A few months ago I made the argument from 1 Corinthians 7:8 that the apostle Paul was not a lifelong bachelor but a widower. I received a good deal of feedback on that post–some of it disagreeing with my reading of the text. About a month after that post, Bill Mounce expressed his misgivings about the idea that Paul was a widower. Still, I haven’t seen anything yet that would persuade me to read this text differently, and I think the case that I originally made still stands. (If you haven’t done so, I encourage you to read what I wrote in the original post before reading any further.)
Having said that, I still think there is at least one more piece to add to the puzzle. Later in chapter 7, Paul answers a question from the Corinthians about whether or not engaged men should get married once they become a Christian (1 Corinthians 7:25). Paul argues that it is good for a man to remain single if at all possible so that he might give his undivided attention to gospel enterprises (1 Corinthians 7:26, 33). Nevertheless, Paul says that the engaged man is not sinning if he decides to get married, and neither is the engaged woman. Paul simply cautions, “Yet such will have trouble in this life, and I am trying to spare you” (1 Corinthians 7:28).
Paul’s cautionary note is simple; marriage is difficult. Husbands take on the responsibility to provide for a family (vv. 33-34a), and wives take on the obligation to be a helpmeet to their husband (v. 34b). Perhaps Paul had in mind as well that spouses are sinners and that they each bring their own wants and needs to the relationship. Sometimes those wants and needs clash, and it makes for great difficulty. When Paul says that he wishes to “spare” the Corinthians this difficulty, his words have the ring of one who speaks from personal experience. Richard Hays makes the same observation, and I think he is right:
What Paul has in mind here is not made explicit: Pain in childbearing for the woman? The cares and sorrows of raising a family? One senses that Paul is speaking here from some sad personal experience… It is clear, however, that he thinks marriage will bring complications and responsibilities that will prevent believers from serving the Lord without distraction (Hays, First Corinthians, p. 128, emphasis mine)
The bottom line is this. This kind of insight into marriage doesn’t typically come from bachelors who haven’t gone through the challenges of married life. Paul’s words have the distinct sound of authenticity—the kind of advice that comes from one who has lived it. By themselves, these words wouldn’t compel me to believe that Paul was a widower. But as a part of a cumulative case, I think they are quite compelling.
[Below is page 128 from Richard Hays’ commentary.]