Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Sex in the City of Corinth: It gets complicated

Sheila Briggs is my hero of the day, as finally I find someone who discusses the elephant in the room of 1 Cor 6-7, or in fact any discussion of sex in relation to the world of the NT, that is the fact that if you were a slave in the ancient world you didn't have much choice over who you had sex with, so for many NT Christians contemporary evangelical ideals of sexual conduct were simply unattainable. She writes,
Sexual exploitation of slaves, if it occurred within the Christian community, would raise several problems for Paul. He linked his discussion of marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 to his condemnation of visiting prostitutes in the previous chapter by bidding each man, who is unable to remain celibate, to have his own wife dia tās porneias (7:2). The direct addressee here is the free male Christian. Certainly, the urban and upwardly mobile male slave could have aspired to the same ideal of marriage. Paul was not just talking about the narrower legal definition of marriage, which would have excluded the liaisons of slaves and many of the low-status and unpropertied free, but the wider practice of social monogamy in the Greco-Roman world. It is also the case that slave as well as free men frequented the brothels. Paul’s prohibition of visiting brothels would have affected poor men, slave or free, more than prosperous men, because the former would not have had the resources (nor often, in the case of the slave, the owner’s permission) for social monogamy. The wealthier men, however, would have had the sexual use of their slaves and therefore their sexual activity would have been less restricted by not visiting brothels. Paul’s statement in 1 Cor. 7:4 that both wife and husband have control over each other’s body indicated that the free male did not have unrestricted use of his body and therefore implied that, since his own body in relationship to his wife has become a slave’s body, his own sexual use of slaves’ bodies has become illegitimate. This conclusion, however, Paul never makes explicit.
From Sheila Briggs, "Paul on Bondage and Freedom in Imperial Roman Society," 
in Horsley (ed) Paul and Politics, Trinity 2000, pp110-123, p115

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