A Final Exam?

Editorial by Art Dewey

From The Fourth R
Volume 32, Issue 1
January – February 2018

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Recently the devil got into me again. I asked graduate students taking my Introduction to the Bible

to step into the unknown. In twelve weeks we had breathlessly worked through significant portions of the Hebrew scriptures and Christian writings. The students went from parsing the possible sources of Exodus to discovering that the oracles of Amos

hearkened back to a God who remembered slaves. They began to appreciate how the poetry of Genesis 1 opposed the

dominating rhythms of the Babylonians’ national anthem, the Enuma Elish. They detected that the Covenant was not simply graven in stone, but revised again and again in the experience of Israel. We caught the lightning of apocalyptic literature before entering into the time of Jesus. There we tried to catch the voiceprint of the historical Jesus. Paul’s letters gave us a chance to distinguish some scintillations of early Jesus communities. We contended with the Scroll of Revelation and ended with a flourish of second-century texts (Acts of the Apostles, the Pastoral Letters, the Acts of

Paul and Thecla). Yes, it was an exhausting and exhilarating journey.

Now since we had spent a significant amount of time on 1 Corinthians, I yielded to the temptation to return in the final exam to what I had termed the “sci-fi” of the first

century. I had stressed that Paul was advising this contentious community to get beyond their penchant for individual success stories. He argued that the Corinthians had

misinterpreted the world-transforming message he had delivered. The life they lived was a life shared. The Body

of the Anointed was not a quarrelsome bone of competition but an interdependent experience of care and trust.

Moreover, Paul anticipated objections by some of the Corinthians. Evidently some concluded that, equipped with God’s power and presence, they had gone beyond convention and presently lived a transcendent life. Here

Paul differed. He did not see the Corinthians’ interpretation of life in solidarity with the Anointed to be limited to

what they maintained. Since the future had broken in, for

Paul there was more to come. He brought this up by imagining a sarcastic objection, namely the ludicrous thought

(for someone who no longer had regard for the body) of a resurrected body. But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come back?” Stupid man, what you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you

sow is not the body which it will be; what you sow is a bare seed, it could be of wheat or one of the other grains. God gives it the body God intended, and to each kind of seed God gives its own kind of body. ... There are also heavenly bodies and earthly bodies; but

the splendor of the heavenly is of one kind and the splendor of the earthly is of a different kind. (1 Cor 15:35–38,

40 SV) First, Paul used the science of his day to respond to this objection. The ancients actually thought each seed “died” when it was sown. There was no modern sense of a seed organically growing into a plant. An abrupt intervention of divine power provided the growth and “new body” of the plant. Secondly, Paul assumes the ancient cosmology, where what is above is the realm of spirit. Philo noted that the stars and planets have or even are “minds.” Paul then goes on to conclude that And so the dead will come to life like that: sown in corruption, raised incorruptible; sown in a condition of humiliation,

raised in a state of splendor; sown in a condition of weakness, raised in a state of power. Sown with a body fit for

earthly life, they are raised with a body fit for God’s new world. If there is such a thing as a body fit for earthly life, there is also such a thing as a body fit for life in God’s new world. As scripture says, “The first Adam was created for earthly life,” the last Adam became a life-creating power. ... Just as we have borne the likeness of the earthly man, so we will also bear the likeness of the heavenly man. (1 Cor 15:42–45, 49 SV) When we read these passages closely in class, I made

sure that everyone recognized that Paul imagined a resurrected body to be like that of a sun or star. Those of us

who live after Galileo can no longer see the heavens as the abode of the spirit. Paul’s cosmology is no longer ours. Nor do we see seeds “dying” when sown. Three further points should be made. First, the term “resurrection” comes from the apocalyptic speculations of second-century bce Jewish scribes. They envisioned that the God of Israel would remember innocent victims

and “cause them to stand again.” So, whenever resurrection is mentioned, there is an abiding concern with justice.

Second, Paul was trying to speak about transformation. In fact, when you read through Paul’s letters you begin to see the variety of images and metaphors he used to speak of transformation. Third, the future plays a decisive role in this passage. Paul did not return to the past, that is, to a creation in the past. He spoke of a new creation invading the present. Not just space but time is involved in Paul’s argument. I concluded the exam with this challenge: The task before you bedeviled Rudolf Bultmann: How can we carry forward the world-transforming message into our world? Is it still possible? What happens when we see that we do not share A Final Exam?

the same natural and cosmic assumptions? Do these words no longer have meaning for us? Or can we learn something from Paul? Dare we envision transformation today? Can we hope any longer for justice? Are there new, deep meta- phors that arise from our experience and speak of what is real but unimaginable? This as an opportunity for each of us to put some flesh on the bones of our hope. It is where genuine theology begins.

Are you enjoying this article? The Fourth R magazine shares the latest thinking from religion scholars and writers—in non-technical language aimed at a general audience (6 issues annually).

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.

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