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Will A Truly Honest Bible Translation for Women Ever Be Made?

PART 1
On October 21, 2015

After years of participating in women's Bible studies, I finally realized that I was not seeing the church's teachings on women bringing renewal to women, marriages, and families. Instead, I saw those teachings causing serious harm. So I asked the Lord to teach me what the Bible truly says about women. I read everything I could get my hands on and my eyes were opened to the fact that my English Bible is a translation from the original languages. It had never occurred to me before that mistakes in translation were possible, but I soon realized that translation is not an exact science.

Let's look at one example of a mistranslation from Christian history that ultimately resulted in the Christian Reformation.

In the 4th century, the Bible was translated into Latin by Paula and Jerome. The Latin Vulgate became the primary translation used by the Western Roman Catholic Church for the next thousand years. But the scholars mistranslated repent in Matthew 3:2 as do penance. As a consequence, the practice of doing penance developed in the Catholic Church based on the mistranslation of this one word.[1]

During the next millennium, Western Europe, centered in Rome, went into decline and there was little contact between the Western church and the Eastern church centered in Constantinople. A thousand years after Jerome and Paula translated the Latin Vulgate, the city of Constantinople was conquered.

Some Eastern Orthodox priests fled to Rome and brought their copies of the New Testament Greek manuscripts with them. A scholar named Erasmus produced a fresh, new translation of the New Testament from these manuscripts. He caught and corrected the mistranslation of the word repent. Martin Luther read Erasmus' translation and the Protestant Reformation was born.

In 2 Thessalonians 3:12, men are exhorted to settle down and earn the bread they eat. But the exact same word translated as settle down when it refers to men is translated as be silent, or keep silent in 1 Timothy 2:11 and 12 when it refers to women.

As Christianity spread throughout the centuries, it spread from and into cultures which held very low views of women. The Christian priests and theologians who rose out of those cultures were blinded by those low views of women. Instead of elevating women, they incorporated belief in women's inferiority into their Christian teachings. The following is a list of some of the most influential Christian theologians in Christian history and their attitudes toward women. 

Second Century:

Clement of Alexandria believed that women were shameful in their very being.[2]
Tertullian called women the devil's gateway.[3]

Fourth Century:

Origen and Ambrose had very demeaning views of women.[4]
Augustine claimed that only man is the image of God and that the female state is actually a deformity.[5]
Jerome, translator of the Latin Vulgate, called women a temple over a sewer. The Latin Vulgate was the Bible that became the foundation of Western Christianity.[6]

Middle Ages:

Thomas Aquinas considered women spiritually inferior, defective and misbegotten, and lower than a slave.[7]
Odo of Cluny equated women with a sack of manure.[8]
Bonaventure called women an embarrassment, a beast, a burden, and destroyers of the household.[9]

1500s and on:

John Knox taught that women were created to serve and obey men.[10]
John Calvin taught that women are inferior to men and that it is part of God's eternal law that women are subject to men.[11]
King James was determined to trample women into invisibility. He said that to educate a woman was as foolish as trying to tame a fox. He ordered the translation and publication of the King James Bible which became the foundation of Christian teaching and practice in the whole English speaking world.[12] The King James Bible has influenced subsequent translations and English translations have been used by missionaries all over the world as the basis for translation into indigenous languages.

These attitudes have not only influenced Christian teachings, but they have also influenced translations of the Bible. One woman, Katherine Bushnell, a missionary doctor to China in the late 1800's, discovered that Chinese versions of the Bible had translated two of Paul's female co-workers in Philippians as men. She wondered if the same thing could be happening in the English translations. During the last decades of her life, she studied the Bible in the original languages and compared them to English translations. She published her findings in 1926 in a book called God's Word to Women.

What did she find?

In Genesis 3:16, the English versions translate God's pronouncement on Eve that her pain in conception will be multiplied and her desire will be for her husband, and he will rule over her. Bushnell discovered that neither "desire" nor "conception" (or childbearing) are actually in this Hebrew passage.

Ancient versions of the Old Testament have thy sighing instead of conception. And the word translated as desire in English versions is actually the Hebrew word for turning. She believed Genesis 3:16 was a warning to Eve that she was turning away from God to her husband and it would result in her husband dominating her. She believed Genesis 3:16 should be translated: "A snare has increased thy sorrow and thy sighing. Thou are turning away to thy husband and he will rule over thee." [13] This is just one example of Dr. Bushnell's findings.

Eve is translated as a help or a helper for Adam in Genesis 2:18, a meaning which connotes subservience and assistance. However, the Hebrew word translated as help or helper is a strong word referring to power, rescue, and strength.

Much scholarship has been added to her research since, which concurs with her findings that mistranslations do still persist in the translations, even in our own era.  Words with exact same meanings are translated one way when they refer to men, but are diminished or exaggerated when they refer to women. For example, in 2 Thessalonians 3:12 men are exhorted to settle down and earn the bread they eat. But the exact same word translated as settle down when it refers to men is translated as be silent, or keep silent in 1 Timothy 2:11 and 12 when it refers to women.[14]

Eve is translated as a help or a helper for Adam in Genesis 2:18, a meaning which connotes subservience and assistance. However, the Hebrew word translated as help or helper is a strong word referring to power, rescue, and strength.[15]

Likewise, the English expression head of overwhelmingly refers to someone who has authority over another. Some scholars and theologians argue that the Greek use of this expression did not carry the meaning of authority. They argue that the passages which speak of man as the head of women were corrections of pagan beliefs about the origins of women and that the intended meaning is source of and not authority over.[16] 
 
Though scholars are not agreed on the intended meaning of head of, there is nothing in most translations to direct the reader to the many possible interpretations of these passages on "headship."

In 1 Timothy 5:14, Paul exhorts younger widows to remarry and be masters of their households. But the translators diminish be masters to manage, guide, or keep house.[17] In 1 Corinthians 11:10, Paul exhorts women to have authority on their heads because of the angels. The Greek word, authority, refers to one's own authority, liberty, or self control.[18] There is no mention of a veil or a husband in this passage. But many English versions render this to mean that a woman must wear a veil on her head to show that she is under her husband's authority.

One final example: the passage in 1 Timothy 2:11-15 is generally translated: women are not permitted to teach or have authority over a man. However, English readers have limited ways of knowing that the word translated as authority was a very rare Greek word about which there is little scholarly agreement as to its meaning. A form of this word was used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament in reference to the murder of children as sacrifices. Some believe the intent of this passage was to prevent the church from adopting abusive pagan religious practices.[19] Others believe that Paul was refuting Gnostic heresies.[20]
 
English readers are left completely in the dark that the meaning of each of these passages is hotly debated among Christians or even that there is a possibility of mistranslation in their Bibles. In many of these cases, there is nothing to direct the reader to the many possible interpretations. 

Why is this a problem for women? Why should biased translations and mistranslations matter to Christians?

Stay tuned for Part 2 next week as we examine the consequences of bias and mistakes in translation.

Notes

[1] MacCulloch, Diarmaid, The Reformation, A History, pp 99-100. 
[2] Hyatt, Susan, In the Spirit We're Equal, pp 51; 
[3] ibid. pp 51;  
[4] ibid. pp 52; 
[5] ibid. pp 53; 
[6] ibid. pp 55; 
[7] ibid. pp58; 
[8] ibid. pp59; 
[9] ibid. pp 59; 
[10] ibid. pp 65; 
[11] ibid. pp 67; 
[12] ibid. pp 76-78.
[13] Bushnell, Katherine, God's Word to Women, pp 54-55.
[14] Dufield, Sandra, "Women and Scripture: When Hebrew and Greek Became English,"www.godswordtowomen.org.
[15] Kaiser, Walter, Jr. "Correcting Caricatures: The Biblical Teaching on Women," Priscilla Papers, Spring 2005, Volume 19, No. 2.
[16] Cunningham, Loren & Hamilton, David Joel, Why Not Women, pp 159-170.
[17] Dufield, Sandra, "Women and Scripture: When Hebrew and Greek Became English",www.godswordtowomen.org.
[18] Martin, Faith, Call Me Blessed, pp 164-167.
[19] Bailey, Kenneth, "Women in the New Testament, A Middle Eastern Cultural View," Theology Matters, January/February 2000, Volume 6, No. 1 pp 7-9.
[20] Kroeger, Richard Clark and Catherine Clark, I Suffer Not a Woman, Rethinking 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in Light of Ancient Evidence, pp 103.
[20] McKnight, Scott, Junia is Not Alone, (Kindle book), 27% and 71%.


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