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Having completed the books of the Bible, we are now featuring various books of the New Testament Apocrypha by Bible scholar and lecturer Mary Jane Chaignot. Unlike the Biblical canon, these have no special order. Still, we will use the outline of the Bible in our study of them.
This month we will continue with the book known as Third Corinthians. Along with the story of Paul and Thecla, it was part of the Acts of Paul (though some scholars have recently begun to question this assumption). We have already noted that these Acts were written in roughly 150-180 CE. Tertullian deemed the Acts of Paul to be heretical because, among other things, it encouraged women to preach and baptize. He stated that these writings were a forgery; the author was a presbyter from Asia Minor who claimed to have written it "out of love for Paul." Be that as it may, scholars know that this letter was very popular in the first few centuries, since copies exist in Armenian, Latin, Greek, and Syriac languages. The discovery of the Coptic Acts of Paul in 1894 revealed that it was part of this larger work. It should be pointed out, however, that the text varies among the different manuscripts. The discussion that follows is based on the Armenian version.
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Third Corinthians purports to be a correspondence between Paul and members of the Corinthian Church. It has four main sections (only three of which are included in the Armenian version). It begins with an historical introduction. From there it goes right into the problem that occasioned the letter. It seems that the elders of the church were writing to Paul to ask for his advice regarding two "heretics" that had arrived in the congregation. After a short interlude describing the delivery of the letter (not in the Armenian version), Paul responded to their concerns.
Stephanus and four other presbyters are concerned about Simon and Cleobius, who have come to Corinth and have been "perverting the faith." They have been saying things that are quite different from anything Paul or any other apostles had preached to them. Clearly this was disconcerting to them. They ask for advice and affirm their willingness to believe whatever Paul or the other apostles will teach them. This seems to be a slightly urgent matter. They are aware that the Lord has been merciful to them and they hope to hear from Paul while he is still alive. They ask him to either write or come to them in person. And they are very grateful that the Lord has delivered him out of the hand of the lawless one.
They, then, elaborate on the message of the heretics: They have been teaching (1) that members should not appeal to the prophets; (2) God is not Almighty; (3) there is no resurrection of the flesh; (4) creation is not the work of God; (5) the Lord did not come in the flesh; (6) the Lord was not born of Mary; and (7) the world is not of God but of the angels.
Even though earlier they professed that he could respond by either writing or coming to visit, it becomes apparent that they really hope Paul will come to them so that the Church in Corinth can remain pure. In so doing, the foolishness of these men could be exposed. They end their letter with the traditional phrase, "farewell in the Lord."
Paul responds. Despite their gratitude for his deliverance, Paul once again identifies himself as a prisoner of Jesus Christ. He acknowledges that he is also physically in prison. Because he is so indisposed, he obviously is not free to visit. Nor does he seem surprised that the teachings of the evil one are gaining ground so rapidly. But, regardless of how things look, he is also secure in the knowledge that the Lord Jesus Christ will come quickly. This assurance stems in part from the fact that those who falsify his words have also rejected him.
Paul reaffirms his teachings were the real deal. He taught them only what he had received from those who had gone before him. And those people had been eyewitnesses to the Lord Jesus Christ.
Then he addresses several specific points of the heretics' claims. He affirms that their Lord Jesus Christ was, indeed, born of Mary of the seed of David. In describing the incarnation, Paul writes that the Holy Spirit was sent from Heaven by the Father into her. This was done in order that the Lord Jesus Christ could come into this world to redeem all flesh through his own flesh. He would also raise up from the dead all those who were fleshly. In this he was our example.
The letter continues that the Father had molded man and sought after him when man was lost. The intent was that man be quickened by adoption into sonship. God, the Almighty, the one who made heaven and earth, first sent prophets to the Jews. The prophets attempted to turn the Jews from their sins. This was all part of God's plan. In order to save the Jews, he sent a portion of the spirit of Christ into the prophets, who proclaimed the proper worship of God.
Yet the prince who was unrighteous and wanted to be God laid his hands on the prophets and killed them. That made all the flesh of man bound to their passions. Still, God, the Almighty, would not repudiate that which he had created. So he sent the Holy Spirit to Mary in Galilee. She was a whole-hearted believer. Therefore, she received the Holy Spirit into her womb, thus providing the vehicle through which Jesus could enter the world. His purpose was to defeat the evil one. Jesus would do this by the same flesh that the evil one held sway. In this way, the evil one would be convinced that he (the evil one) was not God.
Jesus Christ saved all flesh by his own body and brought it to eternal life through faith. He presented a temple of righteousness in his own body, and in this way we are redeemed. Those who reject the providence of God are not the children of righteousness but of wrath. They reject that God created heaven and earth and all that is in them. They claim these are not the works of the Father. As children of wrath, they have the accursed faith of the serpent. Believers should turn from them and flee from their teachings. Believers are not sons of disobedience but are sons of the Church that is most dearly beloved. This is why Paul and the apostles proclaim the time of resurrection.
Those who maintain that there is no resurrection of the flesh cannot understand it. They do not believe in the Lord Jesus Christ who has risen. Paul reminds the men of Corinth that such people have no understanding of the sowing of wheat or other seeds. Though they be cast naked to the ground and perish, they will be raised again by the will of God and will have a body that is clothed. Not only will their bodies be raised up, but they will also be blessed. These won't be seeds but nobler bodies.
Then Paul reminds them of the story of Jonah—how he refused to preach to Nineveh and tried to flee from God. He was swallowed by a whale and after spending three days and nights in the belly of the whale, he was heard by God even though he was in the deepest hell. Despite his ordeal, he emerged physically unhurt; not even an eyelid was damaged. How much more then will God raise up those who have even a little faith? God will raise those who have believed in Christ Jesus just as he was raised. He also reminds them that when a corpse was thrown upon the bones of the prophet Elisha, the man's body rose up. In like manner, they have also been cast upon the body, the bones, and the spirit of Christ Jesus. And they will also rise up on that day with their flesh whole.
He ends by asking them not to cause him trouble if they receive anything else. He has chains on his hands so that he may gain Christ and marks on his body that he may attain the resurrection from the dead. Whoever abides by the rule that he received from the prophets and the holy Gospel will receive a reward; when that individual has risen from the dead, he will obtain eternal life. They should turn aside from those who are men without God – a generation of vipers. This can be done through the power of the Lord. Paul ends with his traditional ending: "May peace, grace, and love be with you." Amen.
Scholars have speculated that this letter might have been written to correct several misconceptions relating to the resurrection of the body. Those who claimed the resurrection would not be physical, but only spiritual, oftentimes quoted passages from scripture. The most notable one is from I Corinthians 15:50: "I declare to you, brothers and sister, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable." If this actually had been the main issue, then the author(s) would have been orthodox Christian(s) trying to refute this argument. Indeed, scholars believe this book was written to reclaim Paul's teachings (especially about bodily resurrection) from the misrepresentations of the Gnostics.