But to what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, 'We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'

-Matthew 11:16-17


Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh.

-Luke 6:21

I am big; I am small; I contradict myself'

- Walt Whitman


Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Paul's Lexicon

                Ever since acquiring a modicum of koine Greek, and parsing the NT texts in the language of their composers, I have been struck by the uniqueness of some of the constructs before me. I wondered if it may be simply my feeble grasp of the language. But the turns of phrase became etched into my memory and I was returning to them over and over (,over the years) to test if my intuition about them would hold.  In most cases it did and I was further encouraged by regularly finding the rarest quality among NT diviners – a frank admission of not having a clue – surrounding a number of them.  The apparent weirdness seemed then to be a datum, not just a personal feeling.  

            Mental health professionals today would immediately recognize familiar issues with Gal 2:19-20.  Paul avers that he was crucified with Christ and that it is no longer he, Paul, who lives, but Christ who lives in him.  Taken the words without affectation, Paul is being morbid. The idea he articulates attests to a process of disassociation and psychic annihilation inside the writer’s head.  Whatever the mystic dimension to the apostle’s spirit, Paul was not crucified when he wrote or dictated the letter. Whatever theology can elucidate, it cannot explain why Paul in receiving the wisdom hidden from everyone for aeons, feels compelled to present it as a testimony to necrotizing agony, in the bipolar contrasts of eternal bliss and fulfilment thrown against unforgiving, unmitigated hostility of God to his creation and the abandonment of his most ennobling project called ‘life’.  If Paul grew spiritually beyond yelding to the passions of the flesh, why the hyperbole of torturous, universal,  unappealable death ?   What does crucified with Christ mean, anyhow ? 

Actually Paul does not even say he was crucified with Christ. That is a translation made in most languages, faut de mieux.  Paul, for his part, says something more along the lines of having been co-crucified  or having shared in Christ’s crucifixion. The verb systauroō stands along a number of words showing Paul’s and his friends fondness for the sy- constructs (e.g. synergos, sygkoinōnos, synaichmalōtos, systratiōtēs, symparakaleō, sympsychos and in the deutero-Paulines: synoikodomeō, syndesmos, sympolitēs, sygklēronomos, syssōmos, symmetochos, syndoulos).  The prefix ‘sy-‘ stresses the commitment of Paul and his early imitators to their communal enterprise and the collective nature of their  mystical apprehensions. This poses little difficulty when applied to terms like workers, soldiers, servants, prisoners, or in building, or gathering together.  There is however a problem in proclaiming oneself sharing in someone’s death. This is not simply a hyperbole. Paul is not saying, rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated. He says, I am greatly exaggerating when I tell you I am dead.

          The idea that Paul was overdoing, whatever it was he was doing, was most likely first resented and ridiculed by the Jewish Nazarenes. They accepted Paul’s theology of the cross but no way the moral equivalency of Paul’s suffering to the one who was crucified for real.  We have an excellent example of this in Matthew 27:44  where he lampoons Paul’s systauroō  by adding a redundant preposition syn (with) to the already prefixed word indicating that the robbers were crucified with Jesus.  The effect would be an instant howl to anyone who knew what the allusion meant.  I hold that the double sy- is of Matthean origin, and was later assimilated into Mark (15:32), as it follows the anti-Pauline ‘doublets’ in the stories of the Gadarene demoniac, the blind beggar at Jericho and the donkey on which Jesus entered Jerusalem.  (I will explain the meaning of Matthew’s ‘doubling’ on Mark’s characters in one of the next posts). 

Beastfighting in Ephesus and such

The ‘sharing in the crucifixion of Christ’ describes Paul’s debilitating lows, and struggles with depressive psychosis.  It becomes a starting point in an abstract narrative for which he found an audience among people similarly afflicted. No doubt many found relief in the discovery their suffering had an explanation and through Paul and his acolytes was shared across the known world. No doubt that absurd as Paul’s mantras and missions spreading the good news of salvation in the impending collapse of heavens seemed to the outsiders, in the inner circle of the saints who suffered for no reason other than that they seemed to have been chosen to suffer, Paul was seen as one sent to them by God.  His gospel spelled relief and hope and restored the dignity that was being denied to them by other people and fate.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For while we live we are always being given up to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you. 2 Cor 4:7-12 

The semantics in the passage are difficult but not impenetrable.  They bespeak primarily of inner struggle for the meaning of one’s existence.  It seems clear to me (as a sufferer of the disorder that I recognize struck Paul) that the apostle struggled to establish the “new normal” after his bi-polarity presented itself in an acute form. Paul found a way to make something extraordinary from a banal illness.
People nowadays scoff at the idea that Jesus died for their sins. It is meaningless to them and it is not difficult to guess why. Salvation is worth nothing if you don’t need it. But Paul’s teachings in his time were not for everyone despite what Acts of Apostles would claim later;  it addressed itself to a core audience of people who like himself were in need of relief from acute suffering. 

Musing over his initial episode of full-blown mania,  he reasoned if Jesus whom he badmouthed prior to his first hypermanic episode ( 2 Cor 12:2 -9) was a mad prophet because God made him mad and he was destroyed by God because of his madness, and if God was now destroying Paul, the pious, blameless, educated, as close to perfect Pharisee as you could get, and if God was destroying both Jesus and Paul for no cause other than to frustrate the vision of heavenly bliss he himself supplied to them, then life was meaningless nonsense. God would have been the perfect gentile Demiurge.  Nothing could save Paul if the sight of the Omnipotent was on him, had he accepted the shrug of the Greeks that his God was out to destroy him, just like their gods do routinely to amuse themselves in their leisure.
But if there was a plan and not it was not just another delusion, i.e. if the manic experience was to be interpreted to show to Paul and through Paul, that no man may boast in the presence of God, then there was hope for Paul and those afflicted like himself.  The crucified savior admittedly sounded like a crazy proposition to everyone innocent of the internal struggles that happen only to those whose brain chemistry goes out of whack and returns back to something like normal.   But lest you think that the Paul’s parallel of his suffering to Jesus’ death on the cross was a cheap hyperbole you need to know this ‘ Very commonly it is asserted’, wrote Professor Kraepelin the German diagnostician of the manic-depressive illness, ’that the disease is a greater torture than any other and that the patient’ would far, far rather endure any bodily pain than disorder of the mind’  The baptism into the death of Christ would be a powerful metaphor in the circles where Paul moved.  No doubt, it helped many of those Paul screened for his therapy.

Bart Ehrman, who is all the rage these days after he unloaded on the atheist hordes denying Jesus walked on Earth, thinks the legend of Paul and the baptized talking lion (in the pseudepigraphical Acts of Paul) , developed “out of a vague reference” to Paul’s own letters.  In 1 Cor 15:32 Paul makes the strangest claim: (RSV)“What do I gain if, humanly speaking, I fought with beasts at Ephesus?  If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." Ehrman comments dryly, “He obviously survived but how ?”(Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene, p. 133)  It is strange that the best known popular interpreter of the New Testament is by all appearances clueless as to the meaning of this verse. But then again Ehrman also believes (or affects to believe) that Paul met Jesus biological brother, so the issue may not be all that hot.  Not if another well known scholar of our time Dominic Crossan has convinced himself that the “beasts” were actually Roman guards who were chained to him during his imprisonment at the praetorium. θηριομαχεω which combines beast and fighting, and would likely sound as strange to a koine Greek speaker as “beastfighting” would sound to a native English speaker. Unless it was some local argot, used as a putdown. By all appearances, Crossan’s idea comes from the letter of Ignatius to Romans (5.5) but that is obviously Paul interpreted by the imagination of a later churchman with somewhat different issues, who manufactured his own context to them. That Crossan should credit this as real, is uncanny as he is the only one, to my knowledge, who correctly reads (at least some of) Paul’s imprisonments as metaphorical.   

The problem with interpreting Paul’s meaning does not seem to start with the strangely positioned verb but by the qualification he places before it εἰ κατὰ ἄνθρωπον . This is variously rendered as “humanly speaking”, “from human point of view”, “for merely human reasons” and similar pap, which makes it clear that the translators are groping in the dark.The phrase evidently stresses that seeing whatever Paul actually does as “fighting with beasts” is not his own but an external view of himself. Paul uses κατὰ ἄνθρωπον for exactly the same function in Gal 3:15, to say he speaks not as God’s plenipotentiary but in common terms. In Galatians, the phrase could be rendered more meaningfully as “in simple terms”, or “without putting a too fine point on it”.  In the context of 1 Corinthians the external POV would need to be stressed further, in order to set the verb in the intended context.  It could be “if, as they/men/people would say,…”, or “if …as the saying goes” or something in that vein. So let us see what the sentence gives when we convert the idiom: ‘How do I profit then, if,  according to popular wisdom, I was [beastfighting]  in Ephesus ? If the dead are not raised, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”.  So, by the structure of the sentence, it is clear Paul did not fight with beasts literally, but rather was seen in Ephesus in a state of mind which made people think he was wasting time fighting with the devils for an obscure cause.

                Nonetheless, metaphorical fighting with beasts had a venerable traditon among early Christians. If the mystics were laughed at as fighting imaginary predators, they would wear the insults proudly and converted them to clever insights.  Here is my reading of perhaps the most brilliant Thomasian saying (GThomas 7):

                                                 Blessed is the lion whom the man eats

                                                For the man will become like a lion

                                                And cursed is the man whom the lion

                                                eats for the lion will become like a man.

In other words, if one overcomes and masters the assaults of psychosis  one becomes enriched and strengthened by the experience of one’s restoration; if one is consumed by it one will be reduced to pathetic beastliness.  The saying was evidently popular among the early Christians, as evidenced by 1 Pe 5:8.   Paul’s saying in 1 Corinthians however does not show he was familiar with it.