Commentary on the Epistle Reading on the Sunday of the Prodigal Son

The text of this Epistle (1 Cor. 6:12–20) has always caused confusion among the exegetes of the past who regarded all words as though they belonged to Apostle Paul. Apparently, he contradicted himself in this fragment! Their clever attempts to “harmonize” the words of the great Apostle of the nations have now become part of the history of biblical exegesis. However, the right interpretation turned out to be easier than it seemed.

Based on the data provided by contemporary scholarly exegesis, Archimandrite Januarius presents this fragment as an imaginary dialogue. Henceforth we use italics to highlight the remarks of the imaginary opponent of Apostle Paul, which the apostle quotes in his Epistle.

6 12a All things are lawful unto me,

12b but all things are not expedient:

12c all things are lawful for me,

12d but I will not be brought under the power of any.

13a Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats: but God shall destroy both it and them.

13b Now the body is not for fornication, but for the Lord; and the Lord for the body. And God hath both raised up the Lord, and will also raise up us by his own power. Know ye not that your bodies are the members of Christ? shall I then take the members of Christ, and make them the members of an harlot? God forbid. 16 What? know ye not that he which is joined to an harlot is one body? for two, saith he, shall be one flesh.

17 But he that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit. 18 Flee fornication.

18b Every sin that a man doeth is without the body;

18c but he that committeth fornication sinneth against his own body. 19 What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own? 20 For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.

The translator explains, “To understand this fragment correctly, we should be aware of the following facts. Diatribes (rants) are one of the favorite genres of Ancient Greek and Roman literature, starting with Plato’s dialogues. The diatribes of Apostle Paul typically consist of a back-and-forth with an imaginary opponent echoing the real discussions that the apostle had to engage in during his vibrant and daring missionary work. Diatribes are similar to rhetorical questions and answers to them. They are used, first of all, to furnish dialectical vivacity and clarity<…> secondly, to express vibrant feelings of surprise, rejection, or happy excitement<…> Unfortunately, the style of Pauline writings in particular and the style of the Holy Scripture in general has received little attention from the biblical scholars in the course of the long history of research and interpretation of the Bible. [This lack of attention] took its toll on biblical translations <…> and commentaries. It wasn’t always clear from the Epistles of Apostle Paul where his own words were vs. where his imaginary opponent’s words were; where the apostle was quoting or rephrasing his wrong-headed interlocutors vs. where he was responding to their misconceptions. Naturally, the absence of proper breaking-down of the written text into paragraphs and sentences and the general absence of punctuation typical of ancient manuscripts contributed to the aforementioned lack of attention, which was becoming more glaring over time.” (Archimandrite Januarius Ivliev. Diatribe in the Epistles of Paul… pp. 11–12).

We observe in this case, as well as in many other cases, a lamentable example of a wide split between the data supplied by contemporary biblical science and the mundane perception of the Holy Scripture even in theological seminaries, let alone quotidian liturgical practice. Thus, the standard greeting of the faithful, Brethren…, followed by All things are lawful unto me… does not mean that it was Apostle Paul who said those words. On the contrary, these words belong to his opponents, whose opinions he hotly contested. Therefore, the conventional interpretation of these words as his own is a direct distortion of his theology (albeit unintentional, out of ignorance)! I wonder what he would say if he heard this reading of his Epistles in our churches? Undoubtedly, he would repeat the words he addressed to the heedless Corinthians, I praise you not. (1 Cor. 11:22).

Translated by The Catalog of Good Deeds

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