Seeing that Jews ask for signs, and Greeks seek after wisdom: but we preach Christ crucified, unto Jews a stumblingblock, and unto Gentiles foolishness; but unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:22-24).
When people hear about the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire in the first few centuries of this era, it is easy to think that either there was not much competition or people were just more ready to accept belief in Jesus as the Christ. This is the way that many who wish to look down upon the faith want to present the situation too, promoting a move away from “primitive faith” in our more “enlightened age.”
In reality, however, the first century was a time of great philosophical engagement. The Platonic, Peripatetic (Aristotelian), Stoic, Cynic, Epicurean, and other schools of philosophy flourished, promoted their views, and challenged one another. “Mystery religions” involving exclusive groups and secret rites were popular. There was also interest in the Jewish religion, among others, and the Jews of the first century were very fervent about their religion and their identity.
Christianity, therefore, did not grow without any meaningful opposition. In fact, for many, the only thing that would unify them would be their shared opposition to Christianity!
As Paul indicates, much of the opposition to Christianity came as a result of its central tenets– Jesus as the Crucified and Risen Christ (1 Corinthians 1:18-31). This idea was not wholeheartedly embraced uncritically by the majority establishment of its day– far from it! Such ideas were as “preposterous” then as they are often reckoned now!
To the Jews, Christ crucified is a stumbling-block. The image comes from Isaiah 8:14 and applied by Paul to Jesus in Romans 9:32-33, and it is very appropriate. The Jews were looking forward to the future Messiah as the King of physical Israel who would deliver them from oppression, restore the kingdom of David, and thus defeat the Romans and establish a Jewish world power. But the idea of the Christ– the Messiah– as crucified is entirely contrary to those intentions, especially the Christ crucified on a Roman cross! Thus, while looking forward to the coming Messiah and waiting to see His signs, Jesus came and fulfilled all that was written of the Christ, and the Jews did not receive Him (John 1:11, Matthew 5:17-18, Luke 24:44). The Jews tripped over the Christ they were not expecting, and their impending doom as a nation was sealed (Matthew 24:1-36, Romans 11:7-10).
To the Gentiles, particularly those well-versed in Greek philosophy and Greek thinking, Christ crucified and raised from the dead is foolishness. Many Athenians mocked when they heard of Jesus’ resurrection (Acts 17:32). It was folly because the idea of God coming in the flesh, let alone to die, let alone to be raised again (cf. Philippians 2:5-11), was utterly contrary to everything they believed. If God or gods existed, they certainly would not demean themselves to the point of becoming human. Even if such a possibility were imaginable, no divine being of any standing would suffer to live as a peasant and die as a common criminal on a Roman cross, for humility was no virtue to the Greek. Beyond all of this, the idea of the resurrection of the dead was preposterous. Not only did the dead remain dead, and not only were there no instances of the dead being raised, but why would anyone want to be raised again in the flesh? The Greeks imagined that the state of bliss would be found in a disembodied spirit form; the body was a hindrance, not a help. According to the Gentile worldview, Christ crucified and raised simply did not make any sense.
Notice that Paul does not deny this. Paul understands that to the Jew who thinks like Jews, Christ crucified is a stumbling-block; to a Greek well-versed in their philosophies, Christ crucified is sheer folly. Paul knows and confesses that the Jews look for signs but not according to the nature of Christ; the Gentiles seek after wisdom, but it is not the wisdom rooted in God. The Jew seeks the worldly Messiah; the Greek seeks the wisdom of the world. To both, nothing can be more ridiculous than Christ crucified.
And that is precisely the point: to the ways of the world Christianity always has been, is today, and will always remain ridiculous. God as a Jewish peasant executed by the Romans as a common criminal only to be raised from the dead? It is not as if this story has only recently become difficult for many to accept!
In fact, Paul embraces the “foolishness” of the message of Christ crucified. He speaks of how it was God’s pleasure to save people through this “foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:21).
Unfortunately, this passage is often used to attack Christianity as anti-intellectual: after all, Paul says that Christianity is “foolishness” that militates against those with knowledge and wisdom (1 Corinthians 1:18-20), and that only those who are poor and of low station believed (1 Corinthians 1:26). But that is not what Paul is saying! It is true that Christianity was more appealing to those of lower class and lower station, and Paul admits as much in 1 Corinthians 1:26, but there were some of the upper classes and the intelligent who believed. It is not that Christianity is anti-intellectual or truly foolish– instead, it is only anti-intellectual according to the worldly version of intellectualism, and only folly according to the world’s definition of wisdom.
This is why Paul says that God’s foolishness is wiser than men, as God’s weakness is stronger than men (1 Corinthians 1:25)– not that God is really foolish or weak, but that He is so completely superior to mankind that whatever folly and weakness could be perceived in Him is still greater than the wisdom and strength of men!
Intellectualism and worldly wisdom are seductive. Not a few have thought of themselves far more highly than they should have on account of their great learning. Yet, as Paul shows, one can master worldly knowledge and wisdom and yet will still not be able to approach the understanding and strength of God.
We hear the same messages today that Paul no doubt heard in the first century: impressive sounding arguments about the impossibility of Christianity that are, in fact, quite hollow and baseless. Mockery and derision of the faith has been a challenging weapon both then and now. Yet behind all the bluster and the argument remains the fact that the reason Christianity has been vexing to its opponents for all of these years is that it suggests an entirely different way of looking at the world than worldly knowledge or wisdom. Christianity suggests that there is a Creator God to whom we are all subject, and He has established His purposes for mankind in Jesus and the Scriptures (John 1:1-18, 2 Timothy 3:16-17). In Jesus God manifested His qualities– love, humility, compassion, mercy, peace– and they were so disturbing to the establishment of the day that they had Him executed and those who followed Him persecuted. There’s an intractable conflict between the values of God in Christ and the values of the world (James 4:4, 1 John 2:15-17), and one cannot abide in the wisdom of the world and be pleasing to God.
Christ crucified and raised. According to the ways of the world, this is sheer folly. It does not make sense unless one is willing to reject the ways of the world and trust in the ways of God. Those who are willing to have such faith in God understand His power in Christ and will endure the criticisms and the charges of foolishness. Let us not despair because the critics of the faith assail it as folly; they have been doing so for millennia. Let us instead remain humble, recognizing that God is always stronger and wiser than men, and depend on Him and His Son for our deliverance!
Ethan R. Longhenry