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I heard somewhere that in 1 Corinthians 7:36-38

But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of [her] age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry. Nevertheless he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well. So then he that giveth [her] in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth [her] not in marriage doeth better.

there are 2 possibilities of translating this passage:

1) Paul refers to an individual's personal virginity

2) Paul refers to an individual's daughter's personal virginity

Is it true? If yes, what is causing such a great difference in possible translations? Is it because of some ambiguity of the Greek?

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  • the question offers a false choice because the translation is unfortunate. In fact it is the believer's fiancée. Other translations make this clear... and so does the context. My answer explains. Dec 22, 2023 at 21:14

2 Answers 2

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The problem with these verses is that they are somewhat exposed to two interpretations in the Greek. In the Greek is more like this:

If anyone thinks he is behaving unseemly to ‘the virgin’ (either daughter or spouse) and if to be ‘beyond prime’ and so it ought to be what he wants. (my paraphrase from the Greek English interlinear Bible)

The key points of split between the two interpretations are whether the virgin is a daughter or a virgin that a man wants to marry. In the case of it being a daughter, ‘beyond prime’ means she is at the ‘matured point’ of being a spinster. If she does not marry soon she will be disadvantaged, this is why the Father wants to give here away and is wondering what God’s will is. There is no reason why He would not also be consulting her daughter on what she wanted as well. If on the other hand we are referring to a man who is wondering if he should marry a virgin then ‘beyond prime’ means beyond his self control in terms of lust. He really wants to marry not because he is worried about the woman becoming a spinster, but because he wants to have sex with someone really badly.

I think in the context it seems more honest to the text to take the first option. We are talking about a Father’s questions about what he should do. There seems to be a sense that the virgin somebodies possession, either a betrothed or a father. However from what I understand of engagement in Hebrew society it was as good as marriage itself, so I do not think it would be moral to back out of it after you have already been engaged unless there is good cause. This is more about if a Father should give his daughter to a man, to be engaged to her.

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  • So, if the virgin is a daughter, then it looks like Paul supports the idea of a daughter not being free to choose between a marriage or non-marriage life, but rather being supposed to follow the will of her father in this regard. Am I correct?
    – brilliant
    Jul 13, 2012 at 10:14
  • @brilliant - I do not know about the details of how the culture was back then with respect to Virgins. It would make a good new question. Whater it was Paul does not argue against it here. There are some Jewish members on this site, one of them would probably know about how that worked back in those days. Cheers.
    – Mike
    Jul 13, 2012 at 10:28
  • I just asked a question here: How did a virgin decide upon her marriage in Israel 2000 years ago?
    – brilliant
    Jul 13, 2012 at 10:36
  • Hmm... It just struck me that Corinthians were not part of Hebrew society, but rather gentiles.
    – brilliant
    Apr 18, 2016 at 1:10
  • What does it mean for the the father to act unbecomingly (ἀσχημονεῖν) to his daughter?
    – mic
    Aug 7, 2020 at 4:09
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ὥστε καὶ ὁ γαμίζων τὴν ἑαυτοῦ παρθένον καλῶς ποιεῖ, καὶ ὁ μὴ γαμίζων κρεῖσσον ποιήσει.

  • KJ21 - So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well, but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better.

  • EHV - So then, he who marries his virgin does well, and he who does not marry her does better.

Modern translators lean toward the second interpretation and I think they are right. The answer to the OP is "none of the above." It is the believer's fiancée who is the virgin here, not his daughter or the believer himself.

I will be interested to know what resident experts in Greek have to say about this, but the context of the quote is quite clear. In 1 Cor. 7 Paul considers whether one should marry or not. He prefers that one remain unmarried if possible, so that he can devote himself to Christ with the expectation that Jesus will soon return. There are two exceptions however:

  • If they cannot exercise self-control they should marry, for it is better to marry than to be on burn. (9)
  • If anyone thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virgin, and if a critical moment has come and so it has to be, let him do as he wishes. He is committing no sin; let them get married.

The "critical moment" probably refers to the woman's need to find a husband before she is considered too old to attract someone and thus needs to move on from her fiancé. "Acting improperly" here means delaying the marriage in an unfair way to the woman.

Conclusion: The answer is "none of the above." The virgin in question is the believer's fiancée, not the believer himself or his daughter.

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