In contrast to the uncertainty Paul faced in his daily work, God is always leading him in a “triumphal procession” (2:14-16). Paul uses a series of metaphors to describe his ministry drawn from the Greco-Roman world. Paul uses a Latin loan-word (θριαμβεύω) which refers to the Roman military triumph. The same idea appears in Col 2:15, although Paul’s point is different there since God is leading the disarmed “powers and authorities.”
A Roman general who has conquered an enemy is given the honor of a “Triumph.” Like an American “ticker-tape parade,” virtually everyone in the culture knew what this event looked like, even if they never witnessed one themselves. This was a very special honor originally only granted by the Senate, but in imperial times the triumph was highly politicized in order to reinforce imperial authority and legitimacy.
During the triumph, the general wore a crown of laurel and a purple, gold-embroidered triumphal toga picta which identified him as near-divine or near-king. He rode a four-horse chariot, leading his army, captives and spoils war through the streets of Rome in unarmed procession. At Jupiter’s temple on the Capitoline Hill he offered sacrifice and the tokens of his victory to the god. The general was described as vir triumphalis (“man of triumph”) for the rest of his life.
At the time Paul wrote, had been no triumphs in Rome between the triumph of Claudius for his conquest of Britain (A.D. 44, future Vespasian was awarded triumphal regalia as the general during this campaign); Titus will be awarded a triumph after his destruction of Jerusalem in 70 (and also a Triumphal Arch built by Domitian in 83). Even though Claudius’s triumph was more than ten years past, the imagery would have been clear in everyone’s mind. Roman power was on display in order to demonstrate to the entire empire how powerful the emperor and the empire was.
Is Paul using this metaphor in a positive sense (he is riding along with Jesus as the victorious conqueror) or is he a captive slave being led to his death? It is possible to argue both ways, but it the context Paul has been describing his dishonor as a suffering servant of Jesus (1:8, the “troubles in Asia” and later, 12:7, his “thorn in the flesh”).
Paul’s opponents in Corinth would expect to be sitting in a place of prominence in Jesus’ triumph over his enemies, but Paul pictures himself ironically as a capture slave being led away to his death!
The fragrance of the sacrifices in this triumph is the “knowledge of God.” A “fragrance” sounds positive, but the Greek word (ὀσμή) can refer to a pleasing odor or a stench. In v. 15 it is used for the positive “fragrance of life” and negative “odor of death.” Paul’s ministry is to preach the Gospel of the Grace of God, a pleasant thing for those who accept Christ and pass from death to life, but a stench to those who reject it since the same knowledge of God condemns them.
Ralph Martin points out similar rabbinical views of the Torah. In b.Yoma 72b, the Torah is like medicine, which can heal or can be a deadly poison. For the Jewish people, the Torah is an elixir of life, but for the Gentiles is it is a poison. As with any use of the Talmud in New Testament studies, there are potential problems with dating this tradition, and it must be proven that one can move from an odor to a medicine for this analogy to really work.
To me, it is better to stay within the world of Paul’s metaphor, a sacrifice. The sacrifice might produce an odor that pleases the god, or offends the god. If the sacrifice pleases the god then the worshiper will find favor, if they offend the god they are in grave danger.
In the context, the sacrifice is Jesus’s death on the cross, which Paul describes as a “pleasing aroma” (εὐωδία, the same word for odor with “good” prefixed). This word is used in the Septuagint frequently for pleasing sacrifices to God. For example, in Genesis 8:21 Noah’s sacrifice after the flood pleases the Lord (רֵיחַ הַנִּיחוֹחַ). Paul calls the sacrifice of Christ on the cross a pleasing aroma in Philippians 4:18 and Ephesians 5:2 as well, but here Paul and his fellow workers are the “pleasing aroma.”
From a Greco-Roman perspective it would be shocking to describe a crucifixion as a sacrifice and even more shocking as a sacrifice which pleases God. This is counter-cultural and another example of God choosing a foolish thing from the perspective of the world to reveal his plan of salvation.