1 Corinthians 7 In The Light Of The Graeco-Roman Marriage And Divorce Papyri -- By: David Instone-Brewer

Journal: Tyndale Bulletin
Volume: TYNBUL 52:1 (NA 2001)
Article: 1 Corinthians 7 In The Light Of The Graeco-Roman Marriage And Divorce Papyri
Author: David Instone-Brewer

1 Corinthians 7 In The Light Of The Graeco-Roman Marriage And Divorce Papyri

David Instone-Brewer


The language and social background of 1 Corinthians 7 are compared with that of the Greek and Latin marriage and divorce papyri. These papyri are found to be particularly useful for illuminating the issue of divorce-by-separation, which Paul appears to be combating in vv. 10-15. They also give insights into Paul’s unusual use of ἀφίημι for ‘divorce’, and the curious absence of teaching about remarriage in this chapter. Paul is found to have a positive approach to marriage, emphasising the commitment it involves, while warning that bringing up a family was difficult at the present time of famine.

I. Introduction

Paul’s teaching on divorce and remarriage in 1 Corinthians 7 is regarded as so problematic that there is still a debate about whether or not it contains any teaching on remarriage at all. We can assume that a first century reader at Corinth would not find the chapter so difficult to understand because Paul was a successful communicator who knew his readership at Corinth. Important light is thrown onto the issue when the chapter is read with a wider understanding of the social background and language of the Corinthian Christians.

The background literature which is the nearest equivalent to 1 Corinthians 7 is the legal papyri regarding marriage and divorce. Paul is presenting a Christian response to problems concerning marriage which were faced by Graeco-Roman and (to a lesser extent) Jewish converts at Corinth. He does not give a complete outline of Christian teaching in this area, but he deals with questions and problems which have arisen, and a few related issues. He is therefore

dealing with legal concepts which would be found in marriage contracts and divorce certificates of his readers. The Roman statutes and rulings of the time have been preserved to a large degree in the 4th century digests of Justinian, though for specifically Greek law we have just one very fragmentary papyrus.1 Jewish law is preserved in better condition, but is still found only in 3rd-6th century collections. Our best sources are therefore the legal papyri of the time.

Marriage and divorce papyri have never been collected in one place. They are scattered throughout a large number of editions, and a few are found only in isolated articles. Montevecchi published incomplete li...

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