Sexual Ethics and the New Testament

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Sexual Ethics and the New Testament

Behavior and Belief

From the internationally acclaimed Catholic biblical scholar, this meticulous reading of biblical teaching on sexuality gives insight into how a disciple of Jesus is called to live out his or her existence as a sexual being.

Reviews and endorsements

"Using a historical-critical method of exegesis, this investigation of Christian sexual ethics in the NT looks to the meaning of relevant NT texts in their own historical and literary contexts. It deals with the topic in eleven chapters: stories about Jesus, conflict on divorce, 'thou shalt not commit adultery,' teaching the disciples, conduct to be avoided, advice for new Christians, the church at Corinth, pleading with the saints in Rome, revisionist Paul, under the influence of Paul, and sexual ethics. Collins, professor of NT at the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC, and author of Divorce in the New Testament (1992) and First Corinthians (1999), concludes that a NT sexual ethics must involve the notion of embodied human existence, a proper understanding of women, and the love command."
Biblical Theology

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"Excellently written and exegetically solid, this book will become essential reading for anyone interested in understanding New Testament sexual ethics."
Catholic Journalist

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"In my conversations with people at The LOFT I have encountered a great deal of hostility toward the Christian Scriptures, particularly those passages in the New Testament that address sexual behavior. These conversations led me to pick up Sexual Ethics and the New Testament: Behavior and Belief by Raymond F. Collins, from which I hoped to gain some insights into the intentions of the New Testament writers' words about sexuality. Perhaps I even hoped to find evidence clearly instigating the hostility I've encountered, because then I might even feel justified in tossing the Bible away as an outmoded, irrelevant collection of ancient myths and tirades. This book, however, left me with no easy answers. Although it proved difficult to read, it suggested holding on to the New Testament for the way those Scriptures challenge how I relate, sexually and otherwise, to myself, to others, and to God.

From the outset, the author makes the following promise: 'The study that is offered in these pages makes no claim to be a systematic presentation of Christian sexual ethics. Rather it seeks to allow the texts of the New Testament themselves to speak their piece . . . Using a historical-critical method of exegesis [critical interpretation], it looks to the meaning of the relevant New Testament texts in their own historical and literary contexts.' In this sense, the book delivers, for the author provides a thoroughly exhaustive look into the possible meanings of the relevant passages. At the same time, the going is very heavy, requiring from the reader a great deal of effort to struggle through the author‘s presentation of various shades of meaning and innuendo and even lack of definitiveness. Readers should be aware going in that this is a scholarly treatise seeking to provide a comprehensive treatment of its subject.

Nevertheless, no one should feel too daunted to jump in, for many of Collins's conclusions are fascinating—and perhaps belie the traditional expectations of his own religion (he is a Roman Catholic priest). To paraphrase his 'food for thought':

1. The New Testament texts were written in Greek, and every translation is an 'interpretation.'

2. Several terms pertaining to sexuality are difficult, if not impossible, to translate because they are used so infrequently that there is no context for determining their meaning.

3. The New Testament contains several different literary genres, and the particular genre colors what the text has to say about sexuality.

4. The books of the New Testament were written in response to particular situations and so must be studied within their historical contexts.

5. The New Testament authors did not have the benefit of modern science's insights into human sexuality. Unfamiliar with the idea of sexual orientation, they were concerned only with conduct.

6. The New Testament is not one coherent text and does not provide a systematic sexual ethic. Rather, it reflects the various sexual expectations of its many authors.

One thing that the New Testament authors do agree upon, according to Collins, is that human sexuality has a relational dimension. Sexual relationships can be sanctifying or defiling, and people can choose whether their sexual behaviors sanctify or defile themselves and their partners. This, then, is perhaps the most important message of the New Testament and of Collins's book: God calls people to put aside slavish adherence to various codes of conduct and instead to enter into relationships—with self, with others, and with God—that embody the holy spirit of Love."
CNews book review

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"Ray Collins is a scholar with a foot in two camps. He is an exegete of world renowned [sic.], author of several books and countless articles, who has enjoyed a career spanning two continents and innumerable engagements. He is also a priest with a pastoral sense that encompasses not only the broad scope of pastoral-theological issues but also the more specific field of Christian ethics. With this new book, he brings his many talents together and has created a masterpiece of scriptural–theological-ethical erudition. Anyone who wishes to address issues of sexual ethics within the Christian tradition will have to take account of this book if they intend to treat their subject matter thoroughly. One of the nice things about this book is that one learns as much about the New Testament as about the sexual ethics that are present there in various shapes and forms. Collins is first and foremost an exegete, but he is also a teacher, and his writing demonstrates how well he carries out his pedagogical skills.

The first four chapters are primarily about the Gospels. He begins with 'Stories about Jesus' (Ch. 1) that concentrates on the Johannine text but by no means is limited to this. Besides demonstrating his expertise on John, the text illustrates some of Collins method for presenting the New Testament. He carefully both situates the narrative and takes apart its various pertinent elements. Ultimately, the commentary illustrates Jesus's relationship to women in general, eventually shifting to different narratives in Luke's gospel. Chapter two turns the reader's attention to the synoptic tradition, specifically the 'Conflict on Divorce' (Ch 2). Quite logically, the Pauline tradition makes its debut in the context of this classic question, but the emphasis is still on the synoptics. The reader is further exposed to an appreciation of literary genre, but much more is added by the growing reference to extra biblical literature which will reach its height in the center of the volume. Collins's extensive footnotes are nearly as interesting as the text itself and provide a broad range of reference material as well as intriguing commentaries of his own. The third chapter, titled with the quotation 'You shall not Commit Adultery' from the Sermon on the Mount, contains valuable material about the entire approach to teaching at the time of the early church. The Jewish catechetical tradition is here exposed while Collins explains Jesus's manners of teaching as central. By the end of the chapter, discussion has moved to Paul and even the epistle of James, and the broad scope of Jewish and Hellenistic sources are fully exploited by Collins. Chapter four, 'Teaching the Disciples', goes further in explaining the literary styles of the gospels, in particular Mark and Luke, but now begins to take on more specific issues in the area of sexual ethics. By now, the reader knows that you cannot approach anything in the New Testament without a thorough knowledge of the contemporary literature, but this chapter expands even more deeply into the so-called secular sources.

Having moved into the nitty-gritty as it were, Collins takes on what some might think to be the core of the matter. 'Conduct to be Avoided' (Ch. 5). It is here that we see the Author's moral theological sense emerge most clearly. He implicitly distinguishes between a morality of attitude and one of behaviors, the latter of which is seemingly brought to the fore in the primarily Pauline study. Central to the chapter is the exposure of lists of vices (and virtues) which encompass the whole of biblical literature. Collins's exegetical proficiency provides only that much more substance to the foundation of his presentation, and in many ways I might consider this the core of the book. Chapters six to ten concentrate on the epistolary writings where it becomes clear that it is primarily Paul who offers material for sexual ethics. The same might be said for the whole of the New Testament, for related material in the other books is presented in an entirely different manner. Chapter six, on 'Advice to New Christians', demonstrates Collins's expertise on Thessalonians which is followed by probably the best known source of sexual-ethical teaching with the letter to 'The Church at Corinth' (Ch. 7). In chapter eight we encounter the more theologically broad exposure of Paul's 'Pleading with the Saints in Rome' in which there is are [sic] a number of insights into the evaluation of same sex activity (in contract to 'relationships') in this literary context.

Chapters nine and ten will come as no surprise to those who know Collins's provocative title Letters that Paul Did Not Write . . . as he first reviews 'Revisionist Paul' covering Ephesians, 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus and James, and then turns to all the other writings 'Under the Influence of Paul' in chapter ten, Including Hebrews, Acts, 1 & 2 Peter, Jude and Revelation. The next to last mentioned provides an opportunity for a commentary on the story of Sodom and Gomorrah.

The final chapter contains a short summary of what has been accomplished and the suggestion of three elements that Collins has already demonstrated must not be neglected in any evaluation of sexual ethics in the New Testament. These are the importance of Pauline anthropology, especially his notion of embodiment: a comprehension of the New Testament's understanding of women, sharing equal dignity with men: and the centrality of the love commandment in the whole of the text. As already stated, one learns as much here about the scriptures and how to read them as one learns about the issue of sexual ethics in that tradition. One also learns valuable lessons about ethics in general, especially as this is related to the fundamental source for Christian thinkers. This volume, therefore, is neither a 'good' one nor a 'handy' one to have at ones disposal for thinking, talking and writing about sexual ethics in a Christian context. It is it 'necessary' source that should not be neglected.
—Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses

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

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"This book is a part of a series known as Companions to the New Testament, and this one is a serious study of most of the New Testament as it pertains to sexual morality. The author holds that 21 of the books of the New Testament deal with some aspect of human sexuality (p. 183). There is a fairly systematic treatment given to all of the New Testament passages which deal with sexual issues, but there is no attempt to produce a synthesis of those teachings. Nor could it he said that there is a thorough commentary or interpretation made of all of the concerns or even of the textual issues in the passages treated.

Collins demonstrates his scholarship by weaving a narrative presentation of the New Testament teachings with those of the Old Testament and with those of ancient philosophers and other writers. The use of textual and source criticism is abundant and generally used in good taste. The author does not disparage the validity of the New Testament, but neither does he hold to a view of a thoroughly inspired text. There is considerable research to back up the interpretation of the author, with one extreme being the very first chapter which consists of 13 pages of text and 8 of footnotes.

The author holds to a rather strict moral interpretation of sexual issues in the New Testament, usually related in some way to concerns for holiness, and this includes his treatment of divorce, masturbation, and adultery. He does not recognize that adultery is not the unforgivable sin but holds that adultery is a given when a divorce occurs, even without remarriage. There was some disappointment with his treatment of the homosexuality issue because he excuses the New Testament writers for their lack of current scientific understanding on 'sexual orientation.' When there is almost a stringency on other sexual aberrations or immoralities, his excusing this sin so summarily seems to have some serious weaknesses.

The final chapter is a fine summary of the general teachings of the New Testament on sexuality. It could have been hoped that Collins would have been willing to venture more specific applications to some specific sexuality issues, rather than leaving those as 'complex matters with which ethicists and churches alike must deal in the way that is appropriate to their own mission' (p. 191)."
Southwestern Journal of Theology

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"Given the postmodern culture of contemporary America it is not surprising that every major denomination is discussing issues of sexuality these days—and looking for help. Many will find it here. Collins discusses topics one needs: divorce and marriage, adultery, sexual terms in vice catalogues (impurity, licentiousness, debauchery, homosexuality, male prostitution, etc.), subjection or equality in marriage, and so on. He picks up all of the key passages in the New Testament, from the teaching of Jesus and Paul (I Thessalonians, I Corinthians, Romans) to the deutero-Pauline letters (Colossians, Ephesians, and the Pastorals) and the later books of the New Testament.

This is an immensely practical book. As an outstanding biblical scholar Collins does not develop a theology of sexual ethics but deals directly with key texts in their historical context. His conclusions on pp. 190-94 are helpful. He reminds us that translations from Greek are immediately an interpretation—often of terms that are difficult to translate to English; that the New Testament contains material from very different literary genres that relate to sexual issues (stories, vice catalogues, Haustafels, etc.); that they speak to people in cultures very different from ours; that they did not know the results of modern scientific research; and that they 'do not offer a comprehensive and systematic sexual ethics' (p. 191). He holds that one cannot 'immediately induce from Paul . . . a set of rules for sexual conduct' (p.192); that one must incorporate the changed view of women in society that was foreign to the first century; that New Testament writers wrote in a patriarchal society; and that the love command must underlie any sexual ethics drawn from the New Testament. Each of the eleven chapters contains helpful notes that point to additional discussions or helpful material.

While Collins does not provide a systematic New Testament sexual ethics, his book is a good starting point for anyone who wants to 'think on these things.' Understandable, stimulating, perceptive writing, it is a good read on a complex topic."
Currents


"Collins offers sophisticated and detailed biblical research, clarifying the cultural contexts of New Testament teaching, and posing questions from our own times. He wisely insists that all specific references to sexual conduct—divorce, adultery, and homosexuality—will always require interpretation. Collins forcefully shows that what is required is to live Christian identity out in every area of life, including sexuality, but that the New Testament does not give any systematic set of guidelines. This book by a renowned theologian and scholar will be an unmatched resource for ethicists and all those interested what the bible has to say (or not say) about sex."
Lisa Sowle Cahill, Monan Professor of Theology, Boston College

9780824518011
Paperback / 216 pages
Dimensions: 6 x 9
HERDER & HERDER, 2000