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 Still, I haven’t seen anything yet that would persuade me to read this text differently, and I think the case that I originally made still stands.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.]
Great thoughts above. I do have a quick question for you. Am I mistaken in the following? In English we use “virgin” to denote a male or female who has never had sexual relations. In biblical times virgin was only used of women. This is because being a virgin is a physical state where the hymen is in tact. Men do not have a hymen and therefore are never called virgins. Is this correct? If so this would explain why Paul refers to himself as “agamos” and not “virgin”.
I agree that Paul was formerly married, but is not at the time of writing 1 Cor 7.
ESV 1Co 7:33 But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife,
1Co 7:34 and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband.
This is one of the many symmetry relations between a husband and a wife mentioned in 1 Cor 7, and so is inherently egal, but Denny reads it as asymmetrical. This is distorting the text.
Or, they could be the words of a crusty curmudgeon who has never tried married life and never intends to! That’s how I’ve always read Paul anyway. I think that passage is rather funny actually.
Another question that this raises, whether Paul was married or not, is the place in which he saw marriage and family in the Christian life. We know that he saw marriage as a reflection of Christ and the Church, so it is a beautiful thing. But, in speaking about it the way he does in 1 Cornithians 7, he shows a much more realistic view of it than what we romantically espouse today. In other words, it seems that Paul is saying that marriage is fine if you must do it, but the Kingdom of God and devotion to Christ is supreme and be careful that you don’t engage in distractions to the ultimate goal. It seems that Paul cared more for the Kingdom than he did the proliferation of Christian families with marriage/family as the strategy.
I am not saying that Paul downplays Christian marriage. Rather, I think that he sees it very differently than we see it. We see marital love and the family in a sancrosanct, almost salvific way. There are more messages and classes on marriage in our churches than almost any other subject. Perhaps we would do well to see it the way that Paul does – as a relationship where we glorify God and reflect Christ, but subordinate to the main goal of giving our full devotion to Christ.
Thoughts? I could be wrong here and definitely do not want to downplay marriage. It just seems that Paul’s emphasis is much different from what I hear from Evangelical leaders today.
Your point #4 seems to assume that Paul chose to call himself “unmarried” and not a “virgin”. Yet if only women are called “virgins” then “umarried” is his proper description, even if he never had sexual relations. You also acknowledged that “widower” was rarely used in biblical Greek. If “virgin” is only used of women (and I can find no instances of this term being used of men in a physically sexually abstinant way), then Paul describing himself as “unmarried” means nothing about his previous marrital status. Your argument seems to rest upon Paul choosing the term “unmarried” as opposed to something else. Yet if unmarried can mean never married or widower then his use of the term in inconclusive.