In his excellent essay on mystical transformation in Philo and Paul, Volker Rabens says of 2 Corinthians 3:18: “Many who have tried to grasp the nuances of Paul’s argument in this passage have at times felt that they themselves have a veil over their minds” (297-98). A.T. Hanson called it “the Mount Everest of Pauline texts as far as difficulty is concerned”. I will gladly take that as an excuse for my own vacillation over the interpretation of this passage in the last few posts (see the list below).
Anyway, here is another attempt to recapitulate Paul’s argument in 2 Corinthians 3:14-18, with a further emendation prompted by Volker’s comment on my reading of “we all” in verse 18.
Paul has learnt from bitter experience, through fruitless debates in the synagogues, that the minds of the Jews have been hardened, that a veil lies over their hearts, keeping them from seeing the glory of the risen Lord (3:14). It is the reading of the old covenant that keeps that veil in place (3:15).
But whenever a Jew turns to the Lord, the veil is lifted because the Spirit (of the Lord) gives freedom from the old covenant (3:17).
This is a general statement about Jewish experience. Paul does not say “our hearts were veiled”, or “when we turned to the Lord”.
What I had then previously argued was that “we all” refers to the Jewish apostles as a subset of those Jews who have turned to the Lord and who are now unveiled.
But that overlooks an important detail. Volker’s comment drew attention to the problem, but really it was staring me in the face all along.
What Paul says about the “we all” is not that they are with “unveiled heart”, which would classify them with the converted Jews of verse 16. Rather he says: “we all, with unveiled face”.
That takes us back not to the veiled Jews but to the veiled Moses, “who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end” (3:13). We are reminded that the apostles have been made sufficient to be “ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit” (3:6).
So the “we all”, as I have been saying all along, refers to the apostles and is part of Paul’s lengthy apologia for the unconventional character of their ministry. It designates that group of people who have been inscribing the new covenant on the hearts of the Corinthians—in contrast to Moses, who inscribed the old covenant on tablets of stone (cf. 3:3).
It is no longer necessary, however, to insist that he has in mind only Jewish apostles, though I suspect that Paul still saw his mission as essentially a Jewish one to the nations, in which Gentiles increasingly participated.
It is the contrast with Moses as a minister of the old covenant which explicitly restricts “we all” to the apostles. We might also, then, revisit the largely deprecated meaning of katoptrizomenoi as “reflecting as in a mirror”. Barnet argues for “beholding” on the grounds of the contrast with the Israelites who could not see because they were veiled, but that makes the same mistake that I did. The contrast is not with the Israelites but with Moses, who didn’t see but reflected the fading glory of the old covenant.1
The phrase “from glory to glory” is not progressive—as the ESV “from one degree of glory to another” rather implies. It may refer either to the change from the fading glory of the old covenant to the greater and permanent of the glory of the new covenant, or to the difference between the glory reflected on the apostles’ unveiled faces in the present and the “eternal weight of glory” that awaits them after death (4:17).
The force of the “all” may lie in the contrast with the singular Moses, but I think it more likely that Paul is making the same point as in Romans 8:29: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Jesus will not be the only “son” to suffer and be raised from the dead; he will simply be firstborn—the eldest—among the many who will suffer and be vindicated with him.
Details aside, this is where I differ from Volker, with his “mystical” reading of the passage. I don’t think the language of Christlikeness is universally applicable. It signifies the experience of those believers, the apostles foremost among them, who have been predestined to suffer as Christ suffered.
I would probably argue that the same applies for participation in Christ: it refers to an eschatological experience—rather than a general mystical experience—that only makes sense in the context of the re-formation of the people of God and the clash with classical paganism. If the church was going to triumph over a violent, idolatrous empire, many would have to participate in the dying and rising of Jesus—quite literally.
The boundaries of that group in the first century context were necessarily vague, but in this passage, where Paul is struggling to regain the trust of the Corinthians, he puts himself and his colleagues forward specifically as ministers of a new covenant who are being transformed quite realistically into the image of the Lord who died and was vindicated.
- 1. P. Barnett, The Second Epistle to the Corinthians (1997), 209.