The Unbelievers, the unfaithful, and the Infidels (and 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1)

This post is about the unbelievers, unfaithful, and the infidels – no it is not about Chris Tilling or Peter Enns or James McGrath. It is about 2 Corinthians.

I think there is a serious mistake that is regularly made when interpreters approach 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 and the issue of being “unequally yoked” with “unbelievers.” Both scholars as well as my own students note how bizarre it is that Paul switches subjects all of a sudden, moving away from his conflict with the Corinthians and turns to a brief excursus on how to live in a pagan world. Now the very scholarly thing to do is get out your scissors and cut out 6:14-7:1 and say, “Clever Qumranist, how did he get that in there?” Or “maybe it is from 1 Corinthians originally?” Or “maybe it is from fragment “c.2″ of Paul’s yet-undiscovered letter to the Philadelphians?”

Nonsense! I am one of “those” people who still believe it should be the best practice to start with the letter as is and see if we can make any sense of it (yes, I am one of those fundamentalist anglo-methodists, guilty as charged).

Here is what I think is going on in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1. The whole letter has in the “background” the half-truths and baseless accusations of subversive false apostles that have made some headway in convincing the Corinthians that Paul is untrustworthy. In fact, they accuse him of undermining Torah, God’s gift of wisdom to the world (2 Cor 3 is Paul’s response). Undoubtedly these false apostles could have made the argument that Paul is “unfaithful” (ἀπιστος) to God and God’s long-used method of revelation. “If it was good enough for Moses, it is good enough for us! Do you think Paul knows something that Moses didn’t?” They could have accused Paul of being “dark” and secretive – they did, in fact, make this case (hence all the talk about the “veiled” ministry; 4:3). They could have associated Paul with Belial (an easy accusation to throw around on any occasion), and with idols (since he gets cosy with pagans so often, and doesn’t teach them Torah).

What Paul does, cleverly (but perhaps too cleverly since so many people think Paul didn’t even write it!), is “turn the tables” on the false apostles. If the false apostles say, “Hey Corinthians, don’t associate yourself with what is unfaithful, dark, evil, and idolatrous” (implying Paul is all of these), Paul follows up with: “Yes, I agree. Keep away from such things. And, in fact, those false apostles are unfaithful (to God because they don’t trust Christ and his way of life enough), they are darkness (because they are spreading deceptive lies, and they are “in the dark” about the true wisdom of God in the ministry of the new covenant), they are aligned with Belial (because he parades around pretending to be an angel of light, which they are doing as well since they act all innocent when they are trying to overthrow my Christ-shaped ministry), and they are the idolaters (for whoever doesn’t accept that the treasure is hidden in a mere jar of clay, but prefers a perfect outward appearance, is essentially affirming the desires of idol worshippers who want a visible “pretty” god and cannot see the truth of the invisible God).”

The “unbelievers” that Paul wants the Corinthians to be separate from is not regular old pagans (that message comes across clear enough in 1 Corinthians), but the false apostles. This interpretation helps one to see that 6:14-7:1 is not an unusual side-topic, but perhaps even a gravitational center of the letter. It reminds us that our most powerful enemies could be those who only have half the ideas right – and most problematically get the most important half wrong!

Consider the use of the term “infidel” throughout religious history. It means “one without faith,” but it can easily be used of “heretics” in the sense that one inner-group treats another self-professing inner-group as apostate. We so naturally associate the ἀπιστοι with garden-variety pagans that we miss a very natural use of the term – “those who lack true commitment to God.” This can be used of backsliding insiders. This is the legacy of the Israelite prophets who regularly accused the covenantal people of infidelity. Indeed, this is what Jesus does to his people (as prophet of God), when he says “O faithless generation (γενεα ἀπιστος); how long am I to be with you?” (Mark 9:19).

So, next time you think to yourself, O dear, what do I do with this interpolated fragment in 2 Corinthians  – first, hit yourself over the head with a mallet. Then read the Greek text carefully in context. Ask yourself, is there a reasonable contextual reason why he is using these words (ask yourself what the claims are of the false apostles; see 2 Cor 11:22)? If you haven’t learned Greek yet, hit yourself over the head with a mallet again and then start researching good Greek courses.

The lesson is now finished. Place ice-pack on head.

[Sorry about the rant in blogpost form; I am getting tired of the overly-creative “who-wrote-this-fragment-and-how-did-it-get-here” theories in commentaries on 2 Corinthians]


6 thoughts on “The Unbelievers, the unfaithful, and the Infidels (and 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1)

  1. Nijay,

    firstly, thanks for posting your ideas on your blog. I think you are right to look for something in the background of the letter to explain how 2 Cor 6:14-7:1 fits its context.

    2 Cor 6-7:5 is not the only place in the Corinthian correspondence where Paul switches abruptly between the subjects of pagan ethics and his own reputation. He does the same thing in the following places:

    1. He defends himself in 1 Cor 4:1-21 and abruptly turns to the subject of sexual immorality in 5:1-13.
    2. His discussion of food sacrificed to idols in chapters 8 and 10 is interrupted by his self-defense in chapter 9.
    3. In 2 Cor 12:16-19a he defends himself. Then in 12:19b-21 he explains why he must defend himself; so that there will not be sexual immorality. Exactly how Paul’s self-defense prevents sexual immorality is not immediately obvious.
    4. In 2 Cor 13:1 Paul seems to warn against a recurrence of an incident in which he had been falsely accused (see Welborn, “”By the Mouth of Two or Three Witnesses” Paul’s Invocation of a Deuteronomic Statute,” Nov Test 52 (2010) 207-220). This verse is framed by a discussion of sexual immorality.
    5. In the midst of the discussion of sexual ethics Paul turns briefly to his own reputation, writing “since you desire proof that Christ is speaking in me” (2 Cor 13:3).

    How is it, then, that the issue of pagan ethics and the issue of Paul’s reputation were so intertwined in the Corinthian correspondence? Well, we know from 1 Cor 5:9-13 that Paul wanted to expel the immoral from the church, and we know from 2 Cor 12:21-13:2 that he had threatened to punish them and in 1 Cor 4:21 he threatens to use a rod on them. Those supporters of Pagan ethics would have had motive to discredit Paul to undermine his authority so that he would not be able to punish them. Paul had threatened those who promote pagan ethics and they had retaliated by trying to discredit him. That is why discussion of pagan ethics is so intertwined with self-defense in 1 Cor and 2 Cor. He must defend himself so that he will have enough authority to discipline the licentious.

    I don’t think it is necessary to suppose that Paul is answering accusations that HE was idolatrous.

    Michael Goulder showed that the sequence of thought in 1 Cor 4-5 is the same as that in 2 Cor 6-7:5 (Nov. Test. 36, 1 (1994) 47-57. This confirms that he background to these two passages is the same.

    What do you think?

  2. Nijay, I re-read your proposal following Annang’s endorsement, but I still do not see how it can be made to work. I don’t see how the Corinthians could have been expected to understand 6:14-7:1 as a ‘turning the tables’ on the false apostles. In your longest paragraph you place words in the mouth of Paul to explain Paul’s text to us, but the Corinthians did not have the benefit of your explanation. Even if the background was as you suggest, it would still have been hard for the Corinthians to understand that Paul is turning the tables here. Why would he not have been more explicit?

    Also, how do you deal with 7:1? Paul is here telling the Corinthians to shun pagan ethics. He is not countering accusations that HE is too pagan, is he?

    While I don’t yet see evidence for (or the need for) the “turning the tables” hypothesis, I think that you and Goulder could be right about the unfaithful being fellow-Christians. Paul may be encouraging the Corinthians to distance themselves from immoral believers, much as he did in 1 Cor 5:9-13. But we need not suppose that he has false apostles in mind.

    The Corinthians had turned against Paul because he had told them to turn from pagan ethics. In response he defends himself (2 Cor 6:1-10), re-iterates the need to renounce pagan values (6:14-7:1) and tries to mend his relationship with the Corinthians (6:11-13; 7:2). Thus Cor 6:14-7:1 fits its context.

    1. I think this kind of coded “turning of the tables” would fit Paul’s own rhetorical style – consider Philippians 3 and the “dogs” and “evil workers” and “circumcision.” Many scholars, including myself, believe that Paul is using the rhetorical insults of the Judaizers against them.

      As for 2 Cor 7:1, I am not quite sure what to do with this, but even if this has to do with pagans, it is not clear what sins are being talked about (probably sexual, but it is interesting that 6:14-18 doesn’t name particular sins). My guess would be that Paul is concerned that these unholy alliances themselves are polluting. Spirit and body will be preserved when they separate from the unbelievers. Paul’s concern with “Yoking” is not about particular sins, but deleterious relationships.

      1. Hello Nijay,
        I have been struggling with 2 corinthians a lot as to it’s application in my own life. What do you think an unequal yoke is today and also, do you think a christian can have non-christian friends? Thank you very much.

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