For the past few months we have been in 1 Corinthians as a church. It’s been fun, challenging and liberating to see what Paul says regarding a number of things this young church in Corinth is facing.
We have to be cautious of one major thing as we read the letter. Quotations.
It can be confusing because there is no such thing as quotes in Greek so translators over time have had to place them in the English translation.
It sounds nerdy, but it’s important. Here’s why.
In 1 Corinthians 6:12 Paul says, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful.”
I always thought this was a quote from Paul. I thought he was saying that we are permitted as Jesus followers to do anything we want, yet at the same time was also bringing caution by saying some things may not be beneficial.
The problem is that this is not what Paul is saying at all!
Notice that Paul is quoting the church in Corinth. They were saying “all things are lawful for me” and he was responding to this outlandish statement.
The NIV does a good job distinguishing this in 1 Corinthians 7:12 when it translates this verse, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial.” The “you say” helps the reader catch who the quote is referring to in English.
Another example is in 1 Corinthians 7. Paul opens this chapter by saying, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” What?... Once again this is not Paul’s idea but rather him quoting inaccurate ideas that were floating around in the church.
But here is why getting the quotes right REALLY matters! This is practical. If we get the quotes wrong it will effect how we live these verses out as the church.
First, we will say things like, “Paul said, ‘Everything is permissible’ so we get to do whatever the heck we want.”
The danger here is that we convince ourselves everything is permissible and we also determine from person to person what is beneficial. I think that this is dangerous because there are certainly things that are not permissible.
Second, as it refers to 1 Corinthians 7:1, we can get really messed up ideas in the church about sex. If the quotes get out of place we start thinking Paul said, “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” He wasn’t saying this all! The church was. Yet how many throughout church history have painted sex as gross, using this verse as ammo (we will save that for another day).
At any rate, if we get the quotes out of order it could not only lead to bad theology and ideas but also ineffective living. I know it can be difficult reading documents from thousands of years ago, translated from different languages and from a different time, culture and space, but hopefully this will help us as we read to keep the quotes in the right place.
Grace + Peace,