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. 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.
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.
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. 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.’
(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.
 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.
 For fuller explanation, see Andrew Bartlett, Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts, chapters 7 and 8.
 It reached the Roman Catholic Douay-Rheims-Challoner version a little earlier, in the mid-eighteenth century.
 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.
In Part 1, I raised a question: what is the worst mistranslation in our English Bibles relating to women?
Taking ‘worst’ in the sense of the mistranslation with the least shred of justification, we looked at the common mistranslation of 1 Corinthians 11:10, which takes a head covering to be a “sign” or “symbol” of man’s authority over woman. However, this creative paraphrase had the excuse that translators have struggled to understand Paul’s reasoning in that chapter. So, in the end I awarded the prize to the translation of ‘Junia’ as ‘Junias’ in Romans 16:7. This had zero reliable evidence to support it.
What if we now take ‘worst’ to mean the mistranslation with the most negative description of women?
For this category, I don’t think there is any rival to 2 Timothy 3:6.
2 Timothy 3:6
Paul is writing to Timothy with a pastoral purpose. In chapter 3 he is writing about the impact of certain false teachers. They are probably involved in magic (sorcery). He compares them in 3:8-9 with Jannes and Jambres, the magicians who opposed Moses, and in 3:13 uses the term goēs, which means a magician. They are targeting women. Paul says that the false teachers enter into homes and capture gunaikaria (literally, ‘little women’), who are laden with sins and led away by various lusts, always learning and never being able to come to a knowledge of the truth. Evidently the reason why the gunaikaria are led away and unable to come to know the truth is that they are under the sway of the false teachers.
Greek gunaikaria is the plural of gunaikarion, which is the ordinary word for a woman, with a diminutive ending added. Use of the diminutive often connotes affection, as in Mark 5:23 and 7:25 (‘little daughter’) and Mark 7:27-28 (‘little doggies’/’puppies’). Paul’s use of the diminutive in 2 Timothy 3 points to the women’s youth and immaturity. His pastoral heart goes out to them because their immaturity makes them vulnerable to the predatory false teachers. We can see a similarity here with Jesus’ concern for ‘little ones’, who should be cared for, not caused to stumble (Matthew 18:6 and parallels).
The path to negative mistranslation in English began in the latter part of the sixteenth century. Wycliffe (14th century), Tyndale (1526/1534) and Coverdale (1535) had omitted to translate the diminutive. But the Geneva Bible (1557/1599) added ‘simple’ to ‘women’. The King James Version (1611) then changed ‘simple’ to ‘silly’, probably following the lead of the Rheims New Testament 1582, which had ‘seely women’.
At least 19 English versions have followed the KJV in describing the women as ‘silly’. When the KJV was written, ‘seely’ or ‘silly’ was an ambiguous term. It could mean ‘defenceless’ / ‘deserving of pity’ or, like ‘simple’, it could mean ‘foolish’ / ‘empty-headed’. Only the latter meaning has survived into contemporary English. Subsequent translators may have re-used this word because they attributed to Paul the traditional cultural view that women are inherently defective in their nature. So, instead of these women rightly being ‘immature’ (CEB) or ‘vulnerable’ (5 versions), they are regarded as ‘silly’. Others describe them as ‘idle’ (2 versions), ‘gullible’ (5 versions), ‘weak-minded’ (2 versions) or ‘weak-willed’ (2 versions). But this is not negative enough for some. In the Amplified Bible they are ‘morally weak and spiritually-dwarfed’.
Translations which are so rudely negative about the women do not seem to me to be justified or realistic, given Paul’s emphasis on patient love for others (1 Corinthians 13), the warmth and respectfulness of his relationships with women (see Romans 16), and his evident pastoral purpose in 2 Timothy 3. When Paul points out to Timothy that the women are laden with sins and unable to learn, he is evoking Timothy’s sympathy for their desperate plight, in their captivity to the false teachers. We have here a diminutive indicating youth or immaturity, and plausibly connoting affection, but translators have proceeded as if Paul were contemptuous of the women. This fits well with the caricature of Paul the misogynist, but not with the pastoral context or the likely reality.
I would award the prize for the mistranslation with the most negative description of women to the Amplified Bible’s paraphrase of 2 Timothy 3:6, which portrays them as ‘morally weak and spiritually-dwarfed’.
Difficulties of translation
To retain a proper sense of perspective, let me emphasize that I am not suggesting that Bible translation is easy, nor should anyone think that I am trying to blame translators for not doing better.
First of all, to produce a good translation is inherently difficult. Because of the very nature of languages, and because each language sits within a different culture, exact translation is an impossibility.
Second, it is inevitable that translators are strongly influenced by their predecessors’ word choices. In a Bible translation project there simply isn’t time to spend hours on a single verse, reading around the literature which discusses it and re-investigating afresh every possibility of how it could be translated. If translators did that, no translation would ever get finished and published.
Third, it takes confidence and courage to depart significantly from what others have done before, which readers have become accustomed to. It has rightly been said: ‘every translation of the Bible has been condemned by someone as soon as it rolled off the press. It is preeminently an act of selfless love that the translator engages in this task at all’.
Most translations are very good most of the time, and we all owe a great debt to those who labor in this work.
In Part 3, we will consider another category – what is the worst mistranslation relating to women in the sense of the most misleading?
In this series we’ve been considering the question: what is the worst mistranslation in our English Bibles relating to women?
We’ve been looking at ‘the worst’ in different senses. We looked at the mistranslation with the least shred of justification (Part 1) and the one with the most negative description of women (Part 2). In Part 2 I included a reminder of the difficulties of Bible translation. We all owe a great debt to those who labor in this work and produce translations for us to use which most of the time are very good.
Moving on, which mistranslation is the most misleading?
For this category, it’s hard to choose between 1 Corinthians 7:4 and 1 Timothy 5:13. Let’s take a look.
1 Corinthians 7:4
The ESV is sometimes regarded as making translation choices which are biased against women. But at 1 Corinthians 7:4 it comes through with flying colors. It faithfully follows the Greek when it says: ‘For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.’
Some other versions have baulked at such a plain statement of the authority of each marriage partner over the other. According to the 1984 NIV, ‘the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife’. According to WE, ‘the husband does not have full right over his own body. But his wife has a right to it.’ TPT says: ‘Neither the husband nor the wife have exclusive rights to their own bodies, …’ These translations water down Paul’s words, apparently to avoid having to say that the wife has authority over the husband. Unfortunately, that is rather misleading.[i]
1 Timothy 5:13
In 1 Timothy 5:13, younger widows are traditionally described as ‘gossips’ (or ‘tattlers’ or ‘prattlers’) and ‘busybodies’, who say things that they ought not to say. A translation on these lines appears in most English versions from the 16th century to the present day. It paints a stock picture of gossipy women, poking their noses into other people’s business. Paul appears to be guilty of a misogynistic generalization about younger widows.
The word ‘gossips’ translates the Greek term ‘phluaros’. But this translation is not derived from the context. Nor is there any clear instance in ancient Greek literature where phluaros means ‘gossips’ or ‘gossipy’. It normally refers to talking nonsense. The traditional mistranslation of phluaros was corrected in the 2011 NIV. ‘Talking nonsense’ corresponds with the description of false teaching in 1 Tim. 1:6 as ‘meaningless talk’ (NIV) and as profane empty utterances in 6:20 and 2 Timothy 2:16. This is what the women are saying. ‘Gossips’ is definitely wrong.
‘Busybodies’ is probably wrong also. The Greek term ‘periergos’ means a meddler and refers more specifically to meddling by means of magic arts (sorcery). In Ephesus, a well-known center for magic, this would be expected (compare Acts 19:19, which contains the only other use of this word in the NT). Among the things which these women ought not to say are their magical incantations.[ii]
Paul does not think that all younger widows are gossips and busybodies. His concern is about these particular younger widows in Ephesus. They are probably false teachers, dabbling in magic, a probability that has been obscured by the traditional translations.
I’m not sure which is more misleading, translating 1 Corinthians 7:4 so as to obscure the wife’s mutual authority over the husband, or translating 1 Timothy 5:13 in a way that makes the younger widows into gossips rather than talkers of nonsense. The first has practical implications for Christian marriage. The second has a bearing on how we understand the issue of false teaching at Ephesus, which Paul commissioned Timothy to deal with. So, I would declare them joint winners.
In our final part, we will consider the mistranslation with the greatest impact on women.
[ii] For more information, see Andrew Bartlett, Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts (IVP, 2019), 253-263.
What is the worst mistranslation in our English Bibles relating to women?
We’ve been looking at ‘the worst’ in different senses. Having looked at the mistranslation with the least shred of justification (Part 1), the one with the most negative description of women (Part 2), and the most misleading (Part 3), we finish our series with .
Setting the scene
In the debate over whether the Bible permits or prohibits women pastors, 1 Timothy 2:12 takes a central place. There are numerous conflicting interpretations on each side of the debate. Broadly, complementarians understand Paul to be laying down a general rule that prohibits women from giving authoritative teaching to men. But egalitarians understand Paul to be dealing with a specific situation of false teaching in Ephesus, not laying down a general rule. Paul’s accompanying reference to Genesis is understood in correspondingly different ways. Egalitarians tend to see 1 Tim. 2:13-14 as an illustration to support what he says, but complementarians tend to see it as an appeal to a general creation principle of male authority.
There are reputable evangelical scholars on each side of this debate. When I started writing Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts, I fully expected to find reasonably strong and finely balanced arguments on both sides, meaning that any conclusion about women pastors could only be tentative. But I was surprised to find that the complementarian position on this issue was more fragile than I had expected. One of the biggest surprises for me concerned the translation of 1 Timothy 2:12.
1 Timothy 2:12
Here is 1 Timothy 2:12 in the ESV: ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.’
This translation indicates that Paul is not permitting the ordinary exercise of authority by a woman over a man. The implied reason for this position is something in the woman-man relationship, and this feeds in to how vv 13-14 are read.
When ESV translates the Greek verb authenteō as ‘exercise authority’, this is in line with about 30 English versions, which use the same or similar words (often, ‘have authority’).
But there are also many alternative translations, including ‘usurp authority over’ (KJV), ‘dictate to’ (TLV), ‘lord it over’ (TLB), and ‘instigate conflict toward’ (ISV). In these translations, Paul is not permitting a woman to do something that no one should do, whether man or woman.
There has been uncertainty over how to translate authenteō throughout the history of English versions, ever since John Wycliffe and his helpers made the first complete Bible translation into English from the Latin Vulgate in the 14th century. In the Wycliffe Bible the full phrase appears as ‘nether to haue lordschip on the hosebonde’ (neither to have lordship on the husband).
This word authenteō is not Paul’s ordinary word for the exercise of authority. It is an unusual word, which is not used anywhere else in the New Testament, so it is important to look at other Greek writings to see what it means. For example, in the late fourth century, John Chrysostom warned husbands not to ‘authent’ their wives (in Homily 10 on Colossians 3:18–25). He was expounding Paul’s warning to husbands not to act harshly towards their wives (v 19). Chrysostom was a firm believer in male authority, so he was certainly not warning husbands against the ordinary exercise of authority over their wives. He was telling husbands not to do something harsh, probably something like ‘act the despot’ or ‘act autocratically’, or ‘domineer’.
Why are there so many different translations of this one Greek word in English versions? The reason is that over the centuries it was used with a variety of different meanings.
But among this variety, the stunning fact is that in all the centuries of Greek literature before the time of Paul, during Paul’s lifetime, and for about three centuries after Paul, there is not even one clear example of authenteō being used in the sense ‘exercise authority’ or ‘have authority’. The only clear examples are from the fourth century AD onwards. The available evidence does not show that Paul, as a Greek speaker in the first century, would have been aware of this later meaning. I think we can be confident that it is a mistranslation.
Translating as ‘exercise authority’ or something similar is an important element in the complementarian understanding that 1 Timothy 2:12 prohibits women pastors. Without this translation, the complementarian position on women’s ministry is much more difficult to maintain. I would therefore award to this translation the prize for the mistranslation that probably has the greatest impact on women.
 For details, see Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts (IVP, 2019), 268-270, 278, 372-375.
 The earliest example I am aware of, where someone may have understood Paul to mean ‘exercise authority’, is from the third century, in Origen’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 14:34-35. Origen quotes part of 1 Tim. 2:12, but he does not specifically discuss the meaning of authenteō, so it is hard to be sure exactly how he understood that particular word.