Sunday, November 16, 2014

2 Corinthians 11-12: Is it pure sarcasm?

In 2 Corinthians 11v24-27 Paul gives a very potted autobiography of his life (NASB):
"Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure." 
I have never heard anyone suggest that these verses are anything other than Paul giving brief but true account of his missionary life. Well, I had never heard anyone suggest otherwise until I read "Profit with Delight" a few weeks ago (see my previous post). In an offhand comment in that book, Richard Pervo asserts that Paul was talking sarcastically here and giving an extremely exaggerated, if not entirely fictitious autobiography here. Pervo implies that the author of Acts took these comments as true and based several incidents in Acts on these comments, but that Paul did not intend these to be taken seriously.

On re-reading the passage in 2 Corinthians 11 and 12, I think I see what Pervo is getting at and I'm amazed that I've never seen this before or heard or read anyone discussing this issue before. Let's think about the context.

Paul is comparing and contrasting himself to the "super apostles" (NIV) or "most eminent apostles" (NASB) or "great apostles" (NCV). From context it is clear that various stories about these 'super' apostles are circulating and some of the stories make the apostles out to be more than mere men. They are portrayed as super-heroes, doing amazing deeds and enduring amazing persecutions, etc. Reading between the lines here it is also apparent that no such stories are circulating about Paul, so he comes out of all the gossip looking like an inferior apostle. What he says in these chapters is to set the record straight and put himself on an equal footing with these "super apostles" - if he can't bring them down to his level (reality) he's going to need to boost himself up to their level!

Look at the language he uses:
"I wish that you would bear with me in a little foolishness; but indeed you are bearing with me." 
2 Cor 11v1 - he starts out here admitting that his readers will have to bear with him while he indulges in "a little foolishness". What foolishness? Well in the verses that follow he starts boasting about all he has done for the Corinthian Church. He boasts about how he was not a burden and how he is not inferior to the super apostles. The foolishness is the boasting. There is nothing amazing in here, all this reads like fairly reasonable and unremarkable events are being described. He lives, works and preaches. Nothing much to boast about, but he has dropped humility and considers this foolishness.

In the midst of all this foolish boasting he says a few very cutting things about the super apostles - that they are false apostles, deceitful workers and servants of Satan (2 Cor 11v13-15).

So when Paul is talking foolishly, he does normal things that he boasts about and the super apostles are knocked off their pedestals.

But he doesn't stop there... he goes beyond foolishness and into the realms of the "insane"  (2 Cor 11v23). It is in the context of speaking as one who is insane that he gives the biography that includes beatings, floggings, shipwrecks, starvation, etc. In other words, Paul himself says that only an insane person would claim that all these things happened to him! In other words, Paul is saying these things did not happen to him. He is fabricating a super-biography to make stories about himself equal to the stories about the super-apostles. But these are the words of someone who is insane, and by implication he is saying that these things did not happen to any of the super apostles either.

Wait a minute! The implications of this are that 2 Corinthians shows that the amazing stories about Paul in Acts are complete fiction! Scripture is disproving scripture!

But Paul doesn't stop there... he drops back from insanity into boasting and recounts the story of when he was lowered in a basket over the city walls in Damascus (2 Cor 11v32-33). So maybe this is the only 'amazing' story in this biography which is not insane - maybe the rest was made up, but this was true? Maybe.

But having said this, he doesn't stop there... he "goes on" (beyond boasting?) to "visions and revelations of the Lord." Are these mere boasting or are we back in the realms of insanity again? Is the famous vision of the "third heaven" (2 Cor 12v1-6) boasting or insanity talking? We can't tell. And given that, given the context, we must consider this claim of a vision to be suspect. Maybe Paul is saying that this kind of vision is the sort of thing claimed about the super apostles. Maybe not.

Putting the stories of Acts to one side for a moment, and merely considering the passage in 2 Corinthians, it seems reasonable, if not entirely likely, that the 'insane' passage is not biographical, and that any stories like this which are told about Paul or any other apostle, must be considered to be exaggerated gossip, at best, or pure fiction, at worst. So any such stories we read (such as Acts, and the various non-canonical apocryphal Acts books) must be considered with a pinch of salt.

When Paul boasts, he boasts in the mundane. Clearly his own biography actually was mundane, characterised by ordinary preaching and teaching, without miracles, signs and wonders. Everything else is was made up by his biographers to make him into a 'Super Apostle'...

1 comment:

Toto said...

Check out 'Paul, the Fool of Christ: A Study of 1 Corinthians 1-4 in the Comic-Philosophic Tradition' by LL Welborn, or if you can find it, his earlier article titled 'Runaway Paul.' Welborn traces every element of this passage and more to the conventions of the Greco-Roman popular theater, which often involved a boasting 'fool.' The likelihood that any of this is based on something that happened to Paul is close to zero.