From:  A Torah Commentary on First  Corinthians 7-12     Return to Home

By Roland H. Worth, Jr.                               © 2011





Chapter 7—Part 2:

Problem Texts






            7:1:  “It is good for a man not to (ATP adds:  sexually) touch a woman.”  This was a euphemism for having a sexual relationship with a woman both in Hebrew society (see Old Testament precedents section above) and in Greek usage as well.[1]  It is commonly looked upon as a slogan or credo that had developed in the Corinthian church to sum up the sentiments of one or more of its factions and might even have been the  general opinion.[2]  It is a direct quote from the Corinthian letter to the apostle,[3] in this scenario, and this interpretation is accompanied by the affirmation that in verses 2-6 Paul rejects this view.[4] 

Even if so, it is hard to read this chapter without the conviction that Paul agreed with the view.   In verse 8 Paul emphasizes that “I say to the unmarried and to the widows:  It is good for them if they remain even as I am” (ATP:  “they remain single even as I”).  In other words he was unmarried and thought it was the ideal situation—the same attitude as verse 1.

Hence, it seems more likely that the Corinthians had taken an actual teaching of Paul and were applying it without taking into consideration Paul’s recognition that virtually any generalization has its limits.  Since the bulk of individuals in that age who were old enough to be concerned with the question were almost certainly married—already--it could hardly be an issue of abstinence versus marriage but abstinence within marriage, believing that it “signaled greater devotion to God.”[5] 

It does not take an overworked imagination to suspect that at least some of the consorting with prostitutes that Paul so vigorously condemned grew out of the inability to



[Page 27]  express one’s physical urges with one’s spouse.[6]  Indeed one can even imagine some rationalizing their behavior as, in an odd way, outright “virtuous” since they were not “compromising” their spouse through insisting on a “demeaning” sexual relationship.    

It should be noted that “Paul declares celibacy ‘good’—not obligatory or morally better than marriage.”[7]  It is a case of one “good” (celibacy) versus another “good” (marriage).   Though there are moral absolutes, there are also many cases where it is an issue of “better” versus “best.”  The decision in those cases will vary according to the individual and specific circumstances and one sees the need for that principle in making a decision between unmarried abstinence and married sexuality. 

Furthermore his concerns are grounded not in just preference or idealism (though he makes both points clear in the chapter) or aversion to sex itself (he outright commands it if one is married).  As Calvin J. Roetzel reminds us, “Paul prefers celibacy not because women are ‘dirty’ or because sex is evil but because he feels that the special urgency of the times requires emergency measures.”[8]  Hence is introduction of “the present distress” (7:26), a phenomena whose potential impact clearly disturbs him.            

            Some have argued that Paul was of two minds in regard to the appropriateness of sexuality and marriage and refer to the “wavering of his thought” on the desirability of marriage as reflected in this chapter.[9]  The “wavering” however derives from the fact that he candidly admits: he prefers celibacy but not everyone might have a similar preference or similar ability.  This is not “wavering” but a candid recognition that when there is more than one morally appropriate option available, one must concede (as he does in this chapter) the propriety of exercising an option he himself does not personally prefer.

            Others see an inconsistency with Jesus’ elevation of marriage[10] (and with it an implicit acceptance of sexual expression).  If Paul really did write Ephesians (and even those who claim he did not must concede that whoever did, thought the doctrine was sufficiently “Pauline” to attach his name to it), then the apostle held to a concept of matrimony that was equally respectful (Ephesians 5:22-33).  Indeed, he develops it more explicitly and in more detail than even Jesus. 

            Furthermore, Jesus like Paul never married.  If He considered it proper to not do so while respecting and honoring the institution, there is no reason to suspect Paul of some inconsistency with Jesus when he takes the same approach.    

            Finally, we should remember that Paul nowhere asserts that sexual satisfaction is the only purpose of marriage.[11]  He does, however, stress that it is a normal obligation of matrimony, something far different.  Furthermore in a congregation where some found no moral objection to consorting with prostitutes (chapter 6), it was important for him to stress that there was a legitimate means of meeting those sexual needs without compromising either one’s personal integrity or one’s commitment to God.

            From our modern standpoint it is, perhaps, perplexing that two major aspects of marriage are not mentioned by Paul at all.

            (1)  Although he mentions love in several places in the epistle—including the lengthy analysis in chapter 13—he conspicuously does not provide any words of counsel on the need for love within marriage.  Richard B. Hays suggests, “Perhaps love is implied in Paul’s call for mutual submission of marital partners, but he does not make the point explicit.”[12] 



[Page 28]  Perhaps the true reality is that however useful “love” is as an emotional ideal, a mutual respect and desire to please provides a far more practical application of what love is about in daily life.  Paul himself seems to have looked upon love in this (or a similar) way for the emphasis throughout chapter 13 is on the behavior of love and not the emotion of love.

            (2)  Though Paul stresses the importance of continued sexuality within marriage, he omits any mention of having children as the rationale.  To deduce only from what he actually says, sexual congress is enjoyed in order to meet each other’s needs.  Children would, in that context, be viewed as an extra blessing that results from it. 

Early 20th century religious thought made it the central purpose of marriage; early 21st century thought (and not just among the unreligious) make it a quite dispensable result of the relationship.  To make reproduction the pivot of married sexuality—especially the dominant or sole pivot--puts what may be hard to accomplish as the ultimate test of the success of a relationship.  Our more recent distaste for child bearing and rearing puts at the center our own convenience and eliminates one of the purposes of sexuality—the survival of the human species in our various racial, ethnic, and national expressions.    



            7:5:  Temporary sexual abstinence for the purpose of “fasting and prayer” (critical texts mention “prayer” alone).  Depending upon the degree of praying being engaged in, it might or might not significantly diminish one’s sexual interest.  On the other hand, sustained fasting would almost certainly do so.  In ancient traditional practice, the two often went together.  Hence the reasonableness of the “fasting” added in many Greek manuscripts,[13] but rejected by most modern “critical” editions and translations. 

            The concept of abstaining from sex even on such occasions has disturbed some.  Theodore Mackin, for example, suggests that “[a]mong the regrettable lacunae in Paul’s letters is this one, the missing explanation how sexual intimacy in marriage hinders the spouses’ prayer, and how their abstinence helps it.”[14]  He thinks that there might be a hint here of a “residue” from Paul’s Jewish upbringing:  having sex with a woman made both ritually impure (citing Leviticus 15:18).[15]  But this was ritual impurity and there is no hint that even that interfered with one’s prayer life any more than going about one’s other regular activities. 

Although some devoutedly religious still harbor that covert suspicion that sexual expression—even in marriage—is somehow demeaning and lowering, Paul’s emphatic demand that sexual manifestation continue on a regular basis (verses 2-5) is incompatible with this scenario.    

The physical lack of sexual drive in the case of fasting or emotional lack of sexual drive in the case of all one’s interests being poured into prayer alone, might itself be (mis)interpreted by the spouse as sexual rejection when it is not intended as such at all.  Hence Paul’s comment was one that could calm a potential trouble spot in a relationship, especially when accompanied with the instruction that such periods be only temporary rather than permanent.  This provides for the couple to reaffirm their pre-existing physical bond once that interim of intense spiritual devotion is completed.

            The propriety of sexual abstinence during such a time was advocated by others as well.  The Testament of Naphtali (VIII.8), for example, concurs, “For there is a season



[Page 29]  for a man to embrace his wife, and a season to abstain therefrom for his prayer.”[16]  More common in later ancient Jewish tradition you find individuals separating for sometimes prolonged periods of Torah study.[17] 

            Greco-Roman opinion was divided on how closely correlated, time wise, sexual and religious activity should be.  In the Life of Pythagoras, Theano is quoted as arguing that, “It is holy for a woman, her having been connected with her husband, to perform sacred rites on the same day; but . . . it is never holy, after she has been connected with any other man.”[18] 

In other contexts delay was considered desirable.  At the temple of Athene Nikephoros (1st century B.C.), there was an inscription, “Those citizens may enter the temple of the goddess who have not engaged in sex with their own wives or husbands on that day, or with anyone else for two days, and who have bathed themselves.”[19]  In Plutarch’s Table-Talk (3.6.4; Moralia 655D), he voices the sentiment in regard to males, “I suppose we must, in obedience to our city’s law, guard carefully against rushing into a god’s sanctuary and beginning the sacrifices when we have been engaged in any sexual activity a short time before.”[20]  

            Paul insists upon two conditions for a period of sexual separation.  The first is “consent” of the other:   It can not be done arbitrarily by either party.  Paul is neither a male chauvinist nor a militant feminist.  He is, above all else, a realist, attempting to fit spirituality into the practicalities and needs of everyday life and human needs and psychology.  Theory might say, “fast and pray--after all it is for God’s glory.”  Love, affection, and pure respect for one’s spouse says, “remember you have other commitments that should not be neglected either.”    

            The second is that it be temporary, merely “for a time:”   Paul provides no arbitrary definition of duration.  What would be proper and desirable for one family might be grotesquely out of line for another.  For comparative purposes, the Mishnah--which, unlike Paul, felt compelled to give formal legal judgments for many things best left to individual discretion--records rabbis allowing durations of a week to a month for such periods of special devotion.[21]



            7:6:  What is the “concession” (ATP:  “permission”) and what is the “commandment” (ATP:  “requirement”) under consideration?  In light of his heavy emphasis upon the typical need of a husband and wife for a sexual relationship (7:1-4), the “concession” would most naturally be the permission to temporarily avoid that liaison.[22]  On the other hand it is not a requirement of true spirituality that one engages in such periods of sexually abstinent prayer (and fasting) at all;[23] hence, it can’t be regarded as a “commandment” to practice either to this an extreme.

            Labeling the right of married couples to temporarily abstain from sexual relations as a “concession” rather than a “command” served to reinforce his teaching that this was permissive rather than obligatory.   It also protected against the danger that his words would be misinterpreted as meaning that the average believer could not live a truly devout life except by abstaining from all marital sex.[24]

            Others interpret the “concession” to be that of returning to one’s normal spousal relationship.[25]  Taken this way, there is no “commandment” to return.  That interpretation may well have made considerable sense in an age when sexuality was looked upon as



[Page 30]  something bordering upon the unholy and marriage a mere concession to human sin and weakness.  Paul’s picture of married sexuality as a positive good argues that, however much he personally preferred celibacy, he wasn’t about to expect such of married couples at any point in the relationship.

            Yet a third way to interpret the text is that Paul considers the right to marry itself to be a “concession” to human needs and weakness.[26]  He does not give a “commandment” to anyone that they marry; he only recognizes the right of all to marry.  The fact that Paul immediately wishes, in verse 8, “that all men were even as I myself” (i.e., single, celibate, and abstinent; hence the ATP’s “remain single even as I”) can be introduced as evidence that Paul has in mind recognizing the propriety of marriage while considering it as a “concession” to our frailty.[27]

            Although Paul happily practiced celibacy, we must take care not to exaggerate its importance since Paul had equally stressed that it was necessary for some to marry.  In such cases, for them to do otherwise would have been folly.  For them to attempt celibacy when it was beyond their ability was to commit an act of self-destruction instead of spiritual betterment.  Both celibacy and marriage had their place.  It was simply a matter of which was better for the specific individual.



            7:6:  Paul’s preference for celibacy:  Preference, not a denigration of those who chose marriage.  Paul’s preference is often mocked or looked upon with some degree of amusement as that of a bachelor unable to comprehend the true blessings and joy of marriage.[28]  This critique itself grows out of an inability to comprehend the positive virtues of a celibate life; it reflects not the inadequacies of the apostle’s world-view but that of the modern world and its inability to imagine a fulfilled life independent of sexuality.

            This is not to deny that Paul’s own preference for celibacy represented a very minority opinion, both then and in the following centuries among ethnic Jewish religious leaders.  Very, very few rabbis opted for it.[29]  Rabbi ben Azai was one of that small minority and he explained his decision, “Why should I marry?  I am in love with the Law.  Let others see to the prolongation of the human race.”[30]  To him, the two were incompatible options; to Paul marriage was merely inexpedient and he found nothing to condemn in the fact that Cephas and the blood kin of Jesus were married.

            The only religious movement of the era within Judaism that practiced celibacy was the Essenes[31] and probably a disproportionate amount of attention has been devoted to them.  Just because of the discovery of the extremely important Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, does not alter the fact that their views far out of the religious mainstream of the day.

            Yet the fact that celibacy was very much a minority opinion tells us that Paul was not an individual who permitted popularity of a belief or practice to determine his own decision.  The twin roots of his convictions were, first, truth as he saw it to be and, secondly, what was the best means whereby he as an individual could live that truth.  To him that route was celibacy, though he clearly recognized that for many others that would not be the case.

            However much marriage was the socially sanctioned ideal in both Jewish and Greek cultures, both sides would certainly have gone as far as to admit that there were



[Page 31]  both advantages and disadvantages to the institution.  At least as far back as the second century before Christ, Posidippus described one of the various paradoxes involved, “You have a marriage; you will not live without cares.  You do not marry; you will live a lonely life.”[32]



            7:7-8:  Was Paul ever married?  The text requires that he was not at the time of his apostolic ministry, but could he have been at some earlier period?  The view is certainly an ancient one.  Clement of Alexandria is quoted by Eusebius’ Church History as endorsing it.  According to Clement the “true companion” of Philippians 4:3 was Paul’s wife. 

“Companion” translates the Greek syzrgus and this could be a proper name (as in the NRSV’s footnote, “loyal Syzrgus”).[33]  Working from Clement’s assumption that “true companion” referred to Paul’s spouse, some Victorian interpreters took the text as a reference to her “companion” role to Paul (i.e., as a description) rather than as a name.  As to her identity, they noted Lydia the purple seller’s home town being Philippi and speculated that they two were married.[34]  Since Philippians is normally dated years after First Corinthians, they could have met and married in the interim but one can’t help but wonder what have caused him to change his mind on the subject of celibacy. 

Some argue that the admonition of verse 8 (to “unmarried” and “widows”) can “only mean that Paul had never married.”[35]  Others argue this won’t fit the actual wording.  The unmarried male or female was technically a parthenos (= virgin, a term he uses in 7:25).  It is not to the unmarried virgins, however, that he implores that they remain as he is. Instead is to the agamos (“unmarried”), and, since it is paralleled in 7:8 with “widows,” it could easily carry the connotation of “widower” in the current passage.[36]  It may even include the divorced; it is least likely to include the never married.

            One of the strongest evidences for a once married apostle is found in Acts 26:10 where Paul confesses (with overtones of an obviously guilty conscience) that “I shut up in prison [the Christians], having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them.”  “Cast my vote” can be taken figuratively in the sense that he approved, endorsed, applauded the decision.[37]  Alternatively (or supplementarily) it could mean that in his anti-Christian fervor and persecution he manifested support for those hostile attitudes and actions.[38] 

Yet, if taken literally, then it provides reasonably good evidence that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, which was composed of “the chief priests” and other top dignitaries:  To be a member of that institution required that one be married.[39]  Hence, if Paul was a member, of necessity, he was married at the time.  

            The Sanhedrin usually considered to be under discussion is that of the Great Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, the highest religo-political court of the Jewish people and religion.  There were “lesser” Sanhedrins in individual cities which would have launched anti-Christian pogroms if sufficiently encouraged by a fervent minority or external pressure.  There was no formal requirement that a member of these had to be married.[40]

Furthermore, even in regard to the Great Sanhedrin, our knowledge of their membership rules date back to decades after Paul.  Hence some have cautioned that we must exercise great caution in reading the marriage requirement back to an earlier



[Page 32]  period.[41]  Although true as far as it goes, the societal preference and expectation of marriage was so universal and comprehensive in application,[42] it would be surprising if a de facto (even if not de jure) requirement did not already operate at that earlier date for both these local and the “national” Sanhedrin as well.      

The fact that marriage was normative behavior in Jewish society—as already noted--has itself been considered to be a major argument in behalf of the premise that Paul himself had been such prior to his apostleship.  On the other hand, neither Jesus nor John the Baptist had been married.  Hence, however unexpected it might be, such a choice was not without precedent.[43]  Our society has a bias against celibacy but the high divorce rate argues that, under the proper conditions, celibacy has much to commend itself as well.[44]  If (as some speculate), Paul had, indeed, been married perhaps he had learned this from his own personal experiences and difficulties as well. 

Be that as it may, if she were still alive and married to him at the time he wrote Corinthians, Paul’s defense of his celibacy would have had to be restructured to explain why she was not with him.  If she had died at an earlier date, it would have been natural for him to introduce that fact later in the chapter as an encouragement for widowers not to remarry.  Finally, if she had been divorced, his own personal tragedy would have been an obvious example to introduce in the discussion of that subject.  In short, under any reconstruction, it is hard to see how Paul could have written the chapter the way he did if he was either married or had been married at any time prior.      



            7:10-11:  “The Lord” Himself had dealt with the question of the divorce of believers and had prohibited it.  The basic thrust of Jesus’ teaching was against divorce (Mark 10:11-12; Luke 16:18).  Although there is an exception clause providing a broadening of this prohibition (i.e., sexual misbehavior, Matthew 5:32; Matthew 19:9), this was just that—an exception.  The central thrust even in these texts is that divorce is not right; there are cases where it is permissible, but God is still not thrilled about the prospect even then.

            Paul does not state how and where he learned of the prohibition against unlimited divorce.  Nothing in the terminology suggests a claim to it having been revealed to him.  It may have been part of the oral tradition he heard from those who had witnessed Jesus’ ministry.  More likely, it came from some written form of Christ’s teaching or ministry that was already in circulation (cf. Luke 1:1-4).[45] 

            But if Paul is dealing with a canonical source, which gospel does it come from?  Or does he cite the hypothetical pre-Synoptic “Q-source” (whose existence is assumed and relied upon in so many reconstructions of the “prehistory” of the gospels)?[46]  Others, more wisely in our judgment, argue that it is a lost cause:  Paul is providing a summary of Jesus’ teaching rather than making any effort to quote it.[47] 

            Paul does, however, deal with an aspect of the matter that the Synoptics do not:  what if a divorce has occurred anyway?  You can’t change history; what has happened has happened.  However there would be a way to avoid further sin and he points that out to his readers:  “remain unmarried or be reconciled” (7:11).  Indeed, if a full violation of Jesus’ admonitions against divorce and remarriage was to be avoided, there was no other logical course.  It was the only way of stopping short of a full repudiation of it.



[Page 33]         Some have argued that “a startling fact appears:  Paul—in the midst of quoting a command of the Lord—applies it in such a way as flatly to contradict it!  The Lord’s command is: no divorce.  But Paul’s ruling is:  let the woman divorce and remain single.”[48]  Actually Paul says no such thing.  He absolutely forbids a wife to “depart from her husband” (7:10).  But recognizing that theory and life do not always match and that the spouse may refuse an amicable relationship, he immediately deals with the course to follow if that happens in spite of her best intentions, “but even if he does depart, let her remain unmarried or be reconciled to her husband” (7:11).  Note that Paul is dealing with how the wife is to react, not with what she is to initiate.  He is not commanding such an action nor recommending such a departure; he is simply dealing with what is to happen if the separation occurs.

            Others have torn into the Pauline statement concerning Jesus’ actual teaching on the grounds that “the historical Jesus cannot possibly have spoken the words that Paul attributes to Him because He had said nothing about women initiating a separation.”[49]  First of all Paul doesn’t “quote” Jesus’ words so much as summarize its content.  Furthermore, if Jesus had prohibited all divorce by husbands would not His words equally have ruled out a wife initiating the procedure if she lived in a situation where that was legally permissible? 

However much Paul may be “adapting” the summation to Greco-Roman conditions—while remaining faithful to the teaching’s original intent—it is not unreasonable to assume that unofficial means existed even in the first century whereby a wife could act against a spouse she considered merciless or otherwise repugnant.  Later the practice was to let the wife petition the rabbis and they could order the husband to grant a divorce, thereby permitting the legal fiction that he had initiated it.  Jesus’ hostility to divorce was hardly likely to have excluded a repudiation of this “indirect” means of obtaining the same result—one in which the wife took the initiative.  Hence Paul’s words are faithful to the intention of Jesus’ teaching if not its verbal formulation.[50]      

            Yet others have chosen to critique Paul giving the divorced the option of singleness or returning to their original spouse.  This is done on the grounds that the latter was antithetical to the Old Testament, which forbade such a return to the original mate (Deuteronomy 24:1-4).[51]  Actually the Deuteronomy text refers to a woman who has been divorced and remarried (24:2) and who then wishes to return to the original spouse because of either death or a second divorce (24:3).  Only in that case was a remarriage to the first husband prohibited (24:4).[52]  If Paul’s teaching was followed, that situation which precluded a return to the first spouse would have been avoided:  either she would have remained unmarried or already been reconciled.  No intervening marriage would have occurred.    



            7:12-13, 15:  In contrast, Paul and “not the Lord” was delivering new instruction to deal with situations of divorce between believers and unbelievers.

            One situation Jesus could not deal with during His earthly ministry was the marriage of believer and unbeliever:[53]  He was living in a monotheistic society in which polytheists represented not only an alien religious ideology but also a foreign occupier.  Although practical considerations argued for reasonable courtesy, only a Jew willing to be considered a reprobate was likely to join in marriage with a pagan.  Such a person would have faced the social and ethnic opposition of his countrymen and hence there is



[Page 34]  every reason to assume such “mixed” marriages were very few and far between.[54]   When the gospel message spread far and wide and Gentiles began to enter the church in large numbers, spiritually “mixed marriages” were the result when one spouse converted and the other did not.  What rules were their marriages to be bound by?

            Lacking any direct teaching he can cite from “the Lord,” Paul provides his own.  Neither the fact that it concerns a matter not touched upon by Jesus nor the fact that the different cultural situation of Greek world clearly required an authoritative teaching on the matter, caused him to invent one and attribute it to Jesus.  The fact that he did not do so on a pressing question such as this argues strongly that Christians of that generation did not feel it ethical to invent new sayings of Jesus to meet new situations as they rose.[55] 

            The fact that Paul presents his new teaching so clearly and without hedging, argues he regarded himself as speaking under Divine guidance and that the intended teaching was clear and unquestionable in intent.  Contrast the hedging in his discussion on celibacy, where there was no law that could properly be bound upon one and all:  7:7-9, 7:25-8.

            The general principle remains the same as in believer-only marriages:  no divorce, stay with the unbeliever.  But in mixed marriages, we meet with the Pauline Exception to the permanency of such relationships, “if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him” (7:13).  “But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases.  But God has called us to peace” (7:15).  “Bondage” either refers directly to the marriage bond or is an implicit reference to it.  Since the marriage bond is the subject under consideration, a reference to it in either an explicit or an implicit manner seems unavoidable. 

            Others argue that “bondage” should not be read as a reference to the marriage bond or as a pun indirectly alluding to it.  Interpreted in the more literal sense many insist upon, it would mean, you “are not in slavery in such cases.”  Paul’s point becomes that one should not feel a slave type “bondage” to remain in the relationship against our mate’s desire.[56]  They are “not ‘under bondage’ (dedoulotai, literally ‘enslaved’) to preserve the union through legal maneuvers or by pursuing the unwilling partner all over the Roman empire.”[57]  But if one has not gained the right to remarry is she not still a slave of that man since she can marry no one else?  She has gained her supposed marital liberty but she has no right to exercise it.  This is freedom?

            Few issues are of more contention in religious literature than this one.  Explanations for the “bondage” that attempt to maintain that the marriage bond remains intact are legion.  In opposition to this, some make the term a direct assertion of a remarriage right (i.e., “bondage” must refer, in such a context, to the marriage bond and its elimination).  Others see an allusion to the marriage bond and how that remaining in that bond would transform it into a marital bondage:   therefore, to be free of the “bondage” is to be free of the “bond” as well.  (Hence the ATP’s rendering “not required to remain in the bond” to bring out the underlying concept that the marital bond is being referred to in one of these two manners.)

In regard to both, the meaning of “bondage” and the broader issue it leads to, some note that since Paul conspicuously does not repeat the admonition to remain single or be reconciled, by that omission he tacitly accepts the right of remarriage.  Indeed, “Paul would have been bound in conscience to repeat this command if he had thought



[Page 35]  that in this second case to remarry was either impossible or forbidden or both.”[58]

Others argue that there was no need to mention it again since he had already ruled out such in regard to the marriage of Christians in the preceding verses.  Since Paul conspicuously emphasizes that he is dealing with marriage to non-Chrstians and since the entire line of commentary he provides on the subject is so thoroughly different, this line of reasoning seems extremely dubious.  Such a dramatically different set of circumstances required any prohibition to be spelled out rather than merely assumed lest one’s readers be left under an erroneous impression.

Yet others, very creatively, argue that they should not feel a slavish need to follow his advice to remain in the marriage even if the partner is willing.  In other words, the dictates of good judgment and love for self and children might require that the individual reject the policy Paul had advocated.[59]  

            In a far different approach, other interpreters take the text to mean that the believer only now has the right to now break the marriage bond or, alternately, accept that it has been broken.[60]  That most naturally carries with it an implicit acceptance of the validity of any remarriage.[61]  Many, however, concede the propriety of the divorce but insist that it comes at a price, the loss of any right to remarry.[62]  That, it should be noted, is without precedent in either testament:  the legitimacy of one implied the right of the other (as in Deuteronomy 24:1-4, for example).

            Others tell us it is only a grudging willingness to permit the separation and nothing more.[63]  In the real world, when one’s partner has decided to leave, it is no longer a matter of “let[ting]” them go[64]--they have already decided on that already--but of how we are to respond to their leaving.  Paul is concerned with the latter and not the former.  To speak of being at “liberty” in such a context invariably suggests the right to exercise that liberty through remarriage.  On the other hand, Paul makes no explicit remark directly asserting such a right and this has led many to deny that he had any remarriage right in his mind in the language he utilizes.[65] 

            This same reasoning is not applied, however, to the primary Old Testament passage on divorce, Deuteronomy 24:1-4.  There the remarriage right of the put away party is directly asserted and there is absolutely no mention of any sort of the right of the initiator of the divorce to remarry.  Yet one would be hard pressed to find any interpreter anywhere who has every denied that the man who had initiated the divorce possessed such a right.

Finally, the question arises of why Paul needed to address these matters at all.  It seems inherently likely that at least some of the Christians who were converted lacked spouses that joined them in the new faith.  So the problem would certainly have arisen at an early date and quite likely while the apostle was still among them. 

            Hence it has been suggested that Paul would have had to deal with it at least in passing.  On the other hand, the unbeliever likely considered the new allegiance a passing fancy and that the spouse would soon lose interest and return to the traditional gods.  Given the passage of time and the refusal to do this, the issue could have become contentious and explosive to a degree that it had never been earlier.[66]

            This scenario is certainly a reasonable one, as far as it goes.  After Paul left the city, one would anticipate further additions to the faith and further cases of mixed-faith marriages.  The natural question then would be whether Paul had meant the earlier



[Page 36]  teaching to be fixed and definitive or whether it had applied only in the immediate few cases.  In addition, the factionalism within the church could have left even the early converts wondering whether Paul’s teaching on the subject should continue to be accepted.  Hence Paul had to lay out in clear-cut fashion that his teaching remained the same and needed to be accepted as authoritative.       



            7:14:  How is one’s spouse “sanctified” (ATP:  “set apart”) by the marriage and one’s children  holy” (ATP:  “pure”) rather than “unclean”?[67] 

            Some argue that the implicit view here is of the family as a unit:  the good of one prospers all, just as the evil of one negatively impacts all.  Introduced as evidence is the case of Achan’s thievery in Joshua 7, which led not only to his own death but that of his entire family as well.[68]  The case is certainly a good example of the phenomena of how one family member’s behavior can have a disastrous “fall out” on the lives of all the others. 

            On the other hand, why shouldn’t the negative impact of the rejecter of Yahweh’s will result in the spiritual destruction of the Christian just as Achan’s thievery resulted in the physical destruction of his kin?  Hence this interpretive approach is as easily adapted to the required breakup of the marriage as to its preservation.  More would seemingly have to be in Paul’s mind, if this aspect was present at all.

            The language is that of ceremonial purity:  “unclean” as versus “clean” (such as in foods).[69]  Hence the terms “sanctified” and “holy” should be interpreted most directly in such terms rather than salvational ones.  (Although Paul encouraged the hope that the latter would ultimately become true as well:  verse 16).   They have, so to speak, been set apart for God’s service—the root concept of the two terms—by their marital relationship with a believer.[70]  They are, for example, fulfilling a holy and honorable calling by their marriage.

As applied to children,[71] if the marital relationship were inherently unethical and immoral, then a child was “unclean” and lacked “true” legitimacy even if one’s husband were the father.  Paul repudiates applying such concepts to the family; such offspring were to be counted as “holy” and the relationship to the husband as one “sanctified” by God.  The relationships are legitimate, honorable, recognized by God.  Hence one can not rightly permit the faith/disbelief divide to destroy that which, in itself, would be proper and respectable. 

It is intriguing that in verse 14 he presents an argument in reverse:  because the children are holy, therefore the relationship with the husband must be as well.  Otherwise “holy” children could not have been produced at all.[72]  It is speculative, but not far fetched, that there were those who conceded the holiness of the children but not the marriage and Paul is turning their double standard against them.   

            The real world consequences of viewing children as “holy.”  Rome suffered from a major depopulation problem.  By the first century A.D., the Empire’s population no longer produced enough children to fully replace the present generation.[73]  Men tended to regard marriage as a nuisance that could bring much annoyance, aggravation, and pain, but little if any happiness.[74]  Women, suffered  from very early marriage, little if any education, from minimal to nonexistent legal rights, the widespread male distaste for marriage, and the well known dangers of childbirth in those days.  All this added up



[Page 37]  to little reason for most women to regard marriage as anything more than a terrible burden they had to carry.

            In such a context, children were hardly likely to be viewed in a positive light by most people most of the time.  They were simply another obligation to be borne.  Add in abortion and the killing of infants and the maintenance of the population level was seriously compromised.  Indeed, since female children were more likely to be abandoned to die after birth than male, even the available supply of women to be wives was seriously endangered.  Estimates for the proportion of males to females:  131 to 100 (Rome itself), 140 to 100 (all of Italy, North Africa, Asia Minor).[75]  Even when a family had a number of children, rare was the case that more than one female was permitted to survive birth:  for example, at Delphi:  six hundred family inscriptions provide lists of children; just six had two or more daughters.[76] 

            Societal inclination was reinforced by catastrophe.  In the second century under Marcus Aurelius there was a fifteen year epidemic (quite possibly the first western appearance of smallpox).  This gutted the empire:  likely between a quarter and a third of the population died.[77]  Even if we lower this to a more modest 5-10%, the social and psychological devastation are self-evident.

In 251 another widespread plague hit—this time measles is the suspected villain.[78]  Based on contemporary accounts, 5,000 a day died in Rome alone; death estimates for Alexandria, Egypt, go as high as two-thirds of the residents.[79]  Again, even if we assume a death rate as low as 5-10%, empire-wide, we can picture nothing short of another major depopulation “bomb” within a relatively short period of time.

            In light of this declining population, the Romans turning to the “barbarians” outside the Empire makes considerable sense:  they assured manpower for the legions and a population to fill empty land.  Hence when Marcus Aurelius in the second century actively recruited such individuals and gave them land, he was not so much beginning to surrender the Empire to outside negative influences as desperately seeking a way to maintain the Empire by obtaining badly needed manpower.[80]  (A twentieth century analogy would be Germany encouraging Turks to immigrate to provide factory labor in the 1960s and 1970s only to discover that the importation of workers created long term social tensions that had the potential for dramatically changing the very nature of the German republic.) 

            The Pauline insistence upon children being holy—even when one of the parents was a nonbeliever—introduced an important new dynamic:  Children were now a desirable result of marriage rather than something to be avoided.  

            This represented a dramatic reversal in at least three areas:

1.  Birth control.  Although “having children” was certainly not the same as having “an unlimited number of children,” it reversed where the emphasis lay.[81]  No longer would the bias be against having children but in its favor. 

2.  Abortion.[82]  Economics might motivate such:  poverty or, at the other end of the socio-economic totem pole, the desire not to split the family wealth among multiple male inheritors.  Women’s minimal rights situation meant that it could just as easily be the husband demanding the abortion as the wife desiring it.[83]  The motivations for aborting would still exist for a Christian but the recognition that the new child should be regarded as “holy” would present a major psychological impediment to following that course.         



[Page 38]         3.  Infanticide.  Unwanted babies were either abandoned (though they might be fortunate enough that someone wanting a child would discover the infant before it died) or outright drowned.  Even the historian Tacitus could dismiss that the Jewish belief that it was “a deadly sin to kill an unwanted child” as an example of the “sinister and revolting” beliefs of the Jews.[84]  Believing a child was “holy” inevitably carried the idea of keeping them alive. 

And since Paul speaks in terms of “children”—with no gender specification—those who embraced his teaching as the ethical norm would inevitably attempt to preserve the lives of their female children rather than regard them as disposable nuisances.  As time went by and the Christian population increased, this would mean that an ever growing number of non-Christians, if they wished to marry at all, would have to consider marrying a believer.  In turn, that would at least increase the number of males with a vested interest in not interfering with the Christian movement and even provide large scale fodder for conversion and the raising of a new generation of children pre-disposed by training and environment toward the faith.       

In short, Paul’s teaching on the “holiness” of children to us may seem like only an abstract theological issue.  But once one grants the validity of his position, it represents nothing short of a call for a revolutionary change in the dominant attitude toward marriage, childbearing, and the desirability of having children. 



            7:16:  The possibility of the other marital partner being saved as the result of the preservation of the marriage.  If the marriage has been disrupted, the partner has every reason to remember the spouse (and that individual’s religion) with annoyance, anger, and even disgust.  Not only has a potential incentive to faith been removed, a positive roadblock has been erected in its place.

            On the other hand one is going too far in saying that “the only reason” Paul desires to see the marriage preserved is the possibility of conversion.[85]  Paul had already stressed the legitimacy of the marriage:  how both were “sanctified” (set apart) for each other even before conversion (7:14).  The marriage was legitimate; hence there was every obligation to preserve it. 

            The words can be interpreted in two different ways: the minimalist interpretation is that you might convert your spouse; the maximalist that you likely will.  The former might be called the “pessmistic” scenario (i.e., a reason to accept the reality of the divorce since converting the mate is somewhere between only a possible outcome and an outright unrealistic prospect).  The latter might be labeled the “optimistic” scenario (i.e., to remain in the marriage if you possibly can because the conversion is a very real possibility).[86] 

Paul’s realism in this chapter in recognizing that the course for one person might not be the best for another, argues that the ambiguity as to conversion is intentional:  the person must judge the prospects by his or her own specific situation rather than by an absolute rule.  But that would not necessarily be an encouragement to divorce even in the “pessimistic” reading because Paul’s underlining argument is clearly:  save the marriage if you can.  Hence one would act to do so even though one recognized that the chance of changing religion seemed minimum.  Realism rules, but hope stays alive.

            Others interpret “save” in reference not to eternal destiny at all but in relationship



[Page 39]  to the survival of the marriage.  By determinedly and constructively remaining in the relationship, the mate’s hostility may be diluted and the threat to the marriage removed that was posed by polytheistic hostility to the new faith.[87]  Both thoughts could have been in Paul’s mind, though, if this were the case, it is hard to avoid the feeling that the salvational use of the term was primary.                



            7:21:  Slaves and the opportunity to become free. Whatever Paul’s point in this verse, it would be applicable to a large proportion of all people.  It is likely that the slave minority was a third of the population,[88] if not larger.[89]  Since Paul is speaking to an urban audience, the slaves would commonly be household servants, teachers, or even businessmen functioning on behalf of their owners.[90]  Based upon the general pattern of the era, one could anticipate yet another third of the urban population consisting of freedmen and freedwomen (i.e., ex-slaves).[91]

Since one might feel the desire or even moral obligation to free one’s bondsmen and women under certain circumstances, methods of doing so were well established.[92]  One could not compel an owner to grant freedom, though one might attempt to encourage him to do so; one could only react to the offer.  (An owner was hardly likely to free someone who had no interest in it!) 

What then does Paul mean in regard to their response when he encourages slaves, “if you can be made free, rather use it”?  Our modern abhorrence of slavery automatically inclines us to take “use it” as equivalent of “use it to become free.”   Many take the text very differently, that one was to remain as a slave.  Indeed, this interpretation is at least as old as Chrysostom.[93] 

            There was a time when I mocked this approach for who would not want to be free?  On the other hand Paul was interested in preserving stability “because of the present distress” (7:26, discussed below) and one can imagine circumstances when there was more protection in being the slave of a rich owner--and thereby at least partially protected by his own self-interest--than in being free and enjoying no protection from such “distress.”  In slavery one had at least the proverbial roof over the head and food to drink; as a freedman he might have nothing.[94]

            Furthermore, Paul advises the never married to remain single and the widowed to stay unmarried.  Hence it would be fully consistent with these assertions for Paul to recommend that the slave remain a slave.  Indeed, throughout the entire chapter the emphasis is on remaining in one’s current earthly situation or status--whatever it may be.[95]

            On the other hand, Paul is amazingly terse in making his remark.  Is it because he recognized that while the principle would apply here, human nature’s search for freedom would make the desire for stable social relationships unusually difficult to apply?  Be that as it may, Paul emphasized that change was not inherently sinful--ill-advised, even unwise, but not sinful (cf. 7:36, 39).  Hence, even in this approach, no censure could be attached to the slave for making the choice in the direction of personal liberty.

            Furthermore, as Robertson and Plummer observe, Paul “says, ‘Rather make use of it.’  Make use of what?  Surely . . . the possibility of becoming free.  This was the last thing mentioned; and ‘make use of’ suits a new condition better than the old condition of slavery.”[96]  F. F. Bruce opts for the choose freedom interpretation “partly because it is



[Page 40]  supported by the tense (aorist) of the imperative ‘use’ (Greek, chresai), which implies not the continuing of an established attitude but the response to a new turn of events, and partly because this interpretation is more in line with the principle of verse 23, ‘become not bondservants of men.’ ”[97]   Elisabeth S. Fiorenza similarly utilizes verse 23’s condemnation of becoming slaves to others as indicating that Paul encouraged slaves to seek their freedom if opportunity came their way.[98]     

            The weight of the evidence causes me to continue to believe (though not as emphatically as in the past) that Paul is embracing the selection of freedom when it becomes available.[99]  Whether one selects this interpretation or the one rejecting the freedom option will play a role in how one renders the verse into English.  The pro-freedom interpreter is likely to leave a clear indication suggesting a positive decision, while the pro-status quo interpreter is likely to prefer a reading that is vaguer and leaves the issue uncertain or unclear.[100]  (We opt for a clear-cut affirmative response in the ATP, “But if you can gain your freedom, take advantage of the opportunity.”)

            Of course, it may be that Paul intentionally left his language ambiguous,[101] thereby preserving the maximum freedom of interpretation and action by the reader.  Such would certainly be appropriate if (as in most of the subjects covered in the chapter), Paul is “strongly recommending” rather than “demanding” a given course of action.  Yet in those other cases, Paul made his preference clear even when disowning them as an absolute essential.  Hence one would expect in the matter of slavery for his counsel to be clear-cut, even if hedged with the admission that another course might well be proper in a given person’s circumstances.



7:26:  Was the expectation of Jesus’ prompt return the rationale behind Paul’s ethical teaching in this chapter?  We have two basic questions that somewhat overlap and grow out of, in part, this verse.  The first is the relationship of such sentiments to how imminent Paul considered the return of Christ.  The second is what, in particular, was the “current distress.”  Here we put the emphasis on the first query and in the next section on the second one. 

            It is often assumed that Paul’s moral code grew out of the conviction that Jesus would be soon returning.  One such scholar asserts, “In view of the short time left before the Day of the Lord, all Christians have better things to preoccupy them than such worldly matters as changing their marital status.”[102]  Another speaks of how Paul’s convictions on these matters grew out of the belief that this was “the final generation of world history.”[103]  If so, we must, at the minimum, re-evaluate the continued appropriateness of the teaching found in the chapter and, perhaps, modify or even reject segments of it.[104]

            This approach faces the immediate difficulty of determining how and where the teachings would have been altered or modified if a longer survival of the cosmos had been contemplated by the apostle.  If he believed these forms of behavior were appropriate, desirable, and even essential to “prepare for the return,” would that not be true even if the return date were actually further away than he expected?  To speak in terms of human weakness and limitations requiring modifications in a longer-term context overlooks the fact that this epistle bears brutal witness that such weaknesses and limitations were already present in abundance even during Paul’s ministry--and yet he



[Page 41]  saw no need to modify his instruction.

            Unfortunately for the “interim” interpretation Paul directly asserts a reason for such status quo living and it is very different:  he calls it “the present distress” (see discussion of the meaning below:  this can hardly be cover language for the Parousia itself since the return is pictured as a time of joy for Christians rather than discomfort.  Events preceding it might or might not be disconcerting but the return itself, emphatically a cause for jubilation).[105]  Even if one limits the language to the coming judgment on Jerusalem (Matthew 24), one is hard pressed to see how immediately or ever that would cause a period of distress for the Corinthian Christians who are hundreds of miles from the battlefields and whose congregation appears to be predominately Gentile rather than Jewish. 

The problem of adversity and its familial impact interlocks with another reason as well:  what will most further the individual’s spirituality.  For Paul it was celibacy, for others he says it would be marriage.  Likewise widows were advised to remain unmarried, but there was no sin if they chose to marry.  This has nothing to do with the return of Jesus but with the emotional and character development of the individual and the specific means utilized to accomplish it. 

            Paul was candid enough to recognize and write in this chapter that what would be best theoretically (celibacy) might be a stumbling block in a different person--someone with different psychological and physical needs.  It is an insight applicable to any age.  As is that of the desirability of holding to the same marital or non-marital status quo in a temporary period of instability, unrest, and danger.  It is summed up in the one word “prudence.”

            Although the imminent Parousia scenario is often asserted without any effort at textual support--as if an inevitable and absolutely certain “given” in interpreting the chapter--various scholars do attempt to enhance the appeal of the reconstruction by the introduction of specific verses.  Even when this is done, these are usually introduced in passing and with minimum elaboration because the interpretation is considered so secure as to be beyond challenge.  For example it is common to find it argued that a belief in the “imminent end of the world” is taught in 7:26.[106]  Actually it is a “present distress” rather than an imminent Parousia that is mentioned by Paul in this text. 

            An attempt is made to avoid this problem by referring the expression to the period of distress that precedes the return in Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21.[107]  Even assuming that the analysis of those parallel accounts require this (and, in my judgment, the distress references make far more contextual sense as referring to the fall of Jerusalem and events in Palestine and nowhere else), there is nothing in 1 Corinthians 7 to suggest that this distress is the same one.  Are we to believe that a period of calamity could not occur to early Christians without them feeling it had to be the one (allegedly) preceding the second coming?  Were they so limited in their realism that, by the date of Paul’s epistle, they did not know of Christians in one place or another who had gone through rough periods because of their faith or world conditions in general? 

            Others appeal to 7:29,[108] where we find a reference to “the time is short” (“the appointed time has grown short,” NRSV; ATP:  “the time is limited”).  Paul conspicuously does not develop this thought with a reference to the Parousia nor to receiving rewards from the Lord nor make any of the other possible allusions that would be natural to such a context.  Instead he uses very different language, “But this I say,



[Page 42]  brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use this world as not misusing it” (7:29-31a). 

            Since Paul has already conditioned his teaching upon it being a period of “distress,” it would be appropriate to interpret this language in accordance with that image:  facing the Corinthians was a period of uncertainty and instability in which people would face possibly revolutionary changes in their earthly status and well being.  Some would lose wives; some who owned property would be denied its possession.  On the other hand there were those currently suffering who would cease to “weep.”  Uncertainty was the only certainty.  To change one’s current earth status in such a situation was a risky endeavor and to be undertaken only with the greatest caution.

            The closing words of 7:31[109] can also be introduced and here we at least come close to what is being sought, “For the form of this world is passing away” (ATP:  “The world as we know it is passing away.”)  Even here, though, it is not the “world” itself but the “form”--the outward appearances, the outward arrangements.[110]  The text best fits the reality that the current world is undergoing (or about to undergo) vast changes that would be helpful to some but hurtful to others, rather than to the final wrapping up (and away) of the physical cosmos.        

            Evidence from later in the book is also appealed to.  The moral-historical lessons Paul cites in chapter 10 were recorded, he tells us, “as examples” and warnings “for our admonition upon whom the ends of the ages have come.”  The last words are interpreted as equivalent to “last days”, i.e., as an indication that the world is soon to come to an end.[111]  By citing these ancient examples, however, Paul is stressing the continuity of certain fundamental moral and ethical standards through all ages.  How then could Paul be introducing teaching in chapter 7 solely or primarily because the Parousia was soon coming when he so firmly believed that basic behavioral requirements were still the same?    

            Whatever Paul believed about the imminence of the Parousia--and in what sense--should be considered in the analysis of the individual texts that mention the subject.  Introducing the theme into 1 Corinthians 7, however, is without justification from anything the apostle has to say.  Therefore we conclude that his convictions on the matter did not affect the counsel he was providing.



            7:26:  What is “the present distress”?  The Greek word rendered “present” can either mean that it is currently going on or that it is “impending” or “near,” depending upon the context.[112]  B. Ward Powers notes that it “refers to something that is just at the point of happening, like a wave overhanging and just about to break.”[113]  The implicit surfboard analogy is a good one:  in a sense it’s here at last for it’s at least in sight and I might or might not be riding it; but in another sense it hasn’t crashed back into the sea so it hasn’t quite “arrived” either.

Likewise the word “distress” can carry that specific connotation, but it can also bear the less intense significations of “necessity” and “pressure.”[114]  Hence, it can carry a minimal meaning of a period of great tension and as severe an implication as one of overt personal danger.[115] Neither would represent an auspicious occasion for marriage or any



[Page 43]  other dramatic change in one’s relationships. 

The belief that Paul has in mind “the imminent Parousia” (i.e., Christ’s return) is a common view.[116]  Since it was discussed previously, we need refer to it here only as it directly affects the present question before moving on to other interpretive options.  Paul  tears into them repeatedly not because they are about “to have the book thrown at them” by their ultimate judge—and endure the “distress” that grows out of Divine condemnation--but because the behavior he criticizes is inherently wrong.  He would not, of course, have denied that there would be repercussions in that final judgment but that is not the pillar of his argument and any reference to it is (very) inferential at best.

Furthermore, the “distress” that is assumed to be under discussion is normally not the distress that comes after the divine settling of accounts (i.e. for the wicked = eternal punishment), but the “distress” (in the common interpretation of Matthew 24 and its parallels) that comes before the Parousia.  When presented to Christians, the central image of the Parousia, however, is normally a positive one that will not fit well into this context:  that event would be viewed as blessed relief from distress rather than being distress itself or being so irrevocably tied into it as being inseparable. 

What then might Paul be concerned about?   

            There is nothing in 1 Corinthians indicating that there was a currently hostile environment against the Christian community—certainly not anything particularly significant or threatening.  Would they have dared to so freely resort to the civil law courts if there were (chapter 6)?  Likewise the reference to strangers visiting in the assembly (14:23) would indicate that the meetings were not covert, as would be the case in time of oppression.  Christians were apparently freely marrying non-Christians (chapter 7) and meetings to dine with unbelievers occurring on such a regular basis that the issue of eating idol offered meats had to be dealt with (chapters 8 and 10).[117]  Indeed, if current adversity was a major problem, one would expect words of comfort and consolation rather than such a single minded emphasis on their faults.  Yet it was a sufficiently ominous threat that it formed one of the reasons for his teaching in chapter 7.  What then might those dangers have been?   

            Anti-Christian persecution[118] would be one obvious form of distress that would encourage maintaining the status quo in life and that would strongly challenge the wisdom of entering marriage.  It is a situation that one can not control and there can be few things more heart-wrenching than to see pain and anguish--even death--inflicted upon someone we love and not be able to stop it.  It would similarly be gut-wrenching than to know that one must remain faithful to one’s religious commitment when one’s spouse has repudiated it and is encouraging you to do so as well.  

            Paul may not have anything nearly this dramatic in mind.  Rather it may be something much more mundane, yet still very difficult to handle.  Being a (proportionately) small group of dissenters living in a huge city created an on-going sense of pressure and unease even when the outward forms of normalcy were continued.[119]  To the extent that Christian monotheism would be tolerated because of that granted to Jewish monotheism, believers could expect being looked down upon because of that Jewish connection.  To the extent they were viewed as a clearly separate community, the greater the danger of overt action because they lacked similar explicit protections.  This created a sense of living on the edge of a volcano that could explode when and if it pleased. 

            In such an environment the very act of surviving was a faith-based act of defiance



[Page 44]  against a world that could come down upon it at any moment.  It was to live in a constant atmosphere of real or potential “distress” against which there was no protection except a robust faith in God.  Paul appears to have felt this way even before he had first preached in Corinth.  Hence, while still preaching in Athens, he had sent Timothy to Thessalonica (1 Thessalonians 3:1-2) to build up their confidence lest they “be shaken by these afflictions; for you yourselves know that we are appointed to this” (3:3).  The danger of such was part of his standard warning to believers, “For, in fact, we told you before when we were with you that we would suffer tribulation, just as it happened, and you know” (3:4). 

            He conspicuously does not claim that any had died for the faith, that any had been imprisoned, that any had been physically endangered.  This silence would be startling if such had occurred.  Hence Paul is revealing the underlying tension that always existed for Christian monotheists in the Roman Empire.  Even in times of apparent safety, potential danger.  Even in times of active danger, potential relief.

            Depending upon what chronology one ultimately adopts for the apostle Paul’s life, First Corinthians was written sometime between 51 and 57, with the prevalent time frame being 56-57 (see the discussion of dating in chapter 1).  One major area of repeated distress for the Corinthian population as a whole, during the decade Paul wrote, involved the very real danger of food shortages.  As Brian S. Rosner observes,[120]


Extant evidence for grain shortages in the East during the forties and fifties includes the testimony of Eusebius, Pliny, Suetonius and several strands of non-literary evidence.  Tiberius Claudius Dinippus was three times curator of the grain supply in Corinth, curator annonae, during this period, an office only filled in times of famine.  That such famine invariably caused serious social upheaval in places like Corinth is also clear from Graeco-Roman sources.  Seneca, Tacitus, Apollonius of Tyana and Dio Chrysostom speak of disorder and even riots during times of chronic food shortages.


The primary reason it is tempting to interpret Paul in these terms lies in the fact that we know the threat existed not just through the region but in Corinth in particular:  Assuming even a high yield from the agricultural lands around the ctiy, the maximum local production would support under 11,000 people plus the farmers themselves.[121]  Combined with the farmers, we would be speaking of resources for about 17,600 people in the 80 square miles involved.[122]  This would, of course, be far too little for the city’s large population.

In times of scarcity the desire to find a scapegoat is highly tempting.  As a monotheistic “deviant” group, Christians could easily have roused the public eye for “bringing” the calamity upon the community.  On the other hand, the apostle words his warning in broad enough terminology that it aptly covers both this situation and any other catastrophe that might come their way.  Whether Paul had such a period of food shortages in mind or not, he clearly saw “the hand writing on the wall:  the signs were clear that bad times were coming upon their city that would be a far cry from their current tranquil  situation.

            But there were other potential sources of disruption as well, especially as we move into the next decade, the 60s.  When Nero committed suicide in June 68 (knowing



[Page 45]  overthrow and execution were inevitable), he was a mere thirty-one years old.  In 54 he became ruler and in 59 ordered the murder of his mother.  In 60 the Icini in Britain carried out a revolt.  In 62 charges of treason began to float among the educated and ruling class, including ones aimed at Nero himself.  He leveled such charges against his own wife (Octavia) and used them as reason to execute her, opening the door to his marriage to Poppaea.

            The major earthquake that leveled Pompeii in 63 easily seemed a hostile judgment of the gods among those not pleased with their young ruler.  When a large part of Rome perished by fire in the summer of 64 an even more dangerous idea gained wide popularity:  that Nero was behind it in order to obtain room for his new, vast urban palace.  (It occupied some 200 acres, spilling over parts of four of the city’s famous hills[123] and massive destruction of existing structures was the only way it was ever going to get built.)  The contempt that he held for the people was summed up in the rumor that he was playing music while the city went up in flames. 

In a desperate effort to transfer public anger, he began a major series of executions of Christians, blaming them for having started the fire.  The scale of the executions, their barbarity, and the emperor’s brazen insistence upon moving forward on his massive palace did little to remove the underlying suspicion as to who really caused the fire. 

In 66, the first great Jewish Revolt began that would last until 70 A.D.  Since at least 64, Nero’s artistic aspirations had grown ever greater.  He planned a tour of Greece in 64 to present his skills before others, an idea he abruptly aborted that summer, shortly before the Great Fire.  About August or September 66, he headed to Greece, however, having adopted long hair for the occasion, and participated in various musical and athletic contests, including the Olympic Games.  (Those not scheduled for the time of his visit, he ordered rescheduled for it.)[124]                 

Part of this time he spent in Corinth.  While in the region, he authorized a canal across the Corinthian Isthmus with massive funds to be provided by Rome to execute it.  In November 67 he officially bestowed exemption from Roman taxation upon Achaia, including Corinth in particular.  (The “independence” that went with it was withdrawn by Vespasian, but the removal of taxes remained in place.)[125]  This was the “pr” good side of a political leader, attempting to cultivate favor with the masses. 

On the other hand, would any Corinthian (or Grecian) Christian with any rationale political sense at all have not been “holding his breath” during Nero’s extended stay?  He could do good, yes, but his behavior was also that of a youthful “loose canon,” arrogant, self-centered, and determined not to take responsibility.  He had proven his willingness to gut the Christian community in Rome with only the need to remove embarrassing rumors as motivation.  Who dared trust what he might unleash in Greece?

“Distress” might not actually be occurring—but his very presence made it a constant thundercloud over the life of every Christian so long as he remained in Greece.  Indeed, it is hard to imagine that the entire period from the Roman persecution through the emperor’s ultimate death was viewed by Grecian Chrisians as anything else than a period of great tension with the potential for their undoing.  “Present distress” certainly captures the “emotional feel” of the time quite accurately.       



[Page 46] 

            7:36-38:  Is a father/daughter or the future wife/husband under consideration?  The idea of “virginity” does not come easily to the modern western world.  It is uncomfortable with it.  Yet there are more virgins than individuals who would like to admit to being such . . . and even more older ones who would never want the label to be applied to them--in our strangely distorted society it would sound too much like a smear, as if the woman had somehow “failed” in life.  In the first century, respect for virginity was far more widespread.  There were plenty of males seeking to remove the condition, but it was accepted as a reality of life that the male might begrudge but would still respect it.

            Our text presents us with a major interpretive problem:  Is Paul discussing the treatment of one’s daughter or the woman a man has postponed marrying?  (In passing it should not be missed that there is no sexual double standard:  Paul is assuming that the would-be spouse--if such is under consideration--will be living the same restrained life  expected of a future wife.)

            The fiancée-betrothed scenario:[126]  If this is the subject matter, then the two individuals are beyond the age when the marriage would have been expected to occur.  In Greek culture of this era, a woman married young.  Typically it would be before she turned sixteen.  In contrast men married relatively late, around thirty years of age.[127]  (For specifics see the final section of this entry, below.)

            Several phrases seem to point in the direction of a suitor and his would-be wife. To this commentator at least, the phrase “thinks he is behaving improperly (ATP:  acting improperly) toward his virgin” (7:36) has a natural sexual connotation to it.  Whatever type of conduct “behaving improperly” specifically implies, it is at least on the line of impropriety, if not crossing over it.  To avoid such conduct they marry (7:36).

            Likewise the description of the one who declines to marry as one “who stands steadfast (ATP:  firm) in his heart” and one who has “no necessity, but has power (ATP:  full control) over his own will” (7:37), again, most naturally seem to have sexual overtones.  Some people simply can not control their sexuality--in this context the distinction between “will not” and “can not” is irrelevant.  For that person marriage is a moral imperative.

            The father-daughter scenario (or, if the father is dead, guardian-daughter scenario):[128]  In verse 38, the father seems in mind:  it is “he who gives her in marriage” and his not needing to do so is viewed as the better option.  But can this be true of the preceding verses as well? 

            In a non-sexual sense one can see how a parent might feel that he is “behaving improperly toward” his daughter since she has “past the flower of youth” and has not yet married (verse 36).  After all, seeking and finding an appropriate spouse was a societal obligation of the parents.  On the other hand, the future spouse could also feel uncomfortable over a prolonged postponement of the marriage as well:  The “flower of youth” (ATP:  “her normal marriageable age”) was passing her by.  The chance of having children was, accordingly, dropping.  Besides, having made the betrothal did not one have a moral commitment to carry it out?  Such could easily produce guilt feelings. 

            It is harder to deal with a father-daughter situation when dealing with the words, “having no necessity, but has power over his own will” (verse 37).[129]  Of course, a betrothal was considered a binding commitment.  Hence, if the other side insisted, the father might, indeed be faced with the “necessity” of going along with it.  In such a case



[Page 47]  he would have lost “power over his own will” due to the commitment made long before.  Even so this seems a needless interpretive “reach.”

            The offspring is described as a “virgin” rather than as a “daughter” and it has been argued that this would be an unexpected usage if a father-daughter situation is under discussion.[130]  On the other hand, a father expected and demanded that his daughter be a virgin and as she got older the continuation of that status could present a real concern to him.  The fact that the woman is older (“past the flower of youth,” 7:36) would justify the mention that she has remained abstinent, i.e., a virgin.[131]  Even so “daughter” would still be the more anticipated term of reference.

            What we have, most likely, is a discussion in which both situations are involved.  Verses 36 and 37 discuss it from the standpoint of the would-be husband, while verse 38 discusses the involvement of the father. 

            That a father is concerned with his daughter’s marriage (and choice of suitor) is still common in our age when children have effective independence at an incredibly early age.  It is, however, an ancient anxiety as well.  Sirach 41:9 refers to how, “A daughter is a treasure that keeps her father wakeful, and worry over her drives away rest:  lest she pass her prime unmarried, or when she is married, lest she be disliked” (cf. verses 10-14, NAB).

            (In the ATP we have, as such translations as the NRSV, glossed over the difficulty created by the more literalistic renderings that walk in the steps of the KJV.  In favor of the latter, however, is that it perpetuates the ambiguity in the original—perhaps even intentionally present in the original so it could cover the maximum number of situations.  Against utilizing the rendering is that very ambiguity, i.e., what in the world does the text mean?  Surely he has in mind something specific!) 

            There are two additional popular explanations that deserve attention before we pass on to other matters.

            The non-sexual “marriage” scenario.  Archibald M. Hunter argues that the apostle is discussing “spiritual marriages” and then explains, “This was the curious custom whereby a man and woman lived together as brother and sister and not as man and wife.”[132]  In such cases, the relationship would never be consummated.[133]  Historical evidence of such a practice first appears in the latter part of the second century.[134]  Barring very strong evidence in its behalf (which does not exist), it is wisest to conclude that those who project this theory to mid-first century are guilty of an anachronism.[135] 

            Perhaps the strongest evidence in favor of “spiritual marriages” in Corinth is, ironically, a powerful repudiation of the concept.  The present tense of the verb translated “deprive” in 7:5 can be reasonably rendered either “stop depriving one” or “do not deprive one another (as you are doing).”[136] 

            In this reconstruction, a traditionally married couple has transformed the marriage into something very different (where the non-sexual relationship was pre-eminent and the sexual non-existent)—either by mutual agreement from the time of their marriage or, more likely, by such an agreement after having lived in a “normal” marriage for a period of time.[137] This was not due to physical inability or disease but out of a misguided definition of true spirituality.  Even if we read the text in this manner, it would also put Paul firmly on record against it.  He would hardly be likely to be reversing this stance at the end of the chapter.

            In addition, in 7:36-38, Paul has specifically in mind two people who are not



[Page 48]  officially married to each other:  “let them marry,” Paul commands (7:36), which indicates that as of yet they were not married.  Theoretically, a man and a woman could have lived together without a sexual relationship and not have violated sexual decorum. On the other hand, was this not a relationship guaranteed to be misconstrued (in the worst possible manner!) by the society of his age?  Was it not a situation which magnified immensely the possibility (probability?) of violating the norm of sexual restraint the apostle so emphatically taught?  Hence it is inconceivable Paul would have had any sympathy for such a practice. 

            Indeed, Irenaeus later noted how easily it provided a pretext to disguise a male’s own unscrupulous intentions.  Referring to the Valentians in particular, he speaks of how some, “pretend to live in all modesty with [women] as with sisters, [but] have in course of time been revealed in their true colors, when the sister has been found with child by her pretended brother.”[138]  The nature of the sexual drive, of course, would have made this a serious danger even if the relationship were entered into with honorable intentions.  

            Although more mundane and down to earth, the theory of a levirate marriage situation is extraordinarily unlikely as well.  In this situation, the nearest kinsman was to marry the widow so that the dead kinsman’s family name and lineage could be perpetuated (Deuteronomy 25:5-1). 

            Making this interpretation fit the text poses major difficulties.  In 7:36 the woman is called a “virgin” (NKJV; NAB), a very literal translation which the NRSV concedes in a footnote is the actual word utilized though the translators substitute “fiancée,” since they believe that is who is under discussion.  The GW prefers “virgin daughter” (which the NKJV provides as a footnote alternative).

            “Virgin” is not the equivalent of “widow.”[139]  Furthermore, there is not the slightest indication that the death of anyone has occurred.  Nor would one expect the question of levirate marriage to be of major concern in an overwhelmingly Gentile city such as Corinth.  And if, somehow, it were, one would anticipate more direct reference so there could be no doubt that this foreign tradition was under consideration.    

            The real life repercussions if a husband/wife late marriage is under consideration.  7:36 speaks of the woman being “past the flower of youth” and the clear implication is that the male involved has had a long term commitment to marry.  This implies a relatively older, more mature male than if the marriage had occurred earlier.

            Romans usually married very young girls.  Dio Cassius spoke of how, “Girls are considered . . . to have reached marriageable age on completion of their twelfth year.”[140]  This was Roman law itself; however there was no punishment decreed by it, which meant it represented more the preference rather than the obligation.[141]  Legal commentaries took two views of marriages under twelve:  one was that it should be considered a kind of “engagement” period until the proper legal age was reached; another view was that she became the “legitimate” wife when she turned twelve.[142]    Hence it is no great surprise that the well known Octavia married when eleven; Agrippina at 12; Tacitus’ wife was 13.[143]

            Paul was clearly more receptive to what we would call an “older” marrying age than an earlier one.  Indeed, our text stresses explicitly only the older marrying age of the female.  Did Paul’s advise the general adoption of a more mature marital age as the standard?

            Obviously the surviving data does not go back this far.  The inscriptional data



[Page 49]  from the early Roman centuries for which marrying age and religion of the woman could be determined, however, yields these results:  Those marrying under age 13, 20% of pagans (7% Christians), 13-14 years of age, 24% vs. 13%; 15-17, 19% versus 32%, 18 or older, 37% vs. 48%.[144]  In short, females married older than non-believers as Paul preferred in 1 Corinthians 7.  It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Paul’s admonition had a far broader “fall out” than merely dealing with the contemporary situation; he created a mind frame on the subject that significantly moved the female marrying age to one where both partners were more physically and psychologically prepared for the responsibilities they were to undertake.        



            7:39:  A widowed person may remarry “only in the Lord”.  Paul’s expression of women’s rights is quite clear:  “she is at liberty to be married to whom she wishes.”  (The application of the principle to the male widower he leaves strictly to the power of the reader to apply the standard when the opposite situation occurs.)  From the standpoint of being “happier,” he is convinced both by his own reasoning and because “I also have the Spirit of God” (7:40), that singlehood will be best.  Even so he declines to prohibit her remarriage.  It is her decision and hers alone.

            But there is a limitation:  it must be “only in the Lord” (7:39).  The most “natural" reading of this is “a fellow Christian.”[145]  This interpretation goes at least as far back as Theodoret (c. 393-460 A.D.), “She is free to marry a fellow Christian who is pious, temperate, and lawabiding.”[146] 

            If this was the intent, it certainly had Old Testament precedent on its behalf.  Although Jews did sporadically marry Gentiles (as the book of Ruth shows), this was uncommon.  Ezra went so far as to break up such marriages (Ezra 9:1-4; cf. Nehemiah 13:23-31; Deuteronomy 7:3).  During the Bar Kokhba divorce in the 130s A.D., a divorce certificate has survived with the explicit wording, “You may go and be married to any Jewish man you want.”[147]  

If the remarriage right was limited to fellow believers, the inherent logical foundation for the prohibition would seemingly exclude the believer from (at least normally) marrying a non-Christian in the first marriage as well.[148]  Paul himself, in 7:12-16, had directly affirmed the legitimacy of such a relationship, however.

If it be argued that Paul is only intending to approve of existing (rather than future) marriages in 7:12-16, we would have expected him to state that sentiment in that context.  Yet his statement that the nonbeliever is “sanctified” by the believer (7:14) and the Christian/non-Christian children would be “holy” (7:14) makes no sense if it is limited in this manner.  Then the status hinges on the timing of the marriage (before rather than after conversion of the mate) rather than the validity of the relationship.  Indeed, Paul’s argument may well collapse:  if the children are “holy” because the marriage was before conversion, would it not follow that they were “unholy” in that same marriage if it occurred afterwards? 

Hence if the legitimacy of marriage with unbelievers concerns him, surely it would be spelled out in the current context:  Would he not have written something along the line of, “Although it is honorable and proper to be married to a non-believer if it happened before one’s own conversion, one should never enter into such a relationship afterwards.  Therefore, the widowed should marry only in the Lord.”



[Page 50]  Yet such language is conspicuously avoided in both contexts.  If it actually exists in regard to the second marriage that leaves us in some perplexity about why the restriction would be imposed in such a situation.

            Of course a first marriage is normally at a younger age, when one’s passions and desires are more likely to rule than one’s intellect.  The typical marital time for women was in the range of twelve to fifteen years of age[149] (cf. the analysis in the last entry), meaning that widows in the church were not necessarily beyond what we today consider middle age.  Theoretically, at least, when one has been married a number of years one should have learned a sufficient number of the demerits of such relationships to recognize that celibacy does have some major advantages after all.  And if one is to remarry, marrying a fellow believer with the same convictions on faith and practice is going to make life far more comfortable than dealing with someone to whom it is all a new and strange phenomena.

            Finally, it should be noted that in Romans 7:3 Paul discusses how that if a woman is a widow “she is no adulteress, though she has married another man.”  Another “man,” not a Christian in particular.[150]  It is, of course possible, that that issue is sufficiently distant from his main subject of concern that it goes unmentioned as an unuseful diversion.  Yet it is exactly the wording one would expect if one did not interpret 1 Corinthians 7 as requiring such a limitation in remarriage.

            Another approach is to make this a time-limited one:  It was a Christian only requirement because they lived in a time of “distress” that necessitated making their conduct extremely cautious (1 Corinthians 7:26).  Since Paul immediately jumps from marrying “in the Lord” (7:39) to “she is happier if she remains as she is” (7:40), it is an easy interpretive interpolation to mentally add “because of the present distress.”  The strongest argument against this is that it provides reasonable conjecture, but falls short of establishing probability.  After all, just about anything in the epistle could have been “because of the present distress” and, at least partly, lay behind his teaching.[151]    

            One last approach needs consideration.  One could argue that the intended interpretation is along the lines of “she must remember her Christian commitment if she enters into another marriage.”[152]   Alternate ways of coming to the same basic conclusion is to take only in the Lord as equivalent to “in the fear of the Lord” or “in a Christian way.”[153]  Yet another individual cites the use of “in the Lord” in Ephesians 6:1 and Colossians 3:18 to mean “obeying God’s will . . .  Therefore Paul is telling the Corinthians that when a spouse dies, they are free to marry whomever they choose, according to the laws that God has given.”[154]  They are to “only” marry those whom it would be acceptable to God to marry.  (For example, would God, for example, be all that thrilled about the desire to marry a drunk, heavy drug user, or abuser in the hope to “help them get better” or would He consider it ill advised or delusional?)



            7:40:  Does Paul consider himself inspired in giving his “judgment” (ATP:  opinion)”?  He provides his “judgment” in regard to remarriage after death (7:39-40) and of the marriage of those who have never married (7:25-38, especially verse 25).  In 7:25 he concedes that he had “no commandment from the Lord” yet felt he could give non-binding counsel that would be reliable because he was “one whom the Lord in His mercy has made trustworthy (ATP:  deserving of your confidence)” (7:25).  In regard to those



[Page 51]  whose spouses have died he again calls it his “judgment” and reinforces its reliability by the self-depreciating remark, “I think I also have the Spirit of God” (7:40).

            Does Paul mean to imply that in regard to these subjects he lacked the inspiration he claimed in 2:10-13?  Assuming that Paul had any concept of consistency in his mind at all (and it is hard to avoid that he did), then we are dealing with a situation of generality versus exception.  As a general rule he regarded his message as being given Him by God through the Spirit.  On the other hand there were exceptions and, being honest with himself and others, he readily conceded when such existed, as he does in 7:25-40. 

            Even this, however, does not necessarily have to be the case.  As one reads the words “I think I also have the Spirit of God” (7:40), it is hard to avoid detecting a note of self-mockery in this.  As if “I think” really means “you and I both know full well that I have the Spirit!”[155]  If so, then his words are designed to convey the point that not even the Holy Spirit on these matters has anything obligatory to require.  There are things that would be better, wiser, and more prudent.  But to do otherwise would still not involve sin.  It would be his “judgment,” but still one backed by the Spirit.  










[1] Yarbrough, n. 17, pp. 94-95, quotes Aristotle’s Politics 1335 b 40 as evidence.   


[2] For example, Blomberg, 132;  Getty, 1113; Hargreaves, 78; Kugelman, 263; Graydon F. Snyder, 91; Vanderwaal, 18; Donald J. Selby, Introduction to the New Testament:  “The Word Became Flesh”  (New York:  Macmillan, 1971), 360.


[3] Grollenberg, 114.   


[4] Mackin, Marriage, 55.  In a later and longer work entitled The Marital Sacrament.  Marriage in the Catholic Church (Mahwah, New Jersey:  Paulist Press, 1989), 65-66, Mackin argues similarly but later notes that in verse 7 Paul embraces celibacy (66) but does not deal with how this would affect the interpretation of verse 1.  When he gets to verse 8 (67) he concedes that this might be an indication of a pro-celibacy stance in verse 1 but argues that Paul is only expressing a relative preference rather than an absolute one. 


[5] Schreiner, 419.


[6] Ibid.


[7] J. CarolLaney, “Paul and the Permanence of Marriage in 1 Corinthians 7.”  Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Volume 25, Issue 3, September 1982), 284; at:  [February 2010.] 


[8] Roetzel, Paul,  Fifth Edition, 14.  Roetzel seems to give this the highest priority in Paul’s motives; I would hesitate to go that far, but it might well be the motive that the Corinthians would understand the easiest.


[9] Horton, 61.


[10] Ibid.


[11] Raymond Bryan Brown, 328.        


[Page 56]


[12] Schreiner, 51.


[13] Bruce, Corinthians, 67.  


[14] Mackin, Marital Sacrament, 67. 


[15] Ibid. 


[16] As quoted by Bruce, Corinthians, 67, and Orr and Walther, 206.         


[17] For examples and quotations, see J. Massingberd Ford, Trilogy, 47-52.  Fitzmyer,  Corinthians, 281, notes this as a characteristic of the later stage of rabbinic tradition.


[18] As quoted by Yarbrough, 100.   


[19] As quoted by Boring, Berger, and Colpe, 408.   


[20] As quoted by Yarbrough, n. 32, p. 100.   


[21] Bruce, Corinthians, 67.  


[22] Ibid.; Hargreaves, 82; Hering, 50; Lenski, 280; Talbert, 39; and James M. Efird, Marriage and Divorce:  What the Bible Says (Nashville, Tennessee:  Abingdon Press, 1985), 73.            


[23] Ruef, 55.    


[24] Byrne, 21.    


[25] Weiss, Commentary, 188-189.   


[26] Bratcher, Guide, 58, and Moffatt, 76-77.   


[27] Kugelman, 263.         


[28] For example, Hunter, 110.


[29] Selby, 359. 


[30] As quoted by Barclay, 77. 


[31] Selby, 359-360. 



[Page 57]         [32] As quoted by Boring, Berger, and Colpe, 415.   


[33] Polhill, 42.   


[34] Ibid.   


[35] Kugelman, 263.           


[36] See the discussion of the significance of the use of agamos in Snyder, 95, where he argues that the term agamos “hardly ever means a person never married.”          


[37] Raymond Bryan Brown, 329, and Harris, 94.      


[38] Cf. Howard, 63.   


[39] Raymond Bryan Brown, 329.  Both the date of the married rule and whether the relevant Talmudic text (Sanhedrin 36b) has been correctly interpreted have been questioned.  See Robertson and Plummer, 138.           


[40] Metz, 375. 


[41] Charles R. Swindoll, Practical Helps for a Hurting Church:  A Study of 1 Corinthians 6:12-11:34 (Fullerton, California:  Insights for Living, 1988), 10.


[42] Makin, Marital Sacrament, 66.  For rabbinic texts stressing the need for marriage, see the quotations and discussions in J. Massingberd Ford, Trilogy, 43-46.  The male was expected to marry by around age eighteen though a delay of two years or so was considered understandable in special cases if scriptural study were the reason (43-44).    


[43] For a concise evaluation of these arguments, see Charles R. Swindoll, 9-10.   


[44] Ibid., 25.   


[45] On the source of Paul’s knowledge of the teaching, see Mare, 229.    


[46] For a discussion of the possibilities, see Collins, 33-33.   


[47] Ibid., 33.   


[48] David L. Dungan, The Sayings of Jesus in the Churches of Paul:  The Use of the Synoptic Tradition in the Regulation of Early Church Life (Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1971), 82.  He repeats the same assertion on page 93.  He promises (n. 1, p. 93) to explain why this happens on pages 132f.  When one looks there, however, one finds the assertion that Paul has given “a quick, short-hand excerpt of it plus application” (133).  But if it is a valid application how can one genuinely speak in such absolutist terms of a “contradiction?”     


[Page 58]


[49] Ludemann, 199.   


[50] Nor is it unreasonable speculation to suspect that at some point Jesus dealt with whether women had a right to divorce their husbands, by this stratagem or some other.  After all, He had a large number of female disciples and this would have been a matter of concern to at least some of them.   


[51] Makin, Marital Sacrament, 68.    


[52] Boyer, n. 4, p. 79.   


[53] Kugelman, 263, and Donald W. Shaner, A Christian View of Divorce According to the New Testament (Leiden, Netherlands:  E. J. Brill, 1969), 63.


[54] Ellis, 69-70, concedes that Paul seems to be teaching that what “Jesus actually said . . . pertained only to Christian-Christian marriages (verse 12a).  This, of course, is very doubtful.”  For the reasons stated in the text the opposite is the case:  Marrying a non-monotheist was so far beyond the pale of religio-societal acceptance that it would be extraordinary for the issue to arise.   


[55] Cf. Coffman, 162-163. 


[56] Barrett, Corinthians, 166.   


[57] Laney, 286.  


[58] Mackin, Marriage, 61.  


[59] Baumert, 61.  


[60] Henshaw, 238; Mare, 230; and Riggs, 149-150; and Ruef, 55.  For an analysis of several approaches to the meaning of “not under bondage,” see McGuiggan, 104-109.           


[61] Bruce, Answers, 92; Coffman, 104; Lenski, 295; Orr and Walther, 214.     


[62] Raymond Bryan Brown, 331; Lipscomb and Shepherd, 102; Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1982), 399. 


[63] Cf. Heard, 190, and Kugelman, 264.            


[64] Heard, 190.



[Page 59]         [65] Cf. Parry, xii.  In more detail, see David L. Dungan, 97-98.   


[66] Mare, 230.    


[67] For a concise summary of various interpretations, see Collins, 48-50.   


[68] Thrall, 53-54. 


[69] Kugelman, 263.           


[70] Collins, 50-51.   


[71] As to the age of the children Paul has in mind, see Ibid., 51-53.   


[72] Ibid., 51.   


[73] Stark, Christianity, 116.


[74] Ibid., 117.


[75] Ibid., 97.


[76] Ibid.


[77] Ibid., 73.  Estimates have run from an improbable low of 1% to an equally unlikely maximum of 50%.  Contemporary accounts points toward a major death rate at the minimum.  See the discussion in Ibid., 76.


[78] Ibid., 73.


[79] Ibid., 76-77.


[80] Ibid., 116.


[81] For a concise summary of ancient methods of birth control see Ibid., 121-122.


[82] For a concise summary of ancient methods, see Ibid., 119-120.


[83] Ibid., 120-121.


[84] Histories, 5.5, as quoted by Ibid., 118.


[85] Kugelman, 262. 



[Page 60]         [86] For a discussion of the two approaches, see Barrett, Corinthians, 67.  Collins, 60-62, and Moffatt, 84, adopt the optimistic reading.  Harris, 97, and Ruef, 58, adopt the pessimistic reading.    


[87] Orr and Walther, 214.     


[88] Murphy-O’Connor, Message, 71.       


[89] Witherington, Conflict, 183. 


[90] Ibid.  For a concise summary of Roman slavery in general and in Corinth in particular see 181-185. 


[91] Murphy-O’Connor, Message, 71.       


[92] On methods of granting freedom and the ex-slave’s legal status when freed, see Brad R. Braxton, The Tyranny of Resolution:  1 Corinthians 7:17-24 (Atlanta, Georgia:  Society of Biblical Literature, 2000), 202-220.   


[93] For potential advantages of remaining a slave see Bruce, Corinthians, 72, and Coffman, 107-108.   


[94] Frederick C. Grant, 83.  For the remarks of the ex-slave and then successful playwright Epictetus on how freedom may be longed for and, once obtained, be far less attractive than anticipated, see the quotation in Moffatt, 87.   


[95] Those who embrace the remain in slavery interpretation include Ronald A. Knox, 146; Kugelman,  264; Lambrecht, “1 Corinthians,” 1614; Lipscomb and Shepherd, 106; MacEvilly, 191; and Perkins, Ministering, 36                 


[96] Robertson and Plummer, 147.   


[97] Bruce, Answers, 92. 


[98] Fiorenza, 221.


[99] Those who adopt the freedom interpretation include Blomberg, 146, and n. 3, p. 146; Raymond Bryan Brown, 333; Ewert, 72; Gromacki, Called, 93-94; Kistemaker, Exposition, 232; McGarvey and Pendleton, 82; and Talbert, 42.  Lenski, 303, makes the interesting argument that if earlier in the same chapter a deserted believer is “not under bondage” to remain married to the deserter, why should a slave be demanded to stay in a parallel bondage?  For a detailed discussion of whether Paul is endorsing continued voluntary enslavement or encouraging the freedom option, see Horrell, 162-166


[100] For the propriety of translating the text so as to indicate that the slave had the right to choose freedom, see Mare, 233.    


[Page 61]


[101] Brad R. Braxton, 1.   


[102] John Carmody, Denise L. Carmody, and Gregory A. Robbins, Exploring the New Testament (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.:  Prentice-Hall, 1986), 41.  Newman, Meaning, 218, cites verses 17-31, as proof that Paul’s teaching grew out of the belief that “the last days approached” but pegs the assertion to no specific verse, word, or phrase. 

            Other asserters that the teaching of the chapter grew out of this concern include Raymond Bryan Brown, 328; Snyder, 468; Thrall, 51; Samuel Sandmell, A Jewish Understanding of the New Testament (Cincinnati:  Hebrew Union College Press, 1956), 85; Ernest F. Scott, The Literature of the New Testament (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1932), 136.            


[103] Selby, 360. 


[104] Fisk, 42.   


[105] B. Ward Powers, What Is the ‘Present Crisis’ or ‘Impending Distress’ at Corinth?;  at:  Posted:  December 6, 2008.  [February 2010.]


[106] Kugelman, 262.  Similar views are held by MacGorman, 123; Lyons, 1005; Perrin, 103; and  Price, 802.        


[107] Kugelman, 264-265; and Thrall, 58.  Of the reference to “distress” in Luke 21:23 in particular, see Raymond Bryan Brown, 333.  Allen, 108, ties it into the account in Mark 13.             


[108] Quoting these words as proof are Raymond Bryan Brown, 333; Frederick C. Grant, 83-84; Kugelman, 262; Lambrecht, “1 Corinthians,” 1612, 1614; Murphy-O’Connor, Message, 72; Pregeant, 360; Price, 802.  Presumably this is what Lyons, 1005; MacGorman, 123; and Ramsay, 128, have in mind when they refer to the verse without quoting it.   


[109] Raymond Bryan Brown, 333; Byrne, 23; Lambrecht, “1 Corinthians,” 1614-1615; MacGorman, 123; Murphy-O’Connor, Message, 72; Price, 802.       


[110] Hargreaves, 94-95, thinks Paul specifically has in mind customs related to marriage and slavery.  I read it as more comprehensive and psychologically if not physically threatening. 


[111] Kugelman, 262.         


[112] Bratcher, Guide, 60; and Orr and Walther, 218.   



[Page 62]         [113] Powers, “ ‘Present Crisis.’ ”


[114] Orr and Walther, 124, argue that “distress” seems the least appropriate rendering.   


[115] Metz, 383. 


[116] For examples, see Efird, 76, and Fitzmyer, Sketch, 105.            


[117] See Furnish, “Pauline Views,” 114, for some of the indications of friendly relations with outsiders.       


[118] Vanderwaal, 20.  Lenski, 313, emphasizes that whether or not a persecution was currently under way it could occur at any moment, unexpectedly and without warning.  Zerr, 14, takes the approach that they knew that the Romans had acted against other illegal religions and therefore that their own turn as target would come.   


[119] Thinking along these general lines are Grosheide, 175, and Talbert, 47.     


[120] Rosner, Paul, 162.   


[121] Thiselton, 4, 852.  


[122] Ibid., 852.  


[123] It received major publicity in recent years when it was reopened for tourist visits and, in 2010, when a large piece of the ceiling and the grassy plain above it collapsed due to heavy rains.  Associated Press, “Nero’s Golden Palace Crumbling in Rome;  dated  March 30, 2010; at:  [August 2010]


[124] Naphtali Lewis and Meyer Reinhold, editors, Roman Civlization:  Selected Readings (Volume 2):  The Empire, Third Edition (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1990), 313.


[125] Ibid.


[126] Among those who hold to this interpretation (which might equally well be called the “engagement scenario”) are Blomberg, 153; Bruce, Answers, 92; Countryman, 210-211; Gromacki, Called, 98; Lambrecht, “1 Corinthians,” 1615; Lyons, 1005; Mare, 236-237; Orr and Walther, 233; and Polhill, 241.                    


[127] Murphy-O’Connor, Doubleday, 66.       


[128] Among those who hold this interpretation are Grosheide, 182; Hughes, 269; Lipscomb and Shepherd, 113; McGarvey and Pendleton, 84; McGuiggan, 118; Parry, 81; and



[Page 63]         Robertson and Plummer, 158.  Boyer, 82-83, has a concise but especially effective defense of this approach.  See Hering, 62-63 for a critique of the interpretation.


[129] Thrall, 60. 


[130] Ibid.; and Orr and Walther, 233; 


[131] For an extended argument that the expression actually means having reached the age of sexual maturity (rather than being in danger of passing it), see Winter, Corinth, 246-250.   


[132] Hunter, 107.     


[133] Heard, 190.  Others who hold this “spiritual marriage” interpretation include Bassler, 325; Conzelmann, 135;  Freed, 271; Moffatt, 98; Murphy-O’Connor, Message, 75; Neil, 458; and Roetzel, Paul, 86.  Max Thurian, Marriage and Celibacy, translated from the French by Norma Emerton ([N.p.]:  SCM Press, Ltd., 1959), 74-77, prefers to call it “spiritual betrothal.” 


[134] Raymond Bryan Brown, 333.  The propriety of citing Vision 11 of the Shepherd of Hermas as earlier second century evidence for the practice is challenged by Ellingworth and Hatton.  They note (n. 5, p. 176) that the participants in such a relationship are described in Vision 13 “as ‘holy spirits,’ and in Vision 15 they are given the names of “virtues.”          


[135] Kugelman, 266. 


[136] Mare, 228.    


[137] Those who believe this was the situation include Hargreaves, 82, and Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, Message, 71-72.  For a detailed defense of the approach see Hering, 63-64.   


[138] Quoted by Stark, Cities, 151.


[139] Raymond Bryan Brown, 335.        


[140] Roman History, as quoted by Stark, Christianity, 105.


[141] Ibid., 105-106.


[142] Ibid., 106.


[143] Ibid., 105.


[144] Ibid., 106-107.


[Page 64]


[145] Cf. Henshaw, 238; Bruce, Corinthians, 77; Metz, 386; and Zerr, 17-18.   


[146] As quoted by Judith L. Kovacs, editor and translator, 1 Corinthians:  Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005), 128-129. 


[147] As quoted by Brian S. Rosner, “Deuteronomy in 1 and 2 Corinthians,” in Deuteronomy in the New Testament, edited by Maarten J. J. Menken and Steve Moyise, Volume 358 of the Library of New Testament Studies (New York:  T. & T. Clark, [n.d.]), 128.


[148] Lipscomb and Shepherd, 114-116. 


[149] Fiorenza, 225. 


[150] Brent Kercheville, “In 1 Corinthians 7:39 Widows Are Told to Marry ‘Only in the Lord.’  What Does This Mean?  Context and Background;” at:  [February 2010.]


[151] A slightly different way of making the point used by Ibid.


[152] Raymond Bryan Brown, 335.        


[153] Lenski, 331, presents these as possibilities but, seemingly unwillingly, implies that they are not the probable intent. 


[154] Kercheville, “ ‘Only in the Lord.’ ” 


[155] Cf. Gordon R. Lewis and Bruce A. Demarest, Inegrative Theology:  Historical, Biblical, Systematic, Apologetic, Practial, 3 volumes in 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan:  Zondervan, 1996) 144.