Holiness and Judgment: ΦΘΕΊΡΩ in 1 Corinthians 3:16–17 by Ethan Johnson

Wednesday 19 February 2020

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys (φθείρει) God’s temple, God will destroy (φθερεῖ) that person. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple (NRSV).

1 Corinthians 3:16–17 is a provocative and important text for understanding Paul’s ecclesiology and some early Christian theological principles of retributive judgment. One of the key issues at stake for interpreting the text rests in the proper interpretation of φθείρω (“to destroy”). The meaning of φθείρω in 1 Corinthians 3:17 has been contested, not least because there is no consensus about the proper background against which to read this passage. Few scholars, however, have studied φθείρω in light of Greco-Roman discussions of temple holiness, pollution, and judgment. Even Philip Richardson, who has recently examined Paul’s figurative temple language in light of Hellenistic philosophy, does not consider the ways φθείρω is used outside of biblical texts.[1] This causes him to miss the similarities between Paul’s argument and the logic of temple pollution and judgment in the Greco-Roman world.

If we consider Greco-Roman evidence, Paul’s double use of φθείρω in 3:17, in which temple holiness is threatened and God acts in response, makes better sense. As a contribution to Blogos’s interest in exegetical theology, I propose in this post that Paul used φθείρω to refer to temple pollution in the first instance, and to refer to divine judgment against temple polluters in the second instance. Thus, while assuming a deeply Jewish understanding of God’s presence with his people, Paul drew on the logic and language of the Corinthians’ Greco-Roman culture and used the temple to emphasise the danger of division in the Corinthian church. Paul, in other words, freely drew on both Jewish and Greco-Roman backgrounds to communicate his ecclesiological vision, even when he used temple imagery.

We do not have any singular, authoritative text for the various cults of the Greek world. Nonetheless, if we survey a variety of writings from numerous places and eras, we see a surprisingly consistent concern for temple sanctity in Greek religion.[2] A violation of the sanctity or holiness of temple space could lead to a state of dangerous pollution labelled ἄγος. One afflicted by ἄγος was marked for punishment from the deity, and this punishment usually involved death.

Ἂγος does not appear in the LXX or NT, but the word and the concept that it signifies remain relevant for first-century Jewish writings. Josephus employed the word ἄγος in a way that mirrors the logic of other ancient writers. He claimed that during the war with Rome, some of the Jewish forces invaded the holy place with polluted (μεμιασμένοις) feet and made the temple their headquarters.[3] This act of sacrilege left the temple laden with abominations (ἄγος).[4] For Josephus, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple was an act of divine judgment from God in response to this pollution.[5] Since Josephus, like Paul, was a Jew who wrote for a primarily Greco-Roman audience, it is fair for us to consider these Greco-Roman concepts of temple and pollution in 1 Corinthians.

Φθείρω is relevant for these discussions of temple pollution and judgment because it can be used to indicate both acts that pollute the sacred, and also acts from the gods against those who pollute the sacred. These two uses do not appear in the LXX or elsewhere in the NT, but the semantic flexibility of φθείρω in wider Greco-Roman literature is distinctly compatible with Paul’s use of it in 1 Corinthians 3:17. Plutarch, for example, claimed that leaven (ζύμη) polluted (φθείρω) the loaf with which it was mixed. Priests of Jupiter, therefore, were forbidden to touch it.[6] Of the several ancient writers who used φθείρω to indicate the gods’ acts of judgment and destruction, we might note Pausanias in particular. He said that when some men entered the temple of the Caiberi in order to desecrate it, they were destroyed (ἐφθάρησαν) by fire from heaven.[7] He then went on to clarify that this temple was holy (ἅγιος), thereby explicitly linking an act of judgment from God to a threat against a holy temple.

If we look closely at 1 Corinthians 3, it becomes clear how the logic of Paul’s argument matches the common Greco-Roman logic of temple pollution and judgment. First, he highlighted the temple’s holiness and linked the destruction from God in 3:17 to that temple’s holiness. The building (οἰκοδομή) into which the Corinthians were built was also a temple (ναός) indwelt by God’s Spirit. This reality already suggests holiness, but 3:17 makes the state of holiness more explicit. Paul explained there that God would destroy those who polluted his temple because the temple was holy. Second, Paul described a threat against the temple with φθείρω. Again, this word can indicate acts that pollute the sacred and invite judgment from the gods. In 3:17, it refers to an act that threatens a temple’s holiness and leads to judgment, and so reading it as “to pollute” makes good sense. Third, Paul chose φθείρω for the retributive act from God. If we do not consider Greco-Roman texts, we can struggle to interpret this second use of φθείρω. If we do, however, then we can see that this term was not an uncommon one for the divine response to temple pollution. If we read the first φθείρω as an act of pollution, then this second φθείρω most likely signifies God’s response to the one who pollutes sacred space.

Both the logic behind Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 3:16–17 and his word choice are perfectly consistent with common Greco-Roman discussions of temple pollution and judgment. Paul’s use of φθείρω in this context evidences an appeal to Greco-Roman concepts in order to highlight the danger of division. To divide is to threaten the holiness of God’s temple, and as many Greeks would have known, including those in Corinth, nothing could be more dangerous.

[1] Philip N. Richardson, Temple of the Living God: The Influence of Hellenistic Philosophy on Paul’s Figurative Temple Language Applied to the Corinthians (Eugene: Pickwick Publications, 2018), 164–65.

[2] For fuller discussions of Greek and Roman religion respectively, see, Robert Parker, Miasma: Pollution and Purification in Early Greek Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1983); Jack J. Lennon, Pollution and Religion in Ancient Rome (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).

[3] Josephus, J.W., 4.150–51.

[4] Josephus, J.W., 4.163.

[5] Josephus, J.W., 4.323; 6.110.

[6] Plutarch, Quaest. Rom. 109.

[7] Pausanias, Descr. 9.25.10–26.1.


Ethan Johnson is a PhD candidate in New Testament at the University of St Andrews. His research explores Paul’s use of temple imagery in 1 Corinthians, and asks how that imagery might have spoken both to Jews and to Gentiles in the Corinthian church.


Photo by Hans Reniers on Unsplash

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