Questions From Readers
● In 1 Corinthians 7:36-38 the New World Translation mentions a man’s giving “his own virginity” in marriage. Most other versions use such phrases as “his virgin daughter” or “his partner in celibacy.” Why do Bibles differ so much in this passage?
Any Christian interested in marriage and/or singleness is rightly interested in these meaningful verses, which in the New World Translation read:
“But if anyone thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virginity, if that is past the bloom of youth, and this is the way it should take place, let him do what he wants; he does not sin. Let them marry. But if anyone stands settled in his heart, having no necessity, but has authority over his own will and has made this decision in his own heart, to keep his own virginity, he will do well. Consequently he also that gives his virginity in marriage does well, but he that does not give it in marriage will do better.”—1 Cor. 7:36-38.
Many Bible scholars admit having difficulty in understanding and properly translating the Greek text of this passage. According to Dr. A. Marshall’s Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, the literal Greek of 1Co 7 verse 36 begins: “But if anyone to behave dishonourably toward the virgin of him thinks, . . .” The main problem involves the phrase “the virgin of him.” What did the apostle Paul mean by that? Bible commentaries often bring up three possibilities, which are reflected in the various renderings in many popular Bibles. Briefly considering these three views will aid us to appreciate the point of this passage.
One: Some say that these verses refer to a father’s or guardian’s authority to give a girl in marriage or to forbid her marrying. To convey this idea, certain translations add the word “daughter,” as does the New American Standard Bible. There are, though, difficulties with this view. First, the passage nowhere actually speaks of a daughter, father or guardian. Furthermore, 1Co 7 verse 37 shows that what was in question was a man’s authority over his own will. So why should we conclude that Paul recommended that a woman remain celibate just because her father was not distracted because of sexual passion?
Two: Others feel that Paul was counseling a man about whether to marry his fiancée or not. Hence, the Revised Standard Version reads: “If any one thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, . . .” The fact is, though, that in the original text these verses do not mention a ‘betrothed woman’ or “fiancée.” Further, this approach puts all the emphasis on the man. But does it seem consistent with Christianity that Paul would be concerned with only the man, showing no interest at all in the needs and feelings of the woman, whom Peter calls the “weaker vessel”?—1 Pet. 3:7.
Three: Yet others say that 1 Corinthians 7:36-38 involves Christian couples who were living together but celibately, who had renounced sex relations for spiritual reasons. Hence, the translation by Moffatt says: “If any man considers that he is not behaving properly to the maid who is his spiritual bride, . . .” And The New English Bible speaks of his “partner in celibacy.”
However, such an interpretation conflicts with what the apostle advised earlier in 1 Corinthians chapter seven. Paul had mentioned, in verses three through five, the possibility of a couple’s temporarily abstaining from sexual relations by mutual agreement. But he said that later they should come together again so that they would not fall into temptation. Also, if Paul was referring to married couples living celibately, why would he recommend their marrying if passion suggested the need for that?
If these three views, reflected in many popular Bibles, do not seem to harmonize with Paul’s words in Greek, or with Christianity, is there a more suitable rendering that conveys the proper sense?
As noted, the principal difficulty involves the phrase “the virgin of him.” In this regard, an Emphatic Diaglott footnote says: “Parthenos, commonly translated virgin, has been rendered as meaning also a state of virginity or celibacy.” Dr. G. R. Berry gives the Greek-English interlinear reading as follows: “behaves unseemly to virginity his.” This would mean that the “virgin” referred to is not that of some other person, but is one’s own virginity. Long before the New World Translation appeared, some English versions conveyed this understanding. J. N. Darby’s translation is: “But if any one think that he behaves unseemly to his virginity, . . . let him do what he will, he does not sin.” (See also the Bible by J. B. Rotherham.) Such a rendering fits both the Greek text and Paul’s earlier words encouraging singleness.—1 Cor. 7:29-35.
So, at 1 Corinthians 7:36-38 Paul urges persons to consider their own needs. Is one past the time when sexual interest first became strong?* If so, and if he or she still feels it would be better to marry, there is no sin in doing so. But the Christian who is able to make room for singleness will have fewer distractions and more freedom to serve the Lord.
Regarding the expression “past the bloom of youth,” see The Watchtower of November 15, 1974, p. 703.