January 19, 2010

The Strong-Weak, Jew-Gentile Identity in 1 Cor 8-10 (Part 5)

As a last note (for now) on 1 Cor 8, I want to clarify how the scenario I proposed last week is different than the reconstruction proposed by most interpreters. What is new in my proposal, so far as I can tell, is this: the weak understood themselves to be participating in the worship of idols gladly and in good conscience because these baby Christians mistook the practice of eating idol meat by their more senior brothers and sisters in the church at Corinth (the strong) as a sign that Christian faith is compatible with the worship of traditional or civic pagan gods.

Other interpreters have gone back and forth about whether the strong and weak correspond roughly to Jews or Gentiles, and if so, which is which. On the one hand, the strong are said to know that there is no God but one (1 Cor 8:4), which sounds an awful lot like the central affirmation of Israel’s monotheism in the Shema of Deut 6:4. It’s the strong who are said to know that, so the strong are identical with Jewish believers in Corinth–or so it is often thought. That’s corroborated by Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 8:7 that the weak have a close association with the practice of idol worship from the time before their conversion. On the other hand,

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January 18, 2010

Read the Whole New Testament in Greek in 2010

My friend Lee Irons is giving away free on his website several valuable tools to help you maintain or improve your New Testament Greek reading ability. First, he has prepared a calendar of daily readings that will take you through the entire New Testament in Greek in the space of one year. I realize we’re already a good part of the way through January, but you can just start with the current day’s reading. Don’t delay practicing your Greek for another year just because you didn’t start on January 1.

Second–and this is the real gem–he is giving away PDFs of exegetical notes for each book of the Bible, mainly his own keen observations, and also comments from grammars, lexicons, and so forth. You can print them out and make a little booklet out of them to carry with you as you read through the Greek New Testament this year.

Irons’ system is intended to be used with The UBS Greek New Testament: A Reader’s Edition, which has the text of UBS4 and a running dictionary of uncommon words along the bottom of each page–fully parsed in case you get stuck. In the back is a dictionary of all the rest of the words in the Greek NT, so you’re covered no matter how small your vocabulary is.

I used Irons’ system sporadically last year, but this year I’ve been faithfully setting aside about 30 minutes every day and am all caught up, ready to read the second half of Matthew 13 today. Thanks, Lee!

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January 15, 2010

Contribute to Research By Answering a Questionnaire

The Society of Biblical Literature, which is the leading professional society for biblical scholars in the United States (the world really), has received a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to develop a website about the Bible. The site will be called “The World of the Bible: exploring people, places, and passages,” and is intended to be an educational resource for the general public. According to the society, “The site is intended for general audiences and will share scholarly views and encourage critical engagement with the Bible, including its ancient contexts and interpretive legacy.”

Since the site is aimed at the general public, they are asking all people who have any interest in the project and its eventual content–other than scholars who specialize in biblical studies–to complete a questionnaire about how familiar they are with the Bible and how interested they would be in articles about various people, places, and topics. It’s a quick one-pager, so I encourage you to answer the questionnaire.

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January 15, 2010

What 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 Are Really About (Part 4)

I suggested in my last post that the problem Paul is addressing between the weak and the strong in Corinth is different than it is usually thought to be. Christians with a weak conscience are not feeling guilty about having eaten idol meat, and they certainly are not eating it and feeling guilty as they chew every mouthful. No, it seems more likely to me that Christians with a weak conscience are knowingly and happily worshiping idols. They are recent converts from paganism, and in their state of immaturity, they have not yet grasped the fact that Christians must not worship any other so-called god but only the one living and true God.

The weak are called weak because, according to 1 Corinthians 8:7, they have a weak conscience. The conscience doesn’t only judge past actions; it also recommends against or in favor of actions that are being contemplated. The weak do not really know that there is no God but one and that the pagan gods must not be worshiped, and so their Christian conscience is immature and uninformed. It is not strong enough to recommend against worshiping idols–hardly surprising since that was the cultural norm in their day.

The scenario I propose here explains

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January 14, 2010

A Weak Conscience Is Not a Guilty Conscience (Part 3)

We have been looking at the “strong” and the “weak” in 1 Corinthians 8. Paul affirms that pagan gods do not really exist (verses 4-6), and that eating meat sacrificed to an idol is, ceteris paribus, a matter of moral indifference (verse 8). Paul’s concern in this passage, however, is not mainly about the question of meat sacrificed to idols in the abstract but about how the gospel is changing their lives. The strong stop their thinking and start their eating with the abstract point that meat sacrificed to idols is just meat. Their weaker brothers and sisters do not think of it in those simple terms, however, and they eat while thinking of themselves as somehow participating in idolatry, and their συνείδησις, or conscience, is defiled.

This is not, I don’t think, a guilty conscience. Their conscience goes through two stages, first weak, then defiled. Neither of those has to do with feelings of guilt.

The weak are not doing something they think is wrong. The word συνείδησις comes from a Greek compound meaning knowledge-with, just like it does in Latin: con-scientia, knowledge-with. You may be asking, “knowledge with what or with whom?” and the answer is,

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January 13, 2010

The Weak Conscience in 1 Corinthians 8:7 (Part 2)

We saw that in 1 Cor 8:4-6, Paul affirms the fact that there is no God but one; idols are nothing. In verse 7, however, we begin to see more clearly what the problem is:

However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. (1 Corinthians 8:7 ESV)

Here is the first mention of people with a “weak” conscience in chapter 8. They are Christians who were formerly associated with idols, so probably pagan Gentile converts. Astonishingly, Paul says that these people do not know that there is no God but one and that idols don’t exist (vv. 3-6), and for this reason, when they eat meat from an animal sacrificed to a pagan idol–which would have been the only source of meat in first century Corinth–they believe they’re participating in the worship of a pagan god, and their weak conscience is defiled.

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January 12, 2010

Strong and Weak Consciences in Corinth (Part 1)

I wonder if perhaps the identities of the strong and weak in Corinth might be almost exactly opposite what most interpreters have taken them as being. My reason for wondering this has to do with the meaning of the Greek word συνείδησις (in 1 Cor 8:7 and following), translated into English as conscience, and how it relates to Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 8-10 (cf. Rom 14), his descriptions of the Corinthians’ attitudes and actions, and his exhortation to them in these chapters. As I will show, our concept of what a conscience is and how it works is very different than what knowledge-with-oneself would have meant to Paul’s Corinthian correspondents.

In 1 Cor 8-10, Paul gives his Christian readers or hearers instructions about eating food that had been sacrificed to pagan idols. In Corinth, the main issue Paul is concerned about isn’t whether they do or don’t eat but how their choice reflects their underlying thought and attitude: what do they believe about God in relation to pagan idols, and does their choice show that they really love and care for the people around them? He leads off in 1 Cor 8:1-3 by contrasting two kinds of knowledge, abstract knowledge and relational knowledge (characterized by love):

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January 11, 2010

Depression and Grace

I’ve been down, I’ve been discouraged, but I’ve never really been depressed, at least not for longer than a few hours, or maybe a few days. According to the Mayo Clinic, one of the symptoms of depression is “loss of interest in normal daily activities.”

Loss of interest. Imagine what it would be like to experience a total loss of interest in everything good and desirable. If that wouldn’t come close to living hell, I don’t know what would. Think of it in Augustinian terms. Everything that exists is good, in that it does exist and God didn’t create anything bad. Evil and badness aren’t really existing things, strictly speaking, but good things that have lost something of their original or intended goodness, or are put to a bad use.

Even when things are put to a bad use, some aspect of the end being sought is still good.

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