2006-12-24

Did Paul wish he could be cursed from Christ for sake of Israel?

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by Neil Godfrey

Reading Troels Engberg-Pedersen (Paul and Stoic teaching techniques etc) and studies in rhetorical/literary analyis (narrative voices and all that) have led to a different perspective on that famous passage in Romans where Paul writes:

I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my kinsmen according to the flesh…. (9:1-3)

It’s a pretty flamboyant expression that certainly has the effect of getting readers’ attentions and getting them to gawk in some awe at their superior apostle. I wonder if the author is rhetorically identifying himself with Christ or the interceding Spirit, which is the theme of the preceding chapter.

The passage is comparable Philippians 3:8 where Paul, like the good Stoic teacher who presented himself as the personification of the goal of Logos/Reason, identifies himself with the Christ of Philippians 2:7 — both Paul and Christ give up all status and position to become as nothing in order to win both salvation for others and greater glory from God.

Romans is a reworking of Galatians where Christ is made the curse for the salvation of Israel (Gal.3:13), and here in Romans Paul is talking of those who “have it all” on one level but need the sacrifice of one to be made a curse for their salvation — the Spirit (which is identified with Christ in ch.8) groans in suffering as it intercedes for salvation, with our minds not knowing how they ought to pray. Given the abundance of citations from Exodus in this section of Romans it is not surprising that this passage of Romans (9:1-3) reminds us of Moses offering a similar prayer: “Yet now, if you will forgive their sin — and if not, blot me out of your book, I beg you…” (Exodus 32:32).

Possibly what gives Paul licence to actually express a wish to be “cursed” if that could save Israel (he chooses his words carefully: he doesn’t say “go to hell” or “be terminally dead” — though those thoughts are the rhetorical implication certainly) is his habit of identifying himself with the Christ he preaches (c.f. I Cor.11:1; Gal.2:20 etc.), of presenting himself to his audience as a model of the one he presents as their goal.

Neil

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