In the Bible, does St. Peter call women the “weaker sex”? 

In the Bible, does St. Peter call women the “weaker sex”?  July 8, 2022

THE QUESTION:

In the Bible, does St. Peter call women the “weaker sex”?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Yes.

But why? What did that mean? What was he saying about women’s status in a culture far different from that of the 21st Century?

A preliminary point. Word limits do not allow adequate examination here of liberal scholars’ contention that St. Peter did not really write the two New Testament letters the texts attribute to him, or of the reasons conservatives are convinced that these are authentic words from the figure Catholicism uplifts as the first pope and all Christians revere as an apostle, founder and martyr. The following discussion will assume Peter was the author.

Jackson Wu, an evangelical theologian with the Global Training Network, raised the question about I Peter 3:7 in this June 29 blog item: www.patheos.com/blogs/jacksonwu/2021/06/29/why-does-peter-call-women-weaker/. The verse at issue reads “likewise you husbands, live considerately with your wives, bestowing honor on the woman as the weaker sex, since you are joint heirs of the grace of life . . .”

That’s the Revised Standard Version translation. Using the ever-handy www.biblegateway.com, you can quickly compare 60 other English renditions. Others that say “weaker sex” are the Living Bible, a modern U.S. paraphrase; Expanded Bible, which includes alternate translations; and the original New Revised Standard Version but not last year’s updated edition. Others say weaker “partner” and many have weaker “vessel,” which is the more exact translation of the original Greek.

Peter’s letter is abundantly clear that women are not inferior spiritually, or morally, or of any lesser status than men in the eyes of God. In the New Testament, the Greek word for ‘weak” can have varied meanings. It’s understood to mean “sick” in Acts 5:16, “helpless” in Romans 5:6, and “unimpressive” in II Corinthians 10:10. In this passage, even “The Women’s Study Bible” from Oxford University Press says that using the image of a “vessel” – taken as an implement, utensil, or equipment – “means that  husbands should take into consideration that women generally possess less physical strength.”

Some translations make that interpretation explicit in the scriptural text with wordings like “physically weaker” or “delicate” or “fragile.” We see such in the Amplified Bible, Complete Jewish Bible, Contemporary English Version, J.B. Phillips paraphrase. Good News Translation, International Standard Version, Jubilee Bible, New Testament for Everyone, and Worldwide English version. The 14th Century, pioneer English translator John Wycliffe rendered the text as “the woman’s frailty, as to the more feeble.”

But some translations include a different interpretation in the text. The Expanded Bible has the option of “less empowered,” and explains that in ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish societies women “had less power and authority.” The Message paraphrase tells husbands that women “lack some of your advantages.” The Voice rendition refers to “the situations women face.”

The blog posting by Wu complains that the physical strength explanation “has often been used” to “subtly affirm the inferiority of women.” That’s “bunk,” he contends. In a significant twist, he cites verses in the ancient Jewish Old Testament translation into Greek (“Septuagint”) where “weak” connotes social vulnerability or lower social status, such as Proverbs 21:13, 22:22, 24:73, and 24:77, Psalm 105:37, Job 36:15, and Ezekiel 17:14.

Wu concludes that Peter is not writing about women’s inherent nature or physical abilities but reminds 1st Century readers about “the lack of social honor that women possessed” and what that requires of male Christians, namely equal “honor” as fellow heirs of God’s grace. German exegete Leonhard Goppelt put matters this way: women were to receive special care “especially in light of their social and legal standing in marriage in the ancient world and in an economic structure that was heavily dependent on physical labor.”

The meaning of “vessel” in the Greek is key for John Nugent of Great Lakes Christian College, writing in the online academic journal of Christians for Biblical Equality here: www.cbeinternational.org/resource/article/priscilla-papers-academic-journal/weaker-sex-or-weak-translation-strengthening-our/ If we take “vessel” literally to mean “pottery,”  he says, Peter is telling husbands to use the handling of valued and fragile heirlooms as the example for how to treat wives. Far from misogyny, as Wu sums up the message, “women should be honored despite the shameful treatment they have often endured by men in their society.”

J. N. D. Kelly of Britain’s Oxford University put a contemporary sexual gloss on the “vessel” discussion. Examining debates over the Greek word for the weaker “vessel,” he contended that the sense of that noun in this text is “wife” or “sexual partner.” Therefore, the teaching here is that in relations in general and “particularly their sexual relations with their wives, Christian husbands should not assert their strength arbitrarily or make selfish demands” but “respect their partners’ scruples.”

To Spanish Catholic Jose Cervantes Gabarron, the over-all I Peter passage teaches this: “All Christians, men as well as women, masters as well as slaves, the young with the old, are called to maintain good conduct in service and honor toward all others, with a transparent and humble heart, capable of sacrificing themselves for the good of the rest.” For all of Peter’s advocacy of “submissive” wives (3:1), he expressed a distinctly enlightened view in the context of 2,000 years ago.

Added note: Unlike, say, with St. Paul and others, we know for a fact that St. Peter was married (Matthew 8:14), and that she accompanied him on missionary journeys (I Corinthians 9:5).

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