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Is 1 Corinthians 13 Poetry? (Monday with Mounce 37)
We had an interesting experience on the ESV translation committee when we were doing 1 Cor 13. We were working really hard on the passage, perhaps especially hard since it was such a famous passage. Famous passages are difficult since changes have a greater impact on people: "how dare you change my favorite passage!" as if we own the text.
We went through the chapter, watched our word choice, made changes only where we thought it was necessary, and especially watched the cadence of the passage. After all, the passage is read at thousands of weddings. It has to sound just right. Okay so far.
But when it was all over, someone (I forget who) asked a simple question. "I wonder if 1 Cor 13 is really poetry." It was late in the day, we had worked hard, the passage was generally viewed as poetic, and for whatever reasons we didn’t answer the question and moved on to chapter 14.
But really. Is 1 Cor 13 poetry? I don’t think so.
In looking over the Greek I don’t see the tell-tale signs of poetry. Biblical poetry of course is different from English poetry; there isn’t our traditional rhyming schemes. What is there?
There is the pattern of conditional sentences, but that is hardly poetic. There is rhetorical force in the series of ου plus the verb in vv 4-7, but that is nothing more than rhetoric. There is the series of ειτε clauses in v 8, again nothing necessarily poetic, certainly nothing poetic in the Hebraic sense. Vv 11-12 have effective repetition, and the final trilogy of v 13. But poetry?
And let’s not forget the fact that we often term this chapter the parenthesis chapter, but why would Paul do that? Does that make any sense to you? The Corinthian church was one giant excess that was crushing people and destroying the witness of the gospel. Why would Paul break into poetry?
I don’t think 1 Cor 13 has anything to do with poetry, and creating a poetic form with punctuation and typography only does a disservice to the meaning of the passage — and it is meaning that we are about.
To a church that is overcome with arrogance and pride, Paul says that all the spiritual gifts in the world mean nothing if they are not practiced in love. Yes, the church was gifted spiritually, but their gifts were worthless because they lacked the fulfillment of the most important goal of our life: to love God and through him to love one another.
I can hear Paul punctuate his words as they are being written down. Good grief, Corinthians. Love is patient. It is kind. Do you know anything about love? You are full of envy and boasting and arrogance and rudeness. You know nothing of love; all you know is self-serving resentment that works against the true meaning of love when you rejoice in wrongdoing. You think you are so important, but all the gifts you treasure will one day be gone, and you will be left with nothing because you have neither faith, hope, or love.
Poetry? I don’t think so. Rhetoric? Powerful condemnation appropriate to a people who rejoice in their acceptance of the worse kinds of sexual immorality? Yes.
I am glad that 1 Cor 13 was not read at my wedding. I am sorry that translations treat apostolic condemnation as pretty words.
William D. [Bill] Mounce posts every Monday about the Greek language, exegesis, and related topics at Koinonia. He is the author of numerous books, including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek, and general editor for Mounce's Complete Expository Dictionary of the Old and New Testament Words. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation. Learn more and visit Bill's blog (co-authored with scholar and his father Bob Mounce) at www.billmounce.com.
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