Will DEMING, Paul on Marriage and Celibacy: The Hellenistic Background of 1 Corinthians 7. second edition, foreword by Raymond F. Collins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), xxii + 272 pp.
Reviewed by David CLOUTIER, College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University, St. Joseph, MN, 56374

Deming's in-depth study of the context of the most famous New Testament treatment of marriage and celibacy is aimed at proving the following thesis: "that Paul's understanding of marriage is predicated on a positive evaluation of celibacy rather than a negative evaluation of sexuality or a theology of sexual asceticism" (207). It is only after Paul that celibacy becomes a practice which aims directly at the goal of sexual asceticism, within the context of increasingly dualistic construals of the Christian life.

The main way in which Deming supports this thesis is by arguing that the appropriate context for understanding 1 Corinthians 7 is an ongoing debate about marriage between Stoics and Cynics. The bulk of the book (chapters 2 & 3) is taken up by detailing this debate both before and after Paul, and by closely scruntizing the entirely of the chapter for indications of the influence of this debate. Roughly speaking, the Stoic- Cynic debate is a disagreement over whether it is good to marry; however, the major difference is not over a positive or negative evaluation of sexual desire or the body (such considerations "played no part at all" in the debate, 104), but over the question of the practical activities and responsibilities which marriage brings. The Cynics argue for a cosmopolitan individualism in which the responsibilities of marriage inhibit the freedom of the philosopher, while the Stoics reinforce the goodness of actions which preserve the right order of the universe and, at a more practical level, the city-state. Later Stoics, however, leave room for a Cynic-like position for some, based on both individual and social circumstances which may render marriage in a particular place or instance not good. It is this later Stoic position, Deming contends, which best sets the context for Paul's own position in the letter, allowing him to support marriage in general, while leaving room for the recommendation of celibacy to some, in light of the "circumstances." Paul's rather strong preference for celibacy here is explained by the apocalyptic circumstances invoked explicitly and often by Paul; however, it is important to see that "to a congregation not beset by these circumstances, or beset by a different set of circumstances, Paul's response may have been substantially different" (211). This also allows Deming to argue consistently that Paul's advocacy for celibacy here is one driven by practical considerations, not by an intrinsic sense that the celibate life is "better" because of its sexual asceticism.

There is no question that Deming's case for this background is strong, and that his reading allows for an unusually consistent reading of a chapter that deals with a diversity of issues. Most importantly, the importance of practical considerations (instead of a preference for sexual asceticism) allows for Paul's many remarks in the chapter which are positive about marriage (apparently over against some at Corinth who wished to abandon marriages, force spouses into continent marriages, or stop the unmarried from marrying). But what of Paul's remarks like 7:9? Deming's thesis does not necessitate avoiding all questions of sexual desire, but rather treats the question of sexual desire as one practical concern among others, where the most important command is the avoidance of porneia. Indeed, one of Deming's most interesting Stoic parallels cites "passionate love" as a reason for those who otherwise would be best not marrying to marry (82). Deming does pass over rather quickly the common Stoic thesis that the goal of marriage is procreation, not sexual pleasure, but again, the centrality of procreative purpose once again points to household and civic responsibilities as the main Stoic concern, and not the question of sexual desire.

Scholars should note that the book contains a thorough review of competing interpretations of this passage, placing Deming's work in context, as well as two important works from the Stoic and Cynic debate in fresh translation with Greek text as appendices.

Deming's thesis would lead to two interesting contentions outside the area of biblical scholars. First, the insistence on reading this chapter as "the work of a practical church administrator" (213) within a debate over marriage framed by practical considerations could lead to significantly more attention being paid to practical questions of marriage and celibacy "in a time and place", rather than to questions about the general equality or superiority of one or the other state. Second, it would allow for questions of how much or little Christian marital practice has to do with the health of the state and other civil considerations, obviously important in the current debate over same-sex marriages.


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