Women, Bibles, Translations

From Arise newsletter, by Kristin Gatza:

Born and raised in Chicago, Kristin Gatza moved to Arizona, where she received a BA in biblical studies. She is currently a student at Fuller Theological Seminary working towards her MA in theology with an emphasis in language. When not in the classroom, Kristin is known as a frequent hiker.

As a person with an undergraduate degree in biblical studies, completing an MA in theology, I am quite concerned about English versions of the Bible I use and recommend. For years I have been loyal to the New American Standard Bible (NASB), because of its dedication to remaining close to the Greek grammar. A few months ago, however, I was genuinely bothered reading 1 Timothy 3, which begins, “It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (3:1). What was behind the word translated as “man” in this passage? Was it anēr, meaning “man” or “husband”? Or was it anthrōpos, which may mean “man” but more commonly refers to “humanity”? In my mind, if the word was anthrōpos, it would be misleading to translate it as “man.” Given this, I was amazed when I realized that the word behind “man” was tis, which literally means “anyone.” Even if one wants to argue that the context of 1 Timothy 3 narrows the role to men specifically, should not a Greek word meaning “anyone” be translated as “anyone”? How would an English reader trusting the biblical translation possibly guess that it was not Paul who said, “man,” but our contemporary translators?

This realization addressed questions I had concerning the role of women in God’s plan. Soon after, I began to study 1 Peter 5: “Therefore, I exhort the elders among you… shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight…” (5:1-2a). The word behind “elders” in this passage is presbyterous. I agree “elders” is a good translation given the description of those in the passage. But are the “elders” only men? To resolve my increasing concern, I looked into other usages of this word. 1 Timothy cautions, “Do not sharply rebuke an older man, but rather appeal to him as a father, to the younger men as brothers, the older women as mothers, and the younger women as sisters, in all purity” (5:1-2). Our word is found here twice, translated not as “elder” but as “older man,” and the “older women” is the feminine form of the word translated elsewhere as “elder”! How can we with integrity say that a woman may not be an elder when the feminine form of “elders” is directly stated in Scripture?

Christians trust Bible translators to provide them with a reliable English text that does not warp what’s in the original languages. Considering what a hotly debated topic women in leadership has become, I believe there is an ethical responsibility to help Christians learn that the word commonly translated as “elders” is the same word also translated as “older women” elsewhere. Without this integrity, it would be easy for English speaking Christians to mistakenly assume the Bible does not welcome females to the noble task of eldership.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.


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