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Presumption and Bias in Bible Translation

On August 27, 2014

Have you ever dismissed or overestimated someone on first meeting? Has that happened to you? Once when I was speaking at a church, I saw in the bulletin that I was to be introduced as "The Reverend Doctor John R. Kohlenberger III." When I tried to explain that I was neither ordained nor had an earned doctorate, but was just "John," I was simply answered with "we like to be formal here." Formal I can understand, but not incorrect. On the other end of the spectrum, because I was first published at age twenty-eight, I used to hear "I enjoy your father's books." But now I look enough like a big boy to have written on my own.

Bible translators have to fight presumption and bias, as do preachers and teachers, to be sure they communicate what the Bible actually says, rather than what they presume it should say. Many examples of such bias have obscured significant statements about women in leadership in the New Testament.

Well known are two words used to describe Phoebe, who delivered Paul's famous letter to the church at Rome. Paul introduced her as a diakonon "of the church at Cenchreae" (Rom. 16:1). Tyndale in 1526 followed the Latin Vulgate in translating the Greek word as "minister," but starting with the Geneva Bible of 1560 up to the present, translators assumed Phoebe could not have had an official church position, but was a "servant" (King James Version [KJV], New American Standard, New International Version [1984 NIV], English Standard Version [ESV] and Holman Christian Standard, among others). But the Revised Standard Version of the mid-twentieth century returned to the earlier understanding of Phoebe by transliterating diakonon as "deaconess," followed by the New Revised Standard (NRSV), New Living Translation (NLT), and the 2011 New International Version (2011 NIV), among others, which use "deacon" of both men and women.

In Romans 16:2, Paul uses another Greek term to describe Phoebe as a prostatis "of many people, including me." Early English translations variously rendered this word as "succourer," "helper," "assistant," "hospitality giver," probably because Phoebe was a woman. But prostatis used of a male would likely have been translated as "benefactor," "protector," or "patron," as in the NRSV, 2011 NIV, and even in the ESV. According to Dunn's excellent commentary on Romans (Word, 1988), Paul's readers would have been familiar with women in this powerful position of leadership and "perhaps a tenth of the protectors and donors that collegia sought out were women" (comment on Rom. 16:2). Certainly the person who led the delegation that delivered Paul's important communication to the capital city of the Roman Empire had to be a person of stature, significance, and respect. I wonder how many interpreters have realized that the first person to read the letter to the Romans aloud in a church meeting was a woman.

Similarly in Romans 16:7, although the Greek name Iounian was translated as the feminine "Junia" from Tyndale through the KJV, commentators eventually came to believe the name was a shortened form of the masculine name "Junianus," though that is not attested in any Greek document yet discovered. Thus from the English Revised Version through the New King James Version (departing from the original KJV!) it is "Junias" who with Andronicus is noted as a "prominent" or "respected apostle." But Junia's gender was restored later in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the NRSV, NLT, 2011 NIV, and even the ESV. However, the ESV does not refer to Andronicus or Junia as apostles, but prefers an alternate translation that they "are well known to the apostles," which seems to be another way of removing Junia from church leadership.

Jesus said it was a pagan practice to demand lordship over others, but believers should follow his example to become great through serving others (Matt. 20:25-28). Paul also encouraged believers to "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:21). So we must submit to the text of Scripture and serve its meaning, working daily to remove the presumption and bias that can distort God's message.

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