Paul of Tarsus’ Understanding of Evil Communication in 1 Cor. 15:33

face of a prisoner

The evil-communication phrase occurs in Paul of Tarsus’ letters to the Corinthians at 1 Corinthians 15:33. The phrase is a quotation from Menander. Its context in Menander provides considerable insight into its meaning. So too do the circumstances in Corinth at the time Paul wrote his letter.

In first-century Corinth, the communication industry was important and vigorously competitive. A visitor to the city about 93 CE observed communication industry leaders “shouting and abusing one another” and “engaging in invective against each other in order to demonstrate to the crowd and to their disciples just how inferior their competitors were.”^ In such an environment, one found “a multitude of quarrels and lawsuits, harsh cries, tongues that are mischievous and unrestrained, accusers, calumnies, writs, {and} a horde of professional pleaders.”^ Those who succeeded in public oratory and argument gained considerable social status, wealth, political influence, and privileged sexual opportunities. One such industry leader described himself thus:

Here am I, a man of affairs, a leader in city life…. I am healthy, in the full vigor of life, dressed in the finest loincloth, own a house in a respectable neighborhood, am of good breeding and a source of pride for my family and friends, who are many. ^

Just like television news anchors, ambitious communication industry participants in Corinth paid careful attention to hairstyle, jewelry, and smoothness of skin. Personal beauty was an important source of competitive advantage.^ Eloquence, tone of voice, expressiveness, and unusual sexual appeal attracted public attention and contributed to market success. Teachers who attained public acclaim in Corinth could make money from speaking fees. Even more lucrative was to set up a school where ambitious young men from wealthy families would pay high fees to learn from a celebrity and be associated with him.

According to Paul of Tarsus, such communicative competition was corrupting the small, low-status Christian community that he had nourished at Corinth. Christians in Corinth were dividing into supporters of different preachers of the Christen gospel, as if the preachers of the gospel were normal competitors in the Corinthian communication market.^ Paul declared that he did not seek to compete in eloquence and wisdom of words:

Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?… For consider your call, brethren; not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth; but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong ^

Paul lacked personal attributes highly valued in the Corinthian communications market.^ He lacked a forceful speaking presence.^ Described as “a man small of stature, with a bald head and crooked legs,” Paul was probably considered ugly by the prevailing standards of male physical beauty.^ Paul described himself and his companions thus:

we hunger and thirst, we are ill-clad and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things ^

Paul figured himself as a mother and as a father to the Corinthian Christians.^ He included the evil-communication phrase at 1 Corinthians 15:33, a pivotal point in that letter. Paul used the evil-communication phrase to amplify his warning that the communicative practices that structured normal competition in Corinth threatened to corrupt the way of life that he had taught the small, low-status Christian community there.

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, just as in Menander, the evil-communication phrase only indirectly concerns sex. The young men in Corinth who competed aggressively in the communications industry fought for prizes that included high-status sexual opportunities. Corinthian males of sufficiently high status attended banquets that featured, as after-dinner entertainment, persons, mainly women, hired to have sex with the attendees. Some Corinthian Christians probably achieved places at these banquets and had sex with the after-dinner entertainers. Paul vehemently condemned such practices.^ He urged the Corinthian Christians to be “as I am”; that is, an ugly, poor, single person who did not have sex, who worked as a manual laborer, proclaimed the gospel, and believed in the bodily resurrection of the dead in the coming new creation.^ Paul’s concerns were thus much broader than sexual behavior. In the ancient Greco-Roman world, persons with great skill in oratory and rhetoric gained privileged sexual opportunities. Paul condemned both rhetorical skill and the rewarding sexual opportunities it generated.

Paul preached a life that lessened the value of rhetorical skill for securing sex. First, he instructed women and men burning with sexual desire to marry each other, put themselves completely at the sexual service of each other, and never to seek to have sex with anyone else.^ Second, in a message that seems to be directed particularly toward men, Paul observed that God wills:

that each one of you know how to take a wife for himself in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like heathen who do not know God ^

Paul seems to be alluding here to the behavior of Tobiah, a figure in a Hebrew book dating from early in the second century BCE. Tobiah refused to “eat, drink, and be merry” before consummating his marriage to Sarah.^ After Sarah’s parents shut the newlyweds’ bedroom door and left them alone, Tobiah and Sarah didn’t immediately have sex:

Tobiah arose from bed and said to his wife, “My love, get up. Let us pray and beg our Lord to have mercy on us and to grant us deliverance.” She got up, and they started to pray and beg that deliverance might be theirs. He began with these words: “Blessed are you, O God of our fathers; praised be your name forever and ever. Let the heavens and all your creation praise you forever. You made Adam and you gave him his wife Eve to be his help and support; and from these two the human race descended. You said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; let us make him a partner like himself.’ Now, Lord, you know that I take this wife of mine not because of lust, but for a noble purpose. Call down your mercy on me and on her, and allow us to live together to a happy old age.” They said together, “Amen, amen,” and went to bed for the night. ^

The evolutionary creation of human beings has focused male sexual desire on female features correlated with high fertility.^ Paul’s instructions direct sex toward marriage engaged “in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust,” or as Tobiah said, “not because of lust, but for a noble purpose.” Holiness, honor, and noble purpose are less observable, less objective, and less comparable across persons than fertility. The instructions that Paul offered thus imply less intense, more differentiated competition for sexual partners. At the same time, this “more excellent way” promised a long period of full sexual access without competition:

For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer, but then come together again ^

Paul prefaced the evil-communication phrase in 1 Cor. 15:33 with a phrase that might be best translated as “stop being seduced.”^ Paul used the evil-communication phrase to warn against the highly skilled verbal presentations by which ambitious males in Corinth competed for rewards that included high-status sexual opportunities.

Leave a comment (will be included in public domain license)

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *