Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

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Monday, April 12, 2010

Prayer and Fasting (1 Cor 7:5)

The other day I spoke briefly about textual criticism and why the Greek texts behind the King James Version (and the NKJV) and all modern translations are different. Here is an example of how that works out.

In 1 Cor 7:5 Paul is discussing the issue of sexual intimacy in marriage. He says, “Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control” (ESV).

The KJV reads, “that ye may give yourselves to fasting and prayer.” So is fasting a legitimate reason to withhold sexual intimacy, and what did Paul actually say?

If you are comfortable with Greek, you probably already know how to research this question. You go to the Greek footnotes and see that νηστεια και τη are included by the second corrector of Aleph, the Majority Text (which is the basis of the KJV), and the Syriac translation. It is omitted by the original writer of Aleph and most everyone else. (I can’t find my UBS Greek text — must be at the office. It probably has more manuscript information.)

Because it is not present in the original version of Aleph (the Greek manuscript called Sinaiticus, 4th - 6th century), and not added in until the 7th century (second corrector), on this basis alone most textual critics today would omit “fasting and.” Aleph is seen as the best and most authentic Greek manuscript we have, and its readings are almost always accepted.

What seals the deal is that Matt 17:21 and Mark 9:29 show the same pattern of scribes adding in reference to fasting along with prayer.

It is interesting to me that the two main commentaries I use on 1 Corinthians, Fee and Thiselton, do not even discuss the variant reading. Apparently, it was so clearly added to the text that it does not bear comment.

Proponents of the superiority of the Majority Text would say that Sinaiticus dropped out the references, but I do not know the reason they would give for this.

Apparently the early church was serious about concerted times of prayer, times when normal and good activities would be set aside so the people could focus on prayer. I wonder what would happen today in most churches if the pastors called for sexual abstinence so that husbands and wives could concentrate on prayer for, let’s say, God revealing sin in their hearts, or training their hearts to hurt for the things that hurt God’s heart such as the plight of widows and orphans, for reassessing our priorities, or perhaps just times of extended prayer in worship and adoration of our beautiful God?