Paul, Sex and Marriage 6: Conclusions and Bibliography

This is the last part of my 1988 essay What did Paul really say about sex and marriage? 1 Corinthians 7:1-16, consisting of the conclusions and the bibliography, also a link to the Appendix.


The Christians were not unique in the first century Hellenistic world in rejecting the conventional way of life in favour of a commitment embracing every aspect of their life to a higher cause. Another such grouping was the Cynics: Epictetus gives an ironical portrayal of the life-style of these wandering philosophers, who saw themselves as “kings” (III.xxii, pp. 130-169). The Cynics did not reject marriage, but the Stoic philosopher points out the difficulties in marriage and family life for those living in such a way (p. 155). The Christians in Corinth, who also saw themselves as “kings” (4:8), surely thought similarly when they first began to reject marriage; and thus far Paul was prepared to go along with them, for the argument of 7:25-35 accords with that of Epictetus.

The Corinthian Christians, however, were taking the point further by also rejecting sexual relations within marriage, and not on pragmatic grounds (for Paul does not consider birth control as a reason for abstinence) but because of an emerging idea that all sexual relations were unclean or unholy. This idea was foreign to the Hellenistic world, although already known at Qumran, but it could well have arisen afresh among the Corinthians; if sex outside marriage was wrong, and marriage was discouraged, then must not all sexual activity be less than fully holy? The Corinthians did not ask Paul this question; they answered it for themselves and many adopted the ascetic view. As a result some were depriving or divorcing their partners without agreement; and the frustrated partners, attracted by the opposite view held by some at Corinth that Christians could do what they liked with their bodies (countered by Paul in 6:12-20), were going to the prostitutes.

This was the situation which Paul confronted in 7:1-16. It was a situation he could certainly not tolerate; nor could he lay the blame entirely on the immoral partners. His Jewish upbringing had taught him that sexual relations within marriage were good, even obligatory; and nothing in the Christian gospel had led him to reject that – indeed, he affirmed it as a general rule for the married (7:3). Yet he could find something to commend in the Corinthian view, by taking καλόν in the sense of a good option rather than the only or highest good: firstly, temporary abstinence for prayer, by agreement, can be a good thing (7:5); and secondly, for some to whom God has given the ability singleness is right (7:7). On these points Paul departs from his Jewish background, adopting Hellenistic pragmatism. This he urges also on the Corinthians: for some, the need to satisfy the sexual urge is so strong that if the outlet within marriage is denied they will not resist the temptation of other outlets; and therefore partners are not in general to deprive each other. These instructions were given because of cases of sexual immorality and are therefore not unconditionally binding, but the recent scandals among American television evangelists illustrate that no Christian group today, any more than the first century Corinthians, can consider itself immune from immorality and so able to ignore this teaching.

It has been most unfortunate for the history of the church that this passage has been so badly misinterpreted, so that the Corinthians’ views have been attributed to Paul and given his apostolic authority. One influence has been on Christian practice: through the centuries celibacy has been promoted in the church on a basis of apostolic authority which can now be seen to be quite spurious; and today such ideas lie behind the Roman Catholic prohibition of birth control which continues to lead to the birth of millions of children wanted neither by their parents nor by society. [At this point a faculty member has written a marginal note, with which I agree: “The connection would need a more careful argument than is offered here, but is probably correct”.] Another influence has been on Christian theology; Augustine taught on this basis that all sexual intercourse was tainted with sin, from which he developed his doctrine of original sin, which underlies his theology of infant baptism and of grace and election – two of the most controversial issues amongst evangelicals today. This serves to show the great danger of exegesis and application of a passage without a proper linguistic understanding of its content or its context.


Semantic display of 1 Corinthians 7:1-16

according to a method modified from Beekman and Callow

[The Appendix cannot be displayed here for technical reasons. It can be viewed as a PDF file here.]


Bible books Names in full in italics. Quotations in Greek are from UBS3.
AV The Holy Bible, Authorised King James Version, Collins 1950.
Balch D.L. Balch, 1 Cor 7:32-35 and Stoic Debates about Marriage, Anxiety, and Distraction, Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 102/3, 1983, pp. 429-439.
Barrett C.K. Barrett, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Black’s New Testament Commentaries, A & C Black, London 1968.
Bauer W. Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, English translation2 by Arndt and Gingrich, University of Chicago Press 1979.
Beekman/Callow J. Beekman and J. Callow, Translating the Word of God, Zondervan, Grand Rapids 1974.
Bruce F.F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, New Century Bible, Oliphants, London 1971.
Collins R.F. Collins, The Unity of Paul’s Paraenesis in 1 Thess. 4.3-8. 1 Cor. 7.1-7, A Significant Parallel, New Testament Studies, vol. 29, 1983, pp. 420-429.
Conzelmann H. Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, English translation by J.W. Leitch, Hermeneia, Fortress Press, Philadelphia 1975.
de Ste. Croix G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World, Duckworth, London 1981.
Downing F.G. Downing, Strangely Familiar, no publisher or date.
Elliott J. K. Elliott, Paul’s Teaching on Marriage in 1 Corinthians: Some Problems Considered, New Testament Studies, vol. 19, 1972-73, pp. 219-225.
Epictetus Epictetus, Discourses, with English translation by W.A. Oldfather, vol. II, Loeb Classical Library, Heinemann, London 1928.
Fee, 7:1 G.D. Fee, 1 Corinthians 7:1 in the NIV, Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, vol. 23/4, 1980, pp. 307-314.
Fee G.D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1987.
Hurd J.C. Hurd, The Origin of 1 Corinthians, SPCK, London 1965.
James E.O. James, Marriage and Society, Hutchinson, London 1952.
JB The Jerusalem Bible, New Testament, Darton, Longman and Todd, London 1967.
Jeremias J. Jeremias, Zur Gedankenführung in den Paulinischen Briefen, in J.N. Sevenster and W.C. van Unnik (eds.), Studia Paulina, Bohn, Haarlem 1953, pp. 146-154.
Lewis/Reinhold N. Lewis and M. Reinhold, Roman Civilization, vol. 2, Harper & Row, New York 1966.
Liddell/Scott H.G. Liddell and R. Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon9, Oxford University Press 1940.
Malina B.J. Malina, The New Testament World, SCM, London 1983.
Moiser J. Moiser, A Reassessment of Paul’s View of Marriage with Reference to 1 Cor. 7, Journal for the Study of the New Testament, vol. 18, 1983, pp. 103-122.
Moule C.F.D. Moule, An Idiom Book of New Testament Greek, Cambridge University Press 1953.
Murphy-O’Connor, Slogans J. Murphy-O’Connor, Corinthian Slogans in 1 Cor 6:12-20, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 40, 1978, pp. 391-396.
Murphy-O’Connor, Divorced J. Murphy-O’Connor, The Divorced Woman in 1 Cor 7:10-11, Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 100/4, 1981. pp. 601-606.
NASB New American Standard Bible, 1971, revised 1977.
NEB The New English Bible, New Testament, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press 1961.
NIV The Holy Bible, New International Version3, 1984, anglicised 1986.
Oepke A. Oepke, article γυνή, TDNT vol. 1, pp. 776 ff.
Phillips J.B. Phillips, The New Testament in Modern English2, Bles, London 1960.
Phipps W.E. Phipps, Is Paul’s Attitude Towards Sexual Relations Contained in 1 Cor. 7.1?, New Testament Studies, vol. 28, 1982, pp. 125-131.
RSV The New Testament, Revised Standard Version2, 1971.
TDNT Kittel and Friedrich (ed.), Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, English translation, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids 1964-1976.
TEV Good News Bible, Today’s English Version (New Testament4) 1976.
TNT The Translator’s New Testament, British and Foreign Bible Society, London 1973.
Turner N. Turner, Syntax, volume III of J.H. Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, T & T Clark, Edinburgh 1963.
UBS3 The Greek New Testament3(corrected), United Bible Societies, Stuttgart 1983.
Zerwick/Grosvenor M. Zerwick and M. Grosvenor, A Grammatical Analysis of the Greek New Testament, revised edition, Biblical Institute Press, Rome 1981.

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