1 Corinthians 7:36, Daughter or Fiancée?

If any man thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to, if she is getting beyond the usual age for marriage, and he feels he should marry—he can do what he wants. He is not sinning; they can get married. But he who stands firm in his heart (who is under no compulsion, but has control over his own will) and has decided in his heart to keep her as his fiancée, will do well. So, then, he who marries his fiancée does well, but he who does not marry will do better.

-1 Corinthians 7:36-38 (CSB)

This passage is translated differently in the most commonly used translations. The CSB, NLT, ESV, NIV, NRSV, and the CEB take a more modern approach perhaps than the NASB, Amplified and ASV Bibles, which have daughter, instead of fiancée.  The KJV and NKJV are ambiguous.

The idea or question is whether Paul is talking about fathers giving or not giving their daughters in marriage, or about a man considering marrying a woman. The backdrop is the idea or question about is it better as a Christian to stay single. Ideally the answer might be yes and that is what Paul says:

I say to the unmarried and to widows: It is good for them if they remain as I am. But if they do not have self-control, they should marry, since it is better to marry than to burn with desire.

-1 Corinthians 7:8-9

This is the context when we get to the later verses. But is Paul speaking to fathers about their daughters or men in regard to their fiancées? Is it possible that the modern approach translations are wrong? Here are some reasons why they may be:

  1. Throughout history, until the modern era, arranged marriages were how marriages were done. Dating and courting are modern inventions. If a man was interested in a woman, he would need to talk to her father or wait to be selected by her father. In the classic wedding today, the father walks the bride down the aisle and gives her away to her betrothed. In many ceremonies, the officiant asks who is giving their daughter this day to this man and the father answers that he and her mother do. This is perhaps the last hold over from the majority of history when fathers' arranged for their daughter's marriages.
  2. Scholars seem to say that the phrase on verse 38, "he who marries his fiancee does well" (CSB), could also be translated, "“who gives his own virgin in marriage" (NET note). In the Net Bible it is, "marries his own virgin". The NASB has it, "gives his own virgin daughter in marriage." It sure looks like the Greek word for marrying (gamizon) carries the meaning of giving in marriage. And fathers gave their daughters to be married, so this passage by Paul would seem to be counsel to fathers. Elsewhere in the NT, this word means "given in marriage". "Marry" is a different Greek word.

For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven.

For in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah boarded the ark.

For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like angels in heaven.

People went on eating, drinking, marrying and being given in marriage until the day Noah boarded the ark, and the flood came and destroyed them all.

But those who are counted worthy to take part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.

-Matthew 22:30, 24:38; Mark 12:25, Luke 17:27, 20:35

The cultural context is that fathers give their young daughters in marriage. I already know that modern translations like the NIV, CSB, NLT, and ESV do not say "give" or "given", but take the view that this is written to engaged couples. But here is a list of translations at Bible Gateway that have "give" or "given', leading to a father/daughter interpretation:

  • KJV
  • ASV
  • AMP
  • BRG
  • DRA
  • GNV
  • GW
  • JUB
  • LSB
  • MEV
  • NOG
  • NASB
  • NCB
  • NKJV
  • RGT
  • WEB

At the beginning of verse 36, we have this word (Transliterated: aschēmonein, Root: ἀσχημονέω) translated 'acting improperly':

If any man thinks he is acting improperly toward the virgin he is engaged to (CSB)

But if any man thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virgin, (NKJV)

What does 'acting improperly', or 'acting unbecomingly' (NASB 1995) mean? This is open to interpretation. The improper actions are either by the woman's fiancée or father. But they are very different. The fiancée needs to decide to marry her, but the father needs to decide to let her get married (give her in marriage).

The backstory might be that the Corinthians were thinking that not being married would amp up their spirituality. Paul says that being celibate is better for serving God, but marriage is ordained by God. Celibacy is a gift that is great if you have it, but not something we force on ourselves because it makes us more spiritual, or that fathers should force on their daughters.

The 'behaving improperly' by the father towards the daughter might be telling her she can't be married. After all the guidance that a father has given his daughter to raise her that is good, and she is now no longer a girl, but a young woman who wants to be married, and is trying to hold her back from marriage is 'behaving improperly (NKJV) or 'acting unbecomingly' (NASB 1995).

I mentioned that the King James and New King James could go either way, so 'behaving improperly toward his virgin' could mean daughter or fiancée. The NASB says 'daughter', but it is in italics, meaning 'daughter' is not in the Greek, but implied in the opinion on the NASB translators.

What if we said that it could be either the father or the male fiancée being addressed, but the teaching for us is a larger principle, rooted in the context of the chapter, book, the NT and the cultural context? Then we have to apply it to today.

This is how Eugene Peterson translated this passage in his paraphrase, The Message:

If a man has a woman friend to whom he is loyal but never intended to marry, having decided to serve God as a “single,” and then changes his mind, deciding he should marry her, he should go ahead and marry. It’s no sin; it’s not even a “step down” from celibacy, as some say. On the other hand, if a man is comfortable in his decision for a single life in service to God and it’s entirely his own conviction and not imposed on him by others, he ought to stick with it. Marriage is spiritually and morally right and not inferior to singleness in any way, although as I indicated earlier, because of the times we live in, I do have pastoral reasons for encouraging singleness.

-1 Corinthians 7:36-38 (MSG)

And this is how The Voice paraphrase translates this passage:

(But I have this advice for every single man:) If anyone thinks he is behaving badly toward his fiancée, if his desires prove to be too much for him, and if he feels they ought to marry, then he should do what he wants; it is not wrong (to marry her). It is better that we let men (and women in this situation do as they wish and) get married. If a man has no compulsion and chooses not to marry his fiancée, but commits himself to live (a celibate life for the sake of following God) and has the strength to live out his conviction, then he is doing a good thing. So those who marry do a good thing, (and they will share in a holy blessing); those who do not marry do an even better thing (because they are part of an even greater blessing in the service of God).

-1 Corinthians 7:36-38 (VOICE) Words in parentheses are "not directly tied to the dynamic translation of the original language. These words bring out the nuance of the original, assist in completing ideas, and often provide readers with information that would have been obvious to the original audience. These additions are meant to help the modern reader better understand the text without having to stop and read footnotes or a study guide", VOICE notes.

Paul teaches that singleness is good and in some ways better than being married:

I say to the unmarried and to widows: It is good for them if they remain as I am. But if they do not have self-control, they should marry, since it is better to marry than to burn with desire...

...Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I do give an opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is faithful. Because of the present distress, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is...

...I want you to be without concerns. The unmarried man is concerned about the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. But the married man is concerned about the things of the world—how he may please his wife— and his interests are divided. The unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But the married woman is concerned about the things of the world—how she may please her husband. I am saying this for your own benefit, not to put a restraint on you, but to promote what is proper and so that you may be devoted to the Lord without distraction.

-1 Corinthians 7:8, 25, and 32-35

Then Paul pivots and says that if you want to get married, that's great. Fathers should give their daughters to men to marry or men should go ahead and marry that Christian woman he has desire for:

But if a man thinks that he’s treating his fiancée improperly and will inevitably give in to his passion, let him marry her as he wishes. It is not a sin. 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. So the person who marries his fiancée does well, and the person who doesn’t marry does even better.

-1 Corinthians 7:36-38 (New Living Translation)


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. 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. 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.

-1 Corinthians 7:36-38 (NASB 1995) (words in parentheses are in italics in the NASB 1995)

The Amplified Bible, updated in 2015, that has 'virgin daughter' in verse 36, contains this footnote: "In ancient times marriages were usually arranged by a girl’s father or the head of the family."

The NET has the phrase in verse 36 in the literal, as does the KJV and NKJV and NASB (pre-1995 versions): "toward his virgin", with this note: "Grk “virgin,” either a fiancée, a daughter, or the ward of a guardian."

It is notable that the modern translations (CSB, ESV, NIV, and NLT) do not italicize 'he is engaged to', toward his betrothed', or 'his fiancee'; when these word are simply not in the Greek, but are interpretations. These popular translations interpret the passage for you in a way that is possibly not what Paul had in mind. The CSB has no footnote telling you this. The ESV does have a note stating that the Greek word that they chose to translate as 'his betrothed', is in literal Greek, 'virgin'. And the NLT has no footnote.

The NASB 1995 and the AMP seem to be more forthright in their interpretation that Paul is referring to a man's daughter, but since daughter is not in the manuscript, they put the word in italics, and sometimes with a footnote.

In the NET Bible, there is a second note after the note (see above) from verse 36, that refers the reader to the note at the end of verse 38. Here is a link to that lengthy note that gives arguments for the two views.

This is an illustration of why it is a good idea that when you study the Bible or even read it, you should do so with different translations, because no translation is perfect and even the good ones, the most popular ones, have differences of opinion on translating words from top flight scholars that give different meanings or interpretations to the text.



1 Corinthians 7:36-38: Is it About a Fiancee or a Daughter?, Dave Armstrong

"A believers' virginity" or "a believer's daughter's virginity" in 1 Corinthians 7:36-38?, StackExchange Bible Hermeneutics

Exegesis of 1 Corinthians 7:36-40: A Father and His Daughter or a Man and His Betrothed?, Brian Collins

Can you explain the translation of 1 Corinthians 7:36?, John Oaks

1 Corinthians 7:36-38 – An Analysis of the “Virgin Daughter”, Mike Riley

Top photo credit: Dr. Al Garza, "Why so many Bible interpretations?", YouTube video