The interpretation of 7:36-38 is a matter of debate as a comparison of the NASB and ESV reveals.
But if any man thinks that he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she is past her youth, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry. 37 But he who stands firm in his heart, being under no constraint, but has authority over his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well. 38 So then both he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage does well, and he who does not give her in marriage will do better.
If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry—it is no sin. 37 But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. 38 So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.
The first obvious translation difference is the NASB’s “virgin daughter” in contrast to the ESV’s “betrothed.” In favor of “betrothed,” Garland cites several passages where the betrothed are said to be virgins (Matt. 1:18, 23; Luke 1:27; 2 Cor. 11:2). But in none of these cases does “virgin” mean betrothed. All who are betrothed would be expected to be virgins, but not all virgins are betrothed. Some appeal to the English idiom “his girl” to support the translation “betrothed” (Barrett, 184), but appealing to English idioms seems like an exegetical stretch. In favor of “virgin daughter,” παρθένος never means betrothed anywhere in Scripture (LXX or GNT), Plato, Philo, or the Apostolic Fathers. However, it must be acknowledged that when Scripture refers to a virgin daughter, in other passages “daughter” is explicit in the text (Judges 19:24; 2 Sam. 13:18, etc). In extra-biblical Greek Sophocles does use “my virgins” for “my daughters” (Morris citing LSJ, 117). On the balance, the usage leans towards interpreting “his virgin” as “his virgin daughter.” It may be that Paul avoided the term daughter to keep the relationship indefinite so that the teaching applies to both fathers and guardians.
The second translation difficulty is between the NASB’s “if she is past her youth” and the ESV’s “if his passions are strong.” After surveying extra-biblical usage (the word occurs only here in the Scripture), Winter concludes, “From these examples of ὑπέρακμος and its cognates a number of points emerge. Clearly the verbal form neither suggested that a person had reached menopause if a woman, nor impotence through age if a man. It was used to refer either to a woman who has reached puberty and therefore could engage in intercourse and safely conceive, or to the sexual drives or passions of either sex. Usually it referred to the man, and then to indicate the danger of being entrapped by immorality through his natural sex drives” (TynBul, 77). This means the ESV’s rendering is possible, but “if she has reached puberty” is also possible. The NASB’s rendering is probably not the best unless “youth” is taken to mean childhood.
Thus ὑπέρκαμος could refer either to a woman who has reached puberty or to the passions of a man or woman. Winter favors the latter on the basis that ἀσκημονέω often has overtones of sexual impropriety (TynBul, 78). This is true, but the word has a “variety of connotations” (Garland, 340) and can refer to any kind of impropriety (see Fee, 638 and Thiselton, 1049, 1051 on 1 Corinthians 13:5; see also Deut. 25:3 and Ezekiel 16 for other biblical uses). Another argument in favor of the ESV’s rendering is that the “unexpressed subject in a dependent clause usually picks up the subject of the preceding clause” (Fee, 351). But Fee also says, “one cannot be sure” and leaves open the possibility that the word here refers to the virgin (ibid.).
“And it must be so”/“and it has to be” is a reference forward to the marriage under either interpretation. If taking the NASB’s line of interpretation, this refers to the father or guardian’s conviction that he should permit his daughter to marry since it would be shameful otherwise. If taking the ESV’s line of interpretation, this refers to the betrothed man’s conviction that since he is acting in a sexually dishonorable way toward his betrothed, he must marry her.
The NASB renders the closing line of 7:36 “let her marry.” The ESV translates “let them marry.” In this case, the ESV is clearly correct. Γαμείτωσαν is clearly a third person plural. Garland says that under the father-daughter view the third person plural subject “abruptly brings in a third party” whereas the betrothed view naturally takes the “them” as the man and his virgin spoken of throughout the verse (Garland, 337). A. T. Robertson, however, suggests “the subject [is] drawn from the context” (Robertson, 1204).
Verse 37 provides a contrast to the “let them marry” of verse 36. Under the father-daughter view, the one standing firm refers to the father who is firmly convinced that he is doing the right thing in keeping his daughter a virgin. Under the betrothed view, the one firmly established is the man who is convinced that he is doing the right thing in not marrying his betrothed.
“Being under no constraint/necessity.” In the father-daughter view, “under no constraint” means the father is not under any compulsion (like the knowledge that it would be improper) to hold his virgin back from being married. In the betrothed view, “under no necessity” means the betrothed man is not under the compulsion of his own desires for sexual satisfaction. Thus he can refrain from marriage (Garland, 343).
In contrast to being under compulsion, the one who lets them marry/the one who marries must have “authority over his own will” (NASB) or have “his desire under control” (ESV). The difference here is simply a more literal translation on the part of the NASB and a more interpretive translation on the part of the ESV at this point. In the father-daughter view, having “authority over his own will” simply means that this action is not coerced. Paul doesn’t want men to keep their virgins just because of the pressure in the Corinthian church for an ascetic lifestyle (cf. 7:1). In the betrothed view, having “authority over his own will” means the man has control over his sexual desires.
Nothing to this point in 7:37 firmly points one way or the other. Either view can make sense of 7:37 up to this point. But “to keep his own virgin daughter” (NASB)/“to keep her as his betrothed” (ESV) presents a major problem for the betrothed view. As noted above, it is unlikely that παρθένος should be translated betrothed. Thiselton argues the verse should be translated, “to respect her virginity.” He says, this “cannot be intelligibly translated as to keep his own virgin without distorting Paul’s meaning. The noun refers to the-woman-as-virgin for which in English we should speak of the woman’s virginity.” Thus “it is difficult to improve on the REB’s to respect her virginity” (601). Against Thiselton, the noun refers not to virginity but to the-woman-as-virgin. The “his own” makes no sense if the noun refers to virginity. In support of “keep her a virgin” Fee cites Achilles Tatius 8.17.3 τηρησω δε σε παρθενον (but I will keep you a virgin) and 8.18.2 παρθενον γαρ την κορην μερχι τουτου τετρηκα (I have kept the maiden a virgin to this hour) (353n. 26). But note that Fee’s quotations don’t include the important “his own.” Fee says “this tends to be a difficult clause for any view,” but in reality this clause fits the father-daughter view quite well. It is a major difficulty for the betrothed view. It results in the odd conclusion that Paul is saying that a man may betroth a woman, and keep her as his betrothed, and yet never marry her.
In 7:38 Paul gives his conclusion. The key difference between the NASB and ESV is the phrase translated either “he who gives . . . in marriage” (NASB) or “he who marries” (ESV). The key word is γαμίζω. The dispute is whether the word γαμίζω can mean “marry” or whether it only means “to give in marriage.” Everywhere else in the New Testament (it does not occur in the LXX), γαμίζω means “give in marriage” (Matt. 22:30; 24:38; Mk. 12:25; Lk. 17:27; 20:35). The word γαμέω uniformly means “to marry” (Matt. 5:32; 19:9f; 22:25, 30; 24:38; Mk. 6:17; 10:11f; 12:25; Lk. 14:20; 16:18; 17:27; 20:34f; 1 Co. 7:9f, 28, 33f, 36, 39; 1 Tim. 4:3; 5:11, 14), including nine occurrences within 1 Corinthians 7 itself.
Fee counters by noting “that the classical distinctions between -eo and -izo verbs had broken down in the koine period” (355). Thus he argues for the possibility that γαμίζω simply means “to marry” in 7:38. While Fee is correct that –ιζω was losing its distinctive force in the period of the New Testament, the question remains whether this was the case with γαμίζω. Apollonius Dyscolus, a second-century Greek grammarian, wrote that γαμῶ meant “I receive in marriage” and γαμίζω meant “I give in marriage” (BDAG, 188; Bekker, 280). This seems to indicate that the distinction between γαμίζω and γαμέω held longer than with other words. Furthermore, those who argue that γαμίζω and γαμέω mean the same thing need to explain why Paul changes the verb here since he used γαμέω nine times in this chapter. Why change the verb? Why change it here? Fee says that the best answer may simply be stylistic variation. He also floats the idea that γαμέω is used intransitively and γαμίζω is used transitively by Paul. This is a difficult statement to prove or disprove since this is the only occurrence of γαμίζω in Paul. On the whole, it is more likely that γαμίζω here means “give in marriage.”
The editors of BDAG minimize the Apollonius quotation by saying, “It is hard to say how far the rule of Apollon., quoted above, applies, since there are so few exx. of γ. In any case, his observation indicates that mistakes could be made in the use of either term.” They also note that γαμίζω is used for “marry” by the third-century bishop Methodius. Yet it is interesting that Theodoret of Cyrus, a fifth-century bishop text using the word εγγαμιζειν, which means to “marry off” (246, n. 23). Theodoret takes the father-daughter view without even noting another possibility.
On the whole, the father-daughter view seems preferable to the betrothed view. It adopts the attested rather than an unattested meaning for παρθένος. It provides the best explanation of “keep his own virgin.” It best accounts for the use of γαμίζω. It’s handing of ὑπέρκαμος is well within attested usage. It also seems to fit the cultural context better. The biggest challenge to the father-daughter view seems to be the subjects of ᾖ ὑπέρκαμος and γαμείτωσαν. The unexpressed subject of ᾖ ὑπέρκαμος would more naturally refer to the man, and on the father-daughter view the implied subject of γαμείτωσαν introduces a groom without previous mention. But neither of these are insurmountable challenges.
According to the father-daughter view, Paul concludes the chapter by looking at what a father’s attitude toward his virgin daughter should be (and the issue of remarriage after widowhood). Paul had been recommending (but not commanding) singleness for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (7:36–38). At the same time some Corinthians seem to have wrongly thought that abstinence from marital relations was a more spiritual state than marriage (7:1). In this context Paul warns fathers and guardians about improperly restricting the marriage of their virgin daughters. It seems from the opening question of the Corinthians that some fathers might have been under pressure not to marry off their daughters. Paul here tells them that to do so is no sin. If the father thinks he is not acting rightly toward his virgin daughter by not giving her in marriage, he should give her in marriage. A father may conclude that he is not wronging his daughter by her remaining single for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. But if this is the choice, it can’t be due to pressure from others. He has to be convinced in his own heart that he is acting rightly toward and not wronging his daughter. Paul observes that both courses of action are good. In keeping with his emphasis in this passage, however, Paul does express his preference for singleness.
In sum, Paul does not fully assent to the statement that it is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman (7:1). He denies that this is the case for people already married (7:2-6). He further does not believe that marriages should be dissolved, even if they are mixed between unbelievers and believers (7:10-24). But Paul does commend singleness. He wishes that everyone were single like himself (7:7). Because of the last days that have arrived (7:26, 29, 31), it is good not to marry so that undivided attention may be given to the Lord’s work. However, Paul concedes that this is simply his trustworthy opinion and not a binding restraint (7:25, 35). Paul wants it to be as easy as possible for undivided attention to be given to God’s work (7:32). Nonetheless, Paul notes that it is possible to render great service to the Lord and be married (7:29). In fact, to be single is a special gift from God not granted to everyone (this does not mean that those so gifted are superior to those who have differing gifts, see Paul’s discussion in 12:14-26) (7:7), and some who cannot control themselves (including both thoughts and actions) ought to marry (7:9).
Paul is clearly commending singleness in this passage. Many resist Paul’s clear teaching by attempting to limit the application of Paul’s teaching to a first century situation (e.g., a local famine or a time of persecution) while others may simply ignore Paul’s commendations. Neither should be done. On the other hand, Paul’s words must be placed within their broader canonical context. When the disciples respond to Jesus’ teaching on divorce by exclaiming that it would be better not to marry, Jesus replied, “Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given” (Matt. 19:11).
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