GLENNY: I CORINTHIANS 7:29-31 55
The author's language is uniform, and to a large extent that of the NT.
In particular the Pastorals and Acts have been used, but so also have the
Gospels and Paul's letters. Here however it is scarcely a question of
exact quotations, but rather of linguistic and conceptual agreement on
the basis of a knowledge of the NT literature.6
The linguistic and conceptual agreement between I Corinthians 7
(especially vv. 29-31) and the beatitudes in The Acts of Paul and
Thecla (5-7) indicates that the second century author of The Acts of
Paul and Thecla had knowledge of I Corinthians 7 and intentionally or
unintentionally used some of the concepts found in it. The similarity of
the general subject and especially of the words and phrases suggests at
least a strong possibility that the second century author was directly
dependent on I Corinthians.
Whether The Acts of Paul and Thecla depend directly on I Corin-
thians or not, some scholars like Dennis Ronald MacDonald suggest
that The Acts of Paul and Thecla preserve the teaching of I Cor 7:29-
31.7 MacDonald believes I Cor 7:29-31 and The Acts of Paul and
Thecla reflect the "radical characteristics of apocalyptic movements”8
and teach "a renunciation of sex and marriage.”9
This connection between The Acts of Paul and Thecla and
I Corinthians is important for MacDonald's thesis in his book, The
Legend and the Apostle. In this work10 he argues that several oral
legends lie behind The Acts of Paul . MacDonald maintains that these
legends had social value for women, promoting the notions of women
teaching in the church and celibacy. He argues that the Pastoral
Epistles were written later to object to the teaching of these legends and
to silence these women. The Pastorals were accepted as canonical by
the church and the legends were not;11 however, MacDonald argues
that the church's image of Paul should not be shaped by the Pastorals
alone but also by the legends. In fact, the implication of his book is
that the legends in The Acts of Paul are closer to the primitive Pauline
teaching than the Pastorals are.12
6 Hennecke, 2:348.
7 Dennis Ronald MacDonald, The Legend and the Apostle (Philadelphia: The
Westminster Press, 1983):44-45.
8 Ibid., 44.
9 Ibid., 46.
10 MacDonald's theories are also found in his articles. Among them are "The Role of
in the Production of the Apocryphal Acts of Apostles," The Iliff Review 41
1984):21-38 and "Virgins, Widows and Paul in Second Century Asia Minor,"
Seminar Papers 16 (1979):169-83.
11 MacDonald summarizes The Legend and the Apostle on 14-15.
12 Ibid., 97-103. On p. 98 MacDonald states that "in many respects the legends stand
to the center of Paul's theology than do the Pastorals."
56 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
This paper purposes to present the meaning of I Cor 7:29-31 in its
original literary context and then contrast that meaning with its appli-
cation in The Acts of Paul and Thecla. Then the implications of this
comparison for MacDonald's thesis will be noted.
PAUL'S OPPOSITION AT CORINTH
The opposition that Paul attacks throughout I Corinthians (7:1-
40 and 11:2-16 being the exceptions to this combative spirit) is not
from outside the church but is rather promoted by key figures from
within (15: 12; cf. 4:18).13 Paul's opponents at Corinth have been sitting
in judgment on him (4:3) and had been favoring Apollos (4:6; cf. 3:5).
The key issue at Corinth is what it means to be pneumatikos (cf.
especially chapters 12-14)14 and this is closely tied with the subjects of
sophia (chapters 1-4) and gnosis (chapters 8-10). Two other more
basic theological problems, which surface in the epistle, are connected
with the confusion over spirituality inherent in a dualistic worldview
and an over-realized eschatology.
Walter Schmithals15 and others have equated this dualism with
Gnosticism, yet since the only element common between the situation
at Corinth and Gnosticism is the dualism, it is better to explain the
dualistic Corinthian worldview as a result of the assimilation of the
gospel to the Hellenistic environment of Corinth.16 The over-realized
Corinthian eschatology is a matter closely related to the dualism issue.
Anthony C. Thiselton has demonstrated the existence of this latter
emphasis throughout I Corinthians17 and Fee seems to be correct in
calling it "spiritualized eschatology," arguing that "from their point of
13 Gordon Fee suggests that though the problems were initiated by a few (1:12, 4:3, 6,
18-20; 9:3; 10:29-30; 14:37; 15:12) they had infected nearly the whole assembly by the
time I Corinthians was written (The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT [Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987]:8). The fact that the heavy fire of the epistle is addressed to the
whole church supports this latter fact.
14 Fee (10-11) shows the emphasis on this theme throughout the epistle. Anthony C.
Thiselton's "Realized Eschatology at Corinth," New Testament Studies 24 (1978):510-:26
demonstrates that "in every single section from the beginning of the epistle to xiv. 40
there occurs evidence of both a realized eschatology and an enthusiastic theology of the
Spirit on the part of the Corinthians" (523). Bartchy, 128ff., has a helpful development of
the problem also.
15 Walther Schmithals, Gnosticism in Corinth (New York: Abingdon Press, 1971).
16 F. F. Bruce, 1 and 2 Corinthians, New Century Bible Commentary (Grand
Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971):20-21. See the critique of the Gnostic explanation by R. McL.
Wilson, "How Gnostic Were the Corinthians'?" in New Testament Studies 19 (1972/73):
17 Anthony C. Thiselton, "Realized Eschatology at Corinth," New Testament Studies
GLENNY: 1 CORINTHIANS 7:29-31 57
view it would not so much be the 'time' of the future that has become a
present reality for them, as the 'existence' of the future."18 The Spirit,
which they are experiencing in full measure belongs to the Eschaton,
thus they think they are living on a spiritual plane above the merely
material existence of this present age.19 The spiritual ones may have
considered themselves to be as the angels (11:2-16; 13:1; cf. Luke
18:29-30; 20:34-36), having already realized the resurrection from the
dead (15:12), and thus they considered the body eschatologically insig-
nificant (6:13; 15:12) and also without any present significance. This
dualism resulted in license and libertinism in the lives of some (5:1-2;
6: 12-20) and severe treatment of the body and denial of sexual relations
within marriage on the part of others (7:1-6).
Although he contrasts their present existence with their past pre-
salvation experience (6:9-11; 8:7; 12:1-3), Paul drives home the idea
that they have not yet arrived, by contrasting their present existence
with the future (1:5-8; 3:13-15,17; 4:5; 5:5; 6:13-14; 7:26-31; 11:26,32;
15:24,51-56; 16:22; and especially 4:8-13). Paul corrected the "spiritu-
alized eschatology" at Corinth by emphasizing the "not yet" of salva-
tion which is still to come. He corrected the dualism by emphasis on
the importance of the body in this age (chapters 5-7) and in the future
(6:14 and all of chapter 15). Throughout the epistle he endeavored to
teach what is true sofi
and thus what it means to be 1tVEU!latt1COc; (chapters 11-14).
THE LITERARY CONTEXT OF I CORINTHIANS 7:29-31
The Apostle Paul wrote 1 Corinthians from Ephesus (I Cor 16:5-
8) during his more than two years of ministry there (described in Acts
19:1-20:1).20 Paul had written a previous letter to the Corinthians
warning them not to associate with immoral persons (mentioned in
1 Cor 5:9), but this previous letter was either misunderstood or disre-
garded (I Cor 5:10-11). Later a delegation from the church at Corinth,
consisting of Stephanas, Fortunatus and Achaicus, brought a series of
questions to Paul on behalf of the church (I Cor 16:17)21 Paul also
received an oral report from the household of Chloe (I Cor 1:11),
20 Koester, 2:114-16.
21 Fee (7) suggests, on the basis of the combatative nature of I Corinthians, that the
responses of the Corinthians took exception with several of Paul's positions or prohibi-
tions in his previous letter. See also John Coolidge Hurd, The Origin of I Corinthians
f (Macon, Georgia: Mercer University Press, 1983, reprint of the original 1965 edi-
tion): 50-58, on the relationship between Paul and the Corinthians.
58 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
communicating disorders in the church at Corinth. Perhaps confirming
suspicions raised by the prior visit of the Corinthian delegation, this
report served as the final cause for the writing of I Corinthians.22
The Structure of 1 Corinthians
There are four main divisions of I Corinthians. After the introduc-
tion (1: 1-9), Paul addresses the divisions and disorders in the church at
Corinth, which were reported to him by the household of Chloe (1: 10-
4:21). Chapters 5 and 6 are best understood as connected with 1:10-
4:21, not only because they are also based on the report of the house-
hold of Chloe, but also because they focus on the question of Paul's
authority which is a key issue in 1:10-4:21. Fee suggests that the three
issues brought up in chapters 5 and 6 were questions raised in the
church which tested Paul's authority, a matter which had been reas-
serted in chapters 1-4.23
The third main division of 1 Corinthians (7:1-16:12) systematically
answers the questions that the Corinthians raised for Paul in their
letter to him (16:17): The answers to each of these questions are
introduced by the phrase, peri> de< (7:1, 25; 8:1 [cf. 8:4]; 12:1; 16:1, 12)24
The epistle concludes with various instructions to the church in
The Structure and Argument of I Corinthians 7
In this chapter Paul addresses the first item in the letter the
Corinthians sent to him.25 Although the 1tEpi of. construction in 7:25
("now concerning virgins...") could be taken as a new section, the
whole chapter is united by the themes of marriage and sexual morality
and by the afterthought concerning "the unmarried and widows" in
7:39, 40 which adds to earlier instruction given this same group in 7:8,
9:6 Therefore, this study will approach the chapter as a single unit
consisting of two parts.27 Furthermore, the purpose of the chapter is
22 Fee (7, n. 18) remarks that "this order of events cannot be proved. ..but it seems
to make good sense of the data. It also helps to make sense of the apparent discrepancies
between what is really going on in the church and the 'official' stance presented in their
letter (as, e.g. in 11:2)."
23 Fee, 194-95. See also Hurd, 89, n. 1. Compare especially 4:18-21 and 5:4.
24 the exception being 11:17-34 and perhaps chapter 15.
25 Note the clause peri> de> w#n e]gra
26 Hurd, 169 states that "in subject matter the topic to which Paul responded in I Cor
7:25-38 is associated with that of the preceding section. Both concern sexual morality.
The 1tEpi of. in 7:25, however, implies that in some sense the problem thus introduced is
separate from the preceding."
27 Fee, 268. See also Hurd, 154ff., on this whole issue.
GLENNY: 1 CORINTHIANS 7:29-31 59
not to be a summary of Paul's teaching on marriage;28 it is rather
intended to address the errors concerning marriage at Corinth.
I Corinthians 7:1-24. Paul's instruction to the married in verses
1-7 is based upon the statement in verse 1b: "It is good for a man not to
touch a woman.”29 It is generally understood that "to touch" is a
t euphemism for sexual intercourse and verses 2-7 indicate the passage
is addressed to married couples. This statement (7:la) is apparently a
quotation from the Corinthian letter, or at least it reflects the sentiment
of that letter.30 If it is from the Corinthians letter, "it is good" (kalo
introduces the notion that it is advantageous or utilitarian for a man
not to have sexual intercourse with his wife.31 Fee argues that kalo
means "advantageous" or "utilitarian" on the basis of 7:8,26,35, and
because if Paul was agreeing with the Corinthian slogan in 7:1b it is
most likely that that is what it means there also.32 In the context of
6:12-20 and 5:1-5, it seems likely that some within the church thought
themselves so spiritual that they were above the temptations of the
flesh (6:12-20) no longer having to discipline their bodies and physical
appetites. Perhaps they even encouraged those who were married to
cease sexual relations in order to demonstrate their freedom from the
allure of physical longings.
In verse 2, Paul qualifies the slogan of verse lb. Both the husband
and the wife have sexual needs and rights and, continuing on, the
apostle points out not only an obligation to meet the sexual needs of
one's mate (v. 3), but also a reciprocal right of each married partner to
possess the body of his (her) mate (v. 4). Neither is to "deprive" the
other sexually except for a short time, by mutual consent, for the
purpose of fasting and prayer (v. 5). For verse 6 to be consistent with
verses 2-5, it must mean that Paul's teaching on sexual abstinence is a
concession not a command.33 Thus for Paul, marriage is, to a large
degree, sexual, as it is frequently portrayed in Old Testament passages
such as Gen 2:15, Prov 5:15-20, and Song of Solomon. Paul's wish is
28This is .obvious from 7:2.
29 1t is impossible to give support for every part of my understanding of I Corin-
thians 7. However, I will try to give support for main ideas which are especially
important for the interpretation of verses 29-31.
30 Fee, 276; Hurd, 65-88, 163; see also J. Murphy O'Connor, "Corinthian Slogans in
I Cor 6:12-20," CBQ 40 (1978):391-96.
31 See Hurd, 159, for the options concerning the meaning of kalo275.
32 Even though Paul is in general agreement with the principal in 7:lb, he disagrees
with the Corinthian's reasons for believing it, and therefore, he qualifies the statement in
the following verses. Apparently, this is a Pauline teaching which the Corinthians have
33 Fee, 283-84.
60 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
that all could be single as he is (v. 7a), but he only recommends
celibacy for those with the "gift."
A series of datives in verses 8, 10 and 12 mark the next divisions
of this section. In verse 8 Paul teaches that widows and widowers34
would do well to remain unmarried, as he is. However, verse 9 argues
that if those named in verse 8 cannot control their sexual desire, they
should marry. Paul teaches the married (vv. 10-11) that believers
should not divorce, and if they are separated they are not to remarry
but remain single or be reconciled to their spouses. In marriages where
only one spouse is a believer (vv. 12-16), the believing partner is not to
leave his or her spouse, because the believer has a sanctifying effect on
the household (vv. 14, 16). If the unbeliever decides to depart (v. 15)
the believing spouse is not "bound" but is to seek peace.35 Verses 17-24,
central theological verses in the chapter, teach that the believer is to be
content to remain in the social setting he or she is in at the time each
one is called into the faith.36 What matters is not one's situation in life
but rather obedience to God (v. 19). Throughout the passage, this has
been the emphasis of Paul's instruction-to widows and widowers
(vv. 8-9), married believers (vv. 10-11) and believers who are married
to unbelievers (vv. 12-16).
Apparently the widows and widowers at Corinth were being in-
structed not to marry (vv. 8-9) and married believers were being
encouraged to separate (vv. 10-11). Furthermore, believers who were
married to unbelievers were apparently being taught that they were
defiled by their sexual relations with the unbelieving spouse. Or, per-
haps their unsaved spouses were not willing to forego sexual relations
as believers were demanding, and as a result the unsaved partners
desired to separate or divorce. The fact that Paul rejects divorce with
such emphasis in this section suggests that some of the Corinthians had
made statements in favor of it.37
34 Fee, 287-88.
35 Because of the teaching concerning remarriage in verses II and 34 it is best to
understand "not bound" here to mean not bound to remain in the relationship, and thus,
no implications concerning remarriage are given in this verse.
36 Fee rightly notes that even though one is not to be concerned about his or her
social setting, one's social setting is to be seen as assigned by Christ. Yet "that does not
mean that one is forever locked into that setting. Rather Paul means that by calling a
person within a given situation, that situation itself is taken up in the call and thus
sanctified to him or her" (310). One's concern should be to live out the Christian life in
whatever social setting he or she is in without concern for one's social setting.
37 Hurd, 167. Hurd (168) suggests that the substance of the Corinthians communica-
tion to Paul which occasioned I Cor 7: 1-24 was as follows: "Concerning problems of sex
and marriage: we believe that Christian couples should forego marital intercourse so that
they may devote themselves more fully to things spiritual. After all, is it not true that it is
well for a man not to touch a woman? For this reason we also think it best that the
GLENNY: I CORINTHIANS 7:29-31 61
I Corinthians 7:25-40. The second part of chapter 7 addresses the
topic of "virgins" (Peri> de> tw?n parqe
think that because "virgins" are mentioned in each part of the argument
(vv. 28, 34, 36-38) that this is the topic of the entire section.38 The
I conclusion of the section is the "so then" in verse 38. The "virgins" are
best understood as betrothed couples questioning whether to go
through. with their intended marrages.39 The ascetic stance seen in the
slogan m verse I b is also evident here where the betrothed were
apparently being taught it would be sin to go through with their
marriages (vv. 28, 36). This situation is complicated by Paul's previous
instruction (vv. 17-24) to remain in the situation of life one is in; this is
obviously difficult for the betrothed. Thus Paul's opponents at Corinth
seemingly have him in a comer; while he favors celibacy (v. 7) he
opposes asceticism. How can he affirm celibacy without affirming their
Paul argues very gently (vv. 25,28,32,36,37) that celibacy is the
better option, though marriage is no sin and is certainly a valid option
(vv. 28a, 36b, 38). The opening statement (vv. 25-28) teaches that
because of the present crises it is good for a person to remain un-
married40 since those who do marry will experience many difficulties.41
In verses 29-35 Paul digresses from the specific topic of virgins to
explain the Christian's relationship to the world (vv. 29-31) and the
need for all Christians, whatever their marital status, to remain free
from concern and live in total devotion to the Lord (v. 35b). It should
be emphasized here that Paul's instructions in verses 32-35 are not to
is restrict the single or engaged in any way concerning their plans to
marry (v. 35). If they do not have the gift of celibacy they are to marry
(v. 7).42 Verses 36-38 return to the topic of verses 25-2843 and give
unmarried and widows among us remain unmarried, an attitude of which you must
approve since you yourself remain unmarried.
It sometimes occurs that the harmony of a marriage is threatened by the demands of
the spiritual life. On the one hand, some of the brothers are unable to refrain completely
from their wives; on the other hand, some of the marriages include one partner who is
not a believer. In these cases we recommend separation so that the spiritual life of the
more devout partner is not hampered."
38 Fee, 322-24.
39 Ibid., 323-28. C. K. Barrett, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians
(New York: Harper and Row, 1968) and Hans Conzelmann, I Corinthians, Hermenia
Commentary Series (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975) both adopt the same view.
Conzelmann says "what is meant by the term 1tap9tvol is-superfluously enough-hotly
disputed; it means virgins. .."(131).
40 Fee, 324.
41 Ibid., 333.
42 Ibid., 334-55.
43 It the Hurd, 177-78.
62 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
further Instructions to an engaged couple. The chapter concludes
with a final comment concerning a Christian woman's right to remarry
I CORINTHIANS 7:29-31
The digression in thought and the vocative address in verse 29
suggest that verses 29-35 are an explanatory digression meant for all
the Christian community at Corinth.4s The issue which determines
Paul's development of verses 29-31 is the Christian's relationship to
the world.46 The believer is not to withdraw from the world or his
relationships in it (vv. 17-24), but instead is to live out the lordship of
Christ in this world. As Doughty says, "God's salvation deed in Christ
does not translate the believer out of the world, but establishes a new
relationship between man and his world. In verses 29-31, Paul elabo-
rates the nature of this new relationship.”47
The overall structure of verses 29-31 is fairly straightforward.
Paul develops the Christian's relationship with the world in five con-
structions and these five constructions "are bracketed by two assertions
which are intended to ground the understanding of existence expressed
here.”48 Fee suggests that the basic premise in verse 29a is followed by
its purpose or result (the five w[j mn< constructions in vv. 29b-31a); then
the section concludes with the reason (ga49
Paul's opening words, "But this I say," certainly point forward to
the following phrase,50 "The time is short.51 The time (kairo
which Paul's recipients live, has been determined by God's eschato-
44 Fee, 327.
45 Fee, 52, n. 22 shows that the vocative a]delfoi<, often occurs at a shift in an author's argument. He also argues, on the basis of the evidence in I Corinthians (cf.especially I Cor 11:2-16) and in Phil 4:1-3, that women would have been "participants in
the worship of the community and would have been included in the 'brothers' being
addressed." See also Fee, 31, n. 16.
46 D. J. Doughty, "The Presence and Future of Salvation in Corinth," Zeitschrift fur
die neutestamentliche Wissenschaft, 66 (1975):67.
50 NIV seems to have the idea of this clause in its translation, "What I mean is
51This construction is best understood as a periphrastic perfect passive according
to Fee, 339, n. 14 and Barrett, 176. Fee adds that, "the verb suste
context, means to constrict, reduce, restrain, or limit in some way. With time it means to
'compress' it. The picture is that of one for whom the future was either nonexistent, as
for most Greeks, or off in the vague distance; but the event of Christ has now compressed
the time in such a way that the future has been brought forward so as to be clearly
visible." Connections with Mark 13:20 are questionable here according to Fee and
Conzelmann, 113, n. 22.
GLENNY: 1 CORINTHIANS 7:29-31 63
logical intervention in Christ (Rom 3:25, 26). The coming of Christ has
initiated the "last days" (8eb 1:2; I Pet 1:20; Rom 16:25, 26), and
therefore Christians have a different perspective than Old Testament
believers. Paul is not emphasizing that the end is imminent as much as
he is emphasizing that it is now clear or plain. This truth should
radically alter the values and decisions of Christians.52
The meaning of Paul's introduction to the five w[j mh< construc-
tions in verse 29b is debatable. It is generally understood that to>
now on" or "henceforth.’”53 The context strongly supports such an
understanding. More difficult is the i!na which follows it. It could be
imperatival54 or it could indicate purpose.55 The two ideas are close,
but purpose is the more standard use of i!na with to> loipo56 The kai<
merely begins the series of w[j mh< exhortations, each of which is intro-
duced by kai<; the first use of it (v. 29b) does not need to be translated.57
Thus, in verse 29a Paul is affirming that one reason God has com-
pressed (drawn together) the time of salvation is so that for the remain-
ing time believers would have a new perspective concerning their
relationship with this present world.58 This new perspective is described
in the five exhortations in verses 29b-31a.
These five exhortations are illustrations of the new perspective
that the Christian is to have concerning the world. That they are not
52 Fee (339, n. 15) makes the following helpful comment. "The analogy of the
terminally ill comes to mind. For those who have made peace with it, the amount of time
left is less in the forefront than is the change of perspective. They see, hear, and value in a
new way. My former student Dr. J. Camery-Hoggatt suggested the analogy of the one
who tells a joke. He alone knows the punch line, and because he knows it, it shapes the
telling of the joke in its entirety. Through the resurrection of Christ, Christians know the
divine 'punch line' (which in this case is no joke but a vivid reality!); they see clearly how
.the story comes out, and they shape their lives and values accordingly."
53 See Margaret E. Thrall, Greek Particles in the New Testament, New Testament
and Studies, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1962):25-30, for a discussion of
n. 3) lists it as a possibility.
54 So Barrett, 176; Frederick Blass and A. DeBrunner, A Greek Grammar of the
Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, translated by Robert W. Funk
University of Chicago Press, 1961):195-96; C. F. D. Moule, An Idiom Book
of New Testament Greek (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979):145; and
James Hope Moulton, A Grammar of New Testament Greek, 4 vols., vol. 3:Syntax, by
Nigel Turner, 95.
55Fee (338, n. 10) argues that to< loipo
57 Archibald Robertson and Alfred Plummer, The First Epistle of St. Paul to the
Corinthians, ICC, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: T and T Clark, 1914):155.
58 Fee, 340.
64 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
meant to be taken literally but as "dialectial rhetoric"59 is clear from
the context. First, if they were taken literally they would be absurd.
Second, a literal interpretation of the first illustration contradicts
verses 2-5, and third, they contrast what Paul says in Rom 12: 15 about
sorrowing and rejoicing.60
It has been argued that Paul's concern in the first statement is to
urge celibacy and abstention from sex within marriage.61 However, to
take the exhortation that literally causes contradiction (cf. vv. 1-5) and
would unnecessarily limit Paul's teaching in this clause. Paul is teaching
that for the present age, whether one is married or not, he is to live ''as
if not" because the various relationships of this life are passing away.
The obvious reason why he does not have a clause starting "and let
those who do not have wives be ..." is because there is no negative
counterpart to complete it, not because he is only addressing married
The tension in the w[j mh< expressions is not a temporal one
between the present and the future. It instead emphasizes the dialectal
relationship between a person and this world. The two present tense
verbs in each exhortation emphasize this dialectic.62 In light of the
eschatological nature of the times in which Christians live (v. 3lb), in
every situation of life they are to live without their relationship to the
world being the determining factor, but instead with their relationship
to Christ determining their attitudes and decisions. They are to be in
the world, but the world is not to dictate their present existence.
Therefore, if they are married they are to maintain their marriage
relationship, but at the same time to carefully control the passions or
desires that might shape their married relationship (I Thess 4:4ff).
Furthermore, the marriage relationship is not what determines or
controls their lives; instead their lives are dominated by Christ and a
desire to obey Him (7:19b).
For the Christian, rejoicing and mourning take on new meaning
(v. 30). The Christian rejoices and mourns in this world concerning
things of this world, but not as this world rejoices and mourns. Fur-
thermore, this world does not determine or dictate the Christian's
ultimate responses and relationships with other men. The laughter and
tears of this world are not the last word.63
Christians buy and sell (v. 30), but they do not buy to possess.
That is, the world does not determine their reasons for buying and sell-
61 Doughty, 68.
62 Ibid., 70.
63 Barrett, 178.
GLENNY: 1 CORINTHIANS 7:29-31 65
ing. Fee notes that "those who buy are to do so 'as if not' in terms of
possessing anything. The eschatological person 'has nothing, yet pos-
sess all things' (2 Cor 6:10; cf. I Cor 3:22).,,64 This is why the Chris-
tian can "use the present world" (v. 31a). The world is not good or evil;
it simply is.65 But the present form of this world is passing away
(v. 31b); thus one is not to be "exploiting" it,66 engrossed in it, or
absorbed in it.67
The reason for the Christian's new relationship with the world is
given in verse 31b; in what is the most important sentence in the
section, Paul argues, "The essence68 of this world is in the process of
passing away.’”69 The fact that this world is passing away is the basis of
the five w[j mh< statements which precede it; furthermore, the meaning
of all of these statements is determined by "Paul's understanding of the
salvation deed of God in Christ.”70 Fee suggests that the progressive
present tense verb form in verse 31b
reflects Paul's already/not yet eschatological perspective. The decisive
event is the one that has already happened. In Christ's death and
resurrection God has already determined the course of things; he has
already brought the present world in its present form under judgement.
And so decisive is that event that it has "foreshortened the time." The
result is that even now what others are absorbed in, the Christian is free
The world is the sphere in which the believer is called to live out
the lordship of Christ in this age (7: 17-24)? The believer's life is
already in the present determined by the lordship of Christ (7:22) and
not by the essence (sxh?ma) of this present world (7:23, 31).73
Furthermore, as Schrage has observed, the significance of the
present tense verb (para
64 Fee, 341.
66 Doughty, 7 I. He has a lengthy discussion of this term in note 47.
67 Fee, 341.
68 This is the translation of Conzelmann, 134; Fee (342, n. 23) says it is more than
“simply the outward form that is on its way out, but the total scheme of things as they
currently exist." TDNT, S.v. "sxh?ma" by J. Schneider (1971)7:956, suggests the transla-
tion is "distinctive manifestation."
69 This is generally understood to be a progressive present tense. See Fee, 342, and
the translations in Conzelmann, 130, and Barrett, 178.
70 Doughty, 73, n. 52.
72 1Cor 7: 19 teaches that the lordship of Christ is lived out in a life by keeping God's
commands in whatever calling that one is in.
73 Doughty, 73.
66 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
in verse 31 b, is that "the future eschatology of apocalypticism has been
made present in a radical way.’”74 As Doughty says, "Christians are
exhorted to live as if the end of history had already arrived.”75 Thus
Paul is not concerned here with the future of salvation but rather with
"the existence of those who, as a consequence of God's salvation deed
in Christ, already stand at the end of history.”76 In this existence the
Christian "uses this world"(7:31), yet the world does not determine a
man's existence or enslave him.
It must be emphasized, for the sake of comparison with The Acts
of Paul and Thecla, that understanding the five w[j mh< exhortations in
terms of an eschatological "already" does not imply an apocalyptic
renunciation of the world. While for apocalypticism it could perhaps
be said that "the present is nothing but. .., the future is nevertheless
of great (worth)."77 Paul is suggesting no such rejection of relationships
in this world. Doughty summarizes the meaning very well in stating
The dialectic of 'having' and 'not having' is not dissolved by the parabut intensified! Both sides of the dialectic, both the 'having' and the 'not
having,' must be taken with equal seriousness. The meaning of this
dialectic for Paul becomes clear in his own summary statement: 'Let
those who make use of the world live as though not exploiting the
world.' The worldliness of the Christian is not denied. Christians live in
the world and continue to make use of the world78
The error of both the libertines and ascetics at Corinth was that
they were continuing to allow their lives to be shaped by the sxh?ma of
this world; the libertines were disdaining this world and the ascetics
were renouncing it. Yet both were responding or reacting to the form
or essence of this world and allowing it to shape their existence, rather
than using the relationships of this world, which have no ethical
significance, as a sphere in which they might love one another (12:31-
13:13), obey God (7:19), and glorify Him (6:20; 10:31)79
I CORINTHIANS 7:29-31 IN THE ACTS OF PAUL AND THECLA
The Acts of Paul is a second century rendition of the missionary
ministry and the death of the apostle Paul, which is included in the
74 Ibid., 68, 70.
75 Ibid., 68, n. 38.
76 Ibid., 68-69.
77 Wolfgang Schrage, "Die Slellung zur Welt bei Paulus, Epiktet und in der Apokalyp-
tic" Zeitschriftfur Theologie und Kirche 61 (1964):145. Schrage argues for an apocalyptic
understanding of I Cor 7:29-31. See the rebuttal of Schrage in Doughty, 70-71, and the
discussion in Conzelmann, 133, n. 26.
78 Doughty, 70-71.
79 Ibid., 74.
GLENNY: 1 CORINTHIANS 7:29-31 67
New Testament Apocrypha.80 This work describes Paul as traveling
around the Roman East preaching the message of sexual abstinence
and resurrection from the dead.81 The clearest example of this message
is in the series of beatitudes in Paul's sermon at Iconium in The Acts of
Paul and Thecla 5-6. Among these beatitudes are found the following
Blessed are they who have kept the flesh pure, for they shall become a
temple of God.
Blessed are the continent, for to them will God speak.
Blessed are they who have renounced this world, for they shall be well
pleasing unto God.
Blessed are they who have wives as if they had them not, for they shall
Blessed are they who through love of God have departed from the form
of this world, for they shall judge angels and at the right hand of the
Father they shall be blessed.
Blessed are the bodies of the virgins, for they shall be well pleasing to
God, and shall not lose the reward of their purity.
For the word of the Father shall be for them a work of salvation in the
day of his Son, and they shall have rest for ever and ever.
The purpose of quoting from this sermon is to emphasize more
clearly the differences between I Cor 7:29-31 and The Acts of Paul and
First, there are obvious differences between the teaching concern-
ing marriage and sex in I Corinthians 7 and in The Acts of Paul and
Thecla. Whereas for Paul marriage includes a sexual relationship
(I Cor 7:2-5), for The Acts of Paul and Thecla that is not the case.
While I Cor 7:2-5 teaches that partners have an obligation to meet
each other's sexual needs, The Acts of Paul and Thecla (5-7, 15) teach
9ne cannot attain to the resurrection from the dead unless he refrains
from sexual relations.
Furthermore, in I Corinthians 7 celibacy is a gift (xa
and it is no sin to marry (7:28, 36), if one is not able to live the celibate
life (cf. also 7:9,11). In The Acts of Paul and Thecla, by contrast, all are exhorted to renunciation of sexual relations and a life of virginity
or celibacy. In fact, in the latter work it is said that Paul "deprives
young men of wives and maidens of husbands, saying: 'Otherwise there
80Hennecke (2:351) dates the writing of The Acts of Paul before A.D. 200. Because it
apparently dependent on The Acts of Peter; he suggests a date between 185 and 195.
MacDonald dates The Acts of Paul between A.D. 150-190 (14) and Koester (2:325) dates
these works before the end of the second century A.D.
81 Other encratite practices are encouraged, but the consistent message is a call to
sexual abstinence. See Koester, 2:327.
68 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
is no resurrection for you, except ye remain chaste (ayvoi) and do not
defile the flesh, but keep it pure (a[gnh82 Paul tells the governor at
Iconium that God sent him "since he desires the salvation of all men
that I may draw them away from corruption and impurity, all pleasure
and death that they may sin no more.”83 In I Corinthians Paul never
threatens believers at Corinth with the loss of salvation, or of the
resurrection, because of sexual expression. In fact, even in cases of
sexual immorality, mentioned in I Cor 5:1-5 and 6:12-20, Paul does
not necessarily conclude that those sinning are not Christians. In
I Corinthians the exhortation to sexual purity is based on God's pre-
vious work of salvation in the life of the Christian (6:11,15,19) uniting
the Christian with Christ (6:15, 19) and securing his salvation; it is not
based on a threat of not participating in the resurrection as in The Acts
of Paul and Thecla.
It is also worth noting that the simplistic message of Paul in
The Acts of Paul and Thecla urges nothing more than continence and
living chastely.84 As any student of the apocryphal Acts knows, the
contents are always simplistic and superficial when compared with
Other contradictions between I Corinthians 7 and The Acts of
Paul and Thecla include the emphasis on maintaining peace in the
marriage relationship (I Cor 7:14-16), which is considered unimportant
in the Thecla story, and the emphasis on living out the Christian life in
one's situation in this life, rather than trying to change one's social
situation (see I Cor 7: 17-24,27 as contrasts the teaching in The Acts of
Paul and Thecla).86
Perhaps the major difference between the use of the "having
wives" statement in I Corinthians and The Acts of Paul and Thecla is
the eschatological perspective of the two contexts. In the Thecla ac-
count the "form of this world" is evil and is to be renounced;87 those
who have wives and behave as if they had them not are given a future
promise of inheriting God. The apocalyptic perspective of The Acts of
Paul and Thecla understands the relationships of the present to be of
82 The Acts of Paul and Thecla 12.
84 Ibid., 5, 9.
85 Hennecke, 350 states that the author of The Acts of Paul makes the Apostle the
herald of a very simple faith, which can be reduced to a few formulae. ..."
86Ibid. Hennecke notes that the theology of The Acts of" Paul shows how far
Christianity had departed from the apostle by the close of the second century. Koester,
2:327 says that "the flowers of pious fantasy bloom more richly in these writings"
(meaning the Apocryphal Acts) than in Luke's writings in the New Testament. For the
historical differences between Paul's life as described in the New Testament and The
Apocryphal Acts of Paul, see Hennecke, 2:344, 347-48.
87 The Acts of Paul and Thecla 5, 6.
GLENNY: I CORINTHIANS 7:29-31 69
no value and the future to be a prize of great worth. This perspective
renounces this world and withdraws from it, so as not to be soiled by
any aspect of it. In I Corinthians 7 Paul teaches an already/not-yet
eschatology. The believer has been saved (6: 11) and joined with Christ
(6:14,15,19). Christ is reigning in this world today (15:20-28) and has
dominion over death. "In Christ" the future of the Christian has
already been determined (15:22), and now as a dou?loj Xristou? (7:22)
the Christian is to live out the lordship of Christ in this world.88 The
society of this world is not evil, but as said before it merely is, and
the believer is to use it for God's glory. In The Acts of Paul and Thecla
the condition given for married people to inherit God, or be resur-
rected, is to renounce this world by refraining from sexual relations
within marriage (a "spiritual marriage"). By contrast, I Cor 7:29a
emphasizes the tension of Paul's already / not yet eschatology. The way
for the married to live out Christ's lordship in these last days (since
Christ's resurrection and ascension to position of Lord) is to have a
complete marriage, including sexual relations (e@xontej gunai?kaj,
cf. 7:2). Still the believer should not allow his marriage to determine
his life; only Christ should do that. Furthermore, the series of five w[j
mh< exhortations in I Cor 7:29-31 shows that this principle is not only
for marriage, but applies to every relationship and activity of life.
If the argument presented in this paper is correct, it supports the
general consensus of opinion that the theology of The Acts of Paul has
taken quite a departure from the historical Paul.89 This is certainly not
a new discovery; however, it is relevant to the thesis of Dennis
MacDonald. MacDonald's thesis, which was summarized earlier,90 is
based partly on the fact that The Acts of Paul and Thecla preserve
aspects of Pauline teaching, which were handed down to the author of
this work through oral legends. On the basis of a general understanding
If The Acts of Paul one could question MacDonald's theory. It is
more questionable when it is realized that the main evidence
he gives for the connection between the apostle and The Acts of Paul is
the use of I Cor 7:29-31.91 He maintains that fanatic and apocalyptic
elements of Christianity, paralleling the radical characteristics of other
he movements, are seen in Paul and in The Acts of Paul in
.their common use of I Cor 7:29-31. He suggests that the legends
behind The Acts of Paul "faithfully preserve this aspect of Paul's
88 Doughty, 74-85 is helpful on this subject.
89 See note 86 above.
90 See Introduction above.
70 GRACE THEOLOGICAL JOURNAL
teachings.”92 He argues that Paul's speech to Artemilla, bidding her to
abandon her wealth in view of the impending destruction of the world,
is consistent with I Cor 7:29-31.93 He also argues that the impending
destruction of the world spoken of in I Cor 7:29-31 "dictates a reap-
praisal of sexuality",94 which he takes to mean "a renunciation of sex
and marriage.”95 He argues that the general withdrawal from society
which is portrayed in the life of Thecla is a continuation of Paul's
teaching in I Cor 7:29-31.
This study of I Cor 7:29-31 suggests that the use of this passage to
sanction withdrawal from, or renunciation of, the societal relationships
of this life is ill-founded. Furthermore, if this is MacDonald's main
connection between Paul and the attitude toward society found in The
Acts of Paul and Thecla, it certainly raises questions concerning the
degree to which The Acts of Paul should shape our images of Paul and
the religious movement he generated, especially with regard to attitudes
Finally, in light of the lack of a clear connection between the
historical Paul and The Acts of Paul , it is fair to ask if the con-
temporary church should consider The Acts of Paul to be a continua-
tion of the teaching of the historical Paul concerning the role of women
in society and the church, or concerning any other topic.96 The basis of
the connection MacDonald has tried to make between The Acts
Paul and the historical Paul has been shown to be, in reality, a
contradiction. In fact, the teaching of The Acts of Paul concerning
marriage and sex appears to be the doctrine of the opponents of
in I Corinthians, rather than the teaching of the historical Paul.
92MacDonald, 45. See also 98.
93 The Acts of Paul 7. This is supposedly when Paul is at Ephesus.
94MacDonald, 45. "
96 I am not so naive as to think this paper is a fatal blow to MacDonald's thesis.
However, if this paper is correct, he has failed to connect with Paul the later ascetic,
fanatic, apocalyptic movements, which renounced and withdrew from society. Also, he
has misinterpreted the main passage he uses from Paul to support his own thesis! The
burden of proof is certainly in the lap of those who would argue that The Acts of Paul
reflect the historical teachings of Paul. I would be pleased to see a more serious treatment
of the Pauline material in the New Testament by those who seek to make this connection.
This material is cited with gracious permission from:
Grace Theological Seminary
200 Seminary Dr.
Winona Lake, IN 46590
Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: firstname.lastname@example.org