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Published Date: September 5, 2021

Published Date: September 5, 2021

Featured Articles

Featured Articles

Correcting Caricatures: Women and Bible Translation

When lecturing on women and Bible translation, I often see people Google facts they’ve never heard before. Few know Paula (347–404) led one of the great translation efforts—the Latin Vulgate. Nearly invisible in its history, Paula purchased the ancient manuscripts, guided the translator teams, and made linguistic edits. Jerome—her colleague on this project—acknowledged her leadership and so should we.

Other women translators include Julia Evelina Smith (1792–1886), Louise Swanton Belloc (1796–1881), Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815–1902), and Pandita Ramabai (1858–1922)—who led the first all-women Bible effort, from translation to printing, binding, and distribution. The first woman to lead a denomination, Helen Barrett Montgomery (1861–1934) produced the Centenary Bible, citing doctor-missionary, anti-trafficking activist, and biblical scholar Katharine Bushnell (1855–1946).

After decades of anti-trafficking advocacy that included confronting Christian men for their impunity and collusion in abusing women, Bushnell was compelled to address ways Scripture was used to view women as lesser than men. Theologically astute, she insisted that a correct interpretation as it relates to “women status” should be assigned in the same manner as “man’s status, [based] on the atonement of Jesus Christ.”1

Exposing biblical misrepresentations, Bushnell’s groundbreaking book, God’s Word to Women, shows how Scripture has been weaponized to demean women and fuel their abuse. Like other female translators, Bushnell considered the impact of accuracy in translation on women. Yet she was the first translator to critique every passage addressing women. To see how unjust some translators’ choices have been, here are a few significant examples from Bushnell’s God’s Word to Women.

Beginning in Genesis, Bushnell insisted the text stresses not Eve’s failures and need of male authority, but their shared dignity and authority, Genesis 1:26–29. She challenged translating tsela as rib since (42 times in Scripture) it’s translated as “side” to evoke a mitosis process—of one whole organism becoming two complete organisms. “Side” is more accurate and dignifying to women.

Equally, Bushnell noted how the word chayil, used over 200 times as “strength, force, or capacity,” is translated as “virtue” or “chastity” when referring to a woman.2 Likewise, teshuqah was translated as “lust” rather than “desire” in Genesis 3:16: “Your lust will be for your husband, and he will rule over you,” insinuating women are sensual and corrupt—a trend Bushnell also found in researching New Testament passages.

Consider how kosmios was rendered “well-ordered” for men but “modest or pure” for women in 1 Timothy 2:9. Similarly, hagnos is translated as “holy” for men, but “pure” for women in  Titus 2:4–5.3  Tragically, the parable holding men and women to the same sexual ethic—the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53–8:11)—was missing in several translations, including Bushnell’s 1880 Chinese Bible and also key Syriac and Coptic manuscripts.⁴

For Bushnell, each of these examples of translation bias (and others noted in her book) may be “straws,” but “they all point in the same direction.”⁵  To depict women as innately immoral and lesser-than leads to immoral actions toward them.

So while translators depicted women as immoral and promiscuous, Bushnell’s systematic examination of Bible passages that address women elevated their redemption. Through Calvary, all receive a Christ-identity and Gospel purpose—to lead with spiritual authority as Christ’s new creation, just as man and woman shared governance in Eden. Correcting sexist caricatures through accurate Bible translations was for Bushnell crucial in upending women’s exploitation. For “nothing is of more importance to the Christian woman today than to understand that God did not Himself subordinate woman to man.”⁶ Women’s strength of character, glowing on the pages of Scripture, was needed to give the gospel power to dismantle male dominance and abuse. What began for Bushnell as solidarity with women enslaved in the global sex trade ended with exposing flawed Bible translations.

We stand united in Christ to proclaim women’s dignity and purpose through accurate Bible translations, remembering that dehumanizing ideas about people lead to dehumanizing actions. Correcting sexist translations and interpretations will have a redemptive impact on the global exploitation of women, as Bushnell’s life and research make clear.

This article appears in “Gendered Language and the Church,” the Autumn 2021 issue of Mutuality magazine. Read the full issue here.

Notes

  1. Katharine Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, (Minneapolis, Minn.: Christians for Biblical Equality, 2003), 169.
  2. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 633.
  3. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 644.
  4. Cyprian as quoted in Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, Academia Litterarum Vindobonensis, vol. iii, p. 638.
  5. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, 644.
  6. Bushnell, God’s Word to Women,  450.

To learn more about CBE’s Bible translation project, click here.