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Published Date: November 20, 2017

Published Date: November 20, 2017

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Translation Trouble In 1 Corinthians 11

Paul makes a few statements that seem to limit women. Did he intend for these to apply to all women, or only to women among the original recipients? Some interpreters argue that Paul considered his words directly applicable, not only to the women of Corinth (in the case of 1 Corinthians) and Ephesus (in the case of 1 Timothy), but to all Christian women in his era (in Philippi, Antioch, Jerusalem, etc.). Such an argument often proceeds as follows: Since Paul himself intended broad ancient application, the next sensible step is to apply his words directly to all Christian women of subsequent generations.

One key text for accomplishing this move to universal application is 1 Corinthians 11:16, which has often been used to show that Paul himself applied his restrictions on women beyond a particular letter’s recipients. Accurate translation of this passage, however, disallows such an interpretation.

The immediate context of this verse comprises a curious and difficult passage about praying and prophesying, headship, and head coverings. In short, men should pray and prophesy with their heads uncovered; women should do the same but with heads covered. Verse 16 offers the concluding comment, “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16 NIV). The apparent meaning of the NIV is that Paul’s words about headship and head coverings represent universal practice and should therefore be heeded all the more.

Such an interpretation depends on translating the adjective toioutos as “other” in the phrase “we have no other practice.” Few translations, however, read “other” here. Most translations (going all the way back to Wycliffe and Tyndale!) instead read “such.”

The difference between “such” and “other” is easily overlooked. The two words, however, tend to function in opposite ways. Two examples, both from Paul’s letters, will demonstrate the difference. In both examples changing “such” to “other” would radically alter the meaning of the passage.

“Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death . . .” (Romans 1:32a NIV, italics added).

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22–23 NIV, italics added).

CBE posted an earlier version of this blog entry in 2010. At that time, I noted that it was unfortunate that the 2005 TNIV had retained the 1984 NIV’s use of “other” here in 1 Corinthians 11:16. Since then, the 2011 NIV has appeared and I again regret to tell you that it also retains “other” (as do the New International Reader’s Version and the New International Version—UK). The Christian Standard Bible (a 2017 revision of the Holman Christian Standard Bible) also uses “other” rather than the more appropriate “such” here. Happily, the Common English Bible, published in 2011, does render toioutos as “such.”

What arguments show that “such” is a proper translation and “other” is not? First of all, no Greek-English lexicon offers “other” as a suitable translation of toioutos. This remains true even with the appearance of the Brill Dictionary of Ancient Greek (published in 2015, subsequent to the first version of this blog entry). Furthermore, NIV translates only one of the other fifty-six New Testament occurrences of toioutos as “other” (see Ephesians 5:27). In Philemon 1:9, the NIV reads, “I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul—an old man and now also a prisoner of Christ Jesus . . .” (italics added). Here the word “other” is part of the translation of toioutos, but notice that NIV adds “none.” In this context, “other” is the opposite of “none other.”

But how could Paul promote a practice and then insist there is “no such practice”? In 1 Corinthians 11:16, the practice in question is not the whole of the preceding passage; the practice is specified in the very same verse—contentiousness! Paul knows not everyone will agree with his instructions. In the face of inevitable disagreement, he warns against contentious disagreement—a valuable lesson for similar situations today. It seems the KJV had it right: “But if any man seems to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.” Paul is not claiming that “the churches of God” unanimously limit women; rather, they unanimously shun contentiousness. As we communicate egalitarian teachings today, let us keep this apostolic guideline in mind and do so without a contentious spirit.