The Apostle Paul's Prodigal Daughter

by Christine Woolgar | April 07, 2021

Editor's note: This blog article is published in tandem with the spring issue of Mutuality magazine, "Making Peace With Paul," now available on our website! If you're interested in getting updates about new Mutuality content, sign up for a digital subscription or a print subscription to Mutuality. 

Did you know Paul had a prodigal daughter? I don’t mean prodigal in its literal sense of “wasteful.” Rather, her actions broached a level of hurt and family disgrace similar to the prodigal son in Jesus’s parable. Moreover, like the loving father who welcomed his son home, Paul longed for restoration and responded to his daughter with immense compassion.

You might wonder how I can say this, given that Paul never married or had his own children. But this daughter I’m referring to was not an individual person. She was the church in Corinth. 

A few months ago, I realized Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians was essentially one of loving concern, from a father seeking to restore relationship with his prodigal daughter. I say this because in 2 Corinthians, I see allusions to one of the harshest laws in Deuteronomy concerning women, sex, and virginity. 

Before I go on, I should warn that the laws I’m about to discuss are extremely violent. However, I believe reading Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians through this lens, thinking about what he says and—more to the point—what he doesn’t say, gives insight into his character as a man of grace. 

Family Honor in Deuteronomy

For a while now, I’ve been studying the laws in Deuteronomy 22:13–29. Although they appear to be about sex and marriage, they are underpinned by the ancient Israelite understanding of family honor. 

For example, Deuteronomy 22:13–21 describes two cases where a newlywed bride is accused of not being a virgin prior to marriage. Except it doesn’t. The two cases are very different, don’t belong together, and aren’t really about sex. In the first case, the bride’s parents accuse a bridegroom of malicious slander; in the second, they accuse their daughter of grossly dishonoring them. 

I went through this in more detail in another post for CBE International,  especially for verses 13–19. Here, I want to focus on verses 20–21. 

If the bride is found guilty, she is stoned to death. But her crime is not that she had pre-marital sex, nor that she committed adultery during the betrothal period, nor indeed that she fell victim to the myth that the hymen proves and disproves virginity (it doesn’t). The lawmaker was less concerned about sex and the hymen, per se, and more concerned about the possibility of daughters subverting social order by undermining parental authority.1

That’s why we need to understand this law principally in the context of family honor, observing how it echoes Exodus 20:12 and 21:15–17.

This doesn’t make the law less troubling; it is still an extreme example of “honor”-based violence. In fact, it’s because it’s so harsh, and because such harsh values persist even today, that I wanted to study it. I wanted to understand whether people in Old Testament times applied it literally (answer: possibly not)2 and what, if anything, the New Testament had to say about it.

Family Honor in the New Testament

I first discovered links in the New Testament via another, equally harsh law in Deuteronomy. This one concerned a “stubborn and rebellious” son.

On the surface, Deuteronomy 21:18–21 appears different to Deuteronomy 22:20–21 because the son is accused of gluttony and drunkenness, while the daughter was accused of sexual promiscuity. But these are merely the indicators of the crime; in both laws, the underlying issue is one of undermining parental authority and their penalties are the same.3

Seeing the parallels between these two laws was game-changing for me. Not because I had another violent law to reckon with, but because I knew Jesus had interpreted Deuteronomy 21:18–21.

The clearest time he did this was in the parable of the prodigal son which ends with (spoiler!) the younger son not being stoned to death.

Another example is in how Jesus talked about himself. In Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34 he said his critics called him a glutton and drunk. You might not have realized, but at the time that was code for a “stubborn and rebellious” son. His critics were saying that Jesus undermined social order and deserved to die.4

With these New Testament examples, both clearly in tension with Deuteronomy, I felt more equipped to grapple with the law about the rebellious daughter. 

For one thing, Jesus’s call to parental compassion is just as applicable for those with daughters, as it is for those with sons.

I also noticed the surprise twist he put in at the end: when the older brother criticizes the younger brother, it’s not for his wanton feasting and drinking, but for his sexual promiscuity. Jesus’s listeners wouldn’t have expected that and I am convinced he was calling out that ancient double-standard, where women are stigmatized for certain kinds of sexual activity, but men aren’t.

However, even with all this, I still felt female representation was lacking in the New Testament as regards Deuteronomy 22:20–21.

For all its timeless qualities, the parable of the prodigal son still used the gendered constructs of Jesus’s culture. Sons received inheritance; daughters received dowries.5 You can’t tell the equivalent story for daughters, simply by flipping the gender of the son.

I also found it unsatisfying to frame Mary, mother of Jesus, as representative of a “prodigal daughter.” Yes, she was pregnant while betrothed and the father was not her fiancé. But she was innocent of any wrongdoing. The lesson to learn with Mary, as with Jesus, is not to make false accusations.

So I found myself asking if there was an example of a daughter who actually brought family disgrace, but was nevertheless loved by her parents and treated with compassion.

Then I read 2 Corinthians 10–13.

Paul’s Loving Concern

“I have betrothed you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.”

In 2 Corinthians 11:2, Paul writes of his desire to present the Corinthian church as a chaste, virgin bride to Jesus as her bridegroom. 

I’d previously interpreted this verse as about how the church is, metaphorically speaking, the bride of Christ. And it’s possible Paul intended that association. Virginity carried the symbolism of high worth (far more than just a monetary sense) and complete faithfulness to God, especially during a period of waiting. 

But when you read this verse in context, it’s apparent that Paul was concerned the Corinthian church wouldn’t be a pure or chaste virgin. 

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Deuteronomy 22:20–21 and began to wonder whether Paul’s reference to virginity was not so much for the bridegroom-bride associations, but for the parent-daughter associations. So I looked to see if there were any other parent-child references in his letter. 

Indeed there are: near the beginning of his appeal to the Corinthians in 6:13 and later in 12:14. 

This has implications for how we interpret everything Paul says and how he says it

Paul’s principal concern through chapters 10 to 13 is articulated in 11:4: he doesn’t want them to receive a Jesus, spirit, or gospel other than those he preached. Even so, Paul’s focus in these chapters is not to defend the gospel or Jesus or the Holy Spirit. Rather, he defends himself and his ministry. He seems to regard the underlying problem as one of relationship breakdown between himself and the Corinthian church. Thus, like a father with a beloved daughter, he seeks to repair their relationship.

That’s why he criticizes his competitors: the “super apostles.” He says they don’t have the Corinthians’ best interests at heart and shows he can outmatch their superficial credentials.

It therefore strikes me that the principal metaphor in chapter 12 is not, “Don’t you want to be faithful to your wonderful bridegroom?” Rather it’s, “Why are you bothering with these wannabe match-makers? I have shown you how much I care for you—please trust me.”

Note that Paul barely gives any criticisms; even when he says the church ought to have commended him (12:11), he doesn’t say that they were shaming him—though they clearly were. Also, from chapter 10 onward, despite the seriousness of the situation, he stresses how he does not want to be harsh with the Corinthians or hurt them. He does this no fewer than six times (10:2, 10:9, 12:14, 12:20–21, 13:7, 13:10).

All this makes sense when you read Paul as a loving father, filled with genuine concern for his daughter’s wellbeing. Then, when you add the fact that he was writing in an honor-shame culture, against the backdrop of Deuteronomy 22:20–21, it’s jaw-dropping.

Caveats and Final Thoughts

Although I make this link between Deuteronomy 22:20–21 and 2 Corinthians 10–13, I’m not saying we should adopt arranged marriages, or treat daughters’ virginity as a social marker for family honor. Patrilineal society is not a holy ideal that we should hark back to or emulate. 

Rather my point is this: Paul came from a culture where it was at least thinkable to regard filial disobedience as a capital crime, per Deuteronomy 22:20–21 and 21:18–21. It therefore speaks volumes that he wrote to the church in Corinth with as much sensitivity and compassion as he did.

I therefore wonder whether this letter should be seen as a paradigm shift for the parent-daughter relationship, just as the parable of the prodigal son is for the parent-son relationship. 

The letter also challenges the usefulness of sexual infidelity as a metaphor for unfaithfulness toward God. Given that Paul was writing about the Corinthian church’s spiritual faithfulness, he could easily have used sexualized and/or violent metaphors as the Old Testament prophets did. But he didn’t. And I think that’s a good thing. Sex and worship are, after all, two different activities that manifest in very different kinds of relationships.

Lastly, I personally find it comforting to know that the New Testament has a direct and gendered response to Deuteronomy’s law concerning a rebellious daughter, and that it leans into the parent-child relationship far more than sexual ethics. I also think it’s remarkable that this example came from Paul. If he showed this much nuance in response to such a loaded issue, we should hesitate before we take any harsh reading from his letters.
 

Notes: 

1. See Aaron Koller, “Sex or Power? The Crime of the Bride in Deuteronomy 22,” Zeitschrift für Altorientalische and Biblische Rechtsgeschichte 16 (2010): 279–296.
2. See Alexander Rofé, “Family and Sex Laws in Deuteronomy and the Book of Covenant,” in Deuteronomy: Issues and Interpretation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd, 2002), 169-192.
3. See Koller, “Sex or power?,” p287, n34.
4. NT Wright, Matthew for Everyone: Part 1 Chapters 1-15 (London: SPCK, 2012), 132-133.
5. Deborah Greniman, “The Origins of the Ketubah: Deferred Payment or Cash up Front?” Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies and Gender Issues, 4 (2001), 87.

Photo by Chelsey Faucher on Unsplash.


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