Reading the New Testament, especially the Pauline letters, is like listening to one end of a telephone conversation. The possibility of misunderstanding Paul’s letters looms large. If only we could eavesdrop and hear what his original readers believed, our understanding would greatly increase.
Richard Hays expresses it well. “Much is left unsaid, taken for granted. As belated readers of the letters, we are left to imagine how the gaps should be filled in.” He asks and explains, “What shared assumptions were so fundamental that they remained implicit rather than explicit in Paul’s correspondence? The letters give us some clues, but when we read them, we repeatedly encounter the tantalizing challenge of the unspoken, just as though we were listening to one end of a telephone conversation.”1
Welcome to mirror-reading. This term refers to the biblical scholar’s attempt to look at the statements, commands, and concerns found in an epistle as if these act like a mirror, reflecting the issues, problems, and theology of its original readers. Hays clarifies the practice when, in describing mirror-reading 1 Corinthians, he refers to “extrapolating the thought of the Corinthians based on Paul’s response to them.”2 Bluntly put, what Paul condemns suggests the thought and behavior of the Corinthians. What he commends hints at failures.
Attempt to Understand
Mirror-reading attempts to reconstruct the situation (beliefs and practices) of a letter’s original readers indirectly from the contents of the letter sent to them. It is a subset of the more generalized attempt to reconstruct the occasion or “epistolary situation” that prompted a letter. In such reconstructions, Paul typically is thought to oppose or to correct some aberrant theology or misbehavior of his original audience.
We must comment, however, on the nature of an occasional letter. Although the category “occasional document” can have broad application, 1 Corinthians provides a fruitful case study and suggests at least two fundamental observations: what constitutes an occasional letter, and what doesn’t.
First of all, 1 Corinthians is not a literary device used by Paul to disseminate views for general publication—like a modern-day letter to the editor. It is genuine correspondence—a real letter. Note, for example, 1 Corinthians 1:16: “Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.”
This apparent afterthought is hard to explain if Paul’s letter is merely a veiled attempt to broadcast his views. First Corinthians is not an abstract, theological essay, or a collection of random theological musings. No, it is a letter, written to real people in real places.
Second, 1 Corinthians is ad hoc—for specific needs. The letter concerns real people living in this present, evil age. It encompasses actual events and concrete issues. How else is one to understand Paul’s reprimand of the Corinthians for tolerating incest (5:1–8), his rebuke of misbehavior at the Lord’s Supper (11:17–22), or his instructions concerning the collection for Jerusalem (16:1–4)?
Although Paul’s epistles can range broadly and speak generally, they do not rush to fill some vaguely perceived vacuum. They have a “situational” character and typically focus on specific issues and concerns.
As an occasional document, Paul tells his readers a “sliver” of what he knows: he instructs them in light of a specific occasion. It is a well-aimed arrow from a skilled archer, not a shotgun blast from an indiscriminate hunter. Thus, Paul’s instructions are selective—not exhaustive or comprehensive—and are closely tied to the situation of his readers—the “occasion” of the letter. They are the tip of an iceberg—select words from a storehouse of divine truths, fitting for specific needs.
From this, we can glean at least three lessons:
- Although the teaching of an individual passage should be read and interpreted on its terms—allotted its independence and own priority—it must be integrated with other passages. A Pauline letter often focuses on a single aspect of a larger, more complex issue (e.g., marriage, sin, suffering). It rarely presents full, systematic treatments of any topic, let alone in a single passage. We must integrate the truth from any given text with the teachings of others to form a coherent whole.
- Bible students should read Paul’s letters empathetically. They concern real people and real struggles, as well a real pastor’s response, as he communicates God’s Word to them. We must force ourselves back in time and into their “shoes.” We must make every effort to distance ourselves from modern presuppositions and understandings and to put ourselves into the context of Paul and his original readers.
- The study of Paul’s letters requires a cautious and carefully measured dose of mirror-reading. It is a valuable technique that can flesh out the occasion of Paul’s message—to hear the other side of the conversation. Our task is like a detective who, with a few clues, must re-create a crime scene. Since Paul’s letters resemble overhearing one side of a telephone conversation, we must try to reconstruct what the unheard partner is saying. To do otherwise involves immersing ourselves in answers without knowing the corresponding problems or questions.
Studying Paul’s letters isolated from their context and occasion is like reading the solutions at the end of an algebra textbook without knowing the questions. If the origin and nature of the concerns Paul addresses become murky, so do his answers.3 It is critical to discern what occasion prompted any of Paul’s epistles. The better our understanding of why he wrote a particular letter, the greater our chances of grasping its original meaning and its message for today.
Most people read 1 Corinthians 6:12–20 as a directive to avoid sexual immorality. If we look closer and read between the lines by eavesdropping on the other end of the “telephone” conversation, the thrust of the passage takes a slightly different turn. Note, for example, Paul’s quotation of several slogans—mottoes, rallying cries—bantered about by the Corinthians.
“I have the right to do anything” (v. 12a).
“I have the right to do anything” (v. 12c).
“Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both” (v. 13).
With this, Paul likely is recounting the Corinthians’ justification for their sexual liaisons mentioned in verses 15–16. They “have the right to do anything” (v. 12) with their body, including engaging in sexual immorality—or so they claim. In verse 13, Paul pursues their line of reasoning further, probing a more sophisticated, twofold rationale offered by the Corinthians for this (mis)use of the body.
- They are merely following the natural, God-given design of the body. Just as the stomach is designed for food and food for the stomach so also the body is designed for sex and sex for the body.
- The body (represented by “stomach”) is ultimately of no moral or theological significance since it is destined for destruction by God. (Things destined to perish in the judgment do not matter and are of little or no value. See 1 Corinthians 15:32 for a similar argument based on the transience of the body.)
Paul would not let this stand. The Corinthians erred on both counts. First, the Corinthians’ argument based on design is flawed. “The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (v. 13). Second, their argument based on the transience of the body, that it has no value or ultimate significance, is likewise incorrect. The fate of the body is not destruction. “He will raise us [body and all]” (v. 14). Thus the body and its actions have meaning and value.
In the remainder of the paragraph, Paul makes it clear that the body is the real issue. In doing so, he confirms that both our reconstruction of the situation and our interpretation are on the right track:
- Our bodies are members of Christ Himself—united with the Lord (vv. 15, 17).
- Our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit (v. 19).
- We are not our own; we (body included) have been purchased and are God’s possession (vv. 19–20).
- We are commanded to honor God with our bodies (v. 20).
Couple these observations with what Paul wrote earlier—the body being “for the Lord” (v. 13) and destined for resurrection (v. 14)—and we have a fairly convincing case that the passage concerns the value and significance of the body and its actions. It is not merely about sexual immorality per se. For the Corinthians, the body was the outer husk of the real person—merely a shell discarded at death. Thus, as a disposable entity, it could fulfill its natural design and function with impunity.
For Paul, however, the body was the locus of our relationship with the Lord (vv. 15, 17, 19), an instrument for divine service (v. 20), and destined for resurrection (v. 14). The body was not ethically and theologically irrelevant—both it and its actions mattered. It must not be used with disregard for its sanctity. Thus, where the Corinthians argued for moral irrelevance because of bodily action, Paul contended for the moral relevance of bodily action.
This reconstruction goes a long way in explaining the crux in 6:18: “Every sin that a person commits is outside the body” (nrsv).4 This likely represents another slogan of the Corinthians. They suggested the body was not the real “person,” which they reduced to the soul.
Sin had nothing to do with the body—it was outside the body. It was tied exclusively to the immaterial side of the person. One sinned only with the heart and mind (perhaps the Corinthians misunderstood the Lord’s instruction in Matt 15:10–20 and Mark 7:14–23). In other words, sin had nothing to do with the body; it was a function of motives and intentions only. The body was morally irrelevant, and its actions inconsequential.
Again, Paul would have none of this, flatly rejecting it: “whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body” (1 Cor 6:18). As the temple of the Holy Spirit, the body has value and meaning (v. 19; Rom 1:24; 1 Thess 4:4). The body’s actions are not morally irrelevant (2 Cor 5:10).
Paul was opposed to sexual immorality. But his real target was deeper—the Corinthians’ justification for their actions. For the tree to die, one must kill the root (Rom 12:2). To put an end to their sexual immorality (ultimately a betrayal of the One to whom they were united, who purchased them, and whom they should glorify), Paul had to correct the Corinthians. He had to rectify their (mis)understanding and remedy their devaluation of the body that justified it. Paul’s ultimate goal was to establish a God-honoring (1 Cor 6:20) view of the body. It matters and we must embrace its theological and ethical significance.
We must follow Paul’s line of thinking. Our presuppositions and modern understandings often play havoc with this goal. We can partially remedy this by trying to eavesdrop on Paul’s original readers by reconstructing their end of the “telephone” conversation with Paul.
By doing this, it will help us determine what occasion prompted Paul’s correspondence—to discern the implicit concerns and issues that came between him and his readers.
Such reading is indispensable. As James Dunn notes, “We will not be able to understand the ‘why’ of a line of argument or of a particular emphasis, without having some awareness of the arguments being thus countered.”5
May God grant us that kind of understanding, for it will point to True North for interpreting and applying the meaning of Paul for today.
1 Richard Hays, The Moral Vision of the New Testament (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1996), 16–17.
2 Richard Hays, First Corinthians, Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1997), 8.
3 Much of this paragraph is adapted from Calvin J. Roetzel, The Letters of Paul: Conversations in Context, 5th ed. (Louisville: WJKP, 2009), 85.
4 Similarly, ceb, net bible, nkjv; unlike English translations that supply “other”—every other sin—which is not present in the Greek New Testament, thus csb, esv, and niv.
5 James Dunn, The Theology of Paul the Apostle (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 17.