The following is part of a presentation I gave at Bible Translation 2009, a conference held in Dallas, Texas. My next entry will be the other part of that presentation, on 2 Corinthians. The full paper can be found here.
Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is commonly understood as a love poem, but I believe it to be more of a strong rebuke and summary of their already mentioned shortcomings, especially in regards to spiritual gifts. Most people have probably never thought of chapter 13 as a “summary of shortcomings” but let’s look a little closer at the book and try to see what Paul is doing, through the eyes of the Mixtec language.
The Mixtec language I work with, like many languages of the world, does not have abstract nouns. As a result, the language requires a translation of love in its verb form. The verb love requires a subject, as well as a direct object. Mixtec must state who is loving whom. The translation team at first thought it could be God loving us, but we saw that after saying love is patient, love is kind, the next eight statements say what love is not. So we determined the focus is more on how the Corinthian Christians should love one another. Looking at the immediate context of chapter 12 and 14, as well as the context of the rest of the book led us to conclude that 1 Corinthians 13 is not a love poem, but more of a rebuke to the Corinthians, showing how they were not loving one another. This fresh understanding, to me at least, came as a result of Mixtec requiring us to look at the passage through new eyes. If this chapter is read as a rebuke, and since so many verses in the previous chapters have “rebuke” as the focus, when read in Mixtec, the entire book of I Corinthians sounds very much like a “severe” letter. (2 Cor. 2:4)
As I studied this list of the characteristics of love from the Mixtec language perspective, it brought to my mind previous verses in the book where Paul relates how the Corinthians did almost the opposite of what he is advocating here in chapter 13. I soon found verses stating how the Corinthians were not kind, how they were proud, boastful, envious, rejoiced in evil, etc. I soon developed a devotional to share this new discovery with my Mexico Branch colleagues during chapel times at the linguistic centers in Oaxaca and Tucson. (I think it is important that as translators make such new discoveries, that they share them with others.)
In preparation for this present study, I discovered a book by Michael Gorman called, Cruciformity: Paul’s narrative, Spirituality of the cross, where he has a very similar list. The following is a combination of his list and mine. The underlined words in the verses below either contain the Greek word found in the chapter 13 phrase indicated or a synonym of it (according to Gorman), while verses without underlines reflect a similar thought.
4Love is patient, (makrothumei)
20When you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, 21for as you eat, each of you goes ahead without waiting for anybody else. One remains hungry, another gets drunk. 22Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you for this? Certainly not! 33So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat wait for each other. ―11:20-22, 33
love is kind. (crēsteuetai)
Gorman says there is no direct parallel, but a possible play on words with Christ. I think there are many verses which state how unkind the Corinthians believers could be to one another, such as:
6But instead, one brother goes to law against another―and this in front of unbelievers!
7The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. ―6:6-8
is not envious/jealous, (zēloi)
3You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? ―3:3
15If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. 16And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body. ―12:15-16.
This is the first of quite a few of the characteristics of love in chapter 13 dealing with the misuse of the spiritual gifts. God gave these gifts to mature and edify the believers, but, on the contrary, they began getting either proud or, as stated here, envious of the gifts they didn’t have. The attitude seems to be, “Too bad God didn’t make me to be a head or to be an ear. Those would have been much better gifts than the gift I have now.”
is not boastful, (perpereuetai)
29so that no one may boast before him. 30It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God–that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.” ―1:29-31 ((kauchēsētai)
“The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile.” 21So then, no more boasting about men! All things are yours…. ―3:20-21 (kauchasthō)
What do you have that you did not receive? And if you did receive it, why do you boast as though you did not? ―4:7
6Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? ―5:6
In relationship to the gifts, a common attitude seemed to be: “My gift’s better than your gift,” from verses we find in both chapters 12 & 14.
it is not proud/arrogant. (phusioutai)
6Now, brothers, I have applied these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, so that you may learn from us the meaning of the saying, “Do not go beyond what is written.” Then you will not take pride in one man over against another. 18Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. 19But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, ―4:6, 18,19
1It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. 2And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? ―5:1-2
1Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. ―8:1
5It is not rude, (ouk aschēmonei)
20As it is, there are many parts, but one body. 21The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” ―12:20-21
It does not insist on its own way, (ou zētei ta heautēs)
24Don’t seek out trying to live well yourselves, instead seek out that others live well. ―10:24 (heautou)
31So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. 32Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God– 33even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved. ―10:31-33
The main teaching of both chapters 8 and 10 deals with meat sacrificed to idols, and how, though they may have had the “right” to eat such meat, they must give up this right since it may cause a weaker Christian to fall into sin. By doing this they would show love for others. By insisting on their own way, they were not showing love toward their brothers and sisters.
it is not irritable, (paroxunetai)
3You are still worldly. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not worldly? Are you not acting like mere men? ―3:3 (Gorman says it could refer to divisions and rivalries)
it keeps no record of wrongs/is not resentful. (ou logizetai to kakon)
5Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God. ―4:5 (Gorman says it could possibly refer to lawsuits)
6Love does not delight in evil/rejoice in wrongdoing, (ou chairei epi tē adikia)
7The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? 8Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers. 9Do you not know that the wicked/wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? ―6:7-9b
A man has his father’s wife. 2And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? ―5:1b-2
What others are saying
The vast majority of commentaries, especially older ones, and most sermons do not take this view of what Paul is doing in 1 Corinthians 13. However, after some research I did find a few statements which confirmed that at least some others share this view of chapter 13. William D. [Bill] Mounce, who served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, wrote the following as he was sharing about the work his committee did on chapter 13: “I can hear Paul punctuate his words as they are being written down. Good grief, Corinthians. Love is patient. It is kind. Do you know anything about love? You are full of envy and boasting and arrogance and rudeness. You know nothing of love; all you know is self-serving resentment that works against the true meaning of love when you rejoice in wrongdoing. You think you are so important, but all the gifts you treasure will one day be gone, and you will be left with nothing because you have neither faith, hope, or love. Poetry? I don’t think so. Rhetoric? Powerful condemnation appropriate to a people who rejoice in their acceptance of the worse kinds of sexual immorality? Yes. I am glad that 1 Cor 13 was not read at my wedding. I am sorry that translations treat apostolic condemnation as pretty words.”
I want to emphasis again that the idea is not that we shouldn’t apply these verses to our own lives, as well as the lives of others. The point here is to discover what is Paul’s purpose, in the context, for writing the way he did, and how does that affect our understanding, not only of this chapter, but of the book as a whole.
John MacArthur, in his messages on Speaking in Tongues, The Permanence of Love–Part 1, gives this list of sins Paul has referred to in the book leading up to chapter 13: “…the Christians there resented each other, argued with each other, and shut each other out from their private little groups. They sexually violated each other, sued each other, boasted against each other, deprived each other in marriage, divorced each other, perverted the proper place of women within the church meeting, withheld food from the poor at the love feast, turned the Lord’s Table into a drunken orgy, offended each other, and fought each other for prominence in the use of their spiritual gifts.”
The issue as to whether 1 Corinthians is the “severe letter”, which used to be the prevailing view, is now rejected by most contemporary scholars because, as the Word Biblical Commentary notes on pg. xlvii, “Paul’s language describing his state of mind while writing it (2 Cor 2:4) is thought to be extravagant if 1 Corinthians is in his mind.” But looking at MacArthur’s list, and taking into account that chapter 13 can be considered apostolic condemnation, as well as chapters 12 & 14, I think this is further evidence that 1 Corinthians is the “severe letter”.
Gorman’s comments on chapter 13 summarize what I am advocating: “verses 4-8a provide a kind of “anti-description” of the Corinthians.” “As a corrective device, the text urges the Corinthians to reshape their communal narrative….” “…despite English translations and usage, Paul uses not a single adjective in his description of love; all the “characteristics of love” are expressed as verbs.”
Even if one may think that Mounce goes a little overboard in calling chapter 13 “apostolic condemnation”, it seems pretty clear that, at the very least Paul is unhappy with the Corinthians and what he writes here is “corrective”, as Gorman states. Earlier commentators even suggested that Paul wrote chapter 13 at some other time, and just kind of “stuck” it here. But chapter 13 is an integral part of the arguments of chapters 12 and 14, as well, as I advocate, of the book as a whole.
Here is the link to my YouTube video of this post: 1 Cor. 13
Gorman, Michael. 2001. Cruciformity: Paul’s narrative, Spirituality of the cross. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
MacArthur, John. Speaking in Tongues, The Permanence of Love–Part 1, as found at: http://www.biblebb.com/files/MAC/sg1868.htm