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)

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