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]