Christology · Jesus Christ

1 Corinthians 10:9 and the Question of Christ’s Pre-existence

Among the texts from the Pauline corpus popularly used to show Paul’s (and early Christians’) belief in Jesus’ personal pre-existence, 1 Corinthians 10:9 is a favorite. The Evangelical New English Translation (NET Bible) renders it:

“And let us not put Christ [ton christon] to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by snakes.”

In its study edition, the footnote on the “Christ” reading states, “the reading “Christ” makes an explicit claim to the preexistence of Christ.” This is the conclusion drawn after considering the variant manuscript renderings of the text, and finally concluding that the best reading should be the “Christ” reading. Christopher Tuckett comes to the same conclusion:

“1 Corinthians 10:9 (probably) has ‘we must not put Christ to the test as some of them [=the Old Testament Israelites] did.’ Hence, again, Paul seems to presuppose that Jesus was present in the period of the wilderness wanderings.”[1]

While popular, the personal pre-existence of Jesus Christ is not the conclusion drawn by all eminent NT scholars today. Two key factors determine the conclusions drawn from this text, namely hermeneutics and manuscript preference.

Without taking the variant readings into account for now, and accepting the “christon” reading in this text, referring to Christ as the one pre-existing during the time of the Israelites, and by implication identifying Christ as Yahweh (the Rock, the One disobeyed in the OT narrative of Num. 21:5-9) needn’t be the necessary conclusion drawn. A typological reading of the whole chapter 10 is in order, as explicitly stated by Paul in 10:6:

“…and those things became types (or examples, “tupoi”) for us, for our not passionately desiring evil things, as also these did desire.”

Here the interpretive key is given by Paul himself; setting out the typological pattern his discourse would follow:

(i) …for our not passionately desiring evil things (Christians living now, at the end of the system)…

(ii) …as also these did desire (the ancient Jews did under a different system and circumstances).

Assuming the “christon” reading of the text, James Dunn follows an identical course of hermeneutic:

“It is hardly likely that Paul intended to identify Christ as the wilderness rock in any literal sense. So ‘the rock was Christ’ must denote some sort of allegorical identification: the rock represents Christ in some way; as water from the rock, so spiritual drink form Christ… Paul himself describes the whole affair as τυποι (types) and as happening to the Israelites τυπικως (typologically) in vv. 6 and 11… In other words, Paul says to his readers: if you compare yourselves to the Israelites you will see what peril you are in. They experienced the equivalent of what we have experienced: they went through what we can call a baptism; they enjoyed what we can call ‘spiritual food’ – you only need to equate Moses with Christ… and the rock with Christ to see how close the parallel is to your situation – and yet look what happened to them (vv.5, 9f.).”[2]

Karl-Joseph Kuschel addresses Paul’s hermeneutic along the same line:

“[T]he form of the statement is not a ‘dogmatic’ reflection on the person of Christ, but a typological interpretation of an important salvation even from the Old Testament…, and had already been interpreted typologically by Philo of Alexandria: the manna and the rock are allegories of the universal Logos and personified wisdom. And Paul himself interpreted this Exodus narrative typikos (10:11), i.e. as an episode the meaning of which points beyond itself. Paul evidently wants to make it clear that in the perspective of God’s action there is a connection between then and today, between the situation of the wandering in the wilderness and the situation in Corinth, between the Jews once and the Christians now. The allegorical equation ‘Christ = spiritual rock’ is the key to this…”[3]

From a Pauline hermeneutical perspective then, a literal or real pre-existence of Christ needn’t be concluded from 10:9. This is the case even if the original text read “christon.” The evidence for this reading is however, rather dubious.

Several variants for this text exists in the ancient manuscript tradition, ranging from “christon” to “theon” to “kurion.” The earliest manuscript containing this text is the Alexandrine papyrus 46 (200 C.E.) which reads “christon.” What is noteworthy is that some later manuscripts also from the same Alexandrian text tradition read “kurion” (א [4th cent]B [4th cent] C [5th cent] P [6th cent] 33 [9th cent] 104 [11th cent] 1175 [11th cent]). This observation is noteworthy in that it would be hard to imagine a change or correction in a reading from “christon” to “kurion” without good reason, particularly since it would be imagined that the “christon” reading would serve a Christocentric reading of the text so much better. Since the “kurion” reading would pose no difficulty to Christian believers of those centuries, whether it was understood typologically or pre-existentially, doctrine is probably not the motivation for this change. There are various arguments in favour of the “christon” reading in the 1 Corinthians 10:9, particularly by the NET Bible Commentary of which Evangelical text critic, Dan Wallace, is a contributor. Their linchpin arguments go like this:

  1. Early Church fathers rendered the verse to say “christon,” so, originally, the text probably had the “christon” reading; and
  2. Because an enemy of Christians (Marcion) has the “christon” reading in his Pauline text, it is highly probable, if not certain, that “christon” was the original reading.[4]

As discussed below, there are few potential errors in these interpretive strategies.

Does Patristic rendering imply textual superiority?

The difficulty in using Patristic rendering of a text as evidence for textual superiority lies in the following:

a) One cannot always determine whether a Church Father was quoting Scripture, was merely expressing a personal conviction, or whether the quote is an accurate recollection of the text of the time;

b) Church Fathers had among themselves diverse convictions on several matters, often in response to other considered “heretical” influences; and

c) The texts of the Church Fathers have suffered editing by copyists, especially since the mandate toward textual integrity and faithful transmission is not equivalent or as high as that involving sacred text.

Bruce Metzger writes in this regard:

After the true text of the Patristic author has been recovered, the further question must be raised whether the writer intended to quote the scriptural passage verbatim or merely to paraphrase it. If one is assured that the father makes a bona fide quotation and not a mere allusion, the problem remains whether he quoted it after consulting the passage in a manuscript or whether he relied on memory…Furthermore, if the father quotes the same passage more than once, it often happens that he does so in divergent forms. Origen is notorious in this regard, for he seldom quotes a passage twice in precisely the same words. Moreover, while dictating to one of his several amanuenses, Origen would sometimes refer merely to a few catchwords in the Scripture passage…later the amanuensis would hunt out the passage in a Biblical manuscript and insert its words. [5]

A case in point is, interestingly enough, again from the tenth chapter of 1 Corinthians. Support for the “christon” reading in verse 9 from among the Patristics include Clement and Irenaeus,[6] which also cite verse 5 of 1 Corinthians 10. What is different from the manuscript evidence of the text is that early witnesses used in favour of the “christon” reading (MS 81 [11th cent], Clement, Irenaeus) omit “o theos” from texts quoting 1 Corinthians 10:5.[7] Since these witnesses are given priority in deciding on the more probable reading of verse 9, are we to follow the same course in “correcting” verse 5 by omitting the “o theos” reading?

Does Marcion’s quoting the “christon” rendering indicate its superiority?

In arguing for the superiority of the “christon” reading, the NET Bible Commentary states:

Marcion, a second-century, anti-Jewish heretic, would naturally have opposed any reference to Christ in historical involvement with Israel, because he thought of the Creator God of the OT as inherently evil. In spite of this strong prejudice, though, {Marcion} read a text with ‘Christ.’”[8]

The argument in the above statement implies that, since Marcion was in the habit of rewriting authoritative texts,[9] and since this practice was inspired by his particular theology (namely his dislike of the OT Yahweh and his preference for the True High God of Jesus Christ), it is expected that he would have changed 1 Cor. 10:9 as well, to exclude Christ in the historical involvement of Israel. Marcion didn’t, which implies, following the argument above, that he quoted from an extant manuscript containing the “christon” reading. To be sure, neither of the two premises (Marcion as text-redactor and Marcion as Yahweh-hater) would have necessitated him to change the “christon” reading to either “kurion” or “theon.” It would have been much easier to excise this text from his canon altogether (in accordance with the charges against him). If a dislike of the OT Yahweh motivated him to that extent, reference to neither Christ (christon) nor Lord (kurion, whether Jesus or Yahweh), nor God (theon = Yahweh) would have satisfied his discomfort with a reference to the OT events.

What logically follows is to determine how Marcion treated authoritative Christian texts which made reference to OT events. Did he exclude them from his canon? Would he have been offended at reading “Christ” or Christ-references in such OT renderings from Christian texts?

In Marcion’s Evangelion there are several passages referring to stories or characters found in the Old Testament.  He states for instance that a woman is entitled to healing as a “daughter of Abraham” (13:16); he includes the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus, complete with references to Abraham’s bosom (16:19-31), and even positively endorses the Law of Moses. How were these stories understood by Marcion, since they clashed with his theology? Allegorical understanding of these stories and appreciating their universal truths opened their way for inclusion into Marcion’s Evangelion.[10]

It should be clear therefore, that Marcion’s treatment of the text as reading either “christon” or “kurion” is inconsequential for our inquiry. This is so whether Marcion was a text redactor (who failed to correct or excise several other references in conflict with his theology) or a faithful copyist (who would have understood 1 Cor. 10:9 allegorically or mythologically).

Conclusion

Following Paul’s typological hermeneutic, referencing Christ in 1 Cor. 10:9 would not have one arrive at a thoroughly developed doctrine of pre-existence in Paul. The typology is clear, namely that the Corinthian Christians were in a situation similar to that of the ancient Israelites. Through paraenetic rhetoric, Paul reminds those Christians of ancient Israelite history, and urges them to refrain from putting Christ to the test in their day, as opposed to what the ancient Israelites did during their sojourn in the wilderness.

From a text-critical perspective, the “christon” reading remains dubious. Patristic support and Marcionite rendering provide no conclusive answer to the question of variant superiority:[11]

“…precisely this form of 1 Corinthians 10:9 was used to counter adoptionistic Christologies during the period of the text’s corruption. Two of our ancient sources cite the text against Paul of Samosata to show that Christ was not a mere man, but that he was alive and active already in Old Testament times…The text was changed by proto-orthodox scribes who saw ‘Christ’ as the one who exercised divine prerogatives even during the days of the Exodus.”[12]

Regardless of the popularity of 1 Corinthians 10:9, it is highly doubtful that Paul had a pre-existent Jesus Christ in mind when he wrote what is today the tenth chapter of first Corinthians.

 

[1] Christopher Tuckett, Christology and the New Testament: Jesus and His Earliest Followers, p. 64.

[2] Christology in the Making, James D.G. Dunn, p. 184.

[3] Born Before All Time? The Dispute over Christ’s Origin, Karl-Joseph Kuschel, p. 283.

[4] NET Bible Commentary, 1 Corinthians 10:9, ftn. 7.

[5] The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration, Bruce Metzger, 3rd ed., pp.87, 88)

[6] Exhortation to the Heathen 9.84.3 (possibly); Against Heresies IV, 27.3

[7] Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Bart D. Ehrman, pp. 89; See Against Heresies IV, 36.6

[8] NET Bible Commentary, 1 Corinthians 10:9, ftn. 7.

[9] See the Patristic charge against Marcion in Irenaeus’ Against Heresies I, 27.2; III, 12.12 and Tertullian’s Against Marcion IV, 2.1, 4. Disputing these charges, see Jason D. BeDuhn, “The Myth of Marcion as Redactor: The Evidence of ‘Marcion’s’ Gospel Against an Assumed Marcionite Redaction,” Annali di Storia Dell’Esegesi, 29/1 (2012), pp. 21-48

[10] Referring to Abraham as the “common father” allegorically, Marcion argued that “…both of the Creator’s rewards in hell, whether of torment or of comfort, are intended for those who have obeyed the law and the prophets, while he defines as heavenly the bosom and the haven of his particular Christ and god.” – Against Marcion IV.34.11). The Marcionite text of the two sons of Abraham (Gal. 4:22-31) is also allegorical (Against Marcion III, 5.4).

[11] Interestingly, in manuscript 1739, appeal is made to Origen’s lost Stromateis and Epistle of Hymenaeus, quoting 1 Corinthians 10:9 to refute adoptionism. Ehrman concludes: “This means that the reading that is preserved widely among the Alexandrian witnesses otherwise understood to be superior is, in fact, original. The text was changed by proto-orthodox scribes who saw ‘Christ’ as the one who exercised divine prerogatives even during the days of the Exodus.” This conclusion is particularly strong, since the Alexandrine scribes, who had all the doctrinal motives to have the “christos” reading, instead copied and rendered it as “theos.” See Ehrman, Ibid., 90

[12] Bart Ehrman, Ibid., pp. 89, 90.

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