Was the apostle Paul married or single?

Q. Was the apostle Paul married or single?

In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul makes it very clear that he is single. He writes, “Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I do.” (Paul’s specific point is that being single provides the advantages of freedom and flexibility for Christian service. However, he recognizes that whether to stay single or get married is a matter of following God’s calling: “Each of you has your own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that.” So while Paul praises the advantages of singleness for his type of ministry, he also sees marriage as a gift from God.)

So why do people sometimes say that Paul was married? For one thing, it’s held that Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, and (the argument goes) a man had to be married in order to be on the Sanhedrin. William Barclay writes in his commentary on the Corinthian letters, for example, “It was a requirement that members of the Sanhedrin must be married men, because it was held that married men were more merciful.”

I find the first half of this argument convincing, that is, that Paul belonged to the Sanhedrin. During one of his trials in Acts, Paul recounts, “On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the Lord’s people in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them.” So Paul was part of some decision-making body, and since it was one that had the power to enforce a death penalty, it was most likely the Sanhedrin.

However, I find the second half of the argument unconvincing. The statement that Sanhedrin members should be married men, because they are more merciful, comes from the Gemara, the commentary on the Mishnah that makes up the second half of the Talmud. It comes from many centuries after Paul lived. The Mishnah itself dates in its written form to about A.D. 200. It is a collection of teachings about the Torah passed down orally from rabbis who lived in the Second Temple period (through A.D. 70), and it makes no reference to a marriage requirement for Sanhedrin membership. It makes more sense to accept Paul’s first-person testimony, in his own letter to the Corinthians, that he was single than it does to assume that he had to be married if he belonged to the Sanhedrin based on requirements that seem only to have been adopted many centuries later.

Another argument that’s sometimes made for Paul being married is his question, also found in 1 Corinthians, “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” The argument goes like this: Why would Paul insist that he had the right to bring a believing wife along with him if he didn’t even have a wife?

However, since Paul has just said, only a little earlier in this same letter, that he is single, it makes sense to understand him to mean that this is one of the many rights that apostles have (he lists several more); he is actually on his way to saying that he hasn’t used any such rights so that he can bring the gospel to the Corinthians free of charge. In other words, he’s most likely saying, “As an apostle, not only do I have the right to depend on you for my food and drink and for my support, if I had a wife, I’d have the right to bring her along—also at your expense. But I have not made use of any of the rights of an apostle.”

So I feel that we can conclude quite confidently that Paul was not married. He saw his singleness as something that permitted him to have a ministry that required much travel and involved much personal risk. Just as he recognized marriage to be a gift from God, he also saw singleness as a gift. “One has this gift, another has that.

Author: Christopher R Smith

The Rev. Dr. Christopher R. Smith is an an ordained minister, a writer, and a biblical scholar. He was active in parish and student ministry for twenty-five years. He was a consulting editor to the International Bible Society (now Biblica) for The Books of the Bible, an edition of the New International Version (NIV) that presents the biblical books according to their natural literary outlines, without chapters and verses. His Understanding the Books of the Bible study guide series is keyed to this format. He was also a consultant to Tyndale House for the Immerse Bible, an edition of the New Living Translation (NLT) that similarly presents the Scriptures in their natural literary forms, without chapters and verses or section headings. He has a B.A. from Harvard in English and American Literature and Language, a Master of Arts in Theological Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and a Ph.D. in the History of Christian Life and Thought, with a minor concentration in Bible, from Boston College, in the joint program with Andover Newton Theological School.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.