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Sexual Ethics in the Bible

I’m a New Testament scholar mostly; and so I teach New Testament a lot and so the example I want to use is the difference between what scholars understand to be the authentic Pauline texts and the disputed Pauline texts.

One of the main pieces of evidence that those texts are different, one set seven letters written by Paul, another set seven letters probably not written by Paul is that they actually offer very different advice around this question of marriage. And it would appear that those letters that are undisputed recommend celibacy if possible. So, Paul will say, “I prefer that everyone remain as I, myself am,” and he seems to mean celibate. Then he’ll say, “well you can get married if your desires are strong but better not to.”

It’s really different than what one finds in what scholars call the Pastoral Epistles, First Timothy, Second Timothy and Titus, which suggest that women are saved by child- bearing. I mean this is a very different argument and insists that women should learn from their husbands at home. That’s a very different assumption about marriage being central to what it means to be in the Christian community in those letters versus in Paul’s undisputed letters where he is suggesting that not being married is actually the way to be if one wants to be proper Christ-follower.

So, that’s a pretty important contradiction even within the Pauline corpus about the best way to live one’s life: married/unmarried, children/no children; again, we find a big contradiction there too. There are New Testament texts that suggest that we should have children or that children are an expected part of what Christians do and then there are other texts that suggest that children are irrelevant to the project of being a follower of Jesus.

The Book of Revelation suggests that a hundred and forty four thousand men who’ve not defiled themselves with women surround the throne of God. Then we have other texts like Ephesians that suggests that the best way to exercise fidelity to Jesus Christ is in the context of a household with a married male head of household with a wife, children, and slaves. So, I’m not sure how we put those texts together and claim that we have a consistent sexual policy even within the New Testament, not to mention differences of opinion within the Hebrew Bible and then between the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament.

  • Jennifer Knust

    Jennifer Knust is Professor of Religious Studies at Duke University. She specializes in the literature and history of ancient Christianity and is author of To Cast the First Stone: The Transmission of a Gospel Story (with Tommy Wasserman, Princeton University Press, 2019), as well as several other books and articles.