|June 12, 2012
Are Holiness and Unholiness Contagious?
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
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 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.
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.
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.
You asked, here you go: