Re: AGAMOS in 1 Cor. 7

From: David L. Moore (
Date: Sat Oct 04 1997 - 23:36:41 EDT

Ward Powers <> wrote:

>On October 2 David Moore wrote:
>> I'm wondering about AGAMOS in 1 Cor. 7; in v. 11 it refers to a woman
>>separated from her husband, in V. 34, it is paired with PARQENOS but
>>apparently not as a full synonymn (cf. v. 28). In v. 8 f. similar counsel
>>is given to the AGAMOIS and widows that if they find it difficult to remain
>>sexually continent, they should marry.
>> One might infer there is an implication in Paul's use of the word
>>AGAMOS of having been married but presently being in an unmarried state.
>>The citations above from 1 Cor. 7 suggest it.
>In the NT, the word AGAMOS occurs only four times, all of these occurrences
>found in 1 Corinthians 7 (verses 8, 11, 32, and 34).
>To pick up on some of the on-list discussion so far: AGAMOS means
>(literally) "not in a marriage".

        There is a certain degree of danger in taking the meaning of a word
from its etymology. Sometimes this gives a correct interpretation, but
sometimes it does not. We know that AGAMOS can be used in reference a
person who has never been married because of the usages we find in Classical
literature and as late as the 1st century in Plutarch. We know it can also
refer to a previously married person from at least one instance in the
papyri (Moulton & Milligan, s.v. AGAMOS) and at least one instance in Paul
(1Cor. 7:11). The question remains as to what is the word's meaning in the
other three instances in 1Cor.

>It is clear that Paul uses AGAMOS in
>reference to a person who has previously been married and whose
>relationship has terminated. 1 Cor 7:11: "But if she does [separate from
>her husband], let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her
>husband." That is, this marriage has broken up, and thus and therefore the
>woman is now unmarried.
>Another way in which a person would become unmarried is through the death
>of one's partner.
>Upon what I have said so far it would seem to me that there cannot really
>be any serious dispute. (Please say if I am mistaken in thinking this.)
>The issue raised is: What is the meaning of AGAMOS in 1 Cor 7:8? The
>question of its use in 1 Cor 7:32 and 34 was also raised, by implication.
>Does the word refer ONLY to those who are unmarried because they have never
>married, or ONLY to those whose marriage has come to an end, or BOTH?
>The first of these three possibilities is ruled out by the use of AGAMOS in
>7:8, where (as we have seen) it refers to a previously-married woman. The
>other two possibilities remain.

        We must be careful not to automatically assume that the word is
necessarily used in the same sense in all four instances.

>1 Cor 7:32 is open - the context does not guide us one way or the other.
>1 Cor 7:34 refers to the GUNH who is AGAMOS (with adjective AGAMOS in the
>attributive post position, delimiting GUNH), and then to the PARQENOS.
>Bearing in mind the culture of the day, the early age for (female)
>marriage, even earlier betrothal, and the protection of an unmarried woman
>from any premarital sexual encounter, PARQENOS is referring to a woman who
>is unmarried because of never having married. And hH GUNH hH AGAMOS is
>referring to a woman who is not at present in a marriage relationship, and
>by implication is unmarried because a previous marriage has come to an end.
>Thus between them these two expressions cover the whole range of women who
>could be unmarried.
>We should note: if hH GUNH hH AGAMOS (in Paul's usage) covered in itself
>the whole range of unmarried women, the hH PARQENOS would be pointless. And
>further, hH PARQENOS cannot be referring to the same person (or type of
>person) as hH GUNH hH AGAMOS, that is, referring to a woman who is both
>unmarried and a virgin, as if he is excluding the case of a woman who has
>never been married but is not a virgin. As explained above, this category
>was excluded by the culture of the day. So hH GUNH hH AGAMOS as referring
>to the same person as hH PARQENOS is ruled out. In this connection we
>should also note that in the Greek, hH GUNH is the standard word for
>"wife", so that it and PARQENOS refer to mutually exclusive categories.
>In assessing the meaning of AGAMOS in 1 Cor 7:8 we note that Paul's use of
>this word in the rest of the chapter creates the a priori expectation that
>he is using it in this verse also in the same way, that is, as referring to
>those who have been previously married. In further support of this:
>1. Paul links TOIS AGAMOIS with the category "widows", who are people who
>have been previously married, and addresses his comments to both. I take it
>that "widows" is a sub-group of hOI AGAMOI, of whom he makes special
>mention. (An exact parallel structure is Mark 16:7, "But go, tell his
>disciples and Peter", when Peter is one of his disciples.)
>2. Paul uses himself as a model for what he is saying: "It is good for them
>to remain as I do." All the evidence is that Paul had been married but was
>so no longer - there is no evidence of any kind in support of the idea that
>he never married. His comment therefore presumes he is addressing those who
>(like him) had previously been married. That is, he is addressing those who
>had been widowed and divorced.
>3. Paul recognizes that within this group there are those who are having
>trouble practising self control (verse 9). This is likely to be a greater
>problem for those who have previously had an ongoing sex life than for
>4. His instruction here is that it is better for such people (that is,
>those who find that they are without the gift of continence) to marry than
>to be aflame with passion, and that therefore they MUST marry. This links
>snugly with his similar comment in 1 Cor 7:27-28 that those who are
>divorced should not remarry (during "the present crisis", verse 26), but
>that if such a person does remarry, then (addressing them), "you have not
>AGAMOS in verse 8 MAY be wide enough to include the "never married" within
>its scope, but I cannot see any evidence in support of this.
>So then: 1 Cor 7:8-9 is addressed to divorcees and the widowed, and tells
>them initially that they should remain as he does (i.e., without
>remarrying). If they do initially comply with this and then find that they
>do not have the gift of continence, he tells them that in those
>circumstances "they MUST marry" (the usual translation "should marry"
>sounds like there is a subjunctive in the Greek, but it is in fact an
>imperative). And again in 7:27-28 after initially counselling divorcees
>against remarriage in the "present crisis", he says explicitly that if such
>a person does marry, it is not a sin to do so.
>If this is really what Paul is saying, does that mean that we who are
>pastors and clergy need to do a rethink about our attitude to the
>remarriage of divorcees?

        I generally agree with what Ward has presented relative to the
meaning of AGAMOS except as noted above and in a few other minor matters.
But I would urge caution. There are several factors that point in the
direction he has taken the interpretation, but they seem to me to be
somewhat less than conclusive. I believe we need more data and more light
on the general context of this chapter before we recommend that people take
momentous steps in their personal lives on the basis of this line of

David L. Moore
Miami, Florida, USA
Southeastern Spanish District of the A/G Dept. of Education
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