Sunday, June 23, 2013

Christ Crucified: A Counter-Cultural Concept

In 1 Cor 1:22 Paul summarizes what the people of his day were basically looking for in the realm of religion and philosophy. According to Paul, the Jews as a whole were into miraculous signs. They wanted God to do something spectacular, like what God had done to Pharaoh at the time of the exodus. They wanted God to act to save his people from the oppression of their enemies, and they understood that this required the exercise of powerful miracles. The Greeks, on the other hand, were into philosophy. They were lovers of wisdom. They had their schools of philosophy and rhetoric. They had their centers of learning and science.

But countering the Jewish desire for power and the Greek desire for wisdom, God deliberately did something incredible from the cultural perspective of both Jews and Greeks: God came into the world in human form as the Christ, only to be nailed to a cross. At the heart of the gospel stands Christ crucified. And this is the message that Paul and the apostles proclaimed: God incarnate was nailed to a Roman cross.

As an idea, this was literally incredible to most Jews and Greeks. To the Jews who wanted miraculous signs of God’s power to save, a crucified messiah was no better than a dead dog. A crucified messiah is both useless as well as scandalous. So scandalous in fact that the majority of the Jews of Paul’s day simply could not accept the idea. The idea of a crucified messiah was a stumbling block to them (1 Cor 1:23). And to the Greeks who were into wisdom, the story of a god (who is supposed to be the one true God) dying on a cross was pure foolishness (1 Cor 1:23). Do you Christians really believe that stuff? Do you really believe that the one true God came into the world in order to be crucified? What an absurd philosophy!

But to those whom God has called, to those whose eyes God has opened to understand the truth, whether Jewish or Greek, or whatever nationality, Christ crucified is indeed God’s power and wisdom (1 Cor 1:24). The Jews were looking for power; the Greeks for wisdom. But they were looking for these things in all the wrong places. The cross is where they should have been looking, for Christ crucified is the answer. In Christ crucified, we have God’s power and God’s wisdom on display.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

“Where Is the Scribe”: Affirming the Traditional Translation of 1 Corinthians 1:20

The second clause in 1 Cor 1:20 ποῦ γραμματεύς has traditionally been translated where is the scribe, although the 1984 NIV translates it as where is the scholar. The word γραμματεύς is best translated as scribe or clerk. In Greek and Roman society, the γραμματεύς was usually a town clerk or a parliamentary clerk; but in Jewish society, the scribes had a higher status. The Jewish scribes were men who specialized in copying and studying and interpreting the Bible. The scribes were the PhDs of Jewish scholarship. They represented the upper echelon of Jewish learning.

Translating ποῦ γραμματεύς as where is the scribe rather than where is the scholar is definitely the better translation. The word scholar in English is an ethnically neutral term, whereas Paul probably had in mind at this point the Jewish scribes. This is brought out clearly in the 2011 NIV translation, which renders ποῦ γραμματεύς as where is the teacher of the law.

The context helps to confirm that Paul most likely had the Jewish scribes in mind when using the word γραμματεύς in 1 Cor 1:20. In 1 Cor 1:22–24, Paul mentions Jews and Greeks (v. 22), Jews and Gentiles (v. 23), and then Jews and Greeks again (v. 24). He definitely has a concern in the immediate context with both Jews and Greeks.

Greek culture and Jewish culture were the two main cultures of the Christian world in Paul’s day, and he is concerned in 1 Cor 1:18–31 to challenge the wisdom of both of these cultures. The question ποῦ σοφός where is the wise man is best taken as being a challenge to the wisdom of the Greek philosophers. If σοφός refers to the Greek philosophers, then it is natural in the context to take γραμματεύς as referring to the Jewish scribes. Just as ποῦ σοφός challenges the wisdom of the Greek philosophers, the question ποῦ γραμματεύς where is the scribe challenges the wisdom of the Jewish scribes, the teachers of Jewish torah wisdom. In Paul’s understanding, the divine wisdom revealed in the gospel of Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2) stands in opposition to the traditional wisdom of Jew and Greek alike.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Divine Wisdom in the Absurdity of the Cross

To some people Christianity comes across as being a religion that is just plain ridiculous. For example, the famous agnostic scientist, Richard Dawkins, was interviewed on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Q&A program (9 April 2012), ridiculing the concept of the Son of God dying on a cross:

“the idea that … the only way we can be redeemed from sin is through the death of Jesus … that’s a horrible idea. It’s a horrible idea that God, this paragon of wisdom and knowledge, power, couldn’t think of a better way to forgive us our sins than to come down to earth in his alter-ego as his Son and have himself hideously tortured and executed so that he could forgive.”
For Richard Dawkins, the idea of the Son of God dying on the cross is simply absurd.

Christians should not be surprised to find people ridiculing their religion. As Paul says in 1 Cor 1:18: “the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing.” To most of the world who do not know God, the gospel, the message of Jesus going to the cross, does not make sense. “You Christians are saying that some Jewish man who was executed on a cross by the Romans some two thousand years ago is your God? Really? And what other fairy stories do you believe?”

The word of the cross might be foolishness to those who are perishing, “but to those who are being saved, to us [the word of the cross] is the power of God” (1 Cor 1:18). The gospel is the key means by which God’s power can be communicated to us human beings. The power of God that brings salvation to the world is Jesus, and people can encounter Jesus in the world today primarily through the message of the Christian gospel.

But why the cross? As Richard Dawkins suggests, it does seem such a far-fetched kind of story: God, who made this universe, coming down at a certain point in human history to get beaten, whipped, spat upon, and nailed to a wooden cross. Why has God chosen to do this?

Paul’s slightly modified quotation of Isa 29:14 in 1 Cor 1:19 identifies a key reason for the idea of the Son of God dying on a cross. Through the strange but wondrous event of the cross, God is destroying the wisdom of the wise, and the intelligence of the intelligent.

Applying Paul’s teaching to people like Richard Dawkins, we can acknowledge that Dawkins is an intelligent man in terms of human knowledge; but all his intelligence and understanding, and all of his study and degrees, become foolishness when they are used to scorn the cross of Christ.

It is important to see science and other forms of human knowledge for what they are. The origin of the word science can help us in this regard. The word science comes from the Latin word scientia, which means knowledge. Science is simply human knowledge, and all human knowledge has limitations. Despite this, the history of the Western world over the last 150 years has seen the word of God replaced with human opinion. The human brain has been set up in place of the Bible. This is why the message of the cross is absurd to the majority of people in the Western world today. The fount of knowledge is no longer the church but the laboratory.

We humans might smugly think that we know a lot—the advances in science and technology since the beginning of the twentieth century have certainly been amazing—but our knowledge can never compare with the knowledge and wisdom of the God who created and controls the universe. God knows the limitations of human thinking, and he sees our arrogance when we act as if our knowledge were unlimited or necessarily correct.

In 1 Cor 1:21, Paul teaches, in effect, that God has deliberately designed the gospel to look somewhat absurd and incredible in order to render foolish the wisdom of the wise. The gospel does sound kind of foolish: the God of universe allowing himself to be picked on by Jews and crucified by Romans. It is truly a rather weird idea; but, according to Paul, God is using the weirdness of the idea that God gave up everything and died on a cross, to prove his wisdom in comparison to human foolishness.

God decided to come into the world to die, in order to prove his wisdom and power. When a man dies, he is dead. A dead man is effectively useless and of no real value. Getting one’s self killed is ordinarily the opposite of what the wisdom of the world is used for. Wisdom and knowledge are typically used in order to keep one’s self alive for the purpose of experiencing some form of happiness or prosperity. Jesus’ death on the cross challenges this belief. Furthermore, the significance of the cross is that death by crucifixion was considered to be the most painful and shameful form of official capital punishment used by the Romans at the time.

What good is a shamefully dead god? The gospel is absurd to the world. But because the human race has used its wisdom to deny God, God in his wisdom has been pleased to turn the tables, and to show up the absurdity of human wisdom. God incarnate was dead, yes; but only for a time. Christ’s death paved the way for his resurrection. Because of Christ’s resurrection, the foolishness of God is wiser than any human wisdom, and the weakness of God stronger than any human strength.