Does St. Paul Sanction Premarital Sex (1 Cor 7:36)?

Does St. Paul Sanction Premarital Sex (1 Cor 7:36)? September 17, 2019

(vs. Scott Nemeth)

 
Scott Nemeth is a person who seems to want to be identified online as one who has “proven” that premarital sex, or fornication, is permitted by the Bible. Hence he states in his profile:

I’m someone who has studied the topic of premarital sex in the New Testament in great detail. Over the years I’ve known that this whole topic was weaker in the original Greek writings of the New Testament than we are traditionally taught. This fact has given me enough doubt to feel OK about sexual activity I’ve had outside of marriage. More recently I decided I was done feeling just “OK” about this issue though and I was determined to know the absolute truth about premarital sex in the original writings of the New Testament with 100% certainty. The results of this study were surprising. Not only is the topic of premarital sex weaker in the Greek; there is hardly any puritanical standard described within the original writings of the New Testament. In fact the original writings tell us outright that premarital sex is NOT a sin. Check 1 Cor 7:36 in the KJV. I created this blog to discuss and provide news and information regarding the can of worms I’m opening.

He goes about his task on his blog, Not Another Generation. Near the top of the sidebar, he makes the following claim, complete with the obligatory reference to the dreaded “Christian Right”:
The 3 Quick and Dirty Facts that the ‘Christian’ Right will never tell you about premarital sex in the Bible.

[ . . . ]

#2 The literal order of words of 1 Cor 7:36 put sex before marriage and it is declared to NOT be a sin. This is true in the Greek as well as the KJV, but it gets ‘censored’ in the modern translations.

He seems to regard this passage (if any one is to be chosen) as the “clincher” or knockout punch for his position of biblically condoned sexual activity outside of marriage. In a post devoted to it, he states:
The literal order of words in this verse, both in the original Greek and also in the King James Version put sexual activity before marriage and it is declared to not be a sin. When you realize the implications of the literal order of words of 1 Corinthians 7:36 it is hilarious to see how various modern translators attempt to deal with it. . . .
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Bible translations do seem to be getting increasingly puritanical, at least depending on who the intended marketplace is. . . . Just remember, the Greek word for marriage is only used once, and it is the LAST word of this verse.

I first learned of Scott when he stopped by my blog (anyone is welcome to, including those holding any and all opposing views) and wrote (appropriately, under one of my main dialogues about premarital sex):

According to your views I’m supposed to be a 40 year-old virgin because I’ve never been married. Get real. The Scriptures do not condemn premarital sex, in fact it appears to be a blessing. Check out my blog or website and I’ll show you the 3 Quick & Dirty facts that the ‘Christian’ Right will never tell you about premarital sex in the Bible.

I replied:

If you want to experience sex in the way that God intended, get married. What is so difficult about that? If you want to become that close to another person, then you should go the whole way and become united in soul and spirit, and make a commitment. This is not rocket science. It’s basic common sense, confirmed by experience. Even your average love song “gets” it. There is a reason why a prostitute is a despised person; even despises herself.

The sexual revolution did not make this country a paradise and everyone astonishingly happy. That was all a big lie. I bought it for many years too. But now the results are in and we don’t have the luxury of delusion, wishful thinking, and of selfish hedonism.

The Bible doesn’t sanction sex outside of marriage. It’s plain as day. But people manage to rationalize almost anything out of Scripture. I think you should be honest about it and just admit that you don’t care about what Scripture teaches if you want to go this route.

I doubt that your arguments are even serious, given the frivolous title, but I’ll check it out, out of curiosity. It might be fun to offer some sort of refutation.

After scanning his website, I reiterated:

Yeah; it looks interesting. I’ll try to make some time for this in the near future, especially if you’re willing to engage in a serious debate about what we each think the Bible actually teaches.

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So here I am again writing about the Bible’s view on sexuality: always a controversial endeavor in this day and age. Let’s look very closely at 1 Corinthians 7:36, in context, and with consideration of the original Greek and many translations of it, and see if the Apostle Paul explicitly sanctions premarital sexuality, as Scott claims. I think many readers will be in for a big surprise at what can be discovered therein. In some ways, I was myself (I never fail to learn a lot whenever I delve into the Bible).

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You’ll note above that Scott considers the passage especially compelling for his position in the KJV. He alludes to that more than once. He thinks there is some sort of conspiracy among Bible translators, to become “increasingly puritanical.” So let’s examine the KJV rendering: not just the single verse, but the surrounding context and the complete scenario that Paul is dealing with:

1 Corinthians 7:36-38 But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age, and need so require, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry. [37] Nevertheless he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well. [38] So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better.

Did you notice something unusual in there, particularly in 7:38 (I helped a bit with my bolding)? I didn’t realize this, either, until I studied it more closely today (it was one of those marvelous “biblical discoveries” I love to find). The passage is not even talking about a man and his future bride (betrothed, engaged, or at the least, seriously in love). Paul is referring, rather, to a father and his daughter, in the context of a culture where marriages were usually either arranged by the parents, or at least took place only with their permission and consent.

The key is the phrase “giveth her in marriage” — which makes no sense in terms of the relation of a man and future wife. It is the father who “gives in marriage.” We use this terminology even today in the wedding ceremony. So something is awry here, at least in some translations. Scott is correct about that, but he is wrong as to the motivation behind the differences, and the meaning of the passage itself.

If indeed the passage is about a father and daughter, rather than an engaged couple, everything changes. For Scott’s argument to have force, he now must believe that the Bible sanctions incest between a father and a daughter, before they get married to each other (huh??!!). I believe he wouldn’t try to defend such an ethically atrocious position, so his argument proves too much and must be discarded.

One must understand what refers to what in the passage. Paul is saying that a father who gives his daughter in marriage does well; if he does not, it is even better. It is a “good and better” contrast, such as he does earlier in the chapter regarding the higher path of remaining celibate and single (7:1, 7-8, 25-27, 32-35, 38) vs. getting married (also a very good thing: 7:2, 9, 28, 38). Paul’s main point in all cases, is that everyone should live as they are called by God to do: whether married or single (7:7, 17, 20, 24). But the single state is to be celibate, not involving the sin of fornication (7:2, 9; cf. 6:9, 15-20).

So why the confusion in some translations as to whether this “virgin” is a betrothed future wife of a man or his daughter? The original Greek may explain some of that. The literal phrase in 1 Corinthians 7:37 is terein ten heautou parthenontranslated by A. T. Robertson in his Word Pictures in the New Testament as To keep his own virgin daughter. In Jay P. Green’s Pocket Interlinear New Testament (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1979, p. 398), the hyper-literal rendering of the Greek is “to keep the of himself virgin[ity].”

That this verse refers to a virgin daughter of a man is verified by Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, by W. E. Vine (listed under Virgin / Parthenos):

(d) those concerning whom the Apostle Paul gives instructions regarding marriage, 1 Cor 7:25,28,34; in 1 Cor 7:36-38, the subject passes to that of “virgin daughters” (RV), which almost certainly formed one of the subjects upon which the church at Corinth sent for instructions from the Apostle; one difficulty was relative to the discredit which might be brought upon a father (or guardian), if he allowed his daughter or ward to grow old unmarried. The interpretation that this passage refers to a man and woman already in some kind of relation by way of a spiritual marriage and living together in a vow of virginity and celibacy, is untenable if only in view of the phraseology of the passage;

Joseph H. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (reprinted by Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 1977, from the 1901 edition, p. 489, Strong’s word #3933) concurs:

one’s marriageable daughter, 1 Co. vii. 36 sqq.

What about the business of “giving the daughter”? According to Robertson:

Paul commends the father who gives his daughter in marriage (gamizei). This verb gamizw has not been found outside the N.T. see on Matthew 22:30.

Matthew 22:30 reads (RSV):

For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. (cf. Mk 12:25; Lk 20:34-35)

Note also the related passages:

Luke 17:27 (RSV) They ate, they drank, they married, they were given in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all. (cf. Matt 24:38)

This is the same notion as in 1 Corinthians 7:38. Note the contrast between “marry” and “given in marriage.” It is two different concepts. The first refers to the man and wife, as subject; the second to the father “giving” his daughter (away) in marriage.

The Greek word in Matthew 22:30, Luke 17:27, and 1 Corinthians 7:38 alike is ekgamizo (Strong’s word #1547), from the root gamos [marry] (Strong’s word #1062). Likewise, in Mark 12:25 it is gamisko (Strong’s word #1061); literally, given in marriage. And Luke 20:34-35 uses the cognate ekgamisto (Strong’s word #1548). Thayer’s lexicon confirms the meanings of all these:

to give a daughter in marriage: 1 Co. vii. 38 . . . Mt. xxii. 30 . . . Mk. xii. 25; Lk. xvii. 27; xx. 35 . . . (p. 109, under #1060a)

to give away . . . in marriage: a daughter, 1 Co. vii. 38 . . . ; Mt. xxiv. 38 . . . Pass. to marry, to be given in marriage, Mt. xxii. 30 . . . ; Lk. xvii. 27 . . . (p. 193, under #1547)

So we know what the basic meaning of the passage is now, and it has nothing even to do with Scott’s scenario of sanctioned sexual intercourse of betrothed couples (sorry to disappoint you, Scott, or take away your fun!). It has to do, in point of fact, with parental permission or arrangement of marriage: father to daughter.

Note also a number of older Bible commentaries, that unanimously hold to the same interpretation.

I suppose Scott could posit a conspiracy among Bible lexicons, too (as well as among translations). Weirder things have been believed. In my opinion, several translations have missed the proper meaning of 1 Corinthians 7:36-38, according to what we have learned above, using the appropriate Greek language aids. But several others have not. It’s a mixed bag, and so one has to go back and study the words and phrases involved, as we have indeed done, in order to draw any sort of solid, rationally-based conclusion.

I have some thirty or so Bible translations in my library (and found others online as well). Here are the ones that translate 1 Corinthians 7:36-38 according to what I have presented and argued above:

NASB 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.

God’s Word translation No father would want to do the wrong thing when his virgin daughter is old enough to get married. If she wants to get married, he isn’t sinning by letting her get married. 37 However, a father may have come to a decision about his daughter. If his decision is to keep her [at home] because she doesn’t want to get married, that’s fine. 38 So it’s fine for a father to give his daughter in marriage, but the father who doesn’t give his daughter in marriage does even better.

ASV But if any man thinketh that he behaveth himself unseemly toward his virgin daughter, if she be past the flower of her age, and if need so requireth, let him do what he will; he sinneth not; let them marry. 37 But he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power as touching in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, shall do well. 38 So then both he that giveth his own virgin daughter in marriage doeth well; and he that giveth her not in marriage shall do better.

ERV But if any man thinketh that he behaveth himself unseemly toward his virgin daughter, if she be past the flower of her age, and if need so requireth, let him do what he will; he sinneth not; let them marry. 37 But he that standeth stedfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power as touching his own will, and hath determined this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, shall do well. 38 So then both he that giveth his own virgin daughter in marriage doeth well; and he that giveth her not in marriage shall do better.

Weymouth If, however, a father thinks he is acting unbecomingly towards his still unmarried daughter if she be past the bloom of her youth, and so the matter is urgent, let him do what she desires; he commits no sin; she and her suitor should be allowed to marry. 37 But if a father stands firm in his resolve, being free from all external constraint and having a legal right to act as he pleases, and in his own mind has come to the decision to keep his daughter unmarried, he will do well. 38 So that he who gives his daughter in marriage does well, and yet he who does not give her in marriage will do better.

World English Bible But if any man thinks that he is behaving inappropriately toward his virgin, if she is past the flower of her age, and if need so requires, let him do what he desires. He doesn’t sin. Let them marry. 37 But he who stands steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but has power over his own heart, to keep his own virgin, does well. 38 So then both he who gives his own virgin in marriage does well, and he who doesn’t give her in marriage does better.

Webster’s Bible Translation But if any man thinketh that he behaveth himself uncomely towards his virgin, if she hath passed the flower of her age, and need so requireth, let him do what he will, he sinneth not: let them marry. 37 Nevertheless, he that standeth steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well. 38 So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well; but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better.

Douay-Rheims But if any man think that he seemeth dishonoured, with regard to his virgin, for that she is above the age, and it must so be: let him do what he will; he sinneth not, if she marry. 37 For he that hath determined being steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but having power of his own will; and hath judged this in his heart, to keep his virgin, doth well. 38 Therefore, both he that giveth his virgin in marriage, doth well; and he that giveth her not, doth better.

NKJV But if any man thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virgin, if she is past the flower of youth, and thus it must be, let him do what he wishes. He does not sin; let them marry. 37 Nevertheless he who stands steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but has power over his own will, and has so determined in his heart that he will keep his virgin, does well. 38 So then he who gives her in marriage does well, but he who does not give her in marriage does better.

Third Millennium Bible But if any man think that he behaveth himself uncomely toward his virgin, if she pass the flower of her age and need so require, let him do what he will–he sinneth not: let them marry. 37 Nevertheless, he that standeth steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but hath power over his own will, and hath so decreed in his heart that he will keep his virgin, doeth well. 38 So then he that giveth her in marriage doeth well, but he that giveth her not in marriage doeth better.

Wuest’s Expanded Translation . . . in the case of his virgin daughter . . . his own daughter . . . he who gives his own virgin daughter in marriage is doing well, and he who does not do so will do better.

Amplified 38 So also then, he [the father] who gives [his daughter, virgin] in marriage does well . . .

Williams Now if a father thinks that he is not doing the proper thing regarding his single daughter . . . Let the daughter and her suitor marry . . . he has made the decision in his own heart to keep her single . . . the man who gives his daughter in marriage does what is right . . .

Jerusalem Bible Still, if there is anyone who feels that it would not be fair to his daughter to let her grow too old for marriage . . . the man who sees that his daughter is married has done a good thing . . .

Confraternity Therefore both he who gives his virgin in marriage does well, and he who does not give her does better.

Knox Thus, a man is well advised to give his ward in marriage, and still better advised not to give her in marriage.

[footnote: But there seems to be no authority for translating the verb in verse 38 ‘to marry’; it always means ‘to give in marriage’; cf. Like xvii. 27, a context which St. Paul may ave in mind.]

Moreover, the NIV footnotes give an alternate version that coincides with the above (oops! that wrecks the “Puritan” conspiracy of the NIV, to even mention this):

 

NIV (alternate suggested reading) If anyone thinks he is not treating his daughter properly, and if she is getting along in years, and he feels she ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. He should let her get married. 37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind to keep the virgin unmarried-this man also does the right thing. 38 So then, he who gives his virgin in marriage does right, but he who does not give her in marriage does even better.

The NEB does the same:

 

NEB (variant reading) Or a virgin daughter (or ward). . . . Or, let the girl and her lover marry . . . Or his daughter . . . Or gives his daughter in marriage.

As does the CEV:

CEV (variant reading) If you feel that you are not treating your grown daughter right by keeping her from getting married, then let her marry. You won’t be doing anything wrong.

The following translations have the competing interpretation (in my opinion, much less plausible, based on the Greek and cross-referencing), of a man and his future wife, irregardless of parents:

RSV If any one 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 that he who marries his betrothed does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.

NRSV 
If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancee, if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry. 37 But if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancee, he will do well. 38 So then, he who marries his fiancee does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better.

NIV 
If anyone thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting along in years and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. 37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin—this man also does the right thing. 38 So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does even better.

TNIV If anyone is worried that he might not be acting honorably toward the virgin he is engaged to, and if she is getting beyond the usual age for marrying and he feels he ought to marry, he should do as he wants. He is not sinning. They should get married. 37 But the man who has settled the matter in his own mind, who is under no compulsion but has control over his own will, and who has made up his mind not to marry the virgin–this man also does the right thing. 38 So then, he who marries the virgin does right, but he who does not marry her does better.

ISV If a man thinks he is not behaving properly toward his virgin, and if his passion is so strong that he feels he ought to marry her, let him do what he wants; he isn’t sinning. Let them get married. 37 However, if a man stands firm in his resolve, feels no necessity, and has made up his mind to keep her a virgin, he will be acting appropriately. 38 So then the man who marries the virgin acts appropriately, but the man who refrains from marriage does even better.

Darby But if any one think that he behaves unseemly to his virginity, if he be beyond the flower of his age, and so it must be, let him do what he will, he does not sin: let them marry. 37 But he who stands firm in his heart, having no need, but has authority over his own will, and has judged this in his heart to keep his own virginity, he does well. 38 So that he that marries himself does well; and he that does not marry does better.

Bible in Basic English But if, in any man’s opinion, he is not doing what is right for his virgin, if she is past her best years, and there is need for it, let him do what seems right to him; it is no sin; let them be married. 37 But the man who is strong in mind and purpose, who is not forced but has control over his desires, does well if he comes to the decision to keep her a virgin. 38 So then, he who gets married to his virgin does well, and he who keeps her unmarried does better.

Good News Translation (Today’s English Version)In the case of an engaged couple who have decided not to marry: if the man feels that he is not acting properly toward the young woman and if his passions are too strong and he feels that they ought to marry, then they should get married, as he wants to. There is no sin in this. 37 But if a man, without being forced to do so, has firmly made up his mind not to marry, and if he has his will under complete control and has already decided in his own mind what to do – then he does well not to marry the young woman. 38 So the man who marries does well, but the one who doesn’t marry does even better.

New Century Version If a man thinks he is not doing the right thing with the girl he is engaged to, if she is almost past the best age to marry and he feels he should marry her, he should do what he wants. They should get married. It is no sin. 37 But if a man is sure in his mind that there is no need for marriage, and has his own desires under control, and has decided not to marry the one to whom he is engaged, he is doing the right thing. 38 So the man who marries his girl does right, but the man who does not marry will do better.

Living Bible But if anyone feels he ought to marry because he has trouble controlling his passions, it is all right, it is not a sin; let him marry.

New Living Translation But if a man thinks he ought to marry his fiance because he has trouble controlling his passions and time is passing, it is all right; it is not a sin. Let them marry. 37 But if he has decided firmly not to marry and there is no urgency and he can control his passion, he does well not to marry. 38 So the person who marries does well, and the person who doesn’t marry does even better.

Beck If a man thinks he’s not acting properly toward his girl . . . If, then, he marries his girl . . .

Phillips Modern English But if any man feels he is not behaving honourably towards the woman he loves . . . if he decides not to marry the young woman, he too will be doing the right thing.

NEB Thus, he who marries his partner does well, and he who does not will do better.

REB Thus he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who does not marry does better.

NAB (revised, 1986) So then, the one who marries his virgin does well; the one who does not marry her will do better.

CEV But suppose you are engaged to someone old enough to be married, and you want her so much that all you can think about is getting married. Then go ahead and marry.

Moffatt . . . if any man considers that he is not behaving properly to the maid who is his spiritual bride, if his passions are strong and it must be so, then let him do what he wants — let them be married; it is no sin for him.

Goodspeed But if a man thinks he is not acting properly toward the girl to whom he is engaged . . .

William Barclay’s translation is unique in that he decided to incorporate both interpretations together, in verse 38 (rather than footnote one):

. . . if a man gives his virgin daughter in marriage (or, marries his fianceee, or marries the girl he had decided to live with and to remain unmarried), he does well; but if he does not, he will do still better.

In conclusion, I submit that the lexicons are very clear that an unmarried daughter is being referred to here, and that the phrase “given in marriage” (ekgamizo [Strong’s word #1547] in 1 Corinthians 7:38; cf. gamisko [Strong’s word #1061] and ekgamisto [Strong’s word #1548] ) is particularly decisive for this position. I also suspect (though I don’t assert) that the more modern translations are unduly biased against the ancient concept of arranged marriages; hence the bias shows up in how they handle and interpret and translate these Greek texts, whose literal meaning is not a mystery at all.

Lastly, in Scott’s campaign to legitimize unmarried sexuality and give it the NT stamp of approval, he neglects other indications in the same general context, that this is not what Paul has in mind at all. For example:

1 Corinthians 7:1-2 (RSV) Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. It is well for a man not to touch a woman. [2] But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.

Paul here clearly, I think, recommends marriage as the resolution of the problem of sexual temptation. Marriage is the place wherein sexuality is morally consummated and the natural desires channeled properly, in the overall safety of a commitment. This is the complete opposite of Scott’s contention, which would have Paul argue that there is no temptation; there is simply desire (and desire that cannot possibly be controlled: so he thinks), and this ought to be consummated regardless of whether one is married or not. We must re-write the Bible, then, so it fits into Scott’s wishful thinking schema:

1 Corinthians 7:1-2 (SNV) Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. It is well for a man to touch a woman, whether he is married to her or not. [2] And because of natural desires, each man should have sex with his own girlfriend and each woman have sex with her own boyfriend.

The same dynamic occurs seven verses later:

1 Corinthians 7:9 But if they cannot exercise self-control, they should marry. For it is better to marry than to be aflame with passion.

Paul presupposes that (sexual) self-control is the norm and the goal. Failing that, the solution is to marry, not to indulge anyway, regardless of marriage, as if there is nothing wrong with that. Marriage and “aflame with passion” (i.e., in an unmarried state) are antithetical to each other. Scott would have it be just the opposite, and so we clearly need a new Bible rendering to reflect his arbitrary opinions:

1 Corinthians 7:9 (SNV) But if unmarried couples cannot exercise self-control, they should have sex. For it is better to be aflame with passion and engage in sexual intercourse unmarried, than not to (which is impossible to do, anyway). It is better to do this than wait till one is married.

If we want to change the Bible at will, of course anything is possible. Most people who disbelieve its contents are not that brazen, however, so they take the more subtle route of misinterpreting the Bible and neglecting the meanings of words therein (a shortcoming that can easily be rectified with the aid of language aids).

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(originally 11-21-09)

Photo credit: Image by “Belleza87” [public domain / Pixabay]

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