Summary 1 Corinthians Chapter 5

Time for a confession. One of the reasons I started to read the NT in earnest was to see what Jesus actually said about sexual morality. I had a pretty good idea what Paul’s attitude was, but so I wanted to compare Paul to Jesus. This interest came about because the topic of sexual morality is a big political topic in the US at the moment. So here we certainly get Paul’s opinion. He’s against immorality, especially of the sexual kind. Even in the other two letters, his condemnation of sexual immorality always seemed to generate a lot of passion from Paul. We get the same thing here.

Contrast this with Mark; there was nothing even remotely like this in Mark’s gospel. There were injunctions and exhortations, yes, but nothing sustained, and certainly nothing sustained like this. And yet, Paul was written earlier than Mark. Did the topic of sexual morality become less…pressing in the intervening generations? Was it because Mark was writing more for gentiles, for whom the idea of sexual continence wasn’t that big a deal?

Just a word of background. The Hebrews, traditionally, held themselves to be herders, rather than agriculturalists. Cain was a farmer. The ancient Hebrews held the cities of Canaan in abhorrence; this was the disdain of the herder for the agriculturalist. Traditionally, according to Joseph Campbell, the herdsmen favored the Sky Father, while the agriculturalists tended towards the Earth Mother. The latter placed fertility rites in a central position of their worship, and this meant, often, sexual licence. The herding Hebrews reacted to this. Then, Christianity was born in the heart of Roman decadence. The reigns of Gaius (Caligula) and Nero bracketed Paul’s missionary efforts. So Christianity reacted to Roman licentiousness as well. In short, Paul got a double dose of anti-sexual attitude. It shows. I put no value judgement on this, but it’s what the texts tell us. This mattered to him to a degree that it did not matter to Mark.

Now, how much of Paul’s attitude comes from Jesus? If I had to guess, I would probably say very little, if any, of it. Nowhere in anything we’ve read does Paul say that we are enjoined to this belief by the Christ, let alone Jesus the man. If you look again at the story of his conversion that he relates in Galatians, and then think of the story of the Road to Damascus as a metaphor, and then think about his approach to his preaching, I think it’s easy to believe that Paul’s conversion came upon him in a thunderbolt; but a metaphorical one, rather than the light on the Road to Damascus. The conversion was complete, if not entirely–in a literal sense–instantaneous. I think it left Paul absolutely certain that he was preaching God’s Truth, as revealed by the Christ. This is why he insists that he did not learn the gospel from any man, but directly as a revelation from Jesus the Christ (Gal 1:12). This is why he preaches with power. This is why his message is superior–in his opinion–to that of James, or Apollos.

None of this has anything directly to do with sexual morality and Chapter 5 as a whole. But Paul does not give reasons. He makes statements and issues injunctions, if not commands. These are the words of someone who has very little self-doubt, even if he has a sense of inferiority when he is compared to others. What does matter is that these words are Paul’s words; they do not show up, except in a very attenuated form, in Mark. A list of sins to be avoided, similar to the list of Mark does show up in the Didache. Paul really has no counterpart on this issue. Again, yes there are injunctions, but they are neither as specific nor as extensive as what we find in Paul.

Now the Essenes were ascetics; they practiced a life of celibacy and prayer probably not dissimilar to the more rigorous strains of Medieavel monks. So Paul was not sui generis, perhaps, in his beliefs. Perhaps celibacy was in the air, as it were. Crossan talks about apocalyptic celibacy, a withdrawal from the world,  to purify themselves for the coming of…whatever was coming. I think there may have been some of this in Paul’s attitude. After all, he was expecting the return of the Christ, more or less at any moment.

And Paul’s attitude was definitely picked up by what became the Church. Of course, we have not read all of the gospels, nor all of the Pauline corpus, whether genuine or secondary. But I do believe that we will not find anything that will compel me to re-think my position here. When it comes to sexual morality, the subsequent church was Paulian, rather than Christian. That may sound extreme, but I am hardly the first to suggest that Paul was the real founder of Christianity. I’m not going that far, but he was the cornerstone for certain aspects of later Christian belief and practice.


About James, brother of Jesus

I have a BA from the University of Toronto in Greek and Roman History. For this, I had to learn classical Greek and Latin. In seminar-style classes, we discussed both the meaning of the text and the language. U of T has a great Classics Dept. One of the professors I took a Senior Seminar with is now at Harvard. I started reading the New Testament as a way to brush up on my Greek, and the process grew into this. I plan to comment on as much of the NT as possible, starting with some of Paul's letters. After that, I'll start in on the Gospels, starting with Mark.

Posted on January 5, 2014, in 1 Corinthians, epistles, Paul's Letters, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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