In 1 Corinthians 10:23, most English translations use quotation marks to suggest that Paul is quoting someone else. For instance, the RSV says...

“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. 
“All things are lawful,” but not all things build up.

Koine Greek sources do not have quotation marks, so this is a translational assumption. On what basis is that assumption made?

Is there anything in the source grammar or the immediate textual context that suggests Paul is saying “Some people say 'All things are lawful', but I say...” or “You might say... but I say...”?

What rules out the interpretation that Paul is agreeing with both points of view, i.e. “It is true that all things are lawful, but also that not all things are helpful.”

I have read the comments on Quotations in 1 Corinthians 6:13, but would like more detail specifically about the phrase “All things are lawful”. Is there any evidence outside the NT that it was a common saying?


In 1 Cor 10:23 nothing in the Greek syntax or grammar necessarily requires quotation or implies it. The quotation is implied by the semantics as Paul is returning, following a (typically Pauline) excursus to his argument in 1 Cor 6:12 where he quotes what is reputed to be a common saying. It is an understandable translators' interpretation because the text is difficult to understand without them.

Ellicot comments here:

All things are lawful for me.—The Apostle now proceeds to conclude, with some practical direction and advice, the question of the eating of meat offered to idols, from which immediate subject the strong expression of personal feeling in 1Corinthians 8:13 had led him to branch off into the various aspects of collateral matters which have occupied him since, and to which the subject treated of in 1Corinthians 10:14-22 of this chapter naturally lead back the thoughts of the writer. He repeats here the great principle of Christian liberty, “All things are lawful for me” (see 1Corinthians 6:12), but insists, as before, that its application must be limited by a regard (1) to the effect which each action has upon ourselves, and (2) its influence on the Church at large. “Does this act tend to my own spiritual profit? Does it tend to build up others?” should be the practical rules of Christian life.

The entire passage 1 Cor 10:23-33, sometimes called, "The Limits of Liberty" is a theme Paul often visits because of the abuse in some circles.

  • You say "he quotes what is reputed to be a common saying". I have heard that claimed as well and would love to know whether such a "common saying" can be corroborated by early texts, or whether "reputed" simply means people today who want to put quotes around the phrase retrospectively infer that it must have been a common saying.
    – MattClarke
    Nov 16 '18 at 4:52
  • 1
    It is the latter and the usual justification for the quote marks, but on the basis of circumstantial evidence that Paul reapeats this "saying" several times in the book as noted above.
    – user25930
    Nov 16 '18 at 5:23

The marks were provided by the translators to account for the origin of the phrase to which he seems to be responding. My own take would be to understand it as an accusation of sorts. That is, it appears that Paul is responding to the "accusation" that he is antinomian (in the worst sense of the word). Paul does not deny being free from the Torah but demonstrates that he is not amoral by providing limits on behavior imposed not by laws but by an enlightened conscience:

[1Co 6:12 KJV] 12 All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.

[1Co 10:23 KJV] 23 All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.

So in my reading the marks are not necessary and are in fact misleading. Rather than it being an imagined quote from an unnamed source it is in fact the teaching of Paul being thrown back in his face and his balancing reply. It could possibly have been this scenario: "Yes, I know I said that all things are lawful but..."

  • Yes, I think it is significant that Paul has laid himself open to the charge of antinomianism. My own favoured, though unsubstantiated, interpretation of these verses is that Paul is helping his audience to move deontology to an ethics based on the virtue (or value) of service to others. He affirms that all things are permissible, but wants us to realise that law is not the arbitrator of ethical action: instead seeking the good of others is the properly Christ-like basis for ethical decisions.
    – MattClarke
    Nov 19 '18 at 1:48

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