Better Bibles Blog has moved. Read our last post, below, and then
click here if you are not redirected to our new location within 60 seconds.
Please Bookmark our new location and update blogrolls.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Whose virgin is she? (1 Cor. 7:36)

A blog visitor asks by email:
Hi Wayne,

I hope you can shed some light on this for me. I was recently in a discussion with someone who stated that they would never use the NASB95 due to the way it has mishandled certain verses. I asked for an example and he provided the following for me:

1 Cor. 7:36 - 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 ...

They two key things here are: 1). the insertion of the word "daughter"
and 2). the inference of condoning an incest relationship. I have to
admit that I have never paid too much attention to this verse prior to
this time and I have to say that I have never read it from the NASB95
before. It does appear to be condoning a sinful relationship.

Do you have any idea why the NASB translators would have inserted the
word "daughter" when it doesn't appear in the greek? After reviewing
this verse in many different translations, both old and new, I see a
difference in the way many translate this verse. Some say virgin and
some say betrothed or fiance. This raises the question, is this verse
referring to a man's virgin daughter or to a man's [virgin] fiance? Is
the "he" the father or the betrothed?

Any help you might provide me would be appreciated.

God bless,
M---
Then there was a follwup message which, in essence, answered the question, if one realizes that the other more formal versions (other than the NASB) are literally translating the Greek. Here is the followup email:
Wayne,

As a follow up I realize that by further reading in the NASB95 that it is referring to the "he" as the father and the virgin as the daughter. What is confusing is how it is translated in other translations:

NLT: 36 But if a man thinks he ought to marry his fiance because he has trouble controlling his passions and time is passing, it is all right; it is not a sin. Let them marry. 37 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. 38 So the person who marries does well, and the person who doesn't marry does even better.

NRSV: 36 If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his fiancee, F37 if his passions are strong, and so it has to be, let him marry as he wishes; it is no sin. Let them marry. 37 But if someone stands firm in his resolve, being under no necessity but having his own desire under control, and has determined in his own mind to keep her as his fiancee, F38 he will do well. 38 So then, he who marries his fiancee F39 does well; and he who refrains from marriage will do better

ESV: 36 If anyone thinks that he is not behaving properly toward his betrothed, if his passions are strong, and it has to be, let him do as he wishes: let them marry it is no sin. 37 But whoever is firmly established in his heart, being under no necessity but having his desire under control, and has determined this in his heart, to keep her as his betrothed, he will do well. 38 So then he who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better.

Compared to:

NKJV: 36 But if any man thinks he is behaving improperly toward his virgin, if she is past the flower of youth, and thus it must be, let him do what he wishes. He does not sin; let them marry. 37 Nevertheless he who stands steadfast in his heart, having no necessity, but has power over his own will, and has so determined in his heart that he will keep his virgin, F18 does well. 38 So then he who gives her F19 in marriage does well, but he who does not give her in marriage does better.

HCSB: 36 But if any man thinks he is acting improperly toward his virgin, if she is past marriageable age, and so it must be, he can do what he wants. He is not sinning; they can get married. 37 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 his own virgin, will do well. 38 So then he who marries his virgin does well, but he who does not marry will do better.

NASB: 36 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 F84 marry. 37 But he who stands firm in his heart, being F85 under no constraint, but has authority over F86 his own will, and has decided this in his own heart, to keep his own virgin daughter, he will do well. 38 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.

Thanks,
M---
The problem is that the Greek is unclear, and so English translators are not sure how to translate this verse. The Greek, terein ten heautou parthenon, is literally translated as 'to keep his own virgin.' But we cannot tell from the context whose virgin it is. It could be the father of the virgin which is the exegetical choice the NASB translators have made. The father could prevent his virgin daughter from marrying. (Oh, yes, as you mentioned, there is the possibility of someone getting the idea of an incestuous relationship between father and daughter from the NASB wording. I'm sure that possible meaning never crossed the minds of the NASB translators. This shows, once again, IMO, how very important it is for translators to have their translations tested and checked by people who have not worked on the translation and who are alert to problems with the wordings, such as unintended meanings.)

The other exegetical option is that the man referred to could be the man who wants to marry that virgin, which is the choice the NLT, NRSV, and ESV translators have made. We simply don't know for sure. Because of this, some English translation teams (e.g. NKJV, HCSB) have chosen to leave it unspecified in the translation who is the man who is relating to the virgin.

This brings us back to the topic of ambiguity which we blogged on a few days ago. I have little doubt that it was clear in Paul's mind who he was referring to in this passage, which would be either the father of the daughter or the man who wanted to marry her. But Paul wrote in such a way that we cannot tell what his intended meaning was. There was no intended ambiguity. But there is referential ambiguity for us, the readers, of what Paul wrote. We don't know which of the two possible referents (the one who "keeps" the virgin) Paul intended.

This is one of those biblical passages (there are a number of others) where we need to be charitable toward one another with our different understandings of the text. Each of the translation teams which made a choice made a reasonable choice. Better Bibles will include a footnote that states that it is not clear whose virgin the woman is and what are the possible options. This is where the extensive translation footnotes of the NET Bible often help. For verse 36, the NET footnote reads:
Grk “virgin,” either a fiancée, a daughter, or the ward of a guardian. For discussion see the note at the end of v. 38.
It points us to the footnote for verse 38 which reads:
1 Cor 7:36-38. There are two common approaches to understanding the situation addressed in these verses. One view involves a father or male guardian deciding whether to give his daughter or female ward in marriage (cf. NASB, NIV margin). The evidence for this view is: (1) the phrase in v. 37 (Grk) “to keep his own virgin” fits this view well (“keep his own virgin [in his household]” rather than give her in marriage), but it does not fit the second view (there is little warrant for adding “her” in the way the second view translates it: “to keep her as a virgin”). (2) The verb used twice in v. 38 (gamivzw, gamizw) normally means “to give in marriage” not “to get married.” The latter is usually expressed by gamevw (gamew), as in v. 36b. (3) The father deciding what is best regarding his daughter’s marriage reflects the more likely cultural situation in ancient Corinth, though it does not fit modern Western customs. While Paul gives his advice in such a situation, he does not command that marriages be arranged in this way universally. If this view is taken, the translation will read as follows: “7:36 If anyone thinks he is acting inappropriately toward his unmarried daughter, if she is past the bloom of youth and it seems necessary, he should do what he wishes; he does not sin. Let them marry. 7:37 But the man who is firm in his commitment, and is under no necessity but has control over his will, and has decided in his own mind to keep his daughter unmarried, does well. 7:38 So then the one who gives his daughter in marriage does well, but the one who does not give her does better.” The other view is taken by NRSV, NIV text, NJB, REB: a single man deciding whether to marry the woman to whom he is engaged. The evidence for this view is: (1) it seems odd to use the word “virgin” (vv. 36, 37, 38) if “daughter” or “ward” is intended. (2) The other view requires some difficult shifting of subjects in v. 36, whereas this view manages a more consistent subject for the various verbs used. (3) The phrases in these verses are used consistently elsewhere in this chapter to describe considerations appropriate to the engaged couple themselves (cf. vv. 9, 28, 39). It seems odd not to change the phrasing in speaking about a father or guardian. If this second view is taken, the translation will read as follows: “7:36 If anyone thinks he is acting inappropriately toward his fiancée, if his passions are too strong and it seems necessary, he should do what he wishes; he does not sin. Let them marry. 7:37 But the man who is firm in his commitment, and is under no necessity but has control over his will, and has decided in his own mind to keep her as his fiancée, does well. 7:38 So then, the one who marries his fiancée does well, but the one who does not marry her does better.”
Some people want absolute certainty about what each verse in the Bible means. Some people want to use a Bible version which they feel gives the correct translation for each verse. But we cannot have such certainties about every verse in the Bible. The biblical language texts are not always clear enough for us to know for sure what the biblical author's intended meaning was. We must be content not to know some things for sure in this life. Personally, I think God wants to draw us to himself through life's uncertainties. We can trust, I believe, that he is certain, that he knows total truth. If we try to find total truth anywhere other than in him (including in Bible translations which were done by teams who did their very best, but which cannot humanly know how to translate everything with certainty), we are going to be disappointed. But if we allow lack of certainty about some things, including things in the Bible, to draw us toward the One who knows far more than we do, we will find contentment in knowing enough of what we need to know in this life.

Categories: ,

2 Comments:

At Thu Sep 08, 11:39:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Wayne, here I agree with you though in general about ambiguity, we differ on where to place the burden of evidence, and how heavy a burden it should be ;).

There is not a hint here that the writer intends ambiguity. Indeed the genre, topic and cotext suggest that none is intended. It can often be a different matter. In e.g. a prophetic text, where the genre (includes frequent wordplay and often multiple allusion), other features sometimes suggest intended ambiguity (or even just, ambiguity tolerated) by the author. Your test of demonstrable intent cannot be required, the test must be balance of probabilities. And here that balance is well tipped against ambiguity!

 
At Thu Sep 08, 05:37:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Tim, I suspect our viewpoints on biblical ambiguity aren't really too far apart. I recognize, as I have stated and you have, that there are biblical genres which attract more intended ambiguity on the part of the authors. I heard an interesting presentation once by someone from one of the Bible societies, telling about a word play in one of the minor prophets and wondering how that original feature might be translated. Word play, as you have pointed out, and I did in my earlier post, is a good example of intended ambiguity.

 

Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home