Monday, October 30, 2006

Textual Difficulties

I was reading a rather lengthy blog post by scholar Ben Witherington, III. Although the post is really about the issue of priestly celibacy in the Roman Catholic church (the only major denomination to require celibacy of its clergy), there is an interesting bit about the interpretation of I Corinthians 7. Here is the text of verse 1, as it appears in the TNIV:
Now for the matters you wrote about: "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman."
The punctuation, as it appears here, is very much in keeping with Witherington's interpretation: The part within quotes does not represent Paul's thought, but part of a letter Paul had received from the Corinthians, which he is about to respond to in the part of I Corinthians that follows. This interpretation is the current consensus of many scholars.

It is not, however, a universal agreement, and it is not even the interpretation of all English translations of the Scripture. Here, for example, is the same verse, as translated by the older NIV:
Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.
Now, I should be clear that I'm not talking about the difference between the translations of the words (i.e., the difference between "to have sexual relations with a woman" and "to marry," both of which attempt to translate the same Greek phrase). I'm talking about those quotation marks which are present in the TNIV version, but not in the NIV. Most older translations follow the trend of the NIV, while many newer versions (including the conservative Holman Christian Standard Bible, lest anyone think that I'm suggesting some "liberal" interpretation) include the quotes.

To see how such a difference of opinion is possible, a bit of background is in order. The original manuscripts of these passages were not only written in Greek, but were written using all capital letters, with no spacing or punctuation. To illustrate the kind of confusion this occasionally creates, look at the following phrase in English: GODISNOWHERE.

Did you read that as "God is nowhere," or "God is now here"? With this phrase, sitting on its own, it would be impossible to be certain. Thankfully, we tend not to have such phrases sitting in isolation within the Greek manuscripts, but rather, we have complete texts that can provide context, and so scholars can usually weed through the lack of spacing and punctuation with a remarkable degree of accuracy.

Still, debates remain. In the case of I Corinthians chapter 7, the immediate context allows for either interpretation, but depending on which way we take verse 1, we will look at the rest of the chapter very differently. To use the traditional translation (without quotes), Paul is asserting his opinion that "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman." When Paul suggests, in the following verses, that "... since sexual immorality is occurring, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman with her own husband", he is then understood to be making a concession to the strength of the sexual drive. But if Paul were to have his way, we are left to understand, everyone would remain celibate.

But if we assume that "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman" is a quotation from an earlier Corinthian correspondance, the rest of the chapter takes on an entirely different meaning. Paul is actually arguing against the Corinthian position that all people should become celibate. Although Paul does agree that celibacy can be a good thing, he insists that such celibacy is not the norm. Paul asserts that most people should marry. Sexual relations (within marriage) are what Paul understands as normative, not celibacy! You can read Witherington's article for more about this particular case, including a little bit of explanation as to why this is the preferred interpretation (although this is not Witherington's intended focus).

This kind of textual difficulty is only one of many challenges that confront the Christian who seeks to be faithful to the biblical text. Yet so many people assert that "the Bible says" such-and-such on the basis of exactly these kinds of debatable texts, and accuse those who disagree with them of seeking to subvert the Bible, or of otherwise "not being a good enough Christian." A little more humility, honestly seeking the will of God, rather than assuming we've already found it, would be greatly appreciated.


  1. Great post on a great chapter! I think you're right that Dr. Witherington might have done well to acknowledge different possible textual interpretations.

    Question for you - do you think the major thrust of the chapter is completely changed by how you read the first verse? As I've studied it, it seems to me that Paul's repeated encouragements to celibacy are inescapable.

    Where do you see in the chapter (under any interpretation of verse 1) that Paul sees marriage as the norm? I've heard that frequently from pastors and theologians, but I've yet to have anyone point me to a passage that actually teaches that.

  2. It is the "thrust" that's changed, but not a 180-degree turnaround of meaning. Paul certainly does think that celibacy is a good thing (He's celibate himself), and he's definite about pointing out that the single person can devote his/her whole energy to God in a way that the married person cannot.

    The change is that, in the traditional view, marriage (sexual activity) is seen as a "concession" to the drives of human flesh, whereas this view says that celibacy is the exception, and not the rule.

    An audio reading of the chapter would be able to draw the emphasis out better than I can attempt to do in a text response such as this, but the quotations indicate (as I suggested in the main post) that Paul is responding to some suggestion the Corinthians wrote him about in a letter which we do not have direct access to. The theory goes something like this: Corinth is well known as a sexually "loose" part of the world. Think "Las Vegas" for its day. (My apologies to anyone living in Vegas!) Now that some of the Corinthians have become Christians, they are trying to figure out how following Christ means that they need to change their lifestyles. At least some of these new Christians are arguing that, to follow Christ, they much be willing to give up sex entirely, to the point of leaving the husbands and wives they already have! An argument ensues, and the Corinthians write a letter to Paul, saying something along the lines of "we're having an argument here, and we seek your wisdom. There is a growing group among us that argue that it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman." (no doubt, the letter was written with several such issues in it).

    So, Paul writes back, and this is the letter we have. He does not outright contradict the faction advocating celibacy, but the rest of the chapter is focused on how married couples should conduct themselves with each other, with intense focus on fidelity to your spouse within marriage. There is some intense stuff here that would come as a huge surprise to people of that time, especially when Paul argues that the husband belongs to the wife! (The other way around was generally accepted)

    A bit more in regard to verses 5-6, building off of Witherington's words. He argues that the "concession" Paul speaks of is so that married couples might, on occasion, participate in "celibate-like" behavior once in a while to enjoy the benefits that those arguing for celibacy may enjoy. However, if one is not gifted for celibacy, it will be dangerous to behave this way for long, and apparently many people did, in fact, fall into sinful sexual behaviors as a result of trying to quit "cold turkey." Therefore, Paul reminds his married friends that they still need to come back together after this time of prayer and devotion, lest they be tempted away from their marriage vows.

    But to get to your request to find a statement that "marriage is the norm," in the Bible, I feel that this passage itself is actually quite clear, so perhaps I am not quite understanding your question, but making assumptions of my own regarding sexual drives and marriage, which I think Paul sees as being necessarily linked. Unless one is gifted to be able to control one's sexual drives (which Paul argues in this chapter as the exception, even under a traditional interpretation where Paul is making a concession to the drive itself, as opposed to the way I described it in the above chapter), one should marry. He sees no other viable option.



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...