Paul receives word that the church he founded in Corinth is experiencing internal division (I Corinthians 1:10-12). Corinth was a cosmopolitan city replete with cultural diversity, a fact which may have been a contributing factor to the conflict within the church. After urging unity (I Corinthians 1:12-17), the apostle reminds the congregation of their compelling commonality (I Corinthians 1:18-2:5). The church faces enough opposition from the outside without generating more from within.
Paul generalizes the protests of the outsiders: Jews seek signs while Greeks pursue wisdom (I Corinthians 1:22). In contrast, Paul summarizes his own preaching:
But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, (I Corinthians 1:23 NASB)The apostle reduces his message to two words: “Christ crucified” (I Corinthians 1:23, 2:2). Typically, the cross and resurrection are uttered in the same breath but here Paul does not mitigate the scandal of the cross by remembering how it was eventually overcome (I Corinthians 1:23). Unappealing though it may be, “Christ crucified” is Paul’s bumper sticker theology.
Paul uses the plural in conjunction with his preaching: “we preach” (I Corinthians 1:23). While this pronoun contrasts nicely with the opposing groups he mentions, it is difficult to determine who it includes.
Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (b. 1935) acknowledges:
The most difficult instances of the first person plural to classify are those in I Corinthians 1:18-31 and I Corinthians 2:6-16. The commentators who take up the challenge are few and far between. C.K. Barrett [1917-2011] ignores the problem in I Corinthians 2:6-16 and without explanation interprets I Corinthians 1:23 as ‘we Christians preach.’ Gordon D. Fee [b. 1934], on the other hand, remarks apropos of this latter text, ‘how natural it is for Paul to slip into this usage; note also that it tends to happen in such places as this, where Paul would be concerned to imply that such preaching is not unique to himself.’ The contradiction betrays the speculative character of both hypotheses. Moreover, the nature of Paul’s evocation of all believers through the use of ‘we’...is markedly different to what appears here, and there is reason to think that Paul was in fact unique in his consistent stress on the brutal modality of Christ’s death. (Murphy-O’Connor, Keys to First Corinthians: Revisiting the Major Issues, 5)The only person that can be definitively encompassed in“we” is the apostle himself.
Paul insists that he (and whoever else is echoing his preaching) is merely passing along the message of “Christ crucified”. Leon Morris (1914-2006) comments:
The verb preach (kēryssō) is that appropriate to the action of a herald. The message came from God, not the preacher. In this sense it is a peculiarly Christian term. It is used little, if at all, in this way in the classics, in the Septuagint, or in current religious systems like the mystery religions (see Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, iii, pp. 697-700). (Morris, 1 Corinthians (Tyndale New Testament Commentaries), 45-46)Paul earlier confesses: “For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, not in cleverness of speech, so that the cross of Christ would not be made void” (I Corinthians 1:17 NASB). N.T. Wright (b. 1948) characterizes:
When he [Paul] announced it, when he stood up in the synagogue or the market-place or the debating-chamber, he didn’t use clever words to trick people into thinking they believed it because they enjoyed his speaking style. Now, writing this letter, looking back on his initial announcement, he can for a moment spin some good sentences together, to tease them into seeing the point. But he didn’t do that when making the original proclamation. The cross had to do its own work. Simply telling the story released a power of quite a different sort from any power that human speech could have: God’s power, beside which all human power looks weak; God’s wisdom beside which all human learning looks like folly. (Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians, 13)Paul’s unrefined message is “Christ crucified” (I Corinthians 1:23). Significantly, the apostle utilizes the perfect tense when discussing the crucifixion. Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) identifies:
Paul writes Christon estaurōmenon, using the perfect passive participle of stauroō, “fasten to a cross” (BDAG, 941), a verb that was used by Greek historians and others who mention crucifixion (Polybius [200-118 BCE], Histories 1.86.4; Diodorus Siculus [90-30 BCE], Bibliotheca Historica 16.61.2; Epictetus [55-135], Discourses; Josephus [37-100], Antiquities 2.5.4 §77, 17.10.10 §295; cf. Septuaguint Esther 1:9, 8:12r. (Fitzmyer, First Corinthians (Anchor Bible), 159)Roy E. Ciampa (b. 1958) and Brian S. Rosner (b. 1959) disclose:
The perfect participle ἐσταυριομένον is employed to describe Christ as crucified, which is the content of Paul’s message. The perfect is used to describe Christ in his present (even resurrected) state as one who has undergone crucifixion (cf. John 20:25-27). Paul stresses the crucified nature of his subject. It is Christ crucified that Paul preaches. “Christ” is anarthrous in the Greek and can be translated “a Christ crucified” (Revised Version margin) or, better, “a crucified Christ” (New Jerusalem Bible). In I Corinthians 15:11-12 Paul declares Christ raised from the dead to be the object of his proclamation. Obviously, “Christ” is what Paul preaches, but here in I Corinthians 1 he emphasizes the central element of his message most opposed to “the wisdom of the world.” (Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 99)The perfect tense accentuates the notion that crucifixion is something that an individual’s reputation cannot overcome: Once crucified, always crucified. As evidenced by Christianity’s early critics, the cross is a stain that cannot be removed. Jesus forever remains the crucified one.
Robert E. Picirilli (b. 1932) explains:
The verb (Greek perfect tense) suggests both the past act of crucifixion and the fixed results of that act that are always present: Christ was crucified, and the achievement stands, always available for application. “It is finished.” [John 19:30] That is the way Christ is proclaimed in the gospel, and that is the heart of the gospel. (Picirilli, 1, 2 Corinthians (Randall House Bible Commnetary, 23)Bruce N. Fisk (b. 1959) applies:
Followers of Jesus can never move beyond the cross. Unlike some children’s story that holds our affection for a brief time, the cross is neither preliminary nor elementary. On the contrary, the startling claim of the gospel is that the death of Jesus stands at the center of human history. Perhaps this is why the cross proved to be such an obstacle for both the Corinthian elite and for Paul’s Jewish kin as well...Stubbornly Paul insists on summing up his message with two simple words: Christ crucified (I Corinthians 1:23, 2:2). (Fisk, First Corinthians (Interpretation Bible Studies), 10-11)In this time of division, Paul offers a refresher course in the basics. Christ crucified is not an insignificant fragment of Paul’s ideology; it represents the substance of his theology. It is the gospel in a nutshell.
Alan F. Johnson (b. 1933) affirms:
This is the heart of Paul’s message and his whole understanding of God’s matchless wisdom. All else follows from this central core; without it, all else is a rabbit trail that leads nowhere, a powerless gospel. (Johnson, 1 Corinthians (IVP New Testament Commentary), 58)Richard A. Horsley (b. 1939) determines:
Of Paul’s fifteen references to the cross or Christ crucified, six come in this passage [I Corinthians 1:18-25], with another six grouped in Galatians. It would appear that Paul mentions the cross or Christ crucified when he feels some threat to the implications of his gospel for the current life of the communities he has founded: these are found only in Galatians (Galatians 3:1, 5:11, 24, 6:12, 14) against the threat he feels from “Judaizers”; briefly in Philippians 3:18; and here in I Corinthians (I Corinthians 1:13, 17, 18, 23, 2:2, 8; with II Corinthians 13:4 probably derivative). Paul focuses on the cross in this context because he finds the sophia of some of the Corinthians to be a serious threat to the community. (Horsley, 1 Corinthians (Abingdon New Testament Commentaries), 48)Charles H. Talbert (b. 1934) pinpoints:
In this self-contained unit [I Corinthians 1:17-2:5] Paul tells what he preached at Corinth, how he did it, and why he preached as he did. At the center of the chiasmus is what he preached: Christ crucified (I Corinthians 1:23a). Judging from the context, the cross here does not refer to the death of Jesus as a sacrifice for sins (as in Romans 3:25-26), as a victory over the evil powers (as in Colossians 2:15), or as a revelation of God’s love (as in Romans 5:8), but rather to Jesus’ death to sin (as in Romans 6:10; he died rather than sin), in which believers are called to participate (e.g., Romans 6:3, 6-7, 10-11; Galatians 2:10). (Talbert, Reading Corinthians: A Literary and Theological Commentary, 17)Jesus is the Christ and, for Paul, this status is directly linked to the mode of his death. Christopher Tuckett (b. 1948) observes:
One striking group of texts in Paul relates Jesus’ identity as the Christ to his death on the cross. Thus Paul talks very regularly of ‘Christ crucified’ (I Corinthians 1:23, 2:2; Galatians 3:1) or the ‘cross of Christ’ (I Corinthians 1:17; Philippians 3:18). He never talks about the ‘crucified Lord’ or ‘the Lord who was crucified’. The exact link between crucifixion and messiahship is not certain, and Paul certainly never spells it out. (Tuckett, Christology and the New Testament: Jesus and His Earliest Followers, 47)Bart D. Ehrman (b. 1955) contends:
For Paul, Jesus actually was the messiah, not despite the fact that he was crucified but precisely because he was crucified. He bore the curse of the Law (since he was hanged on a tree [Deuteronomy 21:23]); but since he was God’s chosen, he bore this curse not for any wrong he had done but for the wrong done by others. It is through his crucifixion, therefore, that one can escape from the curse of the Law and be set free from the power of sin that alienates people from God. (Ehrman, God’s Problem: How the Bible Fails to Answer Our Most Important Question–Why We Suffer, 150)It is precisely the identifier that Paul emphasizes that creates a marketing nightmare as the cross presents intrinsic impediments to both religious and secular audiences (I Corinthians 1:23). Later interpreters note that the cross passes the criterion of embarrassment; that is to say that this is a detail that must be historically true as no one would have possibly benefitted from its fabrication.
The cross alienated both Jews and Gentiles (I Corinthians 1:22-23). To the Jews it proved a “stumbling block” (ASV, ESV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV, RSV). Gordon D. Fee (b. 1934) notes:
The Greek word translated “stumbling block” is σκάνδαλον, from which we derive our word “scandal.” “Scandal” is in fact closer to the sense than “stumbling block,” since the word does not so much mean something that one is tripped up by as something that offends to the point of arousing opposition. (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 75)Anthony C. Thiselton (b. 1937) examines:
The word σκάνδαλον...has been variously rendered as scandal (C.K. Barrett [1917-2011], Gordon D. Fee [b. 1934]), stumbling block (AV/KJV, NRSV, NIV, Raymond F. Collins [b. 1935], James Moffatt [1870-1944]), or an obstacle they cannot get over (New Jerusalem Bible). All of these can be defended. The Greek word occurs only rarely outside the Septuagint and New Testament, but occurs six times in Matthew and Luke, six times in the Pauline epistles (once each in I Peter, I John and Revelation), i.e. 15 times in the New Testament. Edwin Hatch [1835-1889]-Henry A. Redpath [1848-1908] list 21 occurrences in the Septuagint, where it translates four Hebrew words of which the two main nouns are שמןק (moqesh) and ןלשמכ (mikshol). These may relate to catching in a snare, but the meaning trap, or more strictly the tripstick of a trap, is not well attested in nonbiblical Greek, and offers only one of several possible meanings in most of the New Testament examples. In Galatians 5:11 Paul speaks of τό σκάνδαλον του σταυρου, where a double affront is caused by the curse entailed for one who is hanged on the cross and by the nullification of the role of self-help. Peter’s suggestion in Matthew that Jesus should avoid the cross is itself a σκάνδαλον to Jesus (Matthew 16:23). C.K. Barrett [1917-2011] and Gordon D. Fee [b. 1934] insist it includes scandal; thus Today’s English Version translates what is offensive. In several contexts the word denotes what may provoke someone to a negative or even rebellious reaction. No single English word seems to cover its various nuances, and much of the emphasis depends on the context. When we bear in mind Stephen M. Pogoloff [b. 1949]’s convincing picture of what it would be to proclaim a crucified criminal of modest status to those who sought honour, esteem, and success, to translate an affront seems to capture the mood and nuance most closely. (Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 171)Roy E. Ciampa (b. 1958) and Brian S. Rosner (b. 1959) reinforce:
Although the word appears only here in I Corinthians, Paul uses it in a similar context in Romans 9:33 and Romans 11:11-12. In both cases an Old Testament citation identifies Christ as a stumbling block for Israel (Isaiah 8:14 and Psalm 69:23-24 respectively). Isaiah 8:14 in particular gives the flavor of the term with various synonyms: “He will become a stone of offense and a stumbling block to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.” Together these texts suggest that a stumbling block is more serious than simply an insulting affront; it also leads to disastrous consequences. (Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 100)Paul’s Jewish audience stumbled over what he deemed bedrock as Jesus did not restore the Davidic throne in the way most Jews anticipated that the Messiah would. Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) describes:
The offence lay primarily in the crucified rather than in the triumphant Messiah; and in the assertion that in the drama of his crucifixion, we have a revelation of the divine mercy in which God takes the sins of the world upon himself. This affirmation is freely confessed by Paul as being “to the Jews a stumbling-block” (I Corinthians 1:23). It does not follow with logical necessity from anything predicted in Messianic hopes, though the Christian community (rightly I believe) saw it as a fulfillment of the quasi-Messianic conception in the Second Isaiah of the “suffering servant.” [Isaiah 53:1-12] (Niebuhr, The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, 192)David E. Garland (b. 1947) augments:
From a Jewish standpoint, a crucified Messiah was an oxymoron, which becomes a major stumbling block (σκάνδαλον, skandalon) because Scripture brands anyone hanged on a tree as accursed of God (Deuteronomy 21:23). In Justin Martyr [100-165]’s Dialogue with Trypho 31-32, Rabbi Trypho remains unpersuaded by Justin’s attempt to prove from Daniel 7 that Jesus was the Messiah and responds, “Sir, these and suchlike passages of scripture compel us to await One who is great and glorious, and takes the everlasting Kingdom from the Ancient of Days as Son of Man. But this your so-called Christ is without honour and glory, so that He has even fallen into the uttermost curse that is in the Law of God, for he was crucified.” For those who think that God must be mighty and strong, not weak, the cross is “an affront to God’s majesty” (Troels Engberg-Pedersen [b. 1948] 1987: 562). It is insulting “to link God with weakness” (Peter Lampe [b. 1954] 1990: 121). The cross also dashes cherished hopes of temporal triumph and world supremacy. (Garland, 1 Corinthians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 69-70)There was no room in most Jews’ theology for a crucified Christ. Not only did the cross present challenges, the average Jew would have seen no benefits.
Amy-Jill Levine (b. 1956) speculates:
Most Jews would not have accepted Paul’s claims any more than they would have accepted a messiah without a messianic age. They already had the belief in the resurrection of the dead, and they believed in a just God who forgave sin. Thus, this new Galilean savior would be for them a redundancy—there was nothing broken or missing in their system that his death and resurrection could fix or fill. Further, most would have found the entire notion of a crucified messiah who brings about by his death salvation from death and sin ridiculous. As Paul puts it in I Corinthians 1:23, “We proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block...to Jews and foolishness...to Gentiles.” (Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus, 67)The issue is not just the existence of the theory of a crucified Messiah or even its popularity. James D.G. Dunn (b. 1939) diagnoses:
The offense for most Jews was not simply the message of a crucified Messiah, the fact that some other Jews (and Gentiles) believed and preached that Jesus, crucified and all, was Messiah. It was the prospect of accepting that claim for themselves which was the stumbling block. They stumbled not over the beliefs of others, but at the challenge to share that belief for themselves. (Dunn, The Christ & the Spirit, Volume 1: Christology, 218)Paul understood the Jewish objections to Jesus all too well as he once espoused them. Wilfrid J. Harrington (b. 1927) conjectures:
When Paul declared: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (I Corinthians 1:23), he spoke from wry experience. He thought not only of the missionary challenge but, surely, recalled his personal conflict. (Harrington, Seeking Spiritual Growth Through the Bible, 68)Seyoon Kim (b. 1946) concurs:
James D.G. Dunn [b. 1939] grants that from I Corinthians 1:23 it can fairly be inferred that the pre-conversion Paul was offended by the Christian proclamation of the “crucified Messiah,” and from Galatians 3:13 that on the basis of Deuteronomy 21:23 he persecuted the Christians who proclaimed the crucified Jesus as God’s Messiah. So Dunn recognizes that Paul was converted to “Christ crucified,” which “was part of the base-rock faith of the first Christians.” (Kim, Paul and the New Perspective : Second Thoughts on the Origin of Paul’s Gospel, 13-14)“Feel Felt Found” is a proven selling technique. The salesperson identifies with an objecting customer and pitches newfound data, professing that “I understand why you feel... Others have felt... What they found was...” Paul could have genuinely incorporated this strategy.
Alan F. Segal (1945-2011) informs:
Paul...still understands the Jewish position, but he can no longer accept it at face value. Rather, he transforms it into a new understanding of messiahship. He says in I Corinthians 1:23, “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to gentiles.” Paul knows in ways that the later church cannot appreciate how difficult it was for a Jew to accept a crucified messiah and how difficult it was for a gentile to accept a crucified god or hero. (Segal, Paul the Convert: The Apostolate and Apostasy of Saul the Pharisee, 123)Paul fully realizes how difficult it is to affirm the cross and the natural consequences that come with worshiping a crucified person. Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) relays:
Paul speaks of Jesus’ demise as “even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8), and how he would not boast “save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Galatians 6:14). The consequence is that the believing Christian knows that he or she is “co-crucified with Christ: it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). For the Christian “always carries in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies” (II Corinthians 4:10). (Fitzmyer, First Corinthians (Anchor Bible), 159)The cross was no more palatable to the Jews’ counterparts, the “Gentiles” (ASV, CEV, ESV, HCSB, NASB, NIV, NLT, NRSV, RSV) or “Greeks” (KJV, MSG, NKJV). The Greek text of I Corinthians 1:23 actually uses the broader “Gentiles” (eth’-nos) while the preceding verse speaks of “Greeks”.
H.H. Drake Williams, III (b. 1965) discusses:
Although Greeks is used in I Corinthians 1:22 and Gentiles in I Corinthians 1:23, both of these terms should be understood as equal in I Corinthians 1:22-24. Oftentimes Paul uses Greeks and Gentiles interchangeably (Romans 1:16, 2:9ff, 3:9, 10:12; I Corinthians 10:32, 12:13; Galatians 3:28). The present use of the term Greeks is likely due to the predominant Greek population of Corinth. Ernest Best [1917-2004], “The Power and the Wisdom of God,” 27. What is most important is that both of these groups are understood together as comprehensive of the wisdom of the world. Wolfgang Schrage [b. 1928], Der erste Brief an die Korinther, 182-83. (Williams, The Wisdom of the Wise: The Presence and Function of Scripture Within 1 Cor. 1:18-3:23, 98)Raymond F. Collins (b. 1935) specifies:
Implicitly Paul identifies the Gentiles (ethnesin; hellēsi, “Hellenes,” in some manuscripts) with the Hellenes of I Corinthians 1:22, 24. For those Gentiles who did not receive the gospel of Christ preached by Paul the content of his message is folly. Had Paul allowed cultivated Gentiles to be captivated by his use of oratorical skills he would have deprived the very cross of Christ of its power (I Corinthians 1:17). In fact, the object of Paul’s epistolary wrath is not so much Gentiles as such but the Hellenes, whom he now identifies as Gentiles, whose pursuit of wisdom causes the cross of Christ to be deprived of its power. (Collins, First Corinthians (Sacra Pagina), 107-08)These Gentiles characterize the cross as “foolishness” (ASV, CEV, HCSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV), “folly” (ESV, RSV), “absurd” (MSG) or “nonsense” (NLT). The Greek is moría, from which English derives the term “moron.”
Gordon D. Fee (b. 1934) prescribes:
To the “Gentiles” the message of “Christ crucified” was a “pernicious superstition” and “utter foolishness.” As Martin Hengel [1926-2009] notes, Paul’s word for folly here “does not denote either a purely intellectual defect nor a lack of transcendental wisdom. Something more is involved,” something more closely akin to “madness.” It is hard for those in the christianized West, where the cross for almost nineteen centuries has been the primary symbol of faith, to appreciate how utterly mad the message of a God who got himself crucified by his enemies must have seemed to the first-century Greek or Roman. But it is precisely the depth of this scandal and folly that we must appreciate if we are to understand both why the Corinthians were moving away from it toward wisdom and why it was well over a century before the cross appears among Christians as a symbol of their faith.” (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 76)L.L. Welborn (b. 1953) speculates that Paul drew upon imagery from a popular mime:
It now seems likely that Paul’s astonishing and paradoxical equation of the cross and foolishness was mediated by the mime. The most popular mime of Paul’s day was the Laureolus of Catullus...References by historians, poets, and commentators make it possible to reconstruct the plot. Laureolus is a slave who runs away from his master and becomes the leader of a band of robbers. Some record of his crimes must have been presented; there was a scene in which he was captured, and a final scene in which he was crucified. The crucifixion was enacted with a considerable degree of stage realism. Josephus [37-100] reports that ‘a great quantity of artificial blood flowed down from the one crucified.’ Suetonius [70-130] records a performance on the day of Caligula [12-41]’s assassination, in which the chief actor fell and vomited blood. Suetonius notes that the performance was immediately followed by a humorous afterpiece in which ‘several mimic fools (plures secunfarum) so vied with one another in giving evidence of their proficiency at dying that the stage swam in blood.’ According to Martial, a condemned criminal was forced to take the part of Laureolus at a performance during the reign of Titus [39-81], and actually died on the cross. Paul may have this mime in mind when he describes the message of the crucified Christ as ‘foolishness’. (Welborn, Paul, the Fool of Christ: A Study of 1 Corinthians 1-4 in the Comic-Philosophic Tradition, 99-100)Wisdom loving Greeks sought a logical rationale and the cross simply did not add up. Human wisdom falls short in understanding the cross; its genius is something the human mind cannot fully grasp.
Verlyn D. Verbrugge (b. 1942) relates:
Who in their right mind would say that the way to get peace with God is to build a relationship with someone who suffered the type of death reserved only for the worst criminals in the Roman Empire? Such an attitude is not unlike suggesting to people today to count as their hero someone condemned to the electric chair or to death by lethal injection. (Tremper Longman III [b. 1952] and David E. Garland [b. 1947], Romans–Galatians (The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 268)Crucifixion simply could not be on the Messiah’s resume. It was comparable to a felony background weeding out applicants for government jobs. A crucified person need not apply to be the Christ. For many, “crucified Christ” is nothing less than an oxymoron.
Gordon D. Fee (b. 1934) relays:
To the seekers of signs and wisdom Paul now presents the ultimate divine contradiction: “But we preach Christ crucified.” Rather than giving them the signs and wisdom they demand—and God has plenty of both—they get weakness and folly. Indeed, “Christ crucified” is a contradiction in terms, of the same category as “fried ice.” One may have a Messiah, or one may have a crucifixion; but one may not have both—at least not from the perspective of merely human understanding. Messiah meant power, splendor, triumph; crucifixion meant weakness, humiliation, defeat. Little wonder that both Jew and Greek were scandalized by the Christian message. During Roman times crucifixion was the ultimate penalty, reserved mainly for rebellious subjects of various kinds (insurrectionists and the like) and slaves. Jesus died as a state criminal, a scandal to Jew, Greek, and Christian alike. (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (The New International Commentary on the New Testament), 75)On the surface, the Christ dying is itself illogical, much less suffering a reprehensible death. David E. Garland (b. 1947) understands:
Gentiles think it folly for God to let his Son die to save others. Paul’s preaching not only proclaims that this is what God did but also demands that the listener become joined to Christ in his humiliation and death. What honor or status can accrue from binding oneself to a crucified person? Humans, however, are the fools in thinking that they can “domesticate the sovereign God” and capture God in the images of creatures (Romans 1:23, 25; Peter Lampe [b. 1954] 1990: 123-24). (Garland, 1 Corinthians (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), 70)Dissatisfaction with the cross persisted for centuries. It resurfaces in Pliny the Younger (61-113)’s letter to Trajan (53-117) and the writings of the satirist Lucian (125-180). Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) documents:
It is...folly to Gentiles, because such wisdom seekers regard the kerygma as the opposite of the goal of their search...In I Corinthians 1:18-20, “folly” was contrasted with the “wisdom” of all unbelievers; now it is restricted, as it stands in contrast to the wisdom of the “Gentiles.” So the satirical Sophist, Lucian of Samosata (A.D. 120-180?), mocked Christians: ton de aneskolopismenon ekeinon sophistēn auton proskynōsin kai kata tous ekeinou nomous biōsin, “they worship that crucified sophist himself and live according to his laws” (De morte Peregrini 13). What lies behind such an attitude is the recognition that Jesus died the death that was known in the contemporary Roman world as servile supplicium, “the slave’s punishment” (Valerius Maximus, Factorum 7.12; cf. Martin Hengel [1926-2009], Crucifixion, 51-63). (Fitzmyer, First Corinthians (Anchor Bible), 159-60)Further disapproval came from the fact that an eschatological savior did not fit the Greek worldview in the first place. George T. Montague (b. 1929) explains:
The Greek understanding of time and history were not eschatological: it did not have a conception of a goal toward which history was moving. “Time,” Aristotle [384-322 BCE] said, “is a kind of circle.” Thus a religious founder should be one who more than any other would lead one to contemplate the order and harmony of the universe and lead humanity to a more harmonious subjection to its inevitability. This was at least the view of the Stoics, who were Paul’s contemporaries and with whom he argued in Athens (Acts 17:18). In short, such a founder should be a philosopher. A founder who stands the world’s values on its head by going to death on a cross—the fate of the criminal dregs of humanity—would indeed have no chance of winning the Greek, even less by claiming that the cross was followed by the resurrection of the body. As for the Jewish critic, the apparent failure of one who claimed to be the Messiah was proof that he was not. That is why it takes a special grace, a divine call, to read in the cross more than stupidity and weakness. (Montague, First Corinthians (Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture), 47)Margaret E. Thrall (1928-2010) adds:
Cultured pagans, with the example of Socrates [469-399 BCE] in mind, might well admire Jesus as a wise and good teacher unjustly put to death. But the idea that his death was itself part of a divine plan for the welfare of mankind would be sheer stupidity to such people as these. (Thrall, First and Second Letters of Paul to the Corinthians (Cambridge Bible Commentary), 21)The familiarity of Christianity has dulled awareness to the foolishness of a crucified Christ. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (b. 1935) reminds:
As religions go, Christianity is the most unreasonable. It proclaims that a crucified criminal is the saviour of the world. Today’s Christians cannot appreciate the incredulous revulsion which was the normal reaction to the proclamation of the gospel in the first century. Both Jews and Greeks agreed that the idea of a crucified saviour was a scandal and a folly (I Corinthians 1:23). (O’Connor, 1 Corinthians: A Guide for Reflection and Prayer (Daily Bible Commentary), 22)Ian S. Markham (b. 1962) concurs:
From time to time, Christians should stand back and acknowledge how odd our faith looks. For Christians claim that the most important divine action in history is the humiliating death of a poor Jew at the hands of an occupying power. The central Christian symbol is the ancient equivalent of the hangman’s noose or the electric chair. Instead of a dramatic demonstration of God’s power, we have weakness. It is odd. And it is to us now as it was to the first Christians. (David L. Bartlett [b. 1941] and Barbara Brown Taylor [b. 1951], Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 2, Lent through Eastertide, 86)Patrick J. Ryan (b.1939) accents:
Paul, firing his first two salvos against his critics in the Corinthian Christian community, noted that neither Jews demanding signs of God’s power to deliver them from bondage nor Greeks looking for philosophical insight or wisdom could make sense of a crucified messiah: “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Corinthians 1:23). At the center of our Christian churches we have, not a bowl of flowers nor an empty space, but a grisly instrument of capital punishment. We venerate the image of a crucified man, the temple of his body destroyed and raised in three days. Whether that image shows Jesus as the majestic Messiah enthroned on the cross or as the Suffering Servant twisted in his final agony, it demonstrates a central mystery of our faith. (Ryan, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross: Scriptural Reflections for Lent, 64-65)Like many contemporary people, both Jews and Gentiles were looking for God on their own terms. A crucified Christ cut across the expectations of both groups as the cross precluded its victim from being a conquering king or an incontestable philosopher. In short, God did not present the Savior the people desired.
Richard E. Oster, Jr. (b. 1947) recognizes:
Quite often God does not offer to individuals what they want, especially as incentives to faith. It is especially clear in the death of God’s Anointed, that the desire to root faith in the soil of human understanding of how and when God should act has to be abandoned. Accordingly, Paul reaffirms that his message does not takes its cue from the religious passion of his contemporaries for signs and wisdom; rather he offers a crucified Messiah. The Pauline gospel is a stumbling block...to the unbelieving Jews for the very reason that it fails, in their preconceived theology, to reflect an understanding of God and his kingdom that has any attraction to them. The Gentiles likewise regard the message of Paul as foolishness because it is so antithetical to the supposedly enlightened wisdom they have developed and taught for centuries. (Oster, 1 Corinthians (College Press NIV Commentary), 65)In responding to the crucifixion, Jews and Gentiles are in the strange position of being in the same boat. The Message paraphrases, “Jews treat this like an anti-miracle—and Greeks pass it off as absurd.” The politics of the cross makes for strange bedfellows.
Raymond F. Collins (b. 1935) connects:
Because of their own cultural traditions with respect to knowledge Jews and Gentiles are closed to the gospel of the crucified Christ. With respect to salvation and their appropriation of the salvific word of the cross both Jews and Gentiles ultimately share a common lot. The equality with respect to salvation of both Jew and Gentile is a major theme of Paul’s “last will and testament,” the letter to the Romans (Romans 1:16-3:20, 9-11). (Collins, First Corinthians (Sacra Pagina), 107)As the cross alienates Jews and Gentiles alike, Paul misses his two primary target audiences: both the religious and the secular are offended by the cross. Cornelia Cyss Crocker (b. 1955) grants:
Paul himself states that his message was either regarded as a scandal or as utter folly (I Corinthians 1:23), depending on people’s background and perspective. One can imagine many in his audience shaking their heads and walking away in disbelief because someone who bore the messianic title could not possibly have been crucified or, rather, someone who had been crucified could not possibly bear the messianic title any longer. To claim such a thing would be a complete contradiction in terms, a true oxymoron. At the very least, professing Jesus as Christ and setting that in conjunction with death by crucifixion would point at a paradoxical, highly tensive, and profoundly aporetic reality. (Crocker, Reading 1 Corinthians in the Twenty-First Century, 56-57)Frederick Buechner (b. 1926) concedes:
The message that a convicted felon was the bearer of God’s forgiving and transforming love was hard enough for anybody to swallow and for some especially so. For hellenized sophisticates-the Greeks, as Paul puts it - it could only seem absurd. What uglier, more supremely inappropriate symbol of, say, Plato [427-347 BCE]’s Beautiful and Good could there be than a crucified Jew? And for the devout Jew, what more scandalous image of the Davidic king-messiah, before whose majesty all the nations were at last to come to heel?...Paul’s God didn’t look much like what they were after, and Paul was the first to admit it. Who stood by Jesus when the going got rough, after all? (Buechner, “Paul Sends His Love”, Secrets in the Dark, 198-99)Roy E. Ciampa (b. 1958) and Brian S. Rosner (b. 1959) decipher:
To those hoping for something impressive and irrefutable, Paul preaches the altogether odd and unexpected: Christ crucified. This is akin to proclaiming as good news that the victor has been vanquished, the market has collapsed, or the holiday has been cancelled. It is only our familiarity that dulls the strangeness of Paul’s message for us. In the most general sense, the “Christ” is the king destined to rule. To announce his ignominious demise is to brand him an utter failure and would hardly seem to constitute a “gospel.” Archibald Robertson [1863-1934] and Alfred Plummer [1841-1926] explain the understandable disappointment for both Jews and Greeks at such preaching: “The Jews demanded a victorious Christ, heralded by signs, who would restore the glories of the kingdom of David and Solomon...Christ was not preached as a conqueror to please the one, nor as a philosopher to please the other...Both had to learn the divine character of humility.” As Philippians 2:1-11 indicates, this aspect of the work of Christ has ethical implications. If Christ “humbled himself...even to death on a cross,” then being “like-minded” and “doing nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit” follow as imperatives for his people. These qualities are the very things the Corinthians are lacking. (Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (Pillar New Testament Commentary), 99-100)The problematic nature of the cross was virtually universal. Martin E. Marty (b. 1928) summarizes:
In one of the earliest documents of the faith a letter-writer named Paul agreed that Jesus Christ was a “stumbling block [=scandal] to the Jews and foolishness to the Gentiles” (I Corinthians 1:23), which meant that he was a problem to just about everyone. (Marty, The Christian World: A Global History, xiii)In light of these obvious difficulties, belief is nothing short of a miracle. And yet Christianity with its counter intuitive message of a crucified Christ has endured for centuries. Part of its success is due to the fact that, in spite of its repulsive nature, people like Paul have preached the doctrine of the crucified Christ unapologetically, never diminishing or disguising its power.
Mark D. Roberts (b. 1957) admits:
The essence of Paul’s “full disclosure of truth” was precisely what his Corinthian opponents sought to hide: the unsettling truth of Christ’s death and the call to imitate his sacrifice. Paul understood that the message of the Cross was not an attractive one...He explained, “So when we preach that Christ was crucified, the Jews are offended, and the Greeks say it’s all nonsense (I Corinthians 1:23). Yet Paul told the whole truth about Christ, even at the risk of having his message rejected as foolishness. (Roberts, Dare to Be True: Living in the Freedom of Complete Honesty, 35)Jerome Murphy-O’Connor (b. 1935) defends:
No orator, even the most skillful, could devise arguments to make a crucified Savior either intelligible or palatable. Such arguments have to be rooted in commonly accepted values. Both Jews and Gentiles, however, agreed that the idea was “scandal” and “folly” (I Corinthians 1:23). This consensus condemned any attempt to present a crucified Christ in a favorable light. Thus, there was an inherent contradiction between rhetoric and the Pauline gospel. The former manifested “the wisdom of the world,” whereas the latter was the product of the “wisdom of God.” The gospel could be made rational only by suppressing its most distinctive feature, the crucifixion of Jesus. The insidious danger at Corinth was that those who wished to give the gospel an attractive rhetorical presentation did not have to deny the crucifixion formally. All they had to do was to pass over it in silence. It sufficed to stress “the Lord of Glory” (I Corinthians 2:8) and to make no mention of crucifixion. (Elizabeth A. Dreyer [b. 1945], “Crucifixion in the Pauline Letters”, The Cross in Christian Tradition: From Paul to Bonaventure [1221-1274], 39)Thankfully, Paul resists the temptation to give his audience what they want. Richard B. Hays (b. 1948) reflects:
Paul’s language throughout this section [I Corinthians 1:18-25] revels in the paradoxical twists of God’s grace. This is not, however, just a Pauline rhetorical tour de force. The fundamental theological point is that if the cross itself is God’s saving event, all human standards of evaluation are overturned. This outlandish message confounds Jews and Greeks alike, who quite understandably seek evidence of a more credible sort, either empirical demonstrations of power (“signs”) or rationally persuasive argumentation (“wisdom”). But the apostle offers neither. Instead, “we proclaim Christ crucified” (I Corinthians 1:23). (Hayes, First Corinthians (Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching & Preaching), 30)This message is still relevant as most people today would prefer a conquering Messiah who fixes all of their problems to a crucified Christ. As such, addressing the cross is crucial for the contemporary church.
The New Testament is unique in ancient literature in interpreting the crucifixion in a positive way, as the greatest of God’s actions in history. Paul proclaims that “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Corinthians 1:18). But he and the other New Testament writers are entirely aware that their view of this event attracts scorn. To the Romans, the cross is utter foolishness, crucifixion is merely the worst of the punishments routinely meted out to Rome’s enemies. They are humiliated, defeated, tortured beyond human endurance, exposed in their weakness—and then they die. Beyond that, the cross is a random act of cruelty...Yet the early church makes the bold and fantastic claim that the cross is the central act of God in all of human history! (Bartholomew and Goheen, Drama of Scripture, The: Finding Our Place in the Biblical Story, 163)Daniel L. Migliore (b. 1935) professes:
The power of the triune God is omnipotent love. Christ crucified is the power of God unto salvation (I Corinthians 1:23-24). The love of God made known supremely in the cross of Christ has all the power necessary to accomplish the divine purpose of creating and redeeming the world and bringing it to its appointed goal. (Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology, Second Edition, 86)The cross confronts human preconceptions of wisdom and strength (I Corinthians 1:25). It serves as a reminder that God’s ways are not our ways and things may not be quite as they seem.
Anthony C. Thiselton (b. 1937) relays:
To...both Jews and Greeks...whom God has called, the cross of Christ constitutes precisely the mode of action which conveys God’s power and God’s wisdom. It does not rest on human calculations about signs of the times, nor upon manipulative devices which entice belief, nor does it rest on self-defeating strategies to master life techniques by human wisdom. God’s manifestation of power and wisdom operates on a different basis, namely, the way of love which accepts the constraints imposed by the human condition or plight and the prior divine act of promise, and becomes effective and operative (has power) in God’s own way, for it corresponds with God’s own nature as revealed in Christ and in the cross. Any version of the gospel which substitutes a message of personal success for the cross is a manipulative counterfeit. Eberhard Jüngel [b. 1934] writes, “God defined himself as love on the cross of Jesus. If the cross, as the world’s turning point, is the foundation and measure of metaphorical language about God, then such language itself has the function of bringing about a turning around, or change of direction. God cannot be spoken of as if everything remained as it was.”...In this sense, God’s power and God’s wisdom do indeed become actualized in, through, and even as Christ: Christ, God’s power and God’s wisdom. But because the cross is a turning point and criterion which may reverse assumptions and values, we should be cautious about applying without very careful qualifications the everyday meanings, or even theological meanings, of power and wisdom as they occur in other texts. (Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (New International Greek Testament Commentary), 172)Ben Witherington III (b. 1951) agrees:
In contrast to both Jews and Gentiles, Paul preaches the paradoxical notion of a crucified God. This apparently powerless and foolish deity allowed himself to be killed by Romans — a scandal to Jews and foolishness to pagans. Yet this crucified messiah is both the wisdom and power of God for salvation for believers, so that salvation would not be the result of human effort or wisdom. Thus the foolishness of God outstrips human wisdom and the weakness of God exceeds human strength. (Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, 113)The cross also has spiritual ramifications. K.K. Yeo (b. 1960) sees:
Paul wants to bring the Corinthian Christians to a higher spiritual awareness via the “crucified Christ” (I Corinthians 1:23, 2:2)—a “politics of metaphor” (Yung Suk Kim 2008). Robert E. Allinson [b. 1942] describes this phenomenon similarly for Zhuangzi as the “myth of deconstruction and reconstruction” for the sake of self-transformation (Allinson 2003; 1989). For example, in the first chapter of the Zhuangzi, there is “the myth of a fish that is deconstructed as a fish and reconstructed as a bird” (Burton Watson [b. 1925] 1968: 4). Paul preached only “Christ crucified’ to the Corinthian Christians, so that they would deconstruct the surrounding cultures’ ideals of power (Romans), religion (Jews), and wisdom/philosophy (Greeks). Through such self-deconstruction, they could then reconstruct holistic life found only in the “weakness” of God, “miracle-less” faith, and “foolish” understanding (I Corinthians 1-2). (Yung Suk Kim, “Pauline Theological Counseling of Love in the Language of the Zhuangzi”, 1 and 2 Corinthians (Texts@Contexts), 122)The cross also has far reaching political implications. A crucified Christ represents the wisdom of another kingdom, one not found in any earthly political system (I Corinthians 1:25). Attempting to advance oneself with humans utilizes decidedly different methodologies than doing the same with God. In light of this, many interpreters have viewed the cross as subversive.
Joseph A. Fitzmyer (b. 1920) writes:
In effect, both Jew and Greek become adversaries of the crucified Christ. “The cross always remains scandal and foolishness for Jew and Gentile, inasmuch as it exposes man’s illusion that he can transcend himself and effect his own salvation, that can all by himself maintain his own strength, his own wisdom, how own piety, and his own self-praise even toward God” (Ernst Käsemann [1906-1998], “Saving Significance,” 40). There is more involved in this theology of Christ crucified, because Paul is going to use it to transcend all individualism and interpersonal disputes in order to make it the basis on which the Christians of Corinth should be building their unity, agreement, and community life itself (see Raymond Pickett [b. 1955], The Cross in Corinth 37-68). Mark T. Finney (“Christ Crucified”) goes so far as to maintain that Paul is seeking to undermine the imperial cult (emperor worship) among the Corinthians, at least among those who became Christians. (Fitzmyer, First Corinthians (Anchor Bible), 159-60)P. Travis Kroeker (b. 1957) philosophizes:
Paul’s messianism will not accommodate conventional discourses of human mastery – which is to say, all conventional political discourses. In contrast to the Weberian “secularization thesis” (influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche [1844-1900]) that interprets Paul’s apocalyptic messianism as one of indifference to worldly conditions, recent continental thinkers such as Alain Badiou [b. 1937], Stanislas Breton [1912-2005], Jacob Taubes [1923-1987], and Giorgio Agamben [b. 1942] interpret it as radically political, a challenge to the politics of conventional human and especially national sovereignty. (Stephen Westerholm [b. 1949], The Blackwell Companion to Paul, 441-42)Yung Suk Kim assents:
Paul utterly identifies with Christ crucified (I Corinthians 1:23, 2:2), which is God’s power and wisdom that deconstructs the Corinthian power and wisdom based on a certain knowledge or spiritual gifts. Christ’s body imagined through Christ crucified gives hope to the weak and marginalized in the community, even in the midst of their liminal, marginal experience—just as Christ necessarily did. Christ crucified is a symbol and the power of God reaching out to the downtrodden, the dregs of the world. In short, accounting for the crucified body as a dimension of the “body of Christ” provides us with a vision of the “body of Christ” in radical association with the broken bodies in the world. (Kim, Christ’s Body in Corinth: The Politics of a Metaphor, 31)The cross bleeds over into all aspects of the Christian life. It is necessary; Christianity cannot be Christianity without the cross. Hence this scandalous foolishness becomes the central message. The crucified Christ becomes the answer to all seekers and questioners, whether they seek signs or wisdom.
If you had to reduce your belief system to two words, what would they be? What is your favorite oxymoron? Is Paul incorporating synthetic parallelism; are scandal and foolish to be viewed on the same plane? What are contemporary impediments to the gospel? What other times has God acted foolishly by human standards? Is thinking logically and/or having an education a deterrent to accepting the gospel (I Corinthians 1:26)? What are the modern equivalents to the objections posed by these New Testament Jews and Gentiles (I Corinthians 1:23)? In what ways did Jesus meet the expectations of the Greeks and Jews? In any way did he exceed them? When has God fulfilled your needs but not given you what you wanted or expected? For you, what is the least attractive tenet of Christianity? Does the resurrection cause you to stumble?
Paul’s original readers would have been well aware and in full agreement that outsiders struggled with the cross. It was likely a matter with which they were often confronted. Paul, however, is not writing to lecture about outsiders. He is addressing insiders, specifically errant Christians. In building up his opposition, Paul unites his core. Sociologist Georg Simmel (1858-1918) argued that nothing unites a group more than a common enemy (Simmel, “The Sociology of Conflict: I” American Journal of Sociology 9 (1903): 490-525). But in returning to the cross, Paul is doing far more than unifying his congregation against bolstered competition.
Throughout the epistle, Paul confronts incongruities which have fragmented the church in Corinth (I Corinthians 1:11-13). The apostle’s consistent focus on the cross undercuts elitist perspectives and promotes unity. Paul uses the reminder of the crucifixion to ground the Corinthian congregation.
Though he is prone to do so, the apostle has not gone off on a tangent. Kenneth L. Chafin (1926-2001) refocuses:
There are times when Paul seems to interrupt himself to explore a different subject before coming back to his original line of thought. A casual reading of I Corinthians 1:18-25 might lead us to think that Paul had picked up on his own mentioning of the gospel and is now turning aside from his discussion of divisions to pursue that subject. Rather, he is launching his criticisms by insisting that the party spirit in the church is caused by false wisdom, human pride, and by loyalty to human leaders. It is not the gospel he has preached that has brought division. The word of the Cross that he had preached was the source of true wisdom and unity. Consequently, the divisions within the church must have come from that worldly wisdom which cannot accept the preaching of the Cross. (Chafin, 1, 2 Corinthians (Mastering the New Testament, 37-38)
Pheme Perkins (b. 1945) teaches:
The gospel of Christ crucified shapes Paul’s response to many of the practical problems addressed in the letter (Dieter Zeller [b. 1939] 2010, 64-66). The apostle has shaped his life in response to the call received from God. His responsibility for the churches reflects that relationship with God. (Perkins, First Corinthians (Paideia: Commentaries on the New Testament), 44)Alexandra R. Brown (b. 1955) writes of this power of the cross in her book The Cross and Human Transformation: Paul’s Apocalyptic Word in 1 Corinthians. James L. Jaquette (b. 1954) reviews:
In our time the cross is often more a source of controversy than a sign of peace. While aware of differing points of view, Alexandra Brown shows that Paul’s proclamation of the cross was an inclusive and empowering word of liberation, peace, and reconciliation. (Brown, The Cross and Human Transformation: Paul’s Apocalyptic Word in 1 Corinthians, back cover)There is great power in the cross. It serves as a constant reminder that it is not about us. Not the least of its power is its bent to unite believers at its foot. The cross is a meeting place for foolish people. And fools ought stick together.
Should more emphasis be placed on the scandal of the cross? If this aspect was stressed would Christians be more unified? Have you ever attended a divided church? What issues are worth splitting a church? Is Christ bigger than our differences?
“God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.” - Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), Reflections On The Bible: Human Word And Word Of God, p. 96