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Harvey, A. E.


Renewal Through Suffering: A Study of 2 Corinthians.


Edinburgh: Clark 1996. XII, 148 S. 8° = Studies of the New Testament and its World. Lw. £ 18.95. ISBN 0-567-08508-2.


Margaret M. Mitchell

A. E. Harvey argues that he thlipsis hemon he genomene en te Asia("our affliction which happened in Asia") which Paul elusively alludes to in 2Cor 1:8, was a severe illness, likely exacerbated by the hardships he endured in his ministry, which put the apostle at death’s door. Despite the fact that Paul eventually recovered, this illness had serious consequences, both practical and theological. Practically, Paul’s physical incapacity would have rendered him unable to work, and therefore required him to be a financial burden on others, an especially sensitive matter in the Corinthian context where he had so vehemently renounced his right to support (1Cor 9). Theologically, Paul’s acute suffering in this particular episode led him to tremendous despair, for he interpreted his sickness, as his contemporaries would have, and did, as a sign of divine disfavor and disqualification. Paul’s self-doubt was thus intermingled with that of his opponents and former friends in Corinth, putting him on the defensive about his legitimacy as an apostle. But Paul’s "tribulation in Asia" provided also the way out of this debacle, for it was this experience of suffering which provoked Paul’s "major discovery" (28) that burst the limits of all existing ideas about suffering, both Jewish and Greco-Roman: "For the first time in his extant letters, and possibly for the first time in the entire philosophical and religious literature of the West, we find the experience of involuntary and innocent suffering invested with positive value and meaning in itself" (31, emphasis original). Paul’s catastrophic personal experience of illness to the point of death, as recounted in 1:8, "holds the key to a number of the most complex and obscure passages in the letter [2Corinthians]" (1).

H.s book constitutes a "strong reading" of 2Corinthians which tries on this hypothesis via a section by section, often verse by verse, interpretation and paraphrase of Paul’s letter and its connections with this singularly devastating event. The exposition is lucid and consistent in focus, though counter-evidence or parts of the letter which do not so much conform to his thesis are at times passed over (such as 2:12-13 [45-46] and 4:13-14 [60, where 4:15 is interpreted as though it followed v. 12]). As H. himself appears rightly to recognize (e.g., 112), his thesis is more compelling for chaps. 4 and 5 than for other sections of 2Corinthians, but the plan of the book, and several formulations of the thesis (as on that same page, 112) involve a more sweeping claim about the effect of this event on the whole of this convoluted letter, which is less persuasive. In particular, though H. mentions some of the serious objections of many scholars to the unity of 2Corinthians when he gets to chapters 8 and 9 and 10-13, his own sympathies clearly lie with the presumption of unity ("the natural reluctance in the minds of many commentators to break apart what has been handed down to us as a unity unless we are absolutely forced to do so" [93]). This assumption underlies the whole project, for it is likely only from one convinced of the unity of 2Corinthians that a proposal for its embeddedness in a single, catastrophic personal event could come.

The strength of the book is H.s contention that Paul’s experience of bodily affliction and his personal struggle with conventional theological answers to human suffering were key ingredients of his theology. Though he perhaps overstates the level of scholarly resistance to recognizing biographical influences on Pauline theology, H. is right to insist that we take seriously how Paul’s individual life experiences of necessity affected his theology. In particular, I agree with H. and others that the meaning of Paul’s physical suffering was a major factor in his disputes with the Corinthians (unfortunately H. does not seem to be aware of several articles by Paul B. Duff which work out this theme carefully in 2Cor 2-7: "Metaphor, Motif, and Meaning ..." CBQ 53 [1991] 79-92; "Apostolic Suffering and the Language of Processions ...," BTB 21 [1991] 158-65]). In a sense Paul’s own body was the battleground over which he and his opponents contended in (portions of) 2Corinthians, in their varied quests to explain and defend what his somatic misery implied about his relationship to the divine. H. is clearly correct in emphasizing that they all carried out these debates in the context of first century medical and religious presuppositions about human illness as signalling divine punishment.

What is less convincing is H.s attempt to load all of this onto the singular event of the "affliction in Asia," despite the abundance of evidence within 2Corinthians itself of Paul’s chronic and on-going illnesses and afflictions, even to the point of death (see especially the plural, thlipseis in 6:4, and en thanatois pollakis in 11:23, as well as the hardship catalogues generally). Taking the event mentioned in 2Cor 1:8 as the watershed in Pauline thinking on suffering in relation to Christ also cannot meet the test which H. knows it must: to show that there is no evidence of this kind of affliction or its concomitant salutary understanding of suffering in prior letters. While H. several times tries to defuse the difficult prior instance of another tribulation in Asia mentioned in 1Cor 15:32, he never mentions the even more difficult evidence in that same letter, in 1Cor 4:9, where Paul wrote that he supposed that God had made a show of the apostles as "last men," as "those under a death sentence" (epithanatoi; compare LSJ, 633, second entry: "sick to death"). This passage seems quite clearly to contradict H.s contention: "When he wrote 1Corinthians, therefore, Paul still shared the general supposition of his contemporaries that suffering is a purely negative experience ... If we now compare what Paul says on the subject in 2Corinthians ­ possibly only a few months later, but after the traumatic experience described at the outset ­ the contrast is startling" [31]). One wonders if it is not somewhat arbitrary to insist, as H. does, that the tribulations mentioned in 1Cor 15:32 and the element in the peristasis catalogue of 2Cor 11:23 ("at death’s door many times") should not be taken literally, but 1:8 should be (see 112, and 101 n. 32, where H. in fairness grants "if this [en thanatois pollakis] is to be taken literally ... it is clearly fatal to my whole argument"). But these passages show that the singular event and momentous break ­ through emphases of H.s argument are overstated.

A further exegetical consideration against H.s thesis involves the connection between suffering and renewal, H.s governing theme and the source of his title. This is based upon H.s interpretation of the powerful passage 2Cor 4:7 f., which focuses especially on vv. 10 and 16. Paul’s stunning idea in v. 10, that the believer carries around the nekrosis, "the dying," of Jesus, is indeed the locus of his particularly Christocentric view of suffering, but this concept, in and of itself, is not substantially different from what we see in Galatians (which even H. agrees probably pre-dates 2Corinthians [116]). While H. tries to answer this objection by saying that when he wrote Gal 6:17 ("I bear on my body the marks of Jesus") Paul was still thinking of "the external signs of suffering" not "the deep internalization of suffering we find in 2Corinthians 4" (116), surely Gal 2:19-20 suggests otherwise, for, having been "co-crucified with Christ," Paul believed, "Christ lives in me" (certainly an internal reality!). H.s constructive claim further depends upon 2Cor 4:16 and Paul’s term anakainousthai, "to be renewed," but his exegesis here is not quite exact. He takes the verse as though it indicated a logical cause and effect relation between the two clauses (see 63), but the grammatical construction is a concession (ei kai). Paul’s defense is not to say that his sufferings bring about (or even will bring about) his renewal, but instead to concede the devastation of his body which his opponents make much of, while countering that it is what is inside ("the treasure") at that same moment in spite of the affliction that really testifies to God’s favor and calling. H. also does not address the fact that both verbs in this sentence are in the present tense, not the past, as would be expected if this were a reference to the unique revelatory illness of 1:8. Instead, the present tense here indicates on-going and continuing experiences of internal renewal despite external bodily corruption.

Was Paul’s view of suffering and renewal in 2Corinthians a completely revolutionary concept ­ either for him or for religious thought generally? A strength of H.s book is his insightful portrayal of Paul as a man who thought and prayed with the Psalms, which H. demonstrates quite convincingly exegetically. But H.s model of Pauline theological discovery is in my view inadequate: "Up to a certain point this experience could be integrated into his traditional Jewish spirituality and expressed in the familiar language of the psalms. But for Paul it had gone considerably beyond that point and precipitated a crisis for which a new language and new spiritual resources were necessary" (20). But surely the post-conversion Paul did not turn beyond the psalms only when they failed him, but always and everywhere saw all things though christologically-hued lenses (in this respect H.s analysis is structurally analogous to Luther’s view of Paul and the Law which has been so forcefully challenged in the latter half of this century, and as such is vulnerable to the same criticisms). To the second half of the question ­ was Paul’s "major discovery" of renewal through suffering unique in ancient thought, "and possibly in the history of religious thought" (129) ­ one can dispute H.s way of presenting the options. In his view, no one before Paul thought of suffering as "of positive value in itself" (129 and passim), but rather as "evil in itself" (129). On these grounds H. regards the Stoics and Jewish martyrdom traditions as providing assorted ways of coping with a necessarily and obviously "negative" phenomenon, or "evil". But perhaps the very naming of suffering as either "positive" or "negative" is a way of slicing the pie which is foreign to ancient Mediterranean persons, who regarded sufferings simply as "what is". Seen in that way, Paul’s manner of reckoning with sufferings is unique, not because it regards them as "positive," but simply because it is, like the rest of his thought, Christocentric (i. e., he participates in the sufferings of Christ). This less rigid definition of the issue allows also for the places where Paul echoes and incorporates both Stoic elements (e.g., the peristasis catalogues) and Jewish ways of accounting for suffering (such as the sacrificial language of Phil 2:17; cf. Rom 3:25; 1Cor 5:7) into his Christocentric worldview, rather than having to maintain that Paul struck out on a completely unprecedented ground of religious reflection.