Sister or Wife? 1 Corinthians and Cultural Anthropology

By Mitchell, Alan C. | Journal of Biblical Literature, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Sister or Wife? 1 Corinthians and Cultural Anthropology


Mitchell, Alan C., Journal of Biblical Literature


Sister or Wife? 1 Corinthians and Cultural Anthropology, by J. Dorcas Gordon, JSNTSup 149. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997. Pp. 248. $53.50/L32.50.

In this Ph.D. dissertation, written under Schuyler Brown at the Toronto School of Theology, J. Dorcas Gordon presents a fresh analysis of 1 Corinthians 7, with the help of social-science methodology. The conflict Paul addresses in 1 Corinthians 7 is about whether the Christian calling prescribes the single, celibate life or permits marriage and sexual relations. Cultural anthropology is Gordon's preferred instrument of interpretation, as Victor Turner's model of social drama is applied to the text to uncover the social dynamics of the intracommunity quarrel(s) over marriage. Gordon supplements Turner's model with the group/grid concept of Mary Douglas.

The introduction presents well the exegetical pitfalls of the various subsections of 1 Corinthians 7, addresses the style and content of Paul's argument, identifies previous scholarship upon which Gordon wants to build, characterizes the location of Gordon's own work in relation to others who have studied the problem, outlines the structure of Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 7, and establishes the methodological framework of the study.

Chapter 1 surveys the use of social-science methodology in NT studies. The discussion focuses on the usual representatives of these approaches, with little new light being shed on their role and relevance for interpreting NT texts. The bibliography is drawn from work done in the 1970s and the 1980s. More problematic is Gordon's uncritical acceptance of the use of models, one of the more controversial topics in NT social-science methodology.

Chapter 2 presents the social context of 1 Corinthians 7 by describing marriage in Corinth in Paul's day. Here one finds important and informative information on the Roman institution of marriage, including treatment of the relevant bodies of Roman law governing it. There is also a brief consideration of the social makeup of Corinth in the first century CE. Toward the end of the chapter the debate over the desirability of marriage among some Hellenistic moral philosophers helps to make the description of attitudes toward marriage complete. The chapter concludes with a brief look at Roman and Christian kinship. This chapter describes the changing understanding of marriage in the Roman world, which helps to situate the conflict in 1 Corinthians 7. As important and interesting as the information in this chapter is, its usefulness for describing what marriage customs were like in Corinth in Paul's day remains obscure. Very little evidence is drawn from Corinth itself, and the question of whether marriage practice in the provinces was exactly the same as in the city of Rome is not addressed. With little helpful guidance from Gordon, the reader is left to figure out what relevance this background material has for 1 Corinthians 7.

Chapter 3 applies Turner's notion of social drama to 1 Corinthians 7. The outward manifestations of social drama, conflicts, factional struggles, and initiatives applied to handle conflicts all provide the clues for understanding a social system. As social action takes shape through metaphors and paradigms of behavior, essential to understanding the social dynamics of a group is some kind of explanatory paradigm, which, following Stephen Pepper, Turner labels a "root metaphor," a category that may be used to interpret all the data relative to analyzing the social drama.

Gordon identifies the root metaphor in 1 Corinthians 7 as the claim that in Christ there is no male or female, but rather all are children of God. To arrive at this Gordon adopts S.

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