a. The necessity of love (13:1–3)
1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
Paul begins his description of “the way that is beyond comparison” with a series of three conditional sentences 19 whose powerful cadences—and order of appearance—should have had a sobering effect on the Corinthians. He begins with tongues because that is where the problem lay; and for that reason it also gets individual treatment. He then expands his list to include a variety of the charismata from chap. 12, which he himself had argued for so vigorously as part of the need for diversity. Finally, he includes examples of self-sacrificial deeds. In each case the conditional clause presupposes that both he and they are agreed that the activity has value. Thus what is at stake is not the activity without love, but the person himself/herself. These are good things; what is not good is religious performance, gifts on display by one who is not otherwise acting as described in vv. 4–7. It is not a matter of these things or love, or even these things motivated by love, but these things by a person whose whole life is otherwise also given to love. If not, that person’s life before God adds up to zero.
It is hard to escape the implication that what is involved here are two opposing views as to what it means to be “spiritual.” For the Corinthians it meant “tongues, wisdom, knowledge” (and pride), but without a commensurate concern for truly Christian behavior. For Paul it meant first of all to be full of the Spirit, the Holy Spirit, which therefore meant to behave as those “sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be his holy people” (1:2), of which the ultimate expression always is to “walk in love.” Thus, even though these sentences reflect the immediate context, Paul’s concern is not simply with their over-enthusiasm about tongues but with the larger issue of the letter as a whole, where their view of spirituality has caused them to miss rather widely both the gospel and its ethics.
1 This opening sentence is the reason for the entire argument: “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels.” One may be quite sure that the Corinthians believed they did; indeed, this best accounts for the sudden shift to the first person singular (cf. 14:14–15). 20 On its own this could mean nothing more than “speak eloquently,” as some have argued and as it is popularly understood. But since it is not on its own, but follows directly from 12:28–30 and anticipates 14:1–25, most likely this is either Paul’s or their understanding (or both) of “speaking in tongues.” “Tongues of men” would then refer to human speech, 21 inspired by the Spirit but unknown to the speaker; “tongues of angels” would reflect an understanding that the tongues-speaker was communicating in the dialect(s) of heaven.
That the Corinthians at least, and probably Paul, thought of tongues as the language(s) of angels seems highly likely—for two reasons: (1) There is some evidence from Jewish sources that the angels were believed to have their own heavenly language (or dialects) and that by means of the “Spirit” one could speak these dialects. Thus in the Testament of Job 48–50 Job’s three daughters are given “charismatic sashes”; 22 when these were put on they allowed Hemera, for example, to speak “ecstatically in the angelic dialect, sending up a hymn to God with the hymnic style of the angels. And as she spoke ecstatically, she allowed ‘The Spirit’ to be inscribed on her garment.” 23 Such an understanding of heavenly speech may also lie behind the language of 1 Cor 14:2 (“speak mysteries by the Spirit”). (2) As has been argued elsewhere, 24 one can make a good deal of sense of the Corinthian view of “spirituality” if they believed that they had already entered into some expression of angelic existence. This would explain their rejection of sexual life and sexual roles (cf. 7:1–7; 11:2–16) and would also partly explain their denial of a future bodily existence (15:12, 35). It might also lie behind their special interest in “wisdom” and “knowledge.” For them the evidence of having “arrived” at such a “spiritual” state would be their speaking the “tongues of angels.” Hence the high value placed on this gift.
But Paul’s concern lay elsewhere. Their “spirituality” showed evidence of all kinds of behavioral flaws. Their “knowledge” led to pride and the “destruction of a brother for whom Christ died” (8:2, 11). Their “wisdom” led to quarrels and rivalry (1:10; 3:4). Their “tongues” were neither edifying the community nor allowing pagans to respond to the prophetic word (14:1–25). In short, theirs was a spirituality that lacked the primary evidence of the Spirit: behavior that could be described as “having love.”
In saying “but have not love 25 ,” Paul does not mean to suggest that love is a possession of some kind. The language has been formed by the elevated style of the prose. To “have love” means to “act lovingly,” just as to “have prophecy” in v. 2 means “to speak with the prophetic gift.” 26 And to act lovingly means, as in the case of Christ, actively to seek the benefit of someone else. For Paul it is a word whose primary definition is found in God’s activity in behalf of his enemies (Rom. 5:6–8), which was visibly manifested in the life and death of Christ himself. To “have love,” therefore, means to be toward others the way God in Christ has been toward us. Thus, in the Pauline parenesis, for those who “walk in the Spirit” the primary ethical imperative is “love one another.” This is found at the heart of every section of ethical instruction, 27 and the other exhortations are but the explication of it.
The final coup in this sentence is the language “resounding gong” and “clanging cymbal.” Although what the former designates is uncertain, 28 at least it is a metaphor for an empty, hollow sound. 29 The latter in fact was an “instrument” expressly associated with the pagan cults. 30 Perhaps, then, this is an allusion to 12:2 and their former associations with such cults. 31 To speak in tongues as they were doing, thinking that they were “spiritual” but with no concern for building up the community, is not merely to speak unintelligible words; it makes one sound like the empty, hollow noises of pagan worship.
2 In this second sentence Paul widens the perspective to include three of the charismata from 12:8–10, a list which in that argument came from Paul himself as his way of expanding their own horizons as to the work of the Spirit. Thus he includes prophecy, the gift he regularly considers to be of primary significance for the community (cf. 1 Thess. 5:19–20; 1 Cor 14:1–25); knowledge, which was another of the Corinthian favorites (cf. 1:5; 8:1); and faith, which, together with its qualifier, “that can move mountains,” means the gift of special faith for mighty works (see on 12:9). 32 In order to make this point as emphatic as possible, Paul thrice emphasizes “all”: all mysteries, all knowledge, all faith. If one person could embrace the whole range of charismata and the full measure of any one of them, but at the same time would fail to be full of love, such a person would be nothing in the sight of God. 33
But what did Paul intend by the second item, “fathom 34 all mysteries and all knowledge”? These terms appear together as a regular feature of Jewish apocalyptic, 35 especially with regard to the unfolding of God’s final eschatological drama. Paul now uses this language to refer to God’s present revelation of his ways, 36 especially in the form of special revelations by means of the eschatological Spirit whom Christians have received (cf. 14:6). 37 This is most likely how we are also to understand both the “utterance of knowledge” in 12:8 and the “knowledge” that accompanies tongues and prophecy in vv. 8–13 that follow.
Given the longer protasis, Paul concludes with a shorter apodosis, “I am nothing.” That speaks eloquently for itself. As before, possession of charismata is not the sign of the Spirit; Christian love is.
3 Enlarging his perspective yet further, this time quite beyond charismata, Paul next offers examples of great personal sacrifice. 38 The first item literally says, “If I parcel out 39 all my property 40 for food,” to feed “the poor” being implied. In light of the word about “faith” in v. 2, Paul is probably once again reflecting on the teaching of Jesus. 41 How, then, can he say that such a “loving deed” gains nothing? Here in particular Paul’s own point comes to the fore. As with the charismata, the deed in itself is a good thing, commanded by Jesus of his would-be followers, and surely of benefit for the recipients. Paul’s point is that such an action by one who is not otherwise characterized by the love described in the next four verses is of no benefit 42 whatever to the giver.
The final item, which is undoubtedly intended to climax the series, also presents us with the greatest difficulties in understanding. Some form of self-sacrifice seems to be in view, but because of the difficult textual variation (see n. 13 above), one cannot be sure which. The majority of interpreters prefer the reading “to burn,” and view it either as martyrdom or an extreme example of giving oneself up to the most painful of deaths for some great cause. But there are several difficulties with this option: (1) Even though martyrdom by fire was not unknown among the Jews, 43 this had not yet become a Christian phenomenon; the fiery persecutions of Nero are still at least a decade away. It seems unlikely, therefore, that Paul had martyrdom in mind. (2) This is made even less likely by the language itself. One does not “give over one’s body” to martyrdom; rather, such is taken from one. Moreover, the language “if I give over my body, so that I might be burned” is highly unusual under any circumstances. 44 One would expect rather “that it might be burned.” (3) The basic reason for adopting this reading is not its own intrinsic merit; rather, it tends to win by default, in light of what is perceived to be the still greater difficulty of making good sense of “that I might boast.” It is regularly assumed 45 that this latter is pejorative language and, therefore, that such an action is already so unloving that Paul’s apodosis becomes redundant. (4) Given the difficulty with this alternative and the frequency of Christian martyrdom in the early church after Paul, one can well understand why a scribe would have changed “boast” to “burn” 46 ; whereas under the same circumstances it is nearly impossible to account for the opposite change. 47
What that means, therefore, is that Paul most likely wrote, “if I hand over my body that I might boast.” The question is, What could that mean? If we were limited only to a pejorative sense for “boast,” then despite all the above arguments we would probably have to assume that Paul wrote “burned” and try to find an adequate meaning for it. But in fact we are not so limited in Paul. As noted in the discussion of this word in 1:29–31 and 9:15, for Paul this can be a positive idea, as long as it is brought under the gift of grace. That is, Paul will boast in the very things that are his weaknesses so that the gospel might be the more glorified. 48 For him this usage had eschatological overtones; he expected to have a legitimate “boast on the day of the Lord” (2 Cor. 1:14; cf. Rom. 5:2–3). If that is the meaning here, then this final item is most likely a genuine reflection on his own ministry, in which he is referring to the kinds of bodily sufferings of which he “boasts” in 2 Cor. 11:23–29 and 12:10, which also help to bring about his greater “boast,” their salvation. But if he does not also have love, even these reasons for boasting, he says, “profit me nothing.” 49
The inclusion of the examples in v. 3 makes it clear that love is not being set in contrast to gifts; rather, Paul is arguing for the absolute supremacy and necessity of love if one is to be a Christian at all. Paul will continue to “give his body so that he might boast”; he will especially urge the Corinthians to desire prophetic utterances; and he will encourage tongues in their life of personal prayer. But these things must be brought forth in lives that above all “have put on love”; for without love one quite misses the point of being Christian in the first place. The easiest way to move this paragraph from their situation to ours is simply to give it a new ad hoc expression, in terms of how one thinks of his/her own life to be spiritually significant. For example, “If I preach with the brilliance of Paul or Chrysostom, but have not love …”; or perhaps, “If I write a commentary on 1 Corinthians 13, but have not love …,” etc.
19 Each is a present general (if ever the one condition prevails, so does the other). Each is carefully structured in three parts: (a) a protasis (in the second and third instances a double protasis), (b) an adversative clause, “but have not love,” and (c) an apodosis. The balance is maintained by having a longer apodosis in v. 1, where the protasis is shorter, and the briefest possible apodosis in vv. 2 and 3, where the protasis is elaborated. The whole is a work of art, with marvelous cadences and dramatic effect.
20 That is, Paul uses himself as the hypothetical person precisely because many of the Corinthians were like this in reality. Bringing them into the argument in this more indirect way is its own form of powerful argumentation. At the same time, as in 14:6, this use of the first person could reflect an undercurrent of their disapproval of him for not being known to speak in tongues, hence of his not being truly πνευματικός; cf. on 2:15.
21 See on 12:10. Martin, 43, along with many others, sees the two genitives as suggesting “eloquence and ecstatic speech,” with eloquence reflecting the Corinthian interest that one finds in chaps. 1–2. That is certainly possible, but it seems more likely in this context that Paul is simply describing “tongues” in two different forms.
25 Gk. ἀγάπη, rare but not unknown in Greek literature. The LXX often uses this word to speak of God’s love, which probably became the source of its use among the early Christians. For them it designated a love differing especially from ἒρος (“desiring love”) and also from φιλία (“natural sympathy” or “mutual affection”). See the discussion by W. Günther and H.-G. Link, NIDNTT II, 538–47; and by G. Quell and E. Stauffer, TDNT I, 221–54. See also the important monographs by J. Moffatt, Love in the New Testament (New York, 1930); A. Nygren, Agape and Eros (ET, London, 1932, 1939); and esp. Spicq, Agape (1959).
26 Otherwise Ellis, 52 n. 29, who argues that it “here includes the perception of mysteries.”
28 Gk. χαλκο͂ς ἠχῶν (= lit. “echoing bronze”). Of the two items, this is the more puzzling since there is no known evidence for its use as an “instrument.” Recently it has been suggested that it reflects the bronze “amplification” systems of the stone amphitheatres. See W. Harris, “Echoing Bronze,” Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 70 (1981), 1184–85; idem, “ ‘Sounding Brass’ and Hellenistic Technology,” BARev 8 (1982), 38–41; cf. Murphy-O’Connor, Corinth, pp. 76–77; and W. W. Klein, “Noisy Gong or Acoustic Vase? A Note on 1 Corinthians 13:1,” NTS 32 (1986), 286–89.
30 In particular with the cult of Cybele, where some of the more bizarre forms of “ecstasy” also occurred. See the evidence in E. Peterson, TDNT I, 227–28; and K. L. Schmidt, TDNT III, 1037–39; cf. J. Quasten, Musik und Gesang in den Kulten der heidnischen Antike und christlichen Frühzeit (Münster, 1930).
32 This qualifier is another sure evidence of Paul’s acquaintance with the teaching of Jesus, reflecting a saying found variously in Mark 11:25 and Matt. 17:30 (cf. Luke 17:6). On this question see on 4:16; 7:10, 25; and 9:14.
34 The verb εἰδῶ controls both nouns, “all mysteries” and “all knowledge.” Here it must mean “understand”; hence the NIV’s “fathom.”
35 See, e.g., Dan. 2:19–23, 28 where in the LXX the repeated language includes σοφία, γνῶσις, μυστήρια, and ἀνακαλύπτω; cf. also the recurring “he showed me all the mysteries of …” in 1 Enoch (41:1; 52:2; 61:5; 63:3; 68:5; 71:4).
36 See above on 4:1.
37 Friedrich, TDNT VI, 853–54, asserts, but without textual support: “Gnosis is one of the ‘rational gifts of the Spirit.’ It is attained speculatively, by thinking about the mysteries of the faith.… In contrast, prophecy rests on inspiration. Knowledge is given to it by sudden revelation. The prophetic thought or image strikes the prophet from without.” This is hard to square with Paul’s own language in 12:7–11 and 14:1–6.
38 Spicq, Agape, p. 71 (147), suggests a connection with ἀντίλημψις in 12:28; this is doubtful since the emphasis here is not on helping others as such.
45 Cf., e.g., Elliott, “In Favour,” where this assumption itself underlies the rejection. The view of Harnack (n. 48 below) is simply not noted.
46 A passage in Clement of Rome’s letter to the church in Corinth (ca. A. D. 96) is of considerable interest: “We know of many among us who have delivered (παραδεδωκότας) themselves to bondage in order to ransom others; many have sold themselves into slavery and used the price paid for themselves to feed (ἐψώμισαν) others” (55:2 [Grant-Graham transl.; New York, 1965]). This usage of the two verbs from 13:3 in a passage shortly after his referring to 1 Corinthians and the command to love (chaps. 47–50) seems too remarkable to be accidental. If so, then the absence of καυθήσομαι (“burning”), but the giving up of oneself in other ways for the sake of others, implies that Clement knew nothing of a text that had “burn” in it.
47 The most frequent suggestion is the frequency of the verb καυχάομαι in Paul and the relative infrequency of καίω (e.g., Spicq, Agape, pp. 57–58; Elliott, “In Favour,” p. 298). But this will not do since scribes who would be trying to make sense of the text would be little influenced by word frequency.