[ D. Seiple    First Corinthians   1 Corinthians ]

Power and Authentication in

“È̀πιγνώσομαι καθὼς καὶ ὲπεγνώσθην”

(1 Corinthians 13:12)



 D. Seiple

© 2001



For now we see (blepomen) through a mirror (esoptrou) in a riddle (en ainigmati) but then we will see face to face.  Now I know (gignōskō) only in part; then I will know fully (epignōsomai), even as I have been fully known (epegnōsthēv) . 

1 Cor 13: 12



The text of 1 Cor 13:12 raises an enigma for us – a riddle about the relation of present and future.  If we look ahead (as Karl Barth did[1]) to ch 15, the apocalyptic future looms large in Paul.  In fact, a surface reading of the language, reinforced by the translation of the NRSV, suggests a strong contrast between the “gnostic” (or what we should perhaps call “sapiential”) and the “apocalyptic,” and places Paul decidedly in the latter camp.  But there are indications throughout the letter that this might be more problematic than it first appears, especially as we place ch 13 in its proper rhetorical context.

It seems obvious that not even ch 15 can be classified as an “apocalypse” in the strict generic sense – as a “revelation…given by God through an otherworldly mediator to a human seer disclosing future events.”[2]  But some commentators (e.g., J. Christiaan Beker) have regarded all of Paul’s writings through the lens of ch 15, concluding that “the coherent theme of Paul’s theology is an apocalyptic theme that centers on the coming triumph of God.”[3] This gives reading the text a certain ideological flavor, which reaches well beyond the question of whether or not Paul held apocalyptic views.  Certainly he did, and only the most whimsically creative reading of ch 15 could conclude any differently.  But then two questions naturally arise.  First, to what extent is apocalyptic language an irreducible element when one gives an informed reading of Paul?  And secondly: Must a twenty-first century Christian adopt apocalyptic eschatology as her own ideology when reading Pauline scriptures?  It is important to see that these are two separate questions.  The first is one the historian of religion is sure to ask.  The second is one that anyone who wishes to be Christian has to ask.  It is fruitful not to slight either of these questions, and to recognize that, though distinct, they are nonetheless related questions.  I cannot pretend to do justice here to this complex set of concerns.  But it’s at least worth noting what’s at stake in the present, very preliminary discussion. 

 My claim here is that the primary issue that culminates at 13:12  is not what is occurring in the future (though Paul certainly has opinions on that), but rather what is happening in the present.  This will be brought out in the contrast between “apocalyptic” and “sapiential.”  Moreover, as we’ll see when we compare the verse’s last verb (epegnōsthēv) to its semantically functional parallel in 8:3 (egnōstai), the issue is very much tied to notions of “power” -- though this term should not be limited to the pale reading it receives among some postmodernists.  “Power” here serves what I shall call an authenticating function.  These two concerns – power and authentication – are the overriding concerns of the epistle as a whole.


*   *   *


Speaking in the broadest terms, Paul is writing during what Jaspers once termed the “Axial Age” – the era, around the Mediterranean, that lasted through late antiquity, and was characterized by “the critique of and eventual rupture of the traditional, static, ‘holistic’ societies and aristocratic empires of antiquity.”[4]  During the Axial Age, two cultural issues are uppermost.  One of these is the issue of  power, which arises when traditional societies receive serious challenge, and in such a setting the institutional framework is not hospitable to the challenger.  Early Christianity, as John H. Schütz reminds us,[5] “deposited its eggs in a nest of another’s making,” in that distinct vocabularies marked contending social practices arising out of the pre-existing social context of their adherents.  In fact Paul himself, in a real sense, is an outsider when it comes to dealing with the local community.  So politics permeates the discussion throughout 1 Corinthians.[6] 

Now this fact alone certainly does not require us to assume, for example, a radical revolutionary program on the part of any of the early Christian groups, and it would be a mistake to politicize the discussion as some have done.[7] We can see this when we attend to the language of the text, which is not, at the most accessible semantic level, only about competing political agendas. At the most obvious textual level, it also concerns the relation between community members and God.  Whether or not that language is reducible to politics requires a separate argument. 

So it would hardly be right to suppose that nothing political going on behind the text of 1 Corinthians, nor that the political features of its underlying social setting are not hermeneutically relevant.  However, I shall assume here that political ideology does not lie “at the very heart of the signification process”[8] (or at least that the process exhibits a cardiological diversity that resists totalizing discursive politicization).  In fact, I shall even suggest at the very end of this discussion that reading ancient texts should probably involve a  “reading from within” -- a hermeneutical strategy I borrow from Troels Engberg-Pedersen,[9] who defines it as: (1) interpretation distinct from the view one already holds, and yet (2) interpretation that expresses a “real option” for the reader.  (This latter notion is borrowed in turn from Bernard Williams: “an outlook is a real option for a group either if it already is their outlook or if they could go over to it; and they could go over to it if they could live inside it in their actual historical circumstances and retain their hold on reality, not engage in extensive self-deception, and so on.”[10])  In this, I shall not here be worried about falling prey to “a spiritualizing gesture that skirts the question of power” (Castelli[11]).


*   *    *


 The issue that confronts us at 13:12 (and throughout 1 Corinthians) is really an issue over access to the transcendent.  And this raises an issue very distinct from politics, though still related to it, which is the second concern that runs through the Axial Age -- the issue of authentication. 

Pre-Axial, static cultures[12] are not troubled (in the same way they would be after the Axial shift) by a “cognitive” problem of access to God.  It would be a gross simplification – but one that would have a heuristic point – to say that temple priests simply fulfill their dramatic function in society, out of the natural imaginative appeal religious symbols have.  But in the midst of Axial uncertainty over the clash of contending vocabularies and practices, concern naturally arises over authentication (dokimē).   We might even imagine this to be a basic cross-cultural form of societal structure, but in any case, we do know that it is not restricted to Paul’s own orbit (cf 1 Jn 4:1). We can even regard the rise of the Socratic tradition in philosophy as an expression of this same social impulse.[13] 

            The fact that authentication is a major concern of Paul’s is attested by 11:19: “it is necessary (dei) that there be factions (haireseis) among you, so it can be clear who among you are dokioi.”  Despite its possible apocalyptic connotations, there seems to be no good reason not to take the dei here as connected with the following hina clause to indicate an authenticatory function within the community.[14] On the other hand, there is an urgency to Paul’s language here that can hardly have been unintentional, since Paul uses the standard 3rd pers. sing. neut. dei with inf. as an apocalyptic designation elsewhere (e.g., 15: 25).  This urgency is just what we would expect of a community in an age of Axial anxiety.[15]  But then the question arises as to whether the allusion here is to the urgency that accompanies the apocalyptic pronouncement – which is logically separable from the rhetorical contours of the pronouncement itself – or whether the allusion is to the particulars of the cosmic event, including its future occurrence.  It is important to notice that the occurrence of apocalyptic imagery does not in itself decide this question.  


*   *   *


With Conzelmann, we can regard ch 13 (at least through v 12) as a self-contained unity.  The transitions at 12:31 and 14:1 are “ragged,” and there are inconsistencies of content as well (for example, the fact that ch 13 degrades the very gift of prophesy that 14:1 exalts).[16] But this should not convince us that its placement exactly at this point in the letter is simply random, unless we take the entire epistle to be a redactional hodgepodge (which seems unlikely). Its placement is meant to address the problems generated by the Corinthian practice of speaking in tongues, which is the prime feature of both ch 12 and ch 14..

Throughout, Paul is meaning to deflect the divisiveness brewing in the Corinthian community, and speaking in tongues had apparently gone fairly rampant.  Conzelmann remarks that, for the Corinthian elite, “gifts are evaluated according to the degree of ecstatic outburst; in fact, even according to the degree of unintelligibility.”[17] That may be overstating the case a bit, since Paul’s list of gifts in ch 12 ends not with tongues but with their interpretation (v 10), and we might want to assume from this that the elite actually valued the effort to make tongues intelligible. On the other hand, this quibble assumes that the point of Paul’s list is to degrade the favored practices of his elite opponents, by placing those on the very bottom, and this supposition is weakened somewhat by the fact that 12:8 places logos gnoseōs near the very top of the list.  In any case, even if Paul’s concern is only vaguely registered by that listing, in 14:2 we see that concern confirmed: the one who speaks in tongues does not speak to the community (ouk anthrōpois lalei), but only to God, since what he or she says is unintelligible without an interpreter.  Intelligibility for Paul is a communal function: interpretation is a matter for the upbuilding of the church (hina hē ekklēsia oikodomēn labē – 14:5), and the one who speaks only in tongues does nothing but upbuild himself (heauton oikodomei – 14:4)

As Paul is writing 1 Cor, contentiousness has not yet sundered the Corinthian community completely.  They still share a eucharist,[18] and this unity (tenuous though it is) is reflected in the fact that for Paul the issue is still one of the correct interpretation of the charisms: the Spirit is bestowed “so that we might understand (eidōmen) the gifts of God.”[19]  A complete schism would have prompted skepticism over the genuineness of the gifts themselves, and beyond that, the credibility of the person who channels them.  And a complete schism, we sense, is looming just out of sight – though Paul is certainly alert to it.  That is why, at this point, he insists that it is the same God who “activates” (ho de autos theos ho energōn) the variety of charismata (12:4-6) – just as earlier the children of Moses where said to all have eaten the same spiritual food (10:3).  What is important for the present discussion is that fact that “interpretation” concerns not just a verbal paraphrase of authenticated speech.  It involves assessing the very status of the speech itself  authentication, in other words.


*   *   *


One key here is the appearance of the Greek piptō in 13:8. which is used by Paul in both a literal and a figurative sense.  These two senses are related through the basic meaning of “to fall,”[20] and Paul’s use of the verb in each of its senses occurs in contexts in which authentication is the prime rhetorical concern.  In the literal sense, the unbeliever is said to fall (pesōn) before God in worship, in the face of the unified prophetic testimony of the community (14:5)-- which for Paul emphatically does not involve communal glossolalia, lest any outsiders suppose the community has gone “out of your minds” (mainesthe – 14:23).  The concern over authentication there is obvious: the unbelieving outsider (apistos) “falls” before God once his misapprehensions fall away.  The context here, then, is the overcoming of error, of self-deception even.

Now the relation to power is intuitively obvious here perhaps, and is made all the more so by the verbal parallel at 10:12, where the attributive focus is not upon a personified quality (agapē) but upon the members of the community themselves, who are at risk of becoming “partners to demons” (koinōnous tōn daimoniōn – 10:20).  Here Paul declares: “So if you think you are standing (dokōn hestanai), watch that you do not fall (pesē).”  The pairing of histēmi and piptō suggest a key contrast, as indicated by the injunction at 16:13, where Paul admonishes the community: Stēkete en pistei!  A literal rendering of either of these verbs would make nonsense of the passage: we see here that the locative sense of both verbs is metaphorized into a comment on power. Faith becomes “the power by which one stands,”[21] and one can reasonably conclude, from the contrastive pairing with histēmi at 10:12, that piptō refers to a binary verbal opposite[22] – disempowerment. 

In this same context the reference to daimonioi in ch 10 is quite telling.  In an Axial era where access to transcendence is disputed by contending factions, “demons” represent what the outsider experiences when most vulnerable to her own disempowerment.  At a later point, when the political standing of the Christian communities in the Empire was beginning to shift, we find Celsus making this very point for us, when he warns that Christians get their power by pronouncing the names of demons![23]  Reference to “demons” is a common occurrence in the Graeco-Roman world, to indicate any “form of religious deviance whereby individual or social goals are sought by means alternate to those normally sanctioned by the dominant religious institution.”[24] “Dominance” of course is a relative term: Paul’s status as an outsider in the larger Imperial context does not preclude the attitude of an insider when confronted with competing religious forms.  In such a context, authentication becomes the paramount manner of setting communal boundaries and maintaining (one could say here “dominating”) the focus required for a shared communal practice. 

The link to both power and authentication is clear as well from 2:4-5, where Paul declares, in effect, that his preaching carries with its own self-authentication.  Faith, he says, should depend not on sophia anthrōpōn but on dynamei theou.  The fact that Paul sees this as self-authenticating is clear from what else he says.  The very message of the cross (ho logos ho tou staurou) is itself dynamis theou (1:18), and his very preaching of it is a demonstration of this (apodeixis pneumatos kai dynameōs).  Here Paul is playing off the contrasting connotations of apodeixis.[25] In ancient rhetoric, the word has the sense of polished argumentation – which Paul at 2:2-3, ironically to be sure, declares to be beyond his meager capacities. (One suspects here that the elite in Corinth were skillful with words as well as with tongues – which might then  account for the deprecatory (?) placement of hermeneia glōssōn, in 12:10.) However, the word also carries a legal connotation, which we see from Acts 25:7, and here, once again, the authenticating function is obvious. 

   Returning then to the context of 13:8 and applying now the figurative sense of piptō, we find Paul saying that agapē will not “fail” (oupote piptei – 13:8). This is unfortunately rendered in a rather flat-footed manner in the NRSV as “Love will never end.”  But, if the parallel with ch 10 carries any weight, the primary context is really power and authentication. The temporal continuance of agapē is a function of that.

 But this still leaves us with the puzzle we began with – which had to do with the relation of present and future.  How precisely does the extended reference to the future in ch 15 “function” with respect to the present?  This drives us to wonder which of the two (present concern or future concern) is, as it were, the independent variable here?  Even at 13:12, we cannot ignore the fact that a temporal contrast is very prominently drawn (“Now I know only in part, but I will know fully”). 

But  then we notice something interesting. The temporal framework shifts yet again – kathōs epegnōsthēn.  This is a double shift.  There is (1) a shift in voice, to the passive; and there is (2) a shift of tense, to the aorist.  Both deserve comment.


*   (1)    *


(1) First, let’s address the interesting matter of grammatical voice, by bringing in a parallel at 8:3.  This passage is odd.  It reads: “But anyone who loves (agapā) God is known by him (egnōstai hyp’autou).” This quite unexpectedly makes the perfect passive of gignōskō an attribute of God Himself.  At first glance, this has a jarring sound to us, because we are perhaps more likely to recognize its converse, which Paul interestingly chooses not to give here and which would be: “Anyone who knows God is loved by him.”  For us today, it might seem more natural to imagine the power of God’s love as a subjective transformation, attained just at the point after which our own cognitive act succeeds in reaching beyond itself (in “gignōskein theou” – where the word for “God” would be placed, as it is in the classical Greek, in the objective genitive).  So we naturally find this verse a little mystifying.

The key here lies in the reference to self-authenticating power.  Horsley[26] points out that Bultmann’s original reconstruction of  gnōsis” was essentially correct: the term connotes the soteriological power in the relation holding between “a content possessed” and an “act of knowing.”  I take this to involve some kind of reciprocity: one is transformed by the object in the process of one’s own awareness of it, and this occurs through a subjective event.  Notice here that the human cognitive act is not construed quite as it had been in the classical Greek usage, for there the term had connoted “inspection from without” such that its object is “grasped” (cf. Cornford’s translation of  Theaet. 209e[27]), and its human apprehender can “control as well as know it.”[28]  Bultmann characterizes this new “gnōsis” as a supra-rational Gnostic “illumination” or “charisma,”[29] which proceeds not from us who control, but to us who are empowered: “It does not make what is seen a possession of the one who sees.   On the contrary, he must pray that he may be kept in gnosis.”[30]  It would be obviously heretical to suppose that the human apprehender can “control” the deity, so we can be confident of our speculation here.

Here I think we have an indication of the pregnant reversal in usage in the Greek, one that was just beginning to occur as a consequence of Axial anxieties, but had not yet become conventionally solidified. There is more to this than mere rhetorical strategy.  For as Bultmann makes evident, gnōsis was coming to signify a single event, a reciprocal interaction between human and deity that has transformative significance for the experience of the human knower.  The old usage of the verb was overtly transitive, and still reflected the notion that the knowing act itself conveys power  – which is why v. 3 has the term in the passive: the power is really from God, not from us.  And the experience of that power, coming as it does with associations that have shocking cultural connotations – mōria, asthenēs (1:25) – provides a “demonstration” (apodeixis – 1:24) of its theological pedigree.


*    (2)   *


2) I shall deal with the tense of epegnōsthēn, first by pointing out the interesting parallel with wisdom literature. 

Conzelmann identifies 13:4-7 as showing a clear sapiential tone.[31] The term itself – “wisdom literature” – reflects the early Christian title for the book of Proverbs.[32] In literary terms, the pervasive theme is the personification of the figure of Wisdom – as teacher,[33] as  protector,[34] -- but what is even more interesting is what we might call its cognitive soteriology.  In Jewish Wisdom, what saves is the knowledge of the law; in Gnosticism, what saves is the knowledge of the cosmic myth.  In either case, this expresses, as Koester says, “the truth about God and about the essence of the human self.”[35] Now the use of personification come into play as the “rendering of an agent”[36]: Wisdom is said to “pass into holy souls and make them friends of God and prophets” (Wis 7:27); on account of her the recipient is able to exercise the moral virtues – self-control and prudence, justice and courage” (the virtues Plato gave at Phaed.69C).  So Wisdom provides both human model and pneumatic thrust – “for she is the breath of the power of God…” (Wis 7:25a)

Personification privileges the reference to human empowerment, and Axial anxieties must have made the occurrence of that empowerment seem both necessary and sufficient for authentication.  The tie between authentication and sapientia is apparent when we consider the later development of the Wisdom genre, in its more skeptical versions “on the fringes of the wisdom tradition”.[37]  The writer of Ecclesiastes, in one of his moods, seems to have lost confidence in Wisdom altogether : “For in much wisdom is much vexation, and those who increase knowledge increase sorrow” (Wis 1:18).  Paul may have foreseen this vexation among those nē suneidēsis autōn asthenēs ousa (8:7b). He certainly understood the danger here -- that some might justify their own elitism and impair communal the standing of those who look (to them) pneumatically weak (astheneis).  The point then is not to direct oneself towards the exotic mysterion “per se” because, at the level of elitist discourse (kath’ huperochēn logou), the mysterion functions as a kind of ancient Rohrschach – one sees what one looks for.  Paul declares to us instead: Diōkete tēn agapēn![38] (We can even see the fallout from this later on, when the convenient substitution of “marturion” for “mysterion” took hold,[39] and it still held sway in the KJV and even the RSV.) 

Now since the subjective experience of power obviously occurs, if ever, only in the present, this would explain why epegnōsthēn is transformed into the aorist at 13:12 – because, from the point of view of the imagined future, the knowing by God has already occurred, in the here-and-now experience of Paul and his intended audience.

            This is a bit of an oversimplification, certainly.  Apocalyptic and Jewish Wisdom did not keep distinct boundaries from one another. This is understandable, since once it became clear that Wisdom had departed from the world because she did not receive a hearing, it was only natural to wait expectantly for her return.  This would later develop into the Gnostic redeemer myth.[40] So “apocalypticism and wisdom, rather than being at almost exclusive extremes within the spectrum of Jewish alternatives, share certain affinities and congruences that encourage a transition from one to the other.”[41])  But that just means that the point I want to make here becomes more historically obscure only when the use of certain historically embedded symbols loses its precise semiotic function. That does not invalidate the contrast I am drawing.

There are at least two more serious objections, however. The first has to do with the explicit tone of ch 15, which makes it quite clear that despite his remarkable flexibility on practical disputes,[42]motivated by his overriding concern to avoid factionalization – despite this, Paul draws the line when it comes to the apocalyptic matters contained in ch 15.[43] Any account of 1 Cor in terms of sapientia must account for Paul’s uncompromising embrace of the apocaplytic in ch 15.

This is related to a second observation that might likewise seem to militate against sapiential priority here. There is a real lacuna in Paul’s apparent ambivalence toward “gnōsis,” which has puzzled commentators.  Conzelmann[44] suggests that Paul essentially shares his opponents view of gnōsis, while Horsley[45] insists that Paul finds the notion objectionable.  Both are, in a sense, correct, but it is at first easier to see Horsley’s argument.  For why indeed, if Paul is writing from a sapiential framework, does he make such infrequent use of the sapiential tradition?  Koester[46] makes the point that though there is no fixed formulation for the gospel’s content, there are creedal formulae in Paul.  These are all passion narratives that contain an apocalyptic aftermath (or climax, if you will).  The most famous of these is the formula given at 1 Cor 15:1-5.  But the sayings of Jesus Himself are rare in Paul, concentrated in only three of Paul’s letters (including 1 Cor). For the most part, Paul simply chooses not to use them.  But not because he was not familiar with the sayings tradition – Koester[47] wants to argue that 1:19 is quoting Q material, and that 2:7 parallels what we find in the Gospel of Thomas (whose sapiential credentials are of course impeccable).  And James M. Robinson, after noting that a gnosticizing tendency  was most probably layered deeply within the earliest kerygma, shows how much intuitive sense it makes to see 1 Cor 4:8ff as a Pauline play off a gnosticizing interpretation of the beatitudes.[48] So it is all the more odd, it seems, that Paul would not make of sapiential material to make his points against his opponents.

            But then right there is the answer. By the time of Paul’s writing, Paul’s elitist opponents had already so successfully controlled the discussion in Corinth that Paul could afford to quote the Lord Himself only sparingly.  This was a double problem for Paul.  Not only did this compromise his own stock of self-authenticating vocabulary.  It also complicated the fact that Paul  -- as I am trying to show throughout this entire discussion -- actually counted himself as one of the “wisdom” camp.  Conzelmann declares that Paul must have actually introduced “sophia” to the community,[49] which had already perhaps adopted the vocabulary of gnōsis.  The very fact that Paul will still use “gnōsis” at all, despite its political dangers, and pair it with his own “sophia”  – this itself indicates how firmly Paul is committed to the language of both, and how many inroads his opponents were already making on both fronts.  Paul is forced to deny (2:5) that faith should be based in sophia anthrōpōn (he wouldn’t even have mentioned that, had some important segment of his audience not already adopted the vocabulary of wisdom).  So Paul is forced to make what is always the shrewdest move in philosophy but the worst possible move in politics – he is forced to divide the meaning of a canonical word.  There is (so-called) “wisdom” as it is spoken especially by the “rulers of this age” (2:8); and then there is “wisdom” as it is spoken among tois teleiois (2:6) a term that has Stoic affiliations[50]

So Paul here is in a political pickle, and this is what lies behind his weaving in and out of sapiential vocabulary.  Many a Bible-thumping preacher has publicly extolled Paul’s cleverness in combatting the heretics at Corinth.  They don’t realize that Paul was on very shakey ground here, and that it really took someone of Paul’s rhetorical skill to even to tread water, politically speaking.  And the result is still something of a mess.  Notice, for example, that his declaration “oidamen gnōsin echomen” is formally contradicted by v. 7.[51] And Paul is in the same tight corner over “sōma” at 15:44.

All this having been said, it is quite obvious why Paul is concerned over authentication.  He is struggling with others over whose vision should guide the community.  It is also clear what the connection to “power” is – and it’s not just the banal notions about the comparative strength of political constituencies.  Though it has political implications, “power” here something else – power is the subjective sense of being “known by God.”  The fact that such a sense is “subjective” does not empty it of its efficacy in bringing about, on the individual and social level, the most far-reaching consequences.  For Paul, as we see in ch 13, its reality it tested in the presence of the communal relation of agapē. 

For Paul, this power is inherent in the passion narrative, and, if I am correct so far, he thinks his own narrative (including the apocalyptic climax) is ineliminable because the subjective experience of power – which the audience experiences only in the actual retelling of the narrative -- is self-authenticating.  (Though from ch 13 in particular we see that this leads him to insist on an additional requirement – that the power get expressed agapically – which is to say that even authentication requires a narrative framework!.)  Apparently Karl Barth was making a somewhat similar point when he insisted that the humanity of Jesus requires a narrative and not an abstract category (e.g., “ousia”).[52] A narrative is, as Barth would say, the rendering of an agent as a literary figure. Now the point here is that Barth’s view of Scripture can make a point about kergyma as Paul knew it.  The kerygma’s authority is functional – “authoritative not in virtue of any inherent property….but in virtue of the function [it fills] in the life of the Christian community.”  This function provides “the occasion for encounter with an agent in history.”[53] Paul of course recognized this agent as the Risen Lord. 

However, what’s crucial here is not the designation but the designation’s function, and on this we might think that neither Paul nor Barth could go quite far enough.  Both took their narratives to be non-fictional, despite their awareness of the literary forms involved in narration.  For us to recognize narration as “fictive,” on the other hand, is not to deny its power in the least.  In fact, it is (in a way) to guarantee its self-authentication, just as performing arts are authenticated – namely, through the response of the audience.  We sit there and we know that nothing on the stage is “real” in the way that, say, the everyday identity of the actors themselves is.  But we are moved nonetheless, and nothing can deny the power of the performance.  The Pauline narrative, we might say, is the narrative of agapē, whose power cannot be denied as long as the story really gains a hearing.  And in Corinth, Paul was afraid that the narrative was about to be lost altogether. 

So now back to 13:12.  The reference to power -- which is always experienced, if at all, only in the present --  is what explains the shift to the aorist. It is true that, at 13:8, Paul does declare that gnōsis will be, as Delling translates it, rendered “inoperative”[54](argēthēsetai).  Far from privileging the apocalyptic, however, Paul is specifically resisting the mythological pull here.  The larger point he is making is not that misunderstandings will be shown to be false at the cosmic apocalypse, but that misunderstandings can be shown to be false here and now (14:25). 

From this standpoint, the very reference to the apocalyptic reads like a lame attempt to bring the elite over to Paul’s own side.  At the moment of climax for the entire chapter, a chapter that Bultmann saw as the climax of the entire epistle[55] – Paul assures us that gnōsis will completely be ours (epignōsomai).  So the elite are not on their gnosticizing path entirely in vain!  But in fact this is just one more sling at the elitist camp, because at that same apocalyptic moment gnōsis will have lost its authenticating point (it will be made inoperative – 13:8)!  So once again, the point is not to concentrate on gnōsis anthrōpōn.  What really matters for Paul is the agapic present.


*   *   *


          We can perhaps afford to be a bit more speculative in some closing remarks, which pertain more to questions naturally arising from within a community such as Paul’s.

            At 4:15 Paul declares that it was dia tou euangeliou that he fathered the community at Corinth.  The noun has no genitive complement here, and this is true of the  typical Pauline usage of the term – viz., “as a technical term for both the action of the proclamation and for the content of the message” (Koester).[56] Margaret M. Mitchell[57]has pointed out that this Pauline usage has an identifiable rhetorical form – that of brachytēs (“brevity”), which is the trope of “including the whole of a pragma in a single word.”[58] If the argument here is correct so far, it is most natural to regard that pragma here just as the dynamis that gets expressed as agapē.

But the “inclusion in a single word” is logically tricky if we mean to use our designation as a semantical vehicle and not just as one more element in a semiotic kaleidoscope.  This is, in effect, what a member of the Pauline community would presumably want to do.  From within the Pauline community of faith, we would surely want to refer (semantically) to the reality that “we know” (oidamen).  This is logically tricky because our designation would then seek to cover, as Koester observes, both act and content – in other words, it would require reference to both a first-person performance and a second- or third-person reception.  For Paul, there is no gospel without dynamis: Paul was sent to preach hina mē kenōthē ho stauros tou Christou (1:17),[59]  and for Paul, the power lies in the actual preaching.  And that means that any reference to the gospel must either be dynamically empty, or else be an instance of its own occurrence.

            So any non-empty use of “euangelion” must be contain a self-reference to the speaker’s own narrative.  If we are not to empty the gospel of its power, we cannot talk about “euangelion” without referring to ourselves, either as the one who does the euangelizesthai or as the one who receives it.  (To assume otherwise would be, in Hans Frei’s memorable line, “to put the cart before the horse and then cut the lines and claim that the vehicle is self-propelled.”[60])

            And this leads us to wonder whether a “reading from within” isn’t inescapable, at least if we are to say very much that is deeply interesting on these kinds of topics.  For we would surely like to know just what Paul means with this strange language he uses, and one always has the sense of not quite getting it unless one feels the force of the preaching.  My hunch is that if we read certain texts from within, we begin to see that a certain kind of self-reference does indeed bring forth an experience of self-authenticating power.  It feels for all the world like a metaphysical event, and not just a linguistic one, and this is the real nature of its self-authentication – namely, the fact that referential success is an existential achievement that the person herself cannot resist embracing.

 Now this does not presuppose anything about supernatural realms or apocalyptic scenarios.  It is an empirical matter, not just a matter of dogma.  No single sectarian dogmatics is essential to that kind of experience.  It is an experience that is very much a natural phenomenon, part of our natural endowment as human beings, which one can have in many cultural formats.  But self-authenticating power is in fact impossible apart from some narrative framework or other, for reasons that I have just tried to suggest in this discussion, and that narrative framework must include a reference to the one who is doing the experiencing.  Or else, the text becomes dynamically empty. 

But then, where does this leave the historian of religion?  For it is not clear just what kind of closeness an historian of religion should maintain to her text, and whether or not the balancing off between (relative) objectivity and exegetical power is, in the end, a zero-sum game…. 






Aune, David E. "Magic in Early Christianity." In Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt, edited by H. Temporini and W. Haase, vol. 2. Berlin, 1980.

Barth, Karl. The Resurrection of the Dead. Translated by H. J. Stenning. New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1933.

Beker, J. Christiaan. Paul the Apostle. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980.

Bultmann, Rudolf.  “GIGNŌSKŌ” translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 689-714. Grand Rapids MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1964.

______. "Karl Barth, the Resurrection of the Dead," translated by Louise Pettibonne Smith. In Faith and Understanding, edited by Robert W. Funk. 6, 66-94. New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1966.

Castelli, Elizabeth A. Imitating Paul. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991.

Conzelmann, Hans. 1 Corinthians. Translated by James W. Leitch. Edited by George W. MacRae. Hermeneia. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975.

Dautzenberg, G. "APODEIKNUMI, APODEIKSIS." In Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider, 126-27. Grand Rapids MI: William B Eerdmans, 1978-80.

Delling, Gerhard. "ARGOS, ARGEO, KATARGEO," translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich, and Geoffrey W. Bromiley, 452-4. Grand Rapids MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1964.

———. "TELEIOS," translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard: Kittel, et al., 67-78. Grand Rapids MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1972.

Dodds, E. R. Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.

Elliott, Neil. Liberating Paul. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994.

Engberg-Pedersen, Troels. Paul and the Stoics. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000.

Frei, Hans W. "The `Literal Reading' of the Biblical Narrative in the Christian Tradition: Does It Stretch or Will It Break?" In The Bible and the Narrative Tradition, edited by Frank McConnell, 36-77. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Grundmann, Walter. "STEKO, HISTEMI," translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel, et al., 636-53. Grand Rapids MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1971.

Hanson, Paul D. "Apocalypses and Apocalypticism: The Genre." In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, edited by David Noel Freedman, vol. 1. New York: Doubleday, 1992.

Kautsky, Karl. "The Foundations of Christianity," translated by H. F. Mins. New York: S. A. Russell, 1953.

Kelsey, David H. Proving Doctrine. Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999.

Koester, Helmut. Ancient Chrisian Gospels. Harrisburg PA: Trinity Press International, 1990.

Metzger, Bruce M. A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament. London and New York: United Bible Societies, 1971.

Michaelis, Wilhelm. "PIPTO," translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. In Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, edited by Gerhard Kittel, et al., vol. 6, 161-73. Grand Rapids MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1968.

Mitchell, Margaret M. "Rhetorical Shorthand in Pauline Argumentation: The Funcions of `the Gospel' in the Corinthian Correspondence." 63-88 (Sheffield, England) (1994)Gospels in Paul, edited by L. Ann Jervis and Peter Richardson. Sheffield Academic Press.

Patterson, Stephen J. The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus. Sonoma CA: Polebridge Press, 1993.

Robinson, James M. "Jewish Wisdom Literature and the Gattung, LOGIO SOPHON." In The Shape of Q, edited by John S. Kloppenborg, 51-58. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994.

———. "Kerygma and History in the New Testament." In Trajectories Through Early Christianity, edited by James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester, 20-70. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971.

Rudolph, Kurt. Gnosis. Translated by Robert McLachlan Wilson. New York: HarperCollins, 1984.

The Bible and Culture Collective. "Ideological Criticism." In The Postmodern Bible, edited by Elizabeth A. Castelli, Stephen D. Moore, and Regina M. Schwartz, 272-308. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Theissen, Gerd. The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity. Edited and translated by John H. Schütz. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.

Williams, Bernard. Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy. London: Fontana/Collins, 1985.

Wimbush, Vincent L. "The Ascetic Impulse in Ancient Christianity." Theology Today 50, no. 3 (Oct 1993): 417-28.

_______.  Paul: The Worldly Ascetic.  Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1987.


[1] Karl Barth, The Resurrection of the Dead, translated by H. J. Stenning (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1933).

[2] Paul D. Hanson, "Apocalypses and Apocalypticism: The Genre," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, vol. 1 (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 279.

[3] J. Christiaan Beker, Paul the Apostle (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), xiii, 135.

[4] Vincent L. Wimbush, "The Ascetic Impulse in Ancient Christianity," Theology Today 50, no. 3 (Oct 1993): 420.

[5] Gerd Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity, edited and translated by John H. Schütz (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982), 9.

[6] Theissen, The Social Setting of Pauline Christianity, 40ff.  For a similar observation, see the plausible interpretation of the Johannine Epistles as concerning the support to be given to itinerant adelphoi in Stephen J. Patterson, The Gospel of Thomas and Jesus (Sonoma CA: Polebridge Press, 1993), 188-95.

[7] Karl Kautsky, "The Foundations of Christianity," translated by H. F. Mins (New York: S. A. Russell, 1953).

[8]  The Bible and Culture Collective, "Ideological Criticism," in The Postmodern Bible, ed. Elizabeth A. Castelli, Stephen D. Moore and Regina M. Schwartz (New Haven and London: Yale University Press), 273.

[9] Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Paul and the Stoics (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 16-17.

[10] Bernard Williams, Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy (London: Fontana/Collins, 1985), 160-1.

[11] Elizabeth A. Castelli, Imitating Paul (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), 24.

[12] Such a term is of course an idealization.  No culture is entirely “static,” and there are always contending power groups. Even Ancient Egypt – the paradigmatic “static” culture -- had its conflicts over theology (cf Ikhnaton).

[13] Cp. Apol. 21 b-c.  This naturally suggests a tie between the sapiential genre and Hellenistic philosophy, but, though important, that’s another story.

[14] Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, translated by James W. Leitch, edited by George W. MacRae, Hermeneia (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 194.

[15] E. R. Dodds, Pagan and Christian in an Age of Anxiety (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965), passim.

[16] Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, 217.

[17] Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, 233-4.

[18] 11:17

[19] 2:12b. 

[20] Wilhelm Michaelis, "PIPTO," translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, and others, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1968), 161.

[21] Walter Grundmann, "STEKO, HISTEMI," translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, and others (Grand Rapids MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1971), 651.

[22] Pace deconstructionists.

[23] Origen, contra Cels. 1.6.

[24] David E. Aune, "Magic in Early Christianity," in Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt, ed. H. Temporini and W. Haase, vol. 2 (Berlin, 1980), 1515.

[25] G. Dautzenberg, "APODEIKNUMI, APODEIKSIS," in Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Horst Balz and Gerhard Schneider (Grand Rapids MI: William B Eerdmans, 1978-80), 126-27.

[26] Horsley, "Gnosis in Corinth: I Corinthians 8. 1-6," 34.

[27]  Plato, Theatetus, 1938-1961, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, trans. F. M. Cornford, Bollingen Series LXXI (Princeton: Princeton University Press).

[28] Bultmann, "GIGNOSKO," 692.

[29] Bultmann, "GIGNOSKO," 694.

[30] Bultmann, "GIGNOSKO," 694.

[31] Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, 225.

[32] Eusebius refers to “the Proverbs of Solomon All-Virtuous Wisdom.  See James M. Robinson, "Jewish Wisdom Literature and the Gattung, LOGIO SOPHON," in The Shape of Q, ed. John S. Kloppenborg (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994), 55.

[33] Prov 8:10

[34] Wis 10:1

[35] Helmut Koester, Ancient Chrisian Gospels (Harrisburg PA: Trinity Press International, 1990), 81.

[36] Cf my mention of Barth below.

[37] Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis, translated by Robert McLachlan Wilson (New York: HarperCollins, 1984), 281.

[38] A similar solution seems to have emerged from another community in somewhat similar circumstance, as suggested by  1 John 4:7, though this is perhaps an even harder hermeneutical case.

[39] Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London and New York: United Bible Societies, 1971), 545.

[40] Robinson, "Jewish Wisdom Literature and the Gattung, LOGIO SOPHON," 52.

[41] Robinson, "Jewish Wisdom Literature and the Gattung, LOGIO SOPHON," 57-8.

[42] Neil Elliott, Liberating Paul (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 34.

[43] It is interesting to add that he was similarly strict about porneia in ch 5.

[44] Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, 138.

[45] Richard A. Horsley, "Gnosis in Corinth: I Corinthians 8. 1-6," New Testament Studies 27 (1980): 49.

[46] Koester, Ancient Chrisian Gospels, 6.

[47] Koester, Ancient Chrisian Gospels, 55ff.

[48] James M. Robinson, "Kerygma and History in the New Testament," in Trajectories Through Early Christianity, ed. James M. Robinson and Helmut Koester (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1971), 43ff.

[49] Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, 57.

[50] Gerhard Delling, "TELEIOS," translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard: Kittel, and others (Grand Rapids MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1972), 70.

[51] Unless we assume that Paul is identifying with the “strong” gnostic party and marginalizing the “weak” party.  But this latter possibility is excluded by 9:22. 

[52] CD IV/2 quoted in David H. Kelsey, Proving Doctrine (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 1999), 39.

[53] Kelsey, Proving Doctrine, 47-8.

[54] Gerhard Delling, "ARGOS, ARGEO, KATARGEO," translated by Geoffrey W. Bromiley, in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey W. Bromiley (Grand Rapids MI: Wm B Eerdmans, 1964), 452.

[55] Rudolf Bultmann, "Karl Barth, the Resurrection of the Dead," translated by Louise Pettibonne Smith, in Faith and Understanding, ed. Robert W. Funk, 6 (New York and Evanston: Harper & Row, 1966), 94.

[56] Koester, Ancient Chrisian Gospels, 5.

[57] Margaret M. Mitchell, "Rhetorical Shorthand in Pauline Argumentation: The Funcions of `the Gospel' in the Corinthian Correspondence," 63-88 (Sheffield, England) (1994): 66ffGospels in Paul, ed. L. Ann Jervis and Peter Richardson (Sheffield Academic Press).

[58] Quoted by Mitchell, “Rhetorical Shorthand,” p. 66. From the Rhetorica ad Alexandrum.  I have preserved the original pragma, which retains better the connotation of act than does the translator’s use of “idea.”

[59] Following Mitchell, we can take the reference to the cross of Christ as a synecdoche for the gospel itself.

[60] Hans W. Frei, "The `Literal Reading' of the Biblical Narrative in the Christian Tradition: Does It Stretch or Will It Break?" in The Bible and the Narrative Tradition, ed. Frank McConnell (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 66.