The Significance of the Matter of Paul’s Marriage (1 Corinthians 7:6-9)
It is sometimes assumed (especially on the basis of 1 Corinthians 7:6-9, and also 9:5) that Paul was a bachelor who never married, and who commended that unmarried celibate state for others to follow also. This assumed example of Paul has often been used as the basis for the pastoral encouragement for a young person not to marry at all. We should therefore examine the evidence concerning Paul’s marital state. These are the relevant factors to note (based on my Ministry of Women in the Church 27-31):
(a) It was the cultural norm for every Jew to be married by their mid-twenties at the latest. Marriages for Jewish young people were arranged by their parents, and it was a matter of some shame if a marriage could not be arranged. There are no grounds of any kind for thinking that this normal Jewish pattern would not have taken place in Paul’s family.
(b) Paul expressly states (Acts 22:3, Philippians 3:4-6, and especially Galatians 1:13-14) that he followed the traditions of his people. It is hard to credit that he could have said about himself, “I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my ancestors” if he had failed to conform to the Jewish tradition about marriage.
(c) There is external evidence that to be a married man was a requirement for membership of the Jewish high Council, the Sanhedrin. And it would appear, from the New Testament evidence, that Paul (Saul) was a member of the Sanhedrin - he was well qualified for this office; his statement in Acts 26:10 that he voted for the death penalty for Christians is most naturally to be taken as referring to his participating in the formal vote in the Sanhedrin; the witnesses against Stephen brought him before the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:12, 15); the wording of Acts 7:57 shows that the members of the Sanhedrin accompanied the witnesses against Stephen who (according to custom) carried out the stoning, and it is more reasonable to read this account as indicating that the witnesses entrusted their clothes to a known member of the Sanhedrin group (i.e. Saul) than to an unknown stranger who happened along at that time (see also Acts 22:20); the ready access of Paul (Saul) to the high priest and the way the latter delegated authority to Paul (Acts 9:1-2; cf. 22:4-5) is also more likely if Paul were a Sanhedrin member.
(d) Paul was a chosen and prepared vessel for the ministry he was given. His perception of the nature of the marriage relationship (especially in 1 Corinthians 7:2-5 and Ephesians 5:21-33E) strongly suggests that the Lord is enabling him to understand the nature of a relationship which he himself knows from experience.
Now, it would be possible for the Lord to use, as the vehicle for the Bible’s teaching about the nature of the marriage relationship, a person who had never been married: but the Lord’s usual way is to work through someone whom he has prepared for that role, and the normal preparation for a person to write about the nature of marriage would be to be married.
(e) It cannot be argued that Paul rejected marriage from Christian conviction or because of the dangerous nature of his future ministry, because his parents would have arranged his marriage at a time prior to his conversion.
(f) Paul accepted that Christian leaders would be married, and that in this regard he and Barnabas were exceptions (see 1 Corinthians 9:5).
(g) Paul does not ever refer to himself as παρθενοσ (parthenos), or suggest in any way that he had never married; on the contrary: in 7:8 Paul writes, “Now to the ἀγαμοι (agamoi) and widows I say: it is good for them to stay as I am.” That is, he classes himself with those who had previously been married, and had not subsequently remarried, and recommends to his readers that in this regard they follow his example.
There is no evidence on the other side, that is, in support of the view that Paul had never married; and there are no reasonable grounds for holding such a view. The evidence that we do have, as set out here, is best explained on the basis that Paul was a widower.
A second possibility is that his wife, being (as one would expect for the wife of such a man as Saul) a committed Judaist, may have left him after his conversion to Christ: in Philippians 3:4-8 Paul refers to his old life in Judaism before his conversion, and adds, “... Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things”, which may have included his wife (cf. Luke 14:26; 18:29).
The least likely possibility is that Paul had never married at all.
(This is one of the “Practical and Pastoral Reflections” upon Paul’s Epistle, taken from
B Ward Powers’ First Corinthians - An Exegetical and Explanatory Commentary.)
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