Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Sex and Death: Paul’s Arguments from Mythology

Aspects of Paul's theological argumentation, social ethics, and anthropology are based on a Mediterranean myth of the divine origin of the first man found in an earlier Babylonian account and a later Hebrew account; they seem to be related. The word "myth" (μῦθος, mythos) is basically translated as story or narrative, but the term can either be neutral or pejorative: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myth. In the letters that virtually no one disputes as Pauline, the word "myth" does not appear. It only appears in the New Testament in the Pastoral Letters (1, 2 Timothy, and Titus), which most critical scholars attribute to a Pauline disciple, and in 2 Peter.  In these four cases "myth" is used in a negative sense:
1 Timothy 4:7—"have nothing to do with godless and silly myths." (RSV)
2 Timothy 4:4—"and turn away from listening to the truth and wander into myths." (RSV)
Titus 1:14—"instead of giving heed to Jewish myths or to commands of men who reject the truth." (RSV)
2 Peter 1:16—"For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." (RSV)
               These sentences clearly mark myth as misleading and untrue. Myth is not something that someone wanting to be "a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the words of the faith and of good doctrine" would heed (1Timothy 4:6).
               Nevertheless, here are two instances of Paul drawing on the Mediterranean myth of an original man who was fashioned by God.
               In Romans 5:12-21 Paul asserts that all people are sinners because the sin of the first man (Genesis 3:1-13) passed into the entire human race, which is the reason that all people die (Romans 5:12; Genesis 2:17, 3:19)—although in the final analysis Paul blamed Eve for the wretched situation of the entire human race (2 Corinthians 11:3), as did one of Paul's later disciples (1 Timothy 2:13). The principle of passing Adam's sin into his descendants was set in Torah where God extended the sins of the fathers onto their descendants to the third and fourth generation (Exodus 20:5). Paul was clearly familiar with Torah (Romans 7:7 quoting Exodus 20:17; Romans 13:9 quoting Exodus 20:13-17), so it seems safe to assume that the principle of holding children culpable for the sins of their fathers was not lost on Paul. Hence, an act in mythical space and time before the beginning of historical time explains why people are sinners and why they die. Paul's ideas have no basis in fact or reason, but only in myth, so don't look for confirming evidence of sin in the human genome.
               In a second example (1 Corinthians 6:12-20) Paul again draws on the Mediterranean myth of the first man, arguing that an act of coitus with a prostitute establishes an essential physical relationship with her; they in fact become "one body" as a result of coitus. To support his rationale he again quotes scripture appealing to the myth of the first man and his consort (Genesis 2:23-24) of whom it is written "they two shall become one flesh." In other words, as it happened in mythical space and time between the first couple Adam and Eve, so it is in historical space and time between a man and a prostitute. Coitus is not simply a casual physical moment between men and women; it is a deed that effectively alters the physical composition of the male body/flesh, for the female prostitute is incorporated as part of the male body (Genesis 2:23), and the two are essentially one, so Paul argues.  Again, as in the first example, Paul's idea has no basis in fact or reason, but only in myth—so don't expect confirmation from a physical examination by your physician.
               It is important to note that Paul's argument is not based on "Scripture," which only informs him of the myth. His argument turns on what putatively "happened" in the case of the mythical man Adam. It was the "event" (so to speak) and not the later writing about it that is authoritative for Paul's argument. The mythical man, Adam, was fashioned by the divine creator as male/female and then s/he was divided into different genders –male and female (Genesis 2:18-23). Subsequently the "union" between a man and his mate restores the original state of the first man (Genesis 2:24)—the two become one flesh.
               Are the arguments of Paul invalidated because they are based on the "experiences" of a mythical man? It depends. Readers having a high view of Scripture will necessarily be compelled to accept his arguments that human beings are sinners and die because they are infected with the "germ" of Adam's sin. They will also be forced to accept his argument that coitus with a prostitute makes the male and the female essentially "one body" and would likely appeal to the "spiritual truth" of the statement to explain his argument.
               Readers guided by reason, however will not be impressed by Paul's argument about Adam's sin infecting the human race, since a "theological truth" is not necessarily historical data; and there may be excellent reasons for not engaging the services of a prostitute, but not because of the "experience" of the mythical man on whom Paul bases his argument.
Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University


  1. Hi Charlie,

    What do you make of Jesus' remarks in Mark 10:6-11 (cf. the alterations in Matthew 19), as regards Paul's interpretation of the Adam myth.

    "From the beginning of creation God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife. so they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together let no one separate...
    whoever divorces, husband or wife, and marries another, commits adultery."

    Gene Stecher
    Chambersburg, Pa.

    1. Good Morning Gene,
      Both Matthew and Luke appear to make the same argument. They both draw from Genesis 1:26-28, where man and women are created at the same time (Mark 10:6=Matt 19:4). Whereas in the second account of creation Adam is created as a unified whole and later Eve is created out of Adam (Genesis 2:7-24).. Then both appeal to the second account where the couple becomes one flesh.
      The force of the argument is based on the experience of the mythical man. Hence there may good reason not to get a divorce but it is not that Adam and Eve are one flesh. Persons with a high view of Scripture will be forced to see divorce as wrong because the saying appears in Scripture and is attributed to Jesus (it is likely a Markan idea). But a person guided by reason will likely see it as a specious argument.
      What do you make of it?

    2. Hi Charlie, here are some thoughts.

      According to the cited scriptures:

      (a) God, for the human proto-type, intended a “one-flesh” union with a partner.

      (b) Marriage sets the goal of a singular opposite sex commitment.

      (c) God declared all marriages to be an everlasting “one-flesh” union.

      (d) Therefore, divorce is against the law of God.

      The problem is with (c). It is contrary to rational reflection and common sense. Here is the “law” or “governing principal” at the heart of the matter: “What God has joined together let no one separate.” (Mark 10:9)

      The key question is: “What are the criteria for determining what God has joined together?”

      That sounds very much like a dilemma which the historical Jesus might have placed before some of his hearers. The suggested governing principal has a form and rhythm very much like, “Give the emperor what is his and God what is His.” (Mark 12:17)

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

    3. Good Morning Gene,
      You provide an interesting observation from the Jesus tradition. Thanks. I take the entire episode MK 10:2-9 to be a pronouncement story. The pronouncement (MK 10:9) is an interpretation of Torah (MK 10:6-8 which alludes to the Genesis passages). The rule of the early Christian community based on the pronouncement story is MK 10:11-12. My view is that the entire segment is an early Christian formulation. The rationale for the argument is based on the experience of the mythical first man (as I see it).

    4. Hi Charlie, thanks for the explanation of how the pronouncement story works. As far as my "interesting observation" goes, years ago when Westar sponsored an egroup on Yahoo, one of the participants Chuck Jones made a connection between the form of Mark 10:9 and 12:17, and it stuck with me.

      Gene Stecher
      Chambersburg, Pa.

    5. Good Morning Gene,
      Did you happen to check other ending pronouncements of such stories to determine if they all have a similar style and form?

  2. Good afternoon Charlie,

    "Readers having a high view of Scripture will necessarily be compelled to accept his arguments that human beings are sinners and die because they are infected with the "germ" of Adam's sin."

    If human beings are supposed to "die" from being infected by the germ of sin- how does one explain what God said to Cain after he killed Abel: "But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at the door; it desires to master you, but you can master it." Gen. 4:7

    If one is born infected with a sin nature- how can one master it? There's no mention of a cross or blood or sacrifice. Obviously, those aren't needed.

    Have you ever noticed that Christian commentators focus on "sin kills" and have you also noticed that Jewish commentators focus on "you can master it [sin]."? Why the Jewish perspective ignored when it was written to and for the Jewish people, puzzles me. Was the inspiration of the Torah imparted to Moses in Greek or Hebrew? Paul's hatred of Judaizers disqualifies him from any credible teachings about the "sin nature" (as he calls it) in Genesis.

    Thank you, Elizabeth

  3. Good Morning Elizabeth,
    The Genesis 4:7 passage personifies sin as something laying in wait to overcome the unsuspecting, while Paul seems to regard it as an evil disposition arising from within. I suppose if one wanted to harmonize them one might say that humans have an inclination to do wrong, but the urge can be overcome by will power.
    How did Moses get the Torah? There are two answers given in the biblical texts: see my blog on September 30, 2014. I take the Torah to be the traditional law code of ancient Israel that was developed overtime in the experience of the people of Israel. Hence it was not imparted to them.