To Whom Is Paul Writing In 1 Corinthians 7:25-40?
This final section of Paul’s discussion of sex and marriage - 1 Corinthians 7:25 to 40 - is quite ambiguous for us. Doubtless his readers at Corinth knew exactly what he was talking about. But we do not.
At issue, basically, is the question of just who it is that Paul is addressing in this entire section in general, and in verses 36 to 38 in particular. To a large extent these verses are the crux of the matter, so we need to look at them first of all.
Hurd 171 maintains:
“This passage is one of the most difficult and controversial in the New Testament, because a number of serious ambiguities occur in these three verses.”
Indeed: this passage is possibly the most completely ambiguous passage in the entire New Testament - so much so that translations sometimes give two completely different versions of it (as in the NIV, and Barclay’s translation).
In the Greek text, Paul is discussing the question (quite possibly raised by the Corinthians in their letter to Paul) of what a man should do about his virgin. What are we to take this to mean?
There are three views found in the translations: (a) These verses could be referring to a man and his fiancée to whom he is betrothed (taken thus by the ESV, RSV, NRSV, NIV, TEV, and Phillips). (b) The verses could be referring to a custom that was known from later centuries but is not attested from New Testament times, of “a man and a woman living together under vows of chastity” (Jerusalem Bible margin; also taken this way by the NEB). Or (c) the verses could be discussing the responsibility of a father to arrange for the marriage of his daughter, and who was seeking to know what was the right thing for him to do in the present crisis situation at Corinth in the light of Paul’s teaching (7:26) about “holding to the status quo” (NASB, NIV margin, Jerusalem Bible).
Hodge and Garland present the case for the two main, differing, positions, Hodge taking the older, traditional interpretation, and Garland arguing for the major alternative position.
Hodge 132f. presents his viewpoint on v.36 thus:
“This and the following verse are addressed to fathers, for with them, according to the usage both of Jews and Greeks, rested the disposal of the daughters of the family. Though the apostle regarded marriage at that time as inexpedient, he tells fathers that they were perfectly free to exercise their own judgement in giving their daughters in marriage, or keeping them single.”
Hodge then proceeds to exegete the passage from this perspective. Similarly Robertson & Plummer 158f., who say,
“The verse indicates that the Corinthians had asked him about the duty of a father with a daughter of age to marry. The question is what he ought to do, not what she ought to do: his wishes, not hers, are paramount. This is in accordance with the ideas of that age, and the Apostle does not condemn them. ... It is wholly improbable that tis, autou, and hos (v.37) refer to the suitor, the prospective bridegroom. The Corinthians would not have asked about him. It is the father’s or guardian’s duty that is the question.”
To the contrary, Garland sets out the three views I have mentioned above, and then argues against two of them. The interpretation that the reference is to a non-sexual “spiritual marriage” is effectively refuted by his arguments against it, and I consider we can put this possibility aside. Our choice is thus between the other two views: that Paul is discussing (a) a father and his virgin daughter, or (b) a man and his fiancée.
Which approach to the passage is correct? Both are well supported. Hodge’s approach is the traditional one - it was the common interpretation amongst the early Church Fathers. Thus for example on these verses Theodoret says (Kovacs 128):
“If a father thinks that his daughter’s remaining unmarried is a disgrace and so wishes to unite her with a husband, let him do as he sees fit. For there is no sin in marriage.”
On the other hand, Garland argues for the interpretation that this passage refers to a man in relation to a possible marriage to his betrothed fiancée.
This is the usual one taken by commentators today - though not all of them: for example, in his recent (2000) Commentary on 1 Corinthians, Barnett says (on v. 36), “Apparently a father from the congregation has expressed concern that in barring the way for the marriage of a daughter who is somewhat older than the norm ... he may have acted in an unseemly way”, and Barnett then interprets this passage accordingly. So also does Naylor 150ff. (1996). But unquestionably most of the recent commentaries - and translations - take Paul to be referring to a man and his fiancée.
Do Garland’s arguments against the father/daughter scenario effectively demolish this viewpoint? I do not believe they do. It seems to me that the two possibilities are much more evenly balanced than would appear from Garland’s presentation. Numerous commentators have specifically referred to the difficulty of deciding the case. Garland himself cites one of them - Moiser; Hurd, as we have seen earlier, called this issue “one of the most difficult and controversial in the New Testament”. And Orr & Walther 223f. write, “Few passages of Scripture of such length bristle with more difficulties than does this.”
Garland’s arguments against the “father/daughter” interpretation are effectively rebutted in the literature on the passage. For example, as to Garland’s arguments #3 and #5 (pages 337f.), regarding “virgins”, and γαμιζω (gamizō), Orr & Walther 223 point out:
“There is considerable ambiguity in the phrase his virgin. Again, no line of argument offers incontrovertible evidence; the explanation given will usually support the overall interpretation adopted ... There is evidence in Greek literature for the use of parthenos as both ‘fiancée’ and ‘daughter’. This passage must finally be understood without a sure decision about this phrase ... By interpreting the person in question as a father, v.38 readily makes sense. The meaning of the New Testament word gamizō is clearly ‘to give in marriage’ in the only other [New Testament] occurrences.”
Robertson & Plummer 159 are definite in their judgement:
“The γαμιζων [gamizōn, give in marriage] is decisive: the Apostle is speaking of a father or guardian disposing of an unmarried daughter or ward.”
How then do we come to a position on this issue? I myself am influenced in my own decision by three factors:
1. What we know of the situation existing in New Testament times, when Paul wrote: that is, what are the background circumstances prevailing behind this Epistle? The answer is: that in this society, marriages were normally arranged marriages - arranged by the parents between their families (i.e. marriage had wider implications than just the feelings and preferences of the bride and groom). Frequently we do not give this factor due weight: we are in danger of reading-back our twenty-first century attitudes into the first century world. We shrink from the idea of our parents arranging who we are to marry, and so we recoil from the recognition of the fact that this is the way it was in the first century. Actually, this is still the way it is, in a large number of societies in the world today, and if we think our “free romantic choice” approach is so much better, we could perhaps reflect upon (a) how many people today of both sexes do not marry because they “do not find the right person”, and so they are “left on the shelf”, matrimonially speaking, and (b) the fact that our society’s approach is not all that markedly successful in steering people towards lasting and satisfactory marriages, if we note the number of marriages today that end in divorce or separation. So, given the cultural circumstances of the day - that the person who was primarily responsible for whether a young virgin married or not was her father - there is an a priori presumption, other things being equal, that this is the implied situation Paul is discussing.
2. What the early Church Fathers thought. This is not always decisive - they could be wrong. But they did live so much closer than we do to the apostolic age, and they would in many ways be in a better position than we are to judge how to take ambiguous passages. And in relation to the present passage, their common view was that Paul was speaking of a father and his virgin daughter.
3. The actual words Paul used. I take it that Paul chose his words accurately, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, so we should take careful note of them. And in v.38 Paul speaks of giving or not giving the virgin in marriage, γαμιζω (gamizō). Concerning this word Orr & Walther 223 write,
“The verb gamizein regularly means ‘give in marriage’ and not ‘marry’ in the New Testament, and it does not occur in Greek literature prior to the New Testament literature.”
A fact that Garland omits to mention. So there is no adequate reason here for us to depart from its usual meaning, and I do not consider that we should do so. For these reasons I agree here with Hodge’s interpretation, not Garland’s.
(This is one of the “Practical and Pastoral Reflections” upon Paul’s Epistle, taken from
B Ward Powers’ First Corinthians - An Exegetical and Explanatory Commentary.)
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