Machismo, Mutuality, and #MeToo in Corinth and America - by Gregory E. Sterling

Gregory E. Sterling

We have almost become inured to the stories about sexual abuse. I say almost because, despite the frequency of the reports, I hope that we all still feel a sense of moral outrage and shame at these egregious acts of human misbehavior. Though these purulent acts are played out sexually, they are fundamentally about power: They are actions of people who have power over others and exercise that power blindly for self-gratification without concern for the other person. As Judith Butler tersely put it: “sexuality and power are coextensive.”1
These actions are far more commonly committed by men than by women, although there have been several celebrated cases of the latter recently. Over the last three years (July 1, 2015-June 30, 2018), the Title IX Office at Yale University has reported that 86 percent of the complaints for sexual misconduct were against males, 3 percent against females, and in 11 percent of the cases the gender was unknown. One obvious reason for the disproportionate numbers is that men have been in positions of power or have been socialized to think and act within such a system. The correlation between sexual abuse and patriarchy is not an inevitable consequence – there have been many males who supported patriarchy but were not abusers of others – but patriarchy as a system is a contributing factor.
Two Surprises
As a New Testament scholar I have thought about a series of statements by Paul in First Corinthians that are quite surprising in light of the patriarchy of the 1st and 21st centuries. In his letter Paul is responding to arguments that are circulating in the Corinthian community. At the start of 1 Cor 7 he makes this statement: “Now concerning those matters about which you wrote, ‘It is good for a man not to touch a woman’” (1 Cor 7:1). Here the verb translated “touch” serves as a euphemism for sexual relations (see also Gen 20:6). It is characteristic of Paul to offer a qualification to the Corinthians’ arguments, agreeing with the basic statement but not tout court. In this case, Paul qualifies a Corinthian advocacy of asceticism in two unexpected ways.
The first surprise is that Paul speaks of the same sexual rights for wives as for husbands in a series of three parallel statements (1 Cor 7:2-4).
First Parallel: But because of sexual immorality let each man have his own wife, and let each woman have her own husband.
Second Parallel: Let the husband give his wife her conjugal rights, and let the wife do the same for her husband.
Third Parallel: The wife does not exercise power over her own body but the husband; similarly, the husband does not exercise control over his own body but the wife.
This is an unusual set of statements in Paul’s letters. The only other passage where the Apostle treats the sexuality of women and men equally is in his critique of the same sex-relations of the pagan world in Rom 1:26-27. A more representative sample of what we would expect is in 1 Thess 4:3-8 where Paul apparently speaks about the role of the male but not the female (if “vessel” refers to wife rather than body).
The second surprise is that Paul recognized a valid erotic dimension in sexuality that transcended procreation. This perspective is implicit in the opening three parallel statements and explicit in their conclusion and in the subsequent discussion. The Apostle concludes by returning to the concern that led to the three parallels: “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by consent for a period of time to devote yourselves to prayer and then come together again lest Satan tempt you because of your lack of self-control.” Abstinence should be a mutual decision and only temporary. Though Paul preferred that everyone be single as he apparently was, he realized that this was not suitable for all (1 Cor 7:5-7). The reality of the human need for sexual expression becomes even more pronounced in his famous comment to the unmarried and widows that immediately follows. The Apostle writes that “if they cannot exercise self-control, let them marry; for it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion (literally, burn)” (1 Cor 7:8-9).
We take the erotic in sexual relations for granted today; however, in Paul’s era it was commonplace among both Stoics and Jewish authors to argue that sex was intended for procreation and only for procreation. For example, Paul’s Jewish contemporary, Philo of Alexandria, thought “desire” was the impulse for all evil. In the case of sexuality, legitimate desire for sex to procreate can become an illegitimate desire.2 In his exposition of the prohibition against adultery, he warned against desire, even in marriage: “natural pleasure is very often greatly at fault whenever someone uses it immoderately or excessively as when … those who love women are mad for intercourse and behave lustfully not with the wives of others but with their own wives.”3 Philo thought that any intercourse other than intercourse for procreation was lustful behavior. By contrast, Paul’s complete silence about begetting children is thunderous.
Paul in the First Century How should we explain these statements, and do they have any bearing on the contemporary issue of sexual abuse? We need to understand Paul before we think about the contemporary relevance. Paul’s own statements have been read against at least three different backgrounds. Some have read these statements against the specifics of Paul’s give and take with the Corinthians. For example, Wolfgang Schrage argued that Paul’s basic view is offered in 7:2 in contrast to the Corinthians’ claim in 7:1. Marriage is, on this reading, not simply a safety valve between immorality and celibacy – as so many interpreters assume – but a gift from God just like celibacy.4
Others have attempted to identify a specific group within Corinth that Paul was contesting. For example, Ann Wire suggested that there was a group of Corinthian women prophets who advocated celibacy as a means of liberating themselves from male domination.5 On this reading, Paul imposed limits on these women prophets by urging them to engage in sexual relations with their husbands.
Still others have attempted to read these statements against the background of Stoicism. In particular, Will Deming placed the opposing viewpoints in 1 Cor 7 against the background of “the Stoic-Cynic marriage debate.”6 Like Epictetus, Paul argued that marriage may be acceptable for the average person but not for the mature (in Epictetus’s view, the Cynic).7 For Deming, Paul situated marriage and celibacy within the debates of the larger society and viewed the choice between the two as a matter of expediency. It was the early Christian writers, not Paul, who later pitted sexuality over against spirituality.
These three examples are far from a comprehensive overview of the way that modern scholars have read Paul’s statements, but they illustrate the challenge of reconstructing an ancient exchange when we only have one side of the conversation.
I have always been struck by the fact that Paul addresses a concern for libertinism in 1 Cor 6:12- 20 and immediately turns to address a concern for asceticism in 1 Cor 7:1-7. There must have been different groups within Corinth whose sexual practices varied appreciably. The unusual emphasis on the rights of women in 1 Cor 7 suggests that Ann Wire may be right about a group of women prophets who were advocates of celibacy. Whether or not this specific identification is accurate, some Corinthians advocated it. Paul’s attempt to address it appears to have drawn on philosophical discussions from the larger world even though he gave his own judgments.
Love and Libertinism
But how does this affect us? I think that the two surprises of this text are directly relevant to our time. Sexuality is about more than procreation, it includes eros; however, it is not a libertine eros. Paul opposed this in 1 Cor 6. What is common in both the discussion in 1 Cor 6:12-20 and 7:1-7 is that Paul conceived of sexuality as a powerful factor in a relationship: On the one hand, he challenged the libertines who thought that sexual relations were on a par with eating and did not understand why visiting prostitutes was anything more significant than a meal (6:12-17); and, on the other hand, he challenged those who denied sexuality within a relationship (marriage in 1 Cor 7). For Paul, sexuality was meaningful and should not be treated cavalierly. He recognized that it was more significant than sharing a meal and that its absence in marriage could undermine the relationship. The importance that he attached to sexuality is in stark contrast to most cases of sexual abuse that treat sexuality as a means of self-gratification rather than a bond within a relationship.
Wives, Husbands, and Holy Writ
Perhaps even more striking is Paul’s language of mutuality: Husbands and wives have equal sexual rights. It calls not only for the recognition that each party in the relationship has the same rights as the other, but that each party is obligated to address the concerns of the other. I cannot think of any contemporary case of sexual abuse where mutuality as Paul understood it was at work.
The reason why we read the biblical text is because it helps us. I realize that readings of the biblical text have often been used to hurt human beings, but the text has the power to improve the human situation. If we viewed sexual relations as a serious bond between two people with equal rights who are mutually agreed and supportive of one another, we would not need a #MeToo movement. The mutuality of this text stands over against the machismo that has been far too prevalent in our culture for too long.
Gregory E. Sterling is The Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean and Lillian Claus Professor of New Testament at Yale Divinity School. Concentrating his research in Hellenistic Judaism, the writings of Philo of Alexandria, Josephus, and Luke-Acts, he is the author or editor of eight books and more than 80 scholarly articles and chapters.
1 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (Routledge, 1990), p. 40.
2 See Philo, Creation, §§ 151-152.
3 Philo, Special Laws, §§ 3.9.
4 Wolfgang Schrage, Der erste Brief an die Korinther, 4 vols., Evangelisch-Katholischer Kommentar zum Neuen Testament 7 (Benziger; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener, 1991-2001), 2:83.
5 Antoinnette Clark Wire, The Corinthian Women Prophets: A Reconstruction through Paul’s Rhetoric (Fortress, 1990), pp. 79-97.
6 Will Deming, Paul on Marriage and Celibacy: The Hellenistic Background of 1 Corinthians 7, Society of New Testament Monograph Series 83 (Cambridge University Press, 1995; rev. ed., Eerdmans, 2004), pp. 5-49.
7 Epictetus, Dissertations 3.22.76; 4.1.147.