Paul, Sex and Marriage 4: Discourse Structure of 1 Corinthians

This is part 4 of my 1988 essay What did Paul really say about sex and marriage? 1 Corinthians 7:1-16. The Greek text here is adjusted as in part 3.

This in fact concludes the part of the essay which is most likely to be of interest to readers in 2006. So, while I do intend to complete this series (as well as my unfinished series on Kingdom Thermodynamics), I may do so rather more slowly than up to this point.


A further requirement for a correct linguistic understanding of the passage is to determine its relationship to the surrounding material, the co-text, within the structure of the complete discourse, in this case the whole of 1 Corinthians. Therefore, an analysis of the main discourse components in the whole letter is necessary, and it must be based on linguistic criteria, rather than the theological presuppositions which often determine commentators’ analyses.

4.1. The Traditional Understanding

It is generally agreed by commentators that much of 1 Corinthians is a response by Paul to issues brought up in the letter sent to him by the Corinthians – although some of the issues he deals with came to his notice through other reports from Corinth (e.g. 1:11). The traditional view, expressed by Hurd (p. 48), is that 7:1 introduces the answers to a series of questions which the Corinthians had asked Paul in their letter, and indeed that most of the material from 7:1 to 16:12 is in answer to specific questions. By contrast, 1:10 to 6:20 is generally taken (e.g. by Barrett, p. 28) as written in response to the other reports.

Fee questions this standard view. He sees the combative style of the supposed replies as showing that Paul is not answering their questions but challenging their statements (pp. 5-6). This accords with the conclusion of Jeremias, originally on chapter 8 but also applying in chapters 6 and 7, that Paul repeatedly quotes a statement from the Corinthians and then takes issue with it.

In every commentator’s analysis, it seems, a new main section starts at 7:1, indicating the start of Paul’s replies to the Corinthian questions; some make an equally important division at 5:1. It would be necessary to take 7:1 as such an important new start if the second part of the verse were not a quotation from the Corinthian letter, for then the first part would refer to every matter raised in that letter, including those dealt with in the chapters following chapter 7. But if it is indeed a quotation, the second part serves to specify as the subject of the section starting at 7:1 one particular issue amongst those raised by the Corinthians, the issue of sexual relations; and Paul’s response to this issue does not continue beyond the end of chapter 7.

Although he rejects most of its basis, Fee sticks to the most extreme form of the traditional analysis, in which the section starting at 7:1 continues right through to 15:12. His most important argument for keeping to this analysis is based on the repeated opening phrase Περὶ δὲ [But about], found at 7:1,25, 8:1, 12:1, 16:1,12, which he takes as introducing some, but not all, of Paul’s responses to the Corinthians’ points (p. 267). Yet Fee recognises the close affinity between 6:12-20 and chapter 7, and that already at 6:12 Paul quotes and corrects a Corinthian position (p. 250 note 8); but he relegates this important point to a footnote and does not let it affect his overall analysis.

4.2. Major Discourse Markers

The main linguistic criterion for analysis of this letter is the occurrence in it of discourse markers, such as recurring introductory formulae.

The formula Παρακαλῶ δὲ ὑμᾶς, ἀδελφοί [But I encourage you, brothers], found in 1 Corinthians at 1:10. 4:16 (modified) and 16:15, is recognised as a commonly occurring introductory formula in Greek letters and official documents (see Fee, p. 52). It is found in Paul’s letters also in 1 Thessalonians 4:1,10, 5:14, where it is used to introduce three of a series of six mostly ethical exhortations; there, the fullest form Λοιπὸν οὖν, ἀδελφοί, ἐρωτῶμεν ὑμᾶς καὶ παρακαλοῦμεν [Then finally, brothers, I ask and encourage you] is found introducing the first exhortation (4:1), and the other five are introduced by various abbreviated forms including Οὐ θέλομεν δὲ ὑμᾶς ἀγνοεῖν, ἀδελφοί, περὶ [But I do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, about] (4:13, cf. 1 Corinthians 10:1, 12:1), and, most briefly, Περὶ δὲ [But about] (5:1). It can be concluded that similarly in 1 Corinthians the fullest formula is a high level discourse marker and the shorter forms are lower level markers.

According to the traditional analysis of 1 Corinthians, the formula at 1:10 introduces a new main division of the letter – as indeed it must do since it follows the conventional thanksgiving which opens the letter. The occurrences of the same formula at 4:16 and at 16:15 are not generally recognised as of equivalent importance, but linguistic considerations suggest that they should be. There is some difficulty about making a division at 4:16 because the οὖν [therefore] looks backwards. A better understanding of this division can be obtained by looking at the subject matter of the section starting at 1:10, an exhortation that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you (1:10, NASB); this subject is carried through, with a digression on wisdom, at least to 3:23, and there then follows a practical conclusion (4:1-5a) and a brief doxology (4:5b), a conventional closing discourse marker. Thus the main division is at 4:6, which is the start of a link passage stretching to 4:15, taken up by the οὖν [therefore] of 4:16.

The exhortation of 4:16 has as its content μιμηταί μου γίνεσθε [become imitators of me], which forms an inclusio with the identical statement in 11:1, which is rounded off by καθὼς κἀγὼ Χριστοῦ [as also I of Christ]. There is little unity in the subject matter of 4:16-11:1, but its unity as a discourse component can be defended by its distinctness from the preceding and succeeding long sections, on divisions and on worship respectively, as well as from the discourse markers; the material is also united in being dominated by ethical exhortations on immorality and on idolatry, always closely linked in the New Testament.

At 11:2 a new section begins with an ironical pun, all the more striking if it is based on a quotation from the Corinthians’ letter. In view of the preceding verse, the praise which Paul would have preferred to have been able to give was πάντα μου μεμίμησθε, you have imitated me in all things; but instead he uses the very similar words πάντα μου μέμνησθε, you have remembered me in all things – somewhat fainter praise. He continues the irony with the double-edged word κατέχω, which can have the meaning as in Romans 1:18 of suppress rather than hold to. This introduces the new section, whose subject is τὰς παραδόσεις κατέχετε [you hold to/suppress the traditions], in both senses: received practices are in view in chapters 11-14, 16 and received teaching in chapter 15. The section closes at 16:13,14 with a summary. 16:15-18 is a brief final exhortation, again introduced by the standard discourse marker, and the letter closes with final greetings.

4.3. Immorality, Idolatry and Other Evils

The section from 4:16 to 11:1 can be analysed further by consideration of the discourse markers. 6:12 marks an abrupt new start: the quotation from the Corinthians is brought in with no conjunction – asyndeton, relatively uncommon in Greek. This verse matches 10:23, and can be taken as paired with it to form an inclusio, so that 6:12 to 10:23 becomes a section on its own. It serves to confirm this that all the quotations already identified from the Corinthian letter with which Paul takes issue are found within this inclusio. 10:24-33 is a closing summary with specific practical instructions, omitted earlier perhaps to avoid confusion with general principles. An inclusio can also be discerned marking off 4:18 to 6:11 as a separate section, for it begins and ends on the subject of the kingdom of God – not a frequent theme in Paul’s writings.

Furthermore, the sections 4:18-6:11 and 6:12-10:23 are linked in that the latter takes up the list of evils with which the former ends, in 6:9,10. In 6:12-20 Paul expands on his reminder to the Corinthians not to be πόρνοι [immoral people]; in 8:1-13 and 10:14-22 they are not to be εἰδωλολάτραι [idolaters]; in 7:1-40 not μοιχοί [idolaters]; 9:1-27 perhaps reminds them not to be λοίδοροι [slanderers]; πλεονέκται [greedy people] and μέθυσοι [drunkards] are considered later, in 11:21,33-34. Homosexuality and theft are not dealt with explicitly, but Paul hints at the latter in chapter 9 and possibly the former in 11:2-16. There is another list of vices in 10:7-10; the first two are clearly those dealt with in chapter 8 and in 6:12-7:40 respectively, and the last two probably relate to chapter 9. Thus Immorality, Idolatry and Other Evils would be an appropriate title for 6:12-10:23.

4.4. Chapter 7 in the Discourse

Within the inclusio of 6:12-10:23 the clearest discourse marker is the repeated introductory formula Περὶ δὲ [But about], found at 7:1,25, 8:1. An important conclusion from the analysis already made is that the first of these markers should not be taken, despite the traditional commentators’ analysis, to have a special status as marking the start of a primary division of the letter. From the start of chapter 9 the situation becomes more complex, and will not be considered here. 7:17-24 is somewhat anomalous: it is a unit in itself, with the repeated ἕκαστος [each] (7:17,20,24) giving a general principle which is illustrated by two pairs of examples; it is linked back to the advice of 7:8-16, and especially the appeal for peace on the basis of the Christian calling in 7:15; but its principles are applied in 7:25-40. Therefore it seems best to take chapter 7 as three discourse elements, 7:1-16, 7:17-24 and 7:25-40. The first and the last of these are separate elements and should be treated as such, although much of the subject matter is in common, and one can reasonably expect a consistent treatment of it within this small part of the letter, in addition to conformity in both sections to the general principles of 7:17-24. Only the first of these elements is considered further in this essay.

4.5. Concluding Observations

The above discourse analysis of 1 Corinthians, using linguistic criteria alone, is very different from the traditional commentators’ analysis. Only if the evidence for a new analysis were overwhelming could one expect such a widely held traditional view to be overturned. This essay does not claim to provide the required conclusive evidence, but only to suggest the alternative as worthy of further consideration. The final conclusions in Section 6 are not greatly affected by the choice of analysis, except on the one point assumed, and agreed by Fee, that the Περὶ δὲ [But about] formula of 7:1 serves to introduce only part of chapter 7 and not the majority of the letter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

To prove you're a person (not a spam script), type the security word shown in the picture. Click on the picture to hear an audio file of the word.
Anti-spam image