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New Testament Words and Verses
Paul and Boasting

I Corinthians 5:1 presents a shocking and unexpected thought, since it first tells us the hard-to-accept story of a man having sexual relations or getting married to his mother or step-mother, and then it goes on to talk about taking him “out of the middle,” which I have elsewhere interpreted as a not-so-subtle death warrant for the man.  Finally, Paul talks in I Cor. 5:5 about handing him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, using a word for “destruction” (ὄλεθρον) that no doubt means extermination. Now, just when  Paul is exploring punishment for the offender, he decides to take on the whole congregation.  Hear him in verse 2, first in Greek:


2 καὶ ὑμεῖς πεφυσιωμένοι ἐστὲ καὶ οὐχὶ μᾶλλον ἐπενθήσατε, ἵνα ἀρθῇ ἐκ μέσου ὑμῶν ὁ τὸ ἔργον τοῦτο πράξας;


“And you yourselves are puffed up.  Ought you not rather to grieve, inasmuch as the one who has done this thing is going to be taken out of the middle?”


He seems to take aim at his readers/hearers in general and not at a particular faction or section of the congregation. Lest we miss the point, he says “You yourselves” are the ones who are puffed up. So, the sin is not simply because of the man living in a sexually impermissible relationship but because of the congregation’s response to it. Paul takes this reality as his occasion to strike out at everyone.


                                                   φυσιόω, “to be puffed up”


The language of being puffed up, using the verb φυσιόω, is rather rare in the New Testament, with the verb appearing seven times, all in the Pauline corpus (assuming that Colossians is by Paul). The underlying noun is φῦσᾰ, which the big Liddell-Scott-Jones translates as “bellows” or “breath.” The noun form directly derived from the verb is φυσίωσις, a NT hapax, occurring in a list of seven incredibly rich nouns detailing sinful behavior (II Cor. 12:20), and best translated as “conceit” or “arrogance.”


Three of the seven appearances of φυσιόω in the New Testament are in I Cor. 4. In those appearances (vv 6, 18, 19) Paul doesn’t indict the entire congregation for this sin but seems to suggest that his long absence from them has led some to believe that really isn’t as tough or authoritative as he seems. Paul interprets this behavior as “being puffed up” in I Cor. 4, and the appearance in I Cor. 5:2 is consistent with that reading.  So focused is Paul on the concept that he uses the verb in I Cor. 8:1 to talk about the difference between the fruit of love and the fruit of knowledge. The fruit of the latter is to be “puffed up” (φυσιόω). This culminates in the memorable passage in I Cor. 13:4 where he contrasts love and boasting (using the rare and highly suggestive verb περπερεύομαι, to “boast” or “brag”) and says that love is not puffed up (φυσιόω again).


The upshot of Paul’s surprisingly supple treatment of arrogance through use of the verb “puffed up” in I Cor. is that Paul now has a weapon to train against the congregation that he loves.  They are “puffed up,” and the remedy for being puffed up is to love.


                                               καυχάομαι, “to boast”


We might have thought that his direct handling of the issue of the congregation’s arrogance through the use of the verb φυσιόω in I Cor. would have ended it.  We could have imagined something like:  a) You are puffed up; b) Realize that love is the remedy for it; c) Then, in a subsequent letter—‘I am delighted that you are no longer puffed up.’  But this is precisely what doesn’t happen.  In fact, both in I Cor. and II Cor. Paul introduces the more common word for “boasting” or “to be arrogant” and so overuses both the verb and two nouns derived from καυχάομαι that we begin to surmise that the real problem behind all the arrogance or boasting may be Paul himself.


Let me illustrate. καυχάομαι is the usual word in the New Testament for “I boast,” though it can also be translated as “exult” or even “rejoice” at times.  The verb appears 38x, which is unexpectedly frequent for texts that you wouldn’t think would want to spend a lot of time thinking about boasting (once you condemn it once or twice, you can leave it alone).  But the interesting point is that of the 38 appearances of the verb, Paul uses it 90% of the time.  And, in three chapters of II Cor. (10-12) he uses it an impossibly large number of times (17x). Boasting is clearly on his brain—all the time. 


And it is not as if the verb for boasting, which Paul exploits far more than one would think necessary, is all there is. We also have two NT nouns for the concept, καύχημα and καύχησις, with the former being “a boast,” while the latter is “a cause for boasting; an act of boasting.”  These words occupy pretty much the same linguistic universe. Each of these appears 11x in the NT, with Paul using the words 20 of the 22 times, many of which appearances are in the Corinthian correspondence. Thus, It is a subject he basically can’t put down.  And, what makes it particularly problematic for Paul is that he associates it a little too often with his own behavior to make us think that the “boasting/puffed up” problem of Corinth is just with the congregation.


For example, he uses “boasting” language repeatedly in II Cor. 12 to talk about himself.  He says, “It is necessary to boast; nothing is to be gained by it, but I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord” (12:1).  After marinating oneself in all the references where Paul speaks of “boasting” in I  and II Cor., I am thinking that the Corinthian problem with arrogance or boasting might be something they picked up, along with his theological doctrines, from Paul. It wouldn’t be the first time that a faithful disciple has imbibed the faults, as well as the brilliance, of the master.

The Most Interesting Word
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