Posted by: mattcolvin | November 10, 2006

“Sanctified by the Believer”? 1 Corinthians 7

(Reposted from my old blog, Fragmenta. This is one of the most interesting things I’ve gleaned from David Daube, and also one of the most controversial.)

Quite some time ago, I wrote a blog post criticizing Mark Horne’s understanding of 1 Cor. 7’s language about children of mixed marriages (“otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy”). I advocated an opposing interpretation, rather forcefully. I have now come to believe that I was wrong, and that a third way is correct. As usual, consideration of the neglected Jewish background provides the answer.

David Daube’s contention is that two of the scenarios in 1 Corinthians — the incestuous union of chapter 5, and the marriage that becomes mixed as a result of the conversion of one spouse in chapter 7 — both depend upon a doctrine of conversion as new creation. By conversion to Christianity, the believer loses — in principle, at least — all his previous relations. Daube also suggests that this principle is at work in the epistle to Philemon in the case of the slave Onesimus.
The principle is at work in both ch. 5 and ch. 7, but not in the same way. In ch. 5, Paul’s concern is to rebuke the Corinthians for their misunderstanding and misapplication of the doctrine of re-creation. The principle, Daube suggest, is “the Rabbinic teaching that a proselyte is as a newborn child. Hence he has no relations from before; and as far as his pre-conversion ties are concerned, in principle the rules of incest do not apply; in principle he may marry his stepmother or indeed his own mother — neither is related to him, a new man.”

Of course, in 1 Cor. 5, the “new man” in question emphatically may not marry his stepmother. Paul prohibits such a union as porneia. Why does he do so, if this doctrine of new creation really applies to new converts, and the man in question is a new convert? The answer Daube gives is that what is true in principle cannot be used to flout the perceptions of others. Thus, although meat sacrificed to an idol is in principle fair game for a Christian to eat, Paul “will never eat meat again” if such eating “causes my brother to stumble” (ִεἰ βρῶμα σκανδαλίζει τὸν ἀδελφόν μου). Focusing on 8:9’s general maxim (“watch out that your very right to do something does not become a stumbling block to the weak”), Daube concludes that Paul restricts the freedom that the believer has in principle. He suggests that a similar restriction is at work in the case of πορνεία in chapter 5. As support, he adduces the words, “and such πορνεία as is not even among the gentiles” – sc. even Greeks and Romans did not allow marriage between stepson and stepmother.

(We note, by the way, that both of these issues are probably occasioned by the delivery of the Jerusalem council’s four commands, which Paul must have communicated to them at some time prior to the Corinthians’ first letter to him — making 1 Cor. itself the third piece of correspondence in the exchange, unless Paul delivered the Jerusalem prohibitions in person. That the council’s decrees were aimed specially at Gentiles, to urge them to follow the commands of Lev. 17-18, is thus further confirmed by Paul’s addition of “not even among the gentiles” to his mention of πορνεία in 5:1)

There are certain glaring objections to Daube’s reading, and I am not wholly convinced myself. But let me first explain why I find it attractive.

It makes sense of one of the most difficult passages of the Bible: 1 Cor. 7. First, the difficult verse, 7:14 — “the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in the brother [sc. believing husband]” — is cleared up in an elegant way. Remarks Daube, “New Testament scholars have enormous difficulty infusing a measure of meaning into [ἡγίασται in 7:14]. The various conjectures often then become bases for more general theories about Paul’s concept of holiness. All this must be jettisoned.”
Daube explains that the Mishnah tractate on marriage is entitled “qiddushin” — “consecrations” or “sanctifications”, and that this is the ordinary way that the Rabbis conceived of marriage: “to consecrate a woman to wife” is to make her holy, special and proper, to one’s self, even as Israel is — as Steve Schlissel likes to put it — Mrs. YHWH. The verb qiddesh means “to consecrate to wife.” We thus no longer have to wonder what sort of “sanctification” is meant.

As so often with Daube’s suggestions, this recourse to a Jewish explanation results in the unraveling of further puzzles — which thereby serve as a confirmation of the solution to the first crux. In the present instance, I note a point that Daube did not mention: the odd locution “ἐν τῷ ἀδελφῷ” — which occasioned so much wrangling between me and Tim Gallant and Joel Garver — becomes crystal clear as a Hebraism: Paul is almost certainly translating literally the Hebrew idiom קָדַשׁ בְּ, which is used several times in the OT ( Lev. 10:3, 22:32; Ez. 20:41, 39:27, 36:23, 38:16; Nu 20:13). In all these instances, God is speaking of himself being “sanctified in Israel” — not human marriage, but perhaps similar if one considers the covenantal relationship between God and Israel. Later, the phrase becomes technical: in the Talmud, the idiom means “to marry someone.” The inseparable Hebrew preposition בְּ may mean “in” or “by”, and Paul has chosen the Greek ἐν rather than ὑπὸ + gen for agency, because he conceives of the consecration in question as the automatic effect of marriage (by whatever mode) rather than as the result of that someone’s agency within the marriage. In this, he is just like the Rabbis.

As a parallel for his understanding of 1 Cor. 7, Daube summarizes y.Yeb. 12a:

‘A heathen converts together with his two wives, who are mother and daugher or sisters. The ruling, it will be seen, implies that the marriages are now extinct, that neither woman is related to the other, and that continuing cohabitation will bring about a fresh marriage. This is what the Rabbis ordain: (a) he should keep one and dismiss the other; (b) once he has had intercourse after conversion with one, this is his wife; and (c) if he has had intercourse after conversion with both, both are his wives. The rationale of the decision is as follows. Jewish law prohibits marriage with a woman and her daughter or sister. However, owing to conversion, neither of these women is any longer related to the other. In principle, therefore, there is no objection to marriage with both. Nonetheless, according to (a), one ought to be discarded, because otherwise Judaism might look like a lighter sanctity: even heathers do not customarily marry mother and daughter or sisters, though as the present case shows it does happen. Which of the two is to go is up to the man; and it is worth noting that the verb in the text, hosi’, “to lead out,” may refer not only to dissolution of a marriage but also to dismissal where there is no room for divorce proper — e.g. to Halitzah. For, again, owing to conversion, the marriages are ended. He simply bids one of them leave. With the one he keeps, a fresh marriage is constituted by continuing cohabitation. This is evident from (b) where it is provided that once he has cohabited with one, he has lost his free choice: she has become his wife. It is confirmed by (c): by cohabiting with both, however undesirable it may be, he has made both his wives. It seems that the Rabbis do not even insist that he now divorce one of the two: the risk of giving the impression of a lighter sanctity is not in this case so overwhelmingly grave as to call for further measures once he has remarried both — heathens do occasionally contract this union.’
– “Pauline Contributions to a Pluralistic Culture” in Jesus and Man’s Hope, vol. 2, 223-45, repr. in CWDD II, 537-52.

The parallels with the situation in I Cor. 7 are apparent. If Daube is right, there is no “Pauline Privilege” to divorce in the case of conversion. The Roman Catholic Church has made that up on the basis of a misinterpretation. Rather, one simply allows the unbeliever to leave. Do not send him away if he is willing to continue. A fresh marriage is constituted by the cohabitation, so any child of the marriage is not illegitimate, but ἅγιος. Incidentally, Daube’s interpretation provides a clear reason for the difference between the status of the unbelieving spouse (ἡγίασται, “has been sanctified”) and the status of the child (ἅγιος, “holy” or “clean,” i.e. “legitimate”) — a difference which has proved difficult for other interpretations to explain.

Daube’s view also provides a basis for the permission to allow the unbeliever to leave the marriage. On the Privilegium Paulinum reading, the apostle is said to be allowing divorce, and for a reason that Jesus himself did not countenance. (There is no mention of πορνεία on the part of the unbeliever.) But on Daube’s reading, there is no divorce in view at all.

On the other hand, if the unbeliever wishes to stay, then the reconstituted marriage is to be welcomed by the believer, who is to prefer the possible conversion of the unbeliever to any exercise of spiritual rights.

All this I find fairly persuasive. It has huge consequences for Christian thought about marriage and divorce, which has been going merrily along for many years now pitting Paul against Jesus or trying to “reconcile” their supposedly different teachings.

We have now come full circle to reconsider 1 Cor. 5:1, where Daube suggests that the same doctrine is at work, and being abused. The Corinthians would not have tolerated open incest. But in this case, they are “puffed up” and proud of it. The reason, he suggests, is that they see the man who has his father’s wife as a shining example of the spiritual freedom they all have as new creations in Christ. Paul’s objection to this activity is based, Daube says, on the fact that it would present a stumbling block to pagans. Paul does not want the surrounding Greco-Roman culture to suppose that Christians are looser than themselves in matters of sexual morality.

The problem with this view was aptly put to me by my former student Betsy P., now in her first year at Hillsdale: Isn’t it absurd to suppose that Paul thinks marrying one’s stepmother is in itself unobjectionable, but doing so when the pagans would raise their eyebrows is grounds for ostracism from the church? It is indeed.

Yet it still seems to me that Daube’s reading accounts well for the spiritual pride of the Corinthians about this matter, and for Paul’s attacks on the same.

I would like to do some more research to get some more Rabbinic evidence. The most relevant tractate of the Talmud is b.Quddishin, which deals with the laws of marriage. Its content, however, is naughty — so much so that it is usually omitted from English translations, is not available online, and is not offered by Soncino Press for individual purchase. (You have to buy the whole Talmud to get it. I will eventually, but I don’t have the $850 for the whole set yet.)


  1. […] [1] Douglas Wilson, Children As Saints. [2] Matthew Colvin, Sanctified by the Believer”? 1 Corinthians 7. This is reproduced in full below for those interested, and for my own reference just in case his […]

  2. […] can read my old entry about David Daube’s brilliant interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7 here. It clears up all the […]

  3. […] in the past about David Daube’s slicing of the Gordian knot that is 1 Corinthians 7. (See here and here for the old […]

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