This is a comment I intended to leave at Vox Populi, but it went over the 4096 character limit, so that gave me a reason to put it here. It’s an attempt by a Latin duffer (me) to offer some commentary on 1 Corinthians 7:21 based on the Vulgate, in response to a request there. The context is whether Paul was telling slaves to remain slaves or to free themselves if possible.
I’m no scholar, but I’ll take a shot at it. Here’s the Vulgate I’m looking at, if anyone wants to look for himself. The English translation there is very literal. I’m actually not sure if it’s the Douay or the early KJV, but they should be virtually identical here anyway.
First I’d back up a bit for context. Verse 17 says, “But as the Lord hath distributed to every one, as God hath called every one: so let him walk.” That’s verbatim from the Latin, to my eye. The RSV Catholic Edition (RSV-CE, which we Catholics borrowed back from the RSV of the KJV in 1966, taking out the thees and thous) puts it: “Let every one lead the life which the Lord has assigned to him, and in which God has called him.”
So St. Paul’s talking here about not making changes in your worldly life, but focusing on God. Verse 18 says if you’re circumcised, don’t “procure uncircumcision” (maybe there was some sort of ritual to revoke it?), and if you’re not circumcised, don’t get snipped. Verse 19 says that’s “nothing but observance of the commandments of God” (again a literal translation); and as Paul says elsewhere, Jesus, as the New Covenant, supersedes the old laws. Then verse 20, literally: “Let everyone stay in which calling he was called in.” Or a smoother translation: “Every one should remain in the state in which he was called.”
So the context coming into verse 21 is: don’t waste time and energy changing your situation in this life; put that effort into being a good Christian and doing the Lord’s work because He’s coming back before you know it. Then verse 21, which I’ll break it down since you asked about it:
- servus (slave) vocatus (called) es (you were): I’m not sure how they know this is a question, but the meaning is something like: A slave, were you called? Or more clearly: Were you called, being a slave? Or: Were you a slave when you were called?” It’s not “Were you called a slave?” or “Were you called to be a slave?” Those would be different in Latin.
- non (not) sit (let it be) tibi (to you) curae (of care/concern): Let it not be of concern to you.
- sed et (but/and/also) si (if) potes (you are able) liber (free) fieri (to be made) magis (even more, rather, instead) utere (make use of [it]): But if you are able to be made free, even more/rather/instead make use of it.
It’s all straightforward except for that “magis,” which has a range of possible meanings including those three. (Latin adverbs are a pain in the ass that way.) If you translate it as “even more,” then it sounds like Paul is saying: if you have a chance to be free, try all the harder to use it. If you translate it as “rather” or “instead,” then he’s saying: instead of trying to get free, make use of your position to do the work of the Lord. It seems to me the latter translation fits the context of the previous few verses much better (and the context of all Paul’s letters), and it better reflects the overall sense of the word I get from the Latin dictionary. He just said not to change your state in life — even the state of your foreskin — why would he now say the opposite, in the very next breath?
For more context, verse 22 then uses the concept of earthly slavery as a symbol: “For he that is called in the Lord, being a slave, is the freeman of the Lord. Likewise, he that is called, being free, is the slave of Christ.” In other words (as I read it), one’s earthly freedom or slavery is of no importance next to the fact that Christ frees us while also making us slaves to Him.
So my take would be that he wasn’t giving practical instructions to slaves at all; but using slavery, like circumcision, to make a point about putting aside earthly cares and focusing on Jesus Christ. My final answer to the question would be that Paul is telling them to make use of their slavery, not of the opportunity to be free.
And here’s the note from the Navarre Catholic study bible on verses 17-24: “Some Corinthians may have been misapplying the consequences of being ‘reborn’ through Baptism, making out that it brought about a total change in a person’s life, not only internally but externally as well. The Apostle explains (by giving two examples — circumcision and slavery) that external circumstances do not determine or inhibit a person’s Christian life; in fact, God designs these circumstances as a positive help for Christian living.”