Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Paulus Tragicus: Staging Apostolic Adversity in First Corinthians

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Paulus Tragicus: Staging Apostolic Adversity in First Corinthians

Article excerpt

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"All the same, would you look with pleasure on what is painful to you?" (?μωsfgr; δ? ?δοιsfgr; ?ν ?δ?ωsfgr; ? σοι πικρ?; Euripides, Bacch. 815).1 This question was posed in the Euripidean tragedy by the disguised Dionysus to Pentheus the Theban tyrant as the latter first declares his desire to view the Bacchic women on the mountain whom he had hitherto intended to imprison. The god's query is ironic on several levels. In the first place, it would become clear over the course of the drama that Pentheus, and not the women, was becoming the painful spectacle to be viewed: he would costume himself as a maenad, and, though perched high in a tree in the hopes of viewing the forbidden sight, in the end, as the messenger reports, "he was seen more than he looked down upon the maenads" (?φθη δ? μ?λλον ? κατ[varepsilon]?δ[varepsilon] μαιν?δαsfgr;, 1075). At the same time, the god's question functions metatheatrically- that is, like Pentheus, the tragic audience was present in the theater in order to "look with pleasure on what is painful." The calamitous failure of Pentheus to attain this desired pleasure-he was as a result torn to pieces at the hands of his own mother- foregrounds a central question that throughout history has animated intellectual responses to tragic theater: What is the benefit of viewing a painful spectacle?

About 450 years removed from the first performance of this Euripidean tragedy, the apostle Paul addresses his epistles to the church at Corinth. Like the messenger in the Bacchae, Paul reports on a spectacle of death-"Christ crucified"-his refrain throughout his first epistle to the Corinthians. This "message about the cross" (1:18) would afford, in Paul's view, a peculiar benefit both for the Corinthians and for the wider world, and consequently he understood his own mission as one of proclaiming it so as to bring this spectacle constantly before the eyes of his audience (see also Gal 3:1). Not only does Paul put forth Christ's suffering as a spectacle, but he frequently mentions his own tribulations and those of the apostles. While this recurs at numerous places in the Pauline epistles (Rom 8:35; 1 Cor 4:10-13; 2 Cor 4:8-9; 6:4-5, 8-10; 11:23-29; 12:10; Phil 4:12), I take as my point of departure one particular instance in 1 Cor 4:9: "For I suppose that God has displayed us apostles last, as condemned to death, for we have become a theater [θ?ατρον] for the cosmos, for angels and for humans." The central concern will be the function of the term θ?ατρον as an image for apostolic suffering. My contention is that with this theatrical metaphor for his own adversity Paul offers the beginnings of a "Christian" response to the question of what benefit comes from viewing a painful spectacle. The argument unfolds in three sections. First, I situate Paul's theater in the context of mid-first-century Corinth, attending, on the one hand, to the city's venues of public performance and, on the other, to the context of Paul's Corinthian correspondence, with its principal theme of wisdom and foolishness, strength and weakness. Next I survey the ways in which Paul's metaphor has been related to cultural realia, ranging from the commonest interpretation in view of Roman arena spectacles to mime performances, as proposed more recently by Larry Welborn. Along with these tangible modes of theater known to the Corinthians, scholars have drawn attention to the similarity between Paul's metaphor and Stoic writings in which the theater and spectacle function as symbolic venues where the sage develops and displays virtue. Without denying the insights of these earlier approaches to Paul's metaphor, I suggest a fresh and hitherto unconsidered approach in view of tragic drama. Stoics-Epictetus, in particular-evoked tragedy in warning against misplaced obsession with external circumstances. In section III, then, I briefly discuss two tragedies-Euripides's Bacchae and Sophocles's Oedipus tyrannus-that well illustrate the close correspondence between tragic drama and the function of Paul's metaphor, in particular, their staging of the divine destruction of self-assured wisdom and political power. …

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