Paul of Tarsus and the First Epistle to the Corinthians.
August 15th, 2002
Received by H.
My dear H___, I intend to continue with Jesus’ story in chronological order. Nevertheless, we may of course insert a message on a controversial passage in the New Testament, whenever some serious doubt appears. Today, in answer to the question of the Reverend, I want to talk about the First Epistle to the Corinthians, a letter from Paul of Tarsus, and especially, about chapter 7. Paul writes: ( 1 Corinthians 7:1-7 )
“Now let me deal with the questions raised in your letter. It is a good principle for a man to have no physical contact with women. Nevertheless, because casual liaisons are so prevalent, let every man have his own wife and every woman her own husband. The husband should give his wife what is due to her as his wife, and the wife should be as fair to her husband. The wife has no longer full rights over her own person, but shares them with her husband. In the same way the husband shares his personal rights with his wife.
Do not cheat each other of normal sexual intercourse, unless of course you both decide to abstain temporarily to make special opportunity for prayer. But afterwards you should resume relations as before, or you will expose yourselves to the obvious temptation of Satan.
I give the advice above more as a concession than as a command. I wish that all men were like myself, but I realize that everyone has his own particular gift from God, some one thing and some another.”
This far, I think, it is not necessary to make any comment. Those are simply general rules for a harmonious and equal marriage. However, I want to draw your attention to the fact that in these words there is nothing of the aversion against “everything related to the sexual,” which later on would dominate the church. There is no trace here of teachings such as, for example, that a sexual relationship between couples was only admitted for the purpose of engendering children. For Paul, as a good Jew, sexuality was something very natural. The ingrained celibate Paul recommends abstinence, but he does not insist on it. Abstinence was his personal way of living and realization, and he recommends it, but in another part, he admits that many of Jesus’ original followers cohabited with women, who accompanied them along their voyages, when writing:
“May we not travel with a Christian wife like the other messengers, like other Christian brothers, and like Cephas?”
Let us return to our passage. Paul continues: (1 Corinthians 7:8-11)
“Yet to those who are unmarried or widowed, I say definitely that it is a good thing to remain unattached, as I am. But if they have not the gift of self-control in such matters, let them get married. It is better for them to be married than to be tortured by unsatisfied desire.
To those who are already married my command, or rather, the Lord’s command, is that the wife should not be separated from her husband. But if she is separated from him she should either remain unattached or else be reconciled to her husband. A husband must not desert his wife.”
Actually, it is Paul and not the Lord, who commands this, but it is a good recommendation, at least that one of reconciliation. The sad topic of divorce has already been dealt with in another part. It is necessary to notice, however, that interpretations that Paul referred to the indissolubility of marriages recognized by the “church” and that he granted divorce for people who converted to Christianity, because “with baptism they gained a new life and, hence, a new freedom,” are absurd. Such a church simply did not exist then…. ( 1 Corinthians 7:12-14)
“To other people my advice (though this is not a divine command) is this. If a brother has a non-Christian wife who is willing to live with him he should not leave her. A wife in a similar position should not leave her husband. For the unbelieving husband is consecrated by being joined to the person of his wife; the unbelieving wife is similarly consecrated by the Christian brother she has married. If this were not so then your children would bear the stains of paganism, whereas they are actually consecrated to God.”
Here, the original text does not state “if this were not so then your children would bear the stains of paganism” but “else were your children unclean”, and it does not read “whereas they are actually consecrated to God” but “but now are they holy.” However, the translation conveys adequately the meaning of what Paul wanted to express. Later on, we will talk a little bit about the historical background that led Paul to write these words. (1 Corinthians 7:15-19)
“But if the unbelieving partner decides to separate, then let there be a separation. The Christian partner need not consider himself bound in such cases. Yet God has called us to live in peace, and after all how can you, who are a wife, know whether you will be able to save your husband or not? And the same applies to you who are a husband.
I merely add to the above that each man should live his life with the gifts that the Lord has given him and in the condition in which God has called him. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. For example, if a man was circumcised when God called him he should not attempt to remove the signs of his circumcision. If on the other hand he was uncircumcised he should not become circumcised. Being circumcised or not being circumcised, what do they matter? The great thing is to obey the orders of God.”
With these wise words ends this passage. The most serious problem in the dawn of Christianity amongst the heathens was a problem of social order, and not the persecutions, as many believe. The persecutions would come, this is true. Paul himself would fall a victim of them. However, when Paul wrote this letter, several years had still to come before Nero would launch the first large scale slaughter amongst converts.
Paul had a remarkable ability and success in the spreading of the new teachings as he understood them. I say this, because his contact with the other apostles were scarce, and in general, he did not get along well with them.
The conversion of whole families to Christianity did happen frequently, but in most cases, only the wife or the husband converted. This, logically, raised questions that Paul tried to answer according to his assessment, of course. Because there still was no official “moral teaching” of the church, since neither was there an “official church,” but a heterogeneous movement, where some considered Christianity as an integral part of Judaism, and others, like Paul, opened the doors for a massive entrance of the heathens, removing as many obstacles as they could, for example, circumcision. For the pagans, circumcision was a “horrible mutilation,” and there were Jews (born in the Diaspora) who even underwent surgical interventions to rebuild their foreskins. This was what Paul was referring to when saying, “if a man was circumcised when God called him he should not attempt to remove the signs of his circumcision.” The original text is more plain-spoken, stating literally: “He shall not pull out his foreskin.”
The topic of mixed marriages usually was a non-issue for the pagans. They even used to adhere at the same time to different cults, a problem that would also affect greatly the beginning of Christianity, as we will see later. However, for the Jews, things were different. They were very intolerant in relation to mixed marriages, demanding their dissolution. And in the study of the Scriptures — I am referring to what you call today the Old Testament, because there still was no New Testament — the community leaders found the story of the return of the Jewish exiles from Babylon, and how they demanded the termination of mixed marriages, which they found in Palestine among the population that had remained there.
Paul gives very practical advice, also with the ulterior motive that a Christian member in a pagan family could exercise, eventually, great influence on the other members, and so contribute to the diffusion of the new religion. To abandon children in the hands of a pagan ex-husband or ex-wife would deprive them of the immediate opportunity of embracing the faith. That is all that I want to communicate for now.
My dear H___, I know that you are burning with the desire to know more about Paul. And I will quench your thirst for knowledge. However, I will not do so now. At least in what pertains to history, we will proceed in order.
I wish you a happy day. We’ll meet again soon,
© Copyright is asserted in this message by Geoff Cutler 2013