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The so-called "Slogans" of 1 Corinthians: 6:12: 1 Cor 6:12

1 Cor 6:12, A Corinthian slogan or Paul’s own words?

(12) Πάντα μοι ἔξεστιν ἀλλʼ οὐ πάντα συμφέρει· πάντα μοι ἔξεστιν ἀλλʼ οὐκ ἐγὼ ἐξουσιασθήσομαι ὑπό τινος.

(12) Everything is permitted to me, but not everything is for the good. Everything is permitted to me, but I will not be ruled by anything. 


The consensus view is that the phrase "everything is permitted to me" is a citation of a Corinthian slogan.  Some translators go even further than merely putting the phrase in inverted commas and insert “you say” or words to that effect into the text.[1]  Brian Dodd traces this tradition back to Johannes Weiss and finds Weiss’ argument, based on what Paul didn’t write rather than on what he did, unconvincing, given the frequency with which Paul does signal his citations.[2]   Fitzmyer takes exception to Dodd’s thesis but does not tackle the issue of Paul’s failure to indicate a citation.  For Fitzmyer the statement cannot be Paul’s own words because it is “proverbial” and because of the following ἀλλʼ οὐ(κ) which “pits Paul’s reaction over against the saying.”[3]  Fee, writing too early to interact with Dodd, nonetheless follows a similar line of reasoning to Fitzmyer in arguing for a slogan.  For Fee, “[Paul] qualifies [the slogan] so sharply as to negate it.”[4]

Nevertheless, there is no reason why ἀλλʼ οὐκ should be considered to have this extreme negating effect.  The adversative particle ἀλλά functions to contrast two clauses,[5] but what is the effect of this particle when combined with the negative οὐκ?  Paul has twice used this same construction earlier in 1 Corinthians without any suggestion that ἀλλʼ οὐκ serves to negate the prior clause: 

1 Cor 4:4: οὐδὲν γὰρ ἐμαυτῷ σύνοιδα, ἀλλ' οὐκ ἐν τούτῳ δεδικαίωμαι,
I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted, (NRSV)


1 Cor 4:15: ἐὰν γὰρ μυρίους παιδαγωγοὺς ἔχητε ἐν Χριστῷ, ἀλλ' οὐ πολλοὺς πατέρας,
For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, [but] you do not have many fathers. (NRSV)

In fairness, the qualifications in both verses do nullify the preceding clause, but only within the immediate context of that argument.  In 4:1-4, Paul is arguing that only the Lord’s judgement is of consequence,[6] and in 4:14-16 Paul is establishing his unique relationship with the Corinthians.[7]  In neither instance, however, is there any requirement that the initial propositions be attributed to anyone other than Paul, nor that in other contexts Paul might not happily acknowledge the proposition without qualification.  Furthermore, in 2 Cor 4:8-9 and Rom 10:2 the same construction is used to qualify one clause with another, but in these instances the prior clause remains significant for the argument of the pericope.

Fitzmyer’s argument on ἀλλʼ οὐκ is therefore not convincing.  His argument that it is “proverbial” would be pertinent, but only if the phrase, as many slogan advocates suggest, was in common currency at that time.  Even if this could be shown, however, that would not in itself necessitate the conclusion that Paul is distancing himself from these words in 1 Cor 6:12 rather than affirming them.  It could rather be that Paul is here using an expression current within the popular culture of Corinth to communicate his teaching on Christian freedom. 

Bruce Winter writes, “Lists of aphoristic sayings were propagated across the Hellenistic world and were placed so that they were visible to all.  However they contain no examples of the statement in 1 Cor 6:12, 10:13 . . . The closest we come [to] the sayings in 6:12 is ‘do good to yourself’ [σεατὸν εὖ ποίει] but it by no means matches the forcefulness of the statement ‘everything is permitted.’”[8]  Instead, evidence for the saying is found in the arguments of those who are apparently refuting it.  Each example succeeds in demonstrating only that issues of “what is permitted” were significant in Greek culture; there is no evidence that any contain or refute a particular slogan.[9]  Winter’s discussion of Dio Chrysostom does, however, throw up one very significant parallel.  In Or.14:18, on “Slavery and Freedom,” Dio writes that, “We are forced to define freedom as the knowledge of what is permitted and what is not” (ὧς τε ἔξεστι και ὧς μή).[10]  This reinforces the suggestion that Paul is here using the language of permission (ἔξεστι) as a way of talking about Christian freedom and in doing so is utilising a particular Greek expression to contextualise his theology for the Corinthian church.  Some commentators suggest that while πάντα μοι ἔξεστιν is a Corinthian slogan the source of that slogan is Paul himself and that it represents a misapplication of Paul’s teaching about Jewish food rules to sexual behaviour (cf. 1 Cor 10:23-11:1).[11]  Either way, the issue is freedom and its right use.

Garland writes, “The number of those who favour the view that the Corinthians spouted this maxim to justify their licentiousness is more overwhelming than the weight of the arguments presented in favour of it.”[12]  He then proceeds to list four considerations which suggest that πάντα μοι ἔξεστιν is not a Corinthian slogan:

1.     1 Cor 5:9 shows that it is unlikely they could be misconstruing Paul’s teaching on sexual immorality, and if it was a teaching introduced by another party Paul would surely denounce that false teacher.
2.     Going to prostitutes is likely to be a consequence of Greek cultural habits reasserting themselves rather than a theological misapplication, it is unlikely that the Corinthians would feel the need to justify what came naturally.
3.     It is more plausible that Paul recasts a familiar Greek notion about freedom than that “he parrots the arguments of sensualists.”
4.     The inclusion of μοι in 6:12 but not in 10:23 suggests that Paul is “adapting this saying for his own purposes rather than quoting verbatim some Corinthian byword.”[13]

Murphy-O’Connor in his extensive 2009 postscript to his 1978 essay, “Corinthian Slogans in 1 Cor 6:12-20,” takes issue with Garland’s logic.  He disagrees that Paul’s failure to indicate a citation rules out a citation,[14] although to be fair to Garland, he had only suggested that this placed the burden of proof on the slogan hypothesis, not that it vitiated it completely.[15]  First, Murphy-O’Connor argues that where Paul does indicate he is citing the Corinthians, e.g. 1:12 and 3:4, these cannot be taken as the Corinthians’ actual words but only as a caricature of their position and that therefore these indicators are “irrelevant for the question of slogans.”[16]  Paul’s use of indicators to signal a caricature, however, hardly argues against Paul needing to indicate when he makes an actual citation.  Second, he argues that because Paul does not always signal when he cites or alludes to scripture then he would not always signal when he cites words his readers had spoken.  Rather, he “could certainly take it for granted that the Corinthians would recognise words that they had spoken.”[17]  Caution is needed, however, in applying Paul’s practice in citing scripture to the very different matter of citing slogans,[18] not least because Paul cites scripture to support his arguments rather than to oppose its message. 

Murphy-O’Connor does rightly address Garland’s second consideration, and shows that although visiting prostitutes might well have been a vestigial pagan practice, “theological reasoning would have been a defensive reaction, not the operative principle Garland imagines.”[19]  This, however, would only constitute a defensive argument if the slogan were to be assumed.  It is not in itself an adequate reason for making that assumption initially.  The burden of proof still remains with the slogan hypothesis, and Garland’s three other considerations still stand, as Murphy-O’Connor does not address them.

Fitzmyer writes that, “It is difficult to determine whether the “I” in Paul’s reaction is to be emphasised . . . or it is merely reflecting the “me” of the slogan.”[20]  The fact, however, that this “me” is not present when the slogan is used again in 1 Cor 10:23 suggests that the “me” is not there by default but is intended by Paul.[21]  Collins, although a slogan advocate, acknowledges that here Paul is arguing on the basis of his own example and that the use of μοι and ἐγώ are an “integral element of Paul’s rhetoric.”[22]  Indeed, the fact that throughout 1 Corinthians Paul uses himself as an example is actually the principal argument that Dodd makes,[23] his discussion of the signalling of citations is merely the prolegomenon.  For Dodd, “Paul’s ‘I’ appears [here and elsewhere] as a stylistic way of making the exhortation effective when he speaks for the reader as a kind of epistolary ventriloquist, placing words on their lips that will hopefully express their future commitment.”[24]  Additionally, the use of a father figure as an example was a standard device in paraenesis and Paul clearly sees himself in this role in relation to the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:15).[25]  Regarding the parallels mentioned earlier, in Galatians ch. 4 the order is reversed, as Paul makes his argument against enslavement (Gal 4:1-11) and then presents himself as an example (Γίνεσθε ὡς ἐγώ, Gal 4:12; cf. 1 Cor 4:16, 11:1), but in Romans ch. 6 this rhetorical device is not used, presumably because Paul did not have the same founding relationship with the Roman church as he did with the Galatians and Corinthians.

Holladay argues convincingly that in the history of the interpretation of 1 Cor 13, “the sensus literalis,” has often been ignored, “in favour of a far more problematic interpretation.”  Instead 1 Cor 13 is “self referential,” and functions as, “part of Paul’s own self-presentation.”[26]  1 Cor 8:13-9:27 and 10:31-11:1 are also substantial examples of Paul switching to the first person plural in order to illustrate the moral behaviour he is advocating.  As Holladay shows, this is both consistently Pauline and “thoroughly typical of Greco-Roman parenesis.”[27]  For the purposes of this exegesis, 1 Cor 8:13-9:27 and 10:31-11:1 are especially significant because they are both discussions of Christian freedom and both clearly involve Paul offering himself as an example of how that freedom is limited by other concerns.  The sensus literalis of 6:12 can thus be understood as one more instance of this technique.  Moreover, when 6:12 is contrasted with 10:23 the omission of the paradigmatic “I” and “me” from the construction is explained by the fact Paul has simply moved them to 11:1 the final verse of the inclusio.[28]  1 Cor 9:19 also presents itself as a reformulation of the same thought (10:23) and there can be no mistaking that the “I” in question there is indeed Paul.

 If Paul is saying, “but I will not be ruled by anything,” then this shows clearly that he considers the so called slogan to be true of himself also.  All things are permitted to him (he is saved by grace not law) but he will not be ruled, enslaved, or dominated by anyone or anything (cf. Gal 5:13).[29]  Hence the designation of the phrase πάντα μοι ἔξεστιν as a slogan and not Paul’s own words is unnecessary.  As Garland writes, “If the Corinthians used this slogan to argue for complete freedom to indulge in sexual licence, he would have objected far more directly and forcefully.  If, on the other hand, he cites a commonplace view about freedom, then he redefines and limits it.”[30]  It is possible to go further, however, and say that in Paul’s logic it is the very fact that the Corinthians in Christ can say πάντα μοι ἔξεστιν that demands that they avoid that which imperils their God given freedom. [31]



[1] Rosner, Paul, Scripture and Ethics, 146; see also Good News, CEV, TNIV, God's Word Translation and NEB.
[2] Dodd, “Paul's Paradigmatic 'I',” 40-43.
[3] Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, 263.
[4] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 251.
[5] BDAG 44-45.
[6] Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 340-42.
[7] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 185.
[8] Winter, “Gluttony and Immorality at Elitist Banquets,” 81.
[9] Ibid., 80-81.
[10] Ibid., 81.
[11] West, “Sex and Salvation: A Christian Feminist Bible Study on 1 Corinthians 6:12-7:39,” 72-73.
[12] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 226; See for example Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 460-61 who asserts, "There can be no question that the initial clause of v.12 represents a quotation used as a maxim by some or by many at Corinth," although he offers no evidence other than that, "The overwhelming majority of modern scholars adopt this view".
[13] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 227-28.
[14] Murphy-O'Connor, Keys to First Corinthians, 25-26.
[15] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 226.
[16] Murphy-O'Connor, Keys to First Corinthians, 25; following Mitchell, Paul and the Rhetoric of Reconciliation, 85.
[17] Murphy-O'Connor, Keys to First Corinthians, 26.
[18] For a detailed treatment of this issue see Dodd, “Paul's Paradigmatic 'I',” 43-44.
[19] Murphy-O'Connor, Keys to First Corinthians, 26.
[20] Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, 264.
[21] Cf. Garland's fourth consideration, 1 Corinthians, 228; see also Dodd, who argues that the repetition of a phrase within a letter is no argument that it is a citation, “Paul's Paradigmatic 'I',” 42.
[22] Collins, First Corinthians, 243-44; but compare Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, 263 who considers the omission of μοι in 1 Cor 10 "an insignificant difference".
[23] Dodd, “Paul's Paradigmatic 'I',” 46-58; 1 Cor 5:12; 8:13; 10:29-11:1; 12:31-13:3; 13:11-12; 14:6, 11, 14, 15, 18-19.
[24] Ibid., 48.
[25] Via, Self-Deception and Wholeness in Paul and Matthew, 64; see also Eckhard Schnabel, “How Paul Developed His Ethics: Motivations, Norms and Criteria of Pauline Ethics,” in Understanding Paul's Ethics: Twentieth Century Approaches, ed. Brian S. Rosner (Grand Rapids,  Mich.: Eerdmans, 1995), 292.
[26] Carl R. Holladay, “1 Corinthians 13: Paul as Apostolic Paradigm,” pp80-98 in Greeks, Romans, and Christians: Essays in Honour of Abraham J. Malherbe, ed. David L.  Balch, Everett Ferguson, and Wayne A. Meeks (Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress, 1990), 89.
[27] Ibid., 84, 82-88.
[28] See §1.3.1; Collins, First Corinthians, 241.
[29] Dodd, “Paul's Paradigmatic 'I',” 56.
[30] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 228-29.
[31] Cf. Garland, 1 Corinthians, 223; and Dodd, “Paul's Paradigmatic 'I',” 55.

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