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The IVP New Testament Commentary Series – Paul's Reasons for Playing the Fool (11:1-5)
Paul's Reasons for Playing the Fool (11:1-5)

There is a wistful edge to Paul's tone in these opening verses: I hope you will put up with a little of my foolishness (v. 1). The NIV does not quite catch the sense. The particle ophelon introduces an unattainable or highly improbable wish: "Oh that you would put up with me." Paul sets out to boast with the hope, however remote, of gaining a respectable hearing. To do so, though, is foolishness—a term denoting that which is in the realm of human folly or irrationality. What Paul is about to do is sheer nonsense in his eyes. But he is willing to do whatever it takes to forestall disaster at Corinth. The force of the second half of verse 1 is difficult to determine. It could be read either as an imperative—"do bear with me" (KJV, LB, RSV, TEV, NEB, Phillips)—or as an indicative—but you are already [bearing with me] (NIV, JB). The former actually provides the better connection. It is easy to see how an opening wish for their indulgence could move quickly to an entreaty: "Please bear with me" (REB).

The reasons for indulging him are three: first, Paul's divine jealousy for the Corinthians' purity; second, their willingness to put up with an aberrant message; and third, because he is in no way inferior to his rivals. I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy, Paul states (v. 2). Earlier Paul used the term zelos of the Corinthians' "zeal" on his behalf (7:7, 11). But here it more likely means "jealousy"—yet of the divine sort rather than what we commonly think of as a human failing. The word denotes an intense concern for a person's honor or reputation. God's jealousy for Israel's reputation among the nations is a good example (e.g., Ex 20:5; Is 26:11; 42:13-17). Paul's jealousy stems from the fact that he promised the Corinthians to one husband, to Christ . . . as a pure virgin (v. 2). In ancient Near Eastern culture, parents typically chose a wife for their son and arranged for the marriage by legal contract. It was then the responsibility of the father of the bride-to-be to ensure his daughter's virginity during the betrothal period. Betrothal was considered almost as binding as marriage itself. The betrothed couple addressed each other as "wife" and "husband" (Deut 22:23-24; Joel 1:8), and sexual faithfulness was expected. To this end, a bloodstained cloth was exhibited as proof of virginity on the wedding night (Wright 1982:743-44).

Israel as the betrothed of Yahweh is a familiar theme in the Old Testament (Is 54:5; 62:5; Ezek 16:9-22; 23:27; Hos 2:16-20). In the New Testament the bride-to-be is the church and the groom is Christ. As church founder, Paul pictures himself as the Corinthians' spiritual father, whose responsibility it is to ensure their faithfulness between birth (betrothal) and Christ's return (consummation), when the church will be presented as a pure virgin to her groom. But something now threatens to rob the Corinthians of their purity. Other suitors are on the scene, seeking to lure them away from fidelity to their betrothed. Paul's fear that their minds may somehow be led astray is well founded. The form of the conditional at verse 4 connotes fact (ei + indicative). Someone has come to Corinth and is successfully depriving Christ of a loyalty that is rightfully his. It is likely that only a small number have become prey to the intruders' ploys at the time Paul writes. But there is the real danger that the church as a whole may be carried along, as Paul's use of the second-person plural pronoun makes clear (hymon, v. 3).

The Genesis 3 account of how the serpent deceived Eve into eating the forbidden fruit serves as a ready illustration of what Paul fears is going on at Corinth: just as Eve was deceived by the serpent's cunning. Deceived translates a compound verb that has the intensified meaning "thoroughly" or "utterly deceived" (exhpatesen). Eve's thorough deception is attributed to the serpent's cunning. The basic meaning of the noun panourgia is "capable of all work" (pan + ergon). In the New Testament it refers to someone who uses his ability unscrupulously and resorts to trickery and slyness.

In the case of the Corinthians, the deception is of a corrupting kind. The NIV and RSV's led astray is not really the sense. The verb phtheiro means "to destroy," "to seduce" or "to ruin." A corrupting influence that leads to intellectual and spiritual ruin is most likely the idea (Martin 1986:333). Some think that Paul is drawing on a current Jewish legend that Satan had sexually seduced Eve (as in 2 Enoch 31:6). But the focus in these verses is on a seducing of the mind (ta noemata), not a corrupting of the will. Paul's fear is that as Eve was led astray by the cunning argumentation of the serpent, the minds of his converts may be similarly seduced by the trickery of his rivals.

The intruders' goal is to divert the Corinthians from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ (v. 3). The Greek is literally "a whole-heartedness toward Christ" (apo tes haplotetos tes eis ton Christon; compare 1:12; 8:2, 9-11, 13). Haplotes ("sincere") in the New Testament denotes personal wholeness or undividedness. As the bride-to-be is wholly focused on her intended spouse, so the church is to be wholly undivided in its devotion to Christ. If kai tes hagnotetos (set off by square brackets in the Greek text) is part of the original text, then the church's devotion is to be marked not only by undividedness but also by "purity." Paul used the noun earlier of the moral blamelessness that is to characterize the life of the gospel preacher (6:6). Here it most likely signifies the kind of circumspect or chaste behavior that is to mark the life of the church.

A second reason for Paul to play the fool is the Corinthians' willingness to put up with rivals who present a different message: If someone comes to you and preaches a Jesus other than the Jesus we preached, or if you receive a different spirit from the one you received, or a different gospel from the one you accepted, you put up with it easily enough (v. 4). That Paul is dealing with a concrete situation and not just a hypothetical possibility is indicated by the form of the conditional (ei + the indicative). Comes to you suggests outsiders rather than opponents within the Corinthian congregation itself. Whether the singular (someone) points to the group's ringleader (Martin 1986:335) or is a generic reference to the group as a whole (Furnish 1984:448) is debated. The fact that Paul speaks of his opponent as "they" before and after verse 4 makes the latter the likely option. It is clear that the intruders came to Corinth of their own accord, rather than being sent at another church's behest. And they preached a message that the church has readily received: "you welcome it with open arms!" (JB). Unfortunately, it is not the message Paul had preached to them. Herein lies the difficulty. There is something defective about their preaching—so much so that Paul labels it different (allon) and "strange" (heteron; v. 4).

Verse 4 is one of the most scrutinized verses in the whole of chapters 10—13. In large part this is due to its perceived importance in identifying the Corinthian intruders and their teaching. In reality, though, the clues are few in number, and the terse "another Jesus/spirit/gospel" does not offer much help. Nonetheless, the triad is disturbing. As is typical of much false teaching in the church down through the centuries, the language of Paul's rivals has a very familiar ring to it. Yet what they mean by Jesus, spirit and gospel is so radically opposite to what Paul preached that nothing will do but to call it a different message.

What the intruders' preaching amounted to is difficult to assess. "Another Jesus" has commonly been understood to refer to Jesus either as a Hellenistic wonderoorker (along the lines of the Greco-Roman "divine-man") or as a Jew who modeled obedience to the Mosaic law. It is hard to know whether by a different spirit Paul meant a human attitude (NIV, JB, Phillips, RSV) or the Holy Spirit (TEV, NEB). If the former, a spirit of legalism or an attitude of false spirituality could be the idea. A lifestyle antithetical to the gospel and someone's having fallen under the influence of evil spirits are also possibilities. From its position between Jesus and gospel, it seems probable, though, that pneuma denotes the Holy Spirit.

But in what sense was Paul's rivals' preaching different? Did they overemphasize their capacity for visionary and ecstatic experiences? Or did they lay claim to authoritative prophetic utterances, tongues, special revelations and the like? A different gospel sounds very much like the language Paul uses to describe the preaching of the Judaizers in his letter to the Galatian churches (compare "Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved"—Acts 15:1). Yet the topic of circumcision and law-obedience is strangely absent from 2 Corinthians. So we do well to look elsewhere for an explanation of Paul's language.

This bewildering array of possibilities points up the difficulties inherent in a reconstruction process such as this. Several of Paul's remarks in chapters 10—12 do, however, offer some helpful guidelines. Are they Hebrews? Are they Israelites? (11:22) shows that the intruders are Jewish; but the lack of references to circumcision and the Mosaic law indicates something other than a Judaizing opponent (see above). The absence of theological argumentation suggests that doctrinal orthodoxy is not at stake. Indeed, most of Paul's efforts in 10:7—12:13 are spent combating the assertion that he possessed inferior credentials, not that he (or anyone else) preached an inferior gospel. It is also clear from the context that these intruders put great stock in things like an outward show of the Spirit, oratorical ability and heritage. "Signs, wonders and miracles" are "things that mark an apostle" (12:12). "Visions and revelations" are grounds for boasting (12:1). Eloquent speech (10:10; 11:6) and the proper heritage (11:22) are sources of pride. This fits with the epithet super-apostles (v. 5) and the portrayal of the intruders in chapters 1—7 as those who seek to legitimize their authority through letters of recommendation and who take pride in what is seen rather than in what is in the heart (5:12).

Putting all of this together, it is a reasonable conjecture that Paul's rivals were Palestinian Jews who, claiming the backing of the Jerusalem church, came to Corinth carrying letters of reference and sporting an impressive array of credentials (such as visions, ecstatic experiences and revelations). They sought to sway their audience through polished delivery and powerful oratory. They combined this with an outward show of the Spirit, appealing to the prominent role of the miraculous in Jesus' ministry. The intruders' focus on the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, compelling rhetoric and Jesus the wonderoorker may well be what Paul cryptically refers to as "another Jesus/Spirit/gospel." If so, their approach is not much different from what we call "power evangelism" today.

This raises the question of what constitutes a proper manifestation of the Spirit in the gospel ministry. To be sure, there is a place in preaching the gospel for persuasion and the working of "signs, wonders and miracles." Paul himself sought to reason with his listeners (Acts 9:29; 18:4). And he did preach a word accompanied by power, conviction and the Spirit (Rom 15:19; 1 Cor 2:4; 2 Cor 12:12; Gal 3:5; 1 Thess 1:5). But the role of the miraculous was to validate, not displace, the gospel; and persuasion functioned to convince that "the Christ had to suffer and rise from the dead" (Acts 17:2-3).

It is all too easy for an audience to fasten on an outward show and miss the intended message. This is why Paul concentrated on preaching "Christ and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). By focusing attention on what he was saying and not on how he said it, Paul prevented his listeners from getting distracted from the truly important.

William Barclay tells the story of a group of people at a dinner party who agreed that each should recite something after the meal. A well-known actor rose and, with all the resources of elocution and dramatic art, recited the Twenty-third Psalm. He sat down to tremendous applause. A quiet man followed him with his own recitation of this psalm. At first there were a few snickers. But by the time he had ended, his hearers had fallen into a stillness that was more eloquent than any applause. When he sat down, the actor leaned across the table and said, "Sir, I know the psalm, but you know the shepherd" (Barclay 1954:247). Similarly, Paul's opponents may have spoken with great skill and ability, but Paul preached from personal conviction. He knew the real Christ.

A third and final reason for Paul's playing the fool is the fact that he does not think himself in the least inferior to these super-apostles (v. 5). Think translates a term that means "to draw a logical conclusion" from a given set of facts (logizomai; Eichler 1978:822-23). A candid appraisal of Paul's credentials shows that he measures up at least as well as his rivals. Paul does not say that he is superior to these super-apostles—merely that he does not fall below them (hysterhkenai).

The mention of "super-apostles" is intriguing. The phrase appears nowhere else in the New Testament. To whom is Paul referring? Some think that it can scarcely be other than the Jerusalem apostles, whose authority the Corinthian intruders invoked. Would this then be Paul's own sarcastic description of their exalted view of the apostles? Or is he merely quoting the intruders'—or even the Corinthians'—estimate of the Twelve? Alternatively, "super-apostles" could be the intruders' own exaggerated appraisal of themselves—or even the opinion of the Corinthian church itself (McClelland 1982:84). On the whole, the latter seems preferable. Elsewhere Paul is careful to support and show respect for the Twelve, while further on he does not think toice about calling the intruders deceitful workers (v. 13) and servants of Satan (v. 15).

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