Paul’s Sexual and Marital Ethics in 1 Corinthians 7

An African-Cameroonian Perspective

by Alice Yafeh (Author)
©2015 Monographs XIV, 298 Pages
Series: Bible and Theology in Africa, Volume 22


Paul’s Sexual and Marital Ethics in 1 Corinthians 7: An African-Cameroonian Perspective provides readers with an innovative interpretation of Paul’s pastoral and pedagogical approach and solutions to the multifaceted ethical problems presented to him by the Corinthian community, revealing a wide-ranging, complex, and flexible decision-making process. Alice Yafeh’s analysis also illuminates two different evaluations of the same ethical problem may be simultaneously relevant where operating assumptions diverge: first as a community in pursuance of the goal of undistracted devotion to the Lord, and, second, as individual members who must pursue that goal within the specific lifestyles in which they have been called.
The author argues that Paul’s pastoral and theological approach, which is deeply motivated by a desire to inspire faithful Christian living and witness, can serve as a new model for evaluating pre-conversion polygyny; a model that is oriented toward positive and substantive change in the lives of women and children. Consequently, the implication of Paul’s approach and judgments for contemporary Christian communities suggests the same believing community may adopt different ways of faithfully living out the practical implications of Christian view of marriage extended by Paul in 1 Corinthians 7.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Abbreviations
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Methodological Reassessment and Proposal
  • History
  • Hermeneutical Proposal: Cultural Studies Approach
  • The Development of the Investigation
  • Chapter 1 A Rhetorical-Exegetical Analysis of 1 Corinthians 7
  • Introduction
  • Interpretive Issues
  • My Interpretive Framework
  • Procedure
  • Innertexture: A Rhetorical-Exegetical Analysis
  • Introductory Analysis
  • The General Literary-Rhetorical Context of 7:1–40
  • Structural Overview and Analysis of 1 Corinthians 7
  • Opening Unit: On Intercourse and Marriage (7:1–16)
  • Middle Unit—Effects of God’s Call on Socio-Cultural Identities (7:17–24)
  • Closing Unit: On Celibate Abstention (7:25–40)
  • Who Are the Target Audiences in Paul’s Discourse?
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 2 The Cultural and Linguistic Context of 1 Corinthians 7: Intertexture, Social, and Ideological Textures
  • Introduction
  • Intertexture
  • Intertextual Analysis of 1 Corinthians 7
  • Oral-Scribal Intertexture
  • Intratextual/Intertextual Analysis of Paul’s Use of the Term Charisma
  • Charisma in the Pauline Corpus
  • Does Charisma Function in Paul as a Terminus Technicus?
  • The Rhetorical Function of Charisma in 1 Corinthians 7
  • Cultural Intertexture
  • Enkrateia
  • Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle on Enkrateia
  • Plato (428–347 BCE)
  • Xenophon (430–355 BCE)
  • Aristotle (384–322 BCE)
  • Conclusion
  • Paul’s Reconfigured Understanding of Enkrateia in 1 Corinthians 7
  • Cultural Intertexture within Both Jewish and Christian Apocalyptic Traditions and Greco-Roman Philosophical Arguments and Reasoning
  • 1 Corinthians 7:29–35 as a Cultural Intertexture within Jewish and Early Christian Apocalyptic Discourse
  • Stoic Themes within an Apocalyptic Framework
  • Social and Cultural Texture
  • Specific Social Topics in 1 Corinthians 7
  • Final Cultural Categories in 1 Corinthians 7
  • Ideological Texture
  • Conclusion
  • Chapter 3 From Paul to His Interpreters: A Selective Cross-Cultural Interpretive History
  • Introduction
  • Interpretations of 1 Corinthians 7 in the Early Church: The Pastorals and the Acts of Paul and Thecla
  • The Pastoral Epistles as Resistant Letters?
  • Limitations on Ecclesiastically Recognized Widows (1 Timothy 5:3–16)
  • Submissive, Silent, and Domestic Women (1 Timothy 2.9–15; 4:1–8; 2 Timothy 3:4–9; Titus 2:3–5)
  • The Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla
  • Summary of Tale and Its Socio-Religious Impact
  • Reconfiguration and Recontextualization of 1 Corinthians 7
  • Conclusion
  • 1 Corinthians 7 and the Debate over Marriage and Celibacy during the Patristic Period
  • Introduction
  • The Broader Cultural Context of the Patristic Fathers
  • Procreative-Oriented Sexual Ethics
  • Jerome (342–420 CE)
  • Jerome’s Exegesis of 1 Corinthians 7
  • Saint Augustine (354–430)
  • The Doctrine of Original Sin in Broad Strokes
  • Augustine’s Existential Struggles with Sexual Lust
  • Augustine and the Jovinian Controversy
  • The Manichean Controversy
  • The Pelagian Controversy
  • Augustine’s Engagement with 1 Corinthians 7
  • Conclusion
  • Marriage and Virginity in the Reformation Era: Martin Luther and John Calvin
  • Introduction
  • Martin Luther (1483–1546)
  • John Calvin (1509–1564)
  • Conclusion
  • Contemporary Interpretations of 1 Corinthians 7
  • Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza
  • Richard B. Hays
  • Dale B. Martin
  • Conclusion and Evaluation
  • Chapter 4 Polygyny: A Test Case for an Afro-Womanist-Feminist Cultural Hermeneutics
  • Defining the Term “Afro-Womanist-Feminist”
  • Moving from Paul’s Context to the Presbyterian Church in Cameroon
  • Foregrounding of My Own Location
  • Hermeneutical and Ethical Questions
  • The Eschatological Question: The Move from Eschatological Imminence to Eschatological Urgency
  • Reappraisal of Paul’s Principles of Christian Marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 from an Afro-Womanist-Feminist Perspective
  • Socio-Political Factors Undergirding Polygyny in Cameroon
  • Overview: Polygynous Marriages in Cameroon
  • Some Traditional Reasons for Polygyny
  • Some Preliminary Observations
  • The Legal Situation in Cameroon
  • Economic Factors of Polygyny
  • Socio-Cultural Factors
  • The Changing Climate
  • Adverse Effects of Polygynous Unions
  • Theological Concerns
  • The PCC Context and the Need for a “Paradigm Shift”
  • The PCC Policy Statements on Polygamous Marriage Arrangements
  • Building on a New Premise: A Transformational Approach to the Question of Polygyny in the PCC
  • Conclusion
  • General Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index
  • Series index

| XI →


| XIII →


This book is a revised version of my dissertation. I would like to thank God from whom all blessings flow and because of whom I was able to keep working on this project even when the road was an uphill climb.

I would like to express my deep and sincere gratitude to my mentor and supervisor, Professor Blount, whose continuous warm encouragement, understanding, and thoughtful guidance during my Ph.D. studies and research helped me complete this investigation. Not only did Professor Blount introduce me to the field of cultural hermeneutics, but his enthusiasm, immense knowledge, and extensive scholarship in the field have had a remarkable influence on me. I owe him immense appreciation.

My deepest gratitude also goes to Professor Ross Wagner, a valuable member of my dissertation committee, whose wide knowledge and attention to details have been of great value for me. This investigation would not have been completed or taken its current shape without Professor Wagner’s constructive comments and excellent advice.

A very special word of thanks goes out to my mentor, Professor Margaret Farley, who agreed to serve on my dissertation committee even though she had numerous projects that demanded her undivided attention. It was under the mentorship of Professor Farley and Letty Russell of blessed memory that I developed my current interest in feminist biblical hermeneutics. I owe ← XIII | XIV → eternal gratitude to Letty and Margaret. Professor Farley’s very detailed comments on all aspects of the investigation helped me improve on the quality of my research.

I want to express my special thanks to my colleagues at Azusa Pacific University. Their friendship and ongoing support have helped me through the completion of this project, especially at a time when I have had to work on this investigation and teach.

I am also greatly indebted to my friend and colleague, Kenneth Ngwa, who was always there to listen whenever I was excited about a new idea. Kenneth was so kind as to read my dissertation draft thoroughly and give me valuable comments. I look forward to a continuing collaboration with him in the future.

I also want to express my deeply felt gratitude to some of my grad school colleagues: my good friends Jacob Cherian, James Logan, Rachel Baard, Regina Langley, Glenn Snyder, Janette Ok, David Downs, Sarah Zhang, Sun-Yong Kim, Micah Kiel, Carla Works, Tammy Williams, and Julia Lillis. They each helped make my time in the Ph.D. program more purposeful and interesting.

My grateful thanks also go to Noroton Presbyterian Church, Connecticut, for financially supporting me while I completed my Ph.D.

Finally, I would truly not have been able to complete this project without the continuous and unconditional support of my family: I owe my most sincere gratitude to my ex-husband and best friend, Donald Deigh, for his understanding and endless love through the duration of my Ph.D. studies. Special thanks to my kids: Dieudonne, Terrence, Sylvian and Donalice to whom I joyfully dedicate this work.

| 1 →


Paul’s discourse in 1 Cor 7 on sexual and marital ethics has generated extensive scholarship. Even a cursory survey of the ancient and contemporary scholarship indicates that Paul’s discourse in 1 Cor 7 is the main “storm-center”1 in Christian moral debate on the topic. Paul’s discourse easily lends itself to such scholarship because it contains the most explicit discourse on sexual and marital issues of any New Testament text, and because the entire chapter is quintessentially focused on both themes (sex and marriage). While hints of sexual and marital morality can be found throughout the Pauline corpus, 1 Cor 7 is, by far, the most sustained discussion of the topic in the New Testament.2 Hence, 1 Cor 7 has played a central role in both ancient and modern Christian sexual practices and discourses.

Notwithstanding the extensive studies on 1 Cor 7 and its privileged place as a text of interest throughout the centuries, the debate concerning the nature and meaning of the discourse is far from being resolved. The complexity of 1 Cor 7 has caused great difficulties in analysis of the precise contours of Paul’s thought and its meaning for either ancient or modern readers. The central problem is posed by hermeneutical elasticity due to lexicographical, semantic, and syntactical ambiguities. Given that the precise meaning of Greek terms and concepts are very difficult to determine, the implications of the terms and ← 1 | 2 → concepts for contemporary sexual ethics are equally hard to ascertain. Consequently, Christian ethicists and theologians have considered Paul’s logic in the discourse opaque and ambivalent.

I propose to take such textual opacity and ambivalence as an opportunity. Therefore, a fundamental hermeneutical and exegetical starting point for this investigation is that Paul’s rhetoric in 1 Cor 7 is purposefully multivalent and inclusive. Paul is self-consciously aware of the semantic multivalence and polysemy of the discourse, and understandably so: the discourse is meant to serve multivalent social and theological functions in a pluralistic Corinthian community, where multiple racial, ethnic, cultural, and social group norms and identities coexisted.3 Paul intentionally configures his discourse so that it can achieve his goal to influence the lives of a multicultural community plagued by multifaceted ethical problems. As a Hellenized Jew, to have the impact he wanted on his audience, Paul conceptualizes marriage and sexuality in language that incorporates both contemporary Jewish and Greco-Roman cultural and social conventions and practices. This intentional inclusivity allowed him to address hearers or readers with different epistemological and socio-cultural backgrounds simultaneously, and likely accounts for the complex nature of the discourse and the considerable disagreements that exist among scholars concerning its meaning(s) for both ancient and contemporary readers. However, underlying such multivalency and inclusivity of language and Paul’s contextual proposals on issues of sexual and marital ethics is his theological objective of inspiring the Corinthian community to pursue undistracted devotion to the Lord.

Methodological Reassessment and Proposal


Two trajectories have dominated New Testament studies on Paul’s discourse on marital and sexual ethics in 1 Cor 7. One trajectory is to analyze and draw conclusions about the discourse by primarily focusing on the literary text itself. An alternative approach seeks first to reconstruct the circumstances that elicited Paul’s response, and then use that reconstruction to analyze and draw conclusions about the meaning of the discourse. A common denominator among interpreters is the recognition that the basic problem that elicited Paul’s response in 1 Cor 7 is the problem of sexual asceticism.4 However, the emergence of sexual asceticism in the Corinthian community ← 2 | 3 → is variously evaluated. From a conjunction of evidence external and internal to Paul’s discourse, some scholars, arguing from a theological perspective, see the emergence of sexual asceticism in differences in theology among the Corinthian Christians. The specific theology of sexual asceticism is variously construed, since it is ingrained in any number of theological spheres—an over-realized eschatology,5 ascetic “elitism,”6 Judaism in general,7 Hellenistic Judaism in particular,8 incipient Gnosticism,9 the eschatological-pneumatic women,10 Corinthian pneumaticism,11 or Greco-Roman cultic abstinence,12 to name a few.13 Others locate the emergence of asceticism in socio-cultural factors. These scholars ground the epistemological basis of Paul’s response in philosophic traditions, such as the pan-philosophical moralist debate about the suitability of marriage,14 the more specific Cynic-Stoic debate about marriage and celibacy,15 ancient romance novels,16 and medical and philosophical debates about the mastery of desires.17

Taking a different tack from that of sexual asceticism, Bruce Winter argues against the grain of much scholarly opinions that famine is the underlying situation behind Paul’s rhetorical response in 1 Cor 7. In his view, Paul’s discourse is rooted in the practical difficulties of feeding a family during a time of famine.18

What I find most interesting and significant in these current trends and interpretations is the way their diverse conclusions demonstrate the wealth of meaning found in 1 Cor 7.19 The wide diversity of interpretations also illustrates the complexity of the interpretive task and the challenge to interpreters to preserve the multivalent nature of the discourse. Indeed, the very fact that the pericope defies easy categorization and reconstruction of its theological and sociological background cautions against the absolutizing of any single reading. Unfortunately, the approaches I have just discussed mishandle this plurality. This is because they fail to appreciate this diversity of comprehension, and they engage the text in ways that are oppositional rather than dialogical. Consequently, a profound interrelation between the respective approaches is lacking. By engaging the text through a single hermeneutical lens, each of the aforementioned approaches explores only a particular facet of Paul’s rhetorical argumentation in 1 Cor 7.

A more promising and fruitful approach would be one that sets the different approaches in conversation with one another, claiming no monopoly of interpretation, and allowing none to issue restraining orders on the others.20 I believe that cultural studies interpretive strategies will provide this alternative model. It is in the nature of cultural studies to resist and critique ← 3 | 4 → the imposition of a single, fixed, authoritative meaning and to favor multiple hermeneutical approaches to texts and multiple meanings.

Hermeneutical Proposal: Cultural Studies Approach

The cultural studies model “provides a theoretical perspective from which to look not only at the production of meaning in the past but also at ways the Bible and contemporary culture mutually influence each other.”21 More specifically, a critical cultural studies perspective is interested in understanding texts as an ongoing site for struggle over meaning. It assumes readers decode texts differently because of the historical situatedness of all meaning-making processes. A cultural studies perspective, therefore, is ideally suited for exploring the appropriation of a multivalent text like 1 Cor 7 for classical and contemporary situations.22

Since the field of cultural studies is interdisciplinary in orientation, it is its nature to embrace a variety of methods for reading and interpreting texts.23 Accordingly, I will bring socio-cultural and socio-rhetorical interpretive strategies to bear on my reading and interpretation of 1 Cor 7. As two methods of cultural studies methodologies,24 both perspectives take seriously issues related to the social and cultural dynamics in written works. The assumption that the interpretive context is a constitutive element of textual meaning is an ideal that is also central to the socio-cultural perspective. This approach will be particularly helpful in chapter three of this investigation (selected cross-cultural interpretations of 1 Cor 7), where I draw on the social, cultural, and religious context of the various interpreters to show that every interpretive undertaking involves the complex dialectic between text and context or text and reader.

I will use Vernon Robbins’ socio-rhetorical model of interpretation in my exegetical and rhetorical reassessment of 1 Cor 7.25 Robbins’ model focuses especially on the ancient cultural context of the Bible, asking how the text might have been understood by its ancient audience—yet while the context of the biblical text is his primary focus. Robbins is “keenly aware of the kinds of interaction that take place between the interpreter and the biblical text as the product of a culture.”26 Since socio-rhetorical interpretation is now well known, an elaborate introduction is not needed here.27 Within the wide ambit of cultural studies, I will use socio-rhetorical analysis to probe how Paul’s marital and sexual ethics succeeds in shaping ideology, culture, and the reader’s relationship with God both in the ancient world and in the contemporary context. ← 4 | 5 →


XIV, 298
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (May)
Corinthian Community community ethical
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XIV, 298 pp.

Biographical notes

Alice Yafeh (Author)

Alice Yafeh received her PhD in Biblical studies from the Princeton Theological Seminary. Dr. Yafeh is currently Associate Professor in the Department of Biblical Studies at Azusa Pacific University. She is also the author of «The Liberative Power of Silent Agency: Reading Mary (Luke 10:38–42) through the Eyes of Cameroonian Rural Women» in Postcolonial Perspectives in African Biblical Interpretations, edited by Musa Dube, Andrew Mbuvi, and Dora Mbuwayesango.


Title: Paul’s Sexual and Marital Ethics in 1 Corinthians 7
book preview page numper 1
book preview page numper 2
book preview page numper 3
book preview page numper 4
book preview page numper 5
book preview page numper 6
book preview page numper 7
book preview page numper 8
book preview page numper 9
book preview page numper 10
book preview page numper 11
book preview page numper 12
book preview page numper 13
book preview page numper 14
book preview page numper 15
book preview page numper 16
book preview page numper 17
book preview page numper 18
book preview page numper 19
book preview page numper 20
book preview page numper 21
book preview page numper 22
book preview page numper 23
book preview page numper 24
book preview page numper 25
book preview page numper 26
book preview page numper 27
book preview page numper 28
book preview page numper 29
book preview page numper 30
book preview page numper 31
book preview page numper 32
book preview page numper 33
book preview page numper 34
book preview page numper 35
book preview page numper 36
book preview page numper 37
book preview page numper 38
book preview page numper 39
book preview page numper 40
315 pages