The Misleading Translation of “Wives, Submit,” … and a Tale of Battle-Ready Women

Standard

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.

And:

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…”

See Strong’s concordance #5021 for τάσσω:
http://biblehub.com/greek/5021.htm

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:

https://margmowczko.com/head-kephale-does-not-mean-leader-1-corinthians-11_3/

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.”

Stant Litore

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.

Or, for a shorter, less academic, and perhaps more startling introduction to the lives of women in early Christianity, this article entitled “The Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers” is a good read: https://www.atlasobscura.com/articles/the-rebel-virgins-and-desert-mothers-who-have-been-written-out-of-christianitys-early-history

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.

P.P.P.P.S. If you have enjoyed this post or found it of use, please consider reading more by getting a copy of Lives of Unstoppable Hope (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00X4UYW2A), which is a study of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, … or my fiction, such as The Zombie Bible (http://www.amazon.com/gp/bookseries/B00YX37490), which combines zombies, exegesis, and Bronze Age adventure, or perhaps Ansible (https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00U6X8HD8), a series about 25th-century Islamic explorers who transfer their minds across time and space to make first contact and get marooned inside alien bodies on alien worlds.

If you embark on any of these bookish adventures, that will put food on my table and make me and my family very happy.

May you and all your paths, both your going out and your coming in, be blessed.

2 thoughts on “The Misleading Translation of “Wives, Submit,” … and a Tale of Battle-Ready Women

  1. AcerArgent@aol.com

    Just wanted to thank you… for your scholarly mind and illuminating communication. Appreciating you, and glad to have found you via our (also brilliant) son Matt. Thank you for sharing yourself with the world! Kathy and Ric Norris

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s