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Friday, July 22, 2005

Not touching a woman (1 Cor. 7:1)

At 1 Corinthians 7:1, the NIV reads:
Now for the matters you wrote about: It is good for a man not to marry.
I consider that the NIV translators made a big mistake in their rendering of the last part of this verse. The words, literally "touch a woman" (as in RSV), do not refer to marriage. They don't mean literally "touch" either, and so should not be used to support the teaching that men and women should not even shake hands, or to forbid pre-marital petting. In fact, as the respected commentator Gordon Fee writes, the meaning of this expression "can be resolved beyond reasonable doubt. 'To touch a woman' is a euphemism for sexual intercourse".

Now Paul has already, in 6:12-20, condemned extra-marital sexual relations in terms much stronger than "it is not good". Chapter 7 is mostly about marriage. So, especially in the context of v.2 and following, the reference in v.1 is probably to sexual relations within marriage.

But why did the NIV translators render this half verse in this way, as expressing disapproval of marriage? I suppose that they could make no sense of the passage, in a context about marriage, except by making it say the same as v.38. For there does seem to be a contradiction with vv.3,5 if the latter are properly understood as restricting sexual abstinence within marriage. This contradiction can be resolved by understanding these words in v.1 not as Paul's words but as what the Corinthians had written to him about this matter. Then, in v.2 and following, Paul gives his own very different view of the matter. For, as most commentators agree, in this letter Paul several times (e.g. 6:12 twice, 8:1,4, 10:23 twice) quotes the Corinthians' letter and then continues with his own rather different position. And it seems best, to me and to Fee, to take 7:1 as another such quotation.

But I don't see why the NIV translators chose their main reading rather than the one in the footnote:
Now for the matters you wrote about: "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman."
The second half of the verse is put in quotation marks, following a colon, to indicate that these are the Corinthians' words. And I consider this to be the correct understanding. I note that the NIV translation team now agrees with me, for the recent TNIV is now exactly like the NIV marginal reading. And other recent translation teams agree: the ESV and NET Bible renderings are almost identical to TNIV. Presumably this is one place where those who attack TNIV and promote ESV will not claim that TNIV is a corruption of NIV.

So, by all means let us teach that marriage is not always a good thing, as in v.38, and that men and women who are not married should be careful about touching one another, which is good practical advice. But let us avoid using 1 Corinthians 7:1 as the basis for such teaching, but instead see it as an expression of an ascetic position which Paul quotes, before rejecting it and upholding the importance of proper sexual relations within marriage.

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At Fri Jul 22, 06:54:00 PM, Anonymous Suz said...

Hi Peter,

This is becoming one of my favourite blogs.

Suzanne McCarthy

At Fri Jul 22, 09:19:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Mine, too, Suzanne! :-)

For you it must be nice that there are a couple of blog contributors here now who know how to spell "favourite," eh?!

At Sat Jul 23, 12:12:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No, I actually don't even notice things like that.

Its much more important to know what a zamboni is. ;-)

At Sat Jul 23, 05:25:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thanks, Suzanne. It seems we have more in common, such as favourites and zeds, than you have with Wayne who lives just across the border from Canada. And at least I have now learned what a zamboni is!

At Sat Jul 23, 07:26:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Oh, yes, Suzanne, we know about zambonis down here! They are used to help smooth the ice for a game that's played mostly with Canadian players. (BTW, I use "eh" naturally in my ideolect, but then some people think I'm from Canada. Actually, I'm from Alaska, but some don't know that Alaska is not part of Canada.)

At Wed Jul 27, 02:36:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Wayne and Peter,

Hope you are having a good time in Canada, Wayne. I am out of Vancouver but will make time to read all those good posts when I get back.



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