Was Paul against sex?

I GREW UP on a farm in Illinois in the 1950s. One of the still-vivid images I have of those years is of my ­father opening his black leather-bound King James Bible on Saturday night after the television western Gunsmoke and preparing the Sunday school lesson. It was his Bible, and it was mine.

In 1964 I became involved with the Navigators. I ­attended a Navigator conference one weekend, and I still remember the main speaker quoting I Cor. 7:1 in the King James: “Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman.” The speaker then proceeded to tell us young hormone-crazed college men that we didn’t need to “touch” a young lady when we helped her take off her coat nor when we opened the door to help her get into the car.

This personal story illustrates how the KJV affected the biblical view of marriage for thousands, indeed millions, of Christian readers over the last four centuries. William Smalley has correctly stated, “So close is the identification of ‘Bible’ with ‘translation’ that for many people in the world their translated Bible is the Bible.” Let me explain.

Most American Christians have assumed that Paul had very negative attitudes toward sex and marriage. But when we recognize that the KJV translation of I Cor. 7:1 misleads us, our perspective may change.

What Paul is doing in I Cor. 7:1–14 is taking up, one by one, questions that the Corinthians have written to him, and giving his answers. But in each case, he agrees only in part with what they say. At the beginning of chapter 7 we see the same approach. Some Christians had written, “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.” Paul agrees in part, but he immediately qualifies his agreement by writing, “But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife . . .” As one reads all of 7:1–7 it is clear that some Christians had suggested that a man may be more spiritual by giving up sexual relations with his wife. Paul agrees in part that a person may be able to devote himself or herself more fully to prayer if they abstain from sexual relations for a short time. But Paul advises that abstinence be practiced only by agreement between the husband and the wife, and that it be for a limited time only.

Since the Middle Ages, interpreters have attributed the words of I Cor. 7:1b to Paul himself. That is, interpreters thought that Paul himself was encouraging men not to have sexual relations with women. But once we recognize that Paul is quoting in 7:1 from a letter written to him, then the sense of verses 1–7 is quite different.

An increasing number of interpreters and translators are now accepting that these verses make more sense if verse 7:1b is read as a quotation. These translators are making the following points clear:

(a) Paul is quoting from a letter from Corinth.

(b) The end of the verse has to do with sexual relations; translations such as “not to marry” (NIV, TLA) are incorrect.

(c) Paul does not agree completely with what some Corinthians have written to him.

While the KJV has, in general, been helpful to many lay readers over the years, biblical texts such as I Cor. 7:1 can end up misleading readers. For many readers in today’s world, Paul has seemed like an ascetic unsympathetic toward marriage. The general consensus of scholars today is that the translation of I Cor. 7:1–7 in the KJV is no longer the best way to translate these verses. CH

By Roger L. Omanson

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #100 in 2011]

Adapted from a paper by Roger L. Omanson, “The King James New Testament: How a Translation Determined Christian Thought on Marriage and Celibacy for Nearly Four Hundred Years,” given at the 2010 Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting in Atlanta, GA.
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