In a nutshell: Paul draws a parallel between himself and Moses to illustrate why the Corinthians should not put too much weight on letters of recommendation from other envoys of God.
… Thank God, who always makes a spectacle of us in the service of God’s Anointed, and spreads through us the fragrance of knowing him everywhere. To God we are the sweet incense of God’s Anointed both for those who are headed for deliverance and those who are bound for ruin. To the latter it’s an odor that reeks of death; to the former it’s the sweet smell of life. Who can handle this?
—2 Corinthians 2:14–16
A Note before Proceeding
This next set of readings as laid out by The Authentic Letters of Paul may seem a bit surprising. The “letter” as it appears in the New Testament is broken up here into to four separate letters. The logic behind this is as follows:
It is not simply the case that there are only two letters to the Corinthians. What we call “First Corinthians” was actually a second letter (1 Cor 5:9). The matter becomes more complicated when what is traditionally known as “Second Corinthians” is read with a critical eye. The Second Letter to the Corinthians does not appear to be a unified piece. Rather, a close reading of the material delivers a problematic picture. Numerous discrepancies and inconsistencies abound. Some scholars have tried to overcome such observations by noting that there is no evidence of the fragmentary nature of Second Corinthians in the textual tradition. However, this argument is rather specious since the earliest text we have comes from the third century. Moreover, the earliest mention of anything from what we know as Second Corinthians comes from about 140 ce. If Paul wrote the Corinthian correspondence in the mid fifties of the first century, there was then a considerable amount of time in which a number of shorter letters could have been combined into one major letter. (115)
The authors of The Authentic Letters explain the logic in more detail behind their reconstructions of the original letters, which I won’t elaborate here, but I invite you to give it some thought as you read. We begin today with “a defense of Paul’s credibility.”
Paul Channels Moses
“I was / born with a prologue of references, pursued / by mosquitoes and thieves,” writes Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Gregory Pardlo (recited here). And isn’t that Paul, too?
Into Corinth Paul carries with him the spectacle of the Roman arenas, athletes and gladiators, incense (probably for the dead), stone tablets inscribed with God’s commandments carried down by Moses from the mountain, also the temple veil and the brilliance of God’s presence and power. He even unwittingly keeps alive for posterity the existence of emissaries who once jousted with him for influence. Isn’t it delightful and somewhat embarrassing all at once? Paul can’t proclaim a world-transforming message without relying on this rich bed of history and culture, even though what he’s offering is a back-handed compliment of Jewish law and condemnation of Roman culture. Surely nobody wanted to hear from Paul their tradition was like “a slave who accompanies a child to school and serves as disciplinarian until the child grows up” (Authentic Letters, 125). Nobody wanted to reek of death.
Theologian Anthony C. Thistleton wrote some years ago:
In the end what is important is not our knowledge of the name and biography of an author, but that the text which the author produces is understood not only with reference to its detailed parts, but also as a wholeness which represents the vision of a human mind and which belongs to some larger context or life-world. (New Horizons in Hermeneutics, 261, emphasis mine. Related video: “Why study hermeneutics?”)
It is possible for two minds to meet across centuries, for one to feel one has a relationship with a long-dead person. I had a professor once who said his best friends were all nineteenth and twentieth-century philosophers, all dead now but whose sense of the world resonated with what his own experience. Yet even in that meeting it is a meeting of horizons. Martin Heidegger used to use that word to refer to the continually flexing landscape of possibilities on which we shape our lives. There exists a relationship between past and present that is flexible and continuously renegotiated.
To bring it back to Paul, Paul has an abiding sense of comradery with Moses. Confronted by stiff-necked people, he wonders when to wield a stick and when to be sweet. Paul projects Jesus back with Moses, too: Jesus is “the rock” that followed the people of Israel through the wilderness and gave them the same bread and drink shared by the assemblies of the Anointed in Paul’s time in their ritual meals (1 Cor 10:2–3). Here is the parallel from Exodus:
The people quarreled with Moses, and said, “Give us water to drink.” Moses said to them, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?” Bu the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kiss us and our children and livestock with thirst?” So Moses cried out to the LORD, “What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.” The LORD said to Moses, “Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.” (Exod 17:2–6)
Figuratively speaking, Paul believes the people of Israel have already been participating in the Lord’s Supper since the time of Moses. For that matter, there’s an irresistible opportunity here: “Strike the rock,” God says to Moses, the figurehead of Israel and bearer of the Law. “I will be standing in front of you.” What a rich metaphor for crucifying Jesus. Paul can’t resist putting the two together.
Here in 2 Corinthians, Paul feels again he like a new Moses is standing before the people offering a life of freedom from slavery, and they are distracted by worldly affairs. Paul speaks of “the old order inscribed in stone that ends in death” and “Moses who covered up his face with a veil,” not to protect himself against the brilliance of God (as in the original) but so “the Israelites would not see the inevitable end of what is transitory,” meaning the then-new Law they received in the desert. Compare the characterization of Israel in Exodus to Paul’s characterization of the various communities about whom we’ve read so far:
When God finished speaking with Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” …
The LORD said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the LORD his God … (Exodus 31:18–32:1, 32:9–11)
This makes me wonder: how much of this is Paul projecting the past onto the present? When Paul’s communities don’t “know what has become of him” they may nevertheless remain faithful to his message, but perhaps Paul holds a spiraling view of history rather than a strictly linear one. Like Moses, he lived a life of relative privilege, at least a life privileged enough that he had to power to harass the Jesus movement, until he was called to save the very people he harassed. Perhaps the communities (a bit facetiously) like to be identified with the “stiff-necked” people of Israel. Is it possible they found Paul’s lambasting of them a sort of flattery rather than a conviction?
Questions for the Road:
- Are there any writers from long ago who you feel you could call a friend or kindred spirit? Who? Why?
- Is it plausible to imagine that Paul and his communities shared a fantasy of themselves as God’s people wandering together through the wilderness? How would that change the way you read Paul’s letters?
Thanks for reading this entry from the #30DaysofPaul reading challenge. We’re reading the seven undisputed letters of Paul in 30 days: 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Philemon, Philippians, Romans. Why not join us? Download the reading plan, which is based on the work of the Westar Paul Seminar as published in The Authentic Letters of Paul.
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.