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«Journal of Religion & Society Volume 10 (2008) The Kripke Center ISSN 1522-5658 Paul and Asceticism in 1 Corinthians 9:27a Kent L. Yinger, George Fox ...»

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Journal of Religion & Society Volume 10 (2008)

The Kripke Center ISSN 1522-5658

Paul and Asceticism in 1 Corinthians 9:27a

Kent L. Yinger, George Fox Evangelical Seminary


Amidst the resurgence of interest in Paul and asceticism relatively little focus has been put

upon one Pauline text with seemingly obvious ascetic potential: “I beat my body” (1 Corinthians 9:27a). After a brief introduction to the discussion of asceticism and an ascetic Paul, this article will survey the Wirkungsgeschichte of this text, especially in the patristic era, engage in exegesis of 1 Corinthians 9:27a, and draw conclusions as to the relevance of the text for discussion of Pauline asceticism.

An Ascetic Paul? Recent Discussion [1] Most study of Paul and asceticism focuses on 1 Corinthians 7 and the apostle’s attitude toward sexuality and marriage, comparing it with Hellenistic and Jewish sexual ethics. Oddly, very little attention has been paid to 1 Corinthians 9:27a (“I punish my body and enslave it”), a text that would appear to have obvious ascetic potential. This paper seeks to fill that gap.

After a brief orientation to current debate on Paul and asceticism and on the definition of “asceticism,” we consider the role of 1 Corinthians 9:27a in the Christian ascetic tradition.

Did this text play a greater role in earlier discussions of ascetic practice than it has more recently? Exegesis of 1 Corinthians 9:27a in its immediate context and in the context of contemporary scholarly discussion will occupy the remainder of the article.

[2] Paul has been variously championed as the model ascetic or the convinced anti-ascetic.

Up until more recently, scholarship held firmly to the anti-ascetic perspective (Lohse;

Brown: 44-57). These scholars often understood asceticism in terms of Hellenistic dualism; it entailed a negative attitude toward the material order and involved renunciation and withdrawal. Although ascetic-looking practices made occasional appearances in the Old Testament and second temple Jewish sources, they were either exceptional (e.g., Nazarite vows, Essenes) or entailed a fundamentally different motivation (e.g., temporary sexual abstinence of priests for purposes of purity). Israelite religion was essentially a worldPaul and Asceticism in 1 Corinthians 9:27a affirming, not world-denying, faith, as evidenced by its consistent endorsement of marriage and procreation. The same was true for the New Testament. The few seeming exceptions only proved the rule: John the Baptist’s ascetic lifestyle was exceptional, and Paul’s positive stance toward celibacy (1 Corinthians 7) had a pragmatic and apocalyptic motivation rather than a dualistic one. According to thesewriters, genuine asceticism (i.e., inspired by Greek philosophical dualism) was considered to have made its appearance in Christian circles only in the post-apostolic period. Thus, asceticism found no true home in early Judaism or Christianity, but represented a Hellenistic spirit and skipped over the Old Testament and New Testament to raise its head in the patristic era.

[3] The past two decades, however, have witnessed a resurgence of interest in an ascetic Paul. The 1980’s saw the work of the SBL Group on Ascetic Behavior in Greco-Roman Antiquity, conferences in the 90’s, and numerous studies in support of Pauline or New Testament asceticism (Wimbush; Wimbush and Valantasis; Vaage and Wimbush; see also Clark). Much of this interest reflects changing understandings of the very nature of asceticism. Although no consensus definition has been reached by these efforts, most are agreed that a traditional and strongly negative definition (renunciation or withdrawal rooted in Hellenistic dualism) is insufficient and was itself largely responsible for the earlier nonascetic conclusions reached. Instead, attention focuses on behaviors commonly associated with asceticism (fasting, sexual continence, poverty, isolation) regardless of duration, degree, or ideological motivation; or emphasis rests upon the sociological role of such behavior – it is a (positive) response to some tension or hindrance found in society or self toward spiritual fulfillment. Thus, Paul’s thoughts on celibacy in 1 Corinthians 7, even if pragmatically or apocalyptically motivated, still constitute a form of asceticism (i.e., ascetic behavior). The trajectory of asceticism does not skip over Paul (and the New Testament and early Judaism), but runs right through him; he is, in fact, “the model ascetic” (chapter title in Roetzel; drawn from Meeks: 193).

[4] The ascetic Paul has not won the day (Deming, esp. chap. 4), but he is definitely on the rise. To be clear, this embrace of an ascetic Paul does not force one to view the apostle as a Hellenistic dualist (as in older studies), but rests on a more positive definition. “Asceticism” derives from Gk ἄσκησις (physical training), which was then extended by Stoics and Cynics to refer to training in the philosophical or religious sphere, and is now generally understood in English as “given to strict self-denial, esp. for the sake of spiritual or intellectual discipline” (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary). While this paper does not claim to advance the debate about definition, neither can it avoid some definitional starting point. As noted above, a stricter, dualistic definition will typically result in a non-ascetic Paul, while a broader definition may allow for the opposite. For this paper, I will adopt the following working definition: practices designed to discipline or to deny desires (physical or psychological) in order to attain a spiritual goal. This avoids the Hellenistic dualism of earlier studies and seems to be an acceptable middle ground in recent study (Fraade; Kaelber; on the problem of definition, see Saldarini: 12-18).

1 Corinthians 9:27a in Early Christian Interpretation: Patristic (Ascetic) Writings [5] On occasion, this verse has been painted as the chief fountainhead of more severe ascetic practices, such as flagellation. “The practices of the Middle-Age Flagellants and similar selfJournal of Religion & Society 2 10 (2008) Paul and Asceticism in 1 Corinthians 9:27a torturers have been justified by this text” (Findlay: 856). How, in fact, was 1 Corinthians 9:27a used and understood in early Christian interpretation? What role, if any, did it play in discussion of ascetic practices? This study of the Wirkungsgeschichte of 1 Corinthians 9:27a will

proceed more or less chronologically (on asceticism in this period more broadly, see Clark:

14-42; Brown: 33-64).

[6] Although a long tradition of scholarship has held that Greek dualistic emphases corrupted biblical tradition in the direction of asceticism in this period, such analyses seldom gave any notice to 1 Corinthians 9:27a.1 Finding citations of, or allusions to, 1 Corinthians 9:27a is made more difficult by the fact that no thorough Scripture index to this body of literature yet exists.2 Appendix I contains an alphabetically arranged listing of early uses of 1 Corinthians 9:27a.

[7] A fairly broad understanding of what constitutes a use of 1 Corinthians 9:27a has been employed in what follows in order to include all possible instances where it may be reasonably argued that an author intends some reminiscence of that text. No attempt will be made to distinguish carefully between citations, allusions and echoes since the boundaries between these categories are fluid and definitions are not clearly agreed-upon (Hays). For the

purposes of this investigation, the texts fall into four groups:

1. Those that use 1 Corinthians 9:27a in reference to some form of harsh or severe bodily chastisement;

2. Those that use 1 Corinthians 9:27a in reference to various forms of bodily discipline or renunciation seen as an important element in the spiritual struggle between spirit and flesh, sometimes with explicit rejection of severe forms of chastisement;

3. Those that contain possible, but highly uncertain, echoes of 1 Corinthians 9:27a;

4. Those that use 1 Corinthians 9:27a in other (non-ascetic) ways.

Group 1: Texts citing or alluding to 1 Corinthians 9:27a with reference to harsh bodily chastisement [8] Harsh treatment of the body for purposes of Christian perfection was not unknown to the authors of this period. Macarius is reported to have sat naked for six months in a marsh until he became unrecognizable from the mass of mosquito bites on his body; and Evagrius, also late fourth century, is said to have prayed all night in a cistern of water in mid-winter and to have stood for weeks in the open until his body was covered with vermin.3 However, See, for example, Lohse (170 and n. 2), who notes only Origen’s use of this text in Contra Celsum 5, 49. Cf. also Burton-Christie, whose thorough study of the use of Scripture in early monastic tradition gives no attention to this text.

Standard treatments of Greek and Latin commentators (Staab; Souter), for instance, contain no reference to 1 Corinthians 9.27. The most complete tool for patristic biblical references remains Allenbach.

All these cases appear to have been exceptional responses to instances of particularly severe temptation, see Sinkewicz: xix-xx.

–  –  –

only one author makes reference to 1 Corinthians 9:27a in connection with such harsh bodily discipline.4 [9] In the prologue to his fifth-century history of Syrian monasticism, Theodoret alludes to 1 Corinthians 9:27a when speaking of the monks’ triumph over the multitudinous attacks of unseen enemies.

... their love of the divine beauty was intense; with joy they desired to do and to suffer all for the Beloved. Thus, they bore heroically the storm of sufferings; in might they repelled all that the devil might hail upon them and, using the apostle’s own words, they chastised their body and brought it in subjection [τὸ σῶμα ὑπωπιάσαντες καὶ δουλαγωγήσαντες] (Phil. hist., Prologue 3.1103;

Greek text in Patrologia Graeca 82.1288B; Gutberlet: 23).

The larger context of this saying speaks of night watches, carrying chains, and withstanding hunger and cold, justifying Gutberlet’s mention of “bodily asceticism” and “unusual corporal chastising” here and in the larger context. Although Theodoret probably uses 1 Corinthians 9:27a here in reference to the unusually harsh bodily discipline of the Syrian monks, such harsh treatment is not, however, primary elsewhere in his account of the monks’ striving for virtue. That is, this use of 1 Corinthians 9:27a is to some degree exceptional.5 [10] Thus, there is very little evidence that 1 Corinthians 9:27a played any significant role in justifying harsh ascetic treatment of the body, and that which exists comes near the end of the period under consideration (late fourth to mid-fifth century).

Group 2: Texts citing or alluding to 1 Corinthians 9:27a with reference to various forms of bodily discipline or renunciation seen as an important element in the spiritual struggle between spirit and flesh, sometimes with explicit rejection of severe forms of chastisement [11] This group of texts from the third to the fifth centuries comprises the largest number (see Appendix I). No development in the patristic understanding of 1 Corinthians 9:27a visà-vis asceticism is discernable; thus, the following section will simply illustrate those aspects of patristic interpretation that occur consistently throughout the period.

[12] The metaphors of “beating” and “subduing” are nearly always taken to refer to Paul’s struggle for the virtue of self-control against the passions of the flesh, usually with reference

to common ascetic practices such as fasting, watching, and avoidance of luxury:

To pommel the body is to fast and to avoid any kind of luxury. Paul shows that he disciplines his own body so that he will not miss out on the reward about which he preaches to others. (Ambrosiaster, Commentary on Paul’s Epistles;

Corpus scriptorum ecclesiasticorum latinorum 81.106-7 [italics added]; cited in Bray: 88-90).

Macarius of Alexandria might be added as a third if the echo of 1 Corinthians 9.27a were more certain; see under Group 3 below.

“Das wesen der Tugend liegt eben für ihn und die Mönche nicht in Äußerlichkeiten, sondern im Willen...

[bes.] die Liebe zu Gott: ὁ θεῖος ἔρως” (Gutberlet: 9-10).

–  –  –

If Paul... who proved superior to bodily necessities... felt the need to pommel his body, bring it into subjection, submit it to the authority of the soul and place its impulses under the virtue of the soul... (Chrysostom, Hom. Gen. XXII.22; Fathers of the Church 82:86; Greek text in Patrologia Graeca 53.23).

... while at rest they afflict and exhaust themselves by resisting their own desires, by harnessing their lust, by keeping unbounded liberty in check, and by dashing to the ground everything else which is opposed to the good of self-control. This is in accordance with the one who said, “I punish my body and subject it to servitude, so that after preaching to others I myself should be rejected” (Origen, Comm. Rom. IV.9.9; Fathers of the Church 103:290; no extant Greek text; Latin text in Patrologia Graeca 14).6 Here Origen understands Paul to be referring to the self-control of fleshly lusts by resisting desires, harnessing lust, and checking unbounded liberty.7 [13] Frequently, these authors point out that such struggle against the flesh does not entail overly severe treatment of the physical body, something that was apparently being practiced by others. Augustine claims to follow Ambrose in differentiating between Paul’s physical body (which is himself and is not evil per se) and his body qua flesh (which is “of himself”

and is the fountain of evil). He beats and subdues the latter but not the former:

Therefore, the soul is by nature the ruler and mistress of the flesh, and should subdue and govern the flesh. Therefore,... the soul says... in St.

Paul [1 Corinthians 9:27]: “But I chastise my body and bring it into subjection.” Therefore, Paul chastises what is of him and not what is himself.

For what is of him is one thing, what is himself is another. He chastises what is of him, so that he, being just, may bring about the death of bodily wantonness (C. Jul. 24; see also Ambrose, Letters to Priests 49, “Ambrose to Horontianus”).

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