Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Peddling Scents: Merchandise and Meaning in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Peddling Scents: Merchandise and Meaning in 2 Corinthians 2:14-17

Article excerpt

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Scholars have long puzzled over the diction and imagery that Paul employs in 2 Cor 2:14-17, where, from an attempt to account for his prior travels, he shifts abruptly into a prayer of thanksgiving.

14But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumph, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. 15For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, 16to one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? 17For we are not, like so many, peddlers of God's word; but as men of sincerity, as commissioned by God, in the sight of God we speak in Christ.1

Most exegetes concentrate their attention on the word ... in 2:14, rendered above as "leads . . . in triumph," and on the relationship, if any, between this word and the odor imagery that pervades vv. 15-16. Comparatively little attention has been lavished on the peddlers (...) of v. 17, and almost none on what role the image of the peddler might play in connection with the scene detailed in the preceding verses.2

Harold W. Attridge's article on the passage offers both a generally persuasive explanation of 2:14-16 and a rare if very cursory attempt to integrate v. 17.3 According to Attridge, building especially on the work of Paul Brooks Duff, v. 14 references not the military triumph but religious processions partly modeled on the triumph and undertaken in veneration of the likes of Isis and Dionysius.4 Incense and unguents figured importantly in such processions as means of honoring or making manifest the deity. Paul thus imagines himself as "a slave to the triumphing deity, but a slave in his ongoing service, heralding the deity's approach" by strewing incense, or possibly even as "the vessel in which the fragrant ointment is contained."5 And what of the peddlers? In the article's final footnote, Attridge ventures that Paul means to underline that "he is part of the procession itself, not on the sidelines working, as a ... [sic], for gain."6

While not discounting the latter possibility, I argue in this note for a different understanding of the relationship between 2:14-16 and 2:17. Paul's reference to peddlers in v. 17 depends, I suggest, on the prominence of spices in the inventory of goods furnished by peddlers. To illustrate their prominence, I draw on evidence from rabbinic literature, which paints a vivid portrait of small-scale commerce that is, to all appearances, typical of the Mediterranean world in which Paul operated.

Greek ... enters into rabbinic literature as the ..., a shopkeeper or tavern keeper.7 But it and the related verbal form ... cover a wide range of mercantile activities, indeed, most anything short of wholesale trade. The itinerant peddler falls within this range.8 Thus, nothing precludes us from supposing that Paul has in mind specifically the peddler. The positive evidence for this possibility lies in the close connection between the peddler (lkwr) and aromatics in rabbinic literature.9 Let us consider two illustrative texts, in both of which aromatics serve, as in 2 Cor 2:14-17, as a metaphor for knowledge. The first comes from Abot R. Nat. A, ch. 18 (ed. Schechter, 34a).

[R. Judah the Patriarch] called R. Eleazar b. Azarya a peddler's bundle. And to what was R. Eleazar comparable? To a peddler who took up his bundle and entered a town, and the people of the town came and said to him: Have you fine oil? Have you spikenard oil [...]?10 Have you balsam [...)]? And they found everything on him. So was R. Eleazar b. Azarya. When the students of the sages would enter beside him, one would ask him about Scripture and he would tell him, about mishnah and he would tell him, about midrash and he would tell him, about legal traditions and he would tell him, about homiletics and he would tell him. Thus when he left him, he would be full of blessed good. …

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