New Testament Epistles

Notes and Questions for the Presentation on the New Testament Epistles. By: Jose Morones

Unless otherwise noted, the notes herein have been taken verbatim from the Anselm Academic Study Bible in the introduction to the corresponding books or from George Montague’s Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: First Corinthians.

1 Corinthians 15

Paul’s definition of the gospel he preaches is given in 1 Cor 15:1-7 and abbreviated elsewhere (1:17). [This letter addresses] social concerns of believers attempting to live the Christian life within a thoroughly Greco-Roman world [somewhere] between 54 and 56 CE. The final Corinthian concern that Paul addresses has to do with questions about the resurrection of the dead. . . The resurrection of Christ is the foundation of all belief (1 Cor 15:14, 17).

Context: The membership of the Corinthian Christian community includes both Gentiles and Jews (12:13). Because of its strategic location. . . by the first century CE, the city had eclipsed Athens in economic and political importance

Originally a native Greek city, it was devastated by the Roman general Lucius Mummius in 146 BC, then was rebuilt in 44 BC by Julius Caesar, who established it as a colony of freed slaves. When Paul arrived between AD 49 and 51, he found a population of Romans, Greeks, and Near Easterners of every provenance, including a number of Jews –all attracted by the commercial advantages of the city. The city was composed of a small number of wealthy merchants, a large number of poor workmen, and a great number of slaves –an additional sign of the wealth of the city (Montague, 18).

Father George Montague (260) cites N.T. Wright concerning 1 Corinthians 15 and the beliefs of non-Christian or non-Jewish believers vis-à-vis the resurrection of the dead:

Who were the dead thought to be, in the ancient pagan world? They were beings that had once been embodied human beings, but were now souls, shades, or eidola. Where were they? Most likely in Hades; possibly in the Isles of the Blessed, or Tartarus; just conceivably, reincarnated into a different body altogether. . .. We cannot stress too strongly that from Homer onwards the language of “resurrection” was not used to denote “life after death” in general, or any of the phenomena supposed to occur within such life. The great majority of the ancients believed in life after death, . . . but, other than within Judaism and Christianity, they did not believe in resurrection.

[Were the Corinthians misunderstanding the mystery of the Resurrection?] The source of this misunderstanding is probably twofold: First, the Greek mind had no conception of bodily life after death. Plato held the soul to be immortal, but he certainly did not think of the person’s reclaiming bodily life. And second, the experience of the Spirit was so strong among the Corinthian Christians that some of them considered that in itself to be the resurrection that Paul proclaimed (Montague, 262).

Questions on 1 Corinthians 15

  1. Why is it very important for Paul to begin this section on “The Resurrection of the Dead” emphasizing his preaching the gospel and the Corinthians having believed it? (1 Cor 15: 1-11).
  2. What could be some of the reasons the Corinthians find it difficult to believe in the resurrection of the dead?
    Are the Corinthians denying Christ’s resurrection or simply the resurrection of “the dead” (in spite of the latter being a “natural” consequence of the former? (cf. v.12-13)
  3. What is the eschatological import of comparing the Adam-Man to the Adam-Christ vis-à-vis understanding the resurrection of the dead? (v.20-23).
    Think of the end of times taking us back to the beginning or understanding the former in view of the latter, or the implication behind the German terms Urzeit and Endzeit explained by Dr. Hanneken last week: “We can know about the end-time by reasoning from the pattern and reversal of the first-time” (Hanneken).

1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:28

[Like any other canonical letter, 1 Thessalonians needs to be read within its social, political and cultural context. Besides addressing other questions, Paul deals with the question of the dead members of the community].

Thessalonica had been under Roman rule for two centuries but culturally remained a Greek city. . . . Paul describes Jesus, crucified by imperial authorities, as Lord of the universe. He will “come down from heaven” (1 Thes 4:16) to punish the evil and vindicate the good. He will save believers “from the coming wrath” (1:10). The Pax Romana—the peace proclaimed by the emperor—was conceived as salvation for all. But Paul writes that “sudden disaster” will come upon those who say “peace and security” (5:3).

Eschaton means “end-time.” Eschatological hopes are natural in times of crisis—the hope for freedom and liberation, for independence from foreign occupation, for justice, for a savior. The eschatological time is not the end of history but the beginning of a new stage when the reign of evil that distorts all creation is ended at last. Common eschatological images are of a future wrath and judgment, the second coming or “day of the Lord” a new covenant, and all nations worshiping the true God of Israel.

. . . . For now, divine judgment is still in the future. No one knows when it will become present. But Paul does not seem concerned. They are not in darkness, he says, they are children of light and of the day (5:4-5). They are destined for salvation (5:8). They are ready for eschatological battle. The weapons are defensive, the breastplate and helmet (5:8). They are connected with the virtues of faith, hope, and love (1:3). Paul is not worried about the surprise arrival of the day of the Lord because in the community’s faith, hope, and love it is already being realized. Salvation is already a present reality.

. . . The question posed to Timothy when he visited them (3:2) and that Paul addresses was one of belonging, rather than the theological question of resurrection. Were the members who had died still to be included in salvation when Christ comes again?

Paul answers with an enthusiastic yes. Not only will they be included, he assures them, but Jesus will first gather up those who have died. Then, in an expression charged with joy, Paul draws everyone into the image: “We who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. Thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thes 4:17). This is an example of development in Paul’s own thinking. Chances are he had not yet thought about the death of assembly members. But when confronted with the question, he seeks first to calm anxieties and then to formulate an answer consistent with other eschatological images and language.

Questions on 1 Thessalonians 4:13-5:28

  1. Why may the “Rapture’ vision find such a welcoming reception in some Christian circles? What are some of its enchantments?
  2. How may the vision of “Rapture” either hinder or promote the believer’s ability to act responsibly and committed to issues pertaining to this world such social justice, the common good, making a better world, etc.?
  3. Has Catholic doctrine ever been close to the idea of the “Rapture” or has it always taken a different view on this kind of eschatological themes?
  4. In what way does verses 30-32 reflect or lack an eschatological view of martyrdom comparable to that of 2 Maccabees 7?

2 Thessalonians

Unlike 1 Thessalonians, which is considered an undisputed letter, without question written by Paul, many scholars consider this second letter of disputable authorship. [Their legitimate doubts derive from some obvious difference found between the two letters]. For example, Paul expects the day of the Lord in his lifetime; he does not speculate about the date, but he believes it to be imminent. For Paul suddenly to place the day of the Lord far into the future would be odd. Or possibly Paul is not the author here. [The harshness of Paul towards the lawlessness is just another theological issue totally absent in 1 Thessalonians. If 2 Thessalonians is indeed written by someone other than Paul, H]ow is the writer using Paul? Is it simple imitation? Or is he using Paul to reverse himself on matters of eschatological expectation and the shape of the community?

Questions for 2 Thessalonians:

Supposing Paul is the author in both letters,

  1. What would have been some of the reasons for Paul to modify his take on the imminent Parousia? (cf. 2:1-2).
    a) Or are these verses sufficient evidence to suppose that another author other than Paul is writing 2 Thessalonians? Why or why not? (cf.3:17-18).
  2. Why would Paul show himself very encouraging and kind in 1 Thessalonians but harsh and revengeful in 2 Thessalonians towards the same members of the community?

In order to send this reading guide a bit earlier (I’m already late), some notes and/or questions on 2 Peter and the “Rapture” article will be presented in class. Sorry for the inconvenience!