Paul the Proto-Encratite
We thus see that at three points in his discourse Paul repeats the same highly significant sequence of ideas. In their former state of being in the flesh, Jewish Christians had been obligated under the Law. This Law is a law of flesh, because with its emphasis on fleshly obligations and especially procreation, it inevitably leads to passion and desire. However, under the new dispensation afforded to Christians through baptism, which is an enactment of Christ's death and resurrection, they are born again freed of the obligation to the flesh, that obligation which produces sinful desire in the members and fruit for death. The erotic life of Christians is ideally entirely devoted to the new bridegroom, Christ, and the joining with this bridegroom results not in fruit for death but in spiritual fruit for God.
The emphasis on embodiedness involved in being Jewish, in both senses of “flesh,” that is, valorizing circumcision and other fleshly practices as well as concentrating on genealogical connections, implies necessarily the obligation to have children. The only solution, then, is to escape from the condition of being in the flesh, to die to the Law and be reborn in the new life of the spirit, which spiritualizes precisely those fleshly, embodied aspects of the Torah, kinship and the performance of Jewish ritual and thus sexuality. Freed from the captivity of the letter, the flesh, the commandment which actually causes us to sin, we can serve God in the freedom of the spirit and escape from that which stirs up our members. It thus constitutes a return to the pre-lapsarian state in which Adam dwelled when he lived apart from the Law, that is, both the law to be fruitful and multiply and the prohibition to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. For the Christian, Christ and dying with Christ constitute return to this state of grace and redemption from the death and the bearing fruit for death which Adam's transgression occasioned, as opposed to the bearing of spiritual fruit for God of Romans 7:4. “In the flesh” here, then, like its equivalent, “in the letter,” means simply in literal Jewish existence, in Israel according to the flesh. Just as the Law itself is not sin but causes sin as an inevitable consequence of its commandment to procreate, so being in the flesh, that is, being under the Law, being Jewish and thus committed to physical, Jewish continuity, is not ipso facto evil but leads to sin, once more by preventing the exit from sexuality. Although life in the spirit is obviously superior to life in the flesh, as the allegorical is superior to the literal, “in the flesh” here has no pejorative meaning of its own, that is, it is devalued with respect to the spirit but not figured as something morally or religiously evil in itself. It is primarily, as I am claiming throughout, a hermeneutical term. The state of remaining in the literal, concrete, fleshly situation of the old Israel does, of course, have negative consequences, which Paul emphasizes, largely to disabuse Jews of any sense that the Law makes them superior to the gentiles. Jews bear fruit for death, that is, they have children who will feed the death machine, while Christians bear spiritual fruit, fruit that cannot die.
Paul never once to my knowledge mentions the bearing of children as a positive event, not even as a necessary evil! A rather obvious objection that I am certain will be raised is that Paul is speaking in an extreme eschatological situation, and his views are not to be taken as characteristic of his understanding of sexuality per se. It is unquestionably the case that Paul is indeed working in extremis. Indeed, I would go so far as to argue that “For the form of this world is passing away” (1 Corinthians 7:31) is at least in part to be understood as a further argument against procreation (Fredriksen 1991, 533n.4). This does not vitiate my point at all, however, for the fact that it is precisely the function of the eschatological moment to free people from sexuality and procreation, that is, to enable them to fulfill spiritual and not physical functions of propagation makes exactly the point about Paul's thought that I wish to make. It is not, after all, in any way a necessity of eschatological expectation that the eschaton lead to an end to sexuality and procreation. As evidence for this, I cite the picture of the eschaton current in rabbinic tradition in which a major feature is “Quickly, O Lord, our God, may there be heard in the hills of Judea the voice of joy and voice of happiness, the voice of the singing of bridegrooms from their bridal chambers and youths from their marriage celebrations.”  It is no accident, of course, that this same context emphasizes the national restoration in Zion that will take place at the eschaton as well. Further documentation can be provided from two modern Jewish messianic movements, quite different from one another, both characterized by the sort of eschatological tension which marks Paul's thought and both of which engage copiously in procreative activity and place it at the center and zenith of their value systems. I am referring, of course, to the messianic Zionists of Gush Emunim and the messianic Hasidim of Lubavitch (Habad). Both groups are procreating abundantly. Paul's “choice,” then, of freedom from sex and procreation as a central marker of redemption is hardly inevitable or without a cultural message. The “law of sin,” I conclude, can be very plausibly understood as the commandment to procreate from which the eschatological moment of the crucifixion and resurrection has ideally freed Christians.
I think that if my interpretation of these passages is acceptable, a significant revision of the history of sexuality in Christendom is in order, with the encratic Fathers much closer to Paul than has been previously allowed. The meaning of Romans 7 is that it was the command to be fruitful and multiply that created the inescapable dilemma of Adamic humanity, and the horns of this dilemma were only sharpened by the Jewish insistence on the centrality of the commandment because of its role in the reproduction of the Holy People. The dual effect of the Christ event is that an allegorical interpretation of Jewish existence, one that provides significance and salvation in the promise and not in the flesh, also provides release from the terrible double bind in which first-century Jews seem to have found themselves. Commanded to procreate, for only thus could the holy seed be continued, they were plagued by a constant anxiety and sense of sinfulness about the performance of that very commandment. In one fell swoop, Paul removes the sword of Damocles by telling them that the physical continuation of Jewish peoplehood is no longer necessary. In this end-time after the death and resurrection of Christ, Israel itself is no longer according to the flesh, defined by genealogy, but has been replaced by its spiritual signified, the community of the faithful baptized. The physical command to be fruitful and multiply and thus bear fruit for death has also been replaced by its spiritual signified, to bear spiritual fruit for Christ, fruit that will never die. When Paul is read thus, the encratic forms of Christianity are legitimate (if less compromising) heirs to a vitally important part of Paul's thought.
In Chapter 8 below, further elaboration of Paul's dual relation to the body, highly favoring the spirit but allowing room for the flesh as well, will be mobilized as a means to a renewed understanding of the relation between the Letter to the Galatians and the first Letter to the Corinthians. The notion that Paul valorized the celibate life most highly but did not vilify marriage will be crucial to this reading. For Paul, the celibate or encratite ideal was not the product of a “theological/moral” dualism. It was, rather, the solution, via a cosmological/anthropological duality, of an essentially ethical problem, the search for human autonomy and equality. Only celibates were free of the restrictions of gender, and in particular, only celibate women were free of the ties that bound (and bind) women.