In a Nutshell: Paul fights fire with fire, challenging the credentials of competing itinerant teachers with a parody of credentials of his own.
I’m afraid that I might arrive and find you not as I’d like and I’d be found by you not as you like. I fear there might be competition, jealousy, anger, ambition, backbiting, gossip, swelled heads, and confusion. I’m afraid that God would embarrass me because of you when I come again. (2 Cor 12:20–21)
Paul’s Extraordinary Lists
The lovely Maria Popova over at Brainpickings woke me this morning with an ode to lists with a little help from writer Umberto Eco:
In “Ulysses,” James Joyce describes how his protagonist, Leopold Bloom, opens his drawers and all the things he finds in them. I see this as a literary list, and it says a lot about Bloom. Or take Homer, for example. In the “Iliad,” he tries to convey an impression of the size of the Greek army. At first he uses similes: “As when some great forest fire is raging upon a mountain top and its light is seen afar, even so, as they marched, the gleam of their armour flashed up into the firmament of heaven.” But he isn’t satisfied. He cannot find the right metaphor, and so he begs the muses to help him. Then he hits upon the idea of naming many, many generals and their ships. (Spiegel Online, “We Make Lists Because We Don’t Want to Die,” 2009, emphasis mine)
Lo and behold, this morning when I picked up our Day 16 reading, 2 Corinthians 10–13, I stumble onto list upon list! I doubt I would have noticed it yesterday. Paul the listmaker, Paul the rather ironical and frankly incurable lover of the catalog. As Eco observes, lists seem at first to be rather commonplace. Yet Paul’s listmaking here is fabulous, just fabulous. It serves his irony, his anger, his head-shaking laughter. You can almost imagine him waving his hands while he speaks. He’s trying to show the ridiculousness of his competitors’ appeals to credentials by listing his own, and I think you’ll agree with me that he couldn’t have picked a better way to go about it.
Here’s his warm-up list, rather short:
I am so deeply and passionately concerned about you. I am protective about you. For I arranged to deliver you to God’s Anointed as if I were presenting a virgin to her husband. (11:1–2)
He delivers a warning of what’s coming…
What I’m going to babble on about is not from the lord. I am going to babble on like an idiot with a braggart’s swagger. (11:17)
And then he hits us with a catalogue worthy of applause!
Whatever they insist on bragging about—I’m talking like an idiot—I do, too. Are they “Hebrews”? Me, too! “Israelites”? Me, too! “Descendants of Abraham”? Me, too! Are they “servants of the Anointed”? Me, too! I’m babbling like I’m out of my mind—my service far surpasses theirs! With so many more troubles, so many more arrests, even more lashes, often in danger of death. Five times I received forty lashes minus one from my fellow Jews, three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a day and a night I spent in the deep, often on journeys, with dangers on rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my compatriots, dangers from the nations, dangers at sea, dangers from false friends, in toil and drudgery, often losing sleep, in hunger and in thirst, often on an empty stomach, cold and naked—and apart from everything else is my daily preoccupation, the concern for all the gatherings of the Anointed. Who among them is weak and I’m not also? Who is being led astray and I’m not incensed? If I need to brag, I’ll brag about my limitations. (11:21–30)
When the Archives of American Art put on the 2010 exhibit “Lists: To-dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artists’ Enumerations,” curator Liza Kirwin remarked,
This very mundane and ubiquitous form of documentation can tell you a great deal about somebody’s personal biography, where they’ve been and where they’re going … People can relate to this form of documentation because so many people are list keepers and organise their lives this way.
Paul included lists all over the place in his letters, much to the delight of historians and theologians, who cannot resist playing with them (an enjoyable exercise in its own right!). From Paul’s lists of destinations and communities you may now easily find imaginative maps of all sorts tracing Paul’s footsteps in little loops and lines (oh Google, why must you enable such shenanigans?). The entire book of Acts is like one long elaboration of Paul’s lists, including the one I quoted above. I imagine the writer of Acts sitting before such a list, flabbergasted and tickled all at once. “Yes, three shipwrecks—three!” He mumbles as he putters about with ink and pens, “I must work that in somehow … perhaps with a little inspiration from Homer and Vergil?”
I unwittingly quoted a list for yesterday’s reading, still a favorite among Christians today:
We’ve been pressured on all sides but not boxed in, at a loss but not at our wits’ end, hounded but not abandoned, knocked down but not knocked out. (2 Cor 4:8)
Paul lists virtues…
Always be joyous; live with reverence; be thankful in every circumstance, for this is how God intends for you to live as members of the people for whom Jesus is God’s Anointed. Don’t suppress charismatic fervor. Don’t be condescending about prophesying, but test everything. Hold onto what is good and keep your distance from every form of evil. (1 Thess 5:16–22)
and vices (admittedly, often to our chagrin)…
The results of giving in to self-serving desires are obvious: sexual immorality, moral corruption, flagrant indecency, idol worship, sorcery, bitter hostility, violent conflict, jealousy, fits of anger, selfish ambition, divisiveness, functionalism, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and other such vices. (Gal 5:19–21a)
And God has made some appointments in the community of the Anointed: first envoys, second prophets, then those who know how to heal, helpers, administrators, and those who can speak in various kinds of ecstatic utterance. Are all envoys? Is everyone a prophet? Are all teachers? Are all wonder-workers? Are all healers? Do all engage in ecstatic speech? Does everyone interpret? But I urge you to aspire to the more important gifts.
and, of course, the occasional benediction:
And now may the true God, the God of peace, fill you with goodness, and may you be prepared in body, mind, and spirit for the arrival of our lord, Jesus God’s Anointed. (1 Thess 5:23)
Next time I stumble upon a list in Paul, I will recall Umberto Eco’s simple observation that “we like lists because we don’t want to die.” I’d modify it slightly for Paul, though: Paul didn’t want to be forgotten while he was away. For the record, his strategy worked.
Questions for the Road
- Have a little fun today. Make a list! If you want to keep the focus on Paul, try listing something Paul does a lot. “7 Awkward Moments in Paul’s Letters.” “8 Ways Paul’s Communities Excite His Ire.” “5 Sayings of Paul that are Still Relevant.”
- Can you imagine yourself in the position of Paul’s competitors? Why might their credentials be so alluring to the Corinthians? Is there a scenario in which they could be right and Paul, wrong?
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.