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.

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