Paul’s Palindrome (almost)

The Bible is full of hidden gems.

I find that you uncover them by pausing to ask questions. Too often we read over a passage, maybe even spot something that seems cool, say “huh, that’s cool” and move on without really asking what it means.

In 1 Corinthians 16:22, Paul writes (almost as an afterthought): “If anyone does not love the Lord, he is to be accursed. Maranatha.”

My Bible helpfully includes a note on the word “accursed” to explain that the Greek word is anathema. You may recognise it. Now so often, I have read this explanatory note, heard its similarity of sound to “Marantha”, said “huh, that’s cool,” and closed my Bible because I’ve finished reading 1 Corinthians.

Last night I had the time to pause and ask a question. So often I think that’s what we don’t allow ourselves – time.

I happened to be with a group of people; we were reading through the chapter as a matter of course (call it a Bible study group for now for the sake of explaining why we were in the same room doing that!). This was a great context for me to ask the question, particularly as there were a couple of Greek scholars in the room, one an especially renowned and respected teacher!

As I said, the word anathema is translated “accursed”. Five times it is translated this way in the New Testament; once it is translated “solemn”. By looking up Strong’s definition, I discovered that it could be related to a votive offering, but it’s never translated as such. This was partly what I was wondering.

The much greater question, of course, was why Paul should say such a strong thing, and then follow it immediately with the Aramaic word “Maranatha!” which means, “Our Lord, come!” The two words are almost palindromic; certainly it is a play on words, of which the Jews were particularly fond. I noticed if you take the “ma” from the end of “anathema” and stick it on the front (with an ‘r’ to break up the syllables) you reach “maranatha”. (So, not quite palindromic, but you get the idea.) The two words go together, but why the two concepts? Why the one not loving the Lord being cursed – followed by “Our Lord, come!”?

It’s a local question, apparently. Related to things that could have been going on in Corinth. I state now, this is postulation – speculation; a theory. But possibly well-grounded, given some scholarly opinion and the understanding we have of what the Corinthian church was like and how Paul needed to address rather a number of issues.

Recent scholarship (I didn’t learn who exactly) has suggested that 1 Cor 12:3, instead of reading “no one can say by the Spirit of God, ‘Jesus is accursed'”, may in fact have had more to do with using the name of Jesus as a curse on others; in other words, asking the Lord to curse people! Extreme, I know – but with some of the other things you read about going on in Corinth, it’s not entirely a surprise. (Not to mention that some forms of Christianity today almost seem to go that far, such as the billboard asking Christians in America to pray for President Obama according to Ps 109:8.)

Even if that’s not the case, it might be that 16:22 is a conclusion to the thought in 12:3 – possibly.

If there were people going around cursing others in the Lord’s name, “anathematising” them, Paul here is warning them that the Lord is coming, perhaps. It is interesting, also, that the verse in question says “If anyone does not love the Lord”. Although the Greek word for love is phileo, it is arguably not too distinct as a form of love from that which is talked about not long after 12:3, in chapter 13, which is right at the centre of Paul’s argument there, and his instructions on church order and the Christian life.

I still see questions staring me in the face. Which scholars have made the propositions about 12:3? Why is it phileo? Does anathema definitely mean “accursed” in every case?

One thing I know: Maranatha!

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