Saturday, March 29, 2008

Mark Nanos on the “weak” in 1 Corinthians 8—11, Part One

Mark Nanos, as I have come to expect, has offered interpreters of Paul an alternative reading of a familiar text. What I especially appreciate about Mark’s work, is that whether in the end I agree with this conclusions, I am always forced to think differently about a Pauline text. Mark looks at well-trodden passages in Paul from new vistas and this is refreshing. No different is the case with this recently updated and unpublished paper titled “The Polytheist Identity of the ‘Weak”, And Paul’s Strategy to ‘Gain’ Them: A New Reading of 1 Corinthians 8:1—11:1”.
I planned to write a brief review consisting of one post, but alas I again find I just can’t be brief—or better his paper deserves better than brief—so I will break this review up among a few posts.
Mark’s thesis is that the “weak", whom he prefers to label "impaired" (more on this later), throughout 1 Cor 8—11 are not what the traditional and prevailing interpretation asserts, namely Christ believers who are prone to idolatry because of their cultural baggage. Through 33 pages of argumentation Mark contends that the group in view is instead non-believing idolatrous Corinthians. And since no moniker is better, he labels them “polytheists”, by which he means “non-Christ-believing-non-Jews” (1).
Mark begins with a largely even-handed review of traditional interpretations of the referent of Paul’s term “weak”, which differ slightly in detail, but agree on the Christ-believing identity of the group. He lists several reasons why he thinks the traditional interpretation has had such convincing force. Among the reasons are (1) Paul’s reference to this group as “brothers/sisters”, (2) Paul’s assertion that to sin against them is to sin against Christ, and (3) Paul’s assumption that the weak brothers and sisters are vulnerable to influence by the knowledgeable. What’s more, Mark suggests prevailing meta-assumptions about Paul also function to support the traditional reading not least the prevailing view of Paul as one who no longer is a Torah-observant Jew since converting to Christ faith.
While I will say more about these things later, I would quibble with the way he paints with broad strokes the assumptions of the traditional interpretation at least on one of the points. He seems to assume that all who hold the traditional view presume that the weak are “not mature enough in their Christ-faith to think like the knowledgeable ones” (9, emphasis added). This negatively slanted characterization of Paul’s presentation of the weak may characterize many if not most of the perspectives in the traditional camp, but it certainly is not shared by all.
A critical eye toward the weak, at least in my view (although I am yet to admit that I fit as a traditionalist in this discussion), could not be farther from the context of 1 Cor 8-11 since all criticism is aimed squarely at those with the so-called knowledge, the presumed strong. Thus, whatever might be thought of the weak, Paul gives no reason to think that he wishes them to mature beyond their current mindset. In fact, Paul seems to assume that such a phenomenon is simply a fact of reality of which the knowledgeable must accommodate.


Loren Rosson III said...


I think this is one of Mark's best essays ever and wrote a lengthy review back in January. I look forward to more of your comments.

Joel Willitts said...


Thanks for drawing my attention to your review. I will read with interest.