Here’s a question: what is the worst mistranslation in our English Bibles relating to women?

Andrew Bartlett, author of this series, is author of a fine book about women in the NT and in churches today.

I started thinking about this question after I wrote Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts (IVP, 2019), where I reviewed the debates between complementarians and egalitarians. Trying to decide between competing interpretations, I kept finding that there were doubtful translations in past and even present English versions. Translations were sometimes distorted by unwarranted assumptions that were not in the text.[1] I wasn’t surprised that there were some examples of this; what I hadn’t expected was that there were so many.

You may think that before my question can be answered I need to say what I mean by ‘the worst’. It could mean the mistranslation with the least shred of justification, or the one with the most negative description of women, or the one that is the most misleading, or the one with the greatest impact on women.

Instead of choosing between these categories, I’ll look at each in turn.

In this first part, which mistranslation gets the prize for having the least shred of justification?

1 Corinthians 11:10

A very strong contender in this category is the mistranslation of the first ten words of 1 Corinthians 11:10. The Greek is not particularly difficult. In Tyndale’s translation (1526/1534) and in the King James Version (1611), with spelling modernized, we have ‘For this cause ought the woman to have power on her head’. In modern English we can render it as ‘Because of this a woman ought to have authority [Greek exousia] over [Greek epi] her head.’

However, since the Revised Version of 1881, many translators have offered a bold paraphrase, along the lines that a woman ought to have a ‘sign’ or ‘symbol’ of authority on her head. This paraphrase makes Paul’s words fit a hierarchical understanding of relations between men and women, in which a woman wears something on her head (such as a veil) to show that she is under a man’s authority.

The problem with this paraphrase is that it is entirely lacking in linguistic or textual support:

  • The added words ‘sign of’ or ‘symbol of’ are a creative invention. They do not reflect any words in the Greek text.
  • It reverses the meaning of the expression ‘have authority’. The translators’ paraphrase is not intended to convey anything about the woman’s authority. It is intended to convey the opposite, namely, that she is in subjection to someone else’s authority. But when a person has authority over something or someone, it means they are in charge of them or in control of them. The word exousia is very common. It occurs over 100 times in the New Testament alone. No-one has found any other example, whether in the Bible or in the whole of ancient Greek literature, in which a phrase about a person having authority (exousia) is used in a reversed sense of being in subjection to an authority rather than being the possessor of the authority. The Greek text speaks not of an authority to which a woman is subject but of authority that she ought herself to have.
  • Exactly the same Greek expression for authority over (exousian . . . epi) is used in Luke 10:19, where Jesus says to the seventy-two: ‘I have given you authority . . . over [exousian . . . epi] all the power of the enemy.’ This means what it says. The seventy-two were not put in subjection under the power of the enemy, nor were they given a sign of their subjection to the enemy. There is no warrant for understanding this same Greek expression any differently in 1 Corinthians 11:10. The translation is straightforward: the woman ought to have authority over her head.

In my view the correct understanding of this verse, which fits properly into Paul’s train of reasoning, is that it is about hairstyles during corporate worship at Corinth. In that context, a woman’s long hair hanging down hinted at availability for sexual liaisons, which was not appropriate. Paul wants women to exercise their authority over their own heads by putting up their hair.[2]

Although this example is a strong contender, I think it falls short of the prize, because translators have struggled to understand Paul’s overall argument in 1 Corinthians 11, so to a degree it is understandable that some creative paraphrasing has been employed.

Romans 16:7

I think the prize for the least shred of justification has to go to the mistranslation of ‘Junia’ (a woman) in Romans 16:7 as ‘Junias’ (a man).

Writing about 390, Chrysostom’s comments on Rom. 16:7 show unambiguously that he believed Junia to be a woman apostle (not one of the Twelve, but a church planter). It appears that he had independent information that she and Andronicus were of note because of their great achievements as apostles. To this day the Greek church retains traditions about their ministry and celebrates it. Junia is duly female in Tyndale and in the KJV.

‘Junia’ was a reasonably common female name – several hundred examples are known from antiquity. The male equivalent was ‘Junius’. There is no reliable evidence of even one person in antiquity named ‘Junias’. There was a male name ‘Junianus’, but no evidence has been found that this was ever shortened to ‘Junias’. There is no reasonable doubt that Junia was a woman.

However, at some point scribes and translators started worrying about the propriety of a woman being an apostle. So, for example, Luther’s German version (1522) turned Junia into a man called Junias. This reached Protestant English versions with the Revised Version of 1881.[3] The logic was simple:

(1) if the name ‘Junias’ actually existed, then, grammatically, the Greek word referring to Junia in Rom. 16:7 could be regarded as masculine instead of feminine;

(2) it was unthinkable that a woman could have been an apostle;


(3) in Rom. 16:7 Paul must have been commending a male apostle named Junias.

Anyone who doubts the impact of history upon the present should take a look at this verse on Bible Gateway. As at September 2020, Junia had suffered a gender reassignment in 15 out of the 59 English versions available on the website.

What evidence has been offered to support translating ‘Junia’ as ‘Junias’?

(1) Some writers rely on a Latin translation of a Greek text by Origen, where Junia’s name is masculine. But even complementarian scholars acknowledge: ‘Origen seems to cite the name once as masculine and once as feminine, though the masculine is most likely a later corruption of his text.’[4]

(2) Others rely on a sentence in a work sometimes attributed to Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis in Cyprus, who was a contemporary of Chrysostom. The writer’s grammar shows that he thought Junia was a man, who became an episkopos (overseer/elder/bishop). But the previous sentence refers to Priscilla (Prisca) as a man who became an episkopos! Even a cursory glance at what is said about Priscilla in Scripture is sufficient to show that she was certainly a woman (see Rom. 16:3; Acts 18:2, 18, 26; 1 Cor. 16:19; 2 Tim. 4:19). This writing is therefore not reliable testimony on the sex of the persons mentioned. The attribution of this work to Epiphanius is doubtful. He had a reputation for scholarship and it is very unlikely that he made such an elementary mistake about Priscilla. It may be better dated in the eighth century. There is no reasonable justification for relying on this obviously unreliable work as evidence that Junia was a man.

This evidence is so weak, and the evidence on the other side is so strong, that I would award to ‘Junias’ the prize for the mistranslation with the least shred of justification.

In Part 2 we will look at the mistranslation with the most negative description of women.

[1] When this occurs, it does not necessarily mean that the translators themselves share the assumptions. They may simply believe that those assumptions were held by the biblical writers.

[2] For fuller explanation, see Andrew Bartlett, Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts, chapters 7 and 8.

[3] It reached the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims-Challoner version a little earlier, in the mid-eighteenth century.

[4] Michael H. Burer and Daniel B. Wallace, ‘Was Junia really an apostle?’ A Reexamination of Romans 16:7’ 2001 NTS 47: 76-91 (emphasis added). For discussion of other translation issues raised by Burer and Wallace, see Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts, 303-306.