The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Bible translations that are gender-accurate, and those that are not.

Not all English translations of the Bible are created equal. Some follow the oldest available manuscript evidence; others follow copies and translations that were written after the 4th century AD. These later versions introduce patriarchal or androcentric language that can make the Bible appear to be sexist. What follows is a comparison of English translations that do or do not contain added sexist language in a number of Old and New Testament passages.

Genesis 1:27
The Good: “God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them, male and female God created them.” (Common English Bible)

The Bad: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.” (King James Version)

The Ugly: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (English Standard Version)

The Hebrew used here, “ha’adam,” is properly translated “the human being” or “humanity.” It is not a specifically masculine term. This agrees with the Greek Septuagint’s use of “anthropon,” which is also not specifically masculine.

Genesis 2:7
The Good: “the LORD God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.” (Common English Bible)

The Bad: “And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.” (King James Version)

The Ugly: “then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” (English Standard Version)

Once again, older manuscripts use language that is not specifically masculine.

Isaiah 3:12
The Good: “As for my people—oppressors strip them and swindlers rule them. My people—your leaders mislead you and confuse your paths.” (Common English Bible)

The Bad: “As for my people, children are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths.” (King James Version)

The Ugly: “My people—infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, your guides mislead you and they have swallowed up the course of your paths.” (English Standard Version)

Our oldest available manuscripts (Greek Septuagint, Aramaic Targum Jonathan) use language referring to “creditors, usurers, or swindlers” here, not “women.” “Women” appears in the Latin Vulgate, which was completed in the early 5th century AD.

Judges 19:2
The Good: “But she became angry with him, went back to her father’s house in Bethlehem, and stayed there four months.” (Good News Translation)

The Bad: “And his concubine was unfaithful to him, and she went away from him to her father’s house at Bethlehem in Judah, and was there some four months.” (English Standard Version)

The Ugly: “And his concubine played the whore against him, and went away from him unto her father’s house to Bethlehemjudah, and was there four whole months.” (King James Version)

The GNT agrees with the Greek Septuagint (2nd-3rd century BC) and the Aramaic Targum of Jonathan (1st century BC), while the KJV and ESV agree with the later Masoretic Text (6th-10th century AD). A 1st century AD commentary written by the Jewish historian Josephus also agrees with the older translations. This commentary said that the woman left her partner due to frequent brawls; it does not describe her as being either “unfaithful” or a “whore.”

Romans 16:2
The Good: “Welcome her in a way that is proper for someone who has faith in the Lord and is one of God’s own people. Help her in any way you can. After all, she has proved to be a respected leader for many others, including me.” (Contemporary English Version)

The Bad: “That ye receive her in the Lord, as becometh saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you: for she hath been a succourer of many, and of myself also.” (King James Version)

The Ugly: “Receive her in the Lord’s name, as God’s people should, and give her any help she may need from you; for she herself has been a good friend to many people and also to me.” (Good News Translation)

The Greek New Testament word used here in reference to a woman named Phoebe is “prostatis.” It is the noun form of the word used by Paul in the following verse: “if [your spiritual gift] is to lead (proistamenos), do it diligently” (Romans 12:8). In ancient Greek, a prostatis was a leader, patron or benefactor; not a “succcourer” or a “kind friend.”

Romans 16:7
The Good: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.” (New International Version)

The Bad: “Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me.” (English Standard Version)

The Ugly: “Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.” (New American Standard Bible)

The NIV agrees with our oldest available Bible translations and commentaries, which refer to Junia as a woman. It also agrees with the Greek grammar of the passage, which portrays her as “outstanding among” the apostles, not merely “well known to” them.

Unfortunately, English translations that are gender-accurate in one passage, may not be in another. For example, the Good News Bible is accurate with regard to the woman who was “angry” with her partner in Judges 19:2; but it then refers to Phoebe not as a leader, but rather as a “kind friend” in Romans 16:2. As a result of this type of inconsistency, it is difficult to recommend one English translation of the Bible that is entirely gender-accurate.

If you want to know if your English translation handles passages concerning women accurately, you may find it helpful to examine how it deals with the verses reviewed in this article: Genesis 1:27, Genesis 2:7, Isaiah 3:12, Judges 19:2, Romans 16:2 and Romans 16:7.

Other verses have also been handled very poorly by certain English translations. For instance, the New Living Translation makes 1 Peter 3:1 appear to tell wives to “accept the authority” of their husbands. In the Greek language of the passage, there is no mention whatsoever of a husband’s alleged “authority.” You can read more about this translation issue in the following article: 1st Peter 3 Does Not Teach “Male Authority”.

Also, only the International Standard Version makes an attempt to acknowledge that a Greek verb used by the apostle Paul in 1 Timothy 2:12 (athentein) likely had nothing to do with women “exercising authority” over men in the church. You can read more about that translation issue here: Other 1st Century Jewish Authors Who Used Greek Words Like “Authentein”.

All English translations of the Bible are not created equal. My hope and prayer is that you will find English translations that will help you to receive encouragement from God, without having to contend with the painful obstacle of human sexism.

Advertisements

How Men Changed the Bible to Make “Male Authority” seem like “the Will of God”

In the 4th century AD, under the reign of Theodosius I, Christianity was made the official state religion of the Roman Empire. After Theodosius’ death, the Latin Vulgate was completed in the early 5th century AD (Theodosius, Christianity Today). It became the “official” Bible of the church for centuries thereafter. It was largely written by St. Jerome, and was endorsed by one of his contemporaries, St. Augustine (What is the Vulgate?). It was used as source material for Erasmus’ 16th century Latin Bible, which then formed the basis of some of our earliest English translations, including the King James Version (The Text of the New Testament: Its Transmission, Corruption, and Restoration).

None of this historical information is good news for women.

St. Jerome and St. Augustine both used Roman law and a patriarchal human philosophy (called Neoplatonism) as an interpretive guide to the Bible (The Equality Workbook: Freedom in Christ from the Oppression of Patriarchy). As a result, they viewed the biblical text through a very patriarchal lens.

St. Augustine equated men with “the spirit” and women with “the flesh” (a very Neoplatonic way of thinking). He then concluded that God intended men to “rule over” women in marriage:

Flesh, then, is put for woman, in the same manner that spirit is sometimes put for husband. Wherefore? Because the one rules, the other is ruled; the one ought to command, the other to serve. For where the flesh commands and the spirit serves, the house is turned the wrong way. What can be worse than a house where the woman has the mastery over the man? But that house is rightly ordered where the man commands and the woman obeys. In like manner that man is rightly ordered where the spirit commands and the flesh serves. (http://www.womenpriests.org/tradition/augustine/)

St. Jerome believed that God made women the slaves of men as punishment for Eve’s transgression in the garden of Eden. He also believed that women could liberate themselves from this penalty by literally bearing children. Though this kind of thinking cannot be found anywhere in the Bible, Roman law granted women freedom from male authority, if they gave birth to 4 children (The Status of Women in Greek, Roman and Jewish Society):

And that the lot of a woman might not seem a hard one, [because of God] reducing her to the condition of a slave…

…the Devil could not seduce Adam, but did seduce Eve; and that after displeasing God she was immediately subjected to the man, and began to turn to her husband; and he points out that she who was once tied with the bonds of marriage and was reduced to the condition of Eve, might blot out the old transgression by the procreation of children. (http://www.womenpriests.org/tradition/jerome/)

To support this distorted view of God and women, St. Jerome actually made significant changes to the text of his Latin Bible.

In Genesis 3:6, our oldest Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic manuscripts point out that Adam was “together with” Eve, when BOTH of them were tempted by the devil to eat the forbidden fruit. The Vulgate omits this detail, portraying Eve as facing the tempter alone (Blaming Eve Alone: Translation, Omission, and Implications of עמה in Genesis 3:6b). This omission allowed Jerome to blame the fall of humanity primarily, if not exclusively, on Eve. Jerome’s prejudice then led him to generalize his distorted view of Eve onto all women.

This was not the only change made by Jerome to ancient texts of the Bible.  In our oldest available Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic manuscripts, Isaiah 3:12 does NOT portray the leadership of women in a negative light. In fact, women are not mentioned in the passage at all in Qumran’s Isaiah Scroll, the Greek Septuagint or the Targum of Jonathan Ben Uziel. In these ancient manuscripts, the verse is a prophecy against abusive “creditors” or “usurers.” In the Vulgate, St. Jerome changed the word from “usurers” to “women.”

The Vulgate also changed important passages in the New Testament.  In our two oldest Greek manuscripts of Ephesians 5:22, women are not exclusively directed to “submit” to their husbands in marriage. Papyrus 46 and Codex B both omit this verb, which strongly suggests that it was not present in the original letter. Ephesians 5:21 contains the participle “submitting,” which indicates that everyone who is filled with the Spirit of God (Ephesians 5:18) will demonstrate this by “submitting one to another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Jerome’s Vulgate, like Byzantine Greek texts of the later 4th century AD, adds an additional verb, “submit,” which appears to be an additional command directed exclusively to wives. While Christian wives will indeed demonstrate Christ-like love and humility towards their husbands, husbands will also demonstrate these qualities towards their wives as they imitate the sacrificial love of Jesus Christ (see Ephesians 5:25). The participle—submitting–used by Paul in Ephesians 5:21 is a masculine plural in the middle voice, which indicates a reciprocal action performed by a group of people that must include men.

In the Greek text of Romans 16:2, a woman named Phoebe is referred to in Greek as a “prostatis.” Prostatai in ancient Greek literature were leaders, teachers, mentors, or elders who presided over decision-making councils. In a religious context, prostatai oversaw the material support and payment of the clergy (Women in Church Leadership: The Example of Phoebe). Instead of recognizing Phoebe’s leadership role, Jerome used the Latin verb “adstitit” to portray her as one who comes alongside to “assist” others (A Reexamination of Phoebe as a “Diakonos” and “Prostatis”: Exposing the Inaccuracies of English Translations).

Jerome also made significant changes to the apparent meaning of 1 Timothy 2:12-15.  In ancient Greek texts of the 1st century AD, words like “authentes, authenten and authentas” were used to refer to someone who was responsible either for his own death, or for the death of others. For example, Philo of Alexandria used “authentes” to refer to those who embraced a false knowledge (gnosis) of God, thereby bringing about their own spiritual deaths. In 1st Timothy 2:12, Paul used a similar word, “authentein,” in connection with a prohibition against a woman’s false teaching in the church of Ephesus. Both Paul and Philo associated “authentes” and “authentein” with a false “gnosis” of God that involved extreme asceticism.  In this “false” teaching, putting to death the body and its passions was viewed as a path to spiritual enlightenment (see Philo’s the Worse Attacks the Better, and 1st Timothy 4:1-5, 6:20-21).

In his first letter to the Corinthians (chapter 7:1), Paul similarly addressed a false ascetic teaching that encouraged Christians to embrace celibacy, even within marriage. A similar false teaching was likely embraced by women in Ephesus that were concerned about death in child-bearing (see 1 Timothy 2:15). This false teaching is overtly compared by Paul to Eve giving the forbidden fruit to Adam, which led to his spiritual death (see 1 Timothy 2:13-14). Rather than being a prohibition against “women” teachers, 1 Timothy 2:12-15–understood in its original language and context–more likely conveys a prohibition against a false teaching that would in some way “be responsible for the death of a man” (Other 1st Century Jewish Writers Who Used Greek Words Like “Authentein”).

In Jerome’s Vulgate, the Greek word “authentein” is translated into the Latin “dominari.” This Latin word has nothing to do with being responsible for someone’s death, be that literal, metaphorical, physical or spiritual. Instead it refers to a woman “exercising dominion over” or “dominating” a man. In the 16th century AD, “dominari” was then translated by Erasmus into the Latin word auctoritatum, a reference to “exercising authority” over a man. All English translations, with the exception of the International Standard Version, follow this Latin tradition, which falsely creates the impression that God intended men to exercise authority over women in the church (Insight into Two Biblical Passages: Anatomy of a Prohibition I Timothy 2:12, the TLG Computer, and the Christian Church).

Also, rather than viewing 1 Timothy 2:15 as a reference to a woman’s fear of dying in childbearing, Jerome interpreted this verse as proof of his view that women might be “saved” (i.e. be forgiven for Eve’s transgression) by literally bearing children. Ephesian goddess mythology focused on the salvation of women who might die in childbearing. Priests of the patron goddess of the city were required to embrace celibacy, and early forms of ascetic Gnosticism in the church were strongly influenced by these myths (Mother of the Gods: From Cybele to the Virgin Mary).  In 1st Timothy 1:4, Paul warns Timothy not to listen to those who “devote themselves to myths.”

All of these changes to the biblical text in Jerome’s Vulgate significantly alter the Bible’s original message. They create the false impression that “male authority” has been “ordained by God.” Rather than being an accurate reflection of God’s revelation, these alterations confuse an oppressive human tradition (the rule of men) with the will of God.

“How can you say, ‘We are wise, for we have the law of the LORD,’ when actually the lying pen of the scribes has handled it falsely?” (Jeremiah 8:8)

“You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7:8)

“See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ.” (Colossians 2:8)

Using Fiction to Highlight The Historical Oppression of Women

Keeper of Relics is a fantasy novel that places men in social roles historically assigned to women in patriarchal societies.  Often these social roles were prescribed for women “in the name of God.”

Tragically, many of these roles were created by men who had a vested interest in maintaining power and privilege in their social order.  As a result, women were often stripped of their personhood, and relegated to the position of subordinate servants to “male authority.”  

Here is a list of just some of the injustices perpetrated against women that are reflected in the novel:

In the 3rd century AD, Origen of Alexandria combined the Christian faith with a patriarchal, nonbiblical, human philosophy called Neoplatonism. He then concluded, “God does not stoop to look upon what is feminine.” (Selecta in Exodum)

In the 4th century AD, Roman Bishop Augustine of Hippo declared, “the woman herself alone, then she is not the image of God; but as regards the man alone, he is the image of God” (On the Trinity §10). Augustine–like Origen–used Neoplatonic philosophy as an interpretive guide to the Bible.

In the 4th century AD, Latin Bible translator St. Jerome–strongly influenced by Origen’s Neoplatonism–declared that women were “reduced to the condition of a slave,” as punishment for Eve’s transgression (Against Jovinianus, Book 1 §27).

Canon law of the 12th century AD drew upon an influential document called Gratian’s Decretum. This document recommended banning women from serving as teachers or leaders in the church. This ban was based upon Roman law and the commentary work of patriarchal theologians; it was not based upon the Bible.

In keeping with canon law of the 13th century AD, Junia–the female apostle mentioned in the New Testament book of Romans–had her name changed to a man’s (Junias) by Aegidius Romanus, Archbishop of Bourges.

In the 13th century AD, the Inquisition began arresting women who claimed to be able to relate directly to God, without the mediation of an exclusively male priesthood. These women were found guilty of heresy and/or witchcraft and burned to death at the stake. Thousands of women were killed.

In the 15th century AD, a 17 year old young woman named Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) received visions from God about the liberation of France from English occupation. Following the direction of these visions, she led the French army that freed the city of Orleans from an English siege. Jeanne was later captured, sold to the English, and tried by the Inquisition. She was found guilty of heresy and of wearing men’s clothing into battle. She was burned to death at the stake.

Throughout the Middle Ages, women accused of witchcraft were tried by water. Those who floated were pronounced guilty and executed. Those who sank to their deaths were declared innocent.

In direct contrast to this terrible history, the Bible portrays both women and men as created “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). The apostle Paul wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

In our oldest available Bible manuscripts, God is not portrayed as a Being that subjugates one group of people to another on the basis of their gender. Rather, God is portrayed as “Love” (1 John 4:8); women in both Old and New Testaments are portrayed as judges, leaders, teachers, prophets, ministers and apostles.

My hope is that this “role-reversal” in fantasy literature will help to highlight just how different God’s love is from religious traditions that have subjected one group of people to another, solely on the basis of their gender.