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It seems there is no consensus over the exegesis of 1 Corinthians 7:36.

Here is a sample of translations:

  • New American Standard Bible (NASB): "if she is past her youth"
  • English Standard Version (ESV): "if his passions are strong"
  • New King James Version (NKJV): "if she is past the flower of youth"
  • Christian Standard Bible (CSB): "if she is getting beyond the usual age for marriage"
  • New International Version (NIV): "and if his passions are too strong"

Can the Greek text mean either way or is it due to a textual basis difference between the English versions?

Which is more likely to be the correct interpretation?

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  • 1
    ὑπέρακμος can be declined in the masculine or feminine gender so the reader must determine . . . . (see answer below) so two meanings may be present, ambiguously and sensitively, in such a delicate matter : the man's own feelings and the woman who is the source of his attention. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Mar 12 at 21:06

3 Answers 3

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Translations depend on the interpretation of ὑπέρακμος (hyperakmos). ὑπέρακμος can be declined in the masculine or feminine gender, hence the ambiguity. The reader must determine whether ὑπέρακμος refers to τις (“any man”) or “his virgin” (τὴν παρθένον αὐτοῦ), and, in addition, who this “any man” is.

ὑπέρακμος is a combination of the preposition ὑπέρ (hyper) and ἀκμήν (akmēn). ὑπέρακμος itself occurs rarely in secular Greek literature.1 To understand ὑπέρακμος, we first need to understand the meaning of ἀκμή. (There is also a verb related to ἀκμή, viz. ἀκμάζω.)

According to LSJ,2 ἀκμή refers to “highest or culminating point of anything, flower, prime, zenith”.

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According to Plato,3 the χρόνος ἀκμῆς or “duration of prime” for a woman was twenty years, from twenty years old to forty years old. Thus, a woman was ὑπέρακμος at forty years old.

Regarding the ideal marriage age of a woman and a man, Plato also wrote,4

But the marriage limit for a girl is from 16 to 20 years (the longest time determined), and for a boy, from 30 to 35 years.

γάμου δὲ ὅρον εἶναι κόρῃ μὲν ἀπὸ ἑκκαίδεκα ἐτῶν εἰς εἴκοσι, τὸν μακρότατον χρόνον ἀφωρισμένον, κόρῳ δὲ ἀπὸ τριάκοντα μέχρι τῶν πέντε καὶ τριάκοντα:

Of course, every culture had their norms, but in ancient Greece, including Corinthe, women were married off [by their father] once they arrived at physiological sexual maturity, i.e., when they were able to bear children.

Laura McClure writes,5

The betrothal period could last quite a long time because it could be enacted even when a girl was still a child. The marriage, however, did not take place until the bride-to-be reached the age of sexual and reproductive maturity, around age 14. The term nymphe indicates this transitional period of marital eligibility, until the birth of her first child, when her transformation to adult woman was complete. The age of the groom, in contrast, was probably around 30, when a man might inherit his father’s estate. Because girls married at such a young age, only just postpubescent, they married men almost old enough to be their fathers.

Heinrich Meyer understood it thus,6

if any one thinks that he is acting dishonourably towards his virgin (daughter or ward), i.e. if he thinks that he is bringing disgrace upon her; which means, however, not the disgrace of old maidenhood...but the dishonour of seduction, which the father or guardian fears he may give occasion to by refusing permission to marry...

Paul’s opinion is, that before the ἀκμή is reached the ἀσχημονεῖν...νομίζει is not likely to take place with the father or guardian of the girl; but, judging from experience, he conceived that the maiden who is ὑπέρακμος would be more ready to yield to a lover, if she is not allowed to marry.

γαμείτωσαν, “Let them marry”, does not mean that the father is marrying his own daughter, which is of course an absurdity. Rather, it means that the father, who has absolute authority over his daughter who lives under his house and may forbid her to marry, is giving his virgin daughter in marriage and thus letting them — the daughter and he who wishes to marry her — marry.

I recommend the following work (beginning on p. 335) for the proper understanding of 1 Corinthians 7:36 (most of the chapter is viewable on Google Books):

Martens, John W. “Fathers and Daughters in 1 Corinthians 7:36–38: The Social Implications of Marriage in Early Christian Families”. T&T Clark Handbook of Children in the Bible and the Biblical Word. Ed. Betsworth, Sharon; Parker, Julie Faith. New York: T&T Clark, 2019.


Footnotes
1 Another verb παρακμάζω and adjective παρακμαστικός were commonly used instead.
2 LSJ, p. 51, ἀκμή
3 Plato, Republic, §460e
4 Plato, Laws, §785b
5 McClure, p. 70
6 Meyer, p. 176
References
Liddell, Henry George; Scott, Robert; et al. A Greek-English Lexicon. 9th ed. with revised supplement. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

McClure, Laura K. Women in Classical Antiquity: From Birth to Death. Hoboken: Wiley,2020.

Meyer, Heinrich August Wilhelm. Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Epistles to the Corinthians. Trans. Bannerman, David Douglas. Ed. Dickson, William P. New York: Funk, 1884.

Plato (Πλάτων). Platonis Opera. Ed. Burnet, John. Vol. 4. Oxonii: E Typographeo Clarendoniano, 1903.

Plato (Πλάτων). Platonis Opera. Ed. Burnet, John. Vol. 5, Part 1. Oxonii: E Typographeo Clarendoniano, 1903.
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  • What is your conclusion: "woman being past her prime of marriage"? Commented Mar 12 at 21:06
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    @TruthSeeker—A daughter who is inclined to marriage, the father should give her to a man to marry rather than let the daughter bring dishonor to his home by being seduced by a man and having sex outside of marriage. This occasion for shame does not exist when a daugher is not of marriage age. But, when the daughter reaches that point, and even moreso after (past the prime), the occasion exists, so the father should not prohibit his daughter from marrying if she is inclined to do so. Commented Mar 12 at 21:18
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There are two schools of thought about 1 Cor 7:36-38, and specifically how to translate the phrase παρθένον αὐτοῦ = "his virgin"

  • that it refers to "his virgin daughter"
  • that it refers to "his virgin betrothed", ie, a virgin betrothed/engaged to the man

The first, despite the weight of historical commentators who take this view, is impossible because the rest of the verse would clearly permit/encourage such a man to marry his virgin daughter - an impossible idea!!

Thus, the sense appears to be "betrothed", ie, a virgin to whom the man is engaged.

Now to the operative word in 1 Cor 7:36 about which the OP specifically asks which is ὑπέρακμος (huperakmos) and adjective which literally means, "past the bloom, flower, prime of youth".

This simply means that Paul is providing some simple and practical advice - as women age, their "biological clock is ticking down". That is, if a woman is aging, and the man with whom she is engaged is not willing to marry her, the engagement should be called off so enable the woman to marry another if that is her desire so that she can have children if that is her wish.

According to BDAG, the word can also be construed to mean "at one's sexual peak". In either case, people ought not to lengthen an engagement unnecessarily according to 1 Cor 7:36 - either marry or separate; but do not remain engaged forever.

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  • “the rest of the verse would clearly permits such a man to marry his virgin daughter - an impossible idea!!” — You really think such learned scholars would hold the former interpretation if they even believed that γαμείτωσαν meant that the father was marrying his daughter. Come on. At least understand what you're critiquing. Commented Mar 12 at 23:20
  • @DerÜbermensch - I am as incredulous as you appear to be! But see Ellicott and others. Some such twist the test of the verse to mean giving the daughter in marriage but the verse actually says nothing about this.
    – Dottard
    Commented Mar 12 at 23:36
  • —Twist? No sir. The earliest understanding by the Church fathers, who were both fluent in Koine Greek and lived closest to the time of the apostles, was of a father giving his daughter in marriage if she desired to marry. Commented Mar 13 at 0:54
  • Also, you say the text says nothing about giving the daughter in marriage. Likewise, it says nothing about the virgin being betrothed. That requires a twist. Commented Mar 13 at 1:08
  • @DerÜbermensch - quite correct, but it involves a credible twist and not a triple (incredible) twist of the sense
    – Dottard
    Commented Mar 13 at 2:47
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In this case the context gives us a better clue than the Greek. In this chapter Paul, believing that the eschaton is imminent, advises men not to marry unless there are extenuating circumstances. Even those who are already married should refrain from intercourse if possible:

vss. 29-31

From now on, let those having wives act as not having them... For the world in its present form is passing away.

However, he hastens to add that there are exceptions to this rule. One of them is the famous "better to marry than to burn" dictum, allowing that those who cannot restrain themselves should take a wife. Having excused men who cannot control their desires, he makes another exception for women who feel the need to bear children. He suggests it could unfair for a man to prolong a period of engagement because the man believes - as Paul does - that Christ will come very soon. The woman, after all, cannot wait for as many years as the man can.

Conclusion: "Past the flower of her youth" is a better translation of ὑπέρακμος than "if his passions are strong." Paul already allowed those who cannot restrain themselves to marry. Here he deals with women who may lose the opportunity to bear children if they do not marry soon. However, since scholars see it both ways, it may be wise for translators to opt for a middle path and add a footnote, letting readers decide for themselves. The NABRE translation exemplifies this approach:

If anyone thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virgin, and if a critical moment has come[n] and so it has to be, let him do as he wishes. He is committing no sin; let them get married.

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