by Jeffrey J. Harrison


With its white marble columns set against Mediterranean blue skies, Corinth sits at a picture-perfect location high above the Greek shoreline. The panoramic view from the city includes the back-to-back Gulfs of Corinth and Saronikos.  In Roman times, the narrow strip of land between the gulfs was a crucial transit point.  Today there is a deep, rock-cut canal between them.  But in Paul's day, ships were hauled overland on rollers from one side to the other.  This guaranteed some shore leave for the sailors, which they took full advantage of.

As a result Corinth, like other port cities of the world, was renowned for its vices: to "act like a Corinthian" meant to live a dissolute, immoral life.  One of the special attractions of the city was the citadel-like mountain rising behind the city.  Once serving as an impregnable fortress, it was now better known for its temple to the pagan goddess Aphrodite, with her 1,000 priestesses that served essentially as prostitutes.  No wonder Paul had to talk so frequently to the Corinthians about morality.

The 1st century AD was the peak of prosperity of the Roman Empire--a moment of greatness it would ever after try to recapture.  But as often happens in times of prosperity, there was a steep decline in the Empire's morality and a revolution against traditional ideas about marriage.  Originally, Roman marriage brought the wife under the legal authority of her husband, who ruled as the head of the household.  But with increasing wealth came increasing independence for women.  Women began to appear in roles once in the domain of men: doctors, artists, musicians, atheletes, merchants.  Some became quite powerful, even holding government offices.  As a result, women were less willing to submit to a man's authority, and a new form of marriage became dominant: marriage based on mutual consent, in which the wife remained legally a part of her father's family, instead of the family of her husband.  This made it possible for a woman to divorce her husband, which had been impossible under the older system (Mark 10:12).

Many moderns might assume these developments were good for women. They certainly match the ideals of our own secular age.  But in fact, the overall position of women in the Empire declined.  One of the most appalling examples was the practice of exposing female babies--setting them out to die.  Parents preferred boys, since girls required a costly dowry at the time of marriage.  Sometimes slave traders would rescue the baby to be raised in a life of prostitution.  The ease of divorce meant that a woman could suddenly find herself abandoned or replaced--much as in the modern epidemic of single parent families, through which many women have been reduced to poverty.  Even if she remained married, the affections of her husband might be taken by a homosexual relationship, which became fashionable again as it had been in ancient Greece.

In Corinth, the open practice of these modern-sounding vices tormented the apostle Paul.  Romans 1:18-32, probably written while he was staying in Corinth, condemns lust and homosexuality among other sins.  In the face of this "new morality," Paul advocates a traditional, Jewish and Biblical lifestyle, based on a family structure in which the father is the head of the family, and has the ultimate responsibility over his wife and children: "The husband is the head of [in authority over] a wife" (1 Cor. 11:3).

Paul's view of male authority has been widely rejected in the modern West.  Yet it's based on a sublimely spiritual insight into the nature of God himself.  For Paul's model of the headship of the husband over the wife is the headship of God the Father over the Messiah: "God is the head of the Christ" (11:3).  Yet since they are one God (echad in Hebrew, as Deut. 6:4), the authority of the Father doesn't diminish the Son or reduce the Son's authority or power.  Rather through their unity, the authority of the Father enhances the authority of the Son, and vice versa.  In the same way, the husband and wife are also one--one flesh (also echad, as in Gen. 2:24).  Through their unity, the authority of the husband does not diminish, but enhances the wife's authority, and vice versa.*

* The Biblical submission of a woman to a man in marriage in no way implies a putting down of the woman--just the opposite: a wife is a man's glory (1 Cor. 11:7).  The better he takes care of her and provides for her, the better it reflects on him as a man (Eph. 5:28-33).

Paul bases this teaching on the Creation account: man was created first, and woman was created to be a "help" to him (1 Cor. 11:8-9, alluding to Gen. 2:18).  He, along with other Jewish scholars, understood that the Bible does not teach a simplistic equality between men and women.* Rather, being male or female are distinct and separate callings reflected by our creation.  There's a reason why we are one or the other.  And this is a reflection of our purpose and destiny.

* Paul retains the essential Biblical and Rabbinic asymmetry between man and woman in his discussion of special cases arising out of marriage: a man abandoned by a non-believing wife (1 Cor. 7:15) is permitted to remarry (7:27,28; as is the man who divorces an adulterous wife), but a woman in the same situation cannot remarry (until her spouse dies, 7:11,39; Jesus specifically excluded marriage to a divorced woman, Matt. 5:32, i.e. an adulterous woman; Roman law also forbid marriage to an adulterous woman, whom it was required to divorce, though Roman divorce was also permitted on other grounds).  This asymmetry between men and women reflects the permissibility of polygamy in Jewish law and society (though apparently already rare, and soon discontinued).  But even here, these ideas, which run so counter to modern sensibilities, reflect the nature of God, who as a singular husband can be married to a plural bride (the nation of Israel /the Church), yet we, his bride, can have no other.

Jesus also bases his teaching on marriage on the Creation account (Matt. 19:4,5).  The context in which this teaching was given was a debate between two groups of Pharisees: the followers of Hillel and the followers of Shammai.  The followers of Hillel taught that a man can divorce his wife for any reason at all--even if he doesn't like a meal she prepared, or if he finds a more beautiful woman.* This is the reason for the question: "Is it permissible for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?" (Matt. 19:3).  Jesus' appeal to Genesis highlights the phrase "and the two will become one flesh" (Matt. 19:5, Gen. 2:24).  His conclusion: "What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate" (Matt. 19:6).  Jesus considers the union of a man and a woman to be permanent, which mankind has no right to separate!

* According to Jewish law (here comes that asymmetry again) only the man, and not the woman, has the right of divorce.

In response, the Pharisees appeal to Deut. 24, and its instructions about divorce: "Why then did Moses command to 'give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?'" (Matt. 19:7 quoting Deut. 24:1).*  If Moses permitted divorce, how can you, Jesus, forbid it?  "Because of your hardness of heart," Jesus said, it was permitted, "but from the beginning it has not been this way"--another allusion to Genesis as a picture of God's original plan (Matt. 19:8).

* This certificate of divorce, called a get in Hebrew, may have been intended to discourage hasty divorce.  Since few knew how to read and write in the time of Moses, the services of a scribe were required, which lengthened the procedure and brought it into the public domain.  By contrast, the procedure among Muslims is simply for the man to say "I divorce you" three times.

Then Jesus renders a legal decision (halakha): "the one who divorces his wife, not because of any unfaithfulness, and marries another commits adultery" (Matt. 19:9).  This is not simply a pronouncement out of the blue, but a legal ruling on the correct interpretation of Deut. 24:1, the verse that served as the basis for Mosaic divorce.  The grounds given for divorce in that verse are often translated, "because he has found some indecency in her." But in Hebrew, it says literally, "because he has found some nakedness of a thing in her." This was interpreted by Hillel and his followers, including those questioning Jesus, to mean "any shameful thing." This led them to rule that a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all, which eventually became the view of mainstream Judaism.

But Jesus agreed with the opposition--the Jewish rabbi Shammai and others, including the Dead Sea Community--that "nakedness of a thing" referred only to unfaithfulness (Mishnah, Git. 9:10; Zadokite doc. iv.21-v.6). According to Jesus and the opposition, even Moses had only permitted divorce if there was unfaithfulness! Therefore, anyone who puts away his wife for any other reason, and marries another, commits adultery--according to the Law of Moses! This is yet another example of Jesus as a defender of the Law of Moses against the doctrines of men, a major theme of his teaching ministry, and quite unlike the popular view that he was a renegade opposed to the Law.*

* Jesus' ruling also appears to forbid the practice of polygamy. The divorce of a woman that was not unfaithful (the first part of Matt. 19:9) was not in itself adultery, since from the point of view of Jesus and others, this was not a valid divorce, and the two were still married (and could be reunited; see 1 Cor. 7:10,11). Only with the addition of the second phrase, "and marries another," could the action of (invalid) divorce become adultery. But this would only be true if polygamy was forbidden. Otherwise taking another wife in itself would not be considered adultery. This understanding is contested in the variant readings of Matthew 19:9, but not in the parallels in Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18. (Levirate marriage with its potential for polygamy may have been considered a legitimate exception; Matt. 22:23-33).

Jesus' ruling was a shock to his disciples (Matt. 19:10).  Divorce for any reason was common, such that his disciples couldn't imagine it any other way.  But it was a right reserved exclusively to men.  Women were not permitted to divorce according to Jewish law (even today).  Although remarriage was permitted, a divorced woman was often considered "damaged goods" and could have great difficulty finding a partner, especially if she was older.  By limiting divorce in this way, Jesus effectively equalized the "playing field" between men and women, a privilege envied by women without such rights in the Middle East today.*

* Muslim women have no such protection under Muslim law.  Later rabbis had a tendency to discourage divorce, although the man's basic right of divorce remains, and is even insisted on by rabbinical law in such sad situations as the disability of the wife (where it affects her ability to cohabit), certain types of disease, or her failure to conceive after 10 years.

The disciples responded to Jesus' ruling, a bit peevishly, by saying that it would then be "better not to marry" (Matt. 19:10).  Surprisingly, Jesus accepts this statement, and goes on to introduce the idea of remaining single "for the kingdom of heaven" (19:11,12).  But the word he uses for this single lifestyle is "eunuch." This is a harsh term, implying the castration of the male member (Deut. 23:1).  This saying is similar to those in Matthew 18 about it being better to cut off hands or feet, or pluck out an eye, than to be thrown into the "Gehenna of fire" (Matt. 18:8-9).*

* Gehenna was the term used by Jesus and the Rabbis for eternal physical punishment, equivalent to the Lake of Fire in the book of Revelation (20:14,15).

Since Jesus was himself a "eunuch" for the kingdom, we have here an insight into his own motivation for remaining single.  This does not reflect a weak and effeminate kind of celibacy, as is often imagined, but that of the rough-hewn adventurer that amputates his own leg to save his life: a total victory of the will and the spirit over the flesh; a total renunciation of physical pleasure of a kind that fell out of favor in Christianity a long time ago.  This is the direct opposite of the passive "let go and let God" type of spirituality so popular today.  Rather, it is an awesome fusion of the human will with the will and power of the Almighty to completely subdue the flesh and eliminate its opposition.

Fortunately, Jesus does not require this choice of everyone, only those that can accept it (Matt. 19:12).

Jesus' advocacy of celibacy in word and deed was a radical teaching, especially in a Judaism that taught, "the unmarried person lives without joy, without blessing, and without good" (Jeb. 62b).  To this day, Jesus' advocacy of singleness is seen by many Jews as so strange and foreign, it puts him ideologically outside of Judaism.*

* Yet it's another example of Jesus turning the traditional understanding of his day upside down in favor of those who were despised and rejected--in this case the unmarried, the widow, and the childless.

But in his day, he wasn't alone.  The Dead Sea Community living at Qumran also advocated celibacy for its members, in the context of their expectancy of the coming of the Messianic kingdom.  Similarly for Jesus, singleness was associated with the coming earthly reign of the Messiah: "Those considered worthy to attain to that age and the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.  For neither are they able to die any more, for they are like angels and are sons of God, being sons of the resurrection" (Luke 20:34,35).*

* Far from teaching that we become angels when we die, as this section is popularly misunderstood, it provides a stark vision of the age of the resurrection of the righteous (raised out "from" the unrighteous dead prior to the general resurrection; cmp. Luke 14:4).  The Hebrew idiom here is rich: "those considered worthy to attain" is reminiscent of the blessing spoken at Jewish feasts even today: "Blessed are you, Lord...who has kept us alive, and preserved us, and enabled us to attain to this season." Even the simple phrase, "that age" (yom ha-hu in Hebrew) was the common Jewish designation of the endtimes, evoking a whole series of prophetic pronouncements introduced by this phrase in the Bible.  This age of righteousness preceding the general resurrection is commonly known today as the Millennium (Rev. 20).  But unlike much popular teaching on the subject, Jesus says it will be an age in which only those who are found worthy will be included.  Fleshly unbelievers and the bearing of children are specifically excluded from that age by his statement (Luke 20:34,35).

The approaching end of the age is also Paul's reason for advocating the single lifestyle: "The time is short," he says, until the coming of the Lord, and "the form of this world is passing away" (1 Cor. 7:29-34).  Even "those who have wives should be as though they had none." The goal, whether married or single, is to be completely focused on the Lord (1 Cor. 7:35), to present a radical and holy witness to his soon return in the midst of a perverse generation.

Read these Questions and Answers about this article:
Marriage in Heaven?
Is Adultery Grounds for Divorce?

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Updated 10/2/03. Copyright © 2000, 2003 by Jeffrey J. Harrison.  All rights reserved.
Artwork, map, and photo by the author.  Please do not copy without permission.
For permission to reproduce this article, contact Jeff@totheends.com