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1 Corinthians 7:36-38, NIV: "36 If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if his passions are too strong and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married.

37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing.

38 So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better."

After reading this, I wanted to clarify the cultural differences of "engagement" and "marriage" in the culture of Corinth in Paul's time versus in the present-day Western world (particularly engagement).

Verse 36 and 38 together imply that you could be engaged to someone in Corinthian times but not marry them? What does that mean?

(Side-note: I'm aware of alternative views that this is about a father marrying off his daughter, but in this question I'm assuming the translation is about two people considering getting married to each other, because of the convincing argument here.)

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    There is nothing in the Greek text that would imply an 'engagement'. It is sheer interpretation, rather than disciplined translation. Literal translations of the text do not make such an implication.
    – Nigel J
    Oct 5, 2019 at 6:58
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    @NigelJ That sounds like something you could use as the basis of an answer. Maybe you’d like to expand it out rather than just writing a half answer and leaving it in the comments?
    – nick012000
    Oct 5, 2019 at 20:27
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    Yes please it would be great to know more - was there no concept of engagement? Is it most closely similar to Western "dating" in the present day?
    – dmonopoly
    Oct 5, 2019 at 20:44
  • @nick012000 I would find it difficult (and unethical) to write an answer about something that is not actually in the text. Hence my comment, rather than an answer. Anyone can check the literal translations (YLT for example) and see for themselves.
    – Nigel J
    Oct 5, 2019 at 21:35

2 Answers 2

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With regard to 1 Corinthians 7:36 the King James Version uses the word “virgin” but the expression “the virgin he is engaged to” (as expressed in the NIV) is nowhere to be found in manuscripts. The ESV uses the word “betrothed” and the NLT says “fiancé”. Here is some information about being engaged (or betrothed) and being married:

The origins of European engagement in marriage practice is found in the Jewish law (Torah), first exemplified by Abraham, and outlined in the last Talmudic tractate of the Nashim (Women) order, where marriage consists of two separate acts, called erusin (or kiddushin, meaning sanctification), which is the betrothal ceremony, and nissu'in or chupah, the actual ceremony for the marriage. To be precise, nesiuin is the process, and chuppah is the method. This was later adopted in Ancient Greece as the gamos and engeysis rituals, although unlike in Judaism the contract made in front of witness was only verbal. The giving of a ring was eventually borrowed from Judaism by Roman marriage law, with the fiancé presenting it after swearing the oath of marriage intent, and presenting of the gifts at the engagement party. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Engagement#Origin

In Jewish weddings during Talmudic times (c.1st century BC – 6th century AD), the two ceremonies of betrothal (erusin) and wedding usually took place up to a year apart; the bride lived with her parents until the actual marriage ceremony (nissuin), which would take place in a room or tent that the groom had set up for her. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Engagement#Betrothal

Here is some information on how the Greeks viewed marriage:

Women in Classical Athens had no legal personhood and were assumed to be part of the oikos (household) headed by the male kyrios (master). Until marriage, women were under the guardianship of their fathers or other male relatives; once married, the husband became a woman's kyrios. While the average age to get married for men was around 30, the average age for women was 14. This system was implemented as a way to ensure that girls were still virgins when they wed; it also made it possible for husbands to choose who their wife's next husband was going to be before he died. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Greece

The truth about sex in ancient Greece by James Robson, Senior Lecturer in Classics, The Open University (U.K.): As for marital relations, men seldom married before the age of 30, and apart from the wedding night, it was common for married couples to sleep apart... A girl’s father traditionally saw it as his duty to find a suitable husband for his daughter and, importantly, would generally have played a role in finding a wife for his son as well. In Athens, a girl generally got married at about 16 – typically to a man twice her age, often a paternal uncle or an associate of her father’s. Source: http://theconversation.com/the-truth-about-sex-in-ancient-greece-39025

The Virgin Goddess (Artemis) NOTE: copyright protected (2003-2016): It’s important to clarify that ‘virginity’ was a very different thing in ancient Greece than it is for us in the modern world. In ancient Greece, Artemis was known as a virgin Goddess. ... To them, sexual abstinence was an after effect of virginity, not the definition of the word... Parthenos is the Greek word that generally gets translated as “virgin”. Determining what it actually meant to be a parthenos is incredibly complicated, and one is likely to come up with a different answer for every polis... So, while what we conclude about ancient Greek virgins based on Athenian social structure might not apply to all city-states (Sparta being the classic example), it will hold true to most of them, and will be at least relevant to all of them. So what did it mean to be an Athenian parthenos? Ideally it meant an unmarried young woman who still lived with her father and never had sex. Athenian men wanted to ensure that their wives would bear legitimate heirs, so daughters were kept under strict supervision and seclusion to ensure that they had not been exposed to any other men before meeting their husbands. Source: http://www.neokoroi.org/religion/gods/artemis/the-virgin-goddess/

The short answer to your question is that a woman who was not married was expected to be a virgin, and a woman who became engaged to, or betrothed to, a man would remain a virgin until the wedding night. Marriage follows a period of engagement. This appears to be the norm in both Jewish and Greek society during the first century.

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Universal Child Marriage Custom

The passage seems to talk about the customary period of taking the girl for consummation of the marriage (finalizing the marriage), as it used to happen, (and still, although rarely practised in certain poor, village regions in India, as it has been criminalised) that marriages were fixed in childhood, and the girl stays with her parents but goes to the husband after a period as she reaches puberty. For example, the marriage is fixed (engagement) when the kids are 5-8 years, and then after some years passes then the consummation when the girl departs to the groom's home when they pass puberty. To be precise, the child wedding is called marriage, not engagement in some Asian culture, the same could be true for the ancient Jewish customs, we cannot rely on the late first millennium rabbinic traditions to accurately speculate the first century and before.

Paul is instructing about the waiting period for consummating the marriage for the boy/man. He says you don't have to wait for long to complete a full period of waiting, if you wish to marry early, it is not a sin, and of course, the reaching of puberty is mentioned.

Wikipedia on child marriage> History

In many ancient and medieval societies, it was common for girls to be betrothed at or even before the age of puberty.[31][32] According to Mordechai A. Friedman, "arranging and contracting the marriage of a young girl were the undisputed prerogatives of her father in Ancient Israel." Most girls were married before the age of 15, often at the start of puberty.[33] It has been claimed that in the Middle Ages, marriage took place around puberty throughout the Jewish world.[34]

Ruth Lamdan writes, "The numerous references to child marriage in the 16th-century Responsa literature and other sources shows that child marriage was so common, it was virtually the norm. In this context, it is important to remember that in halakha, the term "minor" refers to a girl under twelve years and a day old. A girl aged twelve and a half was considered an adult in all respects."[35]

In Ancient Greece, early marriage and teenage motherhood for girls existed.[36] Boys were also expected to marry in their teens. In the Roman Empire, girls were married at the age of 12 and boys from the age of 14.[37] In the Middle Ages, under English civil laws derived from Roman laws, marriages before the age of 16 existed. In Imperial China, child marriage was the norm.[38][39]

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