One should keep several things in mind when deciding whether to limit Paul allowance of a mixed marriage in 1 Corinthians 7:12-14. These include Paul's use of the Greek, his Hebrew background, and the early church fathers.
1 Corinthians 7:12 starts with εἴ τις transliterated as EI TIS, translating to “if any.” This expression makes it conditional; Greek conditionals either function under specific circumstances or expresses a general truth. EI TIS generalizes a statement. Herbert Weir Smyth stated, “When the protasis has EI TIS and the apodosis a present indicative, the simple condition has a double meaning referring both to an individual case and to a rule of action.”
At times, the phrase generalized Paul’s words. In 1 Corinthians 3:12, Paul said if any built on the foundation of Jesus Christ, with gold, silver, or costly stones, their work would become obvious. David Kuck said “Paul is trying to state a general principle rather than make specific accusations, even though he may well have specific examples in Corinth in mind.… Paul uses this formula frequently in 1 Corinthians to couch a ruling or warning in an indefinite form.”
Paul made many statements starting with ἐὰν or EI. These are “admonitions regarding eventualities: when a certain event or case happens, then they are valid and should be observed,” according to Schrage. Victor Furnish said EI TIS in Paul usually had a general sense. E. Kaseman pointed out that there were casuistic sentences of holy law introduced by EI TIS.
Paul didn't just speak specifically to the Corinthians when he wrote the letter. Perhaps, he talked to all who had or would one day have unbelieving spouses. Marriage before or after conversion might not matter. A believer has an unbeliever either way.
A few examples show Paul’s used EI TIS in several ways.
- Statements applying to all who meet the condition's requirement: Romans 8:9, 1 Corinthians 8:2-3, 11:16, 2 Corinthians 5:17, Galatians 6:3, and 1 Timothy 3:1, 5:8, and 6:3-4.
- Universal Commands: 1 Corinthians 7:36, 11:34, 2 Thessalonians 3:10, 14, and 1 Timothy 5:4, 16.
- Punishment on whoever did something: 1 Corinthians 3:17, 14:37-38, 16:22, and Galatians 1:9
Paul's Jewish Background
Additionally, Paul's interpretation and use of theological ideas depict him as a well-educated Jew, according to J. Jones. C. Roetzel speculated Paul’s letters have traces of Pharisaism. Rosner said, “Jewish moral teaching represents an intermediary stage which stands between the Scriptures and Paul and mediates Scripture to Paul…. In part, Paul heard the moral demands of Scripture through his Jewish ‘filter’ when he formulated the ethical instruction recorded in the epistles.”
Did rabbis sanction a Jewish convert continuing with their gentile significant other? No! Ernst von Dobschütz said the proselyte “was under no obligation to his or her heathen spouse and was strictly bound to enter into a new marriage with a Jew.”
Judaism held conversion made someone a new creature. Previous ties ended. The Mishnah, written around 200 AD, may contain Pharisaic teachings from the first two centuries. Yevamot 62a of the Mishnah likens a proselyte to a newborn with no relations. The work Joseph and Aseneth, which most scholars dated between 100 BC and 100 AD, records Aseneth, a pagans priest’s daughter’s faith journey. M. Hubbard said, after her transformation, “Aseneth is no longer the daughter of [pagan priest] Pentephres, but ‘the daughter of the most high’… Aseneth’s change of status from ‘foreigner’ to sister furthers the author’s point that conversion is, in fact, new birth into a new family.” Tacitus reported Jews advised proselytes to regard their past kinships of little account. Philo explained neophytes abandoned friends, kinsfolk, and country. They were deserters.
David Daube supposed Paul taught nothing linked a convert to their prior existence nor obligated them to cling to the unbeliever. Since old bonds ended, a new marriage begins if the infidel stays with the adherent. Daube says, “In this matter, Paul is characteristically and daringly more liberal than the rabbis. ... [H]e recognizes the union even if the unconverted partner is a heathen.”
Converts had no previous ties. Therefore, in theory, the rabbis let them marry former relatives!
Corinthians 5 describes a man having his father’s wife. Daube said this law would help justify the relationship. Wilhelm Meyer also made this connection. ERNST VON DOBSCHUTZ observed, “The strangeness of such an incest in the Christian church has induced Trigland...to employ the terms of Jewish proselyte law in order to explain the conduct of the incestuous person.”
Daube’s theory perhaps presumes too much. However, questioning whether Paul would allow a believer and unbeliever to stay together because they married before conversion appears logical. J. L. Houlden observed, “Dr. David Daube has suggested that Paul’s view is in effect quite the opposite of what it seems to the modern reader.… In terms of doctrine, it is exceptional that the [believing] partner should remain.”
The Early Church Fathers
Irenaeus, a bishop born in 130 AD, analogized Hosea and the prostitute Gomer to a believing husband and unbelieving wife. Hosea (as a “Christian”) married and sanctified Gomer (an “unbeliever”). If Irenaeus thought sanctification demanded two unbelievers marrying and one converting afterward, why didn’t he remark on it? More likely, in Irenaeus’ theology, holiness sanctified uncleanness, independent of order.
Origen claims Paul gave additional charges to the church, like Moses and the bill of divorce. 1 Corinthians 7:12-14 was an example of a law from Paul, because he said he had no law from the Lord.
Origen saw the believer sanctifying the unbeliever as saving them. Although Paul said the believer would sanctify the unbeliever, he could be wrong. The reverse could happen; the unbeliever could profane, or lead astray, the believer. Origen says, “Therefore, it is a good thing that a person, before being surprised, carefully examine not only the present but also the future, and, having examined it, either not to marry or, if to marry, to marry in the Lord (1 Cor 7:39). ... We do not obey the verse only in the Lord [if we marry a non-believer], but when we read that she is free to be married to whomever she wishes, we have not yet connected it with only in the Lord.” Earlier, he said it was sounder to obey God’s law’s than Paul’s.
Cohen said, “Origen understands 1 Cor 7:12–14 as Pauline permission to a Christian to enter into a mixed marriage, not merely permission to continue an already existing mixed marriage. 1 Cor 7:39 is an alternative to 1 Cor 7:12–14.”
A similar passage in Origen’s commentary on Matthew may help explain. It too mentioned Moses allowing divorce for the hardness of people’s hearts. He then talked about church leaders allowing a woman to remarry, even though Romans 7:3 said a woman who married another man while her first husband lived would be an adulteress. Origen said, “[T]his concession was permitted in comparison with worse things, contrary to what was from the beginning ordained by law, and written.” He theorized the church leaders permitted remarriage because of weakness and hardness of heart. They wanted to prevent greater evil. Origen could have seen Paul’s ruling similarly.
Tertullian first proposed limiting the verse to pre-existing unions. Even in his works, Caroline points out, “We have evidence of ‘unpublished Christians’- those whose opinions are not represented by their own extant texts, but they might recover whose views in the published arguments of others-who read Paul differently.” One proposed example includes when women and counselors saw 1 Cor. 7:14 as approval to marry an outsider. In Caroline’s terminology, Tertullian alluded to advisors who “supported their decision and interpretation of Paul.” He recorded a man saying marrying an unbeliever was a tiny sin. Caroline closes by saying the unpublished and published Christian writers “signal that boundaries were not always clear between Christians and non-believers.”
Why did Paul use the generalizing phrase EI TIS? Was he giving a broad command, applying whether or not conversion or marriage happened?
Was it true that in Paul's time, nothing would obligate a Jewish convert to stay with a Jewish spouse? How much would this teaching have affected his ruling? If it affected his ruling a great deal, the fact that two unbelievers married and then one converted in and of itself wouldn't be the reason Paul allowed the marriage.
Does Irenaeus' silence mean he didn't make a distinction between mixed marriage before or after conversion? Were there advisors who interpreted 1 Cor. 7:14 as allowing mixed marriages, as Tertullian suggested may have been the case?
None of these questions have definite answers. Nonetheless, they are worth pondering.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2020 BridgettBernadett