We are more than halfway through the so-called authentic letters (ca. 50-66 CE) of the New Testament Paul. This past week our reading group discussed the first half of his first letter to the ekklesia at Corinth. This is the first of these seven epistles to provide something Jews might refer to as halakhic details for a distinctive set of two ecclesial practices—baptism into “the Lord” and the “Lord’s Supper” or eucharist, a Greek word that means thanksgiving. These practices, together with the unique nature and requirements for belonging to the ekklesia (at least as the Paul of this letter imagines it), are sufficient to establish a social and metaphysical communal identity that is deliberately distinct and separated from both the contemporaneous Jewish and Greek worlds in which it exists. It is definitely not Judaism, but it is also not the Christianity of the third and fourth centuries CE. The ekklesia communities and their member ekklesians neither refer to themselves as Christians, nor do they call their movement Christianity. In fact both terms, as they are commonly understood today, would be anachronisms. What these earliest New Testament texts attributed to Paul preserve and describe is what students of religious movements once would easily have labeled a cult. Today the more politically correct term is New Religious Movement, but I think this neutralizes the alienating, insular, and dangerous elements of this first century messianic movement, at least as it is laid out in the letters of Paul we have read thus far.
Twice this epistle to the Corinthians categorizes the ekklesians (ek-lay-SEE-ans) as something other than either Jews or Hellenes (that is, anyone not considered a Jew or Judaean by other Jews). Once, those in the ekklesia were indeed part of one group or the other, but now, after having been baptized “into Christ” they have stopped being either Jew or Gentile (Judean or Hellene) and have become brothers and sisters in the new, end-time ekklesia of God.
Being baptized into Christ meant relinquishing any pre-existing social, cultural, or religious identity a convert may have had. He would, through the water of baptism, “die” to the existing world with its old way of life and receive a new, more powerful spirit that would enable him to live as though he were dead to his own body and alive only to the will of his resurrected “Lord”. Ekklesians who hope to experience immortality after physical death would need to “live” proleptically (in the present as though the future redemption had already occurred), denying the pleasures, passions, and intimate relationships of a normal life. If they successfully endured to the end as a kind of self- sacrificial offering, they had the hope of attaining an immortal, non-corporeal “garment” like that of their resurrected “Lord”.
The subtext of 1 Corinthians, and by extension, all of the authentic Pauline letters we have studied thus far, could easily be compared to the worldview of any number of charismatic, apocalyptic leaders whose end times have failed to appear and whose own ends, not to mention the often catastrophic ends of their communities, have been less than stellar. While it might seem bizarre to those of us who are not cosmically inclined to suit up, lay down, take a nip of cyanide and wait to be transformed and transported to a new world by benevolent aliens like those in the Heaven’s Gate cult, Paul’s message is really not substantively different from Marshall Applewhite’s, and in fact religious ideas that hold out hope of an imminent end followed by immortality for the faithful often lead to physical death. Whether you voluntarily offer yourself up for execution and think of it as becoming a “living sacrifice” or you voluntarily commit suicide to meet your saviors at the precise moment of their arrival is merely a matter of theological framing. It is only cultural context that determines whether one act will be lauded as heroic and another ridiculed.
The ekklesians of the mid-first century Roman Empire might easily have met the same fate as the would be astronauts of Heaven’s Gate. But, I surmise that after or even during Paul’s course of ministry, there were other leaders of other ekklesias who took a much less alienating approach to living out their faith in the resurrection of Jesus. In fact, Paul often vilifies those who oppose him and who countermand his instructions for ekklesial life. These are not outsiders but insiders, Jews who like Paul think of themselves as members of the ekklesia and who preach a similar gospel about Jesus. His opponents apparently advocate circumcision for Gentiles, respect Jewish boundary mechanisms, and engage in Jewish religious and social life so as to be less offensive to other Jews, and more importantly, to remain connected to the Jews whose rather exclusivist religious service to their “one God” has been grandfathered in as a legitimate form of religion in a normatively polytheistic empire. Whether these opponents of Paul’s still consider their Jewish identity important or primary, or whether they, like Paul, think that ekklesial membership nullifies the significance of any other identity, Jewish or Hellene, is a question that may never be answered since none of their writings seem to have survived. For now we only have Paul’s perspective, and whatever we can deduce about his opponents’ alternative model of ekklesial life from reading between his lines.
Of course, the fourth century ekklesias received a lucky break when the Roman Emperors officially adopted and promoted the so-called Christian religion or cultus (that is their form of religious service or worship). Imperial acceptance would have obviated the need to make peace or identify socially, culturally or religiously with any other group, so that Christianity as we have come to know it survived and eventually flourished under the beneficence of imperial patronage.