Figurative Language in 2 Corinthians
When we try to list examples of figurative language in the Bible, what comes to mind first is probably the poetry and striking analogies of the Psalms and the Prophets. Among the New Testament writers, James stands out with his mirrors, figs, springs, ships, and forest fires. I don’t think most of us would peg Paul as being particularly poetic in his epistles, but here and there even he comes through with a memorable metaphor. These next three posts will highlight what seems to me an unusual concentration of figurative language in one of his letters, 2 Corinthians. Hopefully a close look at these rhetorical decorations will enhance our understanding of his message to his friends in Corinth.
First, a general note about this letter: the text of 2 Corinthians is almost entirely concerned with the shared and separate histories of Paul and the people of the church at Corinth, towards whom Paul felt strong fatherly affection. Very little of the letter, relatively speaking, offers either theological instruction or practical marching orders. Perhaps this unusual emphasis on recent and current events, as opposed to the background spiritual realities and responsibilities of the Christian faith, put Paul in a mood for crafting new figures of speech. I can’t say for sure; I just note that both the subject matter and the rhetorical devices are of a different category and degree than those of most of his epistles.
What follows is a collection of some of the figures of speech found in 2 Corinthians (more to follow in the next post). I’ve quoted just the most relevant phrases of the passages involved, but I’ve provided links to the context of those quotes (ESV) in case you don’t have your Bible handy. These notes will be most fruitful for you in the context of studying the letter itself, which I encourage you to do!
- Triumphal Procession & Fragrance/Aroma (see 2 Cor. 2:12-171)
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God…
Paul’s first figures in the letter come entwined together in chapter 2. They may or may not be directly related to one another; they both are historically bound enough to merit a little effort on our part to uncover just what he is referring to. Your study Bible may provide one suggested referent, but a commentary on the letter will let you know that there are several possibilities here for Paul’s meaning, and really we’re just not sure which is the right one. Here’s the relevant history and the general sense of the metaphor, at any rate:
In Paul’s day, a “triumphal procession” would be recognized as the pomp and circumstance surrounding the victory of a Roman general. Everybody from captives taken in battle to soldiers to the general himself would parade into Rome, so there would be no mistaking the leader’s credentials. Bible scholars disagree about where Christians should see ourselves in this picture: are we the humiliated captives, or the soldiers?2 In any case, with this metaphor Paul means to convey victory in Jesus, despite desperate outward circumstances (some of which he has described in the verses just prior).
Along these Roman parade routes, incense would be burned in celebration, possibly corresponding with the “fragrance” that Paul mentions here. There’s also a strong suggestion of Jewish sacrificial practices in the word “aroma.”3 Paul’s metaphor involves three different olfactory audiences: God himself, who finds his Christians to be a pleasing aroma; the spiritually lost, who think we stink; and other Jesus people, who recognize and rejoice in the scent of salvation.4 The aroma doesn’t change—but its perceived meaning does.
- Letters (see 2 Cor. 3:1-3)
You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all…You are a letter from Christ…
In keeping with his need to justify and defend the authority of the apostolic ministry, Paul affectionately jokes that his Corinthian friends are collectively a sufficient “letter of reference” for the apostles’ integrity. In the ancient world, a person could make his way best in circles of success if an influential person wrote a letter of introduction that opened doors. This is what Christ has done for Paul, through the conversion of these Corinthians—for the changes wrought in them by the Savior can be “known and read by all.” The invisible work of the Spirit is evident in the lives of individuals and (perhaps most powerfully) in the communal life of the church as a whole.
- Veils (see 2 Cor. 3:7-18; note the metaphorical veil in 14-16, 18 & literal veil in v.13)
With another metaphor about perception, Paul continues to comment on the ability of people either in Christ or without Christ to see reality clearly. The “veil” idea comes from the story in Exodus 34, when Moses returning from his mountain meeting with the Lord has such a glowing face that his people are afraid to approach. He dons a literal veil to block their view of the shining.5 Here, Paul turns that literal veil into a figurative one that blocks a person’s view of the knowledge of God in Christ. The difference between a believer and an unbeliever, then, is that Christ takes away that veil and gives the new convert access to truth and reality. Note that Paul is especially concerned with the difference between the reading of the Pentateuch with and without the veil: thus Christian converts, both Jewish and Gentile, have a perceptual advantage over Paul’s kinsmen who read the same words of Moses without spiritual understanding.
1If you’re studying the whole letter, you may have noticed that Paul produces this verbal picture right at a cliffhanger in his autobiographical account: “I couldn’t find Titus in Macedonia!” It’s not until our chapter 7 that he picks up that thread again, explaining how he finally was reunited with Titus. This metaphor, then, marks the beginning of what commentators identify as the “long digression” in this letter.
2Personally, I think the victorious context supports the latter interpretation, and that those who equate us with the destitute prisoners in the parade are adopting an unnecessarily pious reading.
3See, for example, Leviticus 2:12. And yes, there are two different Greek words used for “fragrance” and “aroma.”
4”We” in this metaphor probably refers to all Christians; but Paul may have a secondary message running along here regarding his own credentials as an apostle: he knows that God approves of him, and true believers recognize his authority; it’s just the false brothers who, like other unbelievers, consider him an insignificant charlatan.
5You will sometimes hear the explanation that Moses was veiling his face because the glory on it was fading away – but this is a misreading of Paul’s phrases in 2 Cor. 3. From Paul’s enlightened point of view, the Old Covenant was indeed fading away; but there is nothing in the Exodus 34 passage to indicate that Moses was protecting the people’s eyes from anything other than a dangerous (and scary) holy shine. Paul’s explanation in 2 Cor 3 tells us about the state of the Old Covenant, not the motivation behind Moses’ act of veiling his face.
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