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

January 9th, 2018 by Matt

This post is based on an essay I wrote for an undergraduate course on the history of religion I did a couple of years ago. I plan to expand upon it and publish it in the future. Feel free to add comments and thoughts on my admittedly controversial ideas.

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 this and in future posts I  will challenge 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.[1]

In my first post, part 1, I will look at 1 Corinthians Chapter 5. I will argue 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. Part 2 will offer a brief response to the objection that this is inconsistent with Paul’s position in Galatia.paul

  1. Paul’s Appeal to the Torah in 1st Corinthians 5

Paul’s appeal to the Torah’s normative authority over the Corinthian community is evidenced in at least three ways.

  1. Paul’s Problem: Disobedience to the Torah’s Commands regarding Porneia.

First, Paul addresses the problem of disobedience to some of the commandments in the Torah in 1 Corinthians 5:1-2.

“It is actually reported that there is immorality [porneia] among you, and immorality [porneia] of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife. You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.”[2]

The NASB uses the word “immorality” to translate the Greek word “porneia”. Ciampa and Rosner explain, “Porneia is a flexible term meaning prohibited sexual relationships”.[3] Paul uses the same term elsewhere in the Epistle to refer to sex with a prostitute (6:16-18) and extra marital sex (7:2). Matthew uses porneia to refer to adultery when narrating Jesus’ Halakha on divorce.[4] Jude uses the term to refer to homosexual rape of the messengers at Sodom.[5] Tomson argues that porneia is equivalent to the rabbinic term “uncovering the nakedness of”, a term used in the Torah to designate sexual relationships prohibited by the law.[6] For Paul in the passage at hand, failure to refrain from sexual relationships prohibited in the Torah appears to be the problem.

This is further reinforced by Paul’s description of the particular type of porneia being engaged in; Paul writes, “someone has his father’s wife.” [Hōste gynaika tina tou patros echein]

The language here is strongly reminiscent of the Septuagint (“LXX”) translation of the Torah, “A man shall not take his father’s wife” [Ou lempsetai anthropos ten gynaika tou patros autou (Deut 23:1 LXX)]. The book of Deuteronomy pronounced a curse on anyone who “sleeps with his father’s wife”.[7] “[S]leeping with one’s father’s wife” is listed as a capital offence in the book of Leviticus.[8]

The fact that porneia of this sort is both subjected to a curse and is a capital crime in the Torah is significant because, as we shall see, Paul both pronounces a curse on the man sleeping with his father’s wife (5:5) and appeals to the command to execute people who engage in certain forms of porneia (5:13). What is pertinent to note here is Paul’s concern is that someone in a Gentile congregation has disobeyed a commandment in the Torah prohibiting certain forms of sexual relationships.

The problem is not just that this has been done but, as Paul states, the church have not “mourned” over the fact someone has done this and have not expelled the person from their fellowship. (5:2) Paul sees these commands as authoritative over the conduct of the Corinthians.

Paul’s Verdict: Rabbinic Punishment for Consensual Incest.

Second, the course of action Paul takes is the course of action which, at least according to common Halakha of the time, the law commands to be taken. Paul responds in 1 Corinthians 5:3-5,

“For I, on my part, though absent in body but present in spirit, have already judged him who has so committed this, as though I were present.  In the name of our Lord Jesus, when you are assembled, and I with you in spirit, with the power of our Lord Jesus, I have decided to deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of his flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”

Paul, here, appears to be pronouncing a formal sentence in the name of the Lord Jesus when the assembly is present. The sentence is to “deliver” the person committing incest “over to satan” for “the destruction of the flesh”. The context suggests that this involves expulsion from congregation.

Previously Paul’s complaint (5:2) was that the congregation had not “removed the one who had done this deed” from their “midst” and he specified the penalty in terms of “not associating” with the person and “not eating with them”. (5:10-13) While many translations render this latter phrase as to “not even to eat with such a one” (5:13), Schwiebert points out, “the two commands are coordinate, that not eating with someone is parallel to, comparable to, and conceptually linked with not associating with someone”.[9] He explains that this is “ likely in view of the social significance of meals in the ancient world”. This is because,

“In first-century Mediterranean cultures, as in many non-Western cultures today, eating with someone is a form of social approval. For such cultures, the act of “eating with” (συνεσθίειν) does not so much symbolize as embody or enact common cause, kinship, acceptance, among other things. Refusing to eat with a certain person would embody the opposite: rejection or exclusion.”[10]

The “delivery over to satan”, therefore, in context refers to some form of expulsion and exclusion from the community. This seems odd given the language of “destruction of the flesh”. Tomson suggests this oddity is explained in terms of the Jewish practice of extirpation:

“It is interesting to compare Paul’s solemn judgement of with the category of punishment in ancient Jewish law called ‘death at the hands of Heaven’. In theory, as in biblical law, the principle cases of prohibited sexual relations were ultimatly punishable by execution. But in practice Jewish courts mostly delivered those convicted to ‘extirpation’  כָּרֵת; karet, explained as heavenly punishment in the form of an untimely death.”[11]

The karet or extirpation was a kind of punishment, often used in substitute for capital punishment.[12] The Torah required two or three witness to a crime before a death sentence could be handed down,[13] and the Rabbinic and Pharisaic requirements placed upon witnesses, such as requiring that the witnesses made repeated warnings to the offender and the offender persisted in the offence, meant capital punishment was difficult to administer in many cases. Further, both Jewish and Christian sources inform us that around 40 years before the destruction of the temple, the Roman authorities had monopolised the power to try capital cases.[14] In light of this, extirpation was, in practice, the normal punishment for capital offences.

Mario Philip notes that Paul’s language in 1 Corinthians 5 has some parallels with ancient extirpation formulae; these often involved a formal curse, “curses where persons were devoted to the gods of the lower world. … These rites can be found in both Jewish and pagan texts, the only difference being that in Jewish setting Satan replaced the gods of the underworld”.[15] Philip cites a magical papyrus from the 4th century: “I say to demons of the dead, ‘this you are, if I will deliver to you him, how not he will do the deeds whether he receives.”[16]

Particularly striking are several texts that form part of the Dead sea scrolls:

“And the levites shall curse all the men of the lot of Behai. They shall begin to speak and shall say: ‘Accursed are you for all your wicked, blameworthy deeds. May God hand you over to terror by the hand of all those carrying out acts of vengeance. May he bring upon you destruction by the hand of all those who accomplish retributions. .. may he be cut off from the midst of all the sons of light because of his straying from following God on account of his idols and obstacle of his iniquity.”[17]


“All who enter the council of holiness of those walking in perfect behaviour as he commanded, anyone of them who breaks a word of the law of Moses impertinently or through carelessness will be banished from the Community council and shall not return again; none of the men of holiness should associate with his goods or his advice on any matter.”[18]

These examples illustrate a practice of issuing a “judgement under heaven”, where a person is formally cursed, handed over to God or Satan for punishment, and expelled from the community; the members refuse to associate with the offender any longer. The Mishna outlines “Thirty-six transgressions subject to extirpation are in the Torah”; tellingly, the second on the list is “He who has sexual relations with…his father’s wife”.[19]

Tomson concludes, “Paul is not arguing for capital punishment but for something like the lesser punishment of ‘extirpation’, and his verdict evidently relates to Pharisaic-Rabbinic criminal law”.[20] What Paul means is the man is expelled and that “heaven leaves the execution of extirpation to Satan”.[21]

Paul, therefore, cites disobedience to the Torah’s laws about prohibited sexual practices as being the problem and himself pronounces the sentence, which Jewish law required for such offences, in response to the problem.

Paul’s Justification of the Verdict: An Appeal to the Torah

Paul justifies the sentence by explicit appeal to the Torah. In 1 Corinthians 5:10-13 he writes:

“I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within I But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” [Emphasis original]

Paul is using the word “judge” (krinein) here in the sense of passing a sentence or rendering a verdict. The passage continues on from Paul’s announcement only a few verses earlier, he had pronounced a formal sentence (kekrika) in the name of the Lord. And in the very next verse (6:1) Paul uses the word “judge” (krinien) in the context of a law suit before a Roman or ecclesiastical tribunal. Consequently, in v 12-13 Paul’s argument is about jurisdiction; he has a right to judge those within the church community but not those outside. To substantiate this he cites the phrase “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”

The phrase, “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves”, comes from the LXX translation of Deuteronomy. In the LXX version the phrase occurs eight times in Deuteronomy in verses: 13:5, 17:7, 19:19, 21:20, 22:21, 21:22, 21:23 and 24:7. In each instance its use specifies the court’s right or duty to hand down a capital sentence for a particular crime; its use is often contextually linked with judicial procedure. Paul, in v 13, gives an almost verbatim citation of this phrase. Ciampa and Rosner note “the texts are identical, apart from the verb, changing from a singular future indicative to a plural aorist imperative presumably to suit the epistolary context”.[22]  That Paul cites this passage, having just handed down a sentence of “death at the hands of heaven”, to defend his right to judge those inside the church, and does so just before he proceeds to instruct the Corinthians to try their own disputes rather than go to Roman tribunals, can hardly be coincidental.

Equally hard to dismiss as coincidental is the influence of these same passages from the LXX upon Paul’s vice list in v 10-11. Paul mentions several classes of offenders that the church are: not to associate with or not eat with, offenders to whom the punishment of extirpation can be applied, those who are “immoral” (porneia), “covetous and swindlers”, “idolaters”  or who are “a reviler”, a “drunkard”. These are the same offenses that are condemned in Deuteronomy verses: 13:5, 17:7, 19:19, 21:20, 22:21, 21:22, 21:23 and 24:7 for which Moses’ command to Israel to “remove the wicked man from among yourselves” occurs. The table below illustrates:

1 Corinthians 5

“do not associate with”, “do not eat”

Deuteronomy (LXX): “remove the wicked man from among yourselves”
Prohibited sexual relations (Porneia) (11) Promiscuity, adultery (22:21-22,30)
Revilers (slanderer) (11) Malicious, false testimony (19:16-19)
Drunkards (11) Rebellious drunken son (21:18-21)
Idolaters (11) Idolatry (13:1-5, 17:2-7)
Covetous, swindlers (11) Kidnapping and selling into slavery (24:7)

The parallel between the first four offences in the table above is relatively obvious. Less obvious is the parallel between the last ones. Paul’s reference to “covetous and swindlers” does not appear to be a reference to “kidnapping and selling into slavery”. However, this lack of apparent match is deceptive. The categories of “covetous” and “swindler” are linked as a single category in v 11[23] but here  Paul  conjoins two words, “pleonektēs” (rendered “greedy” in the NASB) and “harpax” (rendered “swindler” in the NASB). The word “pleonektēs” refers to the attempt to seek unlawful gain, and the word “harpax”, carries the connotation of taking by force.[24] Now, obviously, kidnapping someone and selling them into slavery would be an extreme, though paradigmatic, example of taking something forcibly that did not belong to the taker; in fact, the language of the LXX bears this out. The LXX condemns kidnapping and enslaving as forms of theft; it literally refers to the enslaver as a “thief” who “steals a soul”. So, in fact, the categories of “covetous” and “swindler” does parallel the LXX category of a person who kidnaps and enslaves.[25]

The offences Paul lists in 1 Corinthians 5 match those warranting a capital sentence in Deuteronomy. This, again, is unlikely to be coincidental. Peter Zaas states there is usually very little overlap between any two vice lists in the Pauline corpus, nor is there any between Paul’s vice lists and any extant piece of ancient literature.[26] Yet in this case we have an overlap of every category; moreover, a very similar vice list is repeated again by Paul in 6:9-10.[27]

Paul justifies his right to judge those in the church who engage in incest (porneia), and the duty of the congregation to not associate with people from within the church who do so by appeal to the Torah. The Torah authorised Israel to set up courts and pass sentences of death upon members of their community for certain offences. In practice, particularly after Rome monopolised the right to administer capital crimes, this was substituted with the punishment of karet and extirpation, where the offender was expelled and “execution at the hands of heaven was” invoked. Paul was invoking this practice in Corinth; the porneia engaged in was of a type that carried a capital sentence; hence, the congregation of God’s people had the right to impose this penalty upon the transgressor.

[1] By “Pauls First Epistle to the Corinthians” I mean the Epistle designated 1 Corinthians in the New Testament Canon. Paul had written an earlier letter to the Corinthian church which is lost to history. Paul explicitly mentions this letter in 1 Corinthians 5:9.

[2] Unless otherwise stated, all scripture citations are from the New American Standard Version (NASB).

[3] Roy E Ciampa and Brian S Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (The Pillar New Testament Commentary) (Grand Rapids MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2010) 199.


[4] Matthew 19:9. Here I assume that Jesus is defending the divorce Halakah of the Shammite school against no fault divorce proposals of the Hillelite school. For a defence of this claim see David Instone Brewer Divorce and Re-Marriage in the Bible: The Social and Literary Context (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002).

[5] Jude 7.

[6] Peter J Tomson Paul and the Jewish Law (Jewish Traditions in Early Christian Literature) (Minneapolis: Brill Academic Pub, 1991).

[7] “‘Cursed is he who lies with his mother-in-law.’ And all the people shall say, ‘Amen’.” (Deuteronomy 27:23) The NASB renders “mother in law” where the LXX has the more literal “father’s wife”.

[8] Leviticus 18:8 “You shall not uncover the nakedness of your father’s wife; it is your father’s nakedness.” Leviticus 20:11” If there is a man who lies with his father’s wife, he has uncovered his father’s nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death, their bloodguiltiness is upon them.”

[9] Jonathan Schwiebert “Table fellowship and the Translation of 1 Corinthians 5:11″ Journal of Biblical Literature 127:1 (2008) 162.

[10] Ibid. 162-163.

[11] Tomson Paul and the Jewish Law 101-102.

[12] Numerous scholars have argued, cogently in my opinion, that the capital sentences in the Torah specify the maximum sentence. Further that textual indications within the law itself, and also evidence from Cuneiform law of the same genre, suggests that in practice capital punishment was frequently substituted for a lesser punishment in lieu of execution. See Raymond Westbrook, “The Character of Ancient Near Eastern Law,” in A History of Ancient Near Eastern Law, Vol. 1, ed. Raymond Westbrook (Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 2003), 71-78. Finkelstein, “The Ox that Gored,” 35. Joe M Sprinkle, “The Interpretation of Exodus 21:22-25 Lex Talionis and Abortion,” Westminster Theological Journal 55.2 (1993) 233-53. Walter Kaiser, “God’s Promise Plan and his Gracious Law,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 35:3 (1992): 293. I summarise some of this evidence in my article, Matthew Flannagan “Feticide, the Masoretic Text and the Septuagint” Westminster Theological Journal 74:1 (2012) 59-85.

[13] Deuteronomy 17:6.

[14] Tomson documents a Jewish tradition that “40 years before the temple the power to judge capital cases was taken from Israel”. Peter J Tomson Paul and the Jewish Law 102. The Gospels also mention this; after the Sanhedrin find Jesus guilty of blasphemy instead of carrying out any punishment themselves they take him to Pilate to have him executed, this is because the Jewish authorities lacked the power to put anyone to death. See, for example, John 18: 29-31.

[15] Mario Philip “Delivery into the Hands of Satan—A Church in Apostasy and not Knowing it: An Exegetical Analysis of 1 Corinthians 5:5” Evangelical Review of Theology 39:1 (2015) 54.

[16] Idem.

[17] Ibid. 54-55.

[18] Ibid. 55.

[19] Idem.

[20] Tomson, 103.

[21] Idem.

[22] Ciampa and Rosner “The First Letter to the Corinthians” 220.

[23] Note the use of the conjunctive between the various vices and the conjunction of “covetous” and “swindler” into the same category; Paul writes, “I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters.”

[24]  Daniel Berchie “The Meaning of Harpax in 1 Cor 5:10” Ilorin Journal of Religious Studies 2: 2 (2012) 1-14.

[25] This also makes sense out of the differences between the otherwise very similar lists in 1 Corinthians 5 and 6. Chapter 5 lists: “sexually immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler”, Chapter 6 lists: “neither fornicators (porneia), idolaters, nor adulterers, nor[effeminate, nor homosexuals, (arsenkoites, literally, men who go to bed with men) nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.” The difference is that chapter six adds effeminate and arsenkoites, which appears to be an allusion to the LXX condemnation of same sex behaviour in Leviticus 18 and 20, both of which are categories of prohibited sexual relationships, and hence, a form of porneia. Similarly, chapter 6 adds the category of “thieves”, which as we have seen is synonymous with a person who is “covetous” or a “swindler” in chapter 5. The vice lists, therefore, become essentially the same; both cite a list of offences designated as potentially capital offences in the LXX.

[26] Peter S Zaas “Catalogues and Context: 1 Corinthians 5 and 6” New Testament Studies 34 (1988) 623.

[27] 1 Cor 6:9-10 “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals, nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God.”

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2 responses so far ↓

  • I find this convincing without part 2. Comments.

    I would say: Jude uses the term to refer to attempted homosexual rape of the messengers at Sodom.

    Note 17: Accursed are you for all your wicked, blameworthy deeds. May God hand you over to terror by the hand of ah those carrying out acts of vengeance.

    Should that read “all”?

    Lastly, I think Paul appeals to the Torah in chapter 7. He tells a women who separates from her husband not to remarry. I think that is to allow reconciliation as the Torah states that a woman cannot return to her first husband after she has been with a second. If this is the correct understanding it would be another example of appealing to the Torah in the same letter.

  • Thanks Bethyada, the citation has been fixed.