Recently, I took a course on the backgrounds and exegesis of 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s famous chapter on the resurrection. Part of this course was the task to produce a short paper on the exegesis or hermeneutics of 1 Corinthians 15. Though I usually don’t write on this blog on exegetical matters, I take the opportunity to let you share in my findings on one particular strand of thought in this chapter. At the same time, it will be a preparation of my Easter sermon. While studying the structure of 1 Corinthians 15, I was struck by the repeated expression ‘not in vain’. In this paper I will take a closer look on Paul’s use of this expression.
‘In vain’: the Greek terminology
To start with, let’s ask at which places Paul uses the expression ‘in vain’ in 1 Corinthians 15 and which Greek words he applies in these cases. Unfortunately, it seems not possible to produce Greek characters in my text, so instead I will transcribe them. In quotations form 1 Corinthians 15 I will use the Revised Standard Version, 2nd edition (1971).
- ‘…unless you believed in vain‘ (‘eikei’ – 15,2)
- ‘…his grace toward me was not in vain‘ (‘kenè’ – 15,10)
- ‘if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is in vain…’ (‘kenon’ – 15,14)
- ‘… and your faith is in vain‘ (‘kenè’ – 15,14)
- ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.‘ (‘mataia’ – 15,17)
- ‘…knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ (‘kenos’ – 15,58)
It seems then, that Paul uses these three different Greek words as equivalents. But that assumption, of course, needs to be tested. So, we will take a closer look on the Greek words: ‘eikei’, ‘kenos’, and ‘mataios’.
- eikei – this word appears six times in the New Testament (Mat.5,22 v.l.; Rom.13:4; 1 Cor.15,2; Gal.3,4; 4,11; Col.2,18). Its meaning, according to the Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (WNT – Bauer-Aland) ranges from ‘groundless’ to ‘futile’, to ‘pointless’ (‘without purpose’). The Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (EDNT – Balz-Schneider) doesn’t offer an entry on ‘eikei’. However, the older Theologische Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament (TWNT – Kittel) does, although it’s very short. Friedrich Büchsel explains that ‘eikei’, always being used adverbial, fundamentally means ‘arbitrary’, ‘random’. In the New Testament, Büchsel says, it usually means ‘futile’ of ‘in vain’.
- kenos – the use of ‘kenos’ in the NT is more frequent (Mk.12,3; Lk.1,53; 20,10; Acts 4,25; 1Cor.3,18 v.l.; 15,10;14(2x);58; 2Cor.6,1; Gal.2,2; Eph.5,6; Phil.2,16(2x); Col.2,8; 1 Th.2,1; 3,15; Jas4,5). As this listing shows, the word is used most frequently in Paul’s letters. There is another interesting feature to be noticed. M.Lattke (EDNT) writes: “LXX language in more or less word-for-word citations dictates the use of ‘kenos’ in a majority of the NT occurrences”. In the Magnificat (Lk.1,53) we find an example. ‘Kenos’ here means ’empty’ or ‘without content’. In Paul’s use of the word, we find a particular concern of his, that his missionary work would not be ‘in vain’ (‘eis kenon’; 1 Thess.3,5). ‘Kenos’ bears in passages like this the connotation of ‘without fruit’. Yet another trait of Paul’s (or Pauline) usage of ‘kenos’ appears in Col.2,8 & Eph.5,6, where he warns against the misleading deception of ’empty words’. In this case, ‘kenos’ means ‘unconnected with the truth (= Christ)’.
- mataios – this word is quite rare in the NT (Acts 14,15; 1 Cor.3,20; 15,17; Tit.3,9; Jas.1,26; 1 Pet.1,18), just as the related substantive and verb. H.Balz remarks in EDNT: “While in the related adj. ‘kenos’ the meaning ’empty/meaningless’ stands in the foreground, ‘mataios’ also has (as already in the Greek linguistic realm), esp. from its biblical tradition, the meaning vain/futile/deceitful and refers to a senseless understanding of reality in contrast to the only valid reality of God or to skeptical resignation in the face of God’s distance from this world (…).” It’s worth mentioning that ‘mataios’ is the word the LXX uses in Ecclesiastes to translate the Hebrew ‘chabel’ (Ecc.1,2; etc.).
We may conclude that the meaning of these words converge to a large extent, while showing differences in nuance, ‘eikei’ being the most ‘flat’ in its meaning, ‘mataia’ the most pronounced, stemming from its traditional use in the OT (LXX).
Paul’s use of ‘in vain’ in 1 Corinthians 15
The question then is whether these differences in nuance show up in Paul’s discourse. It might be so, if we consider the following line of thought. Paul links the verb ‘pisteuoo’ or the substantive ‘pistis’ in this chapter with the three different words ‘eikei’ (15,2), ‘kenè’ (15,14), and ‘mataia’ (15,17). It is clear that he wants to stress the same point: without resurrection, your faith is ‘futile’, ‘in vain’.
However, it seems that he doesn’t choose his words deliberately. ‘Eikei’, being the most general expression, is used in the introduction (15,2) of his argument. Without resurrection, their faith is pointless. It makes no sense. In 15,14 Paul uses ‘kenos’ two times. The first time it refers to his preaching, the second time to the faith of the Corinthians. We find here Paul’s concern for the fruit of his missionary work and preaching. In the following verse, he remarks: “We are even found to be misrepresenting God…”, while continuing with a line of argument structured by ‘if … then …’. No wonder in this light, he uses ‘mataia’ in 15,17, while ‘mataia’, as we saw, “refers to a senseless understanding of reality in contrast to the only valid reality of God or to skeptical resignation in the face of God’s distance from this world” (EDNT). It is telling in this regard that Paul in 1 Cor.3,20 ‘mataia’ connected, quoting Ps.94,11, with the thoughts of the wise and the wisdom of the world.
In short, I’m inclined to believe that Paul chose his words carefully. That intuition is confirmed, when we take a brief look at the remaining occurences of ‘in vain’ in 1 Corinthians 15. In 15,10 Paul says that Christ’s grace to him was not in vain (kenè), immediately continued by the remark that ‘worked (ekopiasa) harder than any of them (i.e. the other apostles). His final remark in 15,58 says that ‘in the Lord your labor (kopos) is not in vain’. Though it is disputed what Paul exactly means with the ‘work of the Lord’ in this passage, it is quite probable that he does not restrict it to the daily working routine, but that he has (also) in mind more specifically the ministry of the gospel. He assures the Corinthians that their efforts in the service of Christ’s gospel will bear fruit.
The structure of 1 Corinthians 15
Paul’s terminology in 1 Corinthians 15 appears to be quite coherent indeed. But if that is the case, it makes sense to ask how our findings with regard to the use of ‘in vain’ fit into the whole structure of chapter 15. A standard division of 1 Corinthians 15, looks like this:
- 1-11 – The tradition of Christ’s resurrection
- 12-19 – The argument: if Christ is not raised
- 20-28 – The answer: but Christ is raised!
- 29-34 – Ad hominem: don’t be deceived!
- 35-44 – Analogies to the resurrected body
- 45-49 – Analogy of Adam and Christ
- 50-57 – The mystery of the final resurrection
- 58 – The conclusion: not ‘in vain’
As a first glance on this division makes clear, Paul speaks of ‘in vain’ in the first two parts of the chapter and in the last, concluding verse. More precisely, in the light of the structure of 1 Corinthians 15, we can see that for Paul ‘in vain’ is connected with two fundamental themes. First, it is connected with Christ’s resurrection as a fundamental fact. Without Christ’s resurrection our faith would be ‘in vain’, in the sense of being groundless. Second, it is connected with the fruit of the proclamation of Christ’s resurrection. That would have been futile as well. Without resurrection the gospel wouldn’t have borne fruit, neither in Paul’s own life, nor in that of the Corinthians. In that case, both his own labor, as well as theirs, would have been wasted.
The hermeneutical harvest
By way of conclusion I want to explore the hermeneutical relevance of our exploration of Paul’s use of ‘in vain’ in 1 Corinthians 15.
1. In the first place, we have seen that for Paul it is essential that the resurrection of Christ has occurred. Otherwise, our faith would have been ‘groundless’. Faith, for Paul, is grounded faith. The structure of 1 Corinthians 15 is underlining this assumption. Before Paul mentions the reason for his writing on the subject (15,12), he starts with displaying the witnesses of the resurrection (15,1-7), including himself (15,8-11). In short, the resurrection is well-attested. That means that, in the light of Paul’s argument, we can’t evaporate the resurrection event to a mere visionary experience. It even qualifies Paul’s own encounter with the risen Lord. On the basis of his use of the expression ‘in vain’, we may conclude that for Paul this encounter can’t be accounted for in terms of a mere subjective experience.
2. Furthermore, 1 Corinthians 15 gives us reason to view the contemporary situation of the church in a different light. Without resurrection, says Paul, our proclamation would have been futile. Put in more general terms, without Christ’s resurrection is the emergence of a church hardly conceivable. Few people would be prepared to take this line of thought as a proof of Christ’s resurrection. However, it is undeniable, that Christianity worldwide is still growing. In Europe, things look different. Many churches in the Netherlands are shrinking. Some are closed or getting a different destination. But Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 15 can open our eyes for another dynamics: the dynamics of evangelism. The resurrection of Christ is an invitation to the ministry of mission, knowing that in the Lord our labor will not be in vain.
3. “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (Ecc.1:2). In Ecclesiastes we encounter a sense of life, that is deeply sceptical. The whole of our life is futile. All things occur as they must occur. Life is deterministic. Lots of people in our days believe, consciously or unconsciously, according to these assumptions. Paul’s proclamation in 1 Corinthians 15 is a different story. Life is not in vain, because of the very fact of Christ’s resurrection. It has purpose, God’s purpose about which Paul is writing in the second half of this chapter. Therefore, 1 Corinthians 15 is the proclamation of life that can be renewed and recreated. In that life, the life of Christ, we may participate. “Therefore, if any one is in Christ, he is a new creation.” (2 Cor.5,17a).