ST. PAUL, 1 CORINTHIANS 13

Interpretation and Re-Interpretation


There are three basic ways of approaching a New Testament biblical text:

a) You can accept it as revealed word of God, as many fundamentalist groups have done for centuries, and read the words as a direct message from deity. In terms of faith and meaning, this is powerful, but for those with historical and critical training, it can seem entirely misleading.

b) You can deal with NT texts in terms of the development of the Church in the succeeding two millennia. There is abundant material available to show the stages of change, alteration and transmutation as the Church progressed through stages of social development in an evolving secular world.

c) You can deal with the Greek text, which is clearly the published original, as the terminus of some seven centuries of highly organized Greek and Hellenistic thought and language. In other words, you read the NT Greek text with careful reference to what had gone before, that long thread of Greek writing from Homer to the Greek speaking Jewish readers of the Greek Old Testament as the LXX.

This last way seems to me a sensible approach, theologically neutral as befits serious interpretation, and sensitive to the inherited meanings of word, phrases and linguistically-couched thoughts. It is this path which the following essay follows.




The text of 1 Corinthians 13 is remarkable, a virtual hymn to transcendental Love, compactly couched in a short page of varied images sutured together so deftly that we are led inexorably to the crowning word: agape The passage is so beautiful and at the same time so famous that it is imprinted in the memory of anyone who has had any exposure to Christianity, as believer or as non-sectarian student of religion. But as often happens with religious texts, there can be overlays which obscure the original meaning, and changes in the society which obfuscate the meaning entirely.

A good example is the phrase through a glass darkly, which centuries of English speakers have interpreted as peering through a clouded windowpane. But when the King James translation was made, a glass was the standard word for a mirror, since the new mirrors of that time were like ours, with a silvered coating applied to the back of a sheet of glass. The original Greek text has dia spektrou, or by means of a mirror, but Greek mirrors were made of highly polished brass which have a weak and imperfect mirror-image, so the figure has an entirely different thrust. Now you see yourself as if you were looking in your brass mirror, but THEN you will have a perfect mirror-image of yourself, you will see yourself as you really are. Of course there is an error in this too, since mirrors reverse right and left, but in the mirror of Heaven you will come fact to face with your real self, see yourself truly as you really are. It is singularly difficult to translate this passage from the Greek, since modern mirrors do give the impression of perfect reflection, and the original meaning is lost.

There are several such problems in Paul's passage on Love. For centuries we have accepted the words sounding brass or tinkling cymbal as the sounds of musical instruments. To us brass means the brass section of an orchestra, trumpets blaring out loud. Cymbals do not tinkle or ring, they have a low, resounding timbre. But in any case, one might wonder why the person who did not understand the doctrine of Heavenly Love would be like the sound of accepted musical instruments.

The Greek text has the hidden clue. The actual words in the Greek were echoing bronze, and had nothing to do with trumpets asd our orchestral "brass". In the fifth books of Vitruvius' book On Architecture, published in 28 B.C. there is a detailed description of Echoing Bronzes, which were large cast urns placed in a ring around the back wall of Greco-Roman theaters, serving as tuned Helmholz resonators to amplify the sound of the actor's voices. As Vitruvius notes, this had become a necessity as wooden framed theaters were replaced by the stone ones we know from archaeology. Stone is a poor reflector of sound, and the urns were set in tuned tiers to resonate and amplify sounds which would have been inaudible.

Corinth had a famous set of these Sounding Resonators, which were stolen and melted down for coin by the Romans when they sacked Corinth in the middle of the second century B.C. But Corinth flourished as an important port under Roman rule and no doubt restored the urns, which Paul clearly has in mind. Vitruvius notes that some of the poorer towns of Italy substituted ceramic urns when they could not afford cast bronze ones, which shows that such resonators were a common feature of Greco-Roman civilization.

Let me give here an explanation of the "resonators" or echo-chambers as stated by Vitruvius. In Book 5 Section 4 he gives a full account of the technical science of Greek Harmonics, as preface to the Resonators or Echeia. He then describes the actual "sounding brasses" in the theaters, as follows:

1. IN accordance with the foregoing investigations on mathematical principles, let bronze vessels be made, proportionate to the size of the theatre, and let them be so fashioned that, when touched, they may produce with one another the notes of the fourth, the fifth, and so on up to the double octave. Then, having constructed niches in between the seats of the theatre, let the vessels be arranged in them, in accordance with musical laws, in such a way that they nowhere touch the wall, but have a clear space all round them and room over their tops. They should be set upside down, and be supported on the side facing the stage by wedges not less than half a foot high. Opposite each niche, apertures should be left in the surface of the seat next below, two feet long and half a foot deep.

2. The arrangement of these vessels, with reference to the situations in which they should be placed, may be described as follows. If the theatre be of no great size, mark out a horizontal range halfway up, and in it construct thirteen arched niches with twelve equal spaces between them, so that of the above mentioned │echea▓ those which give the note nete hyperbolaeon may be placed first on each side, in the niches which are at the extreme ends; next to the ends and a fourth below in pitch, the note nete diezeugmenon; third, paramese, a fourth below; fourth, nete synhemmenon; fifth, mese, a fourth below; sixth, hypate meson, a fourth below; and in the middle and another fourth below, one vessel giving the note hypate hypaton.

3. On this principle of arrangement, the voice, uttered from the stage as from a centre, and spreading and striking against the cavities of the different vessels, as it comes in contact with them, will be increased in clearness of sound, and will wake an harmonious note in unison with itself. But if the theatre be rather large, let its height be divided [p. 144] into four parts, so that three horizontal ranges of niches may be marked out and constructed: one for the enharmonic, another for the chromatic, and the third for the diatonic system. Beginning with the bottom range, let the arrangement be as described above in the case of a smaller theatre, but on the enharmonic system.

4. In the middle range, place first at the extreme ends the vessels which give the note of the chromatic hyperbolaeon; next to them, those which give the chromatic diezeugmenon, a fourth below; third, the chromatic synhemmenon; fourth, the chromatic meson, a fourth below; fifth, the chromatic hypaton, a fourth below; sixth, the paramese, for this is both the concord of the fifth to the chromatic hyperbolaeon, and the concord 1 of the chromatic synhemmenon.

5. No vessel is to be placed in the middle, for the reason that there is no other note in the chromatic system that forms Ó natural concord of sound. In the highest division and range of niches, place at the extreme ends vessels fashioned so as to give the note of the diatonic hyperbolaeon; next, the diatonic diezeugmenon, a fourth below; third, the diatonic synhemmenon; fourth, the diatonic meson, a fourth below; fifth, the diatonic hypaton, a fourth below; sixth, the [p. 145] proslambanomenos, a fourth below; in the middle, the note mese, for this is both the octave to proslambanomenos, and the concord of the fifth to the diatonic hypaton.

6. Whoever wishes to carry out these principles with ease, has only to consult the scheme at the end of this book, drawn up in accordance with the laws of music. It was left by Aristoxenus, who with great ability and labour classified and arranged in it the different modes. In accordance with it, and by giving heed to these theories, one can easily bring a theatre to perfection, from the point of view of the nature of the voice, so as to give pleasure to the audience.

7. Somebody will perhaps say that many theatres are built every year in Rome, and that in them no attention at all is paid to these principles; but he will be in error, from the fact that all our public theatres made of wood contain a great deal of boarding, which must be resonant. This may be observed from the behaviour of those who sing to the lyre, who, when they wish to sing in a higher key, turn towards the folding doors on the stage, and thus by their aid are reinforced with a sound in harmony with the voice. But when theatres are built of solid materials like masonry, stone, or marble, which cannot be resonant, then the principles of the │echea▓ must be applied.

8. If, however, it is asked in what theatre these vessels have been employed, we cannot point to any in Rome itself, but only to those in the districts of Italy and in a good many Greek states. We have also the evidence of Lucius Mummius, who, after destroying the theatre in Corinth, brought its bronze vessels to Rome, and made a dedicatory offering at the temple of Luna with the money obtained from the sale of them. Besides, many skilful architects, in constructing theatres in small towns, have, for lack of means, taken large jars made of clay, but similarly resonant, and have produced very advantageous results by arranging them on the principles described.

So much for the meaning of the "sounding brass" which must be translated as Resonators or echo-chambers. But exacltly why does Paul mention these resonators? In fact if you give the sounds of piety, of faith, of religiosity, but have not the central imbuing Spirit, you are merely resonating words, you have no voice of your own, you echo endlessly on and on. The modern analogue would be the stereo-speaker: You are like stereo-speakers which can reproduce perfectly and sound, but have no true voice of their own.

Then goiong on, why the cymbals? If the resonators were a mark of the Greek world, then cymbals used in the synagogues would call to mind the other side of Paul's inheritance, the Hebraic tradition. Putting together the auditory figures of the echoing resonators with the resonating cymbals, Paul deftly warns the Corinthians about the dangers of much sound and fury with little understanding or meaning, whether from Greco-Roman or Hebraic source. These figures stem from the Eastern Mediterranean world of two thousand years ago, and need either historical background or re-phrasing in the translation before their meaning appears.

There are other historical references in this unusual passage. Scholars noticed years ago that there is a remarkable similarity between this passage in the Epistle of Paul and a passage from the 7th c. B.C Greek poet Tyrtaeus, whose verse had become parts of the standard school syllabi which any student, like Paul, would have read in getting a Hellenistic education. Tyrtaeus says in effect: I would not put any man on my list for handsomeness, athletic prowess, for speed of foot, not even for persuasiveness of speech... if he had not arete (civic virtue) to stand firm in the front lines, to die if needs be for his country. Of course the notion of arete as excellence changes through time, in Plato's world it was still civic but highly intellectualized, at times indicating a mystical quality of mental superiority. But Paul, following the school passage, takes a different if parallel track. He lists his four traits which will NOT qualify a person for high esteem:

a) Though he speak with the tongues of men and angels...... This angelic speech is the ecstatic phonating which humans have done since the start of time, it may in fact pre-date language qua language. But it was felt by many then, as by some fundamentalists now, that this was direct speech funneled through the speaker from heavenly sources.

b) Though he have power to move mountains........This has been noted in modern times as the power of Phenomenology, the ability of mind to move matter, and it covers a wide range from the Islamic saint who stood on one foot for years until the tree came over to him, to the modern Israeli who gives secular performances of bending tableware mentally without touching it.

c) Though he give his body to be burned........ The reference is to the ancient indian practice of suttee, the live-cremation of a wife on her husband's funeral pyre. The word itself, suttee, is from Sanskrit present participle of the verb be: sant, fem. sg., sati being, being in the essential sense. being good, being saintly. The interpretation may seem strained but lies within the parameters of Hindu theology. Although suttee was not prescribed in the early Rig Veda, it persisted through the ages and was finally listed as a form of murder with an accomplice, by the British court ruling in l905. The fact that Paul has a generally low view of women coincides with his disapproval of this foreign, female aspiration to holiness.

d) Though he give away all his belongings to the poor......The reference to standard Stoic theory, if not practice, of the time is clear. The Stoic philosopher must have nothing more than a coat and a bowl,. and become a world-traveling mendicant, in the manner of a Buddhist monk. In the five centuries between the time of the Buddha and Christ a great deal of Buddhist attitude must have penetrated every part of the civilized world, even into the thinking of the Greek based Stoic theology.

So we have in four short phrases a wide ranging survey of prominent religious practices current in the world of the first century. This clears the air, wipes away the pretensions of standard religious pietisms, and prepares the reader for the New Doctrine:

There are Three Things of critical importance:

Faith, the Greek pistis, from the verb pisteuo have faith, believe...

Hope, or Greek elpis, from elpizo hope, hope for..., have hope, much like the English verb.

Agape. This is something quite different, a verb which is used from Homer in the 7 th c B.C. for showing affection, greeting affectionately, on through the ages, always with a sense of generalized, brotherly love. It is different from the standard verb phileo love, have love for..., and is used often in a sense of regard, have delicate affection for..., and may be used of children naturally.

The first problem is how the later world was going to translate agape into other languages. The Romans did it by rather clumsily creating an abstract noun, caritas, from the common adjective carus -a -um dear,dear to the heart, beloved. But this word could be used like phileo for a girlfriend, in fact by Indo-European derivations the third century Gothic horinon (which is clearly cognate) means go after whores, dearies. So caritas as agape is odd, and becomes more strange as the years of the Church progress, finally ending up as Charity with the precise meaning of the Greek eleos compassion anVulgar Latin alemosuna from Greek eleemosune compassion. But this in turn changed its meaning to public giving of aid, goods, money and English alms finally became institutionalized donations of cash for charitable causes.

Clearly Paul had no sense of any of this. Speaking of a characteristic which transcends Faith in deity and Hope of some good destiny like salvation, he fastens on a word which had been used for centuries for a benign Goodwill, a holy regard and acceptance of others, and perhaps an indirect reflection of Sanskrit 'bhaktih' which is reverence for god, devoted reverence, This is a term which had five centuries of active spreading through the Near Eastern world, with which the Eastern Mediterranean basin must have had contact again and again. Without pressing the point, one might consider a cross-cultural influence.

And so of these three things, in Greek ta tria tauta, assonating as in English, One stands supreme, the quality of something which we might best translate as affectionate and deep regard. If we mean this by English charity that is well enough, but it might be better to peel back the linguistic overlays to the established Hellenistic Greek word agape and rethink what it may have meant then, and what it should mean now in an uneasy and hostile world which badly needs the comfort of a deep personal regard for humanity.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris