Over the last few days, as part of my Bible translation work, I have been looking at 1 Corinthians. This reminded me of an essay which I wrote about this book, nearly 20 years ago, in fact in 1988. At the time I was a student at London Bible College, now London School of Theology. Studying for this essay helped me to form some of my current views about issues of sex and marriage, as well as about the structure of the book. And I have found myself referring back to this essay a number of times, including in the last few days.
For some time I have meant to put this essay on the Internet. This is because at least some of the questions which I raise and methods by which I answer them (see especially the last paragraph of the Introduction, at the end of this first part) are very relevant to recent discussions here, and on other bl0gs including the Better Bibles Blog.
So, here is the essay, at least the first part – with links to further parts to be added later. This is based on a scan of my printed copy of the essay, as unfortunately my original computer files were lost. I have retyped the Greek and/or copied the text from computer files of the New Testament text. The text has not been edited only to correct scanning errors. I have attempted to preserve the bold and italic marking of the original, except in section headings, but not the page layout.
WHAT DID PAUL REALLY SAY ABOUT SEX AND MARRIAGE?
1 CORINTHIANS 7:1-16
Peter Richard KIRK
Essay submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the B.A. degree of the Council for National Academic Awards
London Bible College
B.A. Part Two
Lecturer: Dr. F.P. Cotterell
23rd February, 1988
TABLE OF CONTENTS
APPENDIX – Semantic Display of 1 Corinthians 7:1-16 [External link to a PDF file]
The popular image of the apostle Paul is that he was a misogynist who disapproved of marriage, sex, and in general of everything enjoyable in life. On the basis of this caricature many have rejected the Christian faith, and many others who call themselves Christians have rejected Paul’s teaching in favour of a religion of love and liberty which, equally simplistically, they take as the true or original Christian message.
Most of the passages from Paul to which such people take exception are in his first letter to the Corinthians. In it there are two passages, 11:2-16 and 14:34-35, which seem to be degrading women, at least in their place in the church, and there is a whole long chapter on marriage and sexual relations, chapter 7, which has traditionally been taken as disapproving of both and allowing them only as grudging concessions to human weakness. Yet modern commentators have produced very different interpretations of these contentious passages. For example, Fee, summing up chapter 7, says: Does not Scripture say in fact that singleness is better than marriage? To which the answer is No (p. 357); on 11:2-16 he concludes that such a “church custom” … is not to be raised to Canon Law (p. 530); and on 14:34-35 that it is not authentic … certainly not binding for Christians (p. 708).
Are such reinterpretations valid? Or are they a case of making the bible fit one’s cultural presuppositions? One way of answering this question is to analyse the contentious passages in their context using linguistic criteria, rather than by theological ones which tend to be coloured by traditional interpretations. This essay is an attempt to answer the question in this way for chapter 7, by analysing the first sixteen verses; the remainder of the chapter is both more obscure and less directly relevant to the central question: did Paul disapprove of all marriage and all sexual relations, or did he not?