A Window into the Past: Women, Greco-Roman Society, and The Pastorals (pt. III:1 Cor 7:1-7)

1 Corinthians 7:1-7:

Principles for Marriage

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control.

Now as a concession, not a command, I say this.I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.

v.1.  Paul, in response to the questions of the Corinthians, writes, “‘It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.’”  Johnson writes about the expression translated as “not to touch a woman”, “…the expression…is not the equivalent of ‘not to marry.’ In Hebrew and Greek it is a euphemism for not to have sexual intercourse with woman (Gen 20:6; Prov 6:29)” (108).  Johnson continues by adding that the expression does not necessarily belong to Paul but is a Corinthian colloquialism: the Corinthians were rejecting sexual intercourse with their wives in order to achieve a more intimate relationship with Sophia (Johnson 108-9).  Bruce adds this scenario, “…[Paul is] deal[ing] with ascetics who, partly perhaps in reaction against the libertines, argued that sexual relations of every kind were to be deprecated, that Christians who were married should henceforth live as though they were unmarried, and those who were unmarried should remains so, even if they were already engaged to be married” (Bruce 66).

v.2.  Leon Morris writes, “Since fornication was so common at Corinth it was hard for the unmarried to remain chaste and hard for them to persuade others that they were, in fact, chaste” (Morris 102).  And Keener observes, “Paul may refute [the Corinthian’s] point about a man not ‘touching’ a woman…but if he is conceding it, he applies it to unmarried intercourse only (6:12-21); he goes on to demonstrate that married people must have intercourse (7:2-7).  Contrast ‘It is well,” kalon, with ‘It is not good,’ ou kalon, in Gen 2:18, a context Paul has just quoted in 6:16)” (62).  Paul’s Jewish background would have provided him with the understanding of the  value of marriage and childbearing; but this was not restricted to Paul and his contemporaries, but was manifest in August’s legislation, “…to replenish the Roman aristocracy two generations before Paul’s time.  Augustus’s laws reward with tax incentives widows and divorcees of childbearing age who remarried as quickly as possible” (Keener 63).  On the other hand, Keener also notes that “Some thinkers…believed that marriage proved a distraction from high pursuits (e.g., Cynics in Epictetus Diatr. 3.22.69-76).  Some radical philosophers (especially Cynics) therefore eschewed marriage, nevertheless condoning the release of sexual passions on prostitutes (cf. 6:12-21)” (Keener 63).  Paul may have been dealing with the same group of people who were causing trouble in 6 as in 7 (Keener 63).

v.3.  Morris writes, “Each partner in a marriage has rights and Paul calls on each to pay what is due….Paul does not stress the duty of either partner at the expense of the other, but puts them on a level, a noteworthy position in the male-dominated society of the time” (103).  What is most striking in Paul’s language is the idea of “giving” rather than “getting”; in a culture that was obsessed with getting somewhere weather socially or spiritually, this command to give is countercultural.  “Marriage is the giving of oneself to another” (Morris 103).  Essentially, marriage is not the getting from one what one wants or thinks they deserve.  Horsley observes,

The Therapeutics near Alexandria, described by Philo, provides a striking similar example of women and men who leave their spouses and become ‘elderly virgins.’ Their motivation for spurning the pleasures of the body, moreover, is their devotion to Sophia, whom they consider to be their spiritual life-mate.  This makes the comparison all the more compelling, considering the importance of Sophia to the Corinthian spirituals addressed in chapters 1-4 (Horsley 96).

vv.4-5. Keeping in mind the discussion above about the Roman woman being the property of the husband, the first half of this verse is very much within the constraints of Roman society at that time.  However, the later part introduced by “likewise” is the countercultural statement.  Johnson writes that neither one has the right to do with their body what they want, “…because the other has a rightful claim to sexual satisfaction.  This requires mutual submission (Eph 5:21)….the principal of mutual submission and mutual consent (v.5) is very important in minimizing abuse…Paul’s view of marriage [is a] profound union that entails a shared body, the two becoming ‘one flesh’ (Eph 5:31) (Johnson 110-1).  And Bruce adds, “By the marriage vow each relinquishes the exclusive right to his or her own body and gives the other a claim to it; the verb rule over is exousiazō, denoting the exercise of exousia (‘authority’)” (67).  Horsley proposes that Paul is responding to a Corinthian-ism, “‘[a woman had] authority over her own body’” (97).  Horsley writes, “After reversing that principle, Paul sweetens his denial of authority over her own body with the reciprocal wife’s authority over her husband’s body.  This is certainly a break with patriarchal marriage patterns, at least rhetorically” (Horsley 97).

About Paul’s use of “authority”, Horsley comments, “Among the Corinthians it could have been an expression of empowerment, whether in liberation from parochial taboos such as dietary restrictions (eating food offered to idols, in chaps. 8-10) or old-fashioned customs such as patriarchal property rights (the man ‘having’ his father’s wife, in chap. 5)” (97).

In v.5, Paul makes it clear that it is okay to abstain; however, abstention was only to be for prayer and only for an agreed amount of time.  After the abstention, husband and wife were to return to intimate sexual relations with each other to avoid Satan’s temptation and the Corinthian’s lack of self-control.  Horsley writes, “Permanent abstention from sexual relations is often associated with women in prophetic or other religious roles in other New Testament cases and in the general Hellenistic-Roman culture…” (Horsley 97).  Women were able to find their way out from under Patriarchal domination by submitting themselves to the pursuit of Sophia which involved, as discussed above, devoting all their energy to toward the intimate relationship with Sophia and away from their sexual relations with their husband.  Thistleton observes,

‘With prostitutes and mistresses abundantly available (recall 6:12-20) Corinthian men unable to have sex with their wives would often look elsewhere.’…from the papyri and from Plutarch the double standards of a degree of extramarital relationships in the case of men in the Roman world, in contrast to married women.  Paul’s moral and pastoral principle remains either (a) monogamy (with a full relationship for most of the time; cf. v. 5); or (b) celibacy; but not (c) irregular physical relationships.  Paul…[is]…offer[ing] an antidote to a Corinthian desire to change everything with their new-found status” (Blomberg qtd in Thisleton 503).

(Next: 1 Corinthians 11:2-16)

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