I think to me the really haunting thing about The Odyssey is where it comes from…an oral tradition of stories about the heroes and civilizations of the past. This oral tradition persisted for centuries, but it told stories of earlier ages when Greek-speaking peoples had big cities, vast networks of trade, and a system of writing. The civilizations of the Minoans and the Mycenaeans collapsed, and the peoples of the Aegean lost the technology of writing and their networks became more temporary, contingent, and ever-shifting. Even when they picked up a new system of writing at last from the Phoenicians (probably) centuries later, and began writing down the stories of Troy and Mycenae and Ithaca, they remained scattered, loosely connected, competing peoples. There was no more Minoan civilization; Mycenae was near mythical. They didn’t think of themselves yet as Hellenes. There is no word for a unitary Greek people in Homer. They thought of themselves as many different peoples. What haunts and intrigues me are the intervening centuries, the centuries without writing, when highly trained rhapsodes recited the tales not only of heroic ancestors but also of great palaces presided over by women like Penelope or Arete, palaces containing wealth barely imaginable to the listening audiences.
Imagine if much of our world collapsed in the near future, perhaps under the pressure of climate change (which some believe was a key factor in doing in the Mycenaeans.) Suppose our descendants lost stable contact and trade with each other and lost the technology of writing. Suppose there were no “Americans” anymore, and for seven hundred years, every city and its environs became its own culture with its unique dialects of English, Spanish, and other languages. The cities fight, establish trade or see trade crumble, raid each other, get overpopulated and send out colonizers to another region. Trained storytellers stand in the square or at the bar or at the pulpit reciting aloud the stories of past legendary people, Washington and Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. and all their exploits. They tell stories of women who wove spells out if arcane numerical symbols to send boats into the sky to the deserts of the moon, and of how an angry god smacked one of these Challenger boats out of the sky, furious as its intrusion. They’ll tell stories of the freeing of slaves and stories of people whose spirit left their body to talk to thousands of other people at once through tiny mirrors they carried in their garments. They’ll tell stories of wars fought over oceans by impossibly united tribes that launched fleets of a thousand ships, and fleets that sailed the sky and not only the waves.
And then one day, some people on another continent create a system of writing again. Perhaps in Nigeria or Brazil. Vast new empires awaken on other continents. Through piracy or trade, a writing system makes its way to the shores of this continent, and someone or someones, somewhere between the years 2800 and 3100, writes down a few epics, perhaps the Lincolniad (a story of warfare between kindred and the liberation of slaves) and the Apolliad (an odyssey across a star-filled sea to find the moon, with the explorers threatened by hungry space monsters, either aided or hindered by seductive and brilliant mathwitches, and harassed by the fury of an angry moon god). Audiences ooh and aaahh at the stories of a legendary past of unimaginable splendor. And the Lincolniad and the Apolliad become foundational texts of new civilizations, read and translated and studied for thousands of years.
A few weeks ago, I suggested that the usual translations of Ephesians 5:22 are too glib and misleading in modern English. You may see translations like “Wives, submit to your husbands” (KJV) or “Wives, be subject to your husbands” (NRSV) followed by a brief statement about how “the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church.” And this all sounds very cut and dry in modern English. We read it and hear something rather like: Wives, do what your husband says, much as you would if God were speaking.
But: this ancient letter to a church in Ephesus wasn’t written in modern English, and much of what we assume when we translate it is quite a bit off. And this is sad – not only because we translate this verse in ways that reinforce traditional gender hierarchies in our culture, but also because what we are losing in translation is really a lovely idea about spousal relationships that came with a shock to the Greco-Roman culture and that might potentially come with a bit of a shock to our modern American culture, too.
Specifically, I suggested that rather than submit, “in context, υποτασσομαι (hupotassomai) probably means to deploy yourself in support of your spouse against the enemy.”
In fact, I would suggest that a better translation might be something like one of these:
“Wives, support your husbands.”
“Wives, deploy yourselves in support of your husbands.”
“Wives, arrange yourselves for battle for your husbands.”
Or even, less literally:
“Wives, go to battle for your husbands.”
“Wives, defend your husbands.”
This new post (for those who requested it) is to make the case for why I and some others think this. It will be a long post, but hopefully interesting!
Now, I’m interested in this partly because I nerd out about ancient languages, but also because how we translate passages like this one has an enormous impact on our often very religious culture. (To say the least.) That means that translating verses from the New Testament isn’t just a matter of academic interest or scholarly quibbling; it matters to the lives of real people.
To understand what may have gone amiss in the translation of this often-quoted passage, we need to look at three things:
1. The etymology of the word that we’re translating as “submit” or “be subject to.”
2. The larger context of the letter in which this passage appears. This is not a standalone verse that we can just pluck out of context without altering its meaning; it is embedded inside of an extended metaphor.
3. The meaning of the word that we’re translating as “head.”
Here we go. This is going to be exciting!
PART ONE: ETYMOLOGY
So let’s look first at “submit.”
The word being translated here is the Koine Greek verb υποτασσομαι (hupotassomai). This is a combination of the verb τασσο (tasso) with the prefix υπο (hupo). What we miss right away in English is that this verb was a military term for arranging soldiers in ordered formation to confront an enemy. τασσο could be translated “set,” “arrange,” “order,” or “deploy.” The grammar is important, too. The ending of the word tells us we’re in the passive/middle voice. “Deploy -yourself- under.” What we’re talking about is not an ancient Greek word for abstract obedience but a concrete metaphor of military support.
Now this is about to get more nuanced and interesting, but first, here is a quick link to Strong’s, where you’ll see references to commentators noting that τασσο is “primarily military” and offering an array of possible English synonyms for that root verb:
– “/tasso (place in position, post) was commonly used in ancient military language for designating/appointing/commissioning a specific status…”
– “tasso was primarily a military term meaning ‘to draw up in order, arrange in place, assign, appoint, order…”
Now, you -could- read the verb that appears in Ephesians 5:22 as “place yourselves under your husband” and you might be -technically- correct, and then you might look, as past translators have, for something like “be subject to,” in order to render the verse in better, quicker English.
But … if you do that, you lose the military context of “hupotassomai,” which is about forming up for battle and about deploying or stationing yourself to support. And you also risk losing the context this passage is embedded in and the main thrust of the argument in which this verse appears. For that reason, this translation would be a bit misleading. It would also be too glib, inviting us to read the passage lazily (especially when reading the verse by itself, without the surrounding text). We might be encouraged to read into this passage confirmation of the norms of our own culture, rather than paying close attention to the context the ancient writer is speaking to and what they may be advocating.
So, now let’s look at the context…
PART TWO: CONTEXT
The phrase in which the KJV and some modern translations give “submit” for the verb “hupotassomai” is embedded within a passage that provides an extended military metaphor. It immediately follows sentences about forsaking the “bondage” of the ways in which people in their culture have lived in their past (Ephesians 5: 1-20) to live joyously instead in new ways, “singing and making melody…giving thanks for everything.” Then, following the bit about husband and wives, the passage goes on to build toward this closing argument of the letter, a few lines later: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his might. Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm…” etc. (Eph 6:10-13ff., NRSV).
The passage goes on from there to describe the armor of God in detail, in which each piece of armor metaphorically represents a particular skill or attribute that the early Christian must “put on.” For example, the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, etc. Whether the early Christian is male, female, or child, or whether master or servant (all are addressed in the preceding lines of the text), all are invited by the author to put on the full armor of God and deploy themselves against a spiritual enemy that is imagined as “the powers over this present darkness, the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
This is significant. The relationships being described here (spousal and otherwise) aren’t being described in the abstract or in isolation; the passage is about how to abandon the “darkness” and “bondage” of the past and how to support each other in standing firm against the forces of evil, fully armored and fully ready. That’s why the writer is using military verbs like τάσσω (“deploy” / “arrange in formation”).
Now let’s zoom out and look at a broader context: the larger epistolary literature that the original audience of Ephesians would have been familiar with. There are other passages in the New Testament about marriage, using similar metaphors. 1 Corinthians 7, for instance, in which husbands and wives are described as radically interdependent. In 1 Corinthians 7:4, Paul argues that each spouse yields authority to the other, using a military term for delegating power (ἐξουσιάζει, “exousiazei”); he also notes that he says this “not as a command” – something we often glide past in reading it. A few lines later, in 7:12-16, Paul suggests that when married to someone who is not a believer, the spouse shouldn’t discontinue the relationship for that reason but should do all they can to support their unbelieving spouse – because God has called them to εἰρήνη (“eirene”). We translate that “peace” – but it’s really different from the Roman peace, the “pax” that we’ve inherited in phrases like “rest in peace” or “restfulness.” It comes from the verb eirō – to tie or weave together. The idea is that we are to be woven together (elsewhere, in Romans, Paul asks all people to weave themselves together in love). For more on eirene, see Strong’s #1515: http://biblehub.com/greek/1515.htm
So in these passages about interdependency and support, the epistolary writers of the New Testament are addressing either the plight of Christian women with unChristian husbands and how to face the world together and speak your faith to a Greek or Roman husband who believes you’re property (this is the topic in 1 Corinthians 7:12-16) or the need for husband and wife to put on the armor of God and resist the devil (in Ephesians 5-6). Remember that at the time, these letters were being written to challenge hierarchy, not support it, and to propose a radical egalitarianism in human relationships, and that most Christians in first-century Europe were women. The teaching that we are all one body in Christ was a harder pill to swallow for men in the Roman Empire than it was for women. Their culture tells husbands to own their wives and rule them; the letter to Ephesus says instead to “love them” as they love their own selves (Ephesians 5), and the first letter of Peter says to treat wives as “fellow heirs in the grace of life” (1 Peter 3:7). Fellow heirs! That was a radical idea, especially given inheritance laws and expectations in the Roman empire.
So husbands who become believers in that first-century world are urged to love their wives and treat them as fellow heirs. As for wives – many of whom have husbands who have not converted – they’re being encouraged to deploy themselves in support of those husbands. Unbelieving husbands are pictured as vulnerable, still in bondage to old sins and old ways of thinking, half asleep and like soldiers blundering into enemy fire. In 1 Corinthians 7:16, Paul writes, “Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband.” And he adds, “Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife” (NRSV).
The verb “save” there is σῴζω (sozo), to rescue from destruction and bring the rescued to refuge or safety; we get the Greek word for “savior” from it. See Strong’s #4982: http://biblehub.com/greek/4982.htm
In the first century, there is no need for anyone to tell wives to obey their husbands; obedience is already an expectation in that culture. No, what the epistle-writers are arguing for is a radically interdependent relationship, yielding to and honoring each other. Husbands who have material power over their spouses in the Greco-Roman world are asked to love their wives (Ephesians 5), listen to them “with understanding” (1 Peter 3), and regard them as “fellow heirs.” Wives (many of whom in the early church have unconverted husbands) are encouraged to deploy themselves against “the powers of this present darkness” in support of their husbands who remain in bondage.
In review: I don’t think this passage is about “obedience.” First-century Christian women are being asked to deploy in support of their spouses because many of their spouses were not Christian, and Christian wives of non-Christian men had to figure out how to deal with that situation. 1 Corinthians 7 provides situationally specific advice about not trying to convert the spouse but instead bring love to the table. And Ephesians 5-6 emphasizes: Stand firm against the enemy. Support your spouse in the conflict. Who knows, but through your steadfast love, they might break free?
PART 3: “HEAD OF THE WIFE”
But, someone might ask, doesn’t the next phrase after “hupotasso” talk about the husband being the head of the wife?
Well, yes … and emphatically no.
The word used here in Greek is κεφαλή, “kephale.” It does mean “head.” In English, we understand that to –also– mean “authority” or “leader,” because “head” can mean both things in our language. The same is true in Latin – the word for head also means a commander. But that Latin idiom (which we inherited) doesn’t exist in ancient Greek, as far as we know.
κεφαλή in Koine Greek does have two meanings: “head” and “origin.” Origin, like the head of a spring or the head of a river. A “source.” Marg Mowczko summarizes some fairly extensive research documenting that κεφαλή did not mean “leader” or “ruler” or anything of that kind in Greek until long after these letters were written, and you can find that summary of the research here:
In the first-century letter to the Ephesians, when calling the husband “kephale,” the author may be alluding to one (or both) of the following:
1. The Hebrew lore, recorded in Genesis, that the first woman was formed from the side or rib of the first man.
2. The logistics of Greco-Roman society, by which the husband in the house is the provider and source of the house’s income and resources. The breadwinner. But the same word does not, by itself, mean “master.” That’s a different word in Greek.
So Ephesians 5:22-23 may be saying that just as Christ is the source and the provider for the church, husbands in Ephesus are the source of the provisions in the house. I don’t think either of these two statements is a new assertion; both are stated in the text like givens that the hearers or readers already understand. The writer uses these givens as points of support for the recommendations that follow: for husbands to love (not rule) their spouses; for husbands to act sacrificially on behalf of their spouses (even as Christ does for his community), and for wives to arrange themselves, like a battle-regiment, in support of their spouses.
CONCLUSION (OR RATHER, AN INVITATION TO LOOK DEEPER)
I suggest that the thrust of these passages is not that the husband is the boss, but that the husband in a Greco-Roman world is vulnerable. And it’s not that wives are to “obey” and “be subject” to their husbands, as we have it in modern English. Rather, it’s that wives are to go out to battle for their husbands’ souls.
I mean, really think about that for a moment.
These first-century writers are using an explicitly military term to describe the actions of wives. Rather than acting as passive vessels and subjects of male rule, the ideal of the Christian wife is the woman who issues forth in spiritual battle, dressed in “the full armor of God,” an agent by which Christ might “rescue” (from the verb σῴζω) others on the battlefield.
That’s what I believe we lost in translation.
I would propose that better translations of Ephesians 5:22 than “submit” or “be subject to” might be phrases like:
“Wives, support your husbands.”
“Wives, deploy yourselves in support of your husbands.”
“Wives, arrange yourselves for battle for your husbands.”
Or, less literally:
“Wives, go to battle for your husbands.”
“Wives, defend your husbands.”
POSTSCRIPTS AND POST-POSTSCRIPTS
P.S. For some fascinating textual evidence on the gender dynamics and the roles of women in the first 2-3 centuries of the early church, refer to God’s Self-Confident Daughters by Anne Jensen.
P.P.S. “Submit” doesn’t mean what we think it does, either, by the way. Centuries ago, we borrowed that word from Latin. It’s “sub” (under) plus the verb “mittere” (to send forth). We get the word “mission” from the same word. It’s a Roman military word — to send someone out, to deploy them in support. “I submit” once meant “I deploy myself” or “I support,” or “I send myself in support.” We’ve seen that word evolve over the centuries to mean “obey,” but it was originally a more nuanced word than that. We still retain faint echoes of that prior meaning in specific, formal circumstances. For example, I could conclude this post by writing this sentence:
[I submit to you that the translation “Wives, arrange yourselves for battle for your husbands” may be closer to the sense of the Greek than “Wives, submit to your husbands.”]
If I were to write that sentence, I would not be offering to obey you. I would just be saying that I am sending this idea out, respectfully and earnestly, for your consideration. I am placing this idea “under” you for your review and pondering.
That’s how slippery words really are. They don’t stay put for long. And in some cases, the slippages and the differences may seem subtle at first glance, but that doesn’t mean they are merely trivial.
P.P.P.S. I hope you’ve enjoyed this post. I offer it in a spirit of fascination. If there is a “message” I would like to convey, that message is twofold:
1. When diving into a sacred text – especially a very old one -take little for granted. (For the religious among us, reading humbly and assuming from the start that we and others have missed important things in the text is not a stance that questions God but a stance that can glorify God and humble man. It is a way of approaching the kingdom of heaven “like little children.” I talk more about this here: https://stantlitore.com/2014/12/12/why-christians-shouldnt-ignore-derrida/) For that matter, in offering a reading of Ephesians 5:22 that is focused on what I think some have left out, I may have left things out. There may be evidence I didn’t consider. The next reading of this text may be far deeper and more useful or more beautiful or more informed than this one. Take little for granted.
2. If you are reading this particular holy text, and what you are reading sounds like it confirms the traditional customs and fears of your culture, then take a second, hard look. We have inherited a lot of very Roman ideas about the Bible thanks to many centuries of filtering it through Latin and through English translations deeply influenced by the Latin. As I wrote in an earlier post, when you translate radical or subversive texts into the language of Empire, you eventually get Imperial texts.
Take that second, hard look … because the New Testament did not originate as an Imperial text. The New Testament isn’t about celebrating the status quo or about settling on a final, comfortable interpretation. It isn’t about affirming or building up a culture. It’s about cracking culture open – every culture, from Israel to Syria to Greece to Rome to Ethiopia – and letting the healing light of God pour through. It’s about turning all expectations upside-down, whipping money-changers out of the Temple, and challenging Pharisees on traditional and literalist interpretations of sacred texts. It’s about learning to live as the hands and feet of God — hands that feed the poor, liberate captives, and touch the faces of lepers; feet that carry good news to the downtrodden and that get pierced with nails by the powerful and the comfortable and the oppressors, as His feet were. It’s about reading everything in the light of the greatest commandments (love God and love your neighbor).
Remember the Bereans of Acts 17, who “received the Word with alertness of mind and searched the Scriptures daily to see whether those things were so.” Any time the Bible starts to sound really comfortable and … expected … it might be a good time to read it more uncomfortably and more awake, with “alertness of mind.” The Bible is packed with stories of God waking people up, uncomfortably, in the middle of the night, and, like a troublesome guest, rearranging all the furniture of their lives. It’s what he does.
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.
While on their way to a protest, someone wrote me a kind note asking me what I thought of Jeff Sessions’ take on Romans 13 (which Sessions is using to insist on respect for authorities, specifically in regard to letting our elected officials do as they please with the children of immigrants seeking asylum). Man, I could give you an earful. Interpretations of the opening verses of Romans 13 are controversial and there is a LOT written on them.
But look. The United States is not and I hope to God will never be a theocracy. Many of our founders fought and bled and died for the right to live in a country that would NOT be governed according to one faction’s particular interpretation of any religious text. I mean that: our predecessors fled Europe, fought wars, and died for this. So when our federal government starts quoting Scripture to dispel dissent, I get quite angry. This is still the United States of America, not the Republic of Gilead, and a good many of our ancestors died to keep that so. I wish more of our citizens would remember it.
As for what I think, as a Christian, of Jeff Sessions’ use of Romans 13, I’ll answer, since I was asked. Maybe these notes will help someone pull the wool from off a neighbor’s eyes and will be useful for that reason. But I urge you to call and write to your congresspeople before bothering with this post or any other like it, because Sessions is quoting Scripture at us specifically to delay some of our people in arguments and hesitation. I do not want to add to that hesitation.
If it is useful, you can read my notes. If it isn’t, skip it. But regardless, go call your congresspeople. Do that first!
…on Sessions’ use of Romans 13:1-5 as a bulwark against protest or civil disobedience:
1. First, the context in which Romans 13:1-5 was written matters. Romans 13:1-5 is not a standalone passage!
What Jeff Sessions has done, as many have done and as many always do, is pluck a short quote out of its context so that it can be used to say the exact opposite of the overall message of the text it came from.
Remember that chapter and verse numbers are arbitrary, and where punctuation appears in a translation of a Greek sentence is itself often an interpretive choice. If you want to read the opening verses of Romans 13 seriously, you need to read the section before it and the section after it, rather than just pluck part of a Greek text out and treat it like a standalone manifesto. It’s in the middle of an argument about how the first-century Roman church might conduct itself while beset with internal division and oppression from external authorities (the word is “exousia,” which is “powers,” those who have ability and force). Many scholars believe that the passage is a response to a dispute in the early church over how to handle taxation under Nero. (You can read a quick paraphrase of some of the different takes on the historical and rhetorical context here. This article is not at all comprehensive but it will give a starting point and it comes with a list of references.)
In brief, some in the early underground church were calling for the radical act of refusing to pay taxes – an issue that Paul addressed directly in Romans 13:6-7. Paul is cautioning the church to pay its taxes and not provoke an oppressive government. Such provocation will lead to punishment on the church from that government, he warns in 13:2 (“those who resist will incur judgment”). People who are reading the KJV here may get the wrong idea and think that God will punish those who resist governing authorities, because the KJV translates “krima” as “damnation.” Seriously!!! “Krima” means a verdict or a judgment in court. Paul is counseling the Roman church to avoid a situation where their members (some of whom probably lacked the protections of Roman citizenship) are hauled into the courts for refusing to pay taxes and are then fined, imprisoned, or sentenced to execution.
This is important.
There is no evidence that the first five verses of Romans 13 were intended by their author to be read as a universal creed for submission to state authorities. Paul is responding in a personal letter to a specific and local issue about taxation in Rome. He is advocating not stirring things up by withholding taxes – an act of rebellion that he judges to be without purpose. In this he echoes Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees: render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, etc.
2. Second, who is speaking also matters!
“Be respectful to the Empire” means something very different when the authority is saying it (Sessions) than it does when the rebel is saying it (Paul)! Context matters!
And by the way, can we please stop translating “hupotasso” as “submit”? Hupotasso = “deploy under,” a military term for deploying oneself, like a regiment, in support. (Latin sub + missio also means to “send under,” and I think it once had a similar connotation of battle support, but in modern English “submit” has specific and different connotations than it did in classical Latin.) A better translation in this context may be “Maintain your support for the authorities.” Paul is building the argument that the Roman church should continue to pay taxes. Context.
3. The larger message of the speaker also matters!
These five verses are so often taken by themselves as if they’re a standalone manifesto and used to silence dissent – as if Paul is advocating against civil disobedience rather than advocating for caution. But if you read the rest of the letter – and, for that matter, the account of Paul’s life in Acts – you will realize quickly that the idea of Paul preaching against civil disobedience is ridiculous. Paul is literally under house arrest for civil disobedience while writing some of his letters. Again and again in Acts, Paul ends up punished or imprisoned by the authorities for choosing civil disobedience when disobedience is necessary.
Just because Paul is saying in Romans 13 that refusing to pay taxes to Caesar is not a battle worth picking does not mean that Paul is saying that no battles are worth picking.
Consider the verses that follow later in that chapter – the ones Sessions didn’t bother to quote even though they are the summation of Paul’s argument on the subject.
Romans 13:8: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Romans 13:10 — “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Paul is making the argument for obeying taxation law within the larger context of making sure nothing is obstructing the church from its principal work: loving one’s neighbor. Getting in a financial dispute with the Emperor and getting your members killed would definitely get in the way of that. In fact, in Romans 13: 6-7, Paul contends that the only actual impact that refusing to pay taxes is likely to have is that the tax collectors won’t get paid and won’t have food on the table. Whatever the good intent of those Christians who want to refuse to pay taxes as a form of resistance, the impact will be that they’ll get tried and convicted (krima) and their neighbors who are tasked with the collection of taxes will go hungry. “Love does no wrong to a neighbor,” Paul urges. Paul appears to suggest that refusing to pay taxes to Nero is a fruitless resistance that is also not the most effective way to love one’s neighbor.
The obvious corollary to this is that there may be other cases where loving one’s neighbor requires civil disobedience. When loving one’s neighbor and doing no wrong requires that you disobey or protest unjust laws, Paul is very much in support of doing so. Loving each other comes first. In that, the law of God is fulfilled, Paul insists.
The letters in the New Testament are frequently unequivocal in telling the church to shelter the orphan, the widow, and the immigrant. It is that which James tells us is “true religion.” So for us to take a line out of context to mean “shut up and let your government put children in concentration camps” when the early church was specifically tasked with providing sanctuary for the widow, the orphan, and the immigrant – is patently absurd. That’s not Paul. That’s not Peter either (he told the exousia that “we must obey God rather than man” – Acts 5:29). And that’s definitely not Jesus.
For a Christian, the first directive is always to love one another as selflessly as God loves us, and THAT is what will either drive obedience or disobedience to authority. That is why Martin Luther King, Jr. quoted Paul in support of civil disobedience in his Letter from Birmingham Jail!
And that’s an apt reference because this warping of a few lines of text to mean the exact opposite of what the text as a whole is advocating is not just something Sessions does to Paul. It’s the same move when Sessions or others quote the “I Have a Dream Speech” to suggest that Martin Luther King, Jr. — of all people!!! — would have urged today’s citizens not to protest in the street or march on the capital. That, of course, is absurd, since Martin Luther King, Jr. marched on the capital himself. Just as it is absurd to suggest that Paul would advocate against civil disobedience against a government committing atrocities — as, again, Paul was under arrest for civil disobedience!
This kind of rhetorical gymnastics to justify blind obedience to a federal government that is carrying out atrocities is worthier of the Third Reich than of the nation we’ve been insisting that the United States is or could become, and it is insulting to our intelligence, our conscience, and our shared humanity.
4. Finally, the type of ‘authority’ matters! The “exousia” (“powers,” those with ability and force) in Romans 13 refers to the oppressive leaders of Rome: Nero and those Nero appoints. Now, Paul may believe that Nero was “deployed” (tasso) in that position by an act of God, but that is manifestly not the case with the elected officials of the United States of America. Trump and Sessions are not Nero (though I concede that Mr. Trump at times acts like Nero). Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions were not “deployed” (tasso) to their position by an act of God. Our officials are either elected by us or appointed by those we elected, and are therefore answerable to us in a way that Nero was not answerable to the underground Christians in Rome.
When Jeff Sessions quotes Romans 13, he is saying that we should obey our elected officials in the same way and for the same reasons that we would obey an emperor or dictator, those who rule by force. And that is an appalling thought.
– Elected officials are not the same as dictators deployed by an “act of God.” Our officials are our laborers (whom we hired), and by definition are not the “exousia” to which Paul refers. In the U.S., Mr. Trump and Mr. Sessions are not “exousia” (“powers” ruling by force), and we the people are literally the government. I have the sense that many of us keep forgetting this. We need to unforget it.
– Taking Romans 13 out of context to say “never protest the government” is not compatible with a larger read of the New Testament, which is packed with countless stories of people protesting the government in cases of atrocity or racial/religious oppression.
– Paul insists that our first duty is to love each other. The writers of Hebrews and James remind us that this means sheltering the orphan, the widow, the immigrant – the vulnerable among us. When children are put in concentration camps, our Christian duty, our American duty, and our human duty to put a stop to this trumps any duty we might have to Trump.
Finally, Sessions’ Bible-quoting is purely a distraction and silencing tactic. It is meant to get citizens who are practicing Christians to be complacent or slow in acting. It is an abuser’s tactic. This is not a time to be slow in acting. This is a time when children are being concentrated in camps within our borders, and it is our duty as the people of the United States, to whom our elected representatives answer, to stop it. Those of us who are Christians, it is our duty as imitators of Christ and lovers of our neighbors to stop it. It is our duty as human beings to stop it. There are a lot of gray areas in religion, politics, and human action. This isn’t one.
So, for the love of God and your neighbor and your country, be LOUD until our federal authorities cease this inhumane, cruel, and ungodly practice of kidnapping children from asylum-seeking parents.
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.
My post “A Camel Through the Eye of a Needle, and Other Wild Tales of Translation,” when viral, and now a lot of people are sending questions over email or Facebook, asking: “We never dug into this in seminary; where can I learn more?” or “I want to learn more about the meaning behind phrases, words, or passages in the Bible, or about what translation issues there are, but how can I do that without spending years learning Greek and Hebrew?”
There are lots of very good articles and books to recommend on particular words and passages, but the underlying question appears to be, “I’m a layman, and I care, … but where do I start?” What do you do if you’re just starting from the beginning, and what can you do that’s really easy and won’t require you to become a master translator?
The important thing to know is that a lot of biblical scholarship and scholarship on languages is happening all the time – and being published or blogged in English. Here are a couple of easy steps to find it. This is written for the absolute beginner, and the steps ramp up in level of effort as you scroll down.
1. Fall in love with Strong’s concordance.
There is a fully searchable online version of Strong’s at www.biblehub.com.There’s a lot you can do there. You can look up any verse in any of a large number of translations (in English and other languages). You can compare translations. And once you have looked up a verse, on the right side of the webpage there is a section called “Study Bible,” where each word in the verse is hyperlinked. If you click on one of the words, it will take you to the Strong’s concordance page for the original word in Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic. You will find a dictionary definition of the word. Now, some of the time, the accepted dictionary definition will be useless. Don’t take anything for granted! (And even when the definition’s roughly accurate, be aware that the grammar of another language may significantly change the meaning of the word. For example, Greek has verse tenses that don’t exist in English, and that add meaning to a sentence that is very difficult to capture in our language.) But, there’s a lot more on Strong’s besides just a definition. You will also find some very basic etymological information, maybe a list of other verses where the same word appears, and maybe quotations from famous commentaries on the word. And you can then look up those specific commentaries at the library, the bookstore, or online to read more from them.
So you can use Strong’s to find out what the word or phrase or verse was in the original language, and a couple of quick resources to learn more about that word. But once you know what the word or phrase was, you probably want to know more about the shades of meaning, the concept, and the context behind it. So the next couple of steps are how you can do that…
2. Research the word or concept that interested you.
Let’s say you want to dig deeper into a particular word. You want to know what nuances of meaning it may have. Well, find the original word (using Strong’s, if you don’t know it). Let’s say the word is “teshuvah.” That’s Hebrew for “return.” We translate it “repentance,” but repentance is such a Latin term, and there’s a lot more going in that word. But how do you find out what? Here’s some things you can do:
– Type the word into Wikipedia. Many of these words have Wikipedia entries. Now, the Wikipedia entry itself may often be suspect, but if you scroll to the bottom of the entry, you may find a list of sources and hyperlinks – this is a great place to find books, articles, and other resources on this concept.
– Type the word into Patheos. Patheos is a website that is basically a massive repository of popular articles on religious studies. If you type “teshuvah” into the search bar at Patheos, you will get about 20-30 articles written by different people of different religious backgrounds. Obviously, you’ll want to check who wrote what you’re reading (what is their education and qualifications). Some of the article authors may have also written books on the subject, or have websites where you can learn more. Some of the better articles may include links to commentaries or to current scholarship or to online articles that dig in much more deeply. Regardless, now you have a place to start looking and learning.
– Google the word. You’ll need to sift through the chaff, through. Look for articles that are in journals or on sites like Patheos. If you just click through to a blog, be aware that you may get a wide range from something very simplistic to something very in depth. But you can also Google smarter. “Teshuvah” is a Hebrew word. So you could Google “Jewish commentary on teshuvah.” You could Google “midrash on teshuvah.”
3. Hit the stacks.
A lot of exegesis (biblical interpretation) gets written without ever really reaching the public. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t easily reachable if you want to find it. You could search on Amazon, for example, for commentaries on a particular section of the Bible. Maybe you want to pull up all the published books about the Beatitudes, or about the Sermon on the Mount. You can do that. And thanks to the wonder of online bookstores, you can check the author’s qualifications and read a free sample to see if the book will be useful, before you buy or borrow it.
For the Old Testament, here are two quick, wonderful resources that can work as jumping-off points:
A) Etz Hayim. This is a side-by-side English/Hebrew edition of the Torah that was created for synagogue reading and private study. It’s out of print, so you’ll need to get a used copy. The glorious thing here is that the bottom half of every page consists of quotations and paraphrases of passages from centuries of rabbinical scholarship. Want to know what’s going in that story of Cain and Abel? You can find several schools of thought at the bottom of that page. There is also a lot of discussion of etymologies and of the nuances behind certain key words. It’s an invaluable resource. And because the sources of individual interpretations are often mentioned, you can go look them up to learn more.
B) Get a copy of Maimonides’ A Guide for the Perplexed. This book is centuries old, but it is a classic, a monument of rabbinical literature. And each chapter focuses on a specific Hebrew word that is important in Old Testament reading. That means that after you read Maimonides’ exploration of the word, you can look up that word elsewhere to learn what has been researched about it ever since. More generally, paging through this glossary-style commentary of key concepts will help open your eyes to new possibilities for questions you could ask about biblical texts. For these reasons, it’s a great starting point.
Another thing you can do is look for resources on how another religious tradition (other than those with which you are most familiar) read a particular text. What have Quakers seen in that passage? What did medieval Catholics see in it? What do Coptic Christians think of it? How do Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Jews each read this passage? Etc. This will not necessarily help you with the translation issue specifically, but it can help challenge assumptions about what is obvious or most important about a given passage.
4. Ask some experts.
I can’t stress this one enough. In the U.S. particularly, we so rarely think to just -ask-. You could send questions to (or meet with):
– A reference librarian at a public library
– A reference librarian at a university library
– A professor of theology
– A professor of Jewish studies
– A professor of Greek or Hebrew
– A professor of Near Eastern studies
– A history professor
– An archaeology professor
Etc. You can find them by going to a college or university webpage, looking up the relevant department (e.g., Jewish Studies, Archaeology, Classics, etc.) and then looking for a list of the department’s faculty. At non-profit institutions of higher education, you will generally find both contact information and information about each faculty member’s research specialty, so you can find the right people to ask.
Most experts will be very glad to help. They like being asked.
And this can be a key step, because again, you aren’t just looking for a dictionary definition of a word. You want to understand the contexts behind a particular concept. And faculty who study those contexts can often help you.
Now, for the intermediate level research-hunt, I would recommend that on particularly sticky issues, you ask several faculty. For example, if you want to dig more deeply into a controversial passage about gender, don’t just ask white male faculty at one seminary. Talk to several faculty of different backgrounds from different schools.
And of course, there are other things you can do. You can write a letter to the author or publisher of a commentary you loved (assuming they are alive). You can audit select college courses. You can attend a talk by an expert at your local college — many of these one-time lectures or panels by visiting experts are free or nearly so, and many of them deal specifically with controversial issues and will provide or mention resources for learning more. To find out what talks are coming up, try emailing the relevant academic department.
And if you enjoy deeper research and you are an alum of a university and you have alumni access to an academic library, ask your reference librarian if your university subscribes to a scholarly database or to specific journals of biblical studies that you can search through. Then you can surf more of the current scholarship.
5. Look for translations written by lone academics
Most Bibles that appear in churches are translated by large committees. There are very good reasons for this. Because these Bibles will be used for corporate worship, bible study, and devotion, the seminaries and publishers that commission these translations want the new translation to represent a consensus view. And it is a good practice for the translators to have peer review, because translation is a wild and messy business. However, the drawback that comes with this is that these translations necessarily favor the most traditional possible interpretation, and not necessarily the most accurate or the more nuanced. So one thing you can do (by searching a library or bookstore catalog, or by asking a reference librarian or professor) is look for translations of individual biblical books by single authors or by smaller teams. These books won’t appear in a church because they aren’t a complete Bible. But many of them are thought-provoking and take advantage of the most up to date scholarship on biblical texts. Many also come with introductions that explain the translation choices and the philosophy behind the translation. Those introductions may cite sources, may point to recent discoveries about the source texts, or may make you aware of ongoing discussions of certain passages and what some of the perspectives are. One great example is Marcia Falk’s “Love Lyrics of the Bible.” This is a translation of the Song of Songs plus an 80-page study of what we find when we look at the Song of Songs closely in Hebrew, and in its literary and historical context. There are many other books like this out there – translation projects of specific parts of the Bible by lone academics who weren’t hindered by committee or by the requirements of producing a worship text. If nothing else, they can alert you to where there is opportunity for deeper discussion about a particular text.
And, of course, if you DO want to learn Koine Greek, Aramaic, or Hebrew, you will make some language professor’s day. However, if you are not a languages nerd but you DO want to dig into what’s going on in the nuances of these texts, then hopefully the ideas above will give you a few easy, quick places to get started. Good hunting, friends!
Someone mentioned the squeezing of a rich man through the eye of a needle yesterday, and of course I started reflecting on mistranslation and the evocative power of language. The camel and the needle is one of my favorite examples of translation shenanigans, and is all the more delightful because no matter which way you translate or mistranslate it, the message of the metaphor remains roughly the same. For those not in the know, here’s what happened. Very probably, the rabbi Yeshua told his followers two thousand years ago that it is easier to thread a rope (like the big ropes used on fishing boats on the Sea of Galilee) through the eye of a sewing needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. But, in Aramaic – the language he was speaking and the language in which the source text for the synoptic gospels was probably written – “camel” and “rope” are spelled the same: “gml.” They do -sound- different, but written Aramaic doesn’t often represent vowels. So someone dutifully recorded, “gml.” Now this gets even funnier when the synoptic gospels come along and people are translating the words of Christ into Koine Greek. Because in Koine Greek “camel” and “rope” are ALSO the same word, distinguished in text by a single vowel but pronounced almost identically. Camel is “kamelon” and rope is “kamilon.” In Latin and English, of course, “camel” and “rope” are really easy to tell apart. But, in both Aramaic and Greek, they are not. So while it is frustrating enough to try jamming a knotted fishing rope through the eye of a sewing needle, now we are left with the image of a massive dromedary squeezing through a needle, hump and all, and the rich are not only in a proper mess, but comically so. For want of a vowel!
It’s an amusing case because the meaning comes out somewhat similar in either case. And “camel” fits Jesus’s teaching style, which often made humorous use of hyperbole.
Other mistranslations are more sinister, like the popular translation of “arsenokoites” as “homosexuals,” which is a stretch, as there is a separate Greek word for that. “Arsenokoite” is a compound of “man” and “bed” and no one knows what the word means because its usage is so rare and it only appears in lists, without context. It’s been suggested that it was a reference to gigolos, but that’s an equally unsupported guess. In one case the word occurs next to “malakoi” (the luxurious). The traditional interpretation that malakoi and arsenokoites are paired labels for ‘submissive’ and ‘dominant’ partners in sex acts remains guesswork, and other interpretations are just as, or more, plausible. For example, malakoi arsenokoites (“soft ones, man-beds”) could easily be a colorful reference to pleasure-loving rich men who loll about on bed eating grapes all day and ignore the suffering of their impoverished neighbors. That’s a type of vice that the New Testament lectures on frequently and at length, and to which the letters in which these words appear devote considerable attention. Jesus warns that it is not easy for the rich and avaricious to reach the kingdom of heaven (as difficult as threading either a camel or a very heavy fishing rope through a needle!), and in Paul’s second letter to Corinth, those who have wealth but are slow to contribute are taken repeatedly to task for abstaining from giving or for giving only sparingly when they see others in need. Rich, luxurious, gaudy living was also a vice that Greeks and Romans alike tended to scorn and treat with mockery. (They would have found Trump Tower hilarious.) Reading “malakoi arsenokoites” in this fashion is conjecture—but so is every other proposed reading of malakoi arsenokoites.
Other problematic cases include “ezer kenegdo” (which the West translated as “a helpmeet,” a word that meant sense in seventeenth-century English but that we often receive, four centuries later, as conveying a servile role; in Hebrew, ezer kenegdo simply means a helper partner and doesn’t imply hierarchy and is the same word used to describe God’s status toward humanity); or the transformation of the Proverbs 31 “eshet chayil,” the woman of valor, into the “virtuous woman” in many English translations (in seventeenth-century English, “virtue” still suggested the Italian “virtu” with its courage and boldness, and “virtuous woman” suggested something very different then than it does today); or the misinterpretation of “kephale” (head) to mean authority (authority is a different word), because of a Latin idiom we inherited that doesn’t exist in Greek (the Latin word for head also means leader, but in Greek “kephale” simply suggests origin, like the head of a spring or a river, and not authority) — someone asked for a link, so here you go, Marg Mowczko covers the research on “kephale” here.
— Or the mistranslation of “hupotassomenoi” as “submit,” as in, wives submit to your husbands, when “hupotassomenoi” doesn’t mean submit in Greek (there’s a different word for that). Hupotossomenoi is really hard to translate in English. It means “arrange yourselves under,” which may or may not imply what the Romans think it did. It is a military word for deployment in arranged, battle-ready formation, so the Romans jumped all over the possibility of hierarchy. Romans love hierarchy. But in context, in several places it is used in passages where Paul is talking either about the plight of Christian women with unChristian husbands and how to face the world together and speak your faith to a Greek or Roman husband who believes you’re property (this is the topic in the letters to Corinth), or following passages about putting on the armor of God and resisting the devil (in the letter to Ephesus). Remember that at the time, these letters were being written to challenge hierarchy, not support it, and to propose a radical egalitarianism in human relationships, and that most Christians in first-century Europe were women. The teaching that we are all one body in Christ was a harder pill to swallow for men in the Roman Empire than it was for women. The letters to Corinth speak of non-Christian husbands as vulnerable, still in bondage to old ways of thinking, half asleep and like soldiers blundering into enemy fire. In context, hupotossomai probably means to deploy yourself in support of your spouse against the enemy.
“Hupakoe,” which we keep translating obey, and which is used for children, never for spouses, in the New Testament, doesn’t mean “obey,” either. It means “hear under.” Children are being advised to listen and learn, not blindly obey. Again, context. These are letters urging people not to return to the ways of their parents, to abandon oppressive systems and live in a radically new way that is different from how their parents live. What’s being urged will create a world of strife within multigenerational Greek families. Hence the urging in that letter for parents not to provoke their children to anger and for children to listen deeply in the midst of the strife.
And so on.
The text is beautiful and often more nuanced than it appears in translation, and we consistently mangle it because we treat it like a Latin/Roman text instead of a collection of Hebrew and Greek texts. (When you translate radical or subversive texts into the language of Empire, you eventually get Imperial texts).
And also because we insist on reading it as if the people writing it were writing it today, with our connotations, figures of speech, and cultural fears, when in fact their cultural fears and figures of speech were completely different ones, and things that we get hung up on wouldn’t even have occurred to them.
And this leads me to reflect on the power of writing. As a writer, I’m a bit biased in thinking about how powerful written language is. But, when we look at a holy book that has been translated and mistranslated and construed and misconstrued over the course of 2000-2,500 years (or, if you want to look at something more recent, of less than 250 years of age, and within our own language without the added complexities of translation, consider the U.S. Constitution), it’s hard not to conclude that sometimes the treatment of a single word can shape entire cultures and political systems. That’s a humbling thought.
ADDENDUM: This post, which began as informal amusement about camels and ropes, has turned out to wildly popular, which I didn’t expect. So I have edited it to provide a little more context on a couple of the words (mostly hupotassomai and hupakoe), in hope that the post will be more useful.
Want to read more? Get Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose When We Read the Bible in Translation, and Way to Read the Bible as a Call to Adventure.
P.S. On threads sharing this post, several people have brought up the old hypothesis that first-century Jerusalem had a “needle gate” that was very narrow, where a merchant had to unload their camel in order to get through. It’s an elegant and fitting idea, but it’s not historical. It’s a folk etymology proposed by fifteenth century clergy to explain the “camel through the eye of a needle” verse. (In other words, it was made up to explain the verse.) There’s no evidence of narrow gates (either a specific one or generally) being called needle gates or eyes of the needle in the ancient Middle East.
Just a quick plea for humility and a reality check among my brethren, sisteren, and otheren of the faith. Here in the U.S. a lot of us tend to act as though we (a) are the whole body of Christ on earth (or, blasphemously, as though we are the head of the body of Christ on earth) and (b) as if we are the only or best interpreters and arbiters of what the Word means and calls us to do. Neither of these is the case. We are a teeny tiny minority of Christians in the world. Only 11% of Christians are in the U.S. (and only 55% of practicing Christians in the United States vote conservative), and only 33% (one third) of Christians in the world are white. There are more Christians in Brazil than there are in the Bible Belt. There are the same number of Christians in the Philippines as there are in the Bible Belt. What this means is … we should be listening to our siblings around the world, because all of us who follow Christ within the entire U.S. are just eleven seats at a round table of a hundred.
The oldest continuously operating churches on earth are in Ethiopia, and 27% of Christians on the planet are Latin American (and most live south of the U.S.). Roughly 25% are black.
So… we really ought to be in conversation with our family, not only one-way conversation and not only on service missions, but we ought also to be listening and seeking advice and perspective, because some of our siblings in Christ don’t look like us, have been here longer than us, and could give us insights that might surprise us.
I know it’s fashionable in some parties to define one tiny little denomination as the One True Way to follow the founder and author of our faith, but this pie chart hopefully sheds light on just how prideful and hubristic that perspective is.
(Note: There is a tiny “Other” sliver of 0.6% that I couldn’t get to show on this chart. “Other” includes North Africa, the Middle East, and Canada. The numbers shown on the chart are rounded to the nearest whole number.)