1Cor 12:23: SEX OR BEAUTY?

B. Ward Powers bwpowers at optusnet.com.au
Sun Sep 16 07:25:54 EDT 2001

At 09:50 AM 010915 -0400, Jay Anthony Adkins wrote:
>Dear Fellow B-Greek Members,
>I am having trouble understanding 1Cor 12:23.

Dear Jay (et al.),

Your post to b-greek relates to the Greek of 1 Cor 12:23 (which I have 
modified to conform to the b-greek standard):

>I am not sure where my failure lies in trying to translate the verse.  It
>may at least in part be in the term EUSCHMOSUNH


>I have the verse:
>"And [those parts] of the body which we deem to be without honor, to these
>we assign excessive honor and our unpresentable parts have excessive
>But I am not even convinced of what I have done.  Have I misunderstood the 
>meaning of other terms?  This just doesn't make sense to me.  If we think 
>that a part of the body is without honor, why would we then assign it more 
>honor?  Why would one say that our private body parts (genitalia) have 
>greater beauty or are even more presentable?  Please help.

Perhaps the root of the issue is taking the passage to be referring to 
"private body parts (genitalia)". I realize full well that not a few 
commentators take this to be the meaning, viz, that Paul's comment is 
thought to refer to covering some parts of the body (i.e., the sexually 
significant parts) for the sake of modesty. This is, I suppose, a possible 
explanation of Paul's meaning, but this seems to derive from an 
interpretational attitude that views Paul as opposed to (or at least 
uncomfortable about) sex. I find this an odd supposition, especially in the 
light of his explicit exalting (earlier in this same epistle) of the role 
of sex in marriage in the plan and purpose of God (1 Cor 7:2-5). Here in 
12:23, as elsewhere, there is a danger of reading into Paul's teaching 
things which he did not say.

And, Jay, you have vividly highlighted the interpretational problem which 
going in this direction will lead us to.

Perhaps this "genitalia" interpretation is encouraged by the NIV 
translation of this verse which (plus verse 22 and the first part of verse 
24) says:

"On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are 
indispensable, and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with 
special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with 
special modesty, while our presentable parts need no special treatment."

Though the NIV does not really push us too hard in a "genitalia" 
interpretational direction. Not as much as The Living Bible, which says,

"And we carefully protect from the eyes of others those parts that should 
not be seen."

Really, no two ways about what you are to make of that!

We get a rather different perspective from some other versions. Thus the 
TEV renders 12:23:

"and those parts that we think aren't worth very much are the ones which we 
treat with greater care, while the parts of the body which don't look very 
nice receive special attention, which the more beautiful parts of our body 
do not need."

And in the Phillips NT Translation we read:

"The parts which do not look beautiful have a deeper beauty in the work 
they do, while the parts which look beautiful may not be at all essential 
to life."

So, what is Paul here talking about: sex or beauty?

As a clue to which interpretation is the understanding of his meaning which 
Paul himself intended, let us note his use of TA DOKOUNTA MELH TOU SWMATOS 
(verse 22) - "the parts of the body which SEEM [to us], etc.", and hA 
DOKOUMEN ATIMOTERA (verse 23) - "the [parts] which we deem less worthy". He 
is writing about the body's APPEARANCE to us, contrasting those features of 
our body which we consider (DOKEW) need particular treatment to make them 
more acceptable in appearance, with (verse 24) our more 
attractive/beautiful/comely aspects which have no need of such special 

Thus Paul is saying,

"and [as for] what we consider (DOKOUMEN) to be less attractive parts 
(ATIMOTERA) of our body - upon these we bestow the greater TIMHN 
(attention, care, decoration, treatment), so that our less attractive 
features (TA ASCHMONA) have [i.e., receive] much greater EUSCHMOSUNHN 
(embellishment, artifice, adornment, ornamentation) .

A major indicator of Paul's meaning is his final comment in the picture he 
is drawing for us: verse 12:24a. Here he refers to those parts of our body 
which have no need of further titivating-up, because they already look 
beautiful enough. Showing us that what he is saying prior to this is that 
(as we look at our own bodies) we may well reach the opinion that some 
other parts DO NEED special treatment, in order to make them more 
presentable. Jay, as you have said, this is quite inconsistent with the 
idea of a reference to the sexual areas of the body (we cannot interpret 
Paul to be saying that we give them special treatment with the result that 
they are made more attractive in appearance!).

In this passage Paul is drawing an example from life, and speaking of the 
way in which people recognize that, in physical appearance, some features 
of their bodies are more attractive than others, and we pay attention to 
our less attractive physical features in our endeavours to improve on them, 
and make them look better. So, we exercise, or wear special clothing, or 
use cosmetics, to change or cover up deficiencies or blemishes in our 
physical appearance and thus enhance the attractiveness of our bodies.

The context of this passage is Paul's analogy of our physical body with the 
church as the body of Christ (verse 27). Verses 24b-26 are transition 
verses, worded so as to apply equally to our physical bodies (God has so 
designed our body parts that all of them - whatever we think of their 
appearance - are needed for the role that they play, and they all work 
together and are interrelated) as also to the varied members of the church, 
with their differing gifts and abilities. And from verse 27 onwards he 
describes the analogy \of the human body worked out in the church.

It is a mistaken interpretation of verses 22 to 24a to see this passage as 
referring to genitalia, viewing our sex organs as being designated as 
"dishonourable". This was neither a Jewish nor a Greek attitude, and most 
certainly is not a biblical or Christian one. And those misguided 
Christians who down the ages have taken such a negative attitude towards 
sex and the sexual parts of the body have done a grave disservice not only 
to Paul but to the Creator God who made us thus.

Thus let it be seen, thus let it be taught.



Rev Dr B. Ward Powers        Phone (International): 61-2-8714-7255
259A Trafalgar Street          Phone (Australia): (02) 8714-7255
PETERSHAM  NSW  2049      email: bwpowers at optusnet.com.au
AUSTRALIA.                         Director, Tyndale College

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