When one happens upon 1 Corinthians 12.1-3, one finds a passage that is as ambiguous as it is clear. On the one hand, Paul seems to make reference to someone that seems utterly orthodox: recognition as Jesus’ Lordship is tied up with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Then, Jesus is contrasted the Corinthians understanding of this speech with the mute idols. Nevertheless, what exactly Paul is referring to and why he brings up this topic here is not so readily clear. At first blush, it seems to be a rather abrupt shift from the topic of the Lord’s Supper. Aside from understanding what τῶν πνευματικῶν specifically means in v. 1, this is one of those cases in the Bible where the words make perfect sense but the specific practice that Paul is addressing is not readily clear.
Attempts have been made to try to explain the origin of this passage, including the part about saying “Jesus is accursed.” It seems almost obvious to any person of faith that this would be a bad thing to say and doesn’t come from God, but why people might be saying this that Paul needs to address this is somewhat unclear. Unless Paul is simply providing a hypothetical that he never imagined having happened, there is something of a mystery here.
Based upon correspondence to ancient practices of invoking the gods to curse someone, Bruce Winter in After Paul Left Corinth suggest that Paul is referring to an appeal to Jesus to curse another person. However, this interpretation leaves a lot to be desired. Firstly, Paul’s contrast to speaking by the Spirit contrasts with mute idols: Paul is addressing a matter of inspired speech, which he previously attributed to the Spirit in 1 Cor. 2.13. Secondly, there is a parallel structure between 3a and 3b that is as follows: (1) two nominative nouns together, with the second one being “Jesus” both times, (2) repetition of “in Spirit,” (3) verbs of speaking, and (4) universal negation. This parallel structures strongly suggest that Ἀνάθεμα Ἰησοῦς and Κύριος Ἰησοῦς function asemantic parallel, with Ἀνάθεμα and Κύριος bear a similar relationship to Ἰησοῦς. In others, “accursed” is best understood as a predication of something about Jesus just like “Lord” is.
I want to offer a different explanation. I want to suggest that 1 Cor. 12.1-3 refers to the way specific teachers express their understanding about the significance of Jesus’ resurrection. More specifically, Paul addresses the way in which people begin to understand the nature of Jesus’ atonement through the inspiration of the Spirit. I appeal to three pieces of evidence in favor of this argument:
Firstly, 1 Cor. 12.1-3 follows immediately after Paul’s discussion on the Lord’s Supper in 1 Cor. 11.17-34. Prima facie, it would suggest that what follows in 1 Cor. 12.1-3 would be related to the same basic topic unless there is a signal of a new topic. Anthony Thiselton suggests that περὶ δὲ in 12.1 is indeed meant to signal a new topic here, appealing to 7.1 and 7.25.1 I would contend that Paul’s usage of περὶ δὲ does not indicate a shift in topic in terms of a distinctly different cognitive domain, but rather a shift in focus within the cognitive domain. The conjunction δὲ suggests some sort of continuation with the previous discourse, whereas περὶ designates a specific topic. The shift in 1 Cor. 7.1, 7.25, and 8.1 can all be related back to the topic of idolatry and sex that Paul references in 1 Cor. 6.12-20. In this case, it seems reasonable to suggest that 1 Cor. 12.1-3 addresses something that is related to the topic of Lord’s Supper.
Secondly, I think the best understanding of τῶν πνευματικῶν in 12.1 can come from a comparison to the same word in 1 Cor. 2.13. In 1 Cor. 2.10-13, Paul describes two actions of the Spirit, making revelation (v. 10) and training in speech (v.13). Paul then describes this training in speech as πνευματικοῖς πνευματικὰ συγκρίνοντες. Commentators have been divided on the meaning of this, but I take it as a reference to the common apocalyptic pattern of revelation where a symbol is revealed in a dream, event, etc. and then an interpretation is offered of that symbol. In other words, Paul is describing the combination of the revelation that the Spirit makes to one person and the interpretation of that revelation that the Spirit gives to another. Given that 12.3 talks about speech, I take τῶν πνευματικῶν the speech that the Spirit gives to a person that interprets an event of revelation, namely that of Jesus Christ’ death as outlined in the Lord’s Supper.
It was a common Greco-Roman custom at dinners known as a symposium for a designated speaker to give some speech on an intellectual topic. Socrates is portrayed as doing so in Plato’s Symposium. If the practice of the Lord’s Supper was framed in the form of a ‘Christian’ symposium, then 12.1-3 may refer to the speech that a person gave that related to matters of Jesus’s death. However, the custom was a bit different in that whereas the Corinthians were accustomed to religious rituals that did not involve a god inspiring speech within them, the Christian gatherings were considered a gathering of charismatic speech that comes from the Spirit. Whereas the symposium’s audience would evaluate the content of the speaker based upon argumentative or rhetorical content, Paul refers to a different evaluation of the speech based upon whether the speech originates from the Holy Spirit.
Thirdly, if what I have argued up to this point is correct, then Paul suggests there is a particular understanding of the significance of Jesus’s death as remembered in the Lord’s Supper that is a criterion for determining the Spirit’s inspiration. I would suggest that “Jesus is accursed” and “Jesus is Lord” are two basic ways of interpreting the significance of Jesus’ death.
I think the best option is to take “Jesus is accursed” to refers to a common Greco-Roman understanding of sacrifice known as a pharmakos, where some the sins of the community is expiated based upon the sacrifice of a scapegoat. As Martin Hengel observes,
In order to liberate or purify the city, the pharmakos, as the incarnation of the disaster which brought the corruption, had to vanish – i.e. either be covered with stones or be plagued in the sea or – as a humane mitigation – be driven out.2
As Paul’s original evangelistic preaching to the Corinthians spoke of how Jesus’ death died for our sins according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15.3), it is highly likely that Isaiah 53 was one of the Scriptures Paul referenced. On first blush, it might seem like Isaiah describes something resembling a pharmakos if one reads Isaiah 53.4-11:
Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain. When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days; through him the will of the Lord shall prosper. Out of his anguish he shall see light;he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge. The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
Although, strictly speaking, the idea of a pharmakos did not entail a sense of innocence of the victim. It was the punishment of the victim that was efficacious.
However, Paul uses different verbiage in using the word ἀνάθεμα. In the Septuagint, it is primarily used to refer to the devotion of utter destruction of the city of Jericho in Joshua 6-7. In almost all instances, it is used to refer to something that should be set apart from destruction. In the LXX, it is almost exclusively used regarding those things that are dangerous. Paul usage of ἀνάθεμα in Galatians 1.6-9 reflects a similar usage of persons who preach a different gospel. However, Paul also uses this in reference to himself in Romans 9.3 with a similar sense of benefiting his fellow Israelite, as if his own rejection and exile could benefit others; certainly as Paul had been rejected by may of his fellow Israelites after his turning towards Christ, ἀνάθεμα contains echoes of an attribution of guilt towards the victim by others, even if the person themselves were, in fact, innocent of what they were charged with. What is at stake, however, is the notion of devoting someone for destruction, or at least to ostracization and exile, contains some benefit for the community who inflicts the punishment.
Despite this different language that finds its origination in the Septuagint, Paul does use the language regularly used in describing the pharmakos in 1 Cor. 4.13, as Hengel notes.3 Paul shows evidence of understanding the form of castigation and reject that certain people are submitted to in the Greco-Roman understanding of a pharmakos sacrifice. However, Paul’s language in 1 Cor. 4.8-13 is laced with irony that would be apparent to the Corinthians: for Paul, Apollos, and others to be labeled as utterly detestable and worthy of contempt conflicts with the Corinthians own assessment of Paul and Apollos as teachers that they esteem. Rather, 1 Cor. 4.8-13 subverts the status hierarchy of Greco-Roman society by placing the Corinthians in the role of the wealthy and as esteemed kings as if they had risen in status from their humble stature when they were originally called (1 Cor. 1.25). The Stoics considered the wise person to be a king and wealthy.4 Paul’s sarcastic portrayal puts them in the place of authority due to their reputed wisdom; meanwhile, they become contemptuous to some of the teachers in Corinth as they affiliated themselves with a different teacher. Thus, Paul, Apollos, and other teachers are portrayed as filling the opposite role, the role of the despised and the abused while they try to teach and benefit the Corinthians. While intended as a sarcastic hyperbole to correct the Corinthian attitudes, it does reflect the customary view of those of high status with the targets of their derision that the Corinthians could very well adopt towards those who serve their own best interests.
Given the resemblance in language to those used in regards to the pharmakos, it does seem possible that the Corinthian Christians were still influenced by a notion of sacrifice and atonement based upon their own socio-political milieu. Hence, to regard Jesus as accursed would be to regard Jesus’ death as a rejection and discarding for the sake of one’s own benefit as in the pharmakos. To this, Paul suggests this isn’t the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Rather, implicitly, it reflects the religious convictions of Greco-Roman idolatry.
This is not, however, the right way to understand the death of Jesus, according to Paul. Rather than the cross being the rejection of Jesus for the benefit of other people, the cross is the event that reveals Jesus to be Lord in power. Paul’s discussion on the nature of the resurrection in 1 Cor. 15 climaxes with a praise of God for the victory that comes through Jesus Christ. The death of Jesus is portrayed as part of the very battle that Jesus fights. When Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, it had been approximately a century since Julius Caesar’s rise to power by bringing his army into Rome and then engaging in the civil war that followed. So, a title indicating one’s rule was more than just a position of authority and title, but also represented the victory the person had obtained through their power. To say that “Jesus is Lord” is to say that Jesus’ death was the final battle that culminated in his victory through the resurrection. If one reads further in Isa. 53 to v. 12 one can see the notion of status given to the redemptive victim:
Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.
Then if one looks back to Isaiah 52.13-15 one can see the political implications of Isaiah 53 more clearly:
See, my servant shall prosper; he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him—so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of mortals— so he shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.
Understanding the death of Jesus and Isaiah 53 in the pharamkos schema is certainly a possible understanding given the Greco-Roman religious convictions, but it fails to understand Jesus’ death and the “substitution” of the servant in Isaiah 53 in context. Thus, for Paul, it would require the inspiration of the Spirit to get the Corinthians to recognize the true significance of the cross as the site of Jesus’ greatest victory, rather than the place he was rejected for others.
This leads me to a theological conclusion relevant for modern theology. While Isaiah 53 does portray substitution in a sense, where one person receives the punishment due to others and those other people benefit, it is important to distinguish between the mechanism of atonement and the effect of the atonement. Isaiah 53 is not metaphysics or ontology. It is a description of the social world, where an onlooker realizes their own sin and their own benefit from what they did to the innocent victim. We can imagine a person moved to repentance and freed from the sins that ensnared them as a result of the sense of self-aware that emerges when realizing suffering servant was unduly treated. This seems to be part of the content of early preaching in Acts, where the crucifixion of Jesus represented the moral status of the people that moved some to conviction. In that sense, then, the punishment is a substitute in virtue of the injustice of the event moving the unrighteous to repentance. It is a social substitution.
However, Christian theology’s predilection towards finding substitutionary mechanism in Jesus’ death begins to tread into the type of understanding that Paul finds to be rooted in the Greco-Roman culture. Just as understanding Jesus as accursed would recapitulate the Greco-Roman religious and social dynamics that were foreign to the leading of the Holy Spirit, when we try to understand the atonement of Christ through some sense of punishment, we recapitulate our own social and political understanding to fit Jesus’ death into. It treats human social systems that institutionalizes and normalizes punishment as a response to wrong-doing as fundamentally a part of God and/or the fabric of creation. Penal substitution in particular echoes Greco-Roman idolatry.
The problem here is when we treat an effect of the atonement as the mechanism as the atonement. Punishment was a part of Jesus’ crucifixion, innocent as He was. Punishment and substitution are discussed in Isaiah 53. But to treat the effect of substitution as more than a social/human reality but as an ontological or divine pattern is to define God by human terms; it is to make the Incarnation an instrument of human society, addressing human concerns, rather than a sharp challenge and transformation of human society by Jesus conquering what humans could not. When we project human culture onto God, we numb our hearts and minds to perceiving and understanding God’s challenge through Jesus Christ and through the Holy Spirit. Transformation becomes a matter of assimilation to a particular way of culture and society, rather than transformation into the likeness of Jesus Christ. When we assume the effect is itself the mechanism, we blur the boundaries between the divine cause and human effect, subjecting our understanding of God’s causation as definable and constrained to specific effects upon us.
Now, one might appeal to Galatians 3.13 to ground some sense of substitution. But that passage refers to the curse of those under the Torah. Jesus’ cursed state on the cross is not the mechanism of atonement for the world as a whole, but it is a specific effect that happens for those under Torah; they are redeemed from the curse of their own sin through Jesus who was cursed by being hung up on the tree of the cross. In other words, Galatians 3.13 does not refer to how Jesus’ death saves people, Jew and Gentile alike, but rather how Jesus’ death frees the people of Israel so that both Jew and Gentile alike can receive the blessing of Abraham together. Jesus’ death frees the Jews to share in one community with the Gentile believers so that both Jews and Gentiles are blessed together. This is an effect of Jesus’ death, but not a description of the mechanism of atonement.
While I will not go into my fuller account of atonement here, I will make my suggestion as it relates to 1 Corinthians 12.1-3. In the cross, Jesus obtains a victory over sin and death through God’s resurrection, such that Jesus Lordship transfers the benefits of His own victory to us who believe in Him. But it is the person of Jesus who is victorious who we then become baptize and formed into by the Spirit; it is not our benefit we possess in virtue of Jesus’ being accursed by God, spiritually, or at some non-social ontological level but a victory we realize in virtue of Jesus’ victory that emerges in us through the Holy Spirit. When we confess that “Jesus is Lord” through His death, we recognize that Jesus is empowered as our Redeemer, Savior, and Protector. This is the confession about and understanding of the cross that comes from the Holy Spirit.