August 17: 1 Corinthians 1:17

[This series of notes is on 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16; the previous day’s note looked especially at the earlier statement—the central proposition (propositio) of the letter—in 1:10]

1 Corinthians 1:17

Verses 11-17 of chapter 1 make up the narratio of the letter; following the main proposition in verse 10, the basic facts of the case are narrated. The reason (causa) for his writing to the Corinthians is given in verse 11: Paul has been informed (“it was made clear/plain to me”) by those “under Chloe” (a house church which she hosted/presided as minister? cf. Rom 16:1-2) about the situation in Corinth—”…that there are disputes/quarrels [e&ride$] among you”. Here Paul uses a different word in place of “splits/divisions” (sxi/smata) in verse 10. The basic of meaning of e&ri$ is some sort of fighting or contest—i.e. strife, quarrel, dispute, etc; it can also carry the specific sense of “rivalry”, which perhaps fits the context of what is described in vv. 12ff. Apparently, a tendency has developed whereby Christians in Corinth are identifying themselves as ‘belonging’ to a particular leading (apostolic) figure—”I am of Paul/Peter/Apollos…”, while some were simply identifying themselves as being “of the Anointed {Christ}”. Paul, it would seem, objects even to this last designation, which suggests that we are dealing with a sectarian tendency—believers identifying themselves with a specific group or congregation within the wider Church, to the exclusion of, or in contrast to, the others. In verses 13ff, Paul seeks immediately to shift the focus away from a sectarian label, and back toward the Gospel message that should be unifying believers. Verses 14-16 offer autobiographical information by way of example. The illustration can be outlined as followed:

    • You were not baptized in the name of an apostle (such as Paul), but in the name of Jesus [cf. v. 10] (v. 13)
      • I (Paul) myself have hardly baptized anyone (v. 14 & 16)
        • I have avoided doing this so that no one should say that I baptized anyone in my (own) name (v. 15)
          • I was sent not to baptize, but to proclaim the Gospel (“give the good message”) (v. 17)

This is a rather subtle (and clever) way to shift attention away from the personal action/role of the minister (i.e. Paul) and toward the message which the minister proclaims. Verses 13 and 17 effectively set the nature and content of this message, as being centered primarily upon the death (the stake/cross) of Christ. Note the substance of v. 13:

    • (Christ, not Paul) was put to the stake [i.e. crucified] over you
    • You were dunked [i.e. baptized] into the name (of Jesus, not Paul)

For the connection of baptism with the death of Christ, cf. Romans 6:3-4; Col 2:12, etc. Paul was perhaps the first to give a definite theological expression to baptism as symbolizing the believer’s identification with, and participation in, the death (and resurrection) of Jesus. Baptism and the death of Christ are connected differently in verse 17:

“for (the) Anointed (one) {Christ} did not set me forth [a)pe/steile/n] to dunk {baptize} (people), but to give the good message—(and) not in (the) wisdom of (the) account, so that the stake {cross} of (the) Anointed should not be emptied.”

A simple reading of this verse in translation may obscure the clarity of its structure; Paul makes a very precise parallel:

    • the good message [eu)agge/lion] (here he uses the related verb eu)aggeli/zw)
      —not in (the) wisdom of (the) account [ou)k e)n sofi/a| lo/gou]
    • the stake/cross of Christ [o( stauro\$ tou= Xristou=] (i.e. the death of Christ)
      —should not be emptied [mh\ kenwqh=|]

The parallel is clear in two respects: (1) that the Gospel message is identified specifically with the death of Christ (on the cross), and (2) that the message must be protected from damage or distortion. This last point is indicated by his use of the two negative statements:

not in (the) wisdom of (the) account [ou)k e)n sofi/a| lo/gou]”—this is the first occurrence of the word sofi/a (“wisdom”) in 1 Corinthians; it occurs 14 more times in 1:18-2:16 (and once more in 3:19). Paul plays with the various nuances and senses of the word throughout the passage, and these instances must be read with care. The same applies to the word lo/go$, which (like the related verb le/gw) has a wide semantic range. It is typically translated “word”, but its more fundamental meaning is “account” (with the verb le/gw often “[to] give [an] account”); this is usually understood to be an oral account, that is, by speech (words). In the New Testament, and particularly in Paul’s letters, there are two primary senses to the word lo/go$: (a) the mode or manner of the account (i.e. in words/speech), and (b) as “the account of God”, i.e. the Gospel message regarding the person and work of Christ, which is proclaimed by Christian ministers and believers generally. Here in verse 17, Paul uses the word in the first sense, and the phrase basically means “not in the clever way, by techniques of oration, etc, that the message is told”—i.e., the emphasis is on the message itself, not the way he (or any other preacher) delivers the message. Paul will return to this theme in 2:1ff.

(so) that the stake/cross of Christ should not be emptied [mh/ kenwqh=]”—by Paul’s reasoning, to rely on a clever/skillful delivery of the Gospel message effectively “empties” the message of its fundamental content: the death of Christ on the cross. He makes a similar argument in Galatians 5:11, using the verb katarge/w (“make inactive/ineffective”). The verbs keno/w (“[make] empty”) and katarge/w are used together in Rom 4:14, where the point is that, if being made right/just in God’s eyes comes about through observance of the (Old Testament/Jewish) Law, then trust (in God/Christ) is emptied of meaning and is of no effect (cf. also Gal 2:21). For other occurrences of keno/w, cf. 1 Cor 9:15; 2 Cor 9:3; the verb is connected to the (sacrificial) death of Christ in a very different way in Phil 2:7. One should also note the use of the related word keno/$ (“empty”) in 1 Cor 15:14; there Paul relates it not to the death of Christ, but to his resurrection—if Jesus was not truly raised from the dead, then the proclamation of the Gospel has been empty, to no purpose.

The juxtaposition of the words lo/go$ and stauro/$ in v. 17b is picked up again right at the start of the next section, in verse 18: “For the account [o( lo/go$] of the stake [o( tou= staurou=]…”. This verse will be the subject of the next daily note.

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