This is part 2 of my 1988 essay What did Paul really say about sex and marriage? 1 Corinthians 7:1-16.
2. THE PRESUPPOSITION POOL
For a correct understanding of the passage it is necessary to determine the presuppositions shared by Paul and the Corinthian recipients of the letter. This presupposition pool is in two parts. Firstly, Paul and the recipients shared a common Hellenistic culture, although combined with disparate non-Greek influences, Roman at Corinth and Jewish for Paul; thus a certain shared understanding of marriage and sexual relations could be assumed by Paul as he wrote. Secondly, this letter is not the first contact between Paul and the Corinthians – Paul had spent eighteen months in the city (Acts 18:11), founding and establishing the church there, and he had sent at least one previous letter to the Corinthians (5:9) and had received at least one from them (7:1) – and Paul could presuppose at least some memory and understanding of what had been said and done previously.
The city of Corinth, abandoned for a century, had been refounded in 44 B.C. as a Roman colony. It was repopulated initially by Italians, but as it grew rapidly it attracted settlers, and therefore cultural influences, from all over the Empire. The church, to which this letter is addressed, had attracted a broad cross-section of the community, it seems from the limited evidence; some of the believers had a Jewish background, and some had Latin names, but much in the letter points to a predominantly Greek readership. The relevant cultural presuppositions are therefore neither Jewish ones nor specifically Roman ones, but those of the Hellenistic cultural mix which dominated the eastern half of the Empire.
Collins argues that singleness was very rare in Hellenistic culture, pointing to laws of Augustus penalising unmarried Roman citizens. They were more highly taxed and were forbidden to inherit; the purpose was to increase the birth rate (see Lewis and Reinhold, pp. 47-52). Yet there was widespread evasion and opposition to these laws: Tacitus wrote that people were not driven thereby to marriage and the rearing of children in any great numbers, so powerful were the attractions of the childless state (Annals III.xxv, quoted by Lewis and Reinhold, p. 50). Thus the laws are in fact evidence that singleness was known and culturally acceptable. Confirmation of this comes from the Stoics. Musonius, a contemporary of Paul, and his pupil Epictetus agreed that marriage is a duty for most men but that for a few in special circumstances it is not advantageous as it can distract from higher pursuits (Balch, pp. 433-434). Epictetus condemned as subversive of the state, destructive of the family the teaching that people ought not to marry (III.vii, p. 55). Thus this teaching was known; and the general Hellenistic attitude was far from that of the Jewish rabbis: He who has no wife is not a proper man (quoted by Collins, p. 424).
Divorce was certainly easy, at least for the husband, and was very common, so that some men and women had several partners in turn (Oepke, pp. 779-780). Sexual relations outside marriage were also more-or-less acceptable, again at least for the man, who could take a concubine or go to prostitutes. These cultural presuppositions were clearly challenged by Paul’s teaching; yet his views on them have precedents in the teaching of pagan philosophers as well as of Jews. Remarriage was considered generally desirable for the widowed and for the divorced; indeed the laws of Augustus sought to enforce remarriage of women after a suitable interval. There were few suggestions that remarriage was improper in either case.
Paul should have been able to presuppose that the Corinthians understood the basic Christian teaching he had given them. But he had already found that in fact he could not do this, for they were still mere infants in Christ … not yet ready for solid food, more advanced teaching (3:1,2). In continuing to give them milk in this letter he surely avoided assuming understanding of his previous teaching, whether given during his stay in Corinth or in the earlier letter which they had so seriously misunderstood (5:9,10). Paul did speak of specific personal circumstances, of which a common knowledge could be presupposed, in 1 Corinthians (e.g. 5:1-5), but this is unlikely to be a factor in chapter 7, with its very general language.
Therefore the only important shared presuppositions from previous contact were those relating to the letter Paul had received from the Corinthians (7:1). The basic point is that Paul could presuppose that the Corinthians would immediately recognise when he quoted from or alluded to their letter. Yet today these cannot be recognised directly, as their letter is not available; one must rely on the linguistic and theological evidence in Paul’s letter. Unfortunately on the important points in chapter 7 the theological evidence is disputable. Therefore in the following section the linguistic evidence is examined in order to determine as far as possible where Paul was quoting from the Corinthians’ letter.