Christianity receives a bad rap at times when it comes to sex. In particular, Paul has an undeserved reputation as being down on sex (and indeed women). However, whilst he may be unromantic in our sense, he is far more positive about sex that most people realise. Below is an essay I wrote some time ago that discusses this issue as found in Paul's first letter (that we have) to the church at Corinth, 1 Cor 7, especially verse 1.
The church has often held marriage in low esteem. Jerome allowed me to marry if they were too frightened to sleep alone at night. Augustine thought that sexual intercourse was a consequence of the fall and a sin God only forgave in marriage. For Gregory, it was ok only if you didn’t enjoy it. John Chrysostom, commenting on 1 Corinthians 7.1, thought that it better to have nothing to do with a woman, but that because of infirmity some should seek a wife, i.e. Paul offers a concession. Even Calvin held such a view. Here, I will show that Paul quotes and dismisses in 7.1 the view of some at Corinth that it is better for a man not to have sexual relations with his wife.
Who is speaking?
Is Paul giving his own opinion (Hodge), or is he quoting or paraphrasing the Corinthians (Powers, Garland)? Garland provides six arguments for 7.1b being a quotation.
Paul often quotes the Corinthians: 1.12 (each one of you says), 3.4 (when one says), 6.12-13, 8.1, 4 (we know that), 10.23, 10.28 (one of you says), 12.3, 15.3 (some of you say), 32, 35 (some one will ask). Garland’s first argument concerns Paul’s use of peri de (now concerning). It introduces a new subject (7.1, 25, 8.1, 12.1, 16.1, 12) but is not necessarily an answering formula. On a number of occasions it simply introduces a new topic that Paul wishes to address. It does not necessarily correspond to a topic raised in their letter (7.1), because he had several information sources (1.11, 16.17). Here it is clear that Paul is responding to “hwn egrapsate” (that which you write). Hence, peri de (also 8.1) functions as an answering formula. In 8.1, Paul most probably quotes the Corinthians “all of us possesses knowledge”, and then proceeds seriously qualify this statement. 7.1 is consistent with this pattern.
Garland’s second argument centres on Paul’s use of kalon. It is argued that since Paul uses it in 7.8, 26, then it must be Paul speaking in 7.1. But Garland notes that 7.26 reads like a quote, and so we might infer that kalon was a word in use in Corinth to describe their spiritually superior practices. However, this is a weak argument either way. Paul is as free to use words and ideas from the Greek language, as are his readers.
Garland’s third argument is that, if this is a reply, then Paul contradicts himself in v2-5 and Scripture (Gen 2.18). The context of Genesis makes it clear that the man and woman’s relationship was intended to be a sexual one (2.24-25). For Paul to say that it is good for a man not to touch a woman (to have a sexual relationship) contradicts Scripture. Hodge attempts to avoid this problem (strenuously denying that Paul could contradict Scripture (Gen 2.18, Heb 13.4) or himself in 1 Tim 4.3) by assuming that kalon means expedient. He relates this expediency to the present distress (v26). But as shall be argued below, the best way to understand 7.1 is as a statement about those who are currently married, and hence this argument is irrelevant for the discussion of the origin of the remark.
The fourth argument is that 7.1b focuses on the man, whilst v2-5 focuses equally on the rights and responsibilities of both sexes. Hence, the argument is that in v1b, some faction of the Corinthians were emphasising that it was more spiritual for men not to have sexual relations with their wives. In response, Paul stresses the rights and responsibilities of both parties in the marriage relationship.
Garland’s fifth argument is that, whilst Paul does encourage celibacy, it is for reasons of expediency only, so that people can devote themselves to the Lord (7.32-35) and not because he sees celibacy as some higher good, as some of the Corinthians almost certainly did.
Garland’s last argument is that Paul affirms that marriage is good. Those who marry do well (7.38). The unbelieving spouse can be consecrated by marriage to a believing spouse (7.14-15). He condemns asceticism (1 Tim 4.3), and uses marriage as a metaphor for Christ and the church (Eph 5.25-33). We can add to Garland’s data 9.5. Paul claims the right to marry, and refers to the other apostles, Peter and Jesus’ brothers all being married and travelling with their wives.
Hence, it the most likely option that Paul quotes “that which you wrote”. As Powers notes, “all anomalies disappear if Paul is quoting them.” He may even be dictating with the letter in front of him.
What are they saying?
Translations vary from it is better for a man “not to marry”, to “not to have sexual relations with a woman”, or more literally “to touch a woman”. However, there are problems with these renderings. The infinitive gamein (to marry) is not in the text. Instead the aorist infinitive aptethai, to touch, is used. The meaning in this context is “to touch intimately, to have sexual contact”. To touch never means to marry, such a translation is misleading. So why do commentators and translators render the verse as “to marry”? Such a view is only sustainable if anthrwpos is meant as man in the general sense and gunaikos as woman. In this case, to touch could be synonymous with to marry, as Paul makes it clear that marriage is the only context for sexual relationships (e.g. 7.9).
However, the context (v2-5) suggests that we must understand gynaikos as wife, and therefore anthrwpos is to be understood as husband (see below). For the moment, it is enough to show that it is possible that anthrwpos is to be understood to mean a man who is currently in a marriage relationship (i.e. a husband). The common meaning of anthrwpos is a person of either sex, i.e. a human being. However, in Mt 19, Jesus deals with the issue of divorce. In verse 9, he forbids anyone to divorce his gunaika, i.e. his wife. In verse 10, the disciples are shocked and that if this is the case of “the man with his woman” (better “the married man with his wife”), then it is better not to marry. Clearly, the context demands that anthrwpou means a man who is married. Therefore, it is possible that it may be understood thus in 1 Cor 7.1, and so touch means sex within marriage.
We should also note that anthrwpw and gunaikos are indefinite (lacking the article). Powers comments that this is at the level of a general discussion, i.e. there is no one particular individual in mind, hence “a wife” and not “the wife”. Likewise, it is not unusual in Greek to exclude the article when a close relationship is implied (hence no genitive article). It is appropriate therefore, to follow Powers
One last issue is the meaning of kalon (good). Garland ties this to whether or not the Corinthians are asking a question or are making a statement. He presents four possible meanings: 1) morally good; 2) expedient or beneficial; 3) one good among several goods; 4) a comparative, i.e. better. If these are the words of Paul, then option 1 is excluded (see above). Option 2 is possible if one can link 7.1b to 7.26, but these are separate issues. Option 3 does not fit, as in 2-5, Paul defends sex in marriage, and 7.1b refers to those who are in a marriage. Garland notes that option 4 also fits 7.26, but this again makes a false connection.
Given that Paul is quoting the Corinthians, and that v2-5 commands that marriage partners do not refuse each other sexually, it is likely that the Corinthian view is stronger than “better”. Likewise, given the Corinthian obsession with wisdom (cpt 1-2) and “spirituals” (cpt 12), it is likely that option 1 is correct. Some of the Corinthians thought it more spiritual to abstain from sex, even if married. Hence, we may infer that they were telling Paul their view, not asking for his.
So why was it that the Corinthians rejected sex in marriage? As Powers notes in commenting on v2a, this passage only makes sense if it concerns those who were married and then became Christian, and asked themselves the question, “should we continue to have sexual intercourse?” There are a variety of influences, including various philosophical and religious factors. It may, however, be as simple as a reaction against their former immoral background (6.9-11). They may also have heard Paul’s teaching as found in Gal 3.28, and seen Paul as single, and become confused.
As has been discussed, v2-5 offers a corrective to the Corinthian view expressed in v1b. Hodge must see v1b as a temporary measure in the present distress, but this does not change the general rule.
Likewise, Garland sees v2-5 as a qualification of 7.1b (see also Wright who begins his paraphrase of v2 with “well yes”, and believes that at one level, Paul agrees with them). But this is because he understands anthrwpw as man in general terms, and that the change to aner indicates that he now addresses the marriage relationship. However, as has been shown above, this is also an unnecessary move. Nevertheless, Garland and Powers agree against Hodge that it is not celibacy as such but celibacy in marriage that is to be avoided. It is a dangerous suggestion refuted. Just as he advised those who had been married (7.8-9), it is better to marry than burn in passion, those who are married should not seek abstinence, which is impractical and inappropriate. One might say that once the sexual genie has been let out of the bottle, it is not appropriate to try and put it back. Hyperspirituality can also lead to a backlash of fleshly indulgence.
Just as in 5.1 exein (to have) is euphemistic for sex, so exetw in v2 implies marriage in its fullest sense, including sexual intercourse. Here we see the difficulties of reading v1b as being Paul speaking, for in v2 he uses the 2nd person singular present imperative, they must continue to have sexual relationships. So, since v1 addresses those who are already married, exein cannot mean that an unmarried man should find a wife.
Paul is even handed about what men and women should do, declaring that there should be mutuality within marriage, both are apodidotw (fulfil, imperative) their sexual obligations (v3. lit what is due), both do not have authority over their own bodies (v4) and they are not to defraud one another (v5). This is because of porneias (immoralities, i.e. plural), indicating temptations for both marriage partners. Hence, although Paul allows abstinence pros kairos for prayer (for a time, note the aorist of devote oneself to, a short period of intense prayer in response to some special circumstance or need, also kairos is a key period in God’s timing, also indicating a special circumstance), they are to come together again in order that Satan might not test them.
Given Paul’s commands to sexual obligation in v2-5, v6 must look either forward (as houtos does in 7.29, 9.3, 11.17, 15.50), to the concessions of v8-9 or the concession for times of prayer, but not to any imagined concession to marriage.
A correct exegesis of 7.1 is important for our understanding of Paul’s attitude towards sex and marriage. 7.1b is a quotation from the Corinthian’s letter, a statement by some that it is morally superior to abstain from sexual intercourse within marriage. Verses 2-5 are not a concession; they are a command to married people to fulfil their obligations to their partners. They do this because 1) this is their partner’s due, 2) temptations for both of them will follow which are 3) temptations from Satan. It may be that Paul thinks singleness and therefore celibacy allows one to serve the Lord more fully and free one from the cares of marriage. However, he doesn’t depreciate marriage or sex. For Paul, sex is for marriage and marriage is for sex.
John Calvin, Commentary on Corinthians - Volume 1, Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1999.
St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on First Corinthians, HOMILY XIX, Electronic version copyright © 1997 by New Advent, Inc.
Frederick William Danker (ed), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Literature, 3rd Edition (BDAG), Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000.
David E Garland, 1 Corinthians, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003.
Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1997.
Charles Hodge, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, An Exposition by Charles Hodge, Highgate, London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1959.
B. Ward Powers, Unit 221, New Testament 2: 1 Corinthians, Tyndale College, 2004.
David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1993.
J. Paul Sampley, The First Letter to the Corinthians: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections, in The New Interpreters Bible, Volume X, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002.
Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians, Holy Trinity Church, London: SPCK, 2004.
 Quote in B. Ward Powers, Marriage an Divorce: The New Testament Teaching, Petersham, New South Wales: IMPACT, 1987, p288.
 Powers, Marriage, p289-90.
 Powers, Marriage, p290.
 St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on First Corinthians, HOMILY XIX, Electronic version copyright © 1997 by New Advent, Inc.
 John Calvin, Commentary on Corinthians - Volume 1, Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1999, p136.
 Charles Hodge, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, An Exposition by Charles Hodge, Highgate, London: Banner of Truth Trust, 1959, p108.
 Powers, Marriage, p81.
 David E Garland, 1 Corinthians, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003, p251.
 B. Ward Powers, Unit 221, New Testament 2: 1 Corinthians, Tyndale College, 2004, Lecture 7.
 Garland, 248.
 Powers, New Testament, ibid; Garland, p249.
 Hodge, ibid.
 Hodge, p109. Also Garland, p253.
 Powers, New Testament, ibid.
 David Prior, The Message of 1 Corinthians: Life in the Local Church, Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1993, p114.
 NIV margin, The Message, New International Reader’s Version, CEV.
 RSV, NRSV, NASB, KJV, NKJV, 21st Century KJV, Young’s Literal Version, Darby.
 Frederick William Danker (ed), A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Literature, 3rd Edition (BDAG), Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000, p180.
 Richard B. Hays, First Corinthians, Louisville, Kentucky: John Knox Press, 1997, p113.
 BDAG, p80.
 Powers, New Testament, ibid.
 Powers, Marriage, p81.
 Garland, p252.
 New Life Version.
 E.g. NRSV.
 Powers, New Testament, Lecture 10.
 Powers, New Testament, Lecture 7.
 See the footnotes in Garland, p263-266.
 Powers, New Testament, ibid.
 Hays, First Corinthians, p114-5.
 Hodge, ibid.
 Garland, 255.
 Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians, Holy Trinity Church, London: SPCK, 2004, p75.
 Wright, Paul, p77.
 Powers, New Testament, ibid.
 Garland, ibid.
 Hays, First Corinthians, p118.
 Garland, p256, Powers, New Testament, ibid.
 Hays, First Corinthians, ibid.
 J. Paul Sampley, The First Letter to the Corinthians: Introduction, Commentary and Reflections, in The New Interpreters Bible, Volume X, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 2002, p873.
 Powers, New Testament, ibid.
 Powers, New Testament, ibid. Garland, p262.
 Prior, The Message, p117.