an especially strong dualistic outlook in 6:14-7:1, which, indeed, is central to the idea of separation within the religious-thematic framework of ritual purity (see the discussion above). This dualistic “separation” is expressed several ways, corresponding to the (poetic) parallelism of the passage:

    • Believer vs. Non-believer—pístos  vs. ápistos (lit. “trusting” and “without trust”) [v. 14a, 15b]
    • Dikaiosýn¢ vs. Anomía (“righteousness/justice” vs. “lawlessness”) [v. 14b]
    • Light (fœ¡s) vs. Darkness (skótos) [v. 14c]
    • Christ vs. Belial [v. 15a]
    • Shrine of God vs. (Pagan) Images [v. 16a]
    • Clean [implied] vs. Unclean (akáthartos) [v. 17a]
    • Stain/soiling (moslysmós) vs. Purity, i.e. holiness (hagiosýn¢) [7:1]

To be sure, Paul himself frequently makes use of a dualistic mode of expression in his letters; indeed certain of these contrasts (e.g. light/darkness) are practically universal in religious/ethical teaching (cf. 1 Thess 5:5; Rom 13:12, etc). However, it is the especially strong dualistic imagery here, informed by the idea of (ritual) purity, and aimed at religious-cultural separation, that many commentators feel is foreign to Paul’s thought in his letters.

In particular, the noun dikaiosýn¢ (“righteousness, justice”), used frequently by Paul in the specific theological sense (and context) of human beings being justified (lit. “made right”) before God through the work of Jesus, here seems to have a rather different emphasis. In 6:14 it is used in the more conventional religious sense, so it would seem, of right behavior, i.e. in contrast with “lawlessness” (anomía, lit. being “without law”). While this latter word could refer specifically to the Torah, it often denoted generally the violation of social and religious standards, i.e. “sin, iniquity, immorality”, but could also connote flagrant opposition to religion and God himself. The noun occurs 6 other times in the Pauline letters (Rom 4:7 [citation]; 6:19 [twice]; 2 Thess 2:3, 7; also Tit 2:14), with the related adjective ánomos 6 times (1 Cor 9:21 [4 times]; 2 Thess 2:8; also 1 Tim 1:9), and the adverb anómœs twice (in Rom 2:12). Paul alternates between using these words in the literal sense of “without (the) Law [i.e. Gentiles without the Torah]”, and the general sense of “wickedness, etc”. The only other instance where Paul directly contrasts anomía (“lawlessness”) with dikaiosýn¢ (“righteousness”) is Romans 6:19, an exhortation (for believers) that is reasonably close to the line of thought in 2 Cor 6:14ff (see above).

Some commentators, however, would find even closer parallels in the Qumran texts, especially the key sectarian writings that establish most clearly the Community’s religious identity. This was touched on above, in the section on ritual purity; however, it is worth noting the pervasive dualism with which this was expressed. While light vs. darkness is a common religious motif, for the Qumran Community it was absolutely a way of defining themselves—as “sons of light” vs. “sons of darkness”. All the other nations, as well as the wicked/unfaithful in Israel, belonged to the darkness (and under the domain of Belial, see above), while only the Community, the faithful ones, belonged to the light. Evidence of their belonging to the light was their strict adherence to the Torah, and to the inspired teaching/guidance of the Community. Of many passages, cf. 1QS [Community Rule] 1:9-11; 2:16-17; 3:3, 13, 19-20ff; 1QM [War Scroll] 1:1, 3, 9ff; 13:5-6, 9; 4QFlor [4Q174] col. i. 9.

This same dualism was expressed, naturally enough, by a contrast between “righteousness” (ƒ®d¹qâ  hdqx) and “iniquity” (±¹wel  lwu = “lawlessness”), as Paul does in Rom 6:19 etc; however, for the Qumran Community (and contrary to Paul), this was defined more precisely along the lines of (ritual) purity employed in 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 (cf. above). Again, many passages could be cited, among which I would note: 1QS 1:4-5; 5:1-4; 1QH [Hymns] VI [XIV]. 15-16; IX [I]. 26-27. It was adherence to the Law (Torah) and the Community’s teaching, etc, that constituted “righteousness”, demonstrating that a person was, indeed, “righteous”. And central to much of the Torah, and the Community, was the idea of separation—that is, religious separation (i.e. from non-believers, what is unclean, etc)—so clearly emphasized in 2 Cor 6:14-7:1. The extent to which this is in accord (or not) with Paul’s own thought and teaching continues to be debated. I will be discussing the matter further in the next Saturday Series study.

Conclusion

To the evidence above, one might add that, according to some commentators, the manner of citing Scripture passages in 2 Cor 6:16-18 better fits the catena-format used at Qumran than Paul’s own style (a debatable point, to be sure). Also, while the Scriptural citations and allusions are not utilized elsewhere by Paul, we do find them in the Qumran texts—2 Sam 7:14 in 4QFlor i.11, and Ezek 20:34 (perhaps) in 1QM 1:2-3. These are minor points compared with the three areas discussed above, and even those, in and of themselves, are not especially strong arguments against Pauline authorship, with the possible exception of the use of the name Belial. It is the cumulative effect of the evidence that convinces many critical commentators. The parallels between 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 and the Qumran texts have even led some to declare that the former is “a Christian exhortation in the Essene [i.e., Qumran] tradition” or “a Christian reworking of an Essene paragraph” (cf. Furnish, p. 377, citing J. Gnilka and J. A. Fitzmyer). Few commentators today would go that far, the tendency now being to downplay considerably the idea of any direct influence on the New Testament from Qumran. Instead, most New Testament scholars today would speak in terms of the wider Jewish milieu, that both Qumran and early Christian Communities inherited many similar ideas, techniques, modes of interpretation, etc, within the Judaism of the period, and that this accounts for most, if not all, of the evident parallels.

The use of the name Belial remains perhaps the most notable ‘non-Pauline’ feature discussed above; its frequent occurrence in Jewish writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D., and, in particular, the usage in the (Christianized) Jewish material of the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, offers us a window on the kind of Jewish-Christian homiletic we see in 2 Cor 6:14-7:1. However, based on this evidence alone, one cannot simply exclude Pauline authorship of the section, though, at the very least, it does increase the likelihood that Paul may have made use of pre-existing (Jewish-Christian) material in his letter.

References above marked “Furnish” are to Victor Paul Furnish, II Corinthians, Anchor Bible [AB] Vo. 32A (1984).
“Gnilka” refers to the study by J. Gnilka, “2 Cor 6:14-7:1 in the light of the Qumran texts and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs” in Paul and the Dead Sea Scrolls, ed. by J. Murphy O’Connor and James H. Charlesworth (Geoffrey Chapman Ltd.: 1968); originally published in Neutestamentliche Aufsätze, Festschrift J. Schmid (1963).

Dualism

The term dualism is perhaps best defined generally, as follows:

A system or tendency of thought which attempts to explain (and interpret) reality (or an existing situation) in terms of two principles, which are usually understood as being opposed to each other or in conflict.

Many different sorts of dualistic structures are attested in religion and philosophy; however, from the standpoint of an ancient worldview or way of thinking, as being most relevant to early Christianity and the New Testament Scriptures, there are four in particular which may be isolated:

1. CosmologicalThere are two opposing principles which control and govern the world. In terms of the phenomenology of religion, this is expressed as two beings (deities), or groups/classes of beings—that is, the divine powers, personified or understood as persons. Frequently in cosmological and theological myths, the basic world order and structure of the universe is given shape by way of conflict (and battle) between deities; often such conflict is thought to continue, in some form, throughout time and history—whether during the natural seasons and cycles, or in a progression of world history. For Western students of myth and religion, the Theogony by the Greek writer Hesiod contains what is probably the best known account of cosmological conflict. Typically the classical Persian (Zoroastrian) religious cosmology is cited as the most obvious system expressing a theological dualism—perennial opposition between Ahura Mazda (Spenta Mainyu, the good Spirit) and the Angra Mainyu (evil Spirit). Later Jewish tradition contains a somewhat similar kind of theological dualism (YHWH and the Angels vs. Satan, etc, and the ‘fallen’ Angels) which early Christianity inherited. The Community of the Qumran texts (cf. especially the “Community Rule” [1QS] and the War Scroll) expresses a strong dualistic worldview which is closely tied to their own group identity—as the “sons of light” vs the “sons of darkness”, etc.

2. MetaphysicalThere two contrasting (and opposing) principles which make up the structure of the universe. Usually this is understood as a (sharp) contrast between physical matter/material (evil) and immaterial soul/spirit/mind (good). Not surprisingly, such a worldview tends to be more common in philosophical and wisdom traditions with a strong ethical (and ascetic) emphasis (cf. below). When scholars and writers refer to “dualism” in the context of early Christianity and “Gnosticism”, typically a form of metaphysical dualism is meant. According to the basic gnostic approach, the immaterial (divine) soul is trapped within the evil/fallen world of matter, and must be “rescued” or freed, by a combination of knowledge and a strict moral/ethical mode of behavior. However, it should be noted, that much that is associated with “Gnostic” dualism is commonly found in ascetic philosophy and religious tradition worldwide, from the Greco-Roman milieu (i.e. Platonism and the ‘Mystery’ cults, etc) to Hinduism/Buddhism in the East, and beyond. Early Christianity generally was cautious in this regard, and the New Testament writers (as well as later Proto-Orthodox authors) took care to check and moderate metaphysical and ascetic tendencies; even so, they occasionally made use of the same sort of dualistic language.

3. AnthropologicalThe human being is made up of two contrasting principles. In many ways, this sort of dualism is closely aligned with the metaphysical (cf. above); however, it is often found even in philosophical and religious traditions which do not especially emphasize a contrast between the immaterial (mind/soul/spirit) and evil matter. Early Christians, of course, inherited the basic Old Testament (and Jewish) view that the world (i.e. Creation), as the work of God, was fundamentally good. It was not so much the world (i.e. physical matter) itself that was fallen and corrupt, but the created beings (whether human or Angel) which were under the control of sin and evil. This view tended to focus the contrast (and conflict) within the person—the body vs. the soul/mind/spirit, or occasionally, the corrupted mind/soul vs. the ‘higher’ divine element. This contrast is best known in the New Testament from Paul’s letters—the opposition between “Spirit” and “flesh”, but occasionally formulated in other ways as well.

4. EthicalThe human being chooses (and must choose) between two contrasting/opposing principles. Here the common pairs—good vs. evil, true vs. false, light vs. darkness, above vs. below, et al—in dualistic thinking and expression are applied specifically in terms of human behavior. There are “Two Ways” for the person to follow: one leads to life, the other to death. The religious/philosophical standard and ideal, of course, emphasizes the “good”. Nearly all religions and philosophical traditions contain some form of ethical dualism; early Christianity made frequent use of this manner of expression.

To these four types of dualism, I might suggest a fifth:

5. ReligiousWithin a particular religious tradition, there are understood to be two contrasting modes of existence. Sectarian religion and religious group-identity often emphasizes the characteristics of ‘true’ and ‘false’ adherents and forms of the religion, etc. A rather different, special form of religious dualism could be termed spiritual (or spiritualist[ic]), which finds unique expression in certain strands of Christian tradition, due to the emphasis on the presence and work of the (Holy) Spirit. In this mode of thinking, the (inward) role of the Spirit is set in contrast to the outward, external aspects of religion (organized group setting, ritual, priesthood and ministerial office, etc), with the Spirit taking priority and precedence, occasionally to the exclusion of outward forms.

There are two other kinds of dualism which are sometimes discussed in modern philosophy and treatments of the subject, and which are perhaps worth mentioning here:

    • Epistemological—A fundamental contrast between a situation or object as understood by the human mind as opposed to its “real” status and nature.
    • Existential/sociological—A basic contrast between order and chaos, the rational vs. irrational, etc, as an underlying (if often unconscious) principle and ideal in the structuring and management of human society.

These various definitions and explanations should be useful for readers today, since terms such as “dualism” and “dualistic” are often used carelessly, especially when applied (and assumed) in a pejorative or negative sense. Christian readers may end up taking offense when one suggests that there may be “dualism” found in the New Testament Scriptures, if it is not clear just what is meant by the term as it is used in context.

For more on the specific kind of dualism associated with Gnostic thought and practice, cf. my recent article on “Gnosticism”, as well as the current series on “Gnosis and the New Testament”.

February 5: 2 Cor 4:3-4, etc

In the previous note, on 1 Cor 15:1-2, as well as the earlier note on Rom 1:1, 16, etc, I discussed how Paul, in his letters, only rarely expounds the theological aspects of the term eu)agge/lion. Most prominently this is done throughout the main body of Romans (the probatio, 1:18-11:36). There are, however, a few other passages where it is touched on—notably, in 1 Cor 15:1-2, and 2 Cor 4:3-4, which we will examine below.

It may be worth recalled the background of the eu)aggel– word group (and the corresponding root rcb in Hebrew/Aramaic). It was often used in the context of (good) news involving the outcome of a battle, or other public action (by the ruler/government) related to public welfare and protection; however, the military aspect—victory in battle, deliverance from danger—was prominent. Interestingly, there is little indication that this context (or connotation) was primary for the earliest Christians in their use of the word group. The main influence, as I discussed, was from the use of the verb rc^B*/eu)aggeli/zw in several key passages of (Deutero-)Isaiah, most notably 40:9; 52:7; 60:6, and, especially, 61:1. In these oracles, the idea of “good news” is tied to the future/end-time restoration of God’s people (the faithful remnant of Israel). The passages came to have a marked eschatological and Messianic sense—especially Isa 40:3ff and 61:1ff as they appear in the Gospel tradition, and as used by John the Baptist and Jesus himself. This eschatological/Messianic dimension appears to have shaped the earliest Christian usage of eu)agge/lion and the verb eu)aggeli/zomai; in this regard, the “good message” may be summarized as follows:

  • Jesus is the Anointed One sent by God, whose appearance was promised/prophesied in the Scriptures
  • Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has exalted him to the divine/heavenly status and position as Son of God; at the same time the exalted Christ is also identified with the “Son of Man” savior-figure who will appear at the end-time
  • The faithful ones—identified as those trusting in Jesus—will be saved/rescued from the end-time Judgment that is about to come upon humankind

For the earliest Christians, salvation was fundamentally eschatological—being saved from the end-time Judgment. Paul very much followed this emphasis, as we can see from the opening of the probatio (1:18ff); that is to say, he begins his exposition of the Gospel with a warning of the anger (o)rgh/) of God that is about to be revealed upon all sin and wickedness in the world. This is the end-time Judgment that Paul declares so succinctly in the Athens speech of Acts 17: “…He established a day in which He is about to judge the inhabited (world) in (His) justice” (v. 31).

However, Paul’s understanding of salvation was certainly not limited to this eschatological aspect. More than any other New Testament author (or speaker), it is Paul who also defines salvation fundamentally in terms of deliverance from the power of sin. Interestingly, though, this understanding is presented in detail only in a few passages. By far, the most prominent and clearest presentation occurs in chapters 5-8 of Romans. After the eschatological warning of 1:18-32, Paul, in chapters 2-4 of the letter, argues vigorously for the proposition that all human beings—Jew and non-Jew alike—are justified (“made right”) in God’s eyes, and thus are saved, only (and entirely) through trust in the “good message” of Jesus Christ. The old covenant and observance of the Torah does not lead to salvation in any sense; quite the opposite, in Paul’s view (his view on the Torah is discussed in detail in the series “The Law and the New Testament”, soon to be posted here). But what, exactly, does this salvation entail? From Paul’s standpoint there are two principal, related aspects for the believer, which follow, as a necessary consequence, from the eschatological aspect:

  • Believers in Christ are saved from the coming Judgment
    however, since the Judgment is due to sin and wickedness, it is first necessary that human beings be freed from sin, for which there is a dual aspect:
    • (1) We are cleansed from sin, and
    • (2) We are freed from the power of sin

The first aspect is central to the very earliest preaching, going back to John the Baptist, Jesus, and the first apostles (Mark 1:4-5, 15 par; Matt 3:2; Acts 2:38; 3:26, etc). It is tied to the ritual of baptism, and is associated with the role (and presence) of the Holy Spirit. The second aspect, on the other hand, is more distinctly Pauline, informing the soteriology expressed by Paul in his letters. And he expresses the idea of the power of sin in various ways. In Romans 5ff, for example, sin is personified as tyrant, a conqueror who enslaves the population. All of humankind is in bondage to the ruling power of Sin. However, the sacrificial death (and resurrection) of Jesus perfectly and totally reverses this situation, freeing from bondage (to sin) all who trust in him.

Much of this same basic idea may be found in Paul’s declaration regarding the Gospel in 2 Corinthians 4:3-4 which I will now discuss briefly.

2 Corinthians 4:3-4

In this passage, Paul personifies sin and evil in a different way, using the expression “the god of this Age” (o( qeo\$ tou= ai)w=no$ tou/tou). Like many Jews and Christians of the time, Paul held the fundamental worldview that the current Age was thoroughly wicked, dominated by sin and evil. This was related to a dualistic mode of thinking common to the eschatology of the period—i.e., a contrast between “This Age” and “the Coming Age”, which will be ushered in by God at the Judgment. The current Age (and world-order, ko/smo$) was seen as sinful/evil and opposed to God; Paul expresses this dualism just as forcefully as the Johannine writings, if not through such distinctive use of the word ko/smo$. Rather, Paul tends to use the word ai)w/n (“life[time], period of time, age”); it occurs, in a negative (and contrastive) sense, in 1 Cor 1:20; 2:6ff; 3:18; Rom 12:2; Gal 1:4; also Eph 2:2. The word ko/smo$ (“world[-order]”) is used in a similar way in Gal 4:3, 9; Col 2:8, 20; 1 Cor 3:19, etc. In Gal 1:4, he uses the expression “the evil Age (that) has been set in (place)”. In referring to the “god” (qeo/$) of this Age, Paul presumably has in mind the Satan (or ‘Devil’) and various unclean/evil (“demon”) powers which God has allowed to exercise influence and control over the world (cf. 1 Cor 15:24; Gal 4:8-9; Col 2:8-10; 2 Thess 2:9; Eph 2:2, etc).

Here in 2 Cor 4:3-4, the power of sin, wielded/controlled by “the god of this Age”, is described in terms of a darkness which blinds the eyes of human beings (cf. 2 Thess 2:9-12). This, of course, is another way of referring to humanity as being in bondage to sin (note the play on bondage/blindness in Isa 61:1 MT/LXX, discussed in the earlier note). The dualism of Light vs. Darkness is natural and was widespread in the ancient world; Paul makes use of it, though not so thoroughly as the Johannine writings and discourses of Jesus do. The entire section of 3:7-4:6 develops the theme of seeing and revelation (vb. a)pokalu/ptw, literally “take the cover [away] from”, “uncover”). Believers in Christ are able, through trust, and through the Spirit, to see the glory/splendor (do/ca) of God in a way that was impossible (even for Moses) under the Old Covenant. Here in 4:3-4, the implication is that it is the very Gospel message (eu)agge/lion) that illumines believers and allows us to see the glory of God in the person of Jesus.

Salvation—freeing believers from the power of sin—is thus described in terms of (1) dispelling the darkness and (2) restoring sight to the blind. In the Gospel tradition, the association of the Gospel with recovery of sight (by way of Isa 61:1 LXX), was taken literally, being fulfilled in the healing miracles of Jesus (cf. the note on Lk 7:22 par). Paul, however, understands this symbolically, in a spiritual sense—the “good message” of Christ does away with the blinding power of sin (for a similar development, or interpretation, see John 9). There is then an absolute contrast between believer and non-believer in this regard:

“But if our good message is covered (up), it is covered (up) among the (one)s going away to ruin, (among) the (one)s whom the god of this Age (has) blinded the minds, the (one)s without trust, unto (there being) [i.e. so there would be] no shining forth of the good message of the splendor of the Anointed (One), who is the image of God.” (2 Cor 4:3-4)

Note the conceptual structure, which may be outlined as a chiasm:

  • the good message
    • is covered up
      • the ones going away to ruin (i.e. lost, perishing)
        • the message is covered up/over for them
          • the Age of sin and evil (“god of this Age”)
        • their minds are blinded
      • the ones without trust (in Jesus)
    • it does not shine forth
  • the good message

This structure helps to demonstrate how and why many do not respond to the Gospel—it involves a complex dynamic between the reigning power of sin and the person’s ability/willingness to trust in the Gospel. Paul details a similar sort of dynamic in Romans 7. It is also worth noting the significance of the double use of eu)agge/lion that brackets this passage:

    • the good message [eu)agge/lion] that is proclaimed by Paul and his fellow ministers (v. 3a)
    • the good message [eu)agge/lion] characterized as being that which reveals (“shines forth”) the splendor of the Anointed (do/ca tou= Xristou=), the Messiah Jesus being further described as “the image of God” (ei)kw\n tou= qeou=) (v. 4b)

Thus the common/traditional (early Christian) usage of the term eu)agge/lion is transformed into a powerful Christological statement, about who Jesus is in relation to God the Father. Through this, Paul effectively explains his earlier declaration in Rom 1:16, that the good message is “the power of God unto salvation”. It is just this Christological statement in 2 Cor 4:3-4, which, in turn, frees believers from “the power of sin.”