Chapter 5: Writing Women Out of the English Bible
… all biblical translations are written by human hands.
A conveniently forgotten truth, that translations are written by fallible humans. This truth is one to hold onto, my friends.
By fall 1997, the battle lines were drawn. Secular culture, especially the feminist movement, was changing Scripture in a dangerous way, and it was time for Christians to fight back.
The exact note I have in my book for this quote is, “Oh, GAG.” And this “battle”? Gender inclusive language in the Bible, something that from Barr’s historian point of view is more accurate than the male dominated language. Barr says the following:
Yet, as a medieval historian, I know that Christians translated Scripture in gender-inclusive ways long before the feminist movement. I’ll admit that the debate also scares me. It scares me for the same reason that it amuses me: because gender-inclusive language has a long history in the church, the debate shows how much modern evangelical Christians have forgotten church history.
This is just a funny little tidbit here. These Christians in 1997 thought the feminist movement was so dangerous, that it was such a big deal, when in reality the gender debate was nothing new. Do they even know church history? Seems not.
The Protestant Reformation changed how the Bible was used by Christians, but it didn’t introduce the Bible to Christians. English translations of biblical text existed long before the Reformation.
Just a little reminder for everyone that the Reformation wasn’t the beginning of it all. It wasn’t the beginning of Christianity, and it certainly wasn’t the beginning of the Bible. The Bible published as a single bound book happened in the 1500s, but the Bible did exist before it was a single bound book.
I was struck by how the SBC leaders harped on 1 Timothy 3:2, that overseers should be husband of one wife. They used this as ironclad proof that senior pastors had to be men. Yet Lucy Peppiatt shows us how 1 Timothy 3, the chapter so often cited by the male leaders of the conservative resurgence as articulating why only men can preach, was shaped by English-language translations to look more masculine than it actually is. We assume 1 Timothy 3:1-13 is referencing men in leadership roles (overseer/bishop and deacon). But is this because of how our English Bibles translate the text? Whereas the Greek text uses the words whoever and anyone, with the only specific reference to man appearing in verse 12 (a literal Greek translation of the phrase is “one woman man,” referencing the married state of deacons), modern English Bibles have introduced eight to ten male pronouns within the verses. None of those male pronouns in our English Bibles are in the Greek text. Peppiatt concludes that the problem with female leadership is not actually the biblical text; it is the “relentless and dominant narrative of male bias” in translations.
“Whoever” and “anyone,” you say? Interesting. Those original pronouns sure do seem gender neutral. I wonder why they were changed? A head-scratcher, for sure. Here’s just 1 Timothy 3:4-7 (NIV) with all the male pronouns in bold:
4 He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him, and he must do so in a manner worthy of full respect. 5 (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) 6 He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. 7 He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil’s trap.
Please don’t ever think that pronouns are insignificant.
From this perspective, gender-inclusive language isn’t distorting Scripture. Gender-inclusive language is restoring Scripture from the influence of certain English Bible translations.
Well, what a refreshing shift in perspective. And from a historian, no less.
The English Bible makes it clear that Genesis 2:22-24 sanctifies marriage. Yet neither the word marriage nor the word wife appear in the Hebrew text.
Genesis 2:22-24 (KJV), often under the heading “Institution of Marriage”: “And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman, and brought her unto the man. And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh.”
Funny side-note: Several years ago, I and my husband were actually a part of a Bible study called “Leave and Cleave.” It was … not our favorite.
Chapter 6: Sanctifying Subordination
Medieval women moved closest to equality with men when they were furthest from the married state.
Well that’s just not Christian. Come on now. Moving along…
After the Reformation, the spiritual economy flipped, so wives received the highest honors, followed by widows. This time, virgins — now demeaned as spinsters instead of celebrated as saints — brought up the rear.
This is sounding more Christian. Phew!
To be a Christian woman was to be under the authority of men.
This is definitely the Christianity I know. Huzzah!
During the nineteenth century, a similar fixation with female purity emerged — stemming from a new ideology about women, work, and family life — which historians call the cult of domesticity.
OK, back to reality. I don’t want to be part of a cult. Do you?
Purity culture thus shamed women in the nineteenth century as it continues to shame women today.
(Because that’s what Jesus came to do: shame women. Among other things, of course.) Barr goes on in this section to chronicle many of the times that people broke the “rules” and Jesus responded with love. So if a girl let her bra strap show at Bible camp, Jesus wouldn’t condemn her.
Once again, the world in which we live oppresses women, fighting to control their bodies from their “natural” fallenness. … Once again, the God we serve has always done the opposite. Jesus has always set women free.
And to this I say as genuinely as it gets, “Thank you, Jesus.”
Perhaps the most famous early proponent of complementarity was the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. In his famous text Emile, he expounded his philosophy of education for women, arguing that “the search for abstract and speculative truths, for principles and axioms in science, for all that tends to wide generalization, is beyond a woman’s grasp; their studies should be thoroughly practical.”
“Quit being so selfish, Jean,” and give the women some credit. And speaking of practical, Jean, I’d like to see where we’d be today if it weren’t for women.
What evangelicals have failed to realize, explains Randall Balmer, is that the “traditional concept of femininity” that we believe to be from the Bible is nothing more than “a nineteenth-century construct.”
Christians, oh CHRISTIANS, did you hear that? Certainly we can believe that we are above adhering to a nineteenth-century human-made construct, right? Right. Good. Moving on.
History matters, and for modern evangelical women, nineteenth-century history has mattered far more than it ever should have.
See you next time for chapters 7-8.