Paul's fundamental premise was quite different from theirs. He
believed that by Jesus' action the salvation promised to Israel was made
accessible even to non-Jews. Moreover, contrary to Jewish proselytism, Paul
held that Gentiles need not first become Jewish in order to attain salvation:
they were free from the law and circumcision. Paulinism proclaims that those
who were "far from the salvation of the Jews" have been "brought
near" in Christ. The one God is not the God of only one people; he
embraces all men and women and all nations. Universal love does not permit
exclusion of one's fellow from the community.1
Paul's so called "love chapter" in I Corinthians 13 has become famous for its beautiful style, all consuming theme and lofty imagery. Today it is sometimes a text of Scripture which is read at weddings. In fact, frequently, it has been removed from its historical setting and given new applications. The love chapter's placement within Paul's epistle to the Corinthians has puzzled some fine biblical scholars who have even suggested that it was originally written independently of its present context.
Scholars have asked questions like: Was 1 Corinthians 13 written
by Paul? Perhaps he rewrote someone else's praise of wisdom or love for his own
purpose. Was it originally placed here? Perhaps it was written earlier and
Paul adapted it to fit in between chapters 12 and 14 which treat questions
relating to spiritual giftings for the congregation.2 Only a new
direction in Pauline studies that focuses upon his Jewish heritage can solve
these perplexing problems. Here we will view the background of verse twelve in
1 Corinthians 13 for a fresh look at Paul's theology. The apostle writes, "For
now we see through a mirror [glass lens] dimly, but then face to face" (I
Cor. 13:12).3 A careful analysis of the text in light of its Jewish
roots reveals how closely the love chapter is connected to the manifestations of
the Spirit so articulately defined and discussed in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14.
The supernatural gifts and ministries of the Holy Spirit were a hallmark of early Christianity.4 Some circles, however, during the time of Jesus taught that prophetic utterance and the supernatural work of the Spirit had passed away with the death of the prophets.5 According to this view, after the death of the great prophets of the Old Testament, the people had to rely upon the uncertain guidance of what was called the daughter voice (bat kol) or echo from heaven which could be related to a heavenly voice like that heard at Jesus' baptism or even the whisper of a child.6 Prophecy however was closely related to the move of the Holy Spirit. In fact the term prophecy itself often denoted the gift of the Spirit which was designed to deliver God's message. Hence guidance and encouragement for the community was given through prophetic utterance by the power of the Spirit.
Still other circles of Jewish groups believed that prophecy
continued to be in operation. The movement of early Christianity was
characterized by the guidance and the manifestation of the Spirit. The book of
Acts consistently describes the work of the Holy Spirit which guides the church.
On the day of Pentecost, the Spirit was given, which in part was an indication
that indeed the days of the Messiah had come.
In his Corinthian correspondence, Paul deals with a number of complex problems menacing the congregation which he founded (Acts 18). One of the chief controversies focused upon the use and the abuse of spiritual manifestations. I Corinthians 12 and 14 treat these issues in great depth. The great love chapter serves as a bridge between these two passages. Hence the question must be asked: Is 1 Corinthians 13 primarily concerned with the works and operations of the Spirit within the local church? Scholarly answers to the question have been ambivalent.
When Paul writes, "For now we see through a mirror [glass
lens] dimly, but then face to face" (I Cor. 13:12), he is hinting to the
Hebrew Scriptures. Familiarity with early Jewish thought, moreover, illuminates
the meaning of the term "mirror" which probably refers to a type of
primitive glass lens used to make distant objects clearer.7 But
first it should be observed that the entire passage in I Corinthians 13 makes
numerous references to tongues, prophecy, faith, knowledge et al. but
above all points to the more excellent way. Love must guide the direction of
ministry in the local congregation as the excellent way. Obviously these
references to the manifestations of the Spirit echo Paul writing in I
Corinthians 12 and 14. But what does Paul mean by the imagery of the words
mirror [lens], dimly and face to face?
Here Paul is alluding to a specific passage of the Torah which
uses the same words of 1 Corinthians 13:12 as it describes Moses and the other
prophets. According to Jewish tradition, Moses was the first and the greatest
of the prophets. The Holy Spirit inspires and guides the prophets. Moses not
only was known as a lawgiver but much more so as a prophet who spoke for the
Lord. All the prophets were directed by the Holy Spirit, but Moses communicated
with God on a more intimate level. In Numbers 12:8, the Lord speaks and
contrasts the difference between Moses the other prophets,
...Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the LORD
make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream.
Not so my servant Moses; he is entrusted with all my house. With him I speak
mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech; and he beholds the form of the
Notably in the Septuagint's translation of the Hebrew text, the same Greek word is used for "dark speech" from Numbers 12:8 that is used for "dimly" in I Corinthians 13:12! The idea conveyed is one of imperfection or simply of incompleteness. The precise meaning for the word of the Lord remains enigmatic or somewhat of a riddle. Prophecy is not always crystal clear. In contrast to others, however, Moses was a prophet who spoke with God "mouth to mouth" and actually viewed the form of the LORD. The Hebrew language is fond of idioms which metaphorically refer to parts of the physical body like "mouth to mouth" or "face to face" (see Deut. 34:10). Moses enjoyed a close and personal communication with God which granted him a more sure word of prophecy. Significantly Paul refers to the fact that we peer through the mirror or glass lens dimly but then "face to face." The Hebrew idiom, "face to face" is like "mouth to mouth." Thus it seems clear that Paul is alluding to Numbers 12:8. He is referring to Moses and prophecy. But what is meant by the term glass or mirror?
Fascinatingly Judah bar Ilai, a famous rabbi from the beginning of the second century quoted Numbers 12:8 in a similar discussion concerning Moses, the gift of prophecy and the other prophets. Moreover, Rabbi Judah bar Ilai employs the term glass or mirror. His definition of the word can provide deeper insights into Paul's chapter about love and spiritual gifts. Below is his answer to the question: "What is the difference between Moses and all the prophets?"
Through nine mirrors [lenses] did the prophets behold [prophetic
visions]. This is indicated by what is said, "And the appearance of the
vision which I saw, was like the vision that I saw when I came to destroy the
city; and the visions were like the vision that I saw by the River Chebar; and I
fell upon my face" (Ezek. 43:3)8; but Moses beheld [prophetic
visions] through one mirror [lens], as it is said "With him do I speak
mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in dark speech" (Numbers 12:8). The Rabbis
said: All the other prophets beheld prophetic visions through a blurred mirror
[lens]... But Moses beheld [prophetic visions] through a polished mirror [lens]
as it is said, "He beholds the form of the LORD (Numbers 12:8)."
In this passage from rabbinic literature, the mirror or lens refers to prophetic utterance and the giving of the Holy Spirit.10 The other prophets see through a dirty mirror or lens which is clouded. But Moses sees through a clean glass lens and receives clearly the prophetic message from the Holy Spirit. The glass brings what is far away and indistinct into focus. Hence the mirror or lens refers to an instrument or a means through which the divine will or message becomes manifest. The imagery is intended to convey the idea of focusing on God himself. On the other hand, the so called gifts of the Spirit, as described in I Corinthians 12 and 14 are instruments for the local church which were in operation in the Christian community at Corinth. But they are like unpolished mirrors or primitive glass lenses through which the people behold the form of the Lord.
The problem was the human element in the working of the Holy Spirit. Manipulative self interests were now motivating the people rather than pure selfless love. Though the manifestations of the Spirit were given for the common good (I Cor. 12:7), Christians at Corinth were exploiting them. Jealousy as well as other human weaknesses had caused the genuine love and concern for the needs of the community to fade.
Paul, as the founder of the church, writes to his brothers and sisters out of a deep pastoral concern. These spiritualities (mirrors or glass lenses) are manifested to upbuild the whole congregation and not to exalt one member of the body over the rest. The love chapter is the pivotal point of Paul's message in I Corinthians 12-14. These three chapters were meant to be studied together and not as independent units. Love, as a fruit of the Spirit, must guide and govern the other manifestations. That which contribute most to all the members of the church must be considered the most important. Paul stresses faith, hope and love (I Cor. 13:13). All the imperfect divine manifestations of the Spirit will become superfluous when the Lord returns and completes his messianic task. Paul warns the congregation, "...as for prophecies, they will pass away...but when the perfect comes, the imperfect will pass away" (see verses 8-10). All creation longs for that day (Rom. 8:18-25). Everything moves toward the goal set by God. Love will abide even when the other instruments fade away because of the awesome glory of his coming. The perfect, namely the apocalyptic coming of the messiah and the complete spiritual restoration which will accompany his appearance will abolish the need for other manifestations of the Spirit. Why? Because at that time God's people will see face to face. By comparison to the completeness of his coming, the present spiritualities resemble dirty mirrors, imperfect lenses, dark speeches and blurred vision. In the same way that the other prophets fade in their brilliance when compared to Moses, the present spiritual manifestations fail in comparison to the future glory which will be seen at the parousia.
So with wisdom, Paul counsels his church, "Make love your
aim and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts" (I Cor. 14:1). He encourages
people to desire the gifts but only as a means to greater service. Seeking the
giftings of the Spirit out of love, out of a desire to minister to those in need
more efficiently is the apostle's noble concern.11 Love for others
must be seen as the more excellent way. Love is the bridge between the
empowerment of the Spirit and the help one gives to people with serious human
needs. Love must characterize the ministry of the individual Christian as well
as the whole Christian community. Love must be the basis of ministry in the
local congregation. The message of Paul in I Corinthians 13 is an essential
nexus between the chapters 12 and 14. Without love the most powerful spiritual
manifestations are entirely meaningless. Certainly the words of Paul are
closely related to the words of Jesus recorded in John's gospel, "By this
all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."
1) Edward Schillebeeckx, Paul the Apostle (New York: Crossroad, 1983), p. 26.
2) See G. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), pp. 625-652. See J.T. Sanders, "First Corinthians 13, Its Interpretation Since the First World War," Interpretation 20 (1966), pp. 159-87. Sanders believes the chapter has been placed in its present context by a redactor. Conzelmann and Wischmeyer view it as a revision of an earlier literary work because of similar parallels, see H. Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975), pp. 217-220 and O. Wischmeyer, Der hchster Weg (Gtersloh, 1981). Consider the article of E.L. Titus, "Did Paul Write I Corinthians 13?" Journal of Bible and Religion 27 (1959), pp. 299-302.
3) Here we shall argue that "lens" is likely the better translation instead of "mirror" in I Cor. 13:12. The rabbinic parallels support this interpretation. In fact there is even a reference in Pliny which describes Nero watching the gladitorial battles through some type of looking glass. Though the evidence is inconclusive, it may well be that already in the time of Paul many people would have heard of some type of magnifying glasses or lenses used to improve vision or even to start a fire. Immanuel Leif discussed the evidence in Jewish and Roman literatures in a fine study which was given to me by Joseph Frankovic. See the Hebrew article of Immanuel Leif, "Aspaklarya" Sefer Hayovel Leprofesor Shmuel Kraus (Jerusalem: Rubin Mass Publisher, 1936), pp. 10-14.
4) See E.E. Ellis, Pauline Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989. Ellis observes, "For the Apostle Paul the gifts of the Holy Spirit are the essence of Christian ministry, and a part from these gifts ministry in its essential character does not take place" (ibid, p. 52).
5) See E. Urbach, The Sages: their Concepts and Beliefs (Magnes Press: Jerusalem, 1975), "The Shekhina - the Presence of God in the World," pp. 37-65 and his Hebrew study, "Matay Paskah Hanevuah?" Tarbitz 17 (1945-46), pp. 1-11.
6) See S. Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (New York, 1962), pp. 194-199.
7) Compare the discussion of Leif, p. 13.
8) The number nine is based upon how many times the concept of prophetic vision appears in the verse from Ezekiel 43:3. Here the word vision is derived from the Hebrew root "to see." A prophet is sometimes called a seer.
9) Leviticus Rabbah 1:14, Margulies, vol. 1, p. 30 (see the English translation in the Soncino edition, Midrash Rabbah, vol. 4, p. 17). The classic treatment of the Holy Spirit in rabbinic literature presently is, Peter Schfer, Die Vorstellung vom Heiligen Geist in der rabbinischen Literatur (Munich: Kstel, 1972). See also Michael E. Lodahl, The Shekhinah/Spirit Divine Presence in Jewish and Christian Religion (New York: Paulist, 1992).
10) See my article, Brad H. Young, "The Ascension Motif of 2 Corinthians 12 in Jewish, Christian and Gnostic Texts," Grace Theological Journal IX (1988), pp. 73-103. Of monumental importance for the larger context in the gospels is the unpublished doctoral dissertation, Richard Steven Notley, The Concept of the Holy Spirit in Jewish Literature of the Second Temple Period and 'Pre-Pauline' Christianity (Hebrew University, 1991).
11) See also Herman Ridderbos, Paul an Outline of His Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), pp. 201-202.