Wives, Women or Deaconesses?
Jul 18, 2011 by Craig Blomberg | 8 Comments
“In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything” (1 Timothy 3:11, updated NIV).
Unfortunately, many Bible readers today form opinions about the merits of various translations based on hearsay rather than firsthand examination of the text of Scripture, even if that hearsay is quite mistaken or slanted in what it claims. Sometimes people just accept the opinion of a trusted authority in their lives. Maybe they base their decision solely on the rendering of a single verse, or collection of verses on the same topic or involving the same issue. Some people stress very literal renderings at the expense of clarity of meaning, or freshness of style at the expense of faithfulness to the original languages.
Having read large swaths of many of the major English translations of the Bible and having been involved in the production of four of the major recent translations (ESV, HCSB, NLT and updated NIV), I am convinced that the updated NIV achieves the best combination of accuracy and clarity of meaning most frequently. Each translation has its appropriate niche, but the NIV seems to serve best the broadest cross-section of purposes and audiences. This is the third in a series of blogs, appearing more frequently than in the past, which looks at a diverse collection of texts and topics that I believe support my conviction.
It’s interesting to analyze translations that advertise themselves today as “essentially literal.” The adverb clearly allows for the occasional deviation from fully literal, presumably for good reason, but in reality it’s very hard to predict when these deviations will occur, and often they seem to be driven by a theological rather than a linguistic agenda. Consider 1 Timothy 3:11, for example. Tucked into the middle of a discussion of diakonoi (usually translated “deacons” but theoretically just “servants”) is a verse that begins, gunaikas hosautōs. There is no debate among scholars as to the literal meaning of these two words; they mean “women likewise” The debate is over their interpretation. Some think the women refer to deacon’s wives; others, to women deacons.
To be true to its mandate, then, any even reasonably literal translation in English should use the word “women.” This forecloses on no interpretive options. Readers may interpret these women to be whoever they think fits best in this context and with Paul’s and Scripture’s teaching elsewhere.
The Latin Vulgate, the official Catholic Bible for a millennium, like the two most widely used contemporary English Catholic translations, the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible, use “women” (or the Latin equivalent). The King James Era standard Spanish and French translations both used the words in those language that meant “women” rather than those that swung the pendulum exclusively in one of the two main interpretive directions. Although the KJV used “wives,” the ASV (1901) that updated the KJV changed it to “women.” The NASB, an update of the ASV, preserved “women.” The RSV preserved “women” as did the NRSV. But the ESV, also a revision of the RSV, reverted to the biased rendering “wives” and gratuitously added “their” to modify it, to which nothing in the Greek corresponds. The original NIV had already done this, though it did acknowledge “deaconesses” in a footnote as an alternative. The more recent NET and HCSB also revert to “wives.”
The TNIV arguably swung the pendulum a tiny bit too far by rendering “women” but then putting in a footnote, “probably women who are deacons, or possibly deacons’ wives.” In fact, scholarship overwhelmingly supports the likelihood of “women who are deacons” but, in the volatile evangelical audience of the family of NIV translations, to skew the balance in favor of women deacons over deacons’ wives was probably ill-advised. The updated NIV gets it right—put “women” in the text, with the footnote, “possibly deacons’ wives or women who are deacons,” without indicating a preference one way or the other. The ESV on the other hand, makes no allowance for deaconesses or women deacons, even in their footnote, noting only the options of leaving out “their” before “wives,” and of substituting “women” for “wives.” This is not being essentially literal!
How can God’s people submit themselves to an inerrant Bible that should wield authority over them when translators introduce speculative interpretations for them in an imbalanced way without ever acknowledging that that is what they are doing? How can denominations or churches ever correct their ecclesiology if those who create translations for them change the text of Scripture to fit errant practice by those denominations and then turn around and censure translations that don’t, as the Southern Baptists have recently done with the updated NIV? Al Mohler, president of Southern Seminary in a 2002 news article, was shockingly quoted as exulting over the HCSB, “we will have a major translation we can control” (http://www.bpnews.net/bpnews.asp?id=13580, accessed July 17, 2011). Stay as far away as possible from anyone who thinks that is appropriate behavior. The Vatican ultimately controls the Catholic Bibles. Crossway Publishers control the ESV. Zondervan and Biblica, however, have no control over the Committee on Bible Translation that produces successive editions of the NIV; that committee is an independent entity. The Bible must always be allowed to control Christians; Christians, however well-intentioned, must never try to control the Bible!