Constructing Early Christian Families: Family as Social Reality and Metaphor

By Halvor Moxnes | Go to book overview

11

PAUL WITHOUT PASSION

On Paul’s rejection of desire in sex and marriage 1

Dale B. Martin

Paul was apparently not a very romantic fellow. While most modern Christians consider marriage the proper sphere for the expression of desire (perhaps we should specify heterosexual desire), Paul considered marriage a mechanism by which desire could be extinguished. In Paul’s view, unlike that of some other ascetic-oriented writers of his day, sex was not so much the problem as desire. And sexual intercourse within the bounds of marriage functioned to keep desire from happening. Sex within marriage was not the expression of desire, proper or improper; rather it was the prophylaxis against desire. 2

Paul’s particular brand of asceticism, the control of desire, is not exactly like other ancient attempts to control it. But a comparison with some of those other attempts shows, in the first place, that Paul was not absolutely peculiar in the ancient world in his belief that sexual desire could and should be completely extirpated, even by means of sexual intercourse if necessary. As other scholars have pointed out, Stoics also advocated sex without desire. In the second place, such a comparison shows that the precise structure of Paul’s asceticism—his assumptions about its meanings, his reasons for it, and the ways he believes desire can and ought to be controlled—is different from that of others. This essay will compare Paul’s rationality of desire and its avoidance with those of ancient medical writers, on the one hand, and Stoics, on the other. The control of desire was a common concern in the early Roman Empire, at least among many intellectuals, but the logics or rationalities underwriting such control differed among different social groups.


THE EXTIRPATION OF DESIRE IN PAUL’S WRITINGS

The key passage that brings out Paul’s position is 1 Corinthians 7, which is devoted to the argument that people who are too weak for celibacy should get married, and that people who are strong enough for celibacy should remain unmarried and chaste. A central point in Paul’s argument is an enigmatic statement in which he urges marriage for those who are ‘out of control’. They should get married, he says, because ‘it is better to marry than

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