Summary 1 Corinthians Chapter 7 (updated)

This chapter was much longer than most that we’ve seen, and it generated a lot of commentary on my part. I hope the commentary was both necessary and enlightening. My goal is to provide a perspective that I have not found much in the books on the NT that I’ve read. With luck, I’m providing a new, or at least different, point of view. As I publish these, I take a moment to see what else is out there; so far, I haven’t found anything quite like this.

When doing line-by-line commentary, it’s easy to lose sight of the forest by looking at the individual trees too closely. As such, when I sat down to review this chapter as a whole, I thought I was going to be writing a lot about Paul lecturing on sexual morality, marriage, and celibacy, because those three interrelated themes seemed to be what I talked about the most. I thought they (it?) were the dominant themes. But once I got to a certain point in review, I realized that his position and advice on these topics was, really, only the third most important them of the chapter.

What is really most important about 1 Corinthians 7 is Paul’s willingness to make up rules and doctrine on his own authority. Now, he does cite Jesus directly in V-10, when he says “I do not say this, but the Lord.”* Prior to that, however, in V-8 when he gave permission to married couples to abstain from sexual relations for a contracted period of time on his own authority. In V-12, he again stresses that he says this, not the Lord. In V-16, he more or less flatly contradicts Jesus, by allowing marriages of a believer and a non-believer to stand. This is enormously significant. The QHJ tries to filter through what Jesus is said to have said to get what he really said. However, if Paul is making up rules that Jesus did not preach, and if these rules, or interpretations then entered the various traditions, by the time words are put in Jesus’ mouth the message has been even  slightly altered–or possibly distorted–then recovering Jesus’ message based on what the gospels alone tell is is a very, very dodgy effort.

Why does Paul do this? Why does he feel it necessary to go beyond what Jesus said, or even to contradict Jesus? That, obviously, is a crucial question, and one that plays directly into Theme #2 of the chapter. Paul believes that the Parousia, the return of the Lord, is imminent (used the right word this time…), believes that it could happen tomorrow. This lends an incredible sense of urgency to Paul’s mission, and to his message. He wants to make sure the communities he has founded, or that he is nurturing are ready for the Day of the Lord (1 Thess 5:2); presumably, this is the day when The Christ comes down from heaven, and the believers are lifted up to the sky (1 Thess, 4:16-17). Why is this important? Because, IMO, Paul’s sense of urgency, of immediacy is far stronger than anything we read in Mark. This implies, IMO, that the idea of Jesus coming back had decreased somewhat in its intensity between the time Paul wrote and the time Mark wrote. This, in turn, implies that perhaps Jesus’ message was not so heavily apocalyptic as someone like JD Crossan, or EP Sanders believes. The latter, in particular, believes that the coming apocalypse was central to Jesus’ message. If this came more from Paul, then we have to re-think what Jesus’ message was.

On this topic, recall that I suggested, or argued, that Mark was composed of two parts: the first half, which dealt with the wonder-worker, and the second half in which Jesus was the Christ. In the first half, Jesus certainly talks about the kingdom of God, but the allusions are vague, to the point that they may–or may not–refer to a change in the status of this world. To put this in Paul’s terms, whether the form of this world is passing away. This idea is much stronger in the second half, which was more focused on Jesus as the Christ. Given Paul’s constant message that Jesus was The Christ, my suggestion was that this half represented the message of the Pauline community, while the first half owed more to the tradition of James and the Jerusalem Assembly. This has the advantage that, while the wonder-worker was an instrument of God, he wasn’t necessarily divine himself. He was more akin to Elijah than Alexander the Great or Herakles.

And we get clues, I think, as to how Paul operates. In V-25 he talks about how he has given his judgement after he was ‘shown compassion (or perhaps mercy) by the Lord’. What this sounds like, I think, is that Paul came to his conclusion after praying–the ‘mercy/compassion’ shown by the Lord. Why is this significant? Because in a situation like this, Paul is not looking backward to what Jesus said while he was alive. He’s not consulting some hypothetical ‘sayings gospel’ (that may never have existed) for his answers. Rather, he seeks the mercy of the Lord in the here-and-now moment. And he follows this up again in V-40 when he says that he makes his pronouncement after being filled by the sacred breath. As such, Paul is looking inward for his answers; or, he is looking directly to the Lord in the moment. He is not citing the precedent left behind by the man Jesus; he is receiving his guidance from the risen Christ who has joined God, and is expected to return shortly. Or, imminently, one might say.

But, what Paul talks about mostly in this chapter is exactly sexual morality, marriage, and celibacy. He admonishes his audience to remain celibate, on his authority, and following his example. Given the imminence of the Lord’s return, the idea of raising the next generation is not an issue; there won’t be time. So, the issue becomes keeping one’s focus on God, rather than on the concerns of this world. This set the pattern for the church-to-come, and provided one of the mainstay arguments for a celibate priesthood for the next 2,000 years. Interesting that it was on the word of Paul, and doesn’t exactly trace back to Jesus.

Finally, we had several instances of what I am going to dub “Paul-speak”. Sections, or passages in which we aren’t entirely sure what Paul was actually saying, in the sense that more commentary was devoted to deciphering what he’s saying, rather than focusing on the implications of the words. Plus, we had a few passages in which modern translators felt it necessary to add words to the actual text. Where the KJV followed the original and said it’s ‘better to marry than to burn’, more recent translations added ‘burn with passion’. The clarification is likely necessary, but it’s still an addition to the text.

*Corrected. The post originally said that in V-10 he was speaking on his own authority. He was not; rather, he was citing Jesus.


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 February 22, 2014, in 1 Corinthians, epistles, General / Overview, Paul's Letters, Summary and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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