INTAMS (Journal of the International Academy for Marital Spirituality) book review

January 6, 2022

“Although sexuality is hardly the central theme of the New Testament, twenty-one of its twenty-seven books include material pertinent to discussion of sexual ethics. Raymond Collins, professor of New Testament at The Catholic University of America and formerly of the Catholic University of Leuven, provides a comprehensive, well-referenced survey of New Testament texts that deal directly or indirectly with sexuality. Topics covered include gender roles, adultery, incest, divorce, remarriage, marriage between Christians and nonbelievers, homoerotic activity, married clergy, prostitution, celibacy, vulgar language, and more. Although an index of scriptural and extrabiblical sources is provided, unfortunately a subject index is not included in the book. This would have been a welcome addition that would have demonstrated to readers especially novice readers—the range of material presented, and would have made it easier for ethics students to recall where they had read information on a given topic. (Students in my university ethics courses, perhaps unlike those enrolled in scripture courses, do not ask, ‘Where does the author discuss I Cor 6?’ but instead ask, ‘Where does the author discuss prostitution?’) However, beginning students will be assisted by a concluding chapter that succinctly condenses C.’s findings.

By selectively citing extrabiblical sources such as rabbinic literature, Philo, Josephus, and Xenophon, C. ably introduces readers to the social and historical settings within which the varied books of the New Testament and their treatment of sexuality emerged. Thus, he helps one appreciate how biblical authors both echoed and challenged the religious and cultural traditions of their day. For instance, C. says New Testament authors reflect, at times in caricature, the pervasive assumption of ancient Judaism that Gentile culture was sexually promiscuous and that their lustfulness was the inevitable accompaniment of idolatry. Transferred to the Christian context, this assumption is manifested in the biblical message that ‘the disciple of Jesus is called to lived with his or her sexuality in a way that is different from the way that others live with their sexuality’ (183), or different from his or her own sexual behavior prior to becoming a disciple. New Testament authors also echo Jewish and Greco-Roman moral literature of the period by using catalogues of virtues and vices. Some of the words in these lists are obscure and difficult to translate because they do not appear in any literary context other than a virtue or vice list (76f.).

On the other hand, the New Testament books and letters contain messages that would have seemed counter-cultural to their original audiences. For instance, Mark writes in 10:11 that the man who divorces and remarries commits adultery against his first wife. C. draws attention to this text, explaining that the dominant world-view considered adultery an offense against men. ‘The man who committed adultery offended not his own marriage but the marriage of his married lover . . . [specifically] the husband of his paramour . . . For Jesus to affirm that it is an offense against one’s own wife for a man to commit adultery was a new and radical idea. It reflects a situation of parity in marital relationships that had hitherto been unknown in the ancient world’ (28). In I Cor 6 and elsewhere, Paul challenges the dualistic anthropology to which his Hellenistic audiences would have been exposed, a worldview which could render sexual behavior morally irrelevant to life of the spirit. Paul relies instead on an embodied anthropology characteristic of the Semitic mind and raises the stakes of sexual morality by insisting that ‘in their embodied Christian existence . . . [believers] are members of Christ’ (117). Because Paul’s notion of embodied existence incorporates the idea of human solidarity (116), ‘one cannot exclude from Paul’s language a possible hint that sexual sin is also a sin against the body of Christ, the Church’ (118).

Throughout his book, C. remarks on what the New Testament does not say or does not tell us about sexual morality. In so doing, he addresses many popular assumptions and misconceptions that can be expected to surface among beginning students of theology or scripture. For instance, Luke’s story of a nameless sinful woman who anoints Jesus (7,36f.) does not say that her sins were of a sexual nature (12). I Cor 6 does not say that Corinthian Christians were actually visiting prostitutes. The subject of prostitution may have been included at the start of Paul’s treatment of sexuality simply because this was typical form for moral rhetoric of that period (II3-II4). I Cor 7 does not say that Paul had never been married, but simply that he was not married at the time he wrote (II9-I2I). The New Testament does not tell us conclusively how to translate key words in its sexual instructions and vice lists, such as porneia, malakoi, and arsenokoitai, terms much-debated among Christian ethicists in discussion of grounds for divorce (Mt 5:32; 19:9), or of what sort of homoerotic activity scripture condemns (e.g., I Cor 6:9). For those university faculty who are not specialists in exegesis but who must nevertheless cover biblical material in sexual ethics courses, C.’s detailed treatment of ‘what the New Testament doesn’t say’ will serve as a valuable preparation tool.

In his concluding chapter, C. states that while the diversity of scriptural material he covers ‘excludes any real synthesis, some elements recur with sufficient force’ that they present themselves as ‘principle motifs’ of New Testament sexual ethics (I83). These indicate ‘elements that should be incorporated into a New Testament-based sexual ethics’ (191). Among these elements are embodied existence and gender parity (192-193). Also necessary in any Christian biblically-based sexually ethic, says C., is the love command: ‘It is the law of love that motivates the Christian to reject pederasty, adultery, masturbation, divorce, and the reduction of woman to being an object of sexual desire’ (193). On the other hand, C. suggests legalism is out of place in a biblically-based Christian sexual ethic. ‘The New Testament contains nothing similar to the Holiness Code of Leviticus with its precise rules for sexual behavior’ (188). Again, ‘One cannot immediately induce from Paul’s notion of embodied human existence a set of rules for sexual conduct, nor should one attempt to do so’ (192). C. seems especially concerned that ideas of natural or God-given gender roles which inform biblical treatment of homoerotic activity not be assumed uncritically into contemporary Christian biblically-based ethics (142, 191).”

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