“Gnosis” in the NT: 2 Cor 2:14

2 Corinthians 2:14

In treating the subject of knowledge (gnw=si$, gnœsis) in the New Testament, two related verses in 2 Corinthians are especially important—2 Cor 2:14 and 4:6—expressing Paul’s view of the matter quite succinctly and effectively. These two verses happen to form an inclusio, framing the section 2:14-4:6, being the first and last sentences, respectively. This can be seen clearly by an outline of the section:

    • 2:14-17: Paul and his fellow ministers who proclaim the Gospel—the knowledge of God in Christ
      • 3:1-6: Contrast between the old covenant (on tablets of stone) and new covenant (in the heart)—the letter vs. the Spirit
        —vv. 4-6: Ministers of the New Covenant
      • 3:7-18: Contrast between the veiled face of Moses and the unveiled face of believers in the Spirit
        —vv. 12-18: Ministers of the New Covenant (par. with Moses)
    • 4:1-6: The ministry of proclaiming the Gospel—the knowledge of God in Christ

The chiastic structure of this section becomes even more obvious when comparing 2:14-17 with 4:1-6:

Thus these two verses perfectly enclose the section, and should be studied together. I begin in today’s note with 2:14. Interestingly, this verse itself has a chiastic symmetry. The opening phrase is: “To God be thanks for (his) favor… [tw=| de\ qew=| xa/ri$ tw=|…]”. The second definite article defines (and explains) the favor (xa/ri$) which God has shown. This, in the remainder of the verse, may be presented as a chiasm:

    • every time [pa/ntote, i.e. always]
      • leading us in procession [qriambeu/onti h(ma=$]
        • in Christ [e)n Xristw=|]
        • the smell of the knowledge of Him [th\n o)smh\n th=$ gnw/sew$ au)tou=]
      • shining forth [i.e. making manifest] through us [fanerou=nti di’ h(mw=n]
    • in every place [e)n panti\ to/pw=]

These elements—the words and phrases—require some closer examination. First, the expressions using forms of pa=$ (“all, every”), which occur frequently in Paul’s letters:

(a) pa/ntote, “every [pa=$] (time) when [to/te]”, “always, whenever, etc.”—27 of 41 NT occurrences
(b) e)n panti\ to/pw|, “in every [pa=$] place, in all place(s)”, “everywhere”—cf. also in 1 Cor 1:2; 1 Thess 1:8; and 1 Tim 2:8

These expressions encapsulate the completeness and universal reach of God’s action—temporal and spatial—covering every aspect of human existence. Specifically, here it relates to every aspect of the ministry of Paul and his fellow missionaries. The second pair of phrases are governed by two participles with predicate pronoun (“us”). The two verbs involved are:

    • qriambeu/w (thriambeúœ), which refers primarily to a military triumph (as by the Roman forces), and often in the specific sense of a triumphal procession following victory, in which captives and the spoils of battle would be displayed. There is some uncertainty as to the precise sense of Paul’s image here; it could be (a) that God leads Paul and other ministers in triumph, with the spread of the Gospel, etc. For similar military imagery along these lines, see e.g. 10:4-5. The other possibility is (b) that God leads Paul and the other ministers in procession as captives—i.e. they themselves have been made captive to the Gospel. Paul occasionally uses the term “slave” (dou=lo$) to refer to himself (and others) as ministers of Christ and the Gospel (Rom 1:1; Gal 1:10; Phil 1:1, etc), and it is probably this latter sense that is meant in context here. The only other occurrence in the New Testament is Col 2:15, where a military victory, performed by God through the death (crucifixion) of Jesus, is properly meant.
    • fanero/w (phaneróœ), related to fw=$ (phœ¡s), “light” and the principal verbs fa/w [obs.], fai/nw (“shine [as] light”), meaning “shine forth”, often in the figurative sense of “appear, make apparent, (make) manifest”. It is found frequently in the Pauline letters (22 of 49 occurrences), and also in the Gospel and First letter of John (18 times). This verb will be discussed further in Part 3 of the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”, dealing with the topic of revelation.

Finally the words in the third (inner) pair of expressions:

    • “in Christ” (e)n Xristw=|)—a well known expression, found frequently in Paul’s writings, and almost exclusive to him in the New Testament. Typically it refers to the general status of believers, reflecting (a) our faith/trust in Christ, and (b) our union with him, through the Spirit, and symbolized in the rite of Baptism. However, here there is the specific sense of the status of Paul and his fellow apostles and missionaries as ministers of Christ and the Gospel. God leads them in procession in Christ—which, based on the interpretation given above, could be clarified as in captivity to Christ. For something of this sense, cf. also Rom 16:3, 9; Philem 23, etc. As captives, they are specifically required to speak (i.e. proclaim the Gospel)—cf. further in verse 17, and 12:19.
    • “the smell of the knowledge of Him” (h( o)smh\ th=$ gnw/sew$ au)tou=)—a genitive chain with three terms, each of which are treated below; a parallel genitive chain, even more extended, is used at a similar point in 4:6 (cf. the next study):
      • o)smh/ (osm¢¡), “smell”, either pleasant or foul. Here a pleasing aroma or fragrance is meant, as indicated by the use of eu)wdi/a (“good scent”) in verse 15. The combination of o)smh/ and eu)wdi/a strongly suggests the fragrance of the sacrificial offerings (cf. Lev 1:9, 13, 17; 2:2, etc. [LXX]). Here the “sacrifice” as such is the proclamation of the Gospel, and the role of Paul and his fellow ministers in this activity—for the parallel between Christian ministers and Moses (and the Priesthood), cf. the illustration in chapter 3. Paul plays again on the ambiguity of o)smh/ is verse 16—a good smell of life to the ones being saved (through the Gospel), but a stench of death for the ones perishing. The otherwise mixed metaphor of sight and smell indicates that the verb fanero/w is used more or less in the general sense of “appear, make manifest”.
      • gnw=si$ (gnœ¡sis), “knowledge”. For Paul’s use of gnw=si$, cf. Part 1 of the series “Gnosis and the New Testament”. The genitive construct makes clear that the smell is “the smell of knowledge“. If the sacrificial allusion is accepted (cf. above), then the orientation has shifted notably—instead of being directed toward God, the sacrifice is intended for human beings, to bring the knowledge of God to them. This is important when considering possible gnostic elements in the New Testament, and will be discussed further in that series.
      • au)tou=, “of him, his”—I have rendered the genitive relationship literally (“knowledge of him [i.e. God]”), though itself it is ambiguous; it could be subjective (God’s own knowledge) or objective (knowledge about/regarding God). Certainly the latter is meant here, though the two aspects can never be separated entirely, especially with regard to God’s (fore)knowledge of believers.

What is particularly significant about this pair of expressions is the way they must be taken to inform each other: the sacrificial “smell of the knowledge of (God)” comes about entirely “in Christ”.