FOR READERS I have just started a new blog: xtremejesus.co which is intended to contribute to political and social debate from the point of view of the Jesus tradition. Some have found difficulty in accessing the site from their search engines and browsers. At present, Google Chrome gives it easily.
MEANWHILE, this old faithful blog continues to explore Paul’s Corinthian correspondence day by day. At present it is dealing with 2 Corinthians 10-13, which is all we have of Paul’s harsh letter after a visit to Corinth in the wake of 1st Corinthians. I’m assuming that all his Corinthian letters were sent from Ephesos. The news headline is a reminder of the world we live in.
GREEK FINANCE MINISTER RESIGNS FOR THE GREATER GOOD
2 Corinthians 11
16 Once more, let me advise you not to look upon me as a fool. Yet if you do, then listen to what this “fool” has to boast about.
17-21 I am not now speaking as the Lord commands me but as a fool who must be in on this business of boasting. Since all the others are so proud of themselves, let me do a little boasting as well. From your heights of superior wisdom I am sure you can smile tolerantly on a fool. Oh, you’re tolerant all right! You don’t mind, do you, if a man takes away your liberty, spends your money, makes a fool of you or even smacks your face? I am almost ashamed to say that I never did brave strong things like that to you. Yet in whatever particular they enjoy such confidence I (speaking as a fool, remember) have just as much confidence.
22 Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I.
23 Are they ministers of Christ? I have more claim to this title than they. This is a silly game but look at this list: I have worked harder than any of them. I have served more prison sentences! I have been beaten times without number. I have faced death again and again.
24 I have been beaten the regulation thirty-nine stripes by the Jews five times.
25 I have been beaten with rods three times. I have been stoned once. I have been shipwrecked three times. I have been twenty-four hours in the open sea.
26-27 In my travels I have been in constant danger from rivers and floods, from bandits, from my own countrymen, and from pagans. I have faced danger in city streets, danger in the desert, danger on the high seas, danger among false Christians. I have known exhaustion, pain, long vigils, hunger and thirst, going without meals, cold and lack of clothing.
28-29 Apart from all external trials I have the daily burden of responsibility for all the churches. Do you think anyone is weak without my feeling his weakness? Does anyone have his faith upset without my longing to restore him?
30-31 Oh, if I am going to boast, let me boast of the things which have shown up my weakness! The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, he who is blessed for ever, knows that I speak the simple truth.
32-33 In Damascus, the town governor, acting by King Aretas’ order had men out to arrest me. I escaped by climbing through a window and being let down the wall in a basket. That’s the sort of dignified exit I can boast about.
There is some bitterness in this rhetoric which can only be understood as the result of the sense of insult Paul feels as a result of his visit to Corinth. Apart from his concern for the assembly he feels his role as an emissary of Jesus has been devalued. I guess that some of the Corinthian assembly members were taken aback by his anger, as they may have found themselves between the new emissaries with their different traditions and Paul who had first brought them the good news.The letter is angry but not quite as vehement as his response to the departures from his gospel in Galatia. It would be easy to class Paul as an authoritarian leader who cannot bear contradiction. But we should bear in in mind that because he has established communities without hierarchy and therefore has no “power” to command obedience, his only weapon is the force of his arguments.
Here he talks of “playing the fool”, that is “boasting” of his own achievements, after taking a side-swipe at the “top of the range emissaries” who have (mis)used the Assembly in his view, principally by accepting financial support from them. He gives a rapid CV which provides us with some factual information about him. He mentions his Jewish credits, but then moves quickly to record what he has suffered for the sake of his mission. No one should take the list lightly. He brushes over the 39 lashes, the maximum permitted by Jewish law. Anyone who has seen a flagrum knows it is a formidable implement which would tear skin and muscle from the victim. It was unlikely that 39 lashes would kill you, but it could break your health and spirit. To be beaten with rods was a specifically Roman punishment, whereas stoning was probably the action of an angry mob.Unless Paul is exaggerating, we must conclude that he is fortunate to be alive. Given the frequency of his use of boats it’s not altogether surprising that he had suffered more than one shipwreck; the day in the open sea was probably on a raft or small vessel rather than as a swimmer. For Paul such dangers and suffering constitute his badge of honour. He may have been a vicious persecutor of the Assemblies of Jesus but he has become their most daring servant. Today the churches are advised to watch out for “clerical burn-out”; Paul’s huge and growing pastoral responsibilities would have daunted a lesser person.
I think it’s reasonable to take Paul’s “boasting” as factual. His little vignette of his escape from Damascus is comically vivid rather than heroic, and was doubtless written to create that effect. It also gives a historical reference to King Aretas, which can be used to help date Paul’s life and ministry.
J.B Phillp’s translation which I’m using today does its best to catch Paul’s tone, which hovers between the “you’re forcing me to do this” and his fierce pride in his own ministry. It’s easy to dislike Paul if we misconceive him as an interfering, slightly prudish, authoritarian cleric. On the contrary I think that with his working class origins (leather worker) in the Jewish Diaspora, his intellectual training as a Pharisee, his brutal persecution of the Assemblies, his knowledge of the world and his travels, his ability to meet and influence people of different cultures in very different locales, Paul was a sort of “diamond geezer” in the English phrase, tough, voluble, witty, proud, resourceful and affectionate. Not someone to get on the wrong side of, but a loyal and generous friend.
I’ve tried to convey this admittedly singular view of Paul in my e-book “Paul. An Unauthorised Autobiography” (Kindle)