Book Review: Adam Winn, Reading Mark’s Christology Under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Imperial Ideology

Winn, Adam. Reading Mark’s Christology Under Caesar: Jesus the Messiah and Roman Imperial Ideology. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. 187 pp. Pb. $24.00   Link to IVP Academic  

This volume is an update to his 2008 doctoral dissertation at Fuller Theological Seminary, published as The Purpose of Mark’s Gospel: An Early Christian Response to Roman Imperial Propaganda (WUNT/2 245; Mohr Siebeck: 2008). As Winn explains in his acknowledgment page, that book was “strongly criticized.” After taking part in the SBL Mark Group for several years, Winn was motivated to move deeper into the world of Roman imperial ideology in order to “make sense of the disparate pieces of Mark’s Christology.” In the Gospel of Mark, Winn thinks Jesus “out-Caesars Caesar” (p. 116).

Winn, Reading Mark's ChristologyThese “disparate pieces” include Mark’s use of titles, stories in which Jesus demonstrates power (miracles, healings, exorcisms, revelations by supernatural beings, popularity and proclamations by crowds), the suffering of Jesus, and the so-called messianic secret. Although these various parts may be accounted for through form and redaction criticism (the various bits come from different sources), Winn considers narrative criticism the only way present a compelling Christology from Mark’s Gospel. He initially followed the lead of Robert Gundry who suggest Mark is an apology for Jesus’s shameful crucifixion, but in this study he uses a historical-narratival method using the final form of Mark’s gospel. He wants to set Mark’s gospel into a particular sociocultural and historical setting (p. 24). That setting is the Roman world after A.D. 70.

Winn devotes about half of the first chapter arguing for this date and provenance and then argues the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 played a central role on Flavian propaganda. Vespasian needed a major military accomplishment to legitimize his and his son’s claim in the imperial throne. The destruction of Jerusalem was presented as a major victory and was celebrated through triumphal processions, coins and architecture. This was a “theology of victory,” the gods favored the Flavian dynasty and supported it through a series of miracles prophecies and other portents. In fact, Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius all report the tradition that Vespasian fulfilled prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures when he conquered the east (p. 45). The Gospel of Mark “strips Vespasian of is powerful victories and places the victory into the hands of Jesus” (p. 164).

Chapters two through five apply this historical setting of the book to the several common ways scholars have sought to develop Mark’s Christology. First, Winn examines Mark’s Christological titles (Messiah, Son of God, Son of Man, Son of David, and Lord). He concludes these titles can be understood apart from their imperial context and are not necessarily responses to Vespasian’s imperial propaganda (p. 68). Second, Winn surveys the presentation of Jesus as a powerful miracle worker, especially during the Galilean ministry (Mark 1-8). Mark presents Jesus as the true Christ and Son of God in contrast to the propagandistic claims of Vespasian (p. 88). Third, Winn turns his attention to the suffering of Jesus in Mark 8:22-10:52 (the rest of the passion narrative is covered in chapter 7). Winn argues that an imperial reading of Mark eliminates the perceived tension between Jesus as a powerful miracle worker and his suffering and death. The disciples do not fully understand the suffering of Jesus the Messiah, drawing a parallel to the Roman readers of Mark’s Gospel (p. 115). Fourth, Winn interacts with David Watson’s Honor among Christians (Fortress, 2010) as he re-examines the so-called secrecy motif in the light of his “Roman reading” of Mark (chap. 5). The Roman political strategy of recusatio meant Roman emperors often refused public honors. Winn illustrates this with data from Augustus and Tiberius. Winn concludes Mark is contextualizing Jesus in a way which would have resonated with his Roman readers (p.129). Like the emperor, Jesus refuses public honor as a result of his powerful healing ministry.

Winn devotes a short chapter to Jesus and the temple, including the temple action, Jesus’s teaching in the temple and apocalyptic discourse. The temple action is a symbolic destruction of the temple (p. 138); Jesus is establishing a new messianic community as a replacement for the temple itself (p. 140) and marginalizing the sacrificial system (p. 142). Since Mark wrote the apocalyptic discourse after the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70, the “desolating sacrilege” may be a future eschatological sign (p. 145).

Finally, Winn examines the passion narrative through the lens of Roman imperial ideology. The so-called cry of dereliction, when Jesus cites Psalm 22 from the cross, is the unity between the powerful Jesus and the suffering Jesus. Although he is suffering, Psalm 22 looks forward to the glory and vindication after the resurrection. Regarding Roman imperial ideology, Winn sees the passion as a Roman triumph. He offers a series of observations to support this. For example, Simon carrying the cross parallel to a Roman official escorting a sacrificial bull and carrying a double-bladed axe; Jesus is the sacrificial animal and Simon carries the instrument of his death (p. 159). Since a Roman triumph ended at the temple of Jupiter, the Capitolium (caput is the Latin for “head), Winn sees a parallel with Golgotha, the place of the skull (p. 160). Winn sees this as a creative narrative which has a “clear and significant payoff for Mark’s Roman readers living in the shadow of Flavian propaganda” (p. 162). The suffering and death of Jesus is not a weakness, but a sign of strength and power. As with any literary allusion to culture, a reader sees what they want to see. Although it is possible to read the passion of Jesus as a parody of a Roman triumph, it is difficult to imagine the original readers fully appreciating the subtly of Mark’s allusions.

Conclusion. Winn argues Mark’s gospel presents Jesus as a powerful man but also as one who suffers tremendous shame. Both themes are present throughout the gospel of Mark and it is problematic to emphasize one over the other. Suffering and power are “Christological poles” which may seem to stand in tension, but they form a coherent unity when read in the light of Roman political ideology according to Winn’s reconstruction (p. 164).

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

Book Review: Thomas R. Schreiner, 1 Corinthians (TNTC)

Schreiner, Thomas R. 1 Corinthians. Tyndale New Testament Commentary. Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2018. xxxiv+337 pp. Pb. $25.00   Link to IVP Academic  

This new volume in the Tyndale New Testament Commentary series replaces the 1958 commentary by Leon Morris, originally published by Eerdmans. This is the second replacement volume published since the New Testament Tyndale Commentary moved to IVP Academic a few years ago (Ian Paul, Revelation).

Schreiner is well known in evangelical circles. He is Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and has served as president of the Evangelical Theological Society. In addition to numerous books and articles, Schreiner has contributed major commentaries on Romans (Baker, 1998, Second Edition, 2018) and Galatians (Zondervan, 2010) as well as New Testament Theology (Baker, 2008) and a Pauline theology, Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ (IVP Academic 2006).

The fifty-page introduction to the commentary introduces the city of Corinth and Paul’s initial ministry there according to the book of Acts. The authorship and date of the letter are not controversial and Schreiner assumes the traditional view Paul wrote the letter from Ephesus in the spring of AD 54, before the feast of Pentecost (1 Cor 16:8). There is only a brief paragraph dismissing any pre-history of the letter as irrelevant (p. 17). His discussion of the occasion of the letter likewise follows the traditional view the content of the letter is a response to reports from Paul’s associates and response to questions from the church itself. He briefly interacts with Margaret Mitchell’s study arguing the phrase “now about” (peri de) does not necessarily refer to a question from the church, but in the commentary he treats the phrase as introducing an answer to questions (p. 11).

About half of the introduction traces the major theological themes of 1 Corinthians. The first three of these themes are the members of the Trinity, although the section on the Holy Spirit naturally deals with the problem of spiritual gifts on 1 Corinthians, a topic so important it merits a larger discussion under a separate heading. His interest is the purpose of sign gifts (edification of the church), so he does not use this section to argue for or against the cessation of tongues (See his Spiritual Gifts: What They Are and Why They Matter, B&H Academic, 2018) for his view on this issue). Schreiner divides his section on the church into divisions and discipline, both key themes in the letter, but the section ought to be read along with his section on “living a new life” and on “food sacrificed to idols.” In both these sections Schreiner discusses how the individual Christian lives out a life is out of step with the culture Roman world of Corinth. Although he does not make this point as strongly as I would like, this seems to be the source of much of the problems in Corinth. He follows Eckhard Schnabel’s suggestion the letter concerns conflicts within the church (divisions, lawsuits, etc.) and compromises with the word (sexual sin, marriage, food sacrificed to idols, etc.).

The body of the commentary divides the letter into two major sections: addressing the problems in the church, 1:10-6:20) and answers to contemporary issues in the church (7:1-16:4). Each subsection has a brief section setting the context of the pericope followed by a verse-by-verse commentary. Given the length of 1 Corinthians, sometimes the commentary covers several verses in a single paragraph. Schreiner’s comments are on the English text although he occasionally refers to Greek in transliteration.

Following the commentary there is a brief section labeled theology. Here Schreiner often draws on parallel material in the Pauline letters as he comments on how the pericope contributes to Christian theology and practice. For example, on 1 Corinthians 7:1-7, he observes I Corinthians 7:1-7 is similar to Paul’s description of self-sacrificial love in Ephesians 5:22-29, guarding against “militaristic and rigid understanding of submission” (p. 158).

Because of the controversial nature of Paul’s comments on headship (11:2-16), Schreiner writes a longer section of commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:3, “the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.” In his case Schreiner does interact with other commentaries (Garland, Ciampa and Rosner). He agrees there is a social and cultural dimension to Paul’s comments, but limiting this text to only the social and cultural dimensions may “blind us to the theological dimension of the text” (p. 223). Separating social and theological realties merge in remarkable ways, says Schreiner. He argues Paul has in mind women in general rather than just wives, although he later suggests a mediating position that Paul refers to both all woman and wives. The analogy to the Trinity is not an exact parallel, but it is a parallel (p. 227). In the theology section for this pericope, he concludes “the distinctions between the sexes must be preserved; thus there is no warrant for the notion that one’s gender is simply a social construct” (p. 238). With respect to the application to veiling women in a modern context, “each culture has to work out how the theological principle articulated works out in its particular circumstances” (p. 239)

Schreiner begins his discussion of the controversial passage in 14:34-35 by rejecting any attempt to dismiss the verses as secondary (contra Fee, 780-92). For Schreiner, some women in Corinth were asking disruptive or defiant questions; the shame is not that women were speaking but rather that they were disruptive (p. 298). He cites Plutarch as an example of what the ancient world expected from a woman in public.

There are only a few footnotes, often giving cross references or pointers to monographs focusing on some detail of the text. Unlike many contemporary commentaries, Schreiner does not cite other commentaries on 1 Corinthians, although he has certainly read them and benefited from a wide range of views. This is refreshing given the recent trend toward “commentaries on the commentaries.”

Conclusion. This new commentary on 1 Corinthians is a welcome update to the Tyndale New Testament Commentary series. Although the book is brief compared to other recent commentaries, Schreiner offers enough social and cultural background to illuminate some of the more difficult sections of the letter and draws conservative, evangelical applications to contemporary issues. This commentary will serve pastors, teachers, and students as they study this important Pauline letter to their congregations.

NB: Thanks to IVP Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

What Happened between First and Second Corinthians?

After Paul established the church at Corinth (Acts 18:1-17), he remained for 18 months before traveling to Ephesus. He will spend three years in Ephesus, although he appears to have done ministry in Troas as well as planting several churches around the Lycus Valley supported by the Ephesian churches.

From Ephesus, he wrote at least one letter which is now lost (1 Cor 5:9, possibly embedded in 2 Cor 6:14-7:1). After hearing reports of divisions and other sins in the church and also receiving a letter from the church with a number of questions, Paul writes a second letter, 1 Corinthians. Paul sends another “severe letter,” probably lost to us and delivered by Titus (2 Cor 12:18). This letter appears to have upset the Corinthian believers and even angered some of them.

Timothy had been sent to Corinth to “to remind you of my ways in Christ, as I teach them everywhere in every church” (1 Cor 4:14, cf. 16:10). Instead of accepting Timothy as Paul’s personal representative, the church attacks Paul and Timothy is not able to handle the attack so he returns to Ephesus to report to Paul. After hearing from Timothy, Paul makes a “painful visit” to the church (2 Cor 2:1). This is not found in Acts, although Paul spends three years in Ephesus so there is plenty of time for visits to Corinth. This “painful visit” goes very badly and Paul returns to Ephesus angry and humiliated.

After this painful visit he writes another “tearful letter,” which is either lost or embedded in 2 Cor 10-13. During his time in Ephesus Paul faced some persecution and was faced with the possibility of death. This was likely an arrest and imprisonment, although there are no details in the book of Acts (2 Cor 7:8–9).

Titus intended to leave Corinth and meet Paul in Troas, where Paul is preaching at the time. They cannot find one another. Paul therefore does not know what the situation is in Corinth, causing further anxiety (2 Cor 2:12–13). When Paul and Titus finally meet, Paul learns the church dealt with their factions and desires to be reconciled with Paul (2 Cor 7:6-16).

Now that Paul has a better understanding of the situation in Corinth, he writes 2 Corinthians to deal with any remaining barriers to reconciliation with the church. (Martin, 37 suggests the autumn of A.D. 55, from Macedonia, prior to his return to Jerusalem to deliver the collection). It is possible the first nine chapters were written (and sent?) before Paul hears there is still some opposition in the church, chapters 10-13 target the teachers in the Corinthian church who are directly opposing Paul’s authority. The letter is delivered by Titus and two other brothers who are to take care of the collection before Paul arrives.

When Paul finally returns to Corinth he spends three months with the church (Acts 20:2-3). During this time he likely wrote the book of Romans.

This rather complicated story is an attempt to “read between the lines” and sort out several letters (which we do not have) and visits (which Acts does not report). To a certain extent this is speculative, but it is the traditional view of the relationship between Paul and this particularly difficult church.

As Garland points out that the Corinthians “were not yet comfortable in living out the scandal of the cross” (2 Corinthians, 31). The fact of Paul’s suffering and the possibility they too might suffer was troubling for the Gentiles who had converted to Christ.

 

 

Unintelligible Worship – 1 Corinthians 14:20-25

In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul deals with misuse of spiritual gifts which led to divisions between self-described spiritual and the unspiritual people in the church. Their worship was no longer devoted to fellowship between people of every social class (male and female, slave and free). Even encouragement from God’s word descended into a competition to see who can be more spiritual. Whatever is happening, it is so disruptive a visitor would not just think the behavior of the church was strange, they might confuse it with pagan rituals and completely miss the Gospel.

Paul describes their worship as childish (14:20). Maturity has been a theme throughout the letter, but now Paul applies the congregation’s immaturity to their worship. Like factions or other issues of maturity in the letter, likely the problems with worship are related to social class distinctions.

It is likely people in the congregation believed ecstatic gifts were a sign of spirituality and therefore the more one prophesied or spoke in tongues, the more spiritual he is. This is the way the non-Christian Greek would have understood the ecstatic gifts. The contrast between childish and adult thinking is consistent with Paul’s encouragement to seek the “greater gifts” in chapter 13. It is inappropriate to “think as a child,” whether this is in the context of factions in the church, eating and drinking, lawsuits, etc.

Paul’s concern is for the outsider who needs to hear the Gospel (14:24-25). This is likely a Gentile who knows nothing about the gifts of the Spirit and would misunderstand what ecstatic speech is.

What would a Greek think about tongues or prophecy? Ben Witherington suggests prophecy would be naturally associated with the Delphic oracle, while tongues would have been associated with ecstatic speech among the followers of Dionysus (Community and Conflict, 276-9). In either case, a person visiting the congregation would hear the chaotic worship at Corinth and assume individuals in the church were possessed of spirits like an oracle. The Delphic oracle is only one example of ecstatic speech in the Greco-Roman world. In Acts 16, for example, Paul casts a demon from a slave girl who was used as an oracle in Philippi, she has the “spirit of Python.”

Paul’s problem with the congregation the same as earlier sections of the letter. They are once again failing to separate themselves from the world and therefore are not reaching the world. Their worship is indistinguishable from these commonly known practices and therefore has really ceased to do any good at all. For Paul, five intelligible words would be preferred to ecstatic speech! Witherington also points out that religious rites in the ancient world were usually done in silence, with nothing but a flute player to cover up ambient noise. As worship began, the phrase favete linguis was used – “check your tongue”!

While Paul is not necessarily calling for the Corinthians to sit in silence. There is a need for intelligibly and orderliness in worship. Far from being a sign of spiritual status, the gifts are just that, a gracious gift by God to be used for the building-up of the church. The elite of the church assume that they are better than others because they have been given this gift.

What would an outsider think if they heard ecstatic speech after a banquet which included good food and wine? The natural assumption is the cult of Dionysus. This is a disaster for the church, since the cult was almost always outlawed and looked down upon by “polite society.”

Worship or Katy Perry?

With respect to prophecy, it is possible the Corinthians understood the role of a prophet as an oracle, like that found at Delphi. In general, the oracle was asked specific questions, and gave cryptic yet clear answers. Witherington reports the oracle might be asked about religious or political matters, but these would not really be the concern of the Christian congregation. Rather, they would ask domestic questions: questions about career, marriage, or possibly even practice. There are a number of slogans in 1 Corinthians, “Everything is permitted” (10:23) or “there is no resurrection of the dead” (15:12). It is possible these are answers which were given through an alleged spirit of prophecy, in response to questions from the congregation.

Remember that the last half of this letter is a series of questions and answers. It is possible that the church is putting questions to Paul that they have already put to their own prophets! Perhaps this is the reason Paul quote these statements and then argues against them.

If these observations are even close to the mark, then this is another case of the Corinthian church failing to fully apply the Christ to the conversion of the pagan practices. Paul has to deal carefully with these people since he wants to encourage the use of spiritual gifts, but he must discourage behavior which is still “pagan.”

I really do not want to wade into the turbulent waters of the practice of tongues in contemporary worship since that distracts from Paul’s point. But if Paul is saying Christian worship ought to look different than the world, there is an equally disturbing application here. At what point does contemporary (American, evangelical) worship look and feel like “the world”?

  • If I cannot tell the difference between a worship service and a country music concert, are we in danger of doing “worship like the world”?
  • If I cannot tell the difference between a worship service and classical music performance, are we in danger of doing “worship like the world”?
  • If I cannot tell the difference between a sermon and a pep-talk from a life coach, are we in danger of doing “worship like the world”?

Worship (in whatever form it takes) ought to draw people to the Gospel rather than drive them away.

What Was the Problem with Food in 1 Corinthians 8:4–8?

Some people in the Corinthian church have no problem eating “food offered to idols” (εἰδωλόθυτος). This is the specific topic of chapter 8 and Paul will mention it again in 10:19. This word appears in Acts 15:29 in the list of things the Jewish Christians ask the Gentiles to avoid, and again in Rev 2:14, 20 as a description of behavior unacceptable for Christians. In all three cases, eating meat sacrificed to idols is mentioned along with sexual immorality

Image result for meat sacrificed to idolsThe church is not asking Paul a question about the food, but they are making a statement about the food-it is permissible to eat for sacrificed to idols since there are no other gods but God. They seem to think that any limit on their food (either what they eat or where they eat it) is foolish and a restriction of their rights (with as citizens of Corinth or as Christians). Perhaps Paul himself caused the problem with food based on his command not to associate with the immoral person. Like the misunderstanding over marriage (divorce the pagan spouse), Paul’s command may have been misunderstood to mean “do not eat with sinners.”

The word refers to meat sacrificed to a god. The leftover portion could be used in a shared meal in the god’s temple, or sold in the market. In the Jewish Temple, some meat from sacrifices was used as part of a family meal (the Passover Lamb, most significantly). There are three places where the Corinthians might have encountered meat sacrificed to idols (Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 368-8).

  • The believers may be eating this food in a temple during some kind of celebration. Most temples had banquet rooms used for religious and civic celebrations, but also for privately hosted meals. These meals would have naturally included meat from sacrifices.
  • The believers may have been offered meat sacrificed to idols if they were invited to an unsaved person’s home for a meal. In this case, there is no idolatry implied in the meal, but they would be offered the food since it was widely available in the markets every day.
  • The believers may have purchased the food for themselves in the market and served it in their own homes.

There were a variety of reasons someone might be invited to a meal that are not particularly sinful. For example, what should happen if a member of the congregation were invited to a wedding celebration for a family member who was not saved? It is quite likely someone would be invited to a funeral meal for a parent held at a temple. Imagine a person who was now a Christian who is invited to attend a funeral meal for a parent at the temple of some god. Socially it would be very difficult not to attend this kind of celebration, not simply awkward, but rude and shameful.

But most likely, people would be invited to these meals because they were socially significant events in the politics of the city of Corinth. By passing on an invitation from some well-place member of Roman society, a Christian was risking shame and perhaps a loss of status in the politics of Corinth. It may be the case someone would have to attend or lose their position in the government. It is likely participation in sacrifices and sacred meal was required to hold public office.  This is far more than a chance at a decent meal!

If this is the case, there was a social distinction between those in Corinth who ate the food and those who did not. People in higher social circles would be invited to a civic banquet at a Temple, only a person with some wealth would be purchase meat in the market to serve in their homes. The material in Gooch indicates some people may have gone to several cultic sites for food and entertainment, although the food itself may not be sacrificed.

As with the divisions in the church and some of the problems with immorality, the church at Corinth was divided along social lines, mirroring pagan Corinth.

This is one of those issues which seems obscure in a contemporary context. However, outside of Western Christianity, this eating food associated with idols may be a very serious issue. I would love to see a few comments from majority world Christians who have experienced this issue first hand. If there is a kind of “guilt by association” here, what principles can be drawn from this issue in 1 Corinthians which do have some resonance with modern Western Christianity? How does the western church avoid “mirroring the pagan culture” of America

The Gospel is “God’s Foolishness” – 1 Corinthians 1:22-25

By using the death of Jesus on the Cross, God has “made foolish the wisdom of this world” (v. 20). Where is the wise, scribe, the debater of this age? These three questions call on the highest educated (and potentially most arrogant) people in the Greek or Jewish world. There is a tone of derision: God has made your most educated look foolish when he saved people through the folly of the Cross.

God did not choose to save those who are perishing in a way that might be expected, by using a method the intelligent of the world would have given their approval. Rather, he chose to use the foolishness of the Cross. In other words, “God’s actions make the worldly-wise look like blundering fools” (Garland, 1 Corinthians, 63).

Execution by crucifixion was the most shameful death possible. If the Romans executed someone by crucifixion, they were guilty of the very worst of crimes and suffered such dishonor that it might even be shameful to admit you knew the person, let alone think they were your savior.

Paul begins this paragraph with the observation “Jews demand a sign, Greeks seek wisdom.” The Jewish “demand for a sign” refers to some sign from heaven which confirms a person is approved by God. If someone claimed to be the messiah, then Pharisees might demand they do some sort of sign, as they did Jesus. If Jesus could give them a sign to convince them he was the messiah, then perhaps they would believe. The point of the apostolic signs such as Peter healing a lame man in Acts 3 was to show the messianic age has begun.

A Greek would be far more likely to believe a well-constructed, logic argument in favor of Jesus as the Messiah. When Paul teaches in Ephesus, for example, he argues persuasively from the Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah; Apollos also persuades people from the Scripture through logical arguments (Acts 18).

The Messiah crucified was a stumbling-block to the Jews and a god who is executed as a criminal is foolishness to the Greek. Many Jews expected some sort of Messiah, but no one really expected a Messiah who would be executed by the Romans. The Gentiles were to fall under the judgment of the Messiah! He was to rule over a reunited Israel like an idealized David, no one expected him to die in the most shameful way possible. Peter response to Peter in Mark 8 is an indication that even Jesus’ followers misunderstood what the messiah would do in Jerusalem.

A “stumbling-block” is something that causes you to stumble (obviously), but Paul is using it as a metaphor. The cross is the thing that causes the Jewish person to not accept Jesus as the messiah and savior. They might like Jesus’ teaching, his way of handling the Law, his views about the kingdom of God, his rejection of oral tradition, etc. But most Jews would have a hard time accepting a messiah who was unjustly executed by the High Priest!

To the Greek or Roman thinker, it is not impossible for a god to appear to be flesh and live among humans for a time. Perhaps the more intellectual Greeks disbelieved the stories of Zeus or Hermes appearing as men, but it was at least possible. But it was impossible for a god to be harmed by humans, let alone be executed as the worst of criminals!

God chose to use the most foolish thing imaginable in the first century, the Cross, to save those who are perishing. God has always used the unexpected person to achieve his goals so that it is clear he has done it not human wisdom or skills (David as the youngest son, defeats Goliath, etc.)  What God did through Jesus is to turn the world “upside down,” an idea Paul will return to throughout this letter.

The world sees the world one way, the Christian sees it much differently.

The Message of the Cross – 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

In 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:16, Paul shows the heart of his message was that God sent his son into the word to die on the Cross in order to provide atonement for sin. To a Jew, Greek or Roman living in the first century, almost every word of this familiar summary of the Gospel would be radical, strange, or even foolish. A god cannot die, and he certainly would not die by crucifixion. What God did through Jesus runs counter to both Jewish and Gentile expectations about how gods are supposed to behave, or what the God of the Hebrew Bible does. The Gospel has some awkward facts, the object of our worship was executed as a criminal of the worst kind! In fact, he intentionally allowed himself to be destroyed in the most shameful way possible.

Paul does not shy away from these inconvenient facts of the Gospel in order to gain more converts because God has chosen foolish things in order to make foolish the wisdom of this world. The Gospel is not the sort of thing a religious person would have invented in the first century.

The Cross divides all of humanity into two groups, those who are “perishing” and those who “are being saved.” Perishing (ἀπόλλυμι) is a strong word chosen to highlight the present judgment of those who have rejected the Cross.  The word used in the Septuagint for a sacrifice that is completely consumed in fire (Lev 7:10, for example). It is used for God’s judgment of the unrighteous (Sodom, Gen 18:24, several times). Psalm 2:12 used the verb for God’s destruction of the nations that have challenged the Lord’s anointed. The verb is in the present tense, indicating these people are under God’s judgment now because of their rejection of the cross.

Paul describes himself and his readers as “those who are being saved,” emphasizing the presentness of salvation. The verb is again in the present tense, all people are either (at this moment) either in need of salvation because they reject the Cross or being saved by the power of the Cross.

This division in humanity is based on the reaction to the Cross. The Cross is foolish to the ones who are perishing. Two related nouns (μωρία, 1:18 and μωρός, 1:27) refer to some idea that is senseless to believe, perhaps with the sense of ridiculous (the earth is hollow and lizard people are controlling our thoughts; a child telling a story about fairy tale creatures to a genius scientist, etc.) To believe in something foolish is a waste of time, since it cannot possibly be true.

Why is the Cross foolishness? In the Greco-Roman world, self-sacrifice was not considered a virtue. The idea a person might willingly shame themselves by voluntarily sacrificing themselves on a Cross is unthinkable and so radically offensive no rational person could believe it.

To those who are being saved, the Cross is the power of God. A death on the Cross was such an offensive and shameful death that it would have been shocking for Paul call it the “power of God for salvation.”  D. A. Carson suggested the analogy of someone today claiming the Holocaust was “the power of God” (The Cross and the Christian Message, 12). No one in the world today would say the Holocaust is “the power of God.” Such a statement would be a jarring and offensive statement. Anyone making that sort of claim would not just be laughed at, but vilified and persecuted for such a claim.

Yet this is what Paul claims, because God chooses foolish things in order to silence the wise. He quotes Isaiah 29:14, a saying embedded in a context of the judgment on Judah for worship with their lips but not their heart (29:13); since their hearts are not right they are about to face God’s judgment. The Corinthians may have heard this as a pronouncement on the wise of this age (which is true), but since the object of God’s wrath in Isaiah Judah, it is possible Paul’s point here is that the church is also going to be silence because of their foolishness!

How does this “foolishness” play out in the modern preaching of the Gospel? Some American evangelical Christians like to use apologetics to present faith in Jesus as rational and reasonable to a rational mind. Others try to use secular culture to present the Gospel in a way which appeals to the modern, or post-modern mind (those “Mars Hill” ministries, for example). Would Paul have created a rational argument for the prove the need of the violent death of Jesus on the Cross? Would he have hosted a poetry slam in one of his churches for people to express their repressed feelings about religion? How can we “embrace the foolishness” and still reach our culture?