Once more — Paul’s Letter a Rewritten Scripture?

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by Neil Godfrey

Modern epiphany procession: St Josephs, Singapore, Good Friday 2009

This one is my own “find” (if it is indeed a real find; that’s up to you to decide). I begin with Paul’s reference to the veil of Moses. That’s the easy part. What we are looking for, however, is not scattered references to “Old Testament” passages but indications of lengthy passages that have been rewritten for a “New Covenant” context.

So we begin with Moses veil and Paul’s comparison of that with the blindness of the unsaved as well as the complementary comparison of both Moses and Christians taking on the glory of God.

What precedes Paul’s points about being changed into a glorious image is

  • Paul’s refusal to visit the Corinthians and instead sending them a letter that made them grieve
  • An appeal for mercy to the wrongdoer
  • The image of the church as a procession of a divine epiphany that promised life and death [many translators have described a prisoner in a Roman triumphal procession but we will see that that image is incomplete and misleading]
  • Comparison of letter and spirit: letter kills.
God passes before Moses, Mount Sinai, circa Pentecost, 1400 BC

What precedes Moses having a shining face is

  • God’s refusal to go with his people and their remorse
  • Moses appeals to God for mercy for the wrongdoers
  • God showing himself to Moses and making promises of both mercy and death
  • The ten commandments repeated: the cause of the death of 3000

What follows Paul’s point about being transformed into God’s glory is a discussion of

  • our earthly tabernacle and how we long to have it changed into a heavenly tabernacle, with tabernacle being a metaphor for body, of course.

What follows the description of Moses face shining with divine glory is

  • the construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness.

That is:

2 Corinthians 2-5 Exodus 32-40
Paul’s refusal to visit the Corinthians and instead sending them a letter that made them grieve God’s refusal to go with his people and their remorse
An appeal for mercy to the wrongdoer Moses appeals to God for mercy for the wrongdoers
The image of the church as a procession of a divine epiphany that promised life and death God showing himself to Moses and making promises of both mercy and death
Not administering the letter which kills, spirit gives life Ten commandments engraved in stone by Moses
Christians transformed into glorious image of Christ Moses face transformed by and into God’s glory
Our earthly tabernacle and how we long to have it changed into a heavenly tabernacle The construction of the tabernacle in the wilderness


The details where the devils are. . .

2 Corinthians 1:23 – 5:4 Exodus 32 – 40
2:1 I determined not to come to you again in heaviness

1:23 Moreover I call God for a record upon my soul, that to spare you I came not as yet unto Corinth. 24 Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith ye stand.

32:31ff — Moses earnestly begs God not to destroy Israel — “kill me instead”

33:3 [The Lord said to Moses] “Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.”

2:2 For if I make you sorry, who is he then that maketh me glad, but the same which is made sorry by me? 3 And I wrote this same unto you, lest, when I came, I should have sorrow from them of whom I ought to rejoice . . . 4 For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears; not that ye should be grieved, but that ye might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you. 33:4 When the people heard these distressing words, they began to mourn and no one put on any ornaments.
— no match — 33:7 Now Moses used to take a tent and pitch it outside the camp some distance away, calling it the “tent of meeting.” Anyone inquiring of the Lord would go to the tent of meeting outside the camp. 8 And whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people rose and stood at the entrances to their tents, watching Moses until he entered the tent. 9 As Moses went into the tent, the pillar of cloud would come down and stay at the entrance, while the Lord spoke with Moses. 10 Whenever the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance to the tent, they all stood and worshipped, each at the entrance to their tent. 11 The Lord would speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend. Then Moses would return to the camp, but his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent.
2:10 To whom ye forgive anything, I forgive also: for if I forgave any thing, to whom I forgave it, for your sakes forgave I it in the person of Christ; 33:17 And the Lord said to Moses, “I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.”
2:14 Now thanks be unto God, [who leads us in an epiphany procession], and maketh manifest the savour of his knowledge by us in every place. [see note below this table]

2:15 For we are unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish:

2:16 To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life.

34:5 Then the Lord came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the Lord. 6 And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.” . . .  10 The people you live among will see how awesome is the work that I, the Lord, will do for you.
2:17 For we are not as many, which corrupt the word of God: but as of sincerity, but as of God, in the sight of God speak we in Christ. 34:11  Obey what I command you today. . . .
3:2 Ye are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read of all men: Forasmuch as ye are manifestly declared to be the epistle of Christ ministered by us, written not with ink, but with the Spirit of the living God; not in tables of stone, but in fleshy tables of the heart.

. . . . 6 Who also hath made us able ministers of the new [covenant]; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.

no treaties with the locals

no idols

feast of unleavened bread

firstborn offering

sabbath day

three annual festivals

no yeast in sacrifices

no kid boiled in mother’s milk

34:1 The Lord said to Moses, “Chisel out two stone tablets like the first ones, and I will write on them the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. . . .

34:27  Then the Lord said to Moses, “Write down these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” 28 Moses was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.

3:7 But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away:

8 How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious?

9 For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.

10 For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth.

11 For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.

12 Seeing then that we have such hope, we use great plainness of speech:

13 And not as Moses, which put a veil over his face, that the children of Israel could not stedfastly look to the end of that which is abolished:

14 But their minds were blinded: for until this day remaineth the same vail untaken away in the reading of the old testament; which vail is done away in Christ.

15 But even unto this day, when Moses is read, the vail is upon their heart.

16 Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the vail shall be taken away.

17 Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

18 But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord.

34:29 When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; so Aaron and all the leaders of the community came back to him, and he spoke to them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near him, and he gave them all the commands the Lord had given him on Mount Sinai.

33 When Moses finished speaking to them, he put a veil over his face. 34 But whenever he entered the Lord’s presence to speak with him, he removed the veil until he came out. And when he came out and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 they saw that his face was radiant. Then Moses would put the veil back over his face until he went in to speak with the Lord.

4:1 Therefore seeing we have this ministry, as we have received mercy, we faint not;

2 But have renounced the hidden things of dishonesty, not walking in craftiness, nor handling the word of God deceitfully; but by manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.

3 But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost:

4 In whom the god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them.

5 For we preach not ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord; and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake.

6 For God, who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, hath shined in our hearts, to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

35:1 Moses assembled the whole Israelite community and said to them, “These are the things the Lord has commanded you to do:

2 For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh day shall be your holy day, a day of sabbath rest to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it is to be put to death. . . .


[The “parallel” is a contrast: the law of spirit as opposed to the law of outward rituals; the command of one is for light to shine and for the other for sabbaths to be kept.]

4:7 But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us.

[The earthen vessels, “our bodies”, are the counterpart to the containers “holding the sacred objects of the cult, which are, in turn, the bearers of the deity’s power.” (Duff, 88)]

35:4 Moses said to the whole Israelite community, “This is what the Lord has commanded: 5 From what you have, take an offering for the Lord. . . .

[Details here of all the sacred objects for the tabernacle.]

40:1 Then the Lord said to Moses: 2 “Set up the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, . . .

The themes of calling out to God for mercy and the message of God’s compassion brought to the author a reminder of Psalm 116

4:8 We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed*; we are perplexed, but not in despair;

9 Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed~;

10 Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body.

11 For we which live are always delivered unto death for Jesus’ sake, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our mortal flesh.$

12 So then death worketh in us, but life in you.

13 We having the same spirit of faith, according as it is written, I believed, and therefore have I spoken; we also believe, and therefore speak^; [this association noted in bible margins]

14 Knowing that he which raised up the Lord Jesus shall raise up us also by Jesus, and shall present us with you.

15 For all things are for your sakes, that the abundant grace` might through the thanksgiving of many redound to the glory of God.

16 For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.

17 For our light affliction, which is but for a moment#, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory;

18 While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. [the Psalmist’s reward was earthly – among God’s people and in the Temple]

. . .  Psalm 116 

 I love the Lord, for he heard my voice;
    he heard my cry for mercy.
Because he turned his ear to me,
    I will call on him as long as I live.

The cords of death entangled me,
    the anguish of the grave came over me;
    I was overcome by distress and sorrow.*
Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    Lord, save me!”

The Lord is gracious and righteous;
    our God is full of compassion.
The Lord protects the unwary;
    when I was brought low, he saved me~.

Return to your rest, my soul,
    for the Lord has been good to you.

For you, Lord, have delivered me from death,$
    my eyes from tears,
    my feet from stumbling,
that I may walk before the Lord
    in the land of the living.

10 I believed, therefore I spoke^, [this association noted in bible margins]
“I am greatly afflicted.”

11 I said in my haste,
“All men are liars.”

12 What shall I render to the Lord
For all His benefits toward me`?
13 I will take up the cup of salvation,
And call upon the name of the Lord.
14 I will pay my vows to the Lord
Now in the presence of all His people.

15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
Is the death of His saints.

16 Lord, truly I am Your servant;
am Your servant, the son of Your maidservant;
You have loosed my bonds#.
17 I will offer to You the sacrifice of thanksgiving,
And will call upon the name of the Lord.

18 I will pay my vows to the Lord
Now in the presence of all His people,
19 In the courts of the Lord’s house,
In the midst of you, O Jerusalem.

5:1 For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

2 For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven:

3 If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked.

4 For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.

40:1 Then the Lord said to Moses: 2 “Set up the tabernacle, the tent of meeting, . . .

40:33 . . . And so Moses finished the work.

40:34 Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.

For those who are curious about my substitution of a religious epiphany procession for the Roman triumphal procession in 2:14, here are some passages from a 1991 article by Paul Duff:

Paul characterizes himself as “led in triumph” by God because he wants to communicate a broader interpretation of θριαμβεύω . . . [T]he art and literature of the Greco-Roman world provide indications that this image of the triumphal procession need not be strictly limited to the military procession of a victorious general. Such indications suggest that an epiphany procession of a deity could be metaphorically portrayed as a triumphal procession.

This metaphorical usage—an epiphany procession metaphorically depicted as a triumphal parade—probably came about because many deities in the ancient world were considered victors. Dionysus was, of course, seen as such. In Greco-Roman times, he was considered the triumphator par excellence as well as the inventor of the triumphal procession. Isis was also viewed as a victorious deity.
(Duff 83)

Since the worshippers of a deity were not uncommonly referred to as prisoners in the Greco-Roman world, it should come as no surprise that the epiphany procession of deities such as Dionysus or Isis could be characterized as triumphal processions, as the above examples demonstrate.
(Duff 86)

It is not the vengeance of God “leading the apostle captive” before the eyes of the Corinthians as 2 Cor 2:14 would, at first glance, seem to indicate. Rather, it is the love of Christ which has “taken Paul captive.” The image that Paul calls forth in 2 Cor 5:14a is comparable to the metaphor of the Roman triumph that the Latin poet Ovid uses to articulate the power that his lover had over him:

In thy train shall be captive youths and captive maids; such a pomp will be for thee a stately triumph. Myself, a recent spoil, shall be there with wound all freshly dealt, and bear my new bonds with unresisting heart. Conscience shall be led along with hands tied fast behind her back, and Modesty, and all who are foes of the camp of Love. Before thee shall all tremble; the crowd, stretching forth their hands to thee, shall chant with a loud voice: “Ho Triumph!”

By introducing the term συνέχω in 2 Cor 5:14, Paul reinterprets the verb θριαμβεύω of 2 Cor 2:14 according to his own understanding of his mission. Paul, if you will, “plays” with the definition of θριαμβεύω . . . . Although Paul might look like he is being “led in triumph,” a victim of defeat, the object of the vengeance of God, he is in fact a captive of the “love of Christ.” He is a participant not in a military victory parade but in an epiphany procession. He has been captured, not as a prisoner of war, but as a devotee of the deity.
(Duff 87)

      • [H]e depicts himself as the fragrant substances spread in such processions which informed the bystanders of the god’s or goddess’s presence (2:14-16).
      • In 2 Cor 4:7 he describes himself as the vessel holding the sacred objects of the cult, which are, in turn, the bearers of the deity’s power.
      • In 2 Cor 4:10, he describes himself as manifesting the beneficent or saving activity of the deity in the manner that a religious procession would carry about and display the epiphany of the deity.
      • Finally, at the end of the letter fragment, in 2 Cor 6:13 and 7:2, he addresses the Corinthian community: “Be wide open (πλατύνθήτε) for us. . . . Make room (χωρήσατε) for us.” Here he represents himself as the herald who walked before the sacred object or image, announcing its presence, and preparing bystanders for the deity’s epiphany.

Each time Paul alludes to processions, following the introduction of the motif in 2:14, he emphatically demonstrates that his ministry is comparable to the epiphany type “triumphal” procession rather than to the procession of prisoners of war on the way to their death.
(Duff 88), my formatting and highlighting)

In v 10, Paul uses the word περιφέρω (“to carry around”) to describe his preaching activity. This particular verb is often found in descriptions of epiphany processions. Here Paul portrays his public sufferings metaphorically with an allusion to an epiphany procession of the ancient world. In such a procession an image of the deity, a cult object, or even a scene from the life of the deity was paraded in front of the worshippers. In such a way the epiphany procession mediated “the power of God” (2 Cor 4:7) to the believer. In this verse Paul describes that which is being carried about as “the dying of Jesus.” In other words, the “dying of Jesus” represents the cult object which mediates the epiphany.
(Duff 89)

The verb φανερόω of 2:14b accurately describes the primary function of the epiphany procession. This type of procession presented to onlookers the manifestation of the deity in one form or another. Several passages from Greco-Roman literature explicitly ascribe this function to the epiphany processions of the time.
(Duff 90)

[T]he paramount purpose of Greco-Roman epiphany processions was the manifestation of the sacred.

Accordingly, in 2 Cor 2:14b, Paul ties the verb φανερόω with an allusion to Greco-Roman epiphany processions. Just as those processions featured aromatic substances such as incense or scented oil whose function was to indicate to those present the epiphany of the deity, so Paul depicts his evangelizing efforts as the manifestation of “the scent of [God’s] knowledge.”
(Duff 91)

Duff, Paul Brooks. “Metaphor, Motif, and Meaning: The Rhetorical Strategy behind the Image ‘Led in Triumph’ in 2 Corinthians 2:14.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 53, no. 1 (1991): 79–92.

Rosner, Brian S. Paul, Scripture, and Ethics: A Study of 1 Corinthians 5-7. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Pub Group, 1999.


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6 thoughts on “Once more — Paul’s Letter a Rewritten Scripture?”

  1. Yes. Clearly Paul is a thief or plagarist. Stealing lengthy old testament themes, and at best, twisting them into spiritual metaphors, narratives. As in the case of his Prophet-like, Moses-like execration of those who did not believe.

    There was long a scholarly school, by the way, that held that most of the holy books were rewritten liturgical formulas. From religious, church rituals. Like the blessing of a new temple; exorcisms; psalms; marriage ceremonies; conversion or baptism rites; etc. Here, old formulas for purifying with fire, relating to dedicating new temples, might also be part of the old testament; becomming the models Paul had in mind too.

    (Honestly, I can’t remember the name of that school, but I’ve always liked it.)

    Keep up the good work.

    1. Michael Goulder proposed that the gospels were liturgical writings. John Shelby Spong has popularized his idea with Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. I posted on aspects of that book (see https://vridar.org/tag/spong-liberating-the-gospels/) but did not dwell on its liturgical theme. I should post something about that. The idea should not be lost in the recesses of university or seminary halls.

  2. The influence or midrashing of Exod 32-40 on 2 Cor 2-5 seems clear and demonstrated from your side-by-side comparison. Seems in genre like a variant of the closing lines of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech spinning off millennial imagery in Isaiah. I have heard a hundred sermons like this in genre: read a text, then run through it again with contemporizing and often skilful irony and gripping imagery for present meaning, making that passage “come alive” in the present. When well done it is powerful and effective. Think the old “Cotton Patch” translation of the Gospel of Matthew in which the stories and red-letter words of Jesus were retold in street language of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s Deep South of America. It read as utterly hilarious in certain passages while at the same time delivering a powerful serious punch. I knew even as a kid that that translation was effective when I heard the politically conservative pastor of my parents’ Methodist church denounce it as communist-inspired.

    1. Yes. But today all these vociferous exhortations strike me as a little too Trumpian. Especially with fire and brimstone behind them. Though Paul nearly manages to derail the violence, into nonviolent enthusiasm.

      If you like the melodramatic update genre, I prefer the song “Jesus Crossed the Rio Grande” (?). “Jesus” being a fairly common first name among Hispanics.

    1. It certainly does look a lot like Catholic ritualism. But those religious rituals would in turn have been partially derived, with syncretism, from earlier myths and rituals; some from the OT.

      As per say, Von Rad (?SP?)

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