Posted by: mattcolvin | February 20, 2008

1 Corinthians 7:15 and Serendipity in the Greek 3 Class

(Reposted from my old Upsaid blog.)

One of my Greek III students, Annelise B., surprised me with a translation I had never heard before. On further reflection, I decided that she was right and all the major translations (NIV, ESV, NKJV, etc.) are wrong. Her translation fits well with my preferred interpretation of 1 Cor. 7, which is that of David Daube.

In what follows, I’ll explain what her translation was, and why I like it.

First, the background, from an old post on this blog:
[Daube’s view] makes sense of one of the most difficult passages of the Bible: 1 Cor. 7. First, the difficult verse, 7:14 — “the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife and the unbelieving wife is sanctified in the brother [sc. believing husband]” — is cleared up in an elegant way. Remarks Daube, “New Testament scholars have enormous difficulty infusing a measure of meaning into [ἡγίασται in 7:14]. The various conjectures often then become bases for more general theories about Paul’s concept of holiness. All this must be jettisoned.”

Daube explains that the Mishnah tractate on marriage is entitled “qiddushin” — “consecrations” or “sanctifications”, and that this is the ordinary way that the Rabbis conceived of marriage: “to consecrate a woman to wife” is to make her holy, special and proper, to one’s self, even as Israel is — as Steve Schlissel likes to put it — Mrs. YHWH. The verb qiddesh means “to consecrate to wife.” We thus no longer have to wonder what sort of “sanctification” is meant.
For Daube, then, 1 Cor. 7:14 is to be translated as, “the unbelieving husband is sanctified in [=is married to] the wife, and the unbelieving wife in [to] the brother [sc. believing husband]. But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart.”

Annelise, being already familiar with this rendering, continued on to 7:15b, which reads in Greek:
οὐ δεδούλωται ὁ ἀδελφὸς ἢ ἡ ἀδελφὴ ἐν τοῖς τοιούτοις…
Now, you are probably familiar with such renderings as “a believing man or woman is not bound in such circumstances” (NIV) or “the brother or the sister is not under bondage in such cases” (KJV, NASB, ESV and NKJV). But Annelise, whether because she didn’t remember these English translations, or because she had an idea of her own that she wanted to try, rendered it this way:
“The brother or sister is not bound to such persons.”
I believe she is correct. There are several factors that commend her reading.

First, she interprets δεδούλωται to mean “bound in marriage to someone.” There is very good reason for thinking this, since it is in the perfect tense, and thus parallel with the twice-repeated ἡγίασται in 7:14. That verb was rendered as “has been consecrated/sanctified”, with the result that one is now “married.” That is, it refers to the action in the past by which the present state of valid marriage was produced: namely, the decision to continue living with one’s pre-conversion spouse. By contrast, οὐ δεδούλωται in 7:15 would similarly refer to the past action that has resulted in the present state of freedom to depart: namely, the refusal of the unbeliever to continue the marriage, evinced by his separation, so that the believer “has not been bound” by such cohabitation, and is thus not married.

Second, Annelise takes ἐν τοιούτοις as an inclusive masculine, not as a neuter: the believer is not bound “to or by such persons”, not “in such circumstances.” I cannot recall the use of the neuter substantive τοιαυτα in the dative to mean “such circumstances” or “such cases” in any other Greek literature. By contrast, Annelise’s reading of the word as a masculine substantive is paralleled several times within 1 Corinthians itself: “such persons” (τοιούτοι) will have affliction in the flesh (7:28); the church is to hand “such a person” (τοιούτον) over to Satan (5:5). As for its being dative, there is now an immediate parallel with “ἡγιάσται ἐν τῷ ἀδελφῷ” (“sanctified in the brother) in the preceding verse (7:14). In both instances, ἐν + dative.

Daube’s rendering of ἡγίασται rendered otiose centuries of tortured attempts to figure out how an unbelieving person can experience sanctification just by being married to a believer. Annelise’s rendering of δεδούλωται eliminates similar problems that have beset all attempts to understand Paul’s marriage and divorce halakhah. For instance: on the reading of the KJV and succeeding English versions, we are left wondering why the believer is “not bound in such circumstances”. The mere departure of one’s spouse does not, after all, dissolve a marriage. Hence the medieval privilegium Paulinum whereby abandonment, normally not grounds for divorce, becomes grounds when the departing spouse is an unbeliever. Such a halakhah is unprecedented. But on Annelise’s reading, the verse is merely stating the fact that the believer has not been bound to the unbeliever who departs. Since the original marriage was destroyed by the conversion of the now-believing spouse, and the unbelieving spouse departed, there has been no cohabitation to effect a new bond. Hence, the perfect tense is precisely what Paul wants: there has been no past action, and so there is no present state.

I am grateful to Annelise for this reading. I still vividly recall when I was in a similar situation with my teacher Dr. James Lesher in 1996. Without knowing the tortured scholarship on a particular fragment of Heraclitus, I translated it in a new way, and he, for his part, was persuaded. It got me a footnote in his next article, and launched me, for better or worse, on a career as a scholar. I regret that I’m not in a position to give Annelise more than this mention in a blog post.


  1. […] An interesting reading of 1 Corinthians 7:15 […]

  2. […] _____________________________________ [1] Douglas Wilson, Children As Saints. [2] Matthew Colvin, Sanctified by the Believer”? 1 Corinthians 7. This is reproduced in full below for those interested, and for my own reference just in case his blog goes offline some day. [3] Matthew Colvin, 1 Corinthians 7:15 and Serendipity in the Greek 3 Class. […]

  3. […] You can read my old entry about David Daube’s brilliant interpretation of 1 Corinthians 7 here. It clears up all the old, intractable puzzles that have bedeviled Christian interpreters over the centuries. It solves them by appeal to Jewish background. It makes better sense of the Greek, and results in satisfying “aftershocks” as other odd locutions suddenly make sense. […]

  4. […] past about David Daube’s slicing of the Gordian knot that is 1 Corinthians 7. (See here and here for the old […]

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