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.