- Spiritual Weakness, Illness, and Death in 1 Corinthians 11:30
In 1 Cor 11:30 Paul speaks of the consequences of abuses in the Corinthian community related to the celebration of the Lord's Supper; he has just warned the Corinthians against eating and drinking the Eucharist in an unworthy way (ἀναξίως), in a state of sin. The sin referred to in the immediate context is division within the community, disorders in the celebration of the supper, lack of charity toward the poor on the part of the rich, gluttony, and drunkenness. Partaking of the supper when the church is divided is a sin against Christ's body.1 Now, in v. 30 Paul observes: διὰ τοῦτο ἐν ὑμῖν πολλοὶ ἀσθενεῖς καὶ ἄρρωστοι καὶ κοιμῶνται ἱκανοί There are no textual problems in the Greek. English translations include the following: "For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep" (KJV); "For this cause many among you are weak and sickly, and not a few sleep" (ASV); "On this account many among you are weak and infirm, and a good many are fallen asleep" (Darby); "That's why so many of you are weak and sick and a considerable number are dying" (International Standard Version).2 I think that the last [End Page 145] is the best rendering; indeed, I would translate: "For this reason, among you, many are weak and ill, and a good number are dying (or: are dead)." What is more, I shall argue that this disease and death can be understood in a spiritual sense, that they were understood in this sense by most ancient exegetes, and that such a reading fits naturally into a common Hellenistic trope and into Paul's linguistic use.
Practically all contemporary commentators agree that the illness and death to which Paul refers here are to be interpreted in a physical sense, as bodily sickness and death. The only exception of which I am aware is an article by Sebastian Schneider, who rightly points out grammatical and logical difficulties arising from the physical interpretation, one of which is that, if κοιμῶνται referred to persons who are physically dead, this would contradict the notion conveyed by their being said to be "among you" (ἐν ὑμῖν), in the community.3 On the basis of Philonic parallels in the metaphorical use of κοιμῶμαι in reference to the sleep of the mind, he argues that the "weak" and "ill" are weak in faith (he takes ἀσθενεῖς and ἄρρωστοι as practically synonyms), and those asleep are those lethargic in their faith.
All other commentators, however, claim that 1 Cor 11:30 must be understood in a physical and literal way. Johannes Weiss, referring to 1 Cor 11:29, on eating and drinking one's own judgment with the Eucharist, thinks that the Eucharist, conceived of as solidly sacramental, magical, and miraculous, is able to bring about physical damage as well as benefit.4 A similar opinion seems to be held by Dale B. Martin, who thinks that the ingestion of the Eucharist may also have a toxic effect and poison those who deserve this, instead of healing them.5 On the basis of this understanding of 1 Cor 10:30, Mauro Pesce proposed a parallel with m. Soṭah 1:1-4:3, in which the "water of bitterness" is drunk by the suspected adulteress; if the woman is guilty, the water causes serious illness in her.6 Hans Conzelmann thinks that for Paul an offense against the sacrament results in physical illness and death, possibly because of the Eucharist's "magic effect" (magische Wirkung). In this connection I would cite Acta Thomae 51 as an excellent example: a youth who had [End Page 146] killed his fiancée took communion with his hands, but while he was putting it into his mouth, his hands were paralyzed. Thomas, when he learned this, observed: "The gift of our Lord has unmasked you. It heals so many people who approach it with love, truth, and faith, but has manifestly paralyzed you. This did not happen without a reason."7 Already Friedrich Guntermann observed that sickness and death were considered by Paul to result from the profanation of the Lord's meal (Profanisierung des Herrenmahls), according to a conception that was...