Cosmology or Soteriology in 1 Cor 8:6; Why does One have to Choose?

In Jerome Murphy-O’Connor’s compiled work “Keys to First Corinthians”, though dated in some areas (including this particular article I will address), I found it made up of helpful discussions on major issues that plague interpreters of this particular letter. Having said this, pleasantries disposed, I found myself in stark disagreement with a particular article (“Corithians 8:6: Cosmology or Soteriology” RBS 85 [1978] 253-67) addressing a specific verse and topic of which I have shown interest in as of late. A favored text in regards to early high christology, 1 Corinthians 8:6 which reads:

“ἀλλʼ ἡμῖν εἷς θεὸς ὁ πατὴρ ἐξ οὗ τὰ πάντα καὶ ἡμεῖς εἰς αὐτόν,

καὶ εἷς κύριος Ἰησοῦς Χριστὸς διʼ οὗ τὰ πάντα καὶ ἡμεῖς διʼ αὐτοῦ.”

Murphy-O’Connor’s translation is as follows:

“For us one God, the Father, from whom (come) all things and towards whom we (go), and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom (come) all things and by whom we (go).”

Murphy-O’Connor states as his preliminary thesis: “the verse has exclusively soteriological meaning, and that the cosmological interpretation is unfounded” (58). Initially, it seems as though he draws a line in the sand, creating an unnecessarily pronounced distinction, between what has the potential to be symbiotic (cosmology and soteriology that is). This, as I have observed, happens far to frequently when attempting to over-systematize or categorize certain texts and their meaning (secretly my theory is it is based off the need to publish in an overwhelmingly over-published field, or it could be my cynicism coming out). The main reason I want to address this article is to attempt to challenge the claim to exclusivity in meaning in 1 Cor 8:6 specifically, and additionally in the area of cosmology and soteriology in Paul in general. Hopefully after a brief interaction with some of the most pertinent hinges of his argument, I will be able to demonstrate what I believe to be the symbiotic nature of the cosmological and the soteriological in this particular verse.

Murphy-O’Connor begins with asking whether or not this verse is a citation or not and comes to the conclusion through examining grammatical comparisons and the overall “ringing cadence” of the verbless phrase, seeing the verse as a citation (not from Paul but an outside source). He admits the evidence lacks strength but nevertheless assumes the position reasonably.  He categorizes the literary form as an acclamation rather than a confession, distinguishing them due to what he refers to as a significant difference in that an acclamation is rooted in wonder and reaction inspired by the experience of power. This he distinguishes from confession which he defines as a declaration which may be necessary by a variety of causes (61-62). He states that the sitz em leben of christian acclamations was the liturgical assembly (63).

His main critique of a cosmological meaning of this verse is based upon previous scholars attempt to compare the apparently cosmological language of ta panta (“all things“) to certain Stoic terminological parallels (such as Marcus Aurelius, a Magic Ring Inscription, Zozimos, and Aesclepius). Murphy-O’Connor points out rightfully the reality of differences grammatically between the phrases used showing no precise parallel. This is not where I have contention with him.  The point of contention is the myopic use of background materials seemingly limited to grammatical parralel, especially only dealing with scholars who maintain a parallel in Stoic philosophical language for his argument against any cosmological meaning. Surprisingly absent from Murphy-O’Connor’s work is an allowance for a conceptual Pauline background for the phrase outside of a pristine grammatical parallel. Even more surprising is the lack of even a faint consideration of a possible Jewish cosmological background (Paul is a Jew!) as opposed to a Greek philosophical one! This is not to say that Paul was unaware of these traditions or on occasion did not appeal to them, but to simply recognize the unfounded assessment by O’Connor to seemingly disallow for there to be a conceptual framework within Paul’s Judaism that allows for a cosmological understanding of the present verse.

To be continued…