Book Reviews

The New Testament on Sexuality (Attitudes towards Sexuality in Judaism and Christianity in the Hellenistic Greco-Roman Era)

William Loader Grand Rapids August 8, 2012

This is the final volume in Loader’s five-part series on “attitudes towards sexuality in Judaism and Christianity of the Hellenistic Greco-Roman era.” The previous volumes cover the early Enoch literature, Aramaic Levi, and Jubilees (vol. 1); the Dead Sea Scrolls (vol. 2); the Pseudepigrapha (vol. 3); and Philo, Josephus, and the Testaments (vol. 4). Volumes 3 and 4 were reviewed in Bibliotheca Sacra 173 (2016): 116–19. A more popular and briefer book covering this material was published in 2013 (Making Sense of Sex: Attitudes towards Sexuality in Early Jewish and Christian Literature [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2013]).

The present book builds on the previous volumes in this series (p. 1). Nevertheless, chapters 1 and 2 summarize attitudes on sexuality in the Jewish and more general Hellenistic Greco-Roman contexts and cover a number of issues including marriage, divorce, adultery, and same-sex activity in order to place New Testament teaching in context.

Chapter 3 covers the Gospels. Among the passages discussed, significant treatment is given to Matthew 5:27–28 (pp. 109–19); 5:29–30 (pp. 127–35); and Mark 9:43–48, with Matthew’s interpretation of this passage reflected in 8:6–9 (pp. 119–27). Matthew 5:27–28 is not a warning against the results or effects of looking at a woman; rather, it warns against “looking with intent” (p. 119). Loader’s research has led him to understand that the Gospel writers and Jesus were very concerned about child abuse and specifically pederasty (e.g., Mark 9:42 [the verse preceding the section discussed in 9:43–38]; pp. 121–23, 129, 149). Other topics in this chapter include adultery (pp. 135–42), incest (pp. 143–46), and marital imagery used by Jesus (pp. 146–47).

Chapter 4 is devoted to Paul with a brief section on other texts. First, Loader discusses 1 Thessalonians 4:4 (pp. 152–60). This passage is full of interpretive difficulties, including the meaning of τὸ ἑαυτοῦ σκεῦος κτᾶσθαι. Is Paul commanding the reader in holiness and honor to control his body generally, to control his penis specifically, or to take a wife? Loader provides a helpful survey of these options with strengths and weaknesses and then soberly concludes that “body” is intended (p. 160).

Loader devotes most of this chapter to 1 Corinthians 5–7 (pp. 160–222). First he discusses an incestuous relationship being tolerated by the community in 1 Corinthians 5 (pp. 161–66). Considering what Paul does and does not say, it is possible that the offending son became the head of his household after his father’s death (p. 162). This household would have included either a wife or more likely a concubine that Paul considered a wife (p. 162). This woman would have been the son’s stepmother and likely of similar age (pp. 161–62). Paul views this sin as communal and applies biblical law, which included expulsion (pp. 163–66). In contrast, in 1 Corinthians 6 Paul confronts the issue of using prostitutes as an individual offense, as a sin against one’s own body (pp. 166–82). Paul focuses on the effect of the sex act, which is to create “one body” (p. 174), and notes that immoral acts place one under another’s authority (p. 172). Paul has a high view of sex; it must be reserved for the appropriate relationship. As Loader notes, “Paul would give no credence to the notion of casual sex” (p. 174).

Paul’s view of sex is subordinate to his view of Christ. In discussing celibacy and marriage, Loader sums up Paul’s view: “In Paul’s value system, avoiding sexual immorality has a higher priority than espousing celibacy, which, in turn, has a higher priority than marriage” (p. 188). For Paul, focus on Christ is most important. Therefore, celibacy is the preferred lifestyle. However, if passions are too much of a distraction and there is a serious danger of sin, marriage is a good alternative. It may not be a slogan used in many marriage ceremonies today, but for Paul, “marriage is a way of avoiding this danger [namely, sexual sin]” (p. 188). Loader is clear that Paul is not against sexual relations within marriage. In fact, in contrast to many thinkers of his day, Paul sees a legitimate place for sex, which is not limited to the purpose of procreation, as well as a place for desire and pleasure (p. 191). For Paul, serving Christ is the key and this should be the all-encompassing focus. Celibacy provides the least distracted path to this end. However, in light of the pull of temptation, marriage may be a better option for some (or many). Paul wants his readers to be fully committed to Christ. Everything else is subordinate. One’s marriage status needs to reflect one’s most effective way of serving Christ. Throughout this section, as elsewhere, Loader’s exegesis of 1 Corinthians 7 is both thorough and compelling.

Loader concludes his section on Paul by addressing two issues. First he discusses the meaning of Paul’s prohibition against being “bound together with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6:14, NASB; pp. 222–26). He concludes that Paul is not referring to marriages already in existence but is instructing readers not to enter into any sexual relationship, including marriage, with unbelievers (pp. 25–26). Then Loader addresses “flesh” in Romans 6–8 (pp. 226–33). He suggests that “flesh” includes, but is not limited to, sexual sin (pp. 231–33). He ends the chapter by briefly discussing texts not covered under Jesus and Paul (he considers Ephesians, Colossians, and the Pastorals as non-Pauline) (pp. 234–39). For the most part, the topic of sexuality in these books “remains at a fairly general level” (p. 234).

Chapters 5 through 8 discuss issues that need significant treatment and usually involve a number of New Testament passages. Beginning in chapter 5 with divorce, Loader explores Jesus’s teaching on the subject and discusses all of the relevant New Testament passages (Matt. 5:31–32; 19:9; Mark 10:11–12; Luke 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:10–11). He also addresses the controversy reflected in the larger pericopes (Mark 10:2–12 and Matt. 19:3–12). Even Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:10–11 comes from his understanding of Jesus’s teaching (although it is impossible to know exactly what he knew of it [p. 265]). After sifting through options and digging into the texts, Loader concludes that Jesus permitted divorce only in cases of extramarital sex (usually adultery) (p. 249) and that remarriage was allowed for those legitimately divorced (pp. 250–52). This strict view of divorce is due in part to a very high view of monogamous marriage based in creation (see the excellent discussion, pp. 275–79) and a powerful (“something almost magical” [p. 291]) understanding of what happens during sexual relations (pp. 288–91). Divorce and adultery do violence to this relationship (pp. 288, 290–91). Those familiar with David Instone-Brewer’s position, which suggests that there are other grounds for divorce not addressed by Jesus that are still valid (Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002]), will find disagreement here (p. 287, n. 158). Although Loader does not devote much space to this, he effectively highlights weaknesses in Instone-Brewer’s position.

The notion that Jesus’s view of marriage precluded any grounds for divorce except adultery is rather difficult to accept. There are so many circumstances in which people find themselves in difficult marriages. Loader provides a helpful perspective: “Divorcing a woman who has engaged in πορνεία may be traumatic for the woman as for the man, but this is deemed acceptable. Individual trauma is not in focus. The saying is operating within a purity framework rather than primarily in an ethical framework, let alone what we may term a pastoral one, despite the broader context of the Sermon on the Mount, which might have invited a different approach” (p. 252). Loader’s purpose does not provide a solution to the tension between the text and modern circumstances. His goal is to clearly discuss the passages. He does this well. Application must be found elsewhere. This is an excellent chapter. The focus is on Jesus’s teaching. However, it would be enhanced by sustained discussion on 1 Corinthians 7:12–15, where Paul instructs a believer to stay with an unbelieving spouse if he or she will have them (briefly noted on p. 268; see also, pp. 286, 88). Paul seems to grant freedom for the abandoned believer (1 Cor. 7:15). Although this involves a party outside the authority of the church (both are assumed to be believers in the previous discussion), it does add a small point of New Testament teaching on the subject of divorce.

In chapter 6, Loader addresses same-sex intercourse. As expected, the majority of the chapter is devoted to Romans 1:24, 26–28 (pp. 293–326). Loader’s thorough exegesis of this passage interacts with much of the important current literature. He concludes that in this passage concerning idolatry, Paul condemns same-sex acts as sin (p. 326). Though Loader does not feel bound by Paul’s convictions (p. 321), he focuses on what Paul said and provides an excellent exposition of the passage, letting Paul speak for himself. Most of the remaining chapter is devoted to 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10 (pp. 326–34). Loader argues that both μαλακός and ἀρσενο-κοίτης refer to males who engage in same-sex activities (pp. 331–32). He suggests that Romans 1:24, 26–28; 1 Corinthians 6:9; and 1 Timothy 1:10 are the only New Testament passages that directly mention same-sex acts (p. 354). In the remaining pages of the chapter, he briefly discusses other passages that may reflect such activities (pp. 334–38).

Chapter 7 surveys the roles of men and women in the church. This chapter is not about the specific sexuality that has been described to this point. Rather, it looks more generally at New Testament evidence concerning the roles of men and women and how they were to be expressed in the community, including leadership. Gospel evidence and important epistolary passages are discussed in detail (1 Cor. 11:2–16; 14:33b–36; Gal. 3:26–28; Col. 3:18–4:1; Eph. 5:21–6:9; 1 Tim. 2:8–15; 3:1–13; 5:2–16; Titus 2:2–10; 1 Pet. 2:18–3:7). Although Jesus’s vision for his community certainly challenged his social context, Loader demonstrates that in many ways the New Testament follows its culture (e.g., pp. 341, 358, 375–76, 382, 405, 424, 429). Nevertheless, Jesus was more radical than often assumed (p. 368). There are exceptions to the norm (e.g., pp. 388–89, 429), and structures of inferiority are temporary and will pass away (p. 396). There is much in this chapter to reflect on. In fact, given its length (91 pages), it could serve as a separate book on gender in the New Testament.

Celibacy is the subject of the final main chapter (chap. 8). It begins by discussing the story in which the Sadducees ask Jesus about a woman who had seven husbands in her lifetime: “Whose wife will she be at the resurrection?” (Mark 12:18–27 // Matt. 22:23–33; Luke 20:27–40) (pp. 430–36). The Sadducees, who did not believe in the resurrection, were attempting to discredit Jesus. Nevertheless, Jesus answered their absurd question and gave them a glance into the resurrected state. Although sex and marriage are not morally wrong, resurrected believers will not experience these (p. 436). The chapter discusses a number of other passages (e.g., Matt. 19:10–12; Rev. 14:4–5) and celibate people (e.g., Jesus, Paul). Celibacy is part of a radical discipleship that subordinates typical family responsibilities (p. 443) and in which people attempt to live in a manner that reflects their future kingdom existence (p. 485). This is not demanded of all (p. 485). Again a large section is devoted to 1 Corinthians 7 (pp. 453–67). Confronting people advocating celibacy, Paul navigates between his belief that celibacy is preferable and his acknowledgment that marriage is also a legitimate life choice (p. 467). The final section of the chapter explores the complex background of celibacy (pp. 485–90).

An excellent conclusion summarizes the findings in the volume (pp. 491–500). This brief chapter brings the book’s major conclusions together in a manageable form that will help the reader recall the content of this long and detailed work. The volume concludes with a bibliography (pp. 501–40) and two indexes (modern authors and ancient sources [pp. 541–65]). As with previous volumes, a subject index would have been useful.

As in the previous volumes in this series, Loader’s coverage of sources and his analysis are weighty and thorough. However, unlike material covered in the other volumes, these New Testament passages have a significant history of debate. Excellent commentaries, scholarly articles, and especially detailed monographs provide extensive coverage of the passages and topics here. Nevertheless, Loader does a very good job of concisely dealing with these difficult issues. For example, Loader’s discussion of 1 Thessalonians 4:4 is nine pages and includes a helpful discussion of the context and views and a careful conclusion (pp. 152–60). This does not match the depth found in a monograph or a major article. However, it has as much or more detail than is presented in important English commentaries on 1 Thessalonians. See for example the space devoted to the entire passage (1 Thess. 4:3–8) in the commentaries by Bruce (Word Biblical Commentary, 1982, pp. 80–88), Fee (New International Commentary on the New Testament, 2009, pp. 142–55), Green (Pillar New Testament Commentary, 2002, pp. 187–202), Malherbe (Anchor Bible, 2000, pp. 224–41), and Wanamaker (New International Greek Testament Commentary, 1990, pp. 150–59). Most readers will be satisfied with Loader’s treatment of such issues and can consult the bibliography in his footnotes for more information. Loader’s approach has the advantage of covering many issues together in a single volume showing the larger New Testament context.

The ideal reader of this volume is the New Testament scholar or serious student. It may contain more detail than the casual reader will want or need. Such readers may wish to consult the popularly aimed book noted above or Loader’s Sexuality in the New Testament: Understanding the Key Texts (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010).

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