In a previous article on the apostolic origins of celibacy, I wrote:
Among the Apostles, only Saint Peter is known to have been married because his mother-in-law is mentioned in the Gospels. Some of the others might have been married but there is a clear indication that they left everything, including their families, to follow Christ.1
A reader disagreed, saying that all I needed to do was to check a passage of Saint Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (9:5) to find that all the Apostles were married, Saint Paul inclusive. For the sake of truth, I was requested to correct the article. It so happens that the truth demands that I reaffirm what I wrote.
According to the translation sent by the reader, Saint Paul wrote: “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?”
This translation, taken from the Protestant New International Version of the Bible, appears to leave no doubt that “the other apostles,” including “Cephas” (i.e., Saint Peter), were married. The King James version provides a somewhat different translation: “Have we not power to lead about a sister, a wife, as well as other apostles, and as the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?”
The classical Catholic translation of the Bible into English, commonly referred to as the Douay-Rheims version, gives us a text that excludes the interpretation that all the Apostles, Saint Paul inclusive, were married: “Have we not power to carry about a woman, a sister, as well as the rest of the apostles, and the brethren of the Lord, and Cephas?”
An objection could be raised that the Douay-Rheims version does not translate the text directly from the Greek but from a Latin version known as the Vulgate. This Latin text reads mulierem sororem or “a woman sister.” A return to the original Greek should dispel any discrepancies in this regard.
The Real Meaning of Adelphên Gunaika
What are the Greek words which have been translated as “believing wife,” “a sister, a wife,” or “a woman, a sister”? The key words (transliterated into Latin characters) are: adelphên gunaika.
Gunaika (the accusative or objective form of gunê) can mean both “a woman” and “a wife.” This happens, incidentally, in Romance languages like French, Spanish, and Portuguese, in which femme, mujer, and mulher, respectively, can have both meanings.
To avoid any ambiguity as to the meaning, Saint Paul qualified the word gunaika with the word adelphên (the objective form of adelphê), which means “a sister,” thus making a composite expression translating literally into “a sister woman.”
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To understand the meaning of the expression “sister woman,” some historical background is needed. Among the Jews, it was the custom for pious ladies to follow their spiritual masters to aid them in their domestic needs. The Gospels record the fact that pious women followed the Divine Master and served Him. In Saint Matthew’s Gospel, one reads:
And there were there many women afar off, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto Him; among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee (27:55-56).2
Likewise, Saint Luke writes:
And it came to pass afterwards, that He traveled through the cities and towns, preaching and evangelizing the kingdom of God; and the twelve with Him. And certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities: Mary who is called Magdalene, out of whom seven devils were gone forth, and Joanna the wife of Chusa, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who ministered unto Him of their substance (8:1-3).
The Greek word employed by both Saint Matthew and Saint Luke referring to these pious women who followed and served Our Lord is the same word used by Saint Paul: gunaikes.3 None of the exegetes thought of translating the expression as “wives.”
The Apostle of the Gentiles
Returning to Saint Paul, the context of the Epistle to the Corinthians does not warrant any conclusion that the Apostle was claiming some right to take a wife with him since a little earlier (7:7-8), he had made clear that he was not married and had no intention to marry. He preferred perfect chastity to the married state which he, nonetheless, held in high esteem. In that passage, addressing both the single and widowed, he writes:
For I would that all men were even as myself: but every one hath his proper gift from God; one after this manner, and another after that. But I say to the unmarried, and to the widows: It is good for them if they so continue, even as I.
In his Theology of Saint Paul, Fr. Fernand Prat, S.J., states:
If there is one thing certain, it is that the Apostle lived in celibacy, for the discordant voice of Clement of Alexandria only accentuates the harmony of Catholic tradition in this respect. That he considered virginity as more excellent than marriage it is impossible to doubt, and the efforts of some heterodox writers to escape this annoying testimony have ended in putting it in the clearest light.4
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In a more recent study analyzing the Fathers and other ecclesiastical writers, Fr. Christian Cochini, S.J., also affirms that most of these attest to Saint Paul’s state of celibacy concluding, “The largest group rejects the idea of marriage for the apostle and affirms that Paul was single before believing in Christ and remained so.”5
He further extends this belief when writing about Saint John:
Jesus’ special love for the apostle John is frequently attested in the Gospels and other texts of the New Testament. Tradition was unanimous in crediting this preference on the part of the Lord to his beloved apostle’s state of perpetual virginity.6
Translating a Protestant Agenda
Protestant reformers began to question the validity of the Latin Vulgate about this text of Saint Paul because they opposed priestly celibacy. Theodore de Beze (1519-1605), a Calvinist leader, was one of the first to replace the translation of adelphên gunaika with “sister wife.” This translation was refuted by, among others, the scholarly Catholic Scripture commentator Cornelius á Lapide (1567-1637) from the standpoint of philology as well as from a scriptural and patristic context.7
One is therefore perplexed to see such mistranslations reappear — even in versions approved by Catholic sources. This can be seen in the translation of the passage of Saint Paul in the New American Bible, which is sponsored by the Bishop’s Committee of the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In its 1970 edition, we read: “Do we not have the right to marry a believing woman like the rest of the apostles and the brothers of the Lord and Cephas?”
This translation is totally contrary to Catholic exegetic tradition and appears to have been tailored to favor campaigns for the abolition of priestly celibacy carried out by associations of married ex-priests.
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The 1991 edition of the same Bible on the web site of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops avoids the verb “to marry,” but the sense of the Protestant mistranslation favoring an end to priestly celibacy remains: “Do we not have the right to take along a Christian wife, as do the rest of the apostles, and the brothers of the Lord, and Kephas?”
As I wrote in the previous article, even if several Apostles had been previously married — and the only inkling found in the Scriptures relates to Saint Peter — it is certain that all of them, including the Prince of the Apostles, lived in perfect chastity after the divine calling.
Thus, in the Gospels, one reads that Saint Peter asked Our Lord:
What about us? We left all we had to follow you. The Divine Master answered: “I tell you solemnly, there is no one who has left house, wife, brothers, parents, or children for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not be given repayment many times over in this present time and, in the world to come, eternal life (Luke 18:28-30; cf. Matt. 19:27-30, Mark 10:20-21).
A Firm Apostolic Tradition
Rather than repeat all the arguments of the previous article, I will conclude with the words with which Father Cochini closed his accurate study of more than 400 pages, solidly establishing the Apostolic tradition on this matter:
Let us conclude that the obligation demanded from married deacons, priests, and bishops to observe perfect continence with their wives is not, in the Church, the fruit of a belated development, but on the contrary, in the full meaning of the term, an unwritten tradition of apostolic origin that, so far as we know, found its first canonical expression in the 4th century.
“Ut quod apostoli docuerunt, et ipsa servavit antiquitas, nos quoque custodiamus” — “What the apostles taught, and what antiquity itself observed, let us endeavor also to keep.” The affirmation of the Fathers of [the Council of] Carthage  will remain an essential link with the origins.
May it help the Churches of the East and of the West, who are both referring to it, achieve a stronger awareness of their common inheritance.8
- Tracing the Glorious Origins of Celibacy at https://tfp.org/tfp-home/tfp-recommends-books/tracing-the-glorious-origins-of-priestly-celibacy.html.
- All subsequent passages are quoted from the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible. The emphasis throughout is our own.
- Cf. www.awmach.org/library/parallel.htm
- Westminster, Md.: The Newmann Bookshop, 1952, Vol. I, p. 107.
- Christian Cochini, S.J., Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1990), p. 77.
- Ibid., p. 68.
- Cornelius á Lapide, Commentaria in Scripturam Sacram (Paris: Vives, 1863), Vol. 18, pp. 328-329.
- Cochini, p. 439.