New Testament Words and Verses
I Corinthians 5:1, 5; Read the Words but Meaning Opaque
One of the Apostle Paul’s most beloved but troubled congregations was at Corinth. As is easy to discover with little reading, Corinth was one of the leading cities in Greece both in Classical and Hellenistic times. Its diverse population of Greeks, Romans and Jews, coupled with its pivotal location on the Gulf of Corinth, made it a city of culture and government for the Greeks and later, the Romans. The church of Corinth no doubt imbibed this diverse flavor as it struggled to understand the nature of its life as this new thing called a Christian congregation.
I Corinthians 5 describes the Apostle’s horror and disgust, if those aren’t too strong, with an ethical lapse in the Corinthian congregation, a lapse which had to be immediately attended to. But both the offense and the proposed solution to deal with the offense are cloaked in such obscurity of language that we draw a blank on almost every important question we want to raise about what was going on. Let’s quote and translate the texts (my own translation) and then reflect briefly on the meaning.
1Ὅλως ἀκούεται ἐν ὑμῖν πορνεία, καὶ τοιαύτη πορνεία ἥτις οὐδὲ ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν,
“It is everywhere reported among you that there is sexual immorality, which isn’t even found in the presence of the people outside/nations/Gentiles. . ."
Just a few comments. The first word is an adverb, derived from the Greek word for “whole” or “entire,” but it is subject to a wonderful array of possible translations such as “actually” or “commonly” or “I can hardly believe the report” or “everyone has heard” or “widely” or “reported everywhere.” The issue with Ὅλως is its “tone.” Is it supposed to capture incredulity of the writer or the fact of its widespread nature? I went with a little of both, but that is no means certain. Then, this kind of behavior isn’t even found, literally, “among the nations.” Other translations have “the Gentiles” or “unbelievers,” and the idea is clear—those “outside” the Church. But now the fun starts:
ὥστε γυναῖκά τινα τοῦ πατρὸς ἔχειν.
This can be rendered in several ways. First, literal:
“With the result being that a certain man has the wife of the father.”
Or, because the τινα can be a feminine as well as a masculine indefinite pronoun, it can also modify the γυναῖκά, which leads to the somewhat nonsensical, but possible, “with the result of having a certain wife of the father.” Most translators render it, “with the result that a man is sleeping with/married to the wife of his father.” But there is no reference to “his” father. We don’t know if the offending person is married to her, which might assume the divorce of the couple or the death of the father or simply is engaged in sexual intimacy with her. We assume that “wife of the father” means the step-mother, but that isn’t necessarily clear. It can just as well mean his biological mother.
Thus, we don’t know if Paul is outraged or whether he is stressing simply that the story of immorality has been bruited about widely. We don’t really know if what is being condemned is a child’s being married to his stepmother or sleeping with his stepmother, or somehow even connected sexually with his biological mother. We assume that τοῦ πατρὸς means “his father,” though the “his” is absent. In any case, because Paul is being so elliptical here, we can’t rule out any of the choices I have given above. We can render the words, but we really don’t know what he means. Paul knows how to be clear when he wants, so it is kind of strange that he chooses not to be clear here.
Well, even though that isn’t so well and good, that is the problem. Sexual sin now has to be excised from the body of Christ. Paul goes on in the next few verses to tell the congregation that they need to act under his authority to take care of the problem. Exactly what they are to do is captured in verse 5:
5παραδοῦναι τὸν τοιοῦτον τῷ σατανᾷ εἰς ὄλεθρον τῆς σαρκός, ἵνα τὸ πνεῦμα σωθῇ ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τοῦ κυρίου.
“Give such a one (the man) to Satan into the destruction of the flesh, so that the spirit will be saved in the day of the Lord.”
παραδίδωμι is a wonderfully suggestive verb that has a variety of meanings, from an official act of handing a person over to authorities (Matt 10:19) to a deliverance of responsibility (Matt 11:27) to an act of betrayal (very frequently in the NT). Because the verb often appears in legal contexts, the most natural way of reading it for me in this instance is through a semi- or quasi-judicial process in which the Church is engaged. That is, what is envisioned seems to have a formality to it, a kind of “deliverance” or “handing over” ceremony. In this instance, however, it is ‘into/to Satan.”
So it begs the question of whether there was some kind of primitive liturgy that was a “deliver to Satan”-type of liturgy, or whether Paul just assumed that they would make it up as they went along. We have no idea therefore of the formality of the ceremony, who is authorized to perform it, or what words were uttered as it was performed.
Then, we really are in the dark about the rather awe-inspiring and scary statement “For the destruction of the flesh.” The word for “destruction” (ὄλεθρον) is derived from a very popular verb meaning “to destroy” in the Septuagint (ολεθρεύω). This is a verb that fills the pages of Deuteronomy, for example, and is the go-to word to describe all those people whom the Lord will destroy for violating his commands or breaking his covenant.
What possibly could “destruction” of the flesh mean, especially when it is coupled with “saving the spirit” a few words later? There is some kind of destruction/salvation going on here. In a nutshell, we have no idea what is meant, but the noun “destruction” (ὄλεθρον) only appears three other times in the NT and in each context (I Thess 5:3: II Thess 1:9; I Tim 6:9) has the most horrendous, complete and utter destruction in view. Indeed, in II Thess 1:9 it is combined with “eternal” to emphasize its seriousness.
Thus, Paul seems to be suggesting some kind of capital punishment, but that is hard to understand. Does he have that authority? Well, the “Lord’s capital punishment” was exacted on Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5, and so that idea can’t simply be dismissed out of hand. Especially as those deaths in Acts 5 were effected by the word of an Apostle (Peter) and Paul, certainly, didn’t want to think of himself as any “less” and Apostle than Peter. Perhaps Paul, aware of the tradition of Peter’s “capital punishment” capacity, decided to try it out with the Corinthians in this passage.
Those who opt for the “strict but redemptive discipline” approach to reading ὄλεθρον really have nothing to go on but an inability to imagine anything worse. But the use of the word and the delivery to the death-dealer (Satan) suggests something much more severe than normal church discipline. Perhaps church capital punishment is in view. It seems so strange to our 21st century ears, but what do you think the Bible is supposed to be? A series of Tik-tok videos? So, I favor the notion that Paul is talking about taking the life of the offender.
But we have no idea how this might lead to salvation of spirit. The whole concept of dividing body and spirit for purposes of salvation sounds very un-Pauline. One’s whole self is saved. Thus we leave these verses, which we have managed to translate fairly clearly but with the result that we have no idea what Paul is talking about. It both humbles us because we know so little, but encourages to make up scenarios that might capture the violence and destruction that Paul seems to have in view. Anyone up for writing such a liturgy?