Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.08.23

W. Deming, Paul on Marriage and Celibacy. The Hellenistic Background of 1 Corinthians 7. Second edition.   Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, 2004.  Pp. xxii, 271.  ISBN 0-8028-3989-4.  $28.00 (pb).  

Reviewed by Pieter W. van der Horst, Utrecht University, The Netherlands (
Word count: 947 words

This book started its life as the author's 1991 dissertation, supervised at the Chicago Divinity School by Hans-Dieter Betz; it was then first published in a revised version in 1995 and is now available in a second, expanded and updated version. Although the apostle Paul does not enjoy great popularity among classical philologists, this book may yet be of importance to those among them who are interested in the debates among intellectuals in the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

The thesis of the book is, briefly: in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul says that marrying is alright, but that remaining unmarried is much better; most exegetes have explained this stance against the background of ascetic inclinations in both early Judaism and ancient Christianity, but, says Deming, wrongly so. The real background of this chapter is the Stoic-Cynic debate on marriage. Stoics maintained that "any man who respected the divine will would count it as his moral duty to marry and have children" (53), whereas Cynics found marriage a burden of responsibility that reduced the time available to them for the practice of their true profession, the pursuit of a philosophical life. Theophrastus and Epicurus had already argued that married life and philosophy were incompatible because of the cares and responsibilities imposed upon a married man by his wife. But it is only in Stoicism and among the Cynics that the question of whether or not to marry was fully thematized.

D. gives a full and useful survey of this debate at pp. 47-104, where a wide range of authors passes review (many of them from the first century CE). Well-chosen quotes illustrate the matter, and the reader is even presented with the complete Greek text (and English translation) of the fragments of Antipater of Tarsus' On Marriage and of the section on marriage in Ps-Ocellus Lucanus' On the Nature of the Universe. At pp. 105-206 D. extensively discusses Stoic and Cynic elements in 1 Cor. 7. He clearly demonstrates that what motivated members of the Corinthian community to advocate celibacy was informed by the Cynic position on this topic and that Paul himself takes a stance that is a mix of Stoicism and Cynicism with some Jewish elements added (e.g., temporary abstention from sex in view of prayer).

D's approach certainly has the great merit of shedding new light on a number of hitherto very riddlesome passages in 1 Cor. 7; the terminological agreements between this passage and the relevant Stoic and Cynic texts are too striking to ignore (see, e.g., the fine discussion of aperispastos [undistracted, in 7:35] at pp. 195-198). But his 'Entdeckerfreude' about the Stoic and Cynic background of this chapter sometimes carries him too far in that he looses sight of obviously Jewish elements in the text. E.g., in a Jewish author such as Paul it is very hard to imagine that the expression "to keep the commandments of God" (1 Cor. 7:19) could refer to anything other than the Torah of Moses; here the few parallels in Epictetus concerning Zeus' commandments carry little weight (166-169). Another instance is the fact that D. almost glosses over the fact that Paul says that virgins should remain unmarried dia tên enestôsan anankên (7:26), to be translated as 'because of the impending distress,' which here most probably refers to Paul's belief that the end is at hand (see v.29: 'the time is short'; v.31: 'the form of this world is passing away'). Abstention from marriage because of the apocalyptic expectation of an imminent eschaton is a typically ancient Jewish phenomenon, as I have argued recently,1 but D. downplays the possibility that this is the background here. More instances of this kind of onesidedness could be given. As a matter of fact D. does acknowledge the integration of apocalyptic and Stoic traditions by Paul here, but he is reluctant to give the former their due weight, as if Paul had been more a pupil of the Stoics than of the Pharisee Gamaliel. D.'s overemphasizing of the Greek elements in the New Testament and a certain neglect of the Jewish elements is characteristic of D.'s supervisor H.-D. Betz and his school.

This is not to deny that D. has indeed succeeded in demonstrating that 1 Cor. 7 is informed by elements of the Stoic-Cynic marriage debate, but a certain special pleading can definitely be seen here. In his short treatment of the Graeco-Jewish gnomic poet Pseudo-Phocylides he neglects what is probably the most significant statement in this author's lines on sex and marriage, sc. vv. 193-4 where he says: "Do not deliver yourself unto unbridled desire (erôta) towards your wife, since Eros is not a god but a passion destructive of all." This is a very important remark since it indicates that the deep distrust of erotic desire that one so often encounters in ancient Jewish sources had its roots partly in the fact that the Greeks had deified it.2 In other words, there was a non-explicit element of asceticism in Paul's Jewish upbringing that deserves to be kept in mind,3 even though I agree with D. that for Paul sexual abstinence was not an aspiration in itself.

There are sometimes signs of a less than secure grasp of the Greek language, e.g., when D. speaks of kathêkontes instead of kathêkonta (70 n. 77) or when he says that in 7:29 hina introduces a quotation whereas it has the function of giving the following subjunctive the force of an imperative (176), as is often the case in Koine Greek. But these are mere quibbles, for D.'s fine work is a welcome corrective to much of 20th century scholarship on 1 Corinthians 7 and the book is a pleasure to read.


1.   See my "Celibacy in Early Judaism," Revue Biblique 109 (2002) 390-402.
2.   See my "A Note on the Evil Inclination and Sexual Desire in Talmudic Literature," in U. Mittmann-Richert, F. Avemarie and G.S. Oegema (eds.), Der Mensch vor Gott. Forschungen zum Menschenbild in Bibel, antikem Judentum und Koran. Festschrift für Hermann Lichtenberger zum 60. Geburtstag, Neukirchen: Neukirchener Verlag, 2003, 99-106.
3.   S.D. Fraade, "Ascetical Aspects of Ancient Judaism," in A. Green (ed.), Jewish Spirituality From the Bible Through the Middle Ages, London: SCM Press, 1985, 253-288.

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