Friday, April 11, 2008

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

Mark Nanos argues in his yet-to-be-published paper “The Polytheist Identity of the ‘Weak,’ And Paul’s Strategy to ‘Gain’ Them: A New Reading of 1 Corinthians 8:1—11:1” that the ‘weak’ are polytheists, that is non-believing Gentile idolaters. These Mark asserts “are not resistant to eating idol food; rather, the impaired have always eaten idol food as an act of religious significance . . . the impaired are not insecure in their faith, they do not share faith in Christ with the knowledgeable” (12).

I want to agree with Mark's interpretation because I share his conviction that Paul practiced the Torah out of a deep sense of faith and conviction and therefore he would not have agreed with that idol food is of no consequence. I come to this passage ready to receive a fresh interpretation based on a new paradigm. And while Mark offers several compelling and fresh insights the whole argument for me is still wanting. This is the case for several reasons and it is not that my mind is made up, but I will not be convinced of Mark’s thesis until he can adequately answer the following issues sufficiently:

(1) The meaning of adelphoi (1 Cor 8:11-12). Try as he may Mark does not provide a sufficient case for taking adelphoi in the context of 1 Cor 8—11 as a reference to non-believing Gentiles. While showing the widespread usage of “fictive kinship” in the Mediterranean world and its potential reference to humankind (pp. 25-31), he cannot show Paul generally in this letters nor specifically 1 Corinthians uses the term in any other way than to refer to fellow believers. I think he undermines his case when he appeals to 1 Cor 5:9-12 where Paul explicitly distinguishes between idolaters and those who call themselves “brother or sister”. Mark I need something more to be convinced.

(2) Paul’s argument in 1 Cor 8:1-13 and within it the significance of the term “knowledge” as well as Paul’s concern for the potential defilement of more believers (1 Cor 8:7). Here I can do no more than point out that Paul’s concern seems to be related to the elitism of some who think they have “knowledge”, but don’t reflect the life concomitant with true knowledge (8:1-3). For Paul the issue “concerning eating things sacrificed to idols” (8:4), of which they asked, revealed this fact in the recipients. While Paul asserts that all men don’t have the knowledge of the oneness of God, he nevertheless is interested here in the issue within the context of the believing community. This seems to be is the significance of the term “defiled” (moluventai) in 8:7. The potential for defilement of more believers--ultimately apostasy I think is in view--(8:11) is the issue. Thus Paul’s concern is the potential of idolatry and its consequence for a Christ-believer more than the present practice of idolatry by non-Christ believing Gentiles.

Furthermore, if the term “knowledge” understood so narrowly to be the only a reference to something that differentiation between those in or out of Christ faith, then it makes no sense why Paul would need to state emphatically that not all have this knowledge (8:7). The receipts being former idolaters themselves would clearly know that their fellow Corinthians who were not Diaspora Israelites would not have this knowledge. What appears to be the sharp edge of Paul’s pastoral exhortation is his point that there are those among their “family” who struggle to comprehend the implications of the Gospel. It is those “weak” who Paul is concerned for.

The final two issues I will only mention:

(3) The function Paul’s appeal to ancient Israel’s example (1 Cor 10:1-22). If apostasy is Paul’s real concern in 1 Cor 8 than his appeal to ancient Israel makes clear sense.

(4) Paul’s assertion that he became “weak” to win the “weak” (9:22) would be hard to comprehend if the “weak” are defined only as polytheists in the context. How can we think that Paul became a polythesist in any real sense? Note the different grammatical structure in 9:22 from the other items in 9:20-22 where "as" (hos) is used.

I am of the mind at least for now that while there are many problems with the traditional reading, which Mark usefully points out, these are not insurmountable and the underlying presuppositions that have informed the interpretation don’t need to be shared. So I will continue to hold to a more traditional interpretation with significant revisions.

On the whole, Mark does make a compelling argument that the “weak’ or “impaired” as he calls them, can in abstract be a reference to non-believing Gentile idolaters. His mention of Romans 5:6-10 seems to justify this sense of the term. Furthermore, it is not at all impossible or improbable that Paul would have had just the concern Mark asserts about the conduct of Christ-believing Gentiles. He would certainly be concerned with the conduct of believers with respect to the outsider and it is probable that he would have had a more specific concern that believers’ participation in the eating of idol food or the temple cults would be a obstacle to the truth of the Gospel. This is all quite true no doubt. Thus the question for me is not whether Mark rightly describes a Pauline concern—this is incontestable and perhaps even present; yet the significant point is whether in fact this is Paul’s primary concern here in 1 Corinthians 8—11. What’s more, is it even possible that within this context both concerns, that is inside and outside, are present, which then would account for the difference in discussions in chapters 8 and 10 respectively.

I think that the hypothesis that best explains the passage is one that focuses on the real and every present danger of further apostasy by members of the community of Christ-believers. Within the culture of Corinth there would no doubt have been tremendous pressure on Christ-believers to either apostatize completely or at the very least to practice some form of syncretistic worship.
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Perhaps the most profound observation to make of this passage is that Paul lays the responsibilty at the feet of the members of the community of faith to keep this from happening. If only we would take that kind of responsibility for other members of Christ's church.

4 comments:

Loren Rosson III said...

Joel,

Thanks for reviewing Mark's essay. Unlike you I think he's right on the money here. You write:

While showing the widespread usage of “fictive kinship” in the Mediterranean world and its potential reference to humankind (pp. 25-31), he cannot show Paul generally in this letters nor specifically 1 Corinthians uses the term in any other way than to refer to fellow believers.

That's assuming you're not convinced by Mark's demonstration that Paul does exactly this in Romans. "If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love" (Rom. 14:15). "It is good not to eat meat, or drink wine, or do anything that causes your brother to stumble" (Rom. 14:21). Here we have the application of "brother" for unbelieving Judeans.

I think he undermines his case when he appeals to 1 Cor 5:9-12 where Paul explicitly distinguishes between idolaters and those who call themselves “brother or sister”.

But I Cor 5 is the trump card. Paul's instructions regarding Christian brothers are that idolatrous sensibilities should not be accommodated in the church -- opposite his advice in I Cor 8. Christian idolaters should be expelled from the assembly (I Cor 5:11-13), while the sensibilities of non-Christian idolaters should be tolerated (I Cor 8:1-11; cf. I Cor 5:10).

Joel Willitts said...

loren:

Thanks for your comment, but I even for the sake of argument we agree that Mark is right about the strong and the weak in Romans 14, the fact that Paul uses familial language for a Judean seems reasonable given the hereditary nature of the relationship between Paul and other Israelites. Paul would see a fellow Israelite as a brother, but not a non-Israelite.

Also, it is true that Christian idolators should be expelled and indeed are and that is the concern of 1 Cor 8. There is a propensity among some within the community of faith to apostatize and Paul thinks that church members shoulder the blame. Once a person commits idolatry they are NOT family anymore and should be treated in the way appropriate. Paul is not saying that sensibilities should be maintained, but he is saying that the reality is that there are people that there are even more people in threat of apostasy.

Loren Rosson III said...

Joel,

even for the sake of argument we agree that Mark is right about the strong and the weak in Romans 14, the fact that Paul uses familial language for a Judean seems reasonable given the hereditary nature of the relationship between Paul and other Israelites. Paul would see a fellow Israelite as a brother, but not a non-Israelite.

The trouble with this line of reasoning is that Paul is addressing the strong (the Gentile majority) in Rome in saying, "if your brother is being injured...". He isn't instructing fellow Judean believers but Gentile believers.

But I think Paul's familial language is reasonable in any case, in view of his belief that Christ died for the benefit of (literally) everyone. It's rare when fictive kinship language applies to outsiders, but some contexts do warrant it -- and the way I read him, Paul wants to get as many outsiders saved as possible before the end. So, as Mark suggests, the Christology of Rom 5 lies behind his use of "brothers" for unbelievers in the contexts of I Cor 8 and Rom 14-15.

Joel Willitts said...

Loren:

OK, good point. But one would have to assume Mark's unique interpreation of Romans 14 first before having one instance of Paul using familial language applied to outsiders. This is less than persuasive evidence for Mark's interpretation of 1 Cor 8. There is no positive evidence for taking adelphos as a reference to outsiders. If there was I would be inclined to the view, I really would, but there isn't.