Paul, Sex and Marriage 5: Semantic Analysis of 7:1-16

This is part 5 of my 1988 essay What did Paul really say about sex and marriage? 1 Corinthians 7:1-16. The Greek text here is adjusted as in part 3. Not all of the material in this section is of immediate relevance in 2006, but the introductory analysis is significant in proving that Paul treated men and women identically in family matters, and the discussion of 7:1 clarifies some continuing misunderstandings.


The following discussion of the features of semantic interest in this passage is based on a semantic analysis according to the method of Beekman and Callow, with some modifications. The semantic display resulting from this analysis is given in the Appendix. This method of analysis has the advantage over some others of requiring direct semantic relationships between kernel sentences not only to be shown to exist but also to be classified; sometimes a definite classification is impossible because of ambiguity or complexity in the relationship, but the attempt to classify is very helpful in understanding the passage. Additional points of semantic interest not covered by the analysis, such as non-literal language, are also considered in the discussion.

One striking feature about this passage is that men and women are treated completely equally with deliberate parallel passages, as illustrated here:

7:2 ἕκαστος τὴν ἑαυτοῦ γυναῖκα ἐχέτω
καὶ ἑκάστη τὸν ἴδιον ἄνδρα ἐχέτω.
7:3 τῇ γυναικὶ
ἀνὴρ τὴν ὀφειλὴν ἀποδιδότω,
ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ γυνὴ
τῷ ἀνδρί.
7:4 γυνὴ τοῦ ἰδίου σώματος οὐκ ἐξουσιάζει
ἀλλὰ ἀνήρ,
ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ ἀνὴρ τοῦ ἰδίου σώματος οὐκ ἐξουσιάζει
ἀλλὰ γυνή.
7:2 [… each (man) his own woman should have
and each (woman) her own man should have.
7:3 to the woman
the man should give back the duty,
and in the same way also the woman
to the man.
7:4 the woman does not have authority over her own body
but the man,
and in the same way also the man does not have authority over his own body
but the woman.]
7:8 Λέγω δὲ τοῖς ἀγάμοις
καὶ ταῖς χήραις
7:8 [But I say to the unmarried
and to the widows …]
7:10 γυναῖκα ἀπὸ ἀνδρὸς μὴ χωρισθῆναι,
7:11 καὶ ἄνδρα γυναῖκα μὴ ἀφιέναι.
7:10 [… woman from man not to separate,
7:11 and man woman not to divorce.]
7:12 εἴ τις ἀδελφὸς
γυναῖκα ἔχει ἄπιστον
καὶ αὕτη
συνευδοκεῖ οἰκεῖν μετ᾽ αὐτοῦ,
μὴ ἀφιέτω αὐτήν·
7:13 καὶ γυνὴ εἴ τις
ἔχει ἄνδρα ἄπιστον
καὶ οὗτος
συνευδοκεῖ οἰκεῖν μετ᾽ αὐτῆς,
μὴ ἀφιέτω τὸν ἄνδρα.
7:12 [… if any brother
has an unbelieving woman
and she
is willing to live with him,
let him not divorce her;
7:13 and if any woman
has an unbelieving man
and he
is willing to live with her,
let her not divorce the man.]
7:14 ἡγίασται γὰρ ἀνὴρ ὁ ἄπιστος ἐν τῇ γυναικί
καὶ ἡγίασται γυνὴ ἡ ἄπιστος ἐν τῷ ἀδελφῷ·
7:14 [for is sanctified the unbelieving man in the woman
and is sanctified the unbelieving woman in the brother;]
7:15 … οὐ δεδούλωται ἀδελφὸς
ἀδελφὴ ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις …
7:15 [… is not bound the brother
or the sister in such things …]
7:16 τί γὰρ οἶδας, γύναι, εἰ τὸν ἄνδρα σώσεις;
ἢ τί οἶδας, ἄνερ, εἰ τὴν γυναῖκα σώσεις;
7:16 [for how do you know, woman, if the man you will save?
or how do you know, man, if the woman you will save?]

The parallel given in 7:8 will be explained in the discussion below. In obvious contrast to all these parallels stand 7:1b, καλὸν ἀνθρώπῳ γυναικὸς μὴ ἅπτεσθαι [good for a person not to touch a woman], which has no parallel concerning how women should treat men, and 7:7a, θέλω δὲ πάντας ἀνθρώπους εἶναι ὡς καὶ ἐμαυτόν [but I want all people to be as also myself] – which tends to confirm that these are quotations.


The first four words of this verse are grammatically difficult. Formally the relative pronoun ὧν should refer back to an antecedent, which could only be the preceding passage in general, giving the meaning and concerning these (previously mentioned) things you wrote “It is good …”; but recognition of Περὶ δὲ [but about] as a discourse marker rules this out. The relative must therefore be taken in the non-classical (but common in the New Testament) sense of that which; περὶ ὧν [about which] stands for περὶ τούτων ἃ [about the things which] (Zerwick and Grosvenor). Since the discourse marker introduces what the author says on a new subject, there must be an implicit I say (cf. λέγω [I say] in 7:6,8) here. Thus the meaning could be Concerning the things which you wrote [I say] … . If the remainder of the verse is not taken as a quotation, this formula must introduce all of Paul’s response to the Corinthians’ letter, which is most of the rest of this letter. This view is not satisfactory, because of the repeated Περὶ δὲ at 7:25. 8:1, 12:1 and 16:1,12, and the earlier use of the Corinthians’ letter, most clearly at 6:12. There is however no difficulty if the latter part of 7:1 is taken as a quotation, for it then indicates a specific subject brought up by the Corinthians with which Paul deals in 7:1-16 (or 7:1-24). The meaning is thus something like Concerning these words, “It is good …”, which you wrote, [I say] … . This is a powerful argument for finding a quotation here. Thus in 7:2 Paul begins the content of what he is saying on the subject raised by the Corinthians’ statement; because he is also taking issue with their statement he introduces it with a strictly unnecessary δὲ.

The last part of 7:1, γυναικὸς μὴ ἅπτεσθαι, literally not to touch a woman, is an example of non-literal language, and one whose meaning is not immediately clear. AV, RSV, NASB, JB translate literally, leaving the reader to decide whether the phrase is metaphorical; but the translator, who should be familiar with first century Greek idioms, is much better able to decide such points than the reader, who might supply a quite inappropriate metaphorical meaning. TNT substitutes an explanation of the euphemism, but its not to have intercourse with a woman is too blunt. Phillips’ to have no physical contact with women is much better, a plausible literal translation which is also an equivalent English euphemism for sexual intercourse. NIV and TEV make explicit an alternative understanding of the metaphor, as not to marry, and NEB has a third understanding, surely too strong: have nothing to do with women. Fee, 7:1 showed that the Greek idiom regularly refers to sexual intercourse, and argued that the NIV translation is an attempt to harmonise with the context on the basis that there is no quotation here. The best translation therefore seems to be that of Fee, not to have relations with a woman.


The first difficulty here is the meaning of διὰ τὰς πορνείας [because of the immoralities]; the problem is that πορνείας is plural. Barrett concludes that the meaning here is cases of sexual immorality, which is quite plausible, but so would be various forms of sexual immorality. The reference is not hypothetical, for at least one case of πορνεία had actually occurred (5:1).

The relationships between these three verses, which follow one another with no conjunctions (asyndeton), are not immediately clear, partly because the husband/wife parallelism obscures the structure. One side of the argument in isolation reads:

7:2 Because of cases of sexual immorality:

The main clauses in 7:2, in the context, are not to be taken as get married to the single, but as live as married to the already married; this is the general principle which is clarified in the following verses. 7:3 is central as it specifies the application to sexual intercourse, in euphemistic language. 7:4 amplifies the ὀφειλή [duty] of 7:3, explaining the reason for it and leaving no doubt as to its content. The opening of 7:5 is a summary introducing the exception clause.

There is thus a chiasmus in 7:3-4: 7:3 starts with husband-wife, then wife-husband; 7:4 explains first wife-husband and then husband-wife. An oddity emerges from this analysis: if, as Fee believes, the main problem at Corinth was that certain wives were depriving their husbands and driving them to the prostitutes, the most vital of Paul’s points, that each wife must give her husband what she owes him, is the one point which is not spelt out in full; perhaps Paul deliberately lets his readers work out the last step for themselves for greater impact, as he may also be doing in 7:17-24 where the application to marriage is left implicit.


This is another difficult verse to analyse. The general principle Do not deprive one another is modified by an exception, which is not hypothetical (Fee, p. 281) for the conditions can really be met; rather, it is optional in that the couple may deprive one another if the conditions are met but are under no obligation to meet them. The one condition clause includes four separate conditions: there must be agreement; the arrangement must be temporary, or perhaps for a pre-determined time; the purpose must be prayer; and (equivalently to the second condition) the couple must again be ἐπὶ τὸ αὐτὸ [together], presumably another euphemism for sexual intercourse. The reasons for laying down these conditions, or at least the last one, are to avoid temptation presumably to extra-marital sex. The semantic content of this verse is not difficult to understand if one remains at arm’s length from its grammatical form, which is obscure.


The question then arises of how 7:6 relates to the preceding verses. The traditional interpretation takes the whole of 7:2-5 as a concession because of cases of sexual immorality (7:2), whereas Paul’s ideal is stated in 7:1b. This is a possible understanding of 7:6, but conflicts with the conclusion that 7:2-4, rather than 7:1, represents Paul’s position. A more likely concession is the clause explicitly identified as such, the exception in 7:5; 7:6 is thus a clarification of εἰ μήτι ἂν [except] pointing out that Paul is not commanding such periods of separation but merely permitting them.


This verse brings a further difficulty. Introduced by δὲ, or possibly by γὰρ [for] although the textual evidence for this is less good, Paul makes the strong statement I want all people to be as I am, qualified only by the following contrasting clause. As Barrett points out, θέλω [I want] cannot be translated I should like (NEB) or I could wish (Fee, p. 285); indeed, the δὲ may be best understood as contrasting this definite wish with the indefinite concession of 7:5,6. Yet Barrett’s own explanation of 7:7 reads more into this statement than could have been seen by the Corinthians. Two points may help to clarify it. Firstly, this seems to be a quotation from the Corinthians, turned back round to make Paul the speaker; they had perhaps justified their renunciation of sexual relations by writing You said you wanted all of us to be like you, and you are celibate. Secondly, the similarity must be noted between this and the repeated Become imitators of me (4:16, 11:1) which forms an inclusio around this part of the letter; here Paul shows the limits of such imitation with the contrasting clause about different gifts, which applies not only in the area of sexual relationships, as chapter 12 beings out. The verse can perhaps be paraphrased as follows: But this, as you wrote, I do want for everyone of you, that you become like me, imitators of me – not identical to me, for each of you has his own gift … .

In the last part of the verse, it should be noted that the pairing is οὕτως … οὕτως [thus … thus], not τοῦτο … τοῦτο [this … this]; the reference is not directly to different gifts (contra NIV) but to different ways of living, parallelling ὡς καὶ ἐμαυτόν [as also myself]. The word χάρισμα [gift] here need not be taken as a technical term for a spiritual gift; rather it is what God graciously gives (χαρίζομαι) or assigns to each man, to live in his own individual way – a message expanded in 7:17-24.


These verses are comparatively straightforward to analyse. Fee argues from contemporary usage that the ἀγάμοι [unmarried ones] of verse 8 are widowers, as Paul himself probably was, rather than those never married. This certainly fits better with the man-woman parallelism of these verses; it also distinguishes this passage from 7:25 ff. and reduces the tension with 7:2. It should certainly not be assumed from its etymology that ἄγαμος is equivalent to unmarried. The first part of verse 9 is grammatically a condition, but semantically it serves to identify those who should get married, being equivalent to οἱ μὴ ἐγκρατευόμενοι [those who are not controlled].

In 7:9, πυροῦσθαι [to burn] is a clear example of non-literal language. AV and NASB translate literally as burn; no doubt some have misunderstood this literally as referring to martyrdom (cf. 13:3, AV, NASB ?), as perhaps they have JB be tortured. The word could be a reference to judgment and punishment in the fires of hell – which are surely metaphorical – but, as Fee argues from the wide context, a more likely metaphorical meaning is in this case the one chosen by NIV and TEV (cf. also RSV, NEB, TNT, Phillips): burn with passion, i.e. sexual desire. This desire was hardly unsatisfied (Phillips), for οὐκ ἐγκρατεύονται [they are not controlled], in the present indicative, implies that they were already satisfying it.


7:10, as punctuated in UBS3 and translated in NIV, RSV etc., opens with a contradiction: I command … not I; for not I but the Lord is taken as a parenthesis. The Greek could be taken instead as I do not command, but the Lord commands, taking ἐγώ [I] as the subject of παραγγέλλω [(I) command] and supplying an implied παραγγέλλει [(he) commands]; this avoids any contradiction and maintains the parallel with the opening of 7:12 if, as in UBS3 but not in NIV, I, not the Lord is not parenthetic there. In any case the meaning is little affected: Paul appeals to the authority of the Lord Jesus for these instructions.

The man-woman parallelism is broken in two ways in these verses. Firstly, the instruction to the woman is μὴ χωρισθῆναι, do not become separated, but that to the man is μὴ ἀφιέναι, do not divorce. In the cultural context there may have been a technical distinction between what was possible for a man and for a woman (although in 7:13 μὴ ἀφιέτω [let her not divorce] is addressed to a woman), but in view of the perfect parallels elsewhere it seems certain that Paul intended men and women to be treated as nearly as possible equally. Thus it is inappropriate to make a distinction in applying this passage in a modern culture in which men and women are equal with regard to divorce. Secondly, the prohibition of remarriage for those who have, despite Paul’s instructions, divorced is given explicitly only to woman, but Paul presumably intended it to apply equally to divorced men. The clause ἐὰν δὲ καὶ χωρισθῇ [but if she also divorces], like the first clause in 7:9, identifies the subject of the following clause, but ἐὰν [if] with the subjunctive indicates uncertainty: the situation might not, and should not, arise.


These verses are relatively straightforward in themselves, although their relationship to the following verses is obscure. It is not immediately clear who οἱ λοιποῖ [the rest] are; they must be those not included in 7:8 or 7:10, but the content of Paul’s instructions shows that they are those married to unbelieving partners. Thus οἱ γεγαμηκότες [the married (ones)] of 7:10 must be the married couples who were both within the church; and if 7:8 is indeed addressed only to the widowed Paul is postponing his instructions to those never married until 7:25. The indefinite conditional clauses εἴ τις ἀδελφὸς … [if any brother …] and γυνὴ εἴ τις … [if any woman …] again serve to identify specific classes of man and woman and are not true conditions. 7:12 is the beginning of a complex multiple chiasmus stretching to the middle of 7:14, as is shown by the terms used for men and women: ἀδελφὸς … γυναῖκα … γυνὴ … ἄνδρα … ἄνδρα … ἀνὴρ … γυναικί … γυνὴ … ἀδελφῷ [brother … woman … woman … man … man … man … woman … woman … brother] (italics mark the unbelieving partners).


The first half of this verse is very difficult theologically, since its teaching seems to conflict with the rest of Paul’s theology. Semantically it is not so difficult in itself. Ἡγίασται [is sanctified] is presumably a divine passive; it is God who has caused the change, through the believing partner. The easiest solution to the theological problem is the semantic one of taking ἅγιος [holy] and ἁγιάζω [sanctify] here in quite a different sense to Paul’s normal usage, a sense determined rather by the context, but it is difficult to find such a sense that does justice to the word’s important place in the argument. For Paul here is giving the reason for his prohibition of divorce in 7:12,13: God has caused a real change in the husband, despite his unbelief, so that he and the children of the marriage, although they too might not believe, are in some sense holy and are not to be rejected as unholy or defiled – and similarly for the wife. Thus ἄπιστος [unbelieving], twice in this verse, is a contraction of a concessive clause although he/she does not believe.

The second half of the verse is difficult to analyse, if not to understand. It is linked equally to both of the preceding statements, about husband and wife. The words ἐπεὶ ἄρα illustrate the danger of treating New Testament Greek as if it were Classical Greek: Liddell and Scott give the meaning since then, quoting Homer as their example, but that cannot be the sense here. A synchronic study of Paul’s use of ἐπεί gives a different picture: several times (Romans 3:6, 11:6,22, 1 Corinthians 5:10,7:14, 14:26, 15:29 – see Bauer on ἐπεί, Turner, p. 318, and Zerwick and Grosvenor on these verses) he uses it in the sense of otherwise, i.e. [if that were not the case] then. Here one must supply the double condition if the unbelieving husband or the unbelieving wife were not holy, a condition contrary to the fact as already stated, although this is not indicated in the consequence clause. This is introduced to highlight the significance of the last clause, the climax of the verse, which is the result or perhaps the purpose of the unbelieving partners being made holy.


This verse, which concerns the unbelieving partner who wishes to separate from the believer, provides the contrast to the preceding three verses concerning the unbeliever who wishes to remain married. Since this letter is not addressed to the unbelievers, the imperative χωριζέσθω [let him/her separate], grammatically addressed to the unbeliever, is semantically addressed to the believing partner; the English let him do so (NIV) is to be taken in its more basic sense allow him to do so. The believer must therefore accept that the marriage is truly terminated; this is underlined by οὐ δεδούλωται [is not enslaved], a metaphor since there is no question of literal slavery, and a significant one because it introduces the analogy between marriage and slavery which probably underlies 7:21-23. Since in the cultural context and therefore in the presupposition pool legal divorce automatically conferred the right of remarriage (Murphy-O’Connor, Divorced, p. 604), Paul surely intended to allow remarriage in this case of a believer divorced by an unbeliever; the contrast with 7:11 concerning two believers must be deliberate, and Fee’s argument that remarriage is not permitted (pp. 302-303) does not stand.

Most English translations (NIV, AV, RSV, NASB, NEB, JB; also the punctuation of UBS3) connect the last clause of this verse to the preceding clauses, making a major division at the end of the verse; but it is then difficult to explain the δὲ at the start of the clause: RSV appears to mistranslate it as for, and NIV, TEV, JB suggest this nuance, whereas the translations which retain but (AV,NASB,NEB) scarcely make sense. Fee argues that this clause is to be taken instead with the following verse, as in Phillips’ translation; together they give a further reason, in addition to that of 7:14,15, for the couple to remain together if possible. This analysis also makes more sense of the link between this clause and 7:17-24, in which the term κέκληκεν [has called], introduced here without explanation, is interpreted and linked back to the subject of marriage; this link would be much more awkward if 7:16 reverted to another subject.


This final verse on marriage between believers and unbelievers consists of two rhetorical questions. Formally, how do you know …? is equivalent to you do not know … , but to reduce the text to that, as a semantic analysis must do, is to lose the thrust of Paul’s style, here giving a last point to ponder for anyone who is considering divorce from an unbeliever. Paul distinguishes σῴζω [save], which for the unbeliever is future and uncertain, from ἁγιάζω [sanctify], which for the same person is past with continuing effects (7:14); the precise nature of the distinction is a theological difficulty which can only be answered by reference to Paul’s teaching elsewhere. Here, as in 9:22, Romans 11:14 and 1 Timothy 4:16 (the only cases in the Pauline letters), σῴζω [save] is given a human grammatical subject, but all these passages are rhetorical, and as with ἁγιάζω [sanctify] in 7:14 Paul surely sees the true subject as God and the human as the means he uses.

1 thought on “Paul, Sex and Marriage 5: Semantic Analysis of 7:1-16

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