Why I think 1 Cor 7:36-38 is about fathers and daughters, not betrothed guys in Corinth’s “youth group”

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When I entered into my study of 1 Cor 7:36-38, I assumed, almost cavalierly, that the passage is really about the single younger men in Corinth who found themselves betrothed to young women, either inside or outside the church. I viewed the interpretation of fathers and daughters, like that of the “spiritual virgins” view, as pretty much impossible.

Let me back up for a moment. Paul’s instructions in 1 Cor 7:36-38 can be interpreted several different ways, depending upon the individual decisions you make with the text. Truly, the Greek can go in several different directions. This is best illustrated in the English translations. The English Standard Version translates it with a slant towards betrothed gentlemen:

[36] 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 New American Standard Bible, on the other hand, shows a translation that tilts toward fathers and their unmarried daughters:

36 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.

Most modern commentators argue for the “betrothed, single men” [BSM] view. The biggest question in this passage is what one does with the verb γαμίζω. It appears nowhere else in Paul except two times in verse 38. Elsewhere, Paul uses the verb γαμέω, which means simply, “to marry” (see 1 Cor 7:9, 10, 28, 33, 34, 36, 39; 1 Tim 4:3; 5:11, 14). The verb γαμίζω can mean either “to marry,” or “to give in marriage.” We see both verbs used in close proximity to each other in Matt 22:30, Mark 12:25, and Luke 17:27. Luke 17:27 (ESV) says, “They were eating and drinking and marrying [ἐγάμουν] and being given in marriage [ἐγαμίζοντο], until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.”

Nevertheless, as David Garland suggests in his commentary, there are several reasons for the BSM view over against the “fathers with unmarried daughters” [FwUD] view:

  1. Nothing in the immediate context truly prepares the reader to understand this passage to refer to fathers with their betrothed daughters. Moreover, the remark about betrothed women marrying in verse 28 makes comments about a father and daughter irrelevant.
  2. The verb “let them marry,” at the end of verse 36 is plural, which would be hard to make cohere with a FBD view. (Compare Ciampa & Rosner, 1 Corinthians, 356)
  3. It would be unusual for a first century Greek writer to refer to a father’s betrothed daughter as a “his virgin,” or “his betrothed.” For example, Acts calls Philip’s daughters “his virgin daughters,” not “his virgins.”
  4. The word ὑπέρακμος [hyperakmos] in verse 26 (translated “passions are strong”) probably doesn’t mean “past marriageable age” or “overripe.”
  5. Those who translate ὁ γαμίζων as “the one given in marriage” are over-interpreting the distinction between the verb forms for γαμέω and γαμίζω; they both can mean “to marry.”  Paul chose it because he wanted an intransitive verb.
  6. If Paul’s advocating that a father’s “authority” over his betrothed daughter, it would be at worst tyrannical or at least inconsistent with the rest of the NT.
  7. It would be unnecessary to inform a married father that the single life is better than the married life.

While there is a persuasiveness to the BSM view, it is not necessary, and none of these arguments are overwhelmingly convincing. The early church held that Paul was speaking to fathers with unmarried daughters. (N.B.: Garland says Chrysostom holds the FwUD view, but the Greek father’s commentary on 1 Corinthians argues that Paul speaks of “spiritual virgins,” i.e., those married couples who had vowed to each other not to enjoy intimacy for the Lord’s sake.) Calvin, John GillCharles Hodge, Robertson & Plummer, Leon Morris, and John Macarthur are among those who hold this view. (Paul Barnett evidently holds this view as well, but I have not been able to confirm that.)

Over the course of my study, however, I saw the FwUD view as a more satisfying interpretation. To begin, allow me to interact briefly with each of Garland’s arguments:

  1. Verse 36 does not introduce a new subject, because the matter of fathers and betrothed daughters is related to the original question the Corinthians asked Paul. As Paul says in verse 25, “Now concerning the betrothed . . .,” this entire section (vv25-38) is about the betrothed. We’re not exactly sure what question about the “virgins” or “betrothed” that the Corinthian believers asked Paul (cf. 7:1). Verse 28 speaks to daughters who are already betrothed and evidently have some say in the matter. (The IVPBBCNT notes, “Parents arranged their children’s marriages, usually with some input from their children; the father had the greatest measure of authority in the matter.”) Verse 36 speaks to the fathers who are considering what to do with their unmarried virgin daughters.
  2. The point about the third-person plural imperative verb “let them marry” [γαμείτωσαν] in verse 36 is problematic for both interpretations. If Paul begins to speak to betrothed young men in verse 36, why does he then shift to speak to the entire congregation with this kind of imperative? Heretofore in chapter 7, he has addressed the individual sub-groups as they are, not giving the congregation authority over them (as he presumably would be here, given a 3d person plural imperative). It would be unusual for him now to say the entire congregation, “let this betrothed guy and his virgin marry.” The words “let them marry” allows the virgin daughter to marry the young man to whom her father gives her, and it would have been in her fiancee’s power to take his new bride in marriage. It was in the father’s power to “give her in marriage” (v38). Either way, this is not an insurmountable obstacle.
  3. As for the argument that daughters are rarely, if ever, referred to as the “virgins” of the father, Paul uses the generic term “virgins,” which gives him the ability to speak to both guardians and fathers.
  4. The word ὑπέρακμος [hyperakmos] does not need to refer to “past marriageable age” in a FwUD view. Bruce Winter in his crucial article written on this in 1998 (Winter’s article favors the BSM view) acknowledges that the word ὑπέρακμος could mean either “reaching of puberty and reproduction for women or sexual passion for men.” So, in a FwUD view, Paul is saying that, if a father senses that his daughter is at the right age for marriage and “it ought to be”–she is restless for a husband–then the father should go ahead and let her marry. The daughter is clearly not given to a single life.
  5. It is true that the verbs γαμέω and γαμίζω can both mean “to marry.” However, it seems very strange that Paul would arbitrarily switch to γαμίζω after using the verb γαμέω seven other times in the passage. As the Scriptures noted above indicate, when put up next to each other, γαμέω and γαμίζω could very well be intended to speak of different actions: to marry and to give in marriage. Moreover, Paul just told the father to “let them marry” in verse 36. If he was speaking directly to betrothed young men, then it would have made more sense for him to use a second person imperative in verse 36. The switch in verbs, though not necessarily referring to different acts, are difficult to side-step.
  6. It is not too authoritative to see Paul speaking to a father who lovingly gave away his daughter in marriage. Schrenk and others who see such a strong violation of the daughter’s rights in this passage are interpreting this passage with modern conceptions of dating and marriage in mind. Indeed, given the customs of the ancient world, it would make more sense for Paul to address fathers with eligible daughters than for him not to.
  7. Paul addresses the fathers, not because marriage is bad, but because they had authority over their daughter in Biblical times. This does not necessitate that we embrace the exact same cultural practices today, but it does tell us that parents do have authority over their children, which even the most egalitarian-minded moderns concede (up to a certain age). Paul does not wish the father to make decisions capriciously against his daughters will. In fact, he instructs him to take carefully into account his daughter’s circumstances.

As I said at the beginning, I entered into my study assuming that the best interpretation was the BSM view. Upon allowing myself to consider seriously the FwUD view, I saw its merit. I could certainly still be convinced of the BSM interpretation, but I don’t think that the arguments for that view are as strong as the traditional view.

In the end, I believe that Paul is speaking to fathers with virgin daughters. His advice is to consider their station carefully before making decisions on their behalf. If he is concerned about the social stigmas attached to keeping his daughter at home (“if anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his [virgin]“), if she is of the right age for marrying (“if she is of full bloom”), and if she seems to have strong desires for marriage (“and thus it must be so”), he should do whatever he wants (“let him do what he wishes”) in bringing about her marriage (“let them marry”). “It is no sin,” Paul says. Any father who decides to keep his daughter single must be very careful about choosing this “better” situation for her. He must be “firmly established in his heart,” having considered the concerns raised in verse 36 and convinced of the spiritual benefits of singleness Paul outlines in vv25-35 (i.e., he should not be interested in enslaving his daughter for his own selfish reasons). There should be “no necessity” in his daughter’s mind for marriage, lest he give her over to too great a temptation. If the father has the right and authority (slaves did not have this right), then he should do what he wants and keep her as his own virgin (better, “as a virgin,” see Morris, 118). If he “gives his own virgin in marriage,” the father “does well,” but if, given Paul’s personal preference for singleness and service to Lord expressed in vv25-35, he does not give her in marriage, the father “does better.”

Have you looked at this passage? What did you conclude and why?

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