June 12, 2012

Are Holiness and Unholiness Contagious?

Read/Post Comments (5)

In discussing the problem of interfaith marriage with the Corinthians Paul expresses a rather strange idea. He writes: “For the unbelieving husband is made holy through his [believing] wife and the unbelieving wife is made holy through her [believing] husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy” (1 Corinthians 7:14). This is technical language normally used in discussions of ritual defilement and cleansing: “making something holy” or rendering something “suitable or unsuitable for ritual purposes.” Paul uses the same language describing his gathering of saints at Corinth; they are made holy, or sanctified (1 Cor 1:2; 6:11), and hence are “holy ones,” set apart for the Lord’s service.

     The word “unclean” describes something that renders one unsuitable to stand before the Lord or to be a part of the covenant community (see Numbers 19). Moses sets forth purity codes enumerating things and people that are considered “unclean” (see Leviticus 15 and Mark 7:14-23 and Acts 10:9-35). This formal language of ritual impurity or uncleanness is carried over into the ethical sphere, where sin renders one unclean before the Lord, and hence the sinner is unsuitable for the Lord’s service (see Isaiah 7:1-10; Psalm 24:3-4).

     Paul’s statement affirms that parents pass to their children either the condition of unholiness or holiness. In the case of interfaith marriages the child born to an interfaith couple is rendered holy because the holiness of the believing parent trumps the unholiness of the unbelieving parent and the child is born undefiled or “clean.” Hence Paul seems to conceive of some kind of religious “contagion,” an essence of holiness or unholiness that is actually transmitted from parent to child. In the case of interfaith marriage holiness is more powerful than unholiness (see Romans 11:16).

     Compare the opposite argument about interfaith marriage in 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1 (probably a non-Pauline insertion). This passage rejects interfaith marriage out of hand and suggests that marriage to unbelievers will defile the holy character of the believer. In this passage unholiness trumps the holiness of the believer.

     Paul applies the same logic when addressing the case of male members of the Corinthian community who frequent the services of temple prostitutes (1 Corinthians 6:15-20). He argues that coitus with a prostitute compromises a brother’s holiness; for sexual intercourse with a prostitute makes them both “one body,” and defiles the believer’s body, which is an extension of Christ (1 Cor 6:15). In other words the “contagion” passes from the prostitute and corrupts the holiness of the brother. In the case of coitus with a prostitute unholiness is more powerful than holiness (1 Cor 5:6-7).

     Ritual defilement, the idea that a state of holiness or unholiness can be communicated to things or people, is an ancient idea that survives in the modern Western world in only rare instances. Hence, the tendency seems to be for translators to select translation language for this verse that does not readily betray the blatant ritual defilement language that comes across so strongly in the Greek text. Their translations attempt to domesticate the ancient world view reflected in the text. For the most part modern human beings in the Western world do not function in their daily lives with the idea that religious defilement can be inherited or transmitted by physical contact with persons or things. But Paul apparently did.

Here are a few modern translations showing how translators handled the offense ritual defilement language in 1 Cor 7:14:

Unbelieving spouse “is consecrated” through the believing, otherwise children “unclean,” but now “holy.” (RSV)

Unbelieving spouse “made holy” through the believing, otherwise children “unclean,” but now “holy.” (NRSV)

Unbelieving spouse “is consecrated” through the believing, otherwise children “unblest,” but now “are consecrated.” (Goodspeed)

Unbelieving spouse “is consecrated” through the believing, otherwise children “unholy,” but now “consecrated to God.” (Moffatt)

Unbelieving spouse “is sanctified” through the believing, otherwise children “unclean,” but now “holy” (NIV)

“Heathen” spouse “now belongs to God through Christian” spouse, otherwise children “would not belong to God, whereas in fact they do.” (New English Bible)

Unbelieving spouse “is made acceptable to God” through the believing, otherwise children “pagan,” but “as it is, they are acceptable to God.” (Good News)

“Non-believing” spouse “is dedicated” through believing, otherwise children “unholy,” but now “they are dedicated.” (Berkeley Version)

Unbelieving spouse “is, in a sense, consecrated” through believing, “if this is not so, children would bear stains of paganism whereas they are actually consecrated to God.” (J. B. Phillips)

“Non-Christian” spouse “may become Christian with help of Christian spouse,” otherwise “if family separates children might never come to know the Lord.” “A united family may, in God’s plan, result in children’s salvation.” (The Living Bible)

Non-believing spouse “has been spiritually set apart from the world” because of the believing spouse. “Otherwise your children would be contaminated by the world, but now they are spiritually set apart.” (The Common English Bible)

     Clearly many things may be inherited from parents or transmitted from prostitutes but religious defilement is not one of them. Paul’s ideas are survivals of a naïve, primitive, and pre-scientific worldview.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 3:06pm

Even after committing myself to silence you ask me to answer a direct question? I should think that you would count yourself fortunate that I was offering to hold my tongue!

I would not say that we need to publish a new version of the Bible beyond the fact that we do it every day. Every sermon and hymn, many movies and plays, a great deal of poetry and even philosophy are continuous "reprintings" of our reinterpretations of our views on matters of greatest importance.

I believe that persons of faith in the modern era will have to relinquish false certainty in favor of honest uncertainty. We don't know anything with absolute certainty and what few things we thought we knew turn out to be disposable and outdated. Having crossed the half century mark, I can remember when to divorce meant that you were certainly no longer a friend of God's. We were sure that blacks and whites should mingle only in the context of employer and employee and that was a one way street. We were sure that to question western capitalism (i.e., to embrace other economic systems such as socialism or communism) was necessarily to become an atheist. Though rarely discussed, any reference to homosexuality was immediately associated with the worst forms of sodomy. We knew that only those who had invited Jesus into their hearts could possibly go to heaven and that the King James Bible had been written by God. In the two generations that have come to age since I first started collecting Sunday School attendance pins, much of what we knew with certainty turns out to be embarrassingly mistaken.

Persons of faith are left to grapple with an extended epistemology, studying ancient religious texts, familiarizing ourselves with modern philosophical and theological thought, listening intently to the consensus mundi, and challenging our own conscience to keep sifting through human history for potential insights and guidance. Not everyone in Nazi Germany was inherently evil but rather, generally good hearted people were tricked into believing that Jews were deserving of peculiar prejudice just as I was tricking into believing that I had to be educated apart from the black kids who worked next to me in the rural Kentucky farms where I grew up. Most of us were tricked into believing that women could not be allowed to preach in church without ever wondering exactly what role male genitals played in the composition and delivery of sermons (33 years later, mine continue to be as useless in that process as on day 1).

So, being persons who attempt to embody the kind of radical compassion taught by Jesus never gets to be easy because we have to keep thinking, questioning and changing for the rest of our lives and, I suspect, that if there is more to being than what we see in this life, the process may yet continue. You asked so that's my opinion.
Roger Ray
Posted by Roger Ray on 6/15/2012 at 5:43pm

I fear that I have been at least partially misunderstood. I am entirely suspicious of the whole nomenclature of "holy" and "unholy" and would be scared of anyone who saw themselves as being a part of the former group as I might be of the later. I have no opinion about matters who who goes to heaven as I see no evidence for the existence of a heaven. If there is any existence for us after this life, we know so little about it that humility begs for silence on the matter. Speaking of which, I will remain silent on this topic after this short paragraph. Peace.
Posted by Roger Ray on 6/14/2012 at 10:48pm
But how about a related topic: how should Christians who take the Bible as a special religious book use it in trying to live a life that they hope would be acceptable to God (however broadly conceived)? From having listened to you speak a word in God’s behalf (to “preach”), I know that you draw on all sorts of literature and film, even JC Super Star (Good for you!), but you also draw on the Bible. How do you as a practitioner of faith who aims to lead others to practice justice in the social order (see, I was listening) sort out the good from the bad in the Bible? Should we publish a new New Testament and an abridged Hebrew Bible?
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 6/15/2012 at 8:31am

This idea is found in Hinduism with its caste system. It is considered bad karma for someone of a higher caste to take a piece of cooked meat from someone of a lower caste. If the meat is uncooked, however, then that is okay, because by cooking the meat, it will remove the impurities from the individual who was of the lower caste.
Cody Hayes
Posted by Cody Hayes on 6/13/2012 at 12:13pm

Pardon me for being too direct about this Cindi but you appear to be doing exactly what Dr. Hedrick is telling us that a number of translators did which is changing what the apostle did say into what we wish he had said. For me, what Dr. Hedrick is pointing out here goes to the fundamental difference between the message of Jesus and the message of Paul. Of course, the gospels were written after Paul's letters and probably were all written under the influence of Paul's impact on the early church so it is very difficult to get at the message of Jesus minus the taint of Paul's purity concerns.

Borg argues that the primary conflict in the gospels is between the dominant cultural religious concern with purity against the radical compassion taught by Jesus. It is persuasive to me to see that this is the one point where Jesus really broke with his Jewish peers (again, historically difficult to be certain since neither Pharisees nor Saducees would have had much of a role prior to the death of Jesus and the destruction of the Temple but we get all of these accounts in more of a midrash than as a journalist reporting on events).

For me, the real issue Dr. Hedrick raises is that Paul held onto a world view that should, to paraphrase Dorothy Parker, not be simply lightly set aside, it should be thrown with great force.
Rev. Dr. Roger Ray
Posted by Roger Ray on 6/13/2012 at 6:49am

You asked, here you go:
I DON'T agree with Paul in that I believe "holiness" is a personal thing - you're spiritually "clean" by what's going on between YOU and your God, khallas. You can't hitch a ride on someone else's carpet (ala Aladdin) into Heaven.

HOWEVER, I do believe that having a "holy" partner infuses something into the relationship and makes it perhaps…more possible/likely/something…for an "unholy" person (and progeny) to attain "holiness" - and if you've got two unbelievers, it's a lot less likely that the children will "come to know God" than if at least one of the two was "holy."

But that's because I believe who you hang with is an indicator of your…personality, ambition, self worth, self love, motivation, etc. They say if you want to see where you're headed, check out the status of your seven closest peeps. Who could be closer than your partner/spouse?

You didn't directly address it, but the implication is that babies born of two "unholy" people don't go to heaven? THIS I do DISAGREE with…I believe babies are born "pure" and therefore (your word): "clean."
Posted by Cindi Kennaley on 6/12/2012 at 9:55pm

Thank you for a candid response! I am hoping that others will address the “authority” of the apostle (as you and Dr. Ray have done) with regard to some of his strange ideas. Your response raises the question: are people trying to follow a “Christian” way for their lives, no matter how broadly conceived, bound to agree with Paul’s strange ideas? Basically what is at stake is the value of the Bible for Christian faith. What think ye?
Charles W. Hedrick
Posted by Charles Hedrick on 6/14/2012 at 5:15pm