Scripture Notes


Notes on This Week’s Scripture Reading: 1 Corinthians 11:17-26, 34

Scholars have long wondered why the apostle Paul had so little to say about the historical Jesus. In Galatians 4:4-5, Paul writes that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law [of Moses], in order to redeem those who were under the law” (i.e., Jews). Elsewhere, Paul notes that Jesus was a descendant of David (Rom. 1:3); he had a brother named James who, after Jesus’ death, was a “pillar” of the Jerusalem Church (Gal. 1:19); and he had a close-knit group of disciples that Paul calls “the twelve” (1 Cor. 15.5). Paul of course knew that Jesus was handed over and crucified (1 Cor. 1:23) and believed that Jesus was killed at the instigation of the Jews (1 Thess. 2:14-16). But that’s about all. Nothing about Jesus’ birth or his temptation in the wilderness. No indication that Jesus told parables or raised the dead. Nothing about Jesus cleansing the Temple or his trial before Pilate.

Paul also says little about Jesus’ teachings—with one significant exception: Jesus’ sayings at the Last Supper. The scene that Paul depicts in 1 Corinthians 11:22-24—the earliest known reference to the Last Supper—resembles (with some interesting differences) the scenes described in Mark 14, Matthew 26, and Luke 22. In all four, the bread Jesus breaks is said to be his body and the cup he offers the disciples represents “the new covenant”—an allusion to Jeremiah 31:31-34, written roughly 600 years before Jesus was born. The passage in 1 Corinthians 11, however, differs in telling ways from the parallel passages in the Synoptic gospels. In Matthew, for example, the bread and cup carry a Christological significance that is muted, if present at all, in 1 Corinthians 11. In Matthew’s narrative, Jesus’ blood is “poured out … for the forgiveness of sins” (26:28). This is so because Jesus came to “give his life as a ransom for many” (20:28). In 1 Corinthians 11, by contrast, Jesus’ simple and plaintive request is that the disciples drink and eat in “remembrance” of him. For Paul, the significance of the cup and bread is primarily ethical: since the Lord’s Supper is about remembering and “[proclaiming] the Lord’s death until he comes,” Paul’s followers are expected to eat and drink in a worthy manner or else they “eat and drink judgment against themselves” (11:29). (In the NIV, Paul warns that those who behave dishonorably are “guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord.”)

The sayings attributed to Jesus in the Synoptic gospels and 1 Corinthians are absent from the Last Supper scene in the gospel of John, written about forty years after 1 Corinthians. There are, however, comparable references to Jesus’ “flesh” and “blood” in John 6. Here, Jesus tells those gathered around him, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven…. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (6:54-58). No longer are the bread and cup about “remembrance” or even “forgiveness of sins.” Instead they represent the belief of the Johannine community that Jesus was “the Word [that] became flesh” (1:14), the Messiah and the Son of God, and that only through “believing” were salvation and eternal life possible (20:31).

Lou Suarez

Adult Christian Education Team

Last Week’s Scripture: 2 Corinthians 8:1-15

Chapters 8 and 9 of 2 Corinthians address what it commonly called the Collection for the Saints or the Jerusalem Collection. Paul’s initial commitment to the collection is reported in Galatians 2. There, Paul recalls his meeting with the “pillars” of the Jerusalem Church—James the brother of Jesus, Cephas/Peter and John—at which they entrust Paul “with the gospel for the uncircumcised” (2:7). The three “asked only one thing,” Paul says, “that we remember the poor” (2:10). The reason why James, Cephas and John instructed Paul to “remember the poor” is not given in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Later documents, however, offer a possible answer: famine had struck Judea in the mid- to late-40’s CE. In Acts 11:28, for example, Luke reports that when “a severe famine over all the world … took place during the reign of Claudius” (41-54 CE), “the disciples [sent] relief to the believers living in Judea” (11:29). The Jewish historian Josephus also reports that “great famine happened in Judea” during the procuratorship of Tiberius Alexander (ca. 45-46 CE) and tells of famine relief arranged by Helena, queen of Adiabene. When she learned, writes Josephus, that a famine “did oppress [the people of Jerusalem] at that time, and [that] many people died for want of what was necessary to procure food, queen Helena sent some of her servants to Alexandria with money to buy a great quantity of corn, and others of them to Cyprus, to bring a cargo of dried figs” When the food arrived, Helena “distributed [it] to those that were in want of it” (Antiquities of the Jews 20:2, 5).

Paul explicitly refers to his “collection for the saints” in his two letters to the Corinthians. In 1 Corinthians 16, Paul tells the Corinthians exactly how they should go about collecting for the saints—giving them the same instructions, he says, that he gave to “the churches of Galatia” (16:1). When the time comes to deliver the funds collected, Paul tells the Corinthians, he “will send any whom you approve with letters to take your gift to Jerusalem” (16:3). Written several years later, 2 Corinthians 9 suggests that Paul was worried that the collection in Corinth wasn’t going as planned. In fact, he warns the Corinthians that they will be “humiliated” if the churches in Macedonia find out that their collection is not “ready” or isn’t the “bountiful gift that [they] promised” (9:4-5). A few years later, Paul tells the Romans that he will soon go “to Jerusalem in a ministry to the saints; for Macedonia and Achaia [i.e., Greece] have been pleased to share their resources with the poor among the saints at Jerusalem” (Rom. 15:25-26). He remarks too on what he considers to be the Gentiles’ duty to support the Jewish Christians financially: “for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things” (15:27). Unsure, however, about how he and his collection will be received, Paul asks the Romans to engage “in earnest prayer to God on [his] behalf … that [his] ministry to Jerusalem may be acceptable to the saints” (Rom. 15:30-31). Acts 21 details Paul’s final journey to and arrival in Jerusalem and his meeting with James and “all the elders” (21:18), but the delivery of the collection is not mentioned.

Lou Suarez

Adult Christian Education Team