Biblical Studies/New Testament Commentaries/1 Corinthians/Chapter 15
Provide the information in the following categories:
a. Background Information: i. Historical Context: What do contemporary readers need to know that author assumed his first readers probably took for granted? ii. Literary Context: How may the constituent parts of a given chapter be better appreciated by information about the structure of the book as a whole?
b. Explanation: i. Analysis: What does a verse-by-verse examination of the constituent words and phrases suggest about the meaning of the chapter? Consideration will be given to their use in the Old Testament and other nearly contemporary literature. ii. Paraphrase: In light of these considerations an expansive, highly interpretive paraphrase of each chapter will be offered. The paraphrase attempts to avoid technical, theological jargon so as to allow contemporary secular English readers to understand the point of the chapter.
c. Implications: i. Reception: How has this chapter been received and understood by readers across the centuries since its origin? ii. Influence: What are the apparent theological and practical implications of this chapter within the entire Christian canon of Scripture? What has this chapter contributed to the views of contemporary Christianity?
Basic Introduction to the Chapter
The Foundations of the Argument to Follow - Christ Was Raised: vv. 1-11
Exegetical Translation from the Greek Text
1 Now I would like to remind you, brothers and sisters,[tn 1] of the very Gospel--the Good News--[tn 2] that I brought to you as a messenger,[tn 3] which you received, and on which you have taken your your stand, 2 and through which you are being saved--if you hold firmly to the contents of the Good News I brought to you (unless you only believed the story without accepting its implications).[tn 4]3 I remind you of this because I handed over to you in the highest importance what I myself was handed:
6 Then, he appeared in the same way[tn 8] to more than five hundred brothers[tn 9] at the same time, most of whom are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. 7 After that, he appeared to James and then to all the apostles. 8 And last of all, he appeared to me, as though I were the miscarried fetus that would have died without such great intervention.[tn 10]
9 For I am the least of the apostles; I am not worthy to be called an apostle. I say this because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace[tn 11] of God I am what I am, and his grace unto me[tn 12] has not come to be fruitless;[tn 13] Rather, I toiled harder than all of them, yet it was not I but the grace of God working with me.[tn 14]11 Therefore, whether it was I or they, this is what we proclaim and this is what you believed.
- The Greek word αδελφοί technically means "brothers." However, it is frequently used generically in the plural (as it is here) in Greek literature to refer to a mixed-gender group of "siblings." Indeed, in the plural especially, the word often is used to refer to all close family members. Thus, because there are no indicators that the passage is only addressed to males, including "sisters" with brothers is well supported.
- This is an attempt to render a phrase into English from the Greek that is very difficult to translate the important nuances: ευαγγέλιον ό ευηγγελισάμην. As can be easily seen in this even without knowing the meaning of the words, the verb (ευηγγελισάμην) and the direct object (ευαγγέλιον) share a redundant root. Translated most literally, the phrase says "the gospel that I proclaimed the gospel to you"--which is indeed bad English--or, perhaps one could wordsmith as Paul so often does, and translate it as "the gospel that I 'gospelled' to you." Many translations simply say "the gospel that I proclaimed to you" (NRSV) or "that I preached to you" (NIV, ESV, NASB) but this does not pick up the full potency of Paul's emphasis. Paul could have used a different verb for "preach," such as κήρυσσω (which would have voided such redundancy) and so it is likely that such redundancy of the root word is intended for special emphasis. Thus, in this translation, "the very Gospel--the good news--..." emphasizes both the redundancy for emphasis and also the fact that the Good News is passed on--not just a story that Paul created. In the context of this section, the reality of the message is of chief importance to Paul, as he is laying a foundation for all the sections that follow.
- While most all translations translate the verb ευηγγελισάμην as "preached" or "proclaimed", these translations could imply that the Corinthians could have received a unique articulation of the message by Paul as an act of contextualized preaching. But Paul's point in this section is instead to point to something he is handing on from those that came before him. He cites a church creed beginning in verse three that was not specific to the Corinthian church, but rather universal to the whole church. Furthermore, as opposed to κήρυσσω (also meaning "preach or proclaim"), which emphasizes the act of speaking, ευηγγελισάμην emphasizes the act of carrying a message to somebody--in this case, the Good Message. This can be understood from the root of the word, άγγελος (meaning "messenger") More on this in the analysis.
- This is, granted, a somewhat free translation, but it attempts to the best justice to a Greek word that has often been mistranslated. As noted by Thiselton who cites Danker, the word είκή, which is often translated as "in vain," can also be translated "without cause," "to no purpose" or "without due consideration, in a haphazard manner." He rightly points out that to translate it as "in vain" would cause "needless difficulties and forces Paul into an aggressive irony that undermines his seeking common ground by appealing to the shared tradition, calling the readers αδελφοί and establishing the previous points." Thiselton, instead, asserts that Paul is inserting the possibility that the readers could have believed the Good News without having any "coherent grasp of its logical or practical entailments for eschatology or for practical discipleship..." This translation reflects this understanding of that word. Paul is appealing to their logic--which is important, considering what follows in in verses 3-11 is the foundation upon which he builds his arguments in the remainder of the chapter. They are being saved through the message of the gospel (which Paul is about to mention in the form of a creed) if they hold firmly to it, unless their firm grasp has been for incoherent reasons.
- While the Greek text does not include "to atone" and the traditional translation of the Greek υπέρ is simply "for," this is perhaps a not very complete translation. Simply saying "For" is vague and leaves the phrase open to more interpretation than is perhaps appropriate. And while "for" technically works, it is not nearly specific enough to what the word actually means. The preposition, used with a genitive object that is a thing (as opposed to a person) carries a meaning of action being done on the behalf of something. There is also a somewhat causal relation carried in the preposition  Thus, the presence of this preposition--especially within a creedal formulation--establishing a substitutionary, causal relationship between our sin and Christ's death demands an atonement theory.
- As opposed to the verbs in the preceding two lines, which are in the aorist tense (a simple-past tense), this verb, εγήγερται, is in the perfect tense. The perfect tense emphasizes something that occurred in the past with the effects continuing on into the present. More on this in the analysis.
- "In bodily form" is not actually present in the Greek, but is an interpretation of the word ώφθη and is assumed in this commentary to be the necessary reading to support Paul's claims later on. See the Analysis for a detailed discourse on this word.<
- As is described in the translation note above, "in the same way" is not actually in the text, but reflects Paul's use of the same word, ώφθη, again in this verse.
- This, as in verse one, is the word αδελφοί. The translation of the word in this verse, however, needs to be different from the previous instance. In verse one, the interpretation is regarding the recipients of the letter--which can reasonably be assumed is of mixed gender. However, here in verse six, Paul is citing witnesses to the historical events of the resurrection appearances. In the Greco-Roman world, women were not considered valid witnesses, which is why he does not cite any women in particular--despite the fact that the gospels unanimously describe women as the first witnesses to the empty tomb. Therefore, he likely is not referring to any specific women, as they would not be actually consulted by a skeptical seeker. With this said, during this mass appearance, as a bodily appearance, any women there would have also seen the Christ Perhaps the difficult translation of this term in this context is summarized best by Thiselton:
The translation of αδελφοίς provides the usual nightmare for modern English. Since Jesus appeared to the women, it is virtually certain that NIV's brothers and sisters is correct, but the Greek does not say this, and if it is gender-inclusive, it is also gender intrusive.
Thus, the translation here is gender-exclusive because this author believes that this is most faithful to Paul's intended meaning, which would be naturally assumed by the Corinthian readers. However, the modern reader should understand that there likely were women who also witnessed first-hand this mass appearance of the resurrected Christ.
- This clause is not actually in the Greek, but is a rather free translation of the Greek word εκτρώματι, which refers literally to a premature (i.e. still), miscarried, or aborted fetus whose birth "violates the normal period of gestation," which results in death. Müller points out that special attention is to be given to the definite article preceding εκτρώματι which objectifies and dehumanizes what Paul is calling himself. The verse does not say "as to one..." but rather "as to the...", which puts his state when Christ appeared to him as similar to the hopelessly lost stillborn fetus (see comment in the analysis on ό in verse ten) For a thorough discourse on the controversy of this verse and the various historical interpretations, see the analysis.
- The word for "grace," χάριτι, is in the place of highest emphasis in the sentence. This is difficult to translate into English.
- The word for "me," εμέ, is in the emphatic form, as opposed to the usual με.
- The phrase in Greek is ου κενή εγενήθη. ου is a simple negating particle. Κενή can mean "empty," in the sense of being without content, or "in vain," in the sense of serving no purpose. Εγενήθη has a wider range of meanings, though they are all related: "be born," "be made," "be created," "come about," "develop," "become" are all common meanings. The connotation of birth here might possibly be somewhat connected to Paul's mention of a miscarried fetus earlier--but that is speculation at best. Regardless, when the phrase is taken as a whole, it seems clear Paul is referring to the effects of God's grace in his life being much more than nothing.
- This phrase is not in the original Greek necessarily, but rather is a translation of σύν as a "marker of assistance."
While there is much information available about the Corinthian church, the information about its situation that occasioned this section (vv. 1-11) is somewhat debated. With this said, there is some particular insight into the occasion of Paul's transitions in verse one to this subject.
It appears, from an analysis of both this chapter, and of the epistle as a whole, that there was some theological confusion in the community, amongst other issues, that Paul needed to sort out. Of particular relevance in this situation is the Corinthian church's understanding of what "living in the Spirit" entailed. It seems that the church had drifted into a somewhat docetic notion that in receiving the Spirit, one enters an angelic form of spirituality where the corporeal is "unneccessary and unwanted, and would finally be destroyed." Garland points out that this heterodoxy is not rebellious in nature, but rather some Hellenistic conceptions of spirituality that had crept into the church:
The Corinthians' error is not rooted in some deliberate rebellion but in honest confusion, given their Greek worldview. They fail to comprehend how an earthly body that is physical and perishable can be made suitable for a heavenly realm that is spiritual and imperishable.
In other words, the bodily resurrection of the dead (which was typically assumed within a Judeo-Christian philosophy) had not been properly translated and articulated to the Hellenistic Christian church. This was necessary for Paul to rectify, as it has definite implications for the life of the church. It is ultimately
...the foundation of all preaching about Christ. Without it, the gospel dwindles into an inspiring story of a wise teacher who suffered heroically as a victim of human perfidy. Paul hints that if they deviate from this belief, it brings their salvation into question.
Another aspect of the Corinthian situation relating to this section is rather debated and that is the general opinion of the Corinthians regarding Paul. Some scholars, most notably Gordan Fee, believe the Corinthians have a very low regard for Paul. They see passages such as 1:12 (in which Paul says that some say they belong to him, while others Apollos, or Cephas, or Christ) as an interpretive key to understand 15:8-11. Thus, according to Fee and others, Paul is here defending his right to his apostolate so that they accept what he says about that which follows. Scholars in this interpretation of the Corinthian situation point especially to verse eight and consider Paul to be quoting an insult that has been cast at him by some of the Corinthians. In language of Greco-Roman rhetoric, these scholars believe Paul is building his ethos.
Other scholars disagree that Paul is fending off a diminutive opinion of himself. Instead, they consider Paul to be reminding them of what he has already taught them about the resurrection of Christ. This is the interpretation that this author chooses, as it seems more grounded in what actually is in the text rather than speculation about possible scenarios outside the text. Verses 1-11, then, function to not legitimize Paul but rather to legitimize his message as being both a part of the church tradition, the apostolic witness, and also a part of Paul's personal testimony of Christ's life-giving and gracious calling to him. With this said, it must be ceded that rhetorically, Paul is setting down a foundation of his argument to begin in verse twelve. And in so setting this up, Paul is building his ethos, as it is crucial for his readers to accept him on the ground of Christ's resurrection, if they are to agree with his logic. Thus, while Paul is in all likelihood not defending himself against a diminutive church opinion and against insults that have been flung his direction, rhetorically, vv. 1-11 must (at least in part) function to legitimize his following argument.
This chapter fits in at the end of the letter of First Corinthians, with the chapter that follows being mostly a conclusion. Paul has "covered a lot of ground" to this point, and it seems the eschatological corporeal resurrection of the saints is his final, perhaps climactic point. At the end of chapter fourteen, Paul concludes a lengthy discourse on proper worship that began in chapter eleven, which followed an even longer discourse on proper Christian behavior, both in the gathering of believers and in the world. It could then be said that Paul's focus up until this point has been orthopraxy (meaning "right practice") and orthodoxy (which means "right worship", not "right belief"; contrary to popular belief, the "-doxy" in the word comes from δόξα, meaning "honor," "glory," and "praise."). Now, as Garland so aptly points out, Paul transitions from "disorderly worship to disorderly belief" 
Verses 1-11 serve as a "narratio"--essentially a citation of common ground that Paul gives, upon which his following argument will be built. The essential grounds upon which Paul's following argument is based, beginning in verse twelve, is that Christ was raised. If the Corinthians do not agree with that, then the rest of his argument comes crashing down. Verses 1-11, then, are absolutely crucial in the chapter.
Thankfully, the Corinthians already know and believe that Christ was raised from the dead in bodily form. Paul is not attempting to prove anything in these verses and neither does he have to. Rather, Paul is reminding them of what they already know, as is clearly stated in verse one. What Paul does, then, is bring up what the Corinthians already know, and then emphasize the absolute centrality in the gospel message of this Christ's resurrection by pointing to its presence in church tradition (in the form of a creed), the apostolic witness, and especially in Paul's personal, first-hand experience. If Paul can prove that the resurrection of Christ is absolutely central in the all these realms of the church, then his argument to follow is firmly grounded.
The content in this section of verses is typically Pauline, except for a the section of verses from vv. 3b-5, which most modern scholars have considered to be a traditional church creed, based upon the structure and vocabulary. This will be covered in greater depth in the analysis, so it will suffice here to say that some of the content of this section is not Pauline and finds its origin earlier than the rest of the material.
Paul's Preface - A Reminder of Common Ground, Church Tradition: vv. 1-3a
In this section, Paul is calling to memory the Gospel that he knows the Corinthians have embraced. The phrase Paul is using here in verse one (γνωρίζω υμίν) is one he typically uses to recall already known information or state the obvious with which he knows his readers will agree (e.g. 1 Cor 12:3, Gal 1:11). As described in translation note 3, the emphasis here is not on Paul's preaching but rather on the very content of the gospel message. The word that is frequently translated as "preached," and translated above as "brought to you as a messenger" shows its emphasis in the transmission of good news by a messenger. This word well coincides with the word for "received," which is the Greek word παρελάβετε. This word has two roots, πάρα, which typically refers to a point of origination, something that is exterior to oneself, and λαμβάνω, which means to take or receive. This, then, is significant: the word does not simply mean to receive, but rather to receive something down a line from outside oneself. It seems to connote longevity of the message--which is exactly the point Paul is making here in vv. 1-11: the message of Christ's resurrection has a long-standing tradition. In Hellenism and in Judaism, furthermore, the word was used to refer to the taking over a tradition. Thus to carry the good news as a messenger fits with this understanding of embraced tradition.
In vv. 1-2a, there is a definite progression of tenses. "Received" is in the aorist tense, which is a simple past tense. At some point in time, in the past, the Corinthians received the Gospel. The next verb, εστήκατε, is in the perfect tense, which is a past tense that continues into the present in its effects. Many translations (such as the NASB, NRSV, among others) translate the word as "in which you stand." However, as pointed out by Thiselton, this word is regarding "present stability on the basis of past action as well as present state." Thus, in the translation in this commentary, "on which you have taken your stand" was chosen, as it emphasizes a definite past action which continues on until now. Lastly, "you are being saved," coming from the word σώζεσθε, is present tense. This tense in Greek emphasizes continual activity. Many translations translate the word as "are saved." However, this seems to imply punctiliar salvation, which we can be reasonably sure that Paul is not talking about.
Also of relevance is the grammatical voice in which the salvation occurs. Σώζεσθε is in passive voice, which means that saving activity is being wrought by another party. Salvation is not gained by the Corinthians as the natural effect of embracing the Gospel. The Corinthians are not the saving party. Theologically, this is very significant. Instead, the Corinthians receive the saving activity from another, namely God.
In verse two, there is a contingency put on the salvation of the Corinthians. Here, Paul says that they are being saved if they hold firmly to the content of the Gospel he brought to them. But how this contingency is to be understood varies. Collins, a Roman Catholic scholar, interprets it as such: "Those to whom the gospel is preached are saved under the condition that they can hold fast to what they have heard" (emphasis added). This interpretation means they will be saved only if they can hold firmly to the message. Garland, however, provides a much more Protestant interpretation, asserting that if they do not hold fast to the preaching about the Gospel, "they jeopardize their future with God." Garland, then, does not put the act of holding firmly as having to do with their being saved, but rather with possibly losing their salvation. In light of what is action in the text, it seems that perhaps the former interpretation is better, as the conditional conjunction is modifying the salvation and it does not talk about losing salvation.
In the above translation, the word "contents" is derived from the word λόγος, which is typically translated as "word." The reason why it does not take that translation here is because, as well noted by Thiselton, it can also refer to content or substance. Very literally translated, the phrase reads "...the word of the gospel that I proclaimed to you...," which is somewhat awkward. Instead, as seems more likely here, if λόγος is translated in the way Thiselton contends it should be, then it is referring to the particular contents of the larger message of the Good News--which are outlined in the creed beginning in verse 3b.
For an adequate covering of the issues concerning the translation of the phrase typically translated as "believed in vain," see translation note 4 above.
Verse three begins with a Paul setting up the creed to follow in the second half of the verse, on through verse five. He uses two main verbs to describe the creed that follows: "handed over" (παρέδωκα) and "received" (παρέλαβον--the same word described in verse one). As can be easily observed of the Greek words, both have a common prefix. In the context of this passage, this prefix gives both the meaning of the transmission of tradition. Both words were used in 11:23 to describe the transmission of the communion tradition. What is important to note in these two words is that Paul is not describing anything that is originally his formulation. Instead, he is describing himself as simply conveying onto the Corinthians that which was conveyed to him.
An Early Christian Creed: vv. 3b-5
The second part of verse three, on to the end of verse five, is believed by most scholars to be a traditional creed that Paul is citing. There are several reasons for this. First, the language in the first part of verse three seems to point to a specific tradition being passed on--one that did not originate with Paul. Also, vv. 1-2 seem refer to the Gospel in such a way that it needs articulation as to exactly what part of the Good News Paul is focusing on. A creed that Paul taught them would perfectly serve such a function. Beyond simply contextual hints, there are more technical reasons Scholars frequently give.
First, the structure of this section of verses seems very formally set up and organized, with each line indicated by a the conjunction ότι (which means "that") and the creed held together and progressively intensified with numerous repetitions of the conjunction καί (which means "and" or "also") at the end of each line. When formatted to show its structure, it looks like this:
- That (ότι) Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures;
- And (καί) that (ότι) he was buried;
- And (καί) that (ότι) he was raised on the third day, according to the Scriptures;
- And (καί) that (ότι) he appeared to Cephas and then to the Twelve
Structurally, this does not seem like mere discourse as the free flow of Paul's thoughts, but rather a specific formulation. This is further supported by the chiasmus formed by active (lines one and four) and passive (lines two and three) verbs.
Further support for interpreting this as a creed is the presence of non-Pauline language, particularly the presence of "for our sins." Collins reflects notes regarding this phrase in the creed: "Apart from biblical citations and traditional formulae, Paul rarely uses sin in the plural. The notion of 'taking away sins' is generally absent from his theology."
From analyzing the language in the creed, some scholars have believed a place of origin can be derived. Collins asserts:
Every element of the confession derives its meaning from Jewish apocalyptic thought: Christ, sins, scripture, resurrection, and the symbolic "Twelve." An anarthrous "Christ," the Aramaic "Cephas," and the parallelismus membrorum point to its Palestinian origins.
This understanding does appear to be accurate, though both Collins and Thiselton note that the vocabulary does appear to be somewhat from a composite of Aramaic and Hellenistic-Jewish-Christian roots. Beyond its origins, the creed's traditional role can also be estimated. By its brevity and yet its comprehensiveness of the significance of the Christ story, it seems this creed was an attempt to capture the full Gospel message. Perhaps it was created in an attempt to shape Christians' identity as Christians so that it could be easily described across cultures and generations, much the same way the Shema functioned in Jewish practice and education. Furthermore, Collins points out that that the creed could well have been used in baptismal settings, citing the very similar language and pattern in Romans 6:3-4 and Colossians 2:12.
This interpretation of this section of verses as a traditional creed, though believed by this author to be the best interpretation, is not without contest. Notably, Garland asserts that, while the material lends itself to various traditions, it is not a creedal formulation of the early church. To support this, he rightly asserts that Paul uses the word "sins" elsewhere in Corinthians in 15:17, which is not believed to be a creed. He notes that Paul's use of "the Twelve," which is not present in Paul anywhere else, simply shows that he is drawing from tradition, not quoting it. Nonetheless, while Garland does bring about some good points in showing that the text does not necessitate a creedal interpretation, it is still most likely that it is a creed. Furthermore, he does not provide any conclusive evidence as to why the verses must not be interpreted as such, only that there the support for interpreting it as a creed is debatable.
Line one of the creed begins the creed with Christ's death. As reflected in the translation given above and the accompanying translation note, the usage of the word υπέρ in this context necessitates some form of atonement theory. However, the form of atonement theory being expressed is debated. Fee asserts that "for our sins" directly references the Septuagintal Isaiah 53 in the and expresses an early form of penal satisfaction. He describes his understanding by saying:
...the creed presupposes alienation between god and humans because of human rebellion and sinfulness, for which the just penalty is death. Death 'for our sins' means that one died on behalf of others to satisfy the penalty and to overcome alienation.
This interpretation, while thoroughly Protestant, reads far too much into the text and risks anachronism. While the text does indeed say that Christ died on behalf of others, there is no mention of the necessity of satisfying any penalty or overcoming alienation. Put simply, the only reason given in this creed for Christ's death is that it was necessary because of our sins. Thiselton describes, perhaps, a more moderate and sound interpretation of the atonement theory being expressed by the creed. He claims that the creed could be referring to Christ's death as an atonement offering or that of representation/substitution. Here, Thiselton opts of for a via media in suggesting perhaps it is a matter of both:
Propitiation leads to disastrous distortion only if we fail to emphasize that God himself is the source of the action, not that Christ "propitiates" an angry and reluctant God. Expiation may be a "safer" term, but invites skepticism about the status of abstract principles of justice, as if God were tied by these, rather than recognizing that any notion of "must suffer" rests purely on divine self-consistency.
Regardless, the best that can be definitely known for the atonement theory expressed in this passage is that Christ did atone. The creed seems to not express any concern for the how of this atonement, only that it did indeed happen once and for all.
"According to the Scriptures" has been variously interpreted. Garland, in what appears to be a minority opinion, interprets "according to the Scriptures" as causal: "This death was not a sad misadventure but something God destined for him because of... the sins of humankind." While this is notable, it is also unlikely, and no other translation translates it as such. With Fee, it is much better to interpret "according to the Scriptures" as specifying fulfillment of the Old Testament canon as a whole. This likely points to a general expectation of the Jews, from reading their Scriptures, of an awaited messianic figure, rather than to any specific verses.
Line two, describing Christ's postmortem burial, ultimately points the finality of Christ's death. It serves to span the time between death and resurrection. It is interesting to note that the passive voice of "was buried" points out that another acting party was responsible in burying him, humans (the very humans for whose sins he died in the previous line). After the death of Christ, humans put him in a sealed grave, seemingly conquering the "King of the Jews." But the creed goes on.
Line three, also in the passive voice, points to another external acting party. This time, however, it was not humans acting, but God. This is significant because the creed seems to implicitly say that, while humans brought him down, they--along with all the finitude of mortality--could not restrain the power of God. God proves Godself powerful over the powers of death. "Christ was raised." This is significant for Paul's argument to follow, beginning in verse twelve. It is also important to note that Christ did not raise himself, but was raised by God.
As can be seen reflected in the translation above, the effects of Christ's resurrection were not confined to the past. As has been significant elsewhere in this passage, the creed makes use of the perfect tense for "was raised," as opposed to the aorist tense (simple past) used in the previous lines of the creed. Thus, the creed is emphasizing that the death and burial of Christ were final and remain in the past--once-for-all. But the resurrection of Christ lasts onward--for God is eternally victorious over the power of death in Christ. It is thus reasonable to assume that, as a creed, this was a high-note for those reciting it, even before Paul, as the changed tense would have been obvious to the Greek speaker and hearer. Furthermore, it is also important for Paul's argument to follow, because Christ's resurrection would need to bring about effects for the Corinthians for Paul's argument to stand.
There has been some debate over whether "according to the Scriptures" refers specifically to the resurrection, or just to it being "on the third day," or the whole phrase. The most credible interpretation, however, is on the last option. There is no delineation that makes the phrase point to anything other than the whole line within the text--which could have been accomplished with the linguistic tools available in Greek. Regarding which Scriptures are being referred to, many interpreters, both recent and ancient, have suggested Hosea 6:2 as being of particular reference (i.e. Pelagius, Matthew Henry, Garland). With this duly noted, it seems inconsistent to translate the previous "according to the Scriptures" as generally referring to the whole of the Scriptures, while interpreting this instance--exactly the same phrase, within the same creedal construction--in a different manner. It is most logical, then, to interpret this phrase in the same way as the previous one.
Line four of the creed is important in that it is what ultimately begins the church's witness of the resurrection, and verifies Christ's victory over the death. If Christ had not appeared to Cephas and the Twelve, then the resurrection would not have been known apart from empty tomb stories--which naturally lend themselves to the "stolen body" theory. "Cephas" is the Aramaic name for Peter. "The Twelve" is a phrase not used elsewhere by Paul (he prefers the word "apostles" instead). Some manuscripts actually change "the Twelve" to "the Eleven," likely as an attempt to compensate for Judas not being able to have witnessed Christ's resurrection. But this is unnecessary, as the creed is referring to "the Twelve" as a title for a particular group of disciples, and not a number of disciples.
One of the most debated words in this creed is the word ώφθη, which literally means "was seen." However, this word, in this inflected form, is frequently used in the Septuagint to refer to visible manifestations of God's Glory. Collins asserts, regarding this,
The traditional Jewish understanding of divine transcendence, particularly strong at the time of Paul, suggests that the use of this traditional language with regard to a manifestation of the divine did not imply physical sight. In the biblical accounts of a manifestation of the divine, auditory elements predominate.
It seems Collins, then, joins the party of scholars who believe the term does not refer to physical sight. There is significant opposition to this stance, however. Both sides of the argument will be taken up and then evaluated in the "reception" section.
More Tradition - Other Relevant Appearances of the Resurrected Christ: vv. 6-7
Verses 6-7, it is generally agreed upon by scholars, return to Pauline content. Paul goes on in these verses to mention additional appearances of the resurrected Christ. These appearances seem to be drawing from various other traditions, which are not actually recorded elsewhere in Scripture. They are added here by Paul to show a continuation from creed to Apostolic witness--an essential connection if Paul is to firmly ground his following argument to come in the centrality of the resurrection in the Christian faith. It is more than simply the gospel message passed on in a brief creed, but it is agreed upon by many the people who the Corinthians know or of whom they have heard. Paul is still in the process of reminding, begun in verse one. Now, however, Paul is making the resurrection real, beyond story to unanimous agreement of people the Corinthians know and whose witness matters.
Verse six cites a resurrection appearance to the largest group cited in Scripture. As noted translation note 9, the meaning of "brothers" here is very hard to translate. Due to Paul's usage of it here in the context of mentioning witnesses, it is best to translate it most literally, though it should be noted that there were most likely many women who also viewed the resurrected Christ in this mass appearance.
An important detail of this verse to understand is the word εφάπαξ, which refers to action happening simultaneously, at the same time. This is pointed to frequently in the argument for the physical visibility of Christ's appearance. It is unlikely, so the argument goes, that ώφθη refers simply to a visionary experience in this chapter because such a mass-religious experience held by so many people would be one for the record books. It must then be in reference to Christ being physically present in front of these people. More will be discussed on this argument a little later in the "reception" section.
The second part of this verse describes the status of these five hundred "brothers"--most of them are still living, though some have "fallen asleep." The phrase "fallen asleep," is translated from the word εκοιμήθησαν. This word is often figuratively used to refer to dying. While some commentators (such as Collins) point to this phrase as direct support for Paul's usage of the word "raised," which often is used to express being "awakened," and thus serves to reinforce Paul's argument later on, this connection (if intended) can only be marginal, at best. The term us used figuratively frequently in Greek, even apart from any discussion whatsoever of resurrection. To a culture accustomed to such a euphemism in speech, which also embraced the common grave inscription "I was not, I was, I am not, I care not,"  such a connection would likely not be very persuasive.
There seems to be two possible loci of emphasis in this second part of the verse. Fee points out that Paul including this phrase functions as an invitation to the Corinthians to inquire for themselves about the objective reality of the resurrection, with a tinge of regret that some have already died. Garland, however, offers an alternative: Paul's focus in saying some are still alive (without actually naming any specific individuals) is on those who have fallen asleep, to show that the dead are indeed raised; "Death precedes resurrection." As noted in the above paragraph, however, such a connection is difficult to make because such a nuanced and implicit implication would likely not have been caught by Paul's audience. In light of this, it seems Fee's interpretation is more likely.
Verse seven adds two more appearances to the list that Paul is heaping up, one after another. There is no specific indication given as to which James is being referred to here. However, it should be noted that (1) James of the Twelve had already been martyred by this time; (2) James the brother of Jesus, as leader of the church in Jerusalem, would have been likely known by the Corinthians, even if only by name; and (3) Paul's intention here is to list the major (i.e. "big name") witnesses to the resurrected Christ to show its validity beyond the gospel story. Thus, given these premises, it seems James the brother of Jesus is most likely the James to which Paul refers.
The second part of verse seven refers to "all the apostles." While exactly who "all of the apostles" are is not clear, and there is no mention of "at one time" as there was in verse six, a few important things can be noted from this. First, the "apostolate" to which he refers, categorically speaking, seems to be of a larger number than the Twelve. Thus, for Paul, "the Twelve" in verse five is not synonymous with the much more Pauline "apostles." Furthermore, there were more than "Twelve" recognized apostles in the church. Second, the word order in the phrase puts the emphasis on the apostles, presence of the word "all" (πασίν). This is significant in that it is easy to read the phrase and focus on how every apostle saw the resurrected Christ (which seems implausible)--but the emphasis on "apostles" could rectify this implausibility. Instead, perhaps Paul intends something like "the whole apostolic body." If this were the case, then this would prove a perfect concluding transition to verse eight, where Paul shifts from the witness of the apostolate to his own personal experience. Thus, Paul would be concluding his additions to the creed essentially like so: "Then he appeared to five hundred brothers... then to James, and finally to the whole apostolic body--ask nearly anyone in the church, and you can be directed to an actual witness of our resurrected Lord!"
Paul's Personal Experience of the Resurrection by Grace: vv. 8-11
Typically, verse eight is included with vv. 6-7 as an additional resurrection appearance of Christ--and this it indeed is. Structurally, is looks just like the previous two verses, even using for the final time in the letter the word ώφθη (meaning "he appeared"), which had been present three other times from vv. 5-7. The reason why verse eight is included in this section, however, is for the significance Paul makes here. As noted earlier, Paul begins in verse one calling the Corinthians to remember the Gospel message he brought to them. It is contained within the creed he taught them, but also in the living witness of the apostles. Now, in vv. 8-11 eight, Paul shifts to show how this gospel message is something to which he can very personally attest, as his own radical calling experience (of which the Corinthians must have heard before from him) and his subsequent labors as an apostle show the truth of this Gospel.
Of particular significance in this verse is the word εκτρώματι, which has attracted much attention throughout the centuries. For a description of the meaning of this word, see translation note 10. There seem to be a few different camps who each argue for a different interpretation. The first camp (reflected in the translations of the NRSV, NASB, NET, and ESV, among others) understands this to simply mean being "born" at a chronologically bad time. The church father, Ambrosiaster, took this stance and believed it was in reference to Paul being the only apostle to be called after the ascension. However, this stance cannot be well supported, as the word is only used for births that are premature, not late. Furthermore, there seems to be little relevance in Paul referring to the relative chronology of his calling compared to the other apostles--such has no effect on the Good News of the resurrection to the Corinthians.
Another camp interprets the word to mean something of an abortion (think "aberration"), "freak," or monster. This is reflected in the NIV's "as to one abnormally born." As noted in the historical context, some scholars consider the Corinthian church to have a rather low regard for Paul's apostolic authority. Thus they interpret the word εκτρώματι to refer to someone who is a dwarf compared to Apollos or Peter. This would be an insulting play on words in reference to Paul's name, which means "small" or "little." Furthermore, this word could be Paul quoting the very insult flung at him--that he was an abortion. According to Collins, who takes this stance, the word has its origin
...in a derisive epithet hurled at Paul by his opponents, perhaps mocking his claim that he, like the prophets of old, had been chosen by God from his mother's womb.
While this interpretation is indeed possible, it seems hardly plausible, given there is a better explanation (below) that does not require formulating fictitious background stories in the light of which to understand the present text. Simply by looking at the text we have available to us, the following interpretation seems to function best.
A third major camp of interpretation sees εκτρώματι as referring to the nature of Paul's calling experience, rather than the chronology. This camp believes there is no legitimate reason to believe that the term is a quoted insult unless one fabricates a story to explain one's interpretation. Commenting on Collins' interpretation, Garland asserts:
...there is no evidence that this term was used as an epithet agaisnt Paul or any evidence in this letter that the Corinthinans viewed his apostleship as somehow abortive, monstrous, or demonic. The simplest explanation is that it is Paul's own description of his calling as an apostle.
It is highly probable that Paul here is indeed referring to his calling experience, as that interpretation best serves to support that which follows. But what sort of nature is Paul referring to? That of a stillborn child that has no possibility of life apart from some sort of divine intervention. Paul, in recollecting his personal experience of the resurrected Christ, shows a sort of absolute disgust with the state in which he existed prior to it. He persecuted the church. Paul was altogether hopeless in his wretchedness--as full of life and potential as an aborted or miscarried fetus. As noted by Thiselton, who ultimately takes this side, Paul's focus in this statement is not on himself, but rather on the grace of God, "who chooses to give life and new creation to those reckoned as dead, or, in Paul's case, both a miscarried, aborted foetus whose stance had been hostile to Christ and to the new people of God."
Thiselton in the above quote hints at the possible connection between verse eight and the previous creed. The pattern of the creed is death, finalized by burial, then life, enacted by God and witnessed by the church. Here, too, Paul gives a pattern: death (although technically still alive), with no hope of life to be found, then life, enacted by God and laboring for the church as an apostle. The pattern is strikingly similar.
Verse nine continues Paul's discourse on Christ's gracious calling. Paul puts it quite plainly: the apostolic position he holds now has nothing to do with anything he earned. He is the least of all the apostles. Fee, here, seems to misunderstand the nature of Paul's statement here. Due to his belief that Paul is defending his apostolic status to his critics, he believes that Paul says this to assert that, although Paul is the least of the apostles, he still is an apostle. But this interpretation seems inadequate; this section of verses does not at all sound remotely like a stern lecture on why his position must be respected. Rather, as previously noted, it seems his focus is entirely on the power of God's grace though the resurrection.
Verses 8-9 show Paul's belief in his absolute inadequacy to be who he is. He was hopelessly and miserably lost. If ever there was a soul who would gladly sing the old church hymn, it would be Paul:
Amazing Grace! How sweet the sound, that saved a wretch [i.e. an abortion] like me! I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.
Paul was not worthy--he persecuted the church of God. The word he uses here for "church" is εκκλησίαν, which has two roots: εκ (a preposition connoting motion outward) and καλέω (a verb, meaning "to call"). It is important to see in this that Paul, talking about his persecution of the "called out ones of God," is not speaking of the church as an organizational institution as it is commonly thought to mean today. Rather, Paul is talking about the very gathering of people--the very ones for whom God has given him a deep love--who he persecuted. The gravity of this verse, combined with the graphic visual image in verse eight, is heavy enough to bear down even the strongest of constitutions. This is the very depth of death Paul is referring to when he speaks of death, which can still be had in the course of biological life.
This somber dirge, however, changes to a triumphant anthem, however, in 'verse ten. This verse is powerful and one can imagine the force with which Paul utters these words: "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace unto me has not come to be fruitless..." Paul, here, rises out of the depths of death and is able to speak of his abundant life he now has in Christ.
It needs to be noted that Paul does not say in this verse "I am who I am," which would reflect God's work on Paul's character and personality. Instead, what Paul has to say is far more profound; he uses the neuter relative pronoun ό, which makes the translated phase say "I am what I am." Paul is not just referring to the characteristics of his humanity, but rather whole nature and status as a being. The juxtaposition Paul provides is not between "the worse me" and "a better me," but rather between two different beings: the first an abortion, unable to live, hopelessly lost to God, persecuting the people of God, and the second an apostle of the church who has labored for the church more than all the rest. It is no between "the worse me" and "a better me," but rather "the old self" and the "new creation." And, as is significant contextually, this transformation was triggered by the resurrection appearance of the Christ to Paul.
As a side note, it must be said that in Paul asserting that he has labored more than all the rest of the apostles, he is not asserting himself over anyone. Rather, it is necessary for Paul to be able to point to the actual fruit of God's grace in his life--not to show how great he is, but rather the limitless greatness of God's grace. Thus Paul, always careful to only "boast in the Lord," immediately clarifies the source of the his surpassing labors: God's grace.
Paul's point in what seems to be a very personal digression is actually Paul's final witness of the resurrection. The Corinthians have heard the creed. There is an abundance of witnesses in the Church who can attest to its historicity. And lastly, Paul can say that he did indeed also see the resurrected Christ. And if they don't believe his testimony, all they need to do is look at his history; in the timeline of Paul's life, there is a definite point in it where the course of Paul's life is radically changed, to move him in such a radically different direction in his life that it would take something as drastic as the bodily appearance of the resurrected Christ to have caused it. Indeed, the Corinthian church owes its very existence to this resurrection event, as Paul "planted" the community (see 3:6).
It is on this note that Paul concludes in verse eleven his foundation upon which his following argument will be built. Paul's statement in this verse is concluding in nature due to the presence of ούν, which means "therefore" and which functions to gather the preceding information and tie it together to introduce a result or inference. This coordinating conjunction, then, refers to the preceding material, most likely vv. 3-10, and ushers in the conclusion: Regardless of where they look within the church, the bodily resurrection of Christ can be witnessed in the gospel message, via the witness of the apostles, and in Paul's very life. Therefore, wherever they go, if the Corinthian church is at all Christian, then the resurrection of Christ is something they must absolutely embrace.
Were Christ's Resurrection Appearances Physical or Visionary in Nature?
As noted above regarding vv. 5-7, there is much debate as to the nature of the resurrection. Some of the debate of both sides has already been mentioned, but further comment is necessary. The primary support given to the side that argues the text does not refer to a bodily resurrection is the word ώφθη, which is frequently used in Jewish sources to refer technically to divine manifestations that were rarely, if ever, physical in nature.
There is indeed a hole in this reasoning however: Paul's audience. The Corinthian church was mainly Gentile in nature. Paul making use of a term that would only be familiar to a Jewish audience to describe a divine, visionary manifestation in order to communicate with Greeks who had had little to no exposure to the Septuagint would poor contextualization on Paul's part. Considering Paul's calling and life profession was in living as a missionary to the gentiles, such poor a choice of words would seem unlike him.
Furthermore, when the word ώφθη is translated literally, without further assumptions of background meaning, the word means "was seen." Fee points out that this is pivotal to Paul's argument. If the resurrection was spiritual in nature only, Paul would have no basis for arguing for the bodily resurrection of believers in the following section of text. It would make little sense. Instead, to take the word literally implies the use of eyes to physically see the Christ. Thisleton further removes credibility from this argument by noting that Romans 15:21 contrasts seeing with the eyes (making use of όψονται, which is a variation of ώφθη) and seeing with the mind/understanding (which uses a completely different verb).
While proper credence should be given to the arguments of those who oppose an interpretation of bodily resurrection, it appears as if such arguments are driven more by post-historical-critical existentialist biases. The opponents seem to not believe in an objective resurrection, and thus interpret Scripture as such, choosing instead to find a subjective meaning and truth for life in the idea of the resurrection. Thiselton cites two notable figures who fall into these categories. The first is W. Marxsen, who he describes as saying:
...we must abandon talk about "an objective vision"; or at least accept that the weight is placed on "the subjectivity...of my own faith," although certainly with the fundamental proviso that for Paul (or Peter) "the impulse to faith came from outside himself."
The second figure Thiselton cites is Rudolf Bultmann, who went even farther and asserted that "belief in the resurrection is 'the same thing as faith in the saving efficacy of the cross.'"
As noted earlier, however, these things cannot be Paul's argument here in the text, as that would have destroyed Paul's point, not assisted it.
Furthermore, it is relevant to note four points that theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg makes to fend of solely existential interpretations of the resurrection. He asserts that it is intellectually credible--indeed, more credible--to believe in the bodily resurrection of the Christ:
- The early Christian witness could not have been nearly as successful as it was if Christ's body was still within the tomb while they were preaching his resurrection. Thus it is necessary to assume that the tomb was indeed empty.
- The empty tomb, by itself, could be explained in other ways that would not necessitate resurrection. Perhaps this is why Paul does not once refer to an empty tomb.
- When premises 1 and 2 are combined, it is difficult to assume that so many witnesses were merely hallucinating.
- To assert that an event took place between burial and the visit of the women to the empty tomb is a historical claim and can thus be tested and analyzed. Thus, based upon the biblical witness, one cannot come to a solely existential conclusion regarding the meaning of the resurrection.
Therefore, based upon this evaluation, it seems nearly impossible for one to deny Christ's bodily resurrection. As Tertullian puts it in a discourse against Marcion:
For just as they, who said that there is no resurrection of the dead, are refuted by the apostle from the resurrection of Christ, so, if the resurrection of Christ falls to the ground, the resurrection of the dead is also swept away. And so our faith is in vain, and vain also is the preaching of the apostles. Moreover, they even show themselves to be false witnesses of God, because they testified that he raised up Christ, whom he did not raise. And we remain in our sins still. And those who have slept in Christ have perished; destined, forsooth, to rise again, but peradventure in a phantom state, just like Christ.
Of particular note in this quote by the great church patriarch, the resurrection of Christ is especially relevant for how one lives life as a Christian (if one could even be a Christian without Christ's resurrection). He seems to say that without the new life that is only provided by Christ's resurrection, we cannot possibly be new creations--"we remain in our sins still." If Christ was not actually resurrected, then Paul is still an εκτρώμα, an aborted fetus. But this certainly does not explain the radical change in Paul's life. In short, without Christ's resurrection in reality, in history, the church has no purpose and the Christian faith is simply a philosophy.
Paul's Ministry as a Relevant Paradigm for Today
There can be no doubt that "grace" is an important theme in Paul's writings. This should be understood as having particular relevance to the way in which ministers today go about their "labors." Paul's description of his apostolate here, then, needs to be a paradigmatic understanding as part of any minister's philosophy of ministry.
This emulation of Paul's ministry--even language--is not a new notion in the church. Indeed, Ignatius in his epistle to Rome has a phrase that is strikingly similar to what can be seen in vv. 8-10:
But as for me, I am ashamed to be counted one of them; for indeed I am not worthy, as being the vary last of them, and one born out of due time. But I have obtained mercy to be somebody, if I shall attain to God.
It is highly unlikely that this quotation is coincidentally similar to Paul's description of his own calling in vv. 8-10. Ignatius seems to be drawing from the Pauline wellspring for guidance as to how to be a minister.
But what exactly can we learn from Paul's description here? Perhaps most important verse is verse ten: "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace unto me has not come to be fruitless; Rather, I toiled harder than all of them, yet it was not I but the grace of God working with me."
If one is to take the biblical doctrine of the "new creation" seriously--that there an ontological transformation (otherwise known as sanctification) in the regenerate (born again) Christian--then one must always acknowledge the true source of new life: the salvific work of Jesus Christ. It is only by the grace of God--the very empowering presence of God--that both Paul and the church today can truly be the church, a "nation of priests." Indeed, this grace was not earned--for that is contrary to the very nature of grace. Augustine describes it well: "Paul did not labor in order to receive grace, but he received grace so that he might labor."
Beyond simply our very nature, our ministry needs to be understood in light of the grace of God. Paul does not once say that his actions stand apart unto themselves--the are only ever enabled by the grace of God working within him. Apart from this grace, he is nothing but an aborted fetus; with this grace, it is the greatest of apostles to whom the Church is indebted for his writings it has identified as Scripture. It is the same with our ministry--it is only by the grace of God that ministry is even possible.
Christ as the Firstfruits of Resurrection: vv. 20-28
The Futility of Faith Without the Resurrection: vv. 29-34
The Nature of the Resurrection: vv. 35-49
Why the Resurrection is Important: vv. 50-58
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- Danker, Frederick William, et al. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature. Third Edition. Version 1.3 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000); 8, 402. Accordance Bible Software. OakTree Software Inc. Version 8.2.2, Mar. 2008.
- Danker, 281.
- Thiselton, Anthony C. The First Epistle to the Corinthians. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000), 1186.
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- Garland, 687.
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- Collins, 536.
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- Boring, Eugene et al. Hellenistic Commentary to the New Testament. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 437.
- Fee, 730.
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- "Paul." Hitchcock's New and Complete Analysis of the Holy Bible. Version 1.2. (Public Domain). Accordance Bible Software. OakTree Software, Inc. Version 8.2.2. Mar. 2009.
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- Ignatius. "The Epistle of Ignatius to the Romans." The Apostolic Fathers With Justin Martyr and Irenaeus. The Ante-Nicene Fathers. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, Eds. Vol. 1. Version 2.0. (Public Domain), 10. Accordance Bible Software. OakTree Software, inc. Version 8.2.2. Mar. 2009.
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