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’.[1] 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.[2] 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.

[1] For details, see Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts (IVP, 2019), 268-270, 278, 372-375.

[2] 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.