Paul begins a long discussion of marriage and divorce with what appears to be a quotation: “It is good for a man not to touch a woman” (7:1-2). Who said this? Paul, or the Corinthians? In modern commentaries, this is the Corinthian attitude about marriage and sexual relationships, possibly another slogan from a faction in the church. Alternatively, some translations and commentators take this as Paul’s statement from an earlier letter or teaching at Corinth. Like 5:9-11, this statement was misunderstood and now needs to be clarified.
In contrast to Roman sexual ethics, someone in the Corinthian church claimed it better for believers to be celibate. If they are married to an unbelieving spouse, they must divorce the unbeliever and if they are unmarried, they should never marry.
To “touch a woman” is a euphemism for sexual relations, not marriage. The NIV (1984) originally translated the word as marriage, the NIV (2011) and the ESV both have “sexual relations; the NRSV has the literal phrase, “touch a woman.” This phrase refers to sex as recreation as opposed to procreation. There are at least twenty-five examples from Greek and Roman sources (Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 273-4; Gordon Fee, “1 Corinthians 7:1 in the NIV,” JETS 23 (1980): 307-24). Ciampa and Rosner suggest “it is not good for a man to bed/bang/shag a woman” (1 Corinthians, 275). Perhaps to update this a bit more: “it is not good for a person to hook up” or “it is not good to have friends with benefits.”
In the Roman world, sexual relations in marriage were intended for procreation, having legitimate heirs. A man was expected by society to meet his physical needs by extramarital affairs, prostitution, or his slaves. Sex with a married woman was forbidden (adultery was outlawed by Augustus, but men could have sex with unmarried women (and slaves). Kyle Harper suggests “Slaves played something like the part that masturbation has played in most cultures” (From Shame to Sin, 27). Prostitution was legal and common, as was homosexual sex (although it was not necessarily a romantic relationship). Sexual desires were like any other physical desire. Sometimes you need to burp to feel better.
If the Christian was to refrain from extramarital relationships (which were not considered out of bounds by the culture), and the marriage relationship was the only proper place for sexual relations, then Gentile converts to Christianity may have been surprised by recreational sex in the marriage relationship. Does Paul really mean men ought to satisfy their sexual desires with their wife (as opposed to with a prostitute or slave)?
Why would some Corinthian Christians consider abstinence as a good thing? It is possible Paul’s earlier command not to associate with sexually immoral people was misunderstood. If a person was married to a spouse who had been a “sexually immoral” person, perhaps spouses thought they should give up relations with them or even divorce them. That some Corinthians believers were practicing celibacy even in marriage may explain why some men were visiting prostitutes (6:12-17). Men may have thought using prostitution was an appropriate outlet that did not count as “touching a woman.”
Paul therefore challenges the prevailing Greco-Roman culture with his views on sex within marriage as well as outside marriage. Although modern readers are more familiar with Paul’s restriction of sexual relations to the marriage, this would have shocked the original readers.
For modern readers, Paul’s comments on marriage and divorce seem outdated. After responded to several related issues reported by the household of Chole, Paul moves on to questions from the Corinthians sent to Paul in a letter. Some of these questions relate to the reported problems. Paul begins with questions about marriage since the church asked about the topic, but Paul’s answer addresses the specific situation in the Corinthian church in chapters 5-6, sexual ethics. Notice the final words of 1 Corinthians 6, “honor God with your body.” How does the Christian honor God with their body? Flee sexual immorality (6:18) and pursue healthy sexual relations within marriage (7:1-7).
The context for Paul’s comments on marriage and divorce is “this present crisis” (1 Cor 7:26). If this refers to persecution, then marriage would be less important since there is a real possibility of death. But the “crisis” might be frequent famines plaguing Corinth in the first century. If this is the case, even sex within a marriage may very well result in a child, “another mouth to feed” (Ciampa and Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 270). It is possible this explains why married couples refrained from sex while the men still visited the prostitutes (6:12-17).
Paul’s marital status is another factor which may have affected the situation. In 1 Corinthians 7:6 Paul says he remains unmarried to devote himself fully to his ministry. If 1 Corinthians 7:6 does in fact imply Paul is unmarried, then perhaps at least some in the Corinthian church took his status as a model to imitate and were taking voluntary vows of celibacy even if they were already married. There are three marital statuses addressed in this chapter: Married to a believer, married to an unbeliever, and unmarried. An unmarried person might be a widow or a “not yet married person” (a virgin in verse 25).
One last point before looking at the details of the chapter. Paul is not writing a comprehensive “theology of marriage and divorce” in this chapter. Contemporary Christianity has defined marriage in far more detail than Paul does here, and most people have far more questions about what sorts of conditions might lead to divorce. We want to define infidelity more precisely or consider spousal abuse (whether physical or emotional). Paul never addressed the question, “Should I divorce my husband if he abuses the children?” Should I divorce my husband if he is a raging alcoholic or mentally unstable?” “Can I divorce my husband if he comes out of the closet and announces he is gay?” “Can I divorce my husband if he decides he is trans and begins to transition to a woman?” Can 1 Corinthians 7 even be used to answer such questions?
Many contemporary Christians readers approach this passage with the question, “under what circumstances is divorce permissible today.” (Or better, is there any way I can get out of this rotten marriage and not go to hell?) Others are be shocked at Paul’s patriarchal attitudes toward women in the passage, but Ben Witherington suggests most women in the Greco-Roman church of Corinth “surely would have welcomed Paul’s attempts to reform the patriarchal approach to marriage and singleness” (1-2 Corinthians, 177).
Paul’s point when he wrote the original letter was not to encourage divorce. Rather than “when can I get a divorce,” Paul offers a series of encouragements to the Corinthians to stay married. Paul’s thoughts on marriage are directed at the Corinthian situation, not ours. “Paul is not answering questions but questioning answers” (Garland, 1 Corinthians 252). Nevertheless, we can draw some principles about marriage and divorce from this passage and the rest of Scripture which the Holy Spirit may use to guide our thinking about contemporary questions about marriage and divorce
What is Paul’s main concern in 1 Corinthians 7? How does he challenge views of marriage and divorce in the Greco-Roman world?
Diehl, Judith A. 2 Corinthians. Story of God Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2020. 414 pp. Hb; $39.99. Link to Zondervan
Judith A. Diehl (PhD University of Edinburgh) retired as professor of New Testament and hermeneutics at Denver Seminary. Her contribution to the Story of God series is a solid commentary on 2 Corinthians, which both explains the text well but also draws application from the text to contemporary Christian life. The Story of God series is based on the NIV 2011 and is designed to address the present generation with the word of God. As the title implies, these commentaries use biblical and narrative theology, although they are not examples of theological interpretation of Scripture. Commentators give significant attention to “living out the story” of the Bible. But this is not as much application suggestions for pastors as asking how a text, in the light of the story of God, compels us to live in our world so that our lives line up with the Bible’s story.
In the introduction to the commentary, Diehl visualizes 2 Corinthians an apologia or courtroom scene with prosecutors accusing Paul of certain things (he is not qualified to be an apostle). The church is courtroom spectators and Paul makes his defense by calling witnesses (his friends and coworkers), presenting evidence and answer charges against him. After the verdict, there’s a twist: it was the congregation that was on trial the whole time!
There is very little doubt Paul wrote the letter. Regarding the background, Diehl begins with Bruce Winter’s excellent monograph, After Paul Left Corinth (Eerdmans, 2001). Winter argued the social, political, religious, and cultural background to the Corinthian letters as entirely Roman, but Paul’s theological background is Jewish. The Corinthian believers did not immediately become Christian in a single day. Following Winter, Diehl surveys the usual causes of the problems in the Corinthian letters: Gnosticism (mentioned and quickly dismissed), grain shortages, imperial cult, the promise of Pax Romana, etc. The source of the problem was Roman power, which stands in contrast to Jesus, who is the very picture of weakness, crucified like a criminal. How does Jesus “Israel centric mission,” which is characterized by weakness and humility suffering in death, shed light into the darkness of the Roman world?
With respect to the audience of the letter, she provides a sketch of 1st century Corinth. Paul’s gospel conflicted with the Roman world in every aspect. What mattered most to a Roman citizen of Corinth in the mid-50s AD was radically different from the theological, social, and ethical teachings Paul delivered. Of primary importance is the well known crusus honorum, “path to fortune and fame,” from Roman cultural studies (and easily applies to modern western pursuit of wealth). Social status was everything to a citizen or Corinth, but the pursuit of honor did not include becoming like a humble crucified Jew. Following Crossan and Reed, Diehl briefly discusses the imperial cult as it appeared in first century Corinth. The imperial cult was “the glue that held the civilized world together” (39).
Following Linda Belleville, Diehl suggests the purpose of 2 Corinthians was to establish a closer, more trusting relationship with the congregation who were “under the spell of evil and deceptive leaders.” She calls the opponents in Corinthians the “adversarial rival missionaries.” Mind, one of the key themes of the letter is Paul’s defense against these adversarial rival missionaries. Paul shows his ministry and leadership heart throughout 2 Corinthians. For Diehl, “Paul was the consummate pastor, educating, encouraging, warning, correcting, loving, and caring for his people as much as he could under the circumstances of the first century” (40).
Most commentaries on Corinthians must deal with the unity and integrity of the letter. Standard scholarly commentaries divide the letter into two major sections (usually chapters 1-9; 10-13). The smaller units circulated separately until someone finally edited together the units into a single letter sometime between AD 96-125. Following Bellville, Diehl disagrees with these partition theories. There is no manuscript evidence that any portion of the book circulated separately. As David deSilva said, every argument advanced by supporters of partition theories can be plausibly countered. Diehl concludes: “The more complicated the theory the less we perceive the composition accurately (52). But there does seem to be a serious difference between the larger units. She argues Paul composed the letter with time gap between chapters 9 and 10. In this gap, Titus returns from Corinth and reports to Paul what happened in the Corinthian church. Paul knows more from Titus’s report after he wrote chapter 9, explaining the differences in chapters 10-13. This seems like a partition theory without the complicated steps. Diehl offers a suggestion timeline, sorting out four letters written to Corinth and three visits. She observes nothing is known about the Corinthian church after Paul leaves with the collection in the summer of AD 57 until Clement writes to Corinth in AD 96.
Diehl argues Paul deals with more than one opponent in the letter. Along with the adversarial rival missionaries, Paul must deal with former pagans focused on worldly status and first century sophists who find Paul’s presentation of the gospel lacking in rhetorical nuance. In addition, there is Jewish opposition. Is likely some viewed their Jewish heritage as superior to the gentiles. Whoever the opponents are in the letter, they are proclaiming a deceptive theology and claiming superiority over Paul. They are false apostles because they are not preaching the gospel and building up the congregation. Rather, they are inflating their own egos for financial gain and have a desire to dominate others (64).
The body of the commentary is broken into three parts. First, “Listen to the Story” prints the text of the NIV 2011 with suggested parallel Old and New Testament passages. These cross references are often helpful. For 2 Corinthians 2:14-3:6, Diehl divides the references into categories, but this is the only place in the entire commentary with these helpful divisions. Sometimes the Scripture is followed by a quote from the Bible, a famous theologian or writer, and an introduction as an opening illustration.
The second part of the commentary, “Explain the Story,” is a traditional commentary on the unit. The commentary covers whole verses rather than words and phrases. Diehl based the commentary on the text of the NIV 2011, although she occasionally refers to alternative English translations. Although her comments reflect a deep study of Corinthians in the original language, there are no Greek lexical or syntactical comments because the NIV 2011 is intentionally the target of the exegesis in the Story of God series. This makes reading the exegetically sections easier to read for readers without Greek language skills. She makes good use of the Old Testament when Paul alludes to it and includes references to Roman cultural background to explain the text. For example, in 2:14-17, the “pleasing aroma” refers to Old Testament sacrifices (Exodus 29:18). She explains the Roman military triumph and explains the negative connotations of a peddler in the Roman world.
The third section, “Live the Story,” contains several short meditations focusing on application, or perhaps better, bridging the world of Paul to the modern western reader. This section often includes personal observations from someone involved in both academics and ministry. She sometimes cites writers like John Stott or Eugene Peterson in these reflections. For example, commenting on 2 Corinthians 2:14-3:6 Diehl addresses divisive messages and evaluating the success of a church. Is a pastor a great speaker? Is the church growing like crazy? For Paul, Jesus must be the focus of all teaching, preaching, and worship in a church. Later in the commentary, in the context of the collection, she asks “how do we translate God’s overflowing love and grace into our giving and serving in the church today?” (281; using the example of George Müller, 290).
Conclusion. Diehl’s commentary on 2 Corinthians combines solid exposition of the text with clear personal application to Christian life in a modern context. This volume should be a delight to anyone teaching or preaching the difficult text of 2 Corinthians in the local church or a small group Bible study.
Reviews of other commentaries in the Story of God series:
Dean Pinter, Acts (forthcoming)
NB: Thanks to Zondervan for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.
Paul continues his boasting in 1 Cor 12, this time mentions a vision in which he was transported to the “third heaven.” We do not know when this vision occurred, and the way Paul describes it is hard to place in the book of Acts. He describes his experiences as a vision (ὀπτασία) and a revelation (ἀποκάλυψις). The first word is usually associated with a god allowing himself to be seen by a human, or allowing a human to see something usually hidden (BDAG). Although a little later than the New Testament, the Martyrdom of Polycarp used the word to describe a “trance.” Paul calls his experience on the road to Damascus a vision (Acts 26:19). The second word is Paul’s usual word to describe his revelations from God, usually in the context of salvation history or eschatology.
When did Paul have this vision? He says it was “fourteen years ago,” which is about A.D. 40. Paul is therefore not referring to his Damascus Road experience, but an experience after his conversion but before the beginning of the first missionary trip (about A.D. 48). Paul founded the Corinthian church 50-51 on the second missionary journey.
Why does he Paul suddenly boast about a vision he had some 14 years earlier? This is part of Paul’s “humble boast” throughout this section—he has had visions (just like the opponents) but his are un-reportable and from the distant past. Unlike the opponents, he is not “making up visions” to impress his audience.
Does Paul refer to his experience in the Temple as reported in Acts 22:17-18? Luke uses a similar word to describe Paul’s vision, a “trance” (ESV, ἔκστασις). Chronologically it is possible since it is after his conversion and we do not know how many years between the conversion and that particular Temple visit. A major difference is the vision in Acts 22 includes a warning to leave Jerusalem and go to the Gentiles. (Check out Richard Fellows’ comments on the chronology of 2 Corinthians 12. Fellows says “It seems to me that 2 Cor 12:2 lends a little support to the chronology of Acts.”) It is really impossible to know when or where Paul had this vision. Paul’s only point here is his vision came in the past and it is something he is not able to relate to the church.
Paul reports the vision in the third person and does not really give any details. He does not know if he was “in the body” or not, and really does not know what happened to him when he had the vision. Again, this is a completely different report than would come from the opponents who seem to boast in great detail about their own experiences. It is as if Paul is saying, “Sure, I had one of those visions too, but I do not really consider it worth recalling now…”
In 2 Cor 11 Paul catalogs his suffering in this paragraph. Since this book was written while Paul was in Ephesus (Acts 19), we know he will face even greater suffering than this (two separate two-year house arrests and a shipwreck between!)
He says he has worked harder, been in prison more, been beaten countlessly and has been near death many times. Paul uses a series of adverbs (περισσοτέρως twice, ὑπερβαλλόντως once, and πολλάκις once) to overemphasize his difficult life as a servant of Christ. These were not one-time problems he endured for a short time. This is the constant state of his life since he began his ministry!
“Five time lashed 40 less one” is a reference to Jewish punishment. The Greek says, “I received the forty less one,” which is a clear reference to a lashing. Josephus uses the phrase twice in describing the Mosaic Law (Ant. 4:238. 248). This punishment came from the Jews—it was an attempt from synagogues to bring Paul back in line with his heritage. The maximum punishment in the law was 40 lashes (Deut 25:3).
Since the Law says more than 40 lashes is degrading to the one giving the punishment, the tradition developed by the first century to stop short of 40 (m.Makkot 3:10 simply recommends a number near forty but less than forty; 3:11 gives some instruction for beating people who are physically unable to take a full flogging). If the punisher “added even a single stripe and the victim died, lo, this one goes into exile on his account” (m.Makkoth 3:14c). In the Mishnah there is a list of offences which could result in a flogging (m.Makkoth 3:1-9). While some of these are moral offences, there are quite a few violations of the Law which can result in a flogging (Including “He who makes a baldness on his head” and tattooing one’s body (m.Makkoth 3:5-6)!
What is significant is Paul received this penalty five times! Early in his ministry Paul may have been expelled from the synagogue for teaching that Jesus was the Messiah, and certainly if he taught God-fearing Gentiles they could be fully save without keeping the Law. This indicates he still was trying to reach out to the Jews in the synagogues early in his career, as Acts indicates he never really stopped going to the synagogues to reach the “Jew first.”
“Three times beaten with rods” is a reference to Roman punishment. The Greek (ῥαβδίζω) refers only to beating someone with rods, the Latin term fustigatio was distinct from catigatio, lashing, and verberatio, flogging with chains (BDAG). Paul received this treatment in Acts 16:22 for creating a “public disturbance” even though he was a Roman citizen.
“Once stoned and left for dead” refers to Lystra (Acts 14:19). Stoning was a typical way for a Jewish group to execute someone. In Acts 7 Paul himself participates in the stoning of Stephen and he is about to be stoned in Acts 21:30 when he is falsely accused of bringing a Gentile into the Temple courts.
His “frequent journeys” put him in danger typical of travel in the ancient world. As Barrett says, “Paul does not exaggerate the perils of his day” (298). Despite Pax Romana and the Roman roads connecting major cities, it was extremely dangerous for anyone to travel in a small group.
“Danger from false brothers” refers to people claiming to be Christians who are looking to accuse Paul. This attack comes from inside the family, from people claiming to be Christians who attack Paul’s theology and missionary methods. Perhaps he has in mind here the troubles he has had with people in Galatia and personal attacks leading up to the Jerusalem conference in Acts 15. It is also possible he has in mind the opponents in Corinth who are attacking him without cause.
Perhaps the most suffering Paul faced is from his own churches (v. 28). He has a great deal of anxiety for the churches he founded, trained, and then left to themselves. He describes this as “daily pressure” (ἐπίστασις) and “worry” (μέριμνα). This concern comes from Paul’s deeply felt personal responsibility for his congregations. He is in constant contact with them and is well aware of the pressure they face from the same sources persecuting Paul.
Paul chooses to boast is in his only weakness (v. 29-30). Paul now returns to the problem which began this long section of foolish boasting. The Corinthian Church seems to have require Paul to put his achievements up against his opponents so they might choose who would bring them the most honor if they were to give them patronage. As C. K. Barrett says “Paul has finally worked off his fit of folly and has returned to his normal sound mind” (302); he will not engage in the typical Roman pursuit of honor with his opponents!