January 21, 2014

Will God Destroy Our Bodies?

That's what several standard Bible translations would have you think. The verse in question is 1 Corinthians 6:13a, and it turns out that a decision of punctuation makes all the difference in two contrasting understandings of Paul's attitude toward the human body. Let me illustrate by showing you four different translations of this one verse. Pay close attention to the quotation marks included (not by me but) by the translation team.
"Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food"-- and God will destroy both one and the other (ESV).
You say, "Food was made for the stomach, and the stomach for food." (This is true, though someday God will do away with both of them) (NLT).
"Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food," and God will destroy both one and the other. (NRS)
You say, "Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both."  (TNIV).
Did you catch that? Each of these translations agree that Paul is quoting a slogan original to the Corinthians, but they disagree on the extent of the quotation. The first three close the quote before the assertion that God will destroy both stomach and body; the fourth closes the quote after that claim. To their credit, the translators of the NRSV include a footnote saying that "the quotation may extend to the word other." But the question remains. Whose view are we faced with? Should the claim that God will destroy the body be attributed to Paul or to a group of Corinthians?

The problem arises because the Greek in which Paul wrote did not have quotation marks; so the translators have to decide where to close the quote when rendering it into English. To make this decision they must consider the verse in its immediate context and in light of all Paul's letters. In this case, the decision about punctuation is really a decision about interpretation and how we understand Paul's anthropology. What does Paul believe to be the destiny of the human body? Punctuation matters.

In this case, I would argue that the TNIV gets it right. The next verse tells us Paul's view of the future of the believer's body, "God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power" (NRSV). For Paul, the future resurrection of the body is an argument against the libertine attitude of appetite indulgence among some of the Corinthians. The body (and its parts) will be resurrected in a manner analogous to that of Jesus. That means that physical (though certainly transformed) bodies will arise from their graves. The corpse of someone who is in Christ will not be destroyed; it will not even remain a corpse. To the contrary, it will be made alive again by the power of God. It seems to me unclear how we can describe that as destruction.

Paul has more to say about death and resurrection in chapter 15 of the same letter, where the language of destruction comes up again, but not with regard to the body. Paul says that, at the coming of Christ, death is the thing that will be destroyed when the bodies of believers are raised from the dead (15:26). Death is the enemy of Christ, and Christ will destroy his enemies. The final enemy that Christ will destroy is death itself. We might say that, as the nails spring loose from the coffins of those who belong to Christ, the final nail will be hammered into death's own coffin. 

Paul fills in the picture later in the same chapter by saying that the presently mortal and perishing body will be overcome with immortality and imperishability (see especially vv. 50-55). The body will be transformed, not destroyed.  I see no way that this transformation could plausibly be construed as destruction; it is the opposite of destruction. 

This evidence weighs strongly against an interpretation (or punctuation!) of 6:13a that attributes to Paul the belief that God will destroy our bodies. Destruction is defeat. Resurrection is victory. Destruction is what happens to death. Resurrection is what happened to the body of Christ, and it's what will happen to the bodies of those who belong to Christ. 

January 8, 2014

@TandTClark Handbook to Social Identity in the New Testament

I've been reading up on Social Identity Theory (SIT) as of late and on its use as a framework for reading the letters of Paul. So, I was naturally very excited to learn about the new T&T Clark Handbook to Social Identity Theory in the New Testament (Kindle Edition) The book is edited by J. Brian Tucker and Coleman A. Baker, who bring together over two dozen scholars to explore the various ways SIT has been applied to the text of the New Testament. With 29 chapters and over 650 pages, this "handbook" has plenty to keep you busy. It will be essential reading for students and scholars who want to get a handle on the range of approaches in applying SIT to the New Testament. 

The book is divided into two major sections. The first deals with methodological issues and opens with a chapter introducing the reader to SIT and its usefulness in reading the New Testament. This is followed by chapters that discuss SIT as it relates to matters like social history, ethnicity, ritual, letter writing, and narrative, to mention a few. The second section moves from method to practice by presenting a number of case studies that apply SIT to individual texts. If you are like me and find it very helpful to see finished examples of how a method might be applied to a text, then you should find the chapters in section two immensely helpful. The studies take up representative passages and issues from most divisions of the New Testament including the Gospels, Paul, Hebrews, the General and Johannine letters, and Revelation. So, no matter what sub-discipline of New Testament studies you are interested in, there is likely something relevant to be found. 

As a critical method for reading the New Testament, SIT is here to stay. This volume is a guide to which interpreters will turn for years to come. I certainly expect to turn to it again and again. 

January 6, 2014

Epiphany and Gospel-Passion for the Nations

Today is Epiphany, the day on which the Church celebrates the arrival of the Magi to honor and give gifts to the Christ child. The Magi were foreigners come to honor Christ as king. Matthew is commonly known as the gospel to the Jews; so it may strike some as somewhat peculiar that the first evangelist would place an account of the journey of these (non-Jewish) Magi prominently near the beginning of his gospel. When we remember, however, that the Old Testament - the Psalms and Isaiah not least - is full of passages that anticipate the day when Israel's Messiah shall rule the nations, it shouldn't surprise us that the gospel to the Jews would highlight a vignette in which representatives of the nations flock to worship "the child who has been born king of the Jews" (Matt 2:2).

Given this focus on the gospel for the nations, the lectionary yesterday directed us to Ephesians 3:1-12, in which Paul explains the mystery that God has kept hidden for ages, namely that "the nations have become co-inheritors and participating members of the covenant promises in Christ Jesus through the gospel" (Eph 3:6). That the nations have been incorporated into the promises of God to Abraham and his descendants drives the passion of the apostle to the Gentiles. It is that passion that motivated him to write (despite his sufferings) in hope that the churches - then and now - would catch his passion. So, as we celebrate and anticipate the ongoing in-gathering of the nations, here are three reasons drawn from Ephesians 2 and 3 for why we as Christians should have a passion for getting the gospel to every nation. 

1. Because God is Passionate about the Nations
There's a reason that the gospel accounts of Christ's suffering and death have come to be known as passion narratives. Our word "passion" comes from a Latin word that means to suffer, and if you care so deeply about another person that you are willing to suffer for them to the point of death on a cross, then it's safe to say you are passionate about them. When Paul starts talking about what is accomplished in the cross in Ephesians 2:11-22, his focus is on its instrumentality in creating peace between Israel and the nations. The uncircumcised have been reconciled to the circumcised; those alien to the commonwealth of Israel have been made citizens; strangers to the covenant are now participating members. "The blood of Christ" has done away with division and hostility between Israel and the nations to create "in Christ" a "new humanity in place of the two" (Eph 2:13-15). The cross is not only about individual forgiveness (it is about that because that's how you get in!), but also about creating a worldwide and international single people of God in Christ. If the cross means anything, it means that God is passionate about incorporating the nations into the family of Abraham through the preaching of the gospel. And if God is that passionate about the nations, then his people must be passionate too. 

2. Because We are the Nations
If you are reading this as a Christ-following Jew, then you are permitted to skip on to number three. I'm writing as an American of Irish descent, which means that when Paul writes in Ephesians 2:11-12 about the Gentiles who are "aliens from the commonwealth...strangers to the covenants....having no hope and without God in the world," he is talking about me, and everyone else who is not physically descended from Abraham. Of all people, we should be passionate about getting the gospel to the nations because we are the nations. Those who by grace have been "brought near by the blood of Christ" and made citizens of the commonwealth of Israel and members of the covenant have benefited incalculably from the passion of God for the nations. Shall we now not also passionately desire the unreached peoples of the world to likewise share in those rich blessings of God's extravagant mercy? We should be passionate about getting the gospel to the nations because the passion of God has brought the gospel to us. 

3. Because an International Church Displays the Richness of God's Wisdom
This is the plan, the design, the point of everything. This is what history is all about. If you want to know why God made all things, why God made you and me and the world, the answer comes in Ephesian 3:10; he did it so that "through the Church the wisdom of God in its many-splendored variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places." As someone once said, "It's not about you," and it's not about me. As it turns out, it's about God. Creation is about God. History is about God. The Church is about God, and about displaying the magnificently rich and varied wisdom of God. I've read that the Greek word rendered above as "many-splendored" is one that would be used to describe a garden with every imaginable color of flower. That's the rich variety of the wisdom of God, and richness like that could never be properly displayed in a single homogeneous people-group. It takes a diverse people to display the beauty of the multifaceted wisdom of God. Thus the mystery of God has been revealed: the nations have been incorporated into the one people of God. God desires a Church made up of every nation because God has designed the Church as the stage on which is displayed the magnificence of the beauty of his incomparable glory. If we want the world to marvel at the wisdom of God, then we ought to be passionately taking the gospel to the nations in order that the wonder of the wisdom of God might be displayed as he has designed. 

So, how's your passion for the nations this Epiphany? I hope it's on the rise and that the words of the Psalmist will well up within you:
May God be gracious to us and bless us
 and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known on earth,
 your saving power among all the nations.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
 let all the peoples praise you!
Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
 for you judge the peoples with equity
 and guide the nations upon the earth.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
 let all the peoples praise you (67:1-5)!