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Paul on Marriage and Celibacy: The Hellenistic Background of
1 Corinthians 7
From The Publisher:
Foreword by Raymond F. Collins
Paul is traditionally seen as one of the founders of Christian sexual asceticism. As early as the second century C.E. church leaders looked to him as a model for their lives of abstinence. But is this a correct reading of Paul? What exactly did Paul teach on the subjects of marriage and celibacy? Will Deming here answers these questions — often in provocative new ways.
By placing Paul's statements on marriage and celibacy against the backdrop of ancient Hellenistic society, Deming constructs a coherent picture of Paul's views. He shows that the conceptual world in which Paul lived and wrote had substantially vanished by 100 C.E., and terms like "sin," "body," "sex," and "holiness" began to acquire moral implications quite unlike those Paul knew. Paul conceived of marriage as a social obligation that had the potential of distracting Christians from Christ. For him, celibacy was the single life, free from such distraction, not a life of saintly denial. Sex, in turn, was not sinful but natural, and sex within marriage was both proper and necessary.
What a boon to have this landmark study published in a new, updated edition! This guarantees that the debate over the nature and meaning of Christian asceticism and celibacy will continue to benefit from Will Deming’s meticulous arguments and sound conclusions.
In this revised edition of his stimulating monograph on 1 Corinthians 7, Will Deming responds to his critics and continues to dismantle the traditional and widespread depiction of Paul as a founding father of Christian asceticism. Making a clear and convincing distinction between sexual asceticism and celibacy, Deming insists that neither Paul nor the Corinthians were ascetics and that the hermeneutical key to understanding their dialogue was the Stoic-Cynic debate about the advantages and disadvantages of marriage. Grounding his treatment in the philosophical texts of the Hellenistic world and using them to illumine Paul’s assumptions and arguments, Deming demonstrates that Paul was intimately aware of the moralist traditions of his day and of the conflicting views on marriage held by philosophers. An indispensable contribution for anyone interested not only in Paul but also in Hellenistic discussions of the family and marriage.
—John T. Fitzgerald
Will Deming has done a real service to scholarship by providing clear definitions of concepts such as ascetism and celibacy in the first century C.E. and by producing an extended overview of the debate on marriage and celibacy in ancient Stoicism and Cynicism. A fresh reading of 1 Corinthians 7 against this background (without overlooking the apocalyptic elements in 7:29-31) shows a surprising coherence and consistency in Paul’s argument. Advanced students and scholars will also appreciate the book’s appendixes, which present two important but barely accessible source texts both in Greek and, for the first time, in a reliable English translation. No serious student of 1 Corinthians, of Paul, or of the ethical discourse in early Christianity should ignore this important study.
Will Deming’s carefully reasoned interpretation of all of 1 Corinthians 7 (rather than just selected verses) within the context of the contemporary Cynic and Stoic discussions of marriage and its responsibilities overturns a long-standing nostrum in the history of interpretation and should make his readers uneasy about using the terms ascetic or asceticism to describe Paul or this biblical text. Deming’s book enhances our understanding of Paul and the world in which he and his original readers lived.
—J. Paul Sampley
About the Author
Will Deming is associate professor of theology at the University of Portland, Oregon.
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