Paul's First Letter to the Thessalonians and Corinthians

History 015B: New Testament Studies
Profs. Buck & Luotto
Copyright © 1993 B. A. Collie Collier

Question: How effective do you find Paul's exhortations or recommendations to the Corinthian congregation? Also, is his advice consistent? Assess Paul's prescriptions on celibacy and marriage, and how women should conduct themselves.

In general, it would seem Paul's advice is consistent for his times. He lived in a patriarchal society, where women were often considered no more than property. Also, he felt that Christ's coming was imminent. Thus to plan for the future, in Paul's eyes, was seen as a waste of time. It was far more important to keep oneself ready for the Parousia. Paul's advice on celibacy and marriage can be seen in 1 Corinthians 7:2-17. He basically feel one should remain in one's present state until the Parousia, unless this is impossible for one's spirit. Thus the best way, in Paul's eyes, is the unmarried state. If one has accepted Christ while one is married, this also is acceptable. Indeed, it is recommended that divorce not be sought, even if the spouse is heathen. Finally, if one cannot contain one's desires, marriage is preferable to giving in to one's desires.

In this, Paul is quite consistent. He mentions in 1 Thessalonians 4:3-6 how one should not "do his brother wrong in this matter, or invade his rights,", an apt statement for a man of that time. There is no mention of whether the woman has rights -- it is not seen as needing mentioning. She seems to have rights only when she is a wife. In 1 Corinthians 7:36-38, Paul writes, "But if a man has a partner in celibacy (or a virgin daughter) and feels that he is not behaving properly towards her, if, that is, his instincts are too strong for him, (or if she is ripe for marriage) and something must be done, he may do as he pleases; there is nothing wrong in it; let them marry." There is no mention in this passage of the woman having any rights, or how she should behave should her instincts prove too strong. This must have been fairly effective advice, for it did not advance a too radical outlook for the time. Saying a girl has the right to refuse her father in marriage would probably have been too drastic for these people.

This brings us to Paul's advice on the conduct of women. It does not seem, as I have stated before, that women had any rights before marriage. Thus Paul is consistent in not addressing the issue of the behavior of this type of woman -- they do not exist as people in the eyes of the law. He remains consistent when he states that all people are equal in the eyes of Christ; he does not seem to feel this type of woman is a person either. Indeed he states, " is the image of God, and the mirror of his glory, whereas woman reflects the glory of man. For man did not originally spring from woman, but woman was made out of man; and man was not created for woman's sake, but woman for the sake of man;...." (1 Corinthians 11:7-9). Thus he does give women the ability to be considered as people, when they are united with a man, as that is what they were put on the Earth for.

In conclusion, I find Paul's advice effective for his time. He did not espouse anything too untraditional which would have caused too great fissures in the new, fragile, and fledgling churches. Instead, he sought passages from the Old Testament to bolster his assertions. This, coupled with his self-proclaimed mystical empowerment from Christ allowed him to come up with an amalgam of the old ways and the new which his new flocks could understand and accept.

As far as his consistency, I find Paul someone (again) who is a product of his time. It is true, according to Paul, that all are seen as equal in Christ's eyes. This does not mean Paul does not have a double standard appropriate for his time -- men and women are equal, it's just that some are more equal than others. In other words, the desires and affairs of men are more important than those of women, because God wills it so. Thus Paul uses religious dogma to support the cultural standards of his time.


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