“Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” THE TORAH AS A NORMATIVE AUTHORITY IN 1ST CORINTHIANS 5 (part two)

Paul’s polemic against Judaizers in the Galatian correspondence, as well as his insistence in Romans that justification comes by faith (pistis) and not by works of the Torah, has led many interpreters to see Pauline ethics as thoroughly anti-nomian. In a previous post I  challenged this thesis by documenting Paul’s appeal to both the Torah and common rabbinic Halakha in the fifth chapter of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians

In that post, I examined  1 Corinthians Chapter 5. I  argued that Paul, (a) frames the problem in terms of obedience to the Torah’s commands regarding prohibited sexual relations, (b) responds by invoking the standard Halakha punishment of extirpation, and (c) justifies this by appealing to the Torah’s command to punish such offences. paul

To many, this conclusion seems odd. In the Galatian correspondence Paul engages in a passionate polemic against those who would demand that Gentiles get circumcised and obey the Torah, yet in 1 Corinthians he rebukes a Gentile congregation for violating a commandment in the Torah and appeals to the Torah’s normative authority. How can he do both of these things?

  1. Why does Paul Invoke the Torah?

I think the answer is ascertained by recognising a distinction in Jewish halakha. As early as the book of Jubilees, which was probably written around 200 BC, Jewish interpreters had come to recognise that while the Torah as a whole was given only to Israel, certain commands in the Torah applied to both Jews and Gentiles alike. Jewish exegesis distinguishes between what the Rabbis called the Noahide law and the Mosaic Law. The former are the commands God addresses to all humankind, both Jew and Gentile alike. Jewish tradition teaches that these laws were given first, during the time of Adam, to all Adam’s descendants and then again to Noah. The Mosaic Law, on the other hand, is a covenant between Jews and God. As the Jews are a subset of all people, many of the Noahide laws are repeated in the Mosaic Law. However, Israel is given a body of other laws which are binding on them in virtue of their special relationship to God.

There is evidence that early Christianity recognised this distinction.[1] The book of Acts records the Apostles gathering to discuss whether it was necessary to circumcise Gentile believers and “direct them to observe the Law of Moses.” (15) The decision is recorded as follows in Acts 15:28-29:

“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials:  that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols and from blood and from things strangled and from fornication; if you keep yourselves free from such things, you will do well.”

The Apostles decreed that Gentiles do not have to follow the Mosaic law, however, they are required to abstain from certain commandments in the Torah such as, sexual immorality, idolatry, “bloodshed” and consuming the “meat of strangled animals”. Western manuscripts omit the reference to “meat of strangled animals” and add the “golden rule” to the list. However, both agree that, sexual immorality (porneia), idolatry, and bloodshed were included. These are standard items in lists of the laws of Noah in Jewish halakah.[2]

What’s important is that both Jewish Halakah and the Apostolic decree recognised the commandments prohibiting porneia as part of the Noahide law. Tomson explains:

“The prohibition of certain types of sexual relationships both for Jews and Gentiles is considered fundamental in the various domains of ancient Jewish literature. Pharisaic-Rabbinic tradition includes [porneia] among the three commandments which Jews may never violate, even under threat of death. … According to a tradition as least as ancient as the book of Jubilees (7:20) it was a universal commandment conveyed by Noah to his children. In Rabbinic literature it is associated with the Genesis narrative. Stressing the universal implication of the word ‘man’ the Rabbis explain: ‘How do we know that Noahides are admonished for prohibited sexual relations like Israelites?’ “(Therefore a man leaves his father and mother and) cleaves to his wife” (Gen 2:24) — and not to another’s wife, a male, or a beast.”[3]

It is interesting that Gen 2:24 is the same passage Paul himself uses in 1 Corinthians 6 to ground a prohibition of prohibit “porneia”.  His argument, therefore, reflects this halakhaic tradition.

Consequently, in both early Christianity and in second temple Judaism, the claim that a Gentile was not required to be circumcised and not required to keep the law of Moses, did not entail, and would not have been understood to have entailed, that Gentiles did not have to obey that Halakah relating to commandments in the Torah, which were part of the Noahide law. And it certainly would not have been understood to have meant that Gentiles were not bound by Halakah relating to prohibited sexual relations. The fallacy here is the fallacy of division where one argues that because something is true of the whole its true of all of the parts. This would occur, for example, if someone reasoned that because the All Blacks score multiple tries in a game, it follows that every member of the All Blacks scores multiple tries in a game; or that because a particular wall is fragile and breakable, every single brick that makes up the wall is fragile and breakable. In this instance, the argument is that because the Mosaic law is not binding on Gentiles every single command in the law is not binding on Gentiles.Once the halakhic background distinction is appreciated, Paul’s stance in Corinthians is not inconsistent with that in Galatians.


Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 cites commandments in the Torah as authoritative for the Gentile congregation in Corinth. The problem is that they have disobeyed the Torah’s prohibition of porneia; his solution and justification both involve an appeal to the Torah and standard halakha.

This appeal to the Torah’s normative authority is not inconsistent with Paul’s position; it is affirmed elsewhere in the Pauline corpus that Gentile believers do not have to be circumcised and are free from the law of Moses.  Paul believed that a person did not have to convert to Judaism to become a member of the covenant community, he did, however, believe people had to follow the commandments of God.

[1] See for example, Tomson “Paul and the Jewish Law” also Marcus Bockmuehl Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics (Baker Academic, 2000).

[2] The list reflects Gen 9:1-5: “And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth. The fear of you and the terror of you will be on every beast of the earth and on every bird of the sky; with everything that creeps on the ground, and all the fish of the sea, into your hand they are given. Every moving thing that is alive shall be food for you; I give all to you, as I gave the green plant. Only you shall not eat flesh with its life, that is, its blood. Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man.”
Here God addresses Noah and his sons (i.e. the whole human race) he permits them to eat any kind of food, showing that. the kosher food laws are not binding on Gentiles antecedent to the Noahic covenant. However, the shedding of human blood (bloodshed), the eating of an animal with “lifeblood still in” (strangled animals) and the duty to be fruitful and multiply”, and hence to procreate (relating to sexual morality), does hold prior to the giving of the Torah.

[3] Thomson “Paul and the Jewish Law” 99.


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