Paul’s Corinthian Letter

peter and paul from the greek orthodox church websiteAs I’ve written about in prior posts, in my forthcoming book I do a wee bit of tracking the history of the relationship to the human body. Of course, one of the highlights is the Christian relationship to the body, and the writings of St. Paul. Here’s a small passage that explains that as founded, Christianity sees sex, and the concerns of the body, as an impediment to holiness. Holiness in human form – Jesus – being the guide for all humans, rejection and denial of the body is inevitable. This has strongly influenced how we today consider our bodies….

Christian writings make a tie to the body as impediment to a higher spiritual calling. The Apostle Pauls famous Corinthian Letter responds to the community in Corinth, which was agitating to create a Utopic society in preparation for the coming of Christ. As Peter Brown establishes in his brilliant text The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, the Corinthians proposed a radical ideal.

[The Corinthians] would undo the elementary building blocks of conventional society. They would renounce marriage. Some would separate from pagan spouses; others would commit themselves to perpetual abstinence from sexual relations. The growing children for whose marriages they were responsible would remain virgins. As consequential as the Essenes, they would also free their slaves. Somewhat like the little groups described by Philo outside Alexandria, men and women together would await the coming of Jesus holy in body and spirit.

At a time when Christianity was just growing, the Corinthians radical notions threatened the inclusion of more mainstream elements, and so Paul wrote to put down this rebellion. That a critical concept within the religious fringe was abstinence is telling. That Paul himself was celibate points directly to early Christianitys troubled relationship to the body. In ministering the Corinthians toward sex, his words expose a very negative conception of the act. In Corinthians 7:36-38 Paul wrote:

If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed [in some versions virgin], if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes; let them marry – it is no sin. But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. So that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.

Paul declares that marriage is a negative, undertaken only to ward off the sin of sex before marriage. Second, marriage, and sex, are negatives that are better to be refrained from altogether. Paul states this even more clearly in an earlier passage, Chapter 7 verses 32-34.

I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to please the Lord; but the married man is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please his wife, and his interest are divided. And the unmarried woman or girl is anxious about the affairs of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit; but the married woman is anxious about worldly affairs, how to please her husband.

Marriage calls into question the ability to focus on the Lord. Married people lack the quality of what Brown analyzes as “the undivided heart”, and are therefore lesser Christians than those who are married solely to Gd.

[excerpt from Somatic Ecology, copyright R. Bettmann 2009]

The purpose for me in researching this was to document exactly how negative our culture is in relating to the body. That negativity, with ancient roots, has some modern expressions.