Paul on Marriage and Celibacy: The Hellenistic Background of 1 Corinthians 7

By Will Deming | Go to book overview

1 The Motivation for Celibacy in
1 Corinthians 7: A Review
of Scholarly Opinion

AS A PRELIMINARY STEP in our reassessment of Paul's understanding of marriage and celibacy, this chapter will present a critical review of the work of other scholars. This will be an important aid in determining which options for interpretation are open to us and which are not, especially since it will reveal an extensive history of the misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 7.

In all the research that has been done on 1 Corinthians 7, the aspect of this chapter that has fascinated and perplexed theologians and biblical scholars more than any other is its characterization of Christian marriage as the necessary alternative to certain forms of celibacy. In 7:2 Paul states, "Because of sexual immorality, let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband." In 7:9 he advises, "It is better to marry than to burn"; and in 7:36 he tells a single man that if he is "over the limit," he should marry without delay. Without much exaggeration one could even say that Paul's topic in 1 Corinthians 7 is not so much marriage but the benefits and limitations of celibacy. As one scholar lamented, "one looks in vain for a positive appreciation of love between the sexes or of the richness of human experience in marriage and family."1

Because celibacy looms so large in Paul's discussion, scholars have directed most of their efforts to determining the theological motivation for this celibacy — both for that which the Corinthians promote and which Paul, in

1. Günther Bornkamm, Paul (New York and Evanston, Ill.: Harper and Row, 1971), 208. Cf.
Johannes Weiß, The History of Primitive Christianity (New York: Wilson-Erickson, 1937), 2:582;
Kurt Niederwimmer, Askese und Mysterium: Über Ehe, Ehescheidung und Eheverzicht in den
Anfängen des christlichen Glaubens
, FRLANT 113 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1975),
66, 67.

-1-

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