It is generally agreed that the apostle Paul was an unmarried man for the duration of his ministry. Not only does Acts omit any mention of Paul having a wife, but also Paul’s own letters seem to indicate the same. Nevertheless, there is some disagreement over whether or not Paul had been married at an earlier point in his life. In this post, I will argue that Paul was in fact a widower at the time of his writing. I’ll make the case in seven points:
1. Paul puts himself in the category of being “unmarried” in 1 Corinthians 7:8.
1 Corinthians 7:8 “I say to the unmarried and to widows that it is good for them if they remain even as I.”
A few things are clear from this verse. First, Paul addresses a group of persons who are unmarried at the time of his writing—the “unmarried” and “widows.” Second, he instructs them to remain in their unmarried state if at all possible. Third, he sets himself forth as the exemplar of remaining unmarried. The phrase “even as I am,” therefore, communicates in no uncertain terms that Paul himself was unmarried at the time of his writing.
1 Corinthians 9:5 “Do we not have a right to take along a believing wife, even as the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas?”
In context, Paul is telling the Corinthians about privileges that he has forgone for the greater progress of the gospel. He has a “right” to be paid for his ministry and to take a wife for himself as other apostles have done, but he renounces those rights: “I have used none of these things” (1 Cor 9:15). He indicates again, therefore, that he was unmarried.
2. The word “unmarried” translates the Greek word agamos.
In wider Greek literature, agamos refers specifically to an unmarried male, whether a bachelor or a widower (see LSJ, p. 5). The term agamos only appears four times in all of the New Testament. All four uses are from Paul, and all four appear in the seventh chapter of 1 Corinthians. 1 Corinthians 7:8, 11, 32, 34.
3. Paul uses the term agamos to refer to those who have been married but now are no longer married.
1 Corinthians 7:11 “If she does leave, let her remain unmarried, or else be reconciled to her husband.”
1 Corinthians 7:34 “An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit.”
Notice that 7:11 refers to a woman who has been separated from her husband. Notice also that 7:34 contrasts an “unmarried” woman with a “virgin”—thereby contrasting someone who was formerly married with someone who was not. In both cases, the “unmarried” refers to the once-married not the never-been-married.
4. The context of agamos in 1 Corinthians 7:8 is dominated by Paul’s instructions to those who are married or who have been married.
1 Corinthians 7 divides into two sections: 7:1-24 and 7:25-40. In the first section, Paul addresses those who are or have been married.
7:1-7 – Addressed to those who are currently married
7:8-9 – Addressed to “widows”
7:10-16 – Addressed to husbands and wives concerning desertion and divorce
Only in the second section does Paul address the “virgins”—those who have never been married. This strongly suggests that agamos in verse 8 also refers to those who have been married at least once. Since Paul identifies himself as agamos, this suggests that he too was once married.
5. The Greek word for “widower” was used rarely during the Koine period.
There was a word in Greek that specified “widower” (cheros), but it does not appear in biblical literature and only rarely outside of it. It is not surprising, therefore, that Paul might use a term like agamos in its place (TDNT, 9:440; Thiselton, 515, Fee, p. 288).
6. The word for “unmarried” appears to be the masculine word for someone who has lost a spouse.
In 1 Corinthians 7:8, agamos is parallel with “widows,” which strongly suggests that Paul is addressing both the men and the women who have suffered the loss of a spouse. This is in keeping with the rest of this section in which Paul addresses explicitly both husbands and wives concerning conjugal relations (7:1-7) and desertion/divorce (7:10-16). In 1 Corinthians 7:8, therefore, Paul is saying to widows and widowers that it is good for them to stay unmarried just as he does. If they do not have self-control, however, he tells them it would be better for them to marry.
7. As a good Pharisee, it is highly unlikely that Paul would have been single his entire life.
Elsewhere, Paul says that he was a Pharisee, a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:5), and “extremely zealous for my ancestral traditions” (Galatians 1:14; cf. Acts 22:3). Marriage was the norm for Pharisees, and it was required for rabbis (Paul was likely considered a rabbi). Paul could hardly have set himself forth as an exemplar of Pharisaical piety had he not been married (Fee, 288, n. 7; see also Harvey McArthur on “Celibacy in Judaism at the Time of Christian Beginnings”).
The cumulative case, therefore, strongly suggests that Paul was a widower. He was once married. But in calling him to Christ, God gave Paul the gift of celibacy (“a genuine gift of freedom from sexual need,” Fee, 287). Paul desires for everyone with this gift to use it as he has for the sake of the kingdom.
Well thought out . I have always argued for the possibility that Paul had been married for it would have made sense as you pointed out. Plus I always felt his counsel to husbands and wife’s had a sense of familiarity of the dynamics of being married . Just a thought.
“Marriage was the norm for Pharisees, and it was required for rabbis” Can you offer a primary source for this, or is that one of the “eye of the needle gate” myths?
Paul belonged to the Sanhedrin. You HAD to be married to be a part of that. End od “myth”
Very interesting case. Could the same set of arguments suggest, though, that Paul’s wife (for instance) left him after his conversion?
I have heard the argument made that Paul’s wife left him after his conversion – by the implication of “I have suffered the loss of all things” – Philippians 3:8 and as you point out, in those days a Pharisee who was not married doesn’t fit with what we know about Jewish society of those days and the Pharisees.
F.F. Bruce brings this up as a possibility ( that his wife left at conversion) either in one of his commentaries or in his book on Paul.
“a Hebrew of Hebrews” is in Philippians 3:5, not 1:4. (smile)
Great study, Denny! Thanks!
No, this isn’t a like the “eye of a needle” remark. There is ample evidence in Rabbinic literature. Here’s one:
b. Qidd. 29b – “He who is twenty years of age and is not married spends all his days in sin.”
So the preference was not just for marriage, but for early marriage. I have updated point number seven above with a link to further reading about celibacy in 1st century Judaism.
Interesting! I had not even known there was an argument for this until my pastor recently mentioned it very briefly in passing.
The case for Paul once having been married appears very solid. The only thing I wonder about is why he never mentions physical children. Of course, it could be that they simply were never able to have any. He certainly had a father’s heart for his spiritual children, though!
It’s also interesting to think about Jesus’ singleness in light of 1st century Jewish views of celibacy. I haven’t read the McArthur article yet (I will in a moment though!) It would be one more excuse for the Pharisees to say He had a demon. But He was still able to teach in the synagogue and Temple, so I’m wondering, was celibacy coming more acceptable?
I have never heard or thought about this. Very interesting.
Do you think it is possible that Paul was divorced perhaps through desertion? Do you think agamos can refer to unmarried men who are divorced through desertion or who were divorced before becoming a believer?
Justin, the parallel with “widow” in 1 Corinthians 7:8 means that Paul is most likely talking about widowers, not those who have lost a spouse through other means.
It seems clear from the cultural context that Paul had been married at one time as this was seen as essential to be a Jewish leader. What we do not know is how he became unmarried, whether thru death or divorce, which are the 2 ways to end a marriage covenant.
Do you think that since this same word is used in verse 32 in a general sense of being unmarried (not just a widower) that the word is in verse 8 could be unmarried men who were previously married. If not why the need to restrict it in verse 8 and not in verse 32?
Haven’t had the chance to look at Barry Danylak’s book on singleness yet, but given his extensive study on these passages, I’d be curious to see his take.
While I share your opinion that Paul was likely married at one time, I wonder whether Fee’s statement about the term for widower (in your point #5) is correct. The masculine counterpart to ????, viz. ?????, shows up at various places throughout Koine texts, as a simple TLG search will show. The word was still current up through at least the fourth century CE, where, e.g., Epiphanius can be found using it to refer to a class clearly distinct from the ?????? (in his Ancoratus 60.2.2).
Great to hear from you. You are right. Fee was wrong, and I was relying on Fee.
It does seem to be the case, however, that the word was rarely used. I only found five instances in the Perseus database and only six in TLG. And of course it is used not at all in biblical literature. It would not be at all surprising, therefore, that Paul might use a word like agamos to refer to widowers. I have revised my fifth point above.
Thanks for taking time to read and comment. You have sharpened the argument!
Denny, thanks for the reply. Sorry my Greek didn’t come through. I noticed when I checked Fee that he relies solely upon LSJ’s entry, which is not complete enough. My TLG search came up with 97 occurrences of all the forms of XHROS, so I’m not sure how you got only 6x. Of course, some of these occurrences are later, and some are earlier, but that just reinforces the point that the word never fell out of the language. You are right to point out that it’s not the most common word in our extant literature. Funny thing is, I actually agree with Fee that AGAMOS in 1Cor 7 likely speaks of widowers–I just don’t think the linguistic part of his argument was well-founded.
I was using the online TLG, and I think it’s abridged. Do you have a disc of all the texts?
this is really interesting. it does somewhat narrow the field of single never married christian role models, although i suppose there’s Jesus to make up for it…
Scott D. Andersen
This was an excellent post and one that really challenges my own long held position that Paul was never married. With further study I think I will have to change,recant,revise my previous position. “never married” was probably too strong. When I in times past asserted that Paul was NOT married – I don’t know that I thought through to the possibility that he may have been previously married.
This also changes how we deal or react to the word “unmarried” in 1Cor 7:8 does it not? Many a young person reading 1Cor 7:8 might feel a tug that to be obedient to scripture you should if possible remain unmarried since Paul says it is good to remain so. But if we understand this to mean “widower” then the verse is not even speaking to young people who have never been married. To me this is HUGE for a lot of guilt perhaps has been heaped upon the young never-married individual who senses a lack in not being able to remain single. Perhaps this does not actually relieve the tension for does it really change how we should think of 1Cor 7:32ff? hmm lots to think about.
I had never heard of that before. A very interesting idea and one I will have to look into
I agree with your view that Paul was likely married at one point. I admire your willingness to be corrected and edit your #5 point. I do wonder why you put Thiselton in brackets as if he supported your view. My take on this is he is just quoting Fee and then goes on to take the majority view (516; although he is hard to pin down) that agamos is a more general term referring to “all not bound by the married state” (Morris).
It would seem more reasonable in my eyes to take the majority view on this since: 1) There was a word for widower he could have used. 2) agamos is rarely used in the N.T. with only four occurrences all in this chapter. The usage is clearly a more general usage in verse 32. It would seem to me that how this word is used in this context would carry more hermeneutical weight than simply it being in the same sentence as widows.
Blessings to you!
I include Thiselton not as a supporter of my view, but as another scholar who acknowledges the rareness of CHEROS in Greek literature.
Thanks for the insights. On #7 where you state that rabbis were required ot be married, was that a hard and fast rule? Jesus was addressed as rabbi, yet unmarried.
I was really kind of hoping for an answer about whether this was a hard and fast rule. Any help?
The Pharisees taught that an unmarried man was half a man. There is a report of one Pharisee that got married and then immediately divorced, but no reports of any that were not married. For someone who called himself a Pharisee of Pharisees, Paul would have crossed all the T’s and dotted the i’s.
Thanks Donald. I appreciate the insight on Pharisees. Denny said this requirement also applied to rabbis. My question is whether anyone knows this as a hard and fast rule, since Jesus was addressed as rabbi. Thanks much.
Jesus was not a Pharisee, while Saul was. At the time of Jesus rabbi was not a formal term, it just meant teacher. Later, after Jesus, it meant something more formal.
Thanks again for responding, Donald. I knew that Jesus was not a Pharisee, of course. As I’ve put it above, my question is about the requirements for rabbis. When you say that later the title rabbi “meant something more formal”, are you also saying that there is evidence that rabbis needed to be married under that formality?
My questions really don’t go to the requirements of Pharisees at all, nor of rabbis in later eras. Just in the time of Jesus and Paul. Denny said rabbis had to be married. Does anyone know if there was a shift in the time from Jesus to Paul, or was this not a hard and fast rule for rabbis in both eras or what.
The early Pharisees are called sages in scholarly work. But they were called rabbis informally at the time. I think this is what Denny means, but he did not get into the details.
Basically, what we call Orthodox Rabbinic Judaism today is an outworking of the Hillel school of 2nd Temple Pharisees, the only Jewish religious survivors of the revolt that lost the temple in 70 AD besides the Way. During the siege of Jerusalem, some Hillel Pharisees escaped, and the Way had already escaped to Pella per Jesus’ instructions in Matt. This stuff is in history of the period.
It may be helpful to know that Jesus was spoken for already. The Church is the bride of Christ.
I apologize for my misunderstanding and thanks for the clarification on why you used Thiselton, keep up the good work for our Lord.
I have heard it said before that Gamaliel only accepted married men to study under him. Is this true? If it is, it all but proves that Paul was once married as he studied under Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).
Fr Chris Larimer
I’m grateful to you for pointing this out. It’s something I’ve held to for a long time. In your reading, did you come across anything that regulated remarriage? In the Eastern Orthodox churches, a man who is married and then widowed may not marry again. I wonder if this is a semitic custom for rabbis that the East maintained, or if it is a later addition.
Thanks for any response.
Thank you for reading and for the comment. In 1 Cor 9, Paul says that he has a right to marry, though he doesn’t make use of that right. If he were a widower as I am arguing, that’s direct evidence from Paul that remarriage is permissible.
Fr Chris Larimer
I’m not sure I’m following. I see where Paul argues that “we” have the right to bring along a believing wife. But surely there he is speaking of Barnabas’ wife. (Unless Paul has taken to using the pluralis majestas.) In 7:17-40 we find his instructions to live as you were called (i.e., in the same marital state) and that it is best for the laity to remain unmarried when they can. This is the Scriptural grounds invoked by the Orthodox for not allowing someone to remarry in the clerical state. But I see nothing in 9:5, or around it, or in his further defense of his apostleship (2 Cor. 10-13) that states he believes he has a right to remarry. And the indication in 1 Cor 7 seems to be that, assuming vv, 17-24 are not an intrusion on his argument, he actually gives an apostolic command to those who are called out (EKASTON…KEKLHKEN). I’m away from Bibleworks, so I can’t do a serious search on this. But those are some initial thoughts. I appreciate the conversation (I’ve missed it since moving away from Louisville).
Who argues that widowers can’t remarry? Marriage is “until death parts us.”
Paul even tells young widows to remarry.
Re: b. Qidd. 29b – “He who is twenty years of age and is not married spends all his days in sin.”
Using the Babylonian Talmud (ca. 6th c. A.D.) to argue for a custom in the first century is more than inconclusive; it is wrong. I wouldn’t even use the Mishnah (ca. 200 A.D.) to argue for something in the first century.
hmm… I’m curious about your assertion: “in calling him to Christ, God gave Paul the gift of celibacy (“a genuine gift of freedom from sexual need,” Fee, 287)”
It is my understanding that quite a few Christians who have done much for the kingdom of God have chosen to remain single – despite attractions to the opposite sex.
I am not aware of this supposed race of human beings who have absolutely no desire to be in some sort of romantic/sexual relationship.
This debate goes back at least to Joachim Jeremias who, in the early 20th century, asked in a Journal article, “Was Paul a Widower?” It seems unthnkable that a devout Jew a ‘Pharisee of Pharisees’ and member of the Sanhedrin was never married.
I had a Greek professor who would say that the word “unmarried” probably meant more like “married-un.” As in was married and now isn’t married, whether divorced or widowed/widower.
This translation seemed to make more sense of the verses
“Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do. But if they cannot control themselves, they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with passion.” 1 Cor 7:8-9
I was confused by this when I was in high school, and this makes a lot more sense.
Or….maybe Paul was just single. Why all the hermeneutical and logical gymnastics? What does it even matter anyways?
It seems like you’re uncomfortable with Paul being single and you’re looking for ways to excuse your discomfort of that. In the end, nothing cited here leads to the “strong” conclusion of Paul being widower.
What happened to sensus plenior?
In seminary I heard someone “prove” that Paul was married by pointing out that Paul had a thorn in his flesh–a wife. Surprised that wasn’t one of your verses.
What would be the need for the term “widow” if “married-un” meant divorced or widowed/widower?
1. both “unmarried” and “widow” are parallel in structure. Thus widower would be a more natural counterpart.
2. They are both dative plurals.
3. In the four occurrences in 1Cor. 7: 8,11,32,34 the gender changes naturally fit the gender context. Why would noun m pl dative in 7:8 mean both genders?
4. “probably meant more like” I am wondering how the professor got to that point?
5. Notice the context of 7:25. Is the Virgins of 25 both men and women. Seems so. Frberg, BibleWorks, “an adult male who has not had sexual intercourse with a woman virgin.’ Thus down through 28 the male is addressed first and then the female virgin. The serious of de in 29, 32, & 36 remains a message to the Virgins, male and female. Thus in 34 the unmarried refers to the virgin and married refers to wife. I am using the TR. so in 36he is not returning to the virgins but continuing his argument with them. In 39 Paul picks up the wife of verse 33 and context, but keeps with the single issue.
Denny.. I’ve found your post to be very interesting and stimulating in thought. I too myself have argued that Paul was once married. His zeal and intensitiy for this topic seemed to be as one given from personal experience. I also stand on your point that being a “Pharisee” demanded him to not only be married but to have married at an early age of 19-20 years old. BUT! I have always questioned the basis of his celibacy, I know you argue it was due to death of his spouse, but I have drawn many conclusions that it was due to the abandonment of his wife @ conversion. Many argue that this is the reason for his plea concerning his thorn in his flesh. The lonliness of having to become single for the cause of Christ, missing companionship due to the abandonment of his wife.
What are your thoughts
Thanks Bishop Corey
Fr Chris Larimer
That would certainly put a stinging bite to his comment about the rights of an apostle including bringing along a believing wife, wouldn’t it.