Greek —— and Women

Today’s post is be a friend of mine, Bobby Vallentine.  It is an excellent article on translation of 2000 year old Greek into modern English, especially where gender is concerned. It will challenge your thinking if you think that everything is black and white when it comes to translating scripture.



Much controversy has been aroused recently by those troublesome women. What a nicer world it would be without all those Eves!! I kid of course but we all know that women have been the center of controversy in some quarters of Churches of Christ these days. I have participated in that to some degree. For some the matter is simply “case closed.” Nothing on earth could change their mind. It is claimed, as I was reminded just yesterday, that the Bible is “stunningly clear” on this issue and “you have to be rebellious or stupid to not see the plain teaching of Paul.” The comment, directed to me, caught me off guard. I do not think I am either stupid nor rebellious and desire nothing more than to serve God whatever the cost.

In my conversation, I pointed out that in the history of interpretation, passages such a 1 Cor 11, 1 Cor 14 and 1 Tim 2, have all been rather controversial, even among those who ended up with the view of this brother. The texts were not and have not been regarded as either “simple” or “plain” but rather complex and often hard to fit with the rest of Scripture. A great deal of ink in the history of the church has been expended “explaining” one way or another what Paul means in these texts. It is in fact quite arrogant to simply declare that these texts are “plain” and “straight forward.” Briefly I want to bring up just the matter of translation … an enterprise traditionally done exclusively by MEN.

When those who declare that the texts are “stunningly clear” they betray their ignorance of the issues. Translation is a very difficult process and those that think they can go to Strong’s Concordance and then pontificate on what the meaning of verse is, well it is bold to say the least. In the original Greek manuscripts there is no punctuation, no word divisions, no verse numbers, no chapter divisions. All of these things we take for granted were added centuries and in some cases millennia after the first century AD. Word division and grammar can, and does, change the meaning of a sentence. Words sometimes have genuinely contested meanings. After all we are talking about a dead language and words 2000 years old. One of the issues is how to translate (the question of translation depends on the meaning of the Greek) First Corinthians 11.3. Here the word “kephale” and “aner” are at issue. kephale is a hotly debated word. There is a massive difference between “the man is the ruler of the woman” and “the husband is the source of the wife.” aner can mean either man or husband. The ink that has been spilled on kephale fills a library. The word has BOTH meanings and how should it be translated? To pointificate that it is “stunningly plain” is absurd. And it is clear that “aner” means “husband” in this context and not simply men in general. The NRSV gets that part correct.

Further in this same chapter we come to 1 Corinthians 11.10 where the NIV reads “the woman ought to have a SIGN OF authority on her head.” In fact most English translations have something quite similar. But the Greek text does not even have the word “sign” in the text! Paul says “the wife ought to have exousian on her head.” She ought to have AUTHORITY on her head. The old Calvinists of the Geneva Bible were not feminists when they translated 1 Cor 11.10 as “Therefore oght ye women to have POWER on her head.” That sounds very different doesn’t it? Where does this interpretive gloss come from that says a woman must have a sign of authority on her head? Paul said only that she should have power or authority on her head. Big difference.

Again down in v.16 we read “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice – nor do the churches of God” (NIV). The issue is how we understand “toioutos” which the NIV renders as “other.” This word occurs 56 other times in the NT, 30 of them in Paul, and not once is this word translated as “other” in any of those places. The proper rendering is “such.” To see the difference consider Romans 1.32, “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do SUCH things deserve death …” Insert the word “other” in that sentence and see how it radically changes the meaning. But the “such practice” in v. 16 is not the practice of the veil but the practice of contentiousness!! The practice that does not exist in any of God’s churches is not that women do not go without veils anywhere but that in God’s church there is no such thing as contentiousness.

There are many things about the texts declared to be “stunningly clear” that are not clear at all. It makes a huge difference if one thinks that MEN are the RULER of WOMEN or that HUSBANDS are the SOURCE of the WIFE (Adam btw was the source of Eve!! which is the back story here). It makes a gigantic difference if one thinks Paul is saying there is not OTHER practice than veiling women or there is no SUCH practice as contentiousness. And one is forced to ask why the ALL Male translators would render a word in 1 Cor 11, regarding women, that they do not a single solitary time anywhere else. What caused them to do this? And it makes a huge difference if you think a woman/wife should have POWER/AUTHORITY on her head or the woman/wife shall have a SIGN OF authority on her head. And we have only, literally, scratched the complexity of some of the issues here. Like consistently translating sigato and the whole textual issue of 1 Cor 14.34ff (it is misplaced in the entire “Western” tradition of biblical manuscripts). It is very complex. etc etc etc.

So anyway, as I think about this beautiful day today in the sunny desert I thought I would just show that sometimes things we think are “stunningly clear,” and you have to be nearly depraved to think differently, just aint so!! Dogmatism is the enemy of Spiritual growth and biblical learning. Sometimes we have to say, you know what I just did not know that and I understand why and how you see it differently than I do. In fact some of the questions force me to suggest that sometimes it is not grammar that leads to a certain translation but unconscious bias! Study the picture. It is “p46.” p46 is “Papyrus 46″ which is one of the earliest witnesses to the Epistles of Paul dating to about AD 200. Please note the words or lack of words (no divisions). Blessings and have a great Shabbat