Thursday, August 11, 2005

1 Corinthians 7 on Marriage (II)

Below are some ways in which modern scholarship (again I count only those cases where Catholic and Protestant translations are the same) has emended the Patristic reading of 1 Corinthians 7. (The numbers are keyed to the points above) These new understandings render make the case for Paul as ascetic very problematic, although he is also not the advocate of "healthy married living" that some Protestant exegetes make him to be either.

1a) . Patristic authors starting with Tertullian misunderstood "it is better to marry than to burn" (i.e. with passion) as "those who are unmarried might engage in fornication and so burn in hell." The implication is that those who through dint of sheer will can fight sexual thoughts and remain be celibate without engaging in fornication can still rightly claim to have a superior status to the married, because they have been celibate and yet not actually committed fornication/masturbation. Jerome for example fought, by his own account, weeks of fierce attacks from lust with extreme fasting and frantic tears of guilt. When however, Paul is correctly interpreted as saying "It is better to marry than to burn with passion/be on fire" the implication is quite opposite. If you are "on fire" (i.e. afflicted by sexual thoughts), then Paul states clearly it would be better to marry. Thus the wrestlings of monks like Jerome fighting powerful sexual temptations have no spiritual value at all and are the result of attempting to force a gift which so many never had in the first place. Col. 2:20-23 and 1 Tim. 5:11-15 make this point.

2a) The phrase "It is a good thing for a man not to touch a woman" was understood from Tertullian’s time on to be Paul’s phrase, but is now acknowledged to be Paul’s quotation from a letter written by his opponents in Corinth. Hence far from establishing that Paul thought sexual relations as fundamentally undesirable, it is closer to arguing the opposite, since Paul responds by saying everyone should be married and have regular sexual relations.

2a) I also follow the modern consensus that vv. 36-38 are referring to men who are engaged in spiritual (i.e. unconsummated) marriage with a woman and who now wonder whether or not to consummate it. Patristic authors and classic Protestant exegetes both preferred this to be talking about a father deciding to marry off or not his unmarried daughter: Protestant exegetes because the whole idea of spiritual marriage seemed outlandish, and Patristic authors because the idea that one having once decided on celibacy could leave that state without sin seemed far too lax. 1 Tim. 5: 11-15 speaks of widows receiving judgement from breaking their pledge of non-remarriage, but presumably widows in return for support from the church had to pledge chastity and this was seen as dishonest (like a widow today still collecting Social Security payments after remarrying).

6a) Of the church fathers, only Tertullian had the same apocalyptic consciousness as Paul, saying that the time is short and the command to "be fruitful and multiply" died with the old law. He claimed that the pagans are right that no one in his right mind would want to have children, although they are wrong in how they go about preventing it, by abortion, rather than by virginity. Later Patristic sources downplayed or eliminated the apocalyptic element of Paul’s preaching, although Jerome also thought of "be fruitful and multiply" as abrogated. Indeed Paul himself in 1 Timothy 5 downplayed both the apocalyptic element and his previous skepticism about contracting marriage in the last days. Now, what we are to make of this apocalyptic expectation is a whole separate issue, but note that exalting celibacy, making marriage solely for procreation, and avoiding talk of the last days (as Augustine famously did all three) is a constellation of positions that is bears little resemblance to the mood and counsel of 1 Cor. 7.

Originally posted at Here We Stand

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