Law,  New Testament,  Old Testament

Paul’s Use of Leviticus in 1 Corinthians

Leviticus is notoriously the place where year-long Bible reading programs die. Many a well-intentioned Christian has struggled and ultimately failed to get through Leviticus. The laws in Leviticus just seem so strange to the modern reader! Laws about sacrifices, washings, menstruation, and leprosy. These are strange concepts for the Western reader to think about. Yet, we deprive ourselves of a valuable resource if we ignore Leviticus. Leviticus has always been viewed as a foundational book for the Jewish people, and it was used significantly by Jesus and the Apostles in giving instruction to the church.

The Prevalence of Leviticus in the New Testament

In support of the assertion that Jesus and the Apostles relied heavily on Leviticus it may interest the reader to know that, according to the Loci Citati Vel Allegati in the 28th edition of Nestle Aland’s Greek New Testament, there are at least ninety-four specific Leviticus passages quoted or alluded to in the New Testament. This is quite significant and is in contrast to numerous other Old Testament books that get little or no mention in the New Testament (cf. Judges, Ruth, Ezra, Esther, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, etc.).

As another example, it is well known that in response to the question about the greatest commandment, Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” However, he also went on to quote the second greatest commandment and appealed to Leviticus 19:18, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus’s answer seemingly was accepted without any qualifications as good and right.

Paul’s Use of Leviticus in 1 Corinthians

Following the pattern of the Lord, Paul regularly used Leviticus to support his arguments. One example of this that I have noted of this before is Paul’s reliance on Leviticus as a foundation for rejecting homosexuality. In that article I note that there are multiple references to Leviticus found in 1 Corinthians (see chart below).

IncestLev 18:6–1820:111 Cor 5:1–13
HomosexualityLev 18:2220:131 Cor 6:9
IdolatryLev 18:21; cf. 19:41 Cor 10:7; cf. 6:9
Imitating GodLev 19:21 Cor 11:1
Not Causing StumblingLev 19:141 Cor 8:9
Warning Against Spiritual ProstitutionLev 20:51 Cor 6:12–20

The Incestuous Man of 1 Corinthians 5

A really good and clear example of Paul’s reliance on Leviticus is found in 1 Corinthians 5. This text relates Paul’s instructions concerning the incestuous man. The first verse of 1 Corinthians 5 reads, “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife.” This issue is so urgent for Paul that it is his first order of business after dealing with the disunity in the Corinthian assembly. Though this letter to the Corinthians lays out numerous problems, nowhere else does Paul claim that the Corinthian church was guilty of something that “does not exist even among the Gentiles.”

Although sexual practice in the Greco-Roman world was far from “moral,” Roman law of that time forbid incestuous relationships like this from taking place. It is no wonder why Paul thought this a serious matter. Although not even tolerated among the pagan Gentiles, it was apparently well-known that there was abhorrent “immorality” (πορνεία) among the believers in Corinth.

The word “immorality” (πορνεία) was utilized by Hellenistic Judaism to refer to any extramarital sexual sin (e.g., fornication, adultery, bestiality, homosexuality, incest, etc.). The word could be used with general reference to sexual deviancy, or, as in this passage, it could refer to one of those specific aberrations. Here it refers to incest, specifically that “someone has his father’s wife”!

Paul identifies an unspecified man in the Corinthian congregation, but since the report had already reached Paul it is doubtful that this man’s identity would have been unknown in the Corinthian assembly. This man had taken his “father’s wife” (γυναῖκά τοῦ πατρὸς), a phrase which seems to be taken verbatim from the LXX of Leviticus 18:8. Importantly, although Leviticus 18:7 and 8 both deal with the issue of an incestuous relationship between a man and his mother, verse 7 seems to refer to one’s natural mother, while verse 8 refers to a step-mother. The LXX recognizes this by using the word “mother” (μήτηρ) in verse 7 and “wife” (γυνή) in verse 8. Thus, the wording here in 1 Corinthians 5:1 most likely refers to a man marrying his step-mother.[1]

Lev 18:7aLev 18:81 Cor 5:1c
ἀσχημοσύνην πατρός σου καὶ ἀσχημοσύνην μητρός σου οὐκ ἀποκαλύψεις, μήτηρ γάρ σού ἐστιν. (LXX)  

You shall note uncover the nakedness of your father and the nakedness of your mother, for she is your mother (my translation).
ἀσχημοσύνην γυναικὸς πατρός σου οὐκ ἀποκαλύψεις, ἀσχημοσύνη πατρός σού ἐστιν. (LXX)    

You shall not uncover the nakedness of the wife of your father; it is the nakedness of your father (my translation).  
ὥστε γυναῖκά τινα τοῦ πατρὸς ἔχειν. (NA28)        

That someone is having the wife of his father (my translation).
Comparison of Lev 18:7–8 (LXX) and 1 Cor 5:1c

It should be noted here that although many commentators talk about the connection between Leviticus 18:8 and 20:11 to this passage, Ciampa and Rosner also note that Deuteronomy 27:20 and 22:30 may also provide a background to this passage. This would not be surprising since Paul’s summary, “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves,” (1 Cor 5:13) appears to be taken directly from Deuteronomy 22:22, and thus would apply to the incestuous relationship mentioned in 22:30.[2] It seems that Paul is simply following the principles found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

Although Paul is upset about the immorality of 1 Corinthians 5, it would be incorrect to assume he is upset only because this kind of immorality “does not exist even among the Gentiles.”[3] The fact that Paul uses direct language from the LXX to describe the man’s sin indicates that Paul viewed this as an infraction against divine revelation, not merely against a cultural standard. Interestingly, Paul identifies the unspecified man as being culpable for this sin, but the woman is unmentioned. Later, in 1 Corinthians 7, Paul has no problems defining the culpability of both men and women in marital issues.[4] Therefore, since the woman is unmentioned here, it likely means that she was not a believer, and thus not part of the assembly in Corinth.[5]

In contrast to the failure of the assembly in Corinth in tolerating sin, Paul identifies himself (“For I, on my part”) as doing the right thing and judging the sinning individual as though he were present with the Corinthians.[6] Paul’s judgment is “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” (v. 5). The language of handing one over to Satan is unique to here and a similar phrase in 1 Timothy 1:20.[7] The idea of handing one over to Satan probably refers to the removal of the protection of the Church and sending the individual back into the realm and domain of Satan, where he is most powerful. Although the phrase, “For the destruction of the flesh,” could refer to physical death, it makes more sense in context for this phrase to refer to the destruction of evil desires. In other words, the suffering and damage the individual suffers outside the comfort and encouragement of the church will, Lord-willing, ultimately break down and destroy the flesh (metaphorically) along with its desires.[8]

An important point to note is that the Mosaic Law stipulated the death penalty for such an incestuous union (cf. Lev 20:11).[9] Yet, Paul’s instructions here are for the removal of the individual from the church assembly. His instructions neglect telling the church to enforce the death penalty, which was assumed in the Old Testament. Therefore, although the immorality of incest did not change for Paul, the responsibility of the church to enforce the death penalty upon its members appears to have changed.[10] This is further evidence that, although the Law continues to have a teaching role, it is no longer binding in its full force under the New covenant.

Worth Another Look

As the above example illustrates, Paul’s thinking and reasoning is heavily influenced by Leviticus. Of course applying the Law is not simple, and we need to understand how the Old Testament Law applies today. But, the fact that both Jesus and Paul use Leviticus as a foundation for their arguments should indicate that maybe we would do well to give Leviticus another look!


[1] Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 199; Garland, 1 Corinthians, 158. See also, Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, 234. Fitzmyer believes that this incestuous practice was happening while the man’s father was still alive, thus a blatant violation of Roman law. In my estimation, it is unlikely the father was still alive.

[2] Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 200.

[3] Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 199.

[4] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 201.

[5] Fitzmyer, First Corinthians, 234; Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 199. Ciampa and Rosner allude to 1 Cor 5:12 where Paul says he has no business judging those outside the assembly.  Also, Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 200–1.

[6] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 203–4; Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 390.

[7] Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 208.

[8] Ciampa and Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians, 208–9. Thiselton writes, “What is to be destroyed is arguably not primarily the physical body of the offender but ‘fleshly’ stance of self-sufficiency of which Paul accuses primarily the community but surely also the man.” Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 396.

[9] Garland, 1 Corinthians, 158–59.

[10] Thomas R. Schreiner, The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1993), 143.

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Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He loves studying the Bible and helping others understand it. He also runs the Bible Sojourner podcast.

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