Over the past few weeks I have been reading Richard Hays’s short commentary on 1 Corinthians[i] as a supplement to some work I have been doing on Anthony Thiselton’s magisterial — and massive —commentary on the letter.[ii] It may come as a surprise to some, but I have considered Hays to be America’s most significant New Testament scholar ever since I first encountered his work twenty years ago while working on my doctoral dissertation on Paul’s letter to the Galatians.[iii] Hays’s work is not only characterized by penetrating insight, but by a facility with the English language that befits a man who earned his BA at Yale in English literature.
The other day I came across a prime example of this combination in his discussion of a peculiar statement of Paul’s at the end of 1 Corinthians 8:1-3, which read as follows:
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God.[iv]
In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul introduces a matter for discussion brought to his attention in a letter from the Corinthians themselves. The issue concerned ta eidōlothuta, rendered “food sacrificed to idols” by both the NIV and NRSV. Better is the REB’s “meat consecrated to heathen deities.” But best, I believe — in accuracy if not in felicity of expression — is Thiselton’s “meat associated with offerings to pagan deities.”[v] Such a rendering allows for the term’s use in all of the various social contexts discussed by the apostle in chapters 8-10. Primary among these contexts, in view of the discussion in 8:7-13 and 10:1-22, was the eating of meat consecrated to an idol in one of the many dining rooms attached to the temple of the god(dess). Apparently, the “strong” at Corinth were insisting on their “right” (exousia, 8:9) to eat “idol meat,” even to the extent of participating as guests at explicitly cultic meals at the temple. And they were doing so on theological grounds!
As surprising as this might seem to us for whom Paul’s Corinthian correspondence has been recognized as authoritative for more than 1900 years, the “strong” at Corinth reasoned that they had such a right to dine because of their “knowledge” (gnōsis) that the “idols” to whom the sacrifices were offered had no genuine metaphysical reality in view of their shared confession that “there is no God but one” (8:4). Not only that, but it appears likely that they took pride in their having arrived at this possession (egnōkenai, perfect tense [v. 2]) of such knowledge, and hence utilized such pagan feasts to public exhibitions of their freedom and supposed spiritual maturity.
Paul exposes the bankrupt pride produced by such so-called “knowledge” as mere self-important inflation (physioō), akin to that of the frog who burst in his attempt to inflate himself in Aesop’s The Frog and the Ox. Indeed, the apostle subverts their worldview in two ways. First, he affirms the priority of love over the knowledge in which they took pride because only the latter results in true “edification” (oikodomeō) — the genuine enlargement of others (8:1b, 7-12). Secondly, he redefines true knowledge so as to expose the inadequacy of their perception (8:2-6). It is in this context that Hays writes profoundly:
In sharp contrast to this “soteriology of knowledge” …, Paul insists that what really matters is love, which builds up the community (8:1b). Paradoxically, those who boast in their own exalted knowledge demonstrate precisely by that boasting that they do not yet “know as [they] ought to know (v. 2, NIV). Implied here is that the one who knows rightly will love the brothers and sisters in the community. Paul, however, goes on to make a different point: “anyone who loves God is known by him” (v. 3). We would expect Paul to say, “anyone who loves God knows God truly,” but the reversal of subject and object in the last clause of the verse expresses a truth close to the heart of Paul’s theology: The initiative in salvation comes from God, not from us. It is God who loves first, God who elects us and delivers us from the power of sin and death. Therefore what counts is not so much our knowledge of God as God’s knowledge of us. That is the syntax of salvation. The dominance of this syntax in Paul’s thought is shown in Galatians 4:9, when he commits an error of theological grammar and stops to correct himself in midsentence: “Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God. …” Anyone who understands that the logic of the gospel depends on God’s initiative will not become puffed up by the possession of knowledge.[vi]
True knowledge, according to Paul, is not mere creedal confession —though of course it contains such knowledge, as Paul’s own citation of a Christologically redefined Shema in verses 4-6 indicates. True knowledge, for the Christian, is fundamentally bound up with his or her relationship with the God of Christian confession (in these verses, a God explicitly described in binitarian terms [cf. 10:9!]). Moreover, this true knowledge is incapable of being “arrived at” in this life. It is only in the consummated eschaton that we will, as Paul later says, “know even as we are known” (13:12). Most importantly, however, this is a knowledge prompted by God’s sovereign initiative (cf. Romans 8:29) in choosing us and bringing us into relationship with him. As Hays notes, those of us who recognize this fundamental truth of soteriological syntax can never inflate ourselves with pride for the “knowledge” to which we imagine we have attained. And if indeed we live in relationship with the sovereign God we confess as “one,” our loyalty to this God will supersede in importance any self-centered rationalizations of dalliances with idolatry based on poorly thought-through understandings of the ramifications of his ontological uniqueness.
[i] Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians (Interpretation; Louisville: John Knox, 1997).
[ii] Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NIGTC; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000).
[iii] See, e.g., Richard B. Hays, The Faith of Jesus Christ: The Narrative Substructure of Galatians 3:1-4:11 (2nd ed.; Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans; Dearborn, Mich.: Dove, 2002); idem, Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven/London: Yale, 1989).
[iv] There is a major textual problem in verse 3, with three significant variant readings in the manuscripts:
· “But if anyone loves God (ton theon), he or she is known by him (hyp’ autou): P15, A, B, D, F, G, 81, 1759, Byz, it, vg, syr, cop
· “But if anyone loves God (ton theon), he or she is known: א, 33
· “But if anyone loves, he or she has experienced “true knowing”: P46, Clement
Despite the overwhelming manuscript support for the longer reading, the work of Günther Zuntz (The Text of the Epistles: A Disquisition upon the Corpus Paulinum [Schweich Lectures; London: Oxford, 1953] 31-32) has convinced a growing number of scholars of the originality of the shorter reading (e.g., Fee; Yeo; Cheung; Thiselton) and, hence, an understanding of the verb egnōstai as middle rather than passive. Fee, for instance, thinks that the way the shorter reading provides a short, concise response to the misunderstanding of the “strong party” at Corinth demonstrates the originality of the shorter reading. But that could precisely be the point, couldn’t it? Indeed, Bruce Metzger argues for the originality of the longer text by positing the shorter text as an assimilation to verse 2 (A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament [London/New York: United Bible Societies, 1975] 556). For me, the overwhelming manuscript support and the coherence of the longer text with such parallel and near parallel Pauline texts as Galatians 4:9 and 1 Corinthians 13:12 make it marginally the more likely reading.
[v] Thiselton, 620.
[vi] Hays, First Corinthians, 138.