In Lost in Translation, Part 1, Bob showed that some words in the Bible are translated differently when they refer to women as opposed to when they refer to men. Case in point: Phoebe’s depiction as servant and helper rather than minister and leader. Today he addresses the impact of translation on our understanding of 1 Timothy 2:12-15.
So, what went wrong?
In the 4th century A.D. the church became the state religion of the Roman Empire. It may be said of this merger that Christianity altered Rome. I think it may be equally said,however, that this merger altered Christianity, and not for the better.
Gender bias in translation did not begin with the English language; it started in the 4th century, when St. Jerome helped to translate the Bible into Latin (the Vulgate). Words took on new meanings, and passages that might put women on equal footing with men were altered, in some cases subtly, in others more dramatically.
In the Vulgate version we find the first change in the translation of “prostatis”.1 Jerome was a man of his times; in other words, a very patriarchal Roman. He had a negative view of women and is quoted as saying, “a wife is classed with the greatest evils”. 2 Not a very Christian sentiment, but a very Roman one. During the Punic Wars, for instance, Rome blamed women for their defeats, in much the same way as Nazi leaders blamed Jews for the defeat of Germany in World War I. Women were the scapegoats of the Empire, and strictly subjugated to male authority.
1 Timothy 2:12
It was also Jerome who significantly—and for all time since—altered the meaning of 1 Timothy 2:12. This passage allegedly prohibits women from teaching or leading men in the church. Thanks largely to Jerome’s example, a key verb here (authentein) has been translated “to exercise authority”. In Jerome’s time, it was rendered more in terms of “having dominion over” or “dominating” a man. Prior to this, the word more commonly referred to the instigation or commission of an act of violence, suicide or murder. In the Greek Septuagint, for example, a noun form of the word (authentas) refers to those who engaged in ritual violence in the worship of a false god.3
In Timothy’s time and locale, the goddess Cybele (called Artemis by the Greeks) was worshipped through violent rituals against men that symbolized the murder/suicide of a false god named Attis4 . In his letter to Timothy, Paul repeatedly warns against false doctrines, mythology and extreme forms of self-denial (1 Timothy 1:3-7, 4:1-5, 6:20-21), referring to the false teaching and related practices as “demonic”. The violent act symbolizing the death of Attis was indeed an extreme form of self-denial. Male priests of Cybele and Attis renounced all sexual feeling, irrevocably, through ritual castration.
Prior to Jerome’s translation, 1 Timothy 2:12 would probably not have been understood as a prohibition against female authority. It is more likely–given the most common usage of “authentein,” the nature of Paul’s concerns, and the context of the letter—that it is a prohibition against women teaching or instigating ritual violence against men.5
Saved through Childbearing?
1 Timothy 2 also discusses the salvation of women in “childbearing” (v.15). Jerome believed that women literally received salvation in Christ by bearing children.6 His belief utterly contradicts the New Testament gospel message of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. Most Christians today reject his interpretation of childbirth, but for some reason continue to uphold his interpretation about women in the church. (More on “saved through childbearing” here.)
In contrast to Jerome’s views, in Miletus, just south of Ephesus, Artemis was worshiped as the goddess who “saved” women should they die in childbirth.7 Rather than worship a false goddess, Paul encourages women worried about dying in childbirth to receive salvation through “faith, love, and holiness” (v. 15). All Christians, men and women, are saved by faith that is expressed through love and holiness. We also know that in the creation myths of Artemis and Attis, the female deity was portrayed as the source of all life and goodness, and the male deity as the source of evil.8 In contrast, Paul quotes the creation account from Genesis, in which Adam is a source of life and Eve plays a role in humanity’s fall (v. 13).
The nature of Paul’s concerns, the most common meanings of the verb “authentein,” and the religious and cultural context in which these verses were written are all lost in Jerome’s Latin translation of 1 Timothy 2:12-15. Subsequent translations into German and English followed this example.9 Concerns about false teaching and violent rituals were replaced with warnings against women.
So, does the Bible tell us that men may lead and women may not? Does it tell us that men may teach and women may not? The Greek New Testament does not tell us these things.
In its original language and context the Bible does not teach this, anywhere.
If you’d like to know more about this difficult passage, we have a great article for you on our Resources page.
1McCabe, E. (2013). A reexamination of Phoebe as a “Diakonos” and “Prostatis”: Exposing the inaccuracies of English translations, Retrieved from: http://www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?articleId=830
2Wijngaards, J. (2013). St. Jerome Against Jovinianus, Book 1 § 27-28, Retrieved from http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/jerome.asp#burden
3Wilshire, L.E. (2010). Insight into two biblical passages: Anatomy of a prohibition 1 Timothy 2:12, the TLG computer, and the Christian church. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.
4Ferguson, J. (1970). The religions of the Roman Empire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
5Edwards, B. (2013). Let my people go: A call to end the oppression of women in the church, Charleston, SC: Createspace.
6Wijngaards, J. (2013). St. Jerome Against Jovinianus, Book 1 § 27-28, Retrieved from http://www.womenpriests.org/traditio/jerome.asp#burden
7Farnell, L.R. (1977). The cults of the Greek states: Volume II. New Rochelle, NY: Caratzas Brothers, Publishers.
8Ferguson, J. (1970). The religions of the Roman Empire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
9Wilshire, L.E. (2010). Insight into two biblical passages: Anatomy of a prohibition 1 Timothy 2:12, the TLG computer, and the Christian church. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, Inc.
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