By Jeff Miller
The list usually begins with horseshoes, followed by a couple clever additions. Thankfully, however, no one has proposed Bible translation as an area where “close only counts.” Indeed, problems with the details of a translated text can nudge a reader off course to the point that accurate understanding is all but impossible.
Many Christians and many congregations are engaged in discussions about women in ministry and leadership. While some disagreement is inevitable, we all agree the Bible should drive these discussions. The accuracy of our English Bibles is therefore at the heart of the matter. How can we possibly make progress if our foundation is flawed?
I do not believe the widely used English translations are riddled with problems. I do believe, however, that texts about women, especially in Paul’s letters, suffer from a disproportionate number of translation problems. Two examples below, both from 1 Corinthians, show the problem.
1 CORINTHIANS 11
The opening paragraphs of 1 Corinthians 11 comprise 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 veils. While every verse of this passage is worthy of discussion, the translation issue I choose to address stands at the end: “If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice—nor do the churches of God” (1 Corinthians 11:16).
The apparent meaning of this passage, as it’s rendered in the New International Version quoted above, is that Paul’s words about headship and head coverings represent universal practice and should therefore be heeded. This interpretation depends on the word “other” in the phrase “we have no other practice.”
Not all translations, however, read “other” here. In fact, most English translations read “such” instead of “other.” Furthermore, the NIV translates none of the other 56 occurrences of the word as “other.” Nor should it, for not one Greek-English lexicon offers “other” as a suitable translation of the Greek word in question (toiaúten).
More than 30 of this Greek word’s occurrences are in Paul’s letters, and two such examples will demonstrate the difference between “other” and “such.” 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, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them” (Romans 1:32, italics added).
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22, 23, italics added).
But how could Paul promote a practice and then insist there is “no such practice”? The practice in question is not the whole of the preceding passage (head coverings, etc.); the practice is mentioned in the very same verse—contentiousness. Paul knows not everyone will agree with his instructions (otherwise the instructions would not be necessary). In the face of inevitable disagreement he warns against contentious disagreement—a valuable lesson for similar situations today.
I commend to you, therefore, two translations—old and new—of 1 Corinthians 11:16:
“But if any man seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God” (King James Version, 1611).
“If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God (English Standard Version, 2001).
1 CORINTHIANS 14
While the above example from chapter 11 concerns the meaning of a word, the following example from 1 Corinthians 14 concerns the structure of a text—the way it is presented on the page. Early New Testament manuscripts, of course, have neither chapters nor verses, neither punctuation nor paragraphs, and we should not view such features as inspired.
Much of 1 Corinthians 14 concerns the Christian assembly. Verse 26 sets this context with “when you come together” and promotes the principle that all corporate activities should be “for the strengthening of the church.” The chapter concludes with a complementary principle, “everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way” (v. 40). Between these bookends are guidelines for three groups—those who speak in tongues, those who prophesy, and women.
At the transition from the prophets to the women stands verse 33, quoted here together with the beginning of verse 34, “For God is not a God of disorder but of peace. As in all the congregations of the saints, 34women should remain silent in the churches.”
A close look at this one translation reveals two interpretations. The verse division (inserted in the mid-16th century) suggests one interpretation: God’s orderly and peaceful character is evident in all congregations. The punctuation (published in the 1973 New International Version) suggests a different interpretation: women’s silence is evident in all congregations.
Which interpretation is correct? English translations are divided. Among those presenting “as in all the congregations of the saints” as a conclusion to what precedes it (“God is not a God of disorder . . .”) are The Tyndale Bible (1526), Geneva Bible (1560), Bishops’ Bible (1568), Living Bible (1967), New American Standard Bible (1971), New King James Version (1979), and Today’s New International Version (2001). In addition to the NIV, translations presenting the phrase as an introduction to what follows (“. . . women should remain silent”) are the American Standard Version (1901), New American Bible (1941), Revised Standard Version (1946), New Jerusalem Bible (1985), New Revised Standard Version (1989), and English Standard Version (2001).
It has been pointed out that to take the phrase as an introduction to what follows results in an awkward redundancy—an awkwardness NIV and other translations avoid by using two words to translate two occurrences of ekklesíais: “As in all the congregations of the saints, women should remain silent in the churches.” A more conclusive argument is based in common sense and allows Scripture to interpret Scripture. Simply stated, we know women were not silent in all the congregations, and we know this from Paul himself! Let us not, therefore, present Paul as saying something hypocritical.
Again, I commend to you two versions—old and new—of 1 Corinthians 14:33:
“For God is not the author of confusion, but of peace, as in all churches of the saints” (King James Version, 1611).
“When we worship the right way, God doesn’t stir us up into confusion; he brings us into harmony. This goes for all the churches—no exceptions” (The Message, 1993).
How might these two translation problems hamper discussions about women in ministry and leadership? What do these texts—1 Corinthians 11:16 and 14:33, 34—have in common? Both texts are frequently cited to demonstrate that Paul does not have in mind only the women of Corinth in the ad 50s. By extension the argument is made that in 1 Timothy 2 (“A woman should learn in quietness . . .”) Paul does not have in mind only the women of Ephesus in the ad 60s. After all, if the churches of God have “no other practice” and women are silent “in all the congregations of the saints,” then why should we be any different? In fact, however, these biblical texts do not support such arguments.
Certainly the two adjustments I have offered will not solve the issue. They can, however, set the discussion on a firmer foundation. Let us not be content with translations that are close to correct. Paying careful attention to the details of translated biblical texts is necessary groundwork for fruitful discussions in the church.
Jeff Miller is associate professor of Bible at Milligan College in Tennessee.