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The Divine Comedy at Corinth: Paul, Menander and the Rhetoric of Resurrection

  • Michael Benjamin Cover (a1)

This article asks how the New Comedy of Menander might have influenced Paul's theological rhetoric in 1 Cor 5–15. An intertextual reading of Paul's letter against the backdrop of Menander's Samia reveals a number of shared topics, ethical concerns and dramatic characteristics. Paul's citation of Menander's Thais in 1 Cor 15.33 is part of this larger strategy to frame the struggles in Corinth within the ambit of Greek household ‘situation comedy’. Like Menander, Paul hybridises tragic and comic motifs throughout his epistle, inflecting the comedy of the Christ narrative with tragic examples of human misapprehension in this plea for ecclesial reconciliation.

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1 For the popularity of Menander's Maxims in the Roman period, see Nervegna, S., Menander in Antiquity: The Contexts of Reception (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) 208.

2 See Wagner, J. R., Heralds of the Good News: Isaiah and Paul ‘in Concert’ in the Letter to the Romans (NovTSup 101; Leiden: Brill, 2002); and Hays, R. B., Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989).

3 The combination of scriptural and classical quotations in Jewish argumentation is not unique to Paul. See e.g. Philo, Mut. 179 and 195. Philo, Det. 38 cites a similar but non-metrical version of the maxim in 1 Cor 15.33.

4 Müller, U. B., Die Menschwerdung des Gottessohnes: frühchristliche Inkarnationsvorstellungen und die Anfänge des Doketismus (SBS 140; Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1990) 20–6; Stowers, S. K, ‘Romans 7:7–25 as a Speech-in-Character Prosōpopoia’, in Paul in his Hellenistic Context (ed. Engberg-Petersen, T.; Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995) 180202, at 199; S. Vollenweider, ‘Die Metamorphose des Gottessohns: Zum epiphanialen Motivfeld in Phil 2,6–8’, idem, Horizonte neutestamentlicher Christologie: Studien zu Paulus und zur frühchristlichen Theologie (WUNT 1.144; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002) 285306; Friesen, C., ‘Paulus Tragicus: Staging Apostolic Adversity in 1 Corinthians’, JBL 134 (2015) 813–32; Cover, M. B., ‘The Death of Tragedy: The Form of God in Euripides's Bacchae and Paul's Carmen Christi’, HTR 111 (2018) 6689.

5 Friesen, ‘Paulus Tragicus’, 814.

6 In a recent article, Katja Kujanpää traces the ‘multifaceted rhetorical effects of Paul's scriptural quotations’, including their potential to create new dramatic dialogues (From Eloquence to Evading Responsibility: The Rhetorical Functions of Quotations in Paul's Argumentation’, JBL 136 (2017) 185202, at 186, 190). Her article, while theoretically rich, focuses primarily on scriptural quotations and does not attend to pagan citations in Paul or the way Paul creates a unity between Jewish and non-Jewish wisdom and myth.

7 Goldhill, S., ‘The Great Dionysia and Civic Ideology’, in Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in its Social Context (ed. Winkler, J. and Zeitlin, F. I.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1990) 97129; Bartsch, S., Actors in the Audience (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994).

8 For the argument that Paul is aware of Greek drama and employs ‘dramatic modes’ as a lens for categorising early Christian literature, see Cover, ‘Death of Tragedy’, 87–8. For tragic ‘modes’ more generally, see Jay, J., The Tragic in Mark (HUT 66; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2014) 79106. Arguing definitively for Paul's knowledge of the new comedic tradition would require a longer study. The intertextual analysis offered here is a first step towards making that case, and suggests at minimum that Paul's Corinthian readers would have heard his letter in light of New Comedy.

9 Friesen, ‘Paulus Tragicus’, 814.

10 Welborn, L. L., Paul, the Fool of Christ: A Study of 1 Corinthians 1–4 in the Comic–Philosophic Tradition (JSNTSup 293; London: T&T Clark, 2005).

11 For the influence of Greek comedy on Pauline thought and early Christianity in general, see Grant, R., ‘Early Christianity and Greek Comic Poetry’, CP 60 (1965) 157–63.

12 Cover, ‘Death of Tragedy’, 88. See also Murphy, F. A., The Comedy of Revelation: Paradise Lost and Regained in Biblical Narrative (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2000) 345–6.

13 Auerbach, E., Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (trans. Trask, W. R.; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953 [1946]) 45.

14 See C. J. P. Friesen, ‘Gluttony and Drunkenness as Jewish and Christian Virtues: From the Comic Heracles to Christ in the Gospels’, Envisioning God in the Humanities: Essays on Christianity, Judaism, and Ancient Religion in Honor of Melissa Harl Sellew (ed. C. J. P. Friesen; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, forthcoming). L. P. E. Parker mentions the play's description as ‘pro-satyric’ on account of its happy ending. ‘Antiquity knew nothing of such a genre, nor have we any other play so identified with which Alc. can be compared’ (Euripides, Alcestis: With Introduction and Commentary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007) xx).

15 J. M. Walton and P. D. Arnott trace a genealogical line between Euripides's Alcestis and Menander, (Menander and the Making of Comedy (Contributions to Drama and Theatre Studies 67; Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1996) 9).

16 See Menander, Sam. 495–500. A. K. Petrides suggests that Menander's New Comedy creates ‘a hybrid with tragedy’ (Menander, New Comedy and the Visual (Cambridge Classical Studies; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014) 5).

17 For the deliberative nature of 1 Corinthians, see Mitchell, M. M., Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation: An Exegetical Investigation of the Language and Composition of 1 Corinthians (HUT 28; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1991) 13.

18 Demiańczuk, J., Supplementum comicum: Comoediae Graecae fragmenta post editiones Kockianam et Kaibelianam reperta, vel indicata collegit, disposuit adnotationibus et indice verborum instruxit Ioannes Demiańczuk (Hildesheim: Olms, 1967 [1912]) 55.

19 For Paul's awareness of comic stock characters, see Welborn, L. L., ‘Paul's Caricature of his Chief Rival as a Pompous Parasite in 2 Corinthians 11.20’, JSNT 32 (2009) 3956.

20 Walton, J. M., ‘Aristophanes & Menander’, Aristophanes and Menander: New Comedy (ed. Walton, J. M.; London: Methuen, 1994) viixxx, esp. xxx.

21 For the position that 1 Cor 1–4 comprises a separate letter, see Schenk, W., ‘Der 1. Korintherbrief als Briefsammlung’, ZNW 60 (1969) 219–43, at 235. Other critics who recognise a source-critical or rhetorical break between 1 Cor 4.21 and 5.1 include Schmithals, W., ‘Die Korintherbriefe als Briefsammlung’, ZNW 64 (1973) 263–88; Welborn, L. L., ‘A Conciliatory Principle in 1 Cor 4:6’, NovT 29 (1987) 320–46, at 333–4; Fitzgerald, J. T., Cracks in an Earthen Vessel: An Examination of Hardships in the Corinthian Correspondence (SBLDS 99; Atlanta: Scholars, 1988) 117–28; and de Boer, M. C., ‘The Composition of 1 Corinthians’, NTS 40 (1994) 229–45. Mitchell, who argues for the rhetorical and compositional unity of the letter, nonetheless admits a similar intuitive break between 1 Cor 1–4 and ‘the rest of the letter’ (Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation, 81).

22 Sandbach, F. H., ed., Menandri reliquiae selectae (OCT; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990) xiiixiv.

23 Sandbach, Menandri reliquiae selectae, v.

24 Menander, Sam. 3. For Rudolf Bultmann's instinct that the phenomenology of sin in Attic drama might have relevance for Christian theology, see ‘Polis und Hades in der Antigone des Sophocles’, in idem, Glauben und Verstehen (4 vols.; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1993 [1936]) ii.20–31, at 22.

25 Walton, ‘Aristophanes & Menander’, xxvii. Cf. Menander, Sam. 49–50.

26 Menander, Sam. 130: ‘It seems I have a wedded concubine, to my own surprise.’

27 Menander, Sam. 246–8.

28 Menander, Sam. 217, 361.

29 Menander, Sam. 353, 368.

30 Menander, Sam. 568.

31 1 Cor 7.1, 25; 8.1; 12.1; 16.1, 12.

32 Mitchell, M. M., ‘Concerning ΠΕΡΙ ΔΕ in 1 Corinthians’, NovT 31 (1989) 229–56.

33 1 Cor 5.1–2.

34 Menander, Sam. 267–9.

35 68, which Nestle–Aland considers a first-order witness, attests ὀνομάζεται. Even if the verb did not stand in the original text, its sense is as appropriate as the NRSV's filling the ellipsis with ‘found’.

36 Cf. Martin, D. B., The Corinthian Body (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995) 163.

37 1 Cor 5.2; Menander, Sam. 358–9.

38 The ‘type-scene’ of πορνεία between a mother and son occurs in both tragedy and comedy with a number of variations, including Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Menander's Samia (which cross-references Oedipus at 495–7), Euripides’ Hippolytus and Seneca's Phaedra. I am grateful to Mark Reasoner for the latter two references.

39 Menander, Sam. 49–50.

40 See Menander, Sam. 269: οὐ λέγω δ’, ἄνδρες, πρὸς ὑμᾶς τοῦτ’ ἐγώ.

41 Bultmann, R., Faith and Understanding (trans. Smith, L. P.; New York: Harper & Row, 1969 [1954]), 6694.

42 Menander, Sam. 397.

43 Menander, Sam. 552: νὴ τὸν Ἥφαιστον, δικαίως ἀποθάνοιμ’ ἄν. Is Hephaestus here invoked in his role as ender of domestic quarrels and prompter of laughter in the divine family (see Homer, Il. 1.571–700)?

44 1 Cor 7.11.

45 1 Cor 13.7.

46 Menander, Sam. 77–85.

47 Menander, Sam. 385–6.

48 Menander, Sam. 163–4: ταῦτόματον ἐστιν ὡς ἔοικέ που θεὸς | σῴζει τε πολλὰ τῶν ἀοράτων πραγμάτων.

49 Barth, K., The Resurrection of the Dead (trans. Stenning, H. J.; New York: Revell, 1933) 71.

50 Walker, W. O. Jr., ‘1 Corinthians 15:29–34 as a Non-Pauline Interpolation’, CBQ 69 (2007) 84103.

51 Weiss, J., Der erste Korintherbrief (KEK; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1910) 362; Schrage, W., Der erste Brief an die Korinther (4 vols.; EKK 7; Düsseldorf: Benziger, 1991–2001) iv.235.

52 Weiss, Der erste Korintherbrief, 362: ‘Äußerst abrupt setzen die rhetorischen Fragen ein – fast als ob P[aulus] hier selber zur Feder gegriffen und diese lebhaften Zeilen hinzugefügt hätte.’

53 Fee, G. D., The First Epistle to the Corinthians (revised edn; NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014) 855–6 (emphasis added).

54 Thiselton, A., The First Epistle to the Corinthians (NIGTC; Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000) 1253–4.

55 Fee, First Epistle, 856.

56 Fee, First Epistle, 855 n. 265.

57 Thiselton, First Epistle, 1254 (emphasis added).

58 Weiss, Der erste Korintherbrief, 367 n. 1: ‘Es ist kein Zufall, daß P[aulus] gerade Menander zitiert; nicht daß er aus dem Theater oder aus Privatlektüre ihn gekannt hätte; aber M[enander] war ein Schulschriftsteller, der wegen seiner sentenzenreichen Lebensweisheit gelesen wurde.’

59 Weiss, Der erste Korintherbrief, 367 n. 1: ‘Das Metrum braucht P[aulus] nicht ignoriert zu haben, da man leicht χρησθ’ las, auch wenn man χρηστά schrieb.’

60 Schrage, Der erste Brief, iv.247. For the possibility of a Eurpidean origin of the quotation, see R. Renehan, ‘Classical Greek Quotations in the New Testament’, The Heritage of the Early Church: Essays in Honor of Georges Vasilievich Florovsky (ed. D. Neiman and M. Schatkin; Orientalia Christiana Analecta 195; Rome: Pontificium Institutum Studiorum Orientalium, 1973) 17–45.

61 A. J. Malherbe, ‘The Beasts at Ephesus’, JBL 87 (1968) 71–80.

62 Malherbe, ‘The Beasts at Ephesus’, 73.

63 Throughout the article, Malherbe presumes that Menander is the author of the citation.

64 Malherbe, ‘The Beasts at Ephesus’, 74–6.

65 See n. 14 above.

66 For a study of Menander's connection to Theophrastus, and the similarities of his and Aristotle's construction of character ethics, see Cinaglia, V., Aristotle and Menander on the Ethics of Understanding (PhA 138; Leiden: Brill, 2015).

67 1 Cor 15.30–1.

68 The particle νή followed by an accusative noun occurs fifteen times in Menander's Samia (12, 112, 272, 286, 323, 363, 427, 442, 490, 515, 548, 552, 641, 680, 686), but only once in the extant tragic literature (Sophocles, fr. 957). Νή is also common in prose.

69 For Menander's fondness for aphorisms, see Nervegna, Menander in Antiquity, 209.

70 Kujanpää (‘From Eloquence to Evading Responsibility’, 186 n. 2) points out that according to Aristotle (Rhet. 2.21), ‘[r]eferring to maxims, that is, general sayings usually related to proper conduct … “is appropriate only to elderly men, and in handling subjects in which the speaker is experienced”’. Such a description fits Paul's dramatic persona in 1 Cor 15.32, 33 nicely.

71 Nietzsche, F., The Birth of Tragedy (trans. Smith, D.; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 [1872]) §§11–15.

72 See Auerbach, Mimesis, 30–1, 33, 44.

73 Menander, Sam. 495–7.

74 Menander, Sam. 163–4.

75 See n. 14 above.

76 1 Cor 15.52, 53.

77 Mitchell, Rhetoric of Reconciliation, 65.

78 See Stowers, S., The Diatribe and Paul's Letter to the Romans (SBLDS 57; Chico, CA: Scholars, 1981) 174; Peppard, M., ‘Brother against Brother: Controversiae about Inheritance Disputes and 1 Corinthians 6:1–11’, JBL 133 (2014) 179–92; Cover, M., Lifting the Veil: 2 Corinthians 3:7–18 in Light of Jewish Homiletic and Commentary Traditions (BZNW 210; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2015) 61–2.

79 On the ‘union of tragedy and rhetoric’ in Euripides, see Allan, W. A., The Andromache and Euripidean Tragedy (OCM; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) 119–20. Allan (ibid. 118) points out that Aristophanes lampooned Euripides as a ‘composer of little lawcourt phrases (ποιητῆι ῥηματίων δικανικῶν, Peace, 534)’.

80 See n. 21 above.

81 Barth speaks of 1 Cor 15 as ‘the very peak and crown of this essentially negative and political epistle’ (Resurrection of the Dead, 101). Bultmann argues to the contrary: ‘Since in the First Letter to the Corinthians the dominant theme is not justification by faith but the temporal life of the believer within time, ch. 13 is the true climax of the letter’ (Faith and Understanding, 94).

82 Barth, Resurrection of the Dead, 71.

83 Barth, Resurrection of the Dead, 72.

84 In point of fact, Barth already coordinates 1 Cor 13 and 1 Cor 15 as the ‘twin peaks’ of the epistle. Thus, he can speak (Resurrection of the Dead, 71) of the message about love in 1 Cor 13 as ‘a decisive word which fundamentally outbids the whole surroundings’ (‘ein solches entscheidendes, die ganze Umgebung grundsätzlich überbietendes Wort’) in parallel with the ‘decisive word of the resurrection’ (‘das entscheidende Wort von der Auferstehung’) in 1 Cor 15. Similarly, Barth considers 1 Cor 13 ‘the peak-point (‘der Berg’) … [that] soars above’ the ‘plane of the rest of the Epistle’ (Resurrection of the Dead, 96, 88), even as 1 Cor 15 represents ‘the very peak and crown’ (‘die Spitze und Krone’) of 1 Corinthians (Resurrection of the Dead, 101). Barth points to the eschatological aspect of 1 Cor 13; Bultmann focuses on the contemporary significance of 1 Cor 15. The tension between them thus revolves not so much around the literary centre of the letter as its theological and temporal vista.

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