A Military Metaphor in the New Testament, and Where Our Translation Goes Wrong…

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All right, with a friend’s help, I found a much faster way to say what I’ve been wanting to say about “hupotassomenoi allelois” (Ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις) in the letter to Ephesus. So here is the more Internet-friendly, tl;dr version.

People often quote Ephesians 5:22 (in English, usually a variation on “wives, submit to your husbands”), and there are several problems with how this verse is usually used.

First, people usually forget to also quote Ephesians 5:21 (“submit to each other in reverence of Christ”), despite the fact that in Greek this is all part of the same sentence and that in that sentence you can’t talk about wives submitting to husbands without simultaneously talking about husbands submitting to wives.

Second, if you look at the original words, you realize that “submit” doesn’t mean “obey.” Our modern “submit” doesn’t even mean what “submit” meant in English when it was used originally, four hundred years ago, in the King James translation of the Bible. The older English translations used “submit” because they were drawing from Latin “sub + mittere,” meaning to deploy oneself like a soldier under a command, to get a mission accomplished. (In fact, we get the English word “mission” from the same Latin verb.) And the Greek “hupo + tassomenoi” means to deploy or arrange yourselves in military formation under a command. The original passage isn’t making a statement about obedience, but about the disciplined and alert support that Christians who are in relationship with each other are called to provide each other as they wear the “full armor of God” and face (spiritual) opposition. It’s actually a remarkable word to use in a first-century Greek text because military metaphors were usually reserved for men. But people of all genders are being asked to deploy themselves in a battle-ready unit in support of each other within the early Christian community. Ephesians 5:21: “Deploy yourselves in support of each other, in reverence of Christ.” The tense is one we don’t have in English, one that suggests continual action: Be always deploying yourselves under and in support of each other. These lines in Ephesians are part of a longer sentence and a longer passage that offers an extended metaphor for how each member of a first-century Ephesian community can be continually, spiritually battle-ready, regardless of their gender, class, or position.

Third, by missing both of the points above, we end up trying to take one piece of a Greek sentence and use it as an isolated aphorism to hang a doctrine on, specifically about women’s roles in [the household / the church / society – take your pick], and we then proceed to miss entirely the point the original writer appears to have been making, which has to do with the need for a community in which all members are actively supporting each other, each member ready to step in wherever the other is vulnerable — operating in concert (“homothumadon,” of one mind) like a Greek phalanx or a Roman battle square. And the use of the military metaphor to apply not only to the citizens and freedmen in the community but to the slaves as well, and not only to men but to others also, subverts the traditional class and gender hierarchies of the community the letter is being written to: treating all believers as though they are all soldiers working together in a unit. It’s a radically subversive idea in the first century, and we don’t have easily equivalent words or concepts to translate it to in modern English.

So when we pluck out the one verse by itself and use it as rhetorical backing for a gender hierarchy that is traditional in *our* culture, we might possibly be committing two errors.

First, we’re missing the forest for the trees. Imagine that we’re grabbing up one branch and whacking women with it while the writer of the passage is standing to one side shouting indignantly, “Wait! Look at the forest! Put down that branch a moment and look at the whole forest! It’s important!” (And there is an impressive, deep, beautiful, and useful forest here, if we don’t busy ourselves waving twigs in the air and we get to see it. The larger message about community that this letter is trying to convey is a very powerful one that is no less radical today than when it was written. It’s just being conveyed within a language and context that’s very different from our own.)

And second, we may be advocating a message that, in spirit, is opposite to the message the epistle was written to convey. That is, we’re enforcing culturally traditional divisions (and doing so potentially in divisive or oppressive ways) in a passage that was all about how to operate as a cohesive and interdependent unit inside of and against what was at that time a divided and highly stratified culture.

Something to think about.

(That’s still quite a long post, I suppose. But much shorter than my other attempts.)

Stant Litore

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P.S. Sometimes, the King James Version actually gives us a really good translation, but we get in trouble because the meanings of many words have changed in English over the past four centuries (like “submit”). Another example my friends and I have been talking about a lot is the Proverbs 31 “virtuous woman.”

The Hebrew is “eshet chayil.” It doesn’t mean “virtuous woman.” It means “woman of valor.”

The King James translated “chayil” as “virtuous” because in the 17th century, “virtuous” still suggested the French “virtu” and at the time it meant “manly” or “brave.” This is the woman who is also, in the King James translation, clothed in “strength and honor.”

The Hebrew doesn’t suggest “manly”/masculine though. Just: valorous. Brave, persistent, daring, and ready for anything.

“A daring, warrior woman, who can find? Her worth is incalculable” would be a much better English translation. (In fact, the JPS Tanakh used for Jewish worship in the United States translates the verse closer to that.)

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Photo above by Caleb Wright on Unsplash.

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More thoughts from me here: https://stantlitore.com/category/radical-reading/

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About the Rebel Virgins of the Roman Empire…

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Because I think this is worth knowing: many of the verses quoted by teachers of American “purity culture” and taken as justification for the subordination of women were likely originally intended to have the opposite effect. Chastity and virginity were prized in the early first-, second-, and third-century Christian churches in Europe and Western Asia partially as a way to free up women to preach and to work in the community outside the home. Roman law after Augustus (the “family values” Caesar) required women to wed and bed a good young Roman boy (or perhaps an aging Roman man) and produce healthy Roman babies. That’s right, likely in response to the extremely high infant mortality rate, the state mandated getting married and knocked up — and penalized those who didn’t. However, there were at least two exemptions I am aware of, one for registered and professional prostitutes and one for priestesses. Rome had this idea that priestesses needed to be virgins and therefore shouldn’t wed and bed Roman men – so priestesses didn’t have to marry.

Now, in most recognized Roman religions, it was very hard to become a priestess, and the number of priestesses were few. But in Christian doctrine from its earliest days, every single Christian was a priest/priestess of God, and the members of the church collectively were the “bride of Christ.” So…during those times when the Empire didn’t ban the religion outright, any Christian woman could claim the marriage exemption, declare herself an official virgin, and rather than devote her life to raising a good Roman family, she could teach, she could preach, she could run a business (as many Christian women did – just look to Lydia of Thyatira for a quick, biblical example), and/or she could join one of the sisterhoods of the holy widows, gathering funds for the poor and organizing efforts to care for the community’s orphans and homeless.

This is one reason that during the times of Nero, Trajan, Domitian, and Diocletian, Christianity was so hated by the Roman government. It wasn’t just that Christianity was nominally monotheistic (and so Christian mothers raised their children not to sacrifice to ancestral deities, a circumstance which eventually led to the crash of several major industries), it was all the growing numbers of women who were unmarried and teaching and leading and bursting into activity in their communities (though others were also withdrawing into secluded communities of scholars or anchoresses). There is a reason the letters in the New Testament name as many or more women apostles and teachers as they do men. To men in power in Rome, this may have appeared to be a bit of an apocalypse. “Women not getting married??? Women preaching??? The world as we know it is ending!! Stop them! Stop the Christians!”

Emperor Diocletian draws my particular ire. He attempted to exterminate Christianity in the Roman Empire in the year 303 specifically by attacking Christian women. He revoked the state’s recognition of Christianity as a legal religion and required that all Christian women marry. All women who refused were either raped by order of the state and then killed, or forcibly married (and then raped), or forced to register as prostitutes (and then raped). It was a systematic, state-ordered enslavement of tens of thousands of women.

After Diocletian, women were much more marginalized in the church, both because many Christian women who had been leaders in the church no longer existed — or lived in enforced marriages — and because the church that survived sold its egalitarianism in exchange for government recognition. The lesson the church seemed to learn from the early fourth century was: Women ministers aren’t safe from the government, and the church isn’t safe while women lead it; let’s have the women sit back and we’ll play it safe.

But it was not so in the beginning.

When you read stories of early Christian women martyrs who refused to give up their virginity, this is the context. Their state-recognized virginity permitted them to travel between churches as apostles, to lead, and to gather as financially independent sister “widows” or “virgins” who could take action in their communities. When Thekla, in the second-century text “The Acts of Paul and Thekla,” repeatedly escapes attempts at rape in order to continue traveling and preaching (where the rapists are hired by someone who had wanted Thekla to marry their son and took spiteful exception to vow of chastity, or by a village magistrate), the context is that rape was a weapon employed by local and imperial authorities to limit the spread of this subversive new religion and to enforce proper, Roman family values. At that time, a woman’s chastity was seen as an act of rebellion.

And today’s purity culture, which often hijacks the language of chastity in Roman-era texts to insist on the seclusion and submission of women … is such a bizarre (and arguably offensive) anachronism once you realize that the original teachings on chastity were intended to free women for public work, leadership, teaching, and preaching. It is one example of how, if you take a teaching out of one cultural and historical context and plunk it down into a different place and time without any consideration of context, you can actually end up with the same verses and the same words having opposite implications.

Stant Litore

P.S. For more on the role of women in the early church, see the book God’s Self Confident Daughters: Early Christianity and the Liberation of Women, my own favorite though there are many more studies on this, and also this witty little article in Atlas Oscura entitled “Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers.”

P.P.S. Even the Apostle Paul, while he did write about marriage being an acceptable outcome and one to be preferred in his mind to a promiscuous state (in 1 Cor 7), he also advocated in very strong terms that an unmarried state and the pursuit of God’s work was preferable to marriage. In the early church, the two — chastity and active work in the community on one side, and marriage on the other — were seen as alternate paths for a Christian’s life to take. We often take from that passage Paul’s parenthetical remark “better to marry than to burn” and treat it as if that’s the important point in the passage; by doing this, we skip the actual point he is making for his first-century readers, which is that to his mind it’s better to be single and do God’s work than it is to marry. When we lack the context in which he’s writing, we emphasize very different things in the passage than his original readers would have.

First-century Christians were called to lives of active involvement in their communities as the agents of God, his “hands and feet,” serving collectively as the body through which God operated in the world. The first-century ideal of chastity was intended to expand the agency of young men and women, whereas modern purity culture so often seeks to contract and limit agency.

P.P.P.S. This post is receiving some love in Likes and Shares on social media, so I will add this list to it:

Lydia of Thyatira.

Prisca.

Mary.

Julia.

Phoebe.

Junia.

Chloe.

Euodia.

Syntyche.

Tryphena.

Tryphosa.

Damaris of Athens.

Dorcas of Joppa.

The unnamed “elder” who was a “woman appointed by God” (2 John).

These are all women who were called to active leadership within church life in the first century and who are named in the Book of Acts or the Epistles as leaders, apostles, businesswomen and philanthropists, and as organizers or heads of sisterhoods. It was not just one or two women. And that’s just the first century, and this doesn’t even include the names of women leaders Paul wrote to but whose specific names he couldn’t remember (“the sister of Nereus”; “the mother of Rufus”; etc.). It also doesn’t even include the female leaders among those who, according to the gospels, organized and funded Jesus’s original ministry, like Susanna and Joanna.

The list gets long once you dive into second century texts.

So, if you are a woman in the church reading this post whose heart is called to an active life or to leadership, may this list give you courage. You are not some aberration of modern society, as others will insist. This is a list of your sisters. It is a list of names honored and trusted by the writers of the New Testament.

Stant Litore

(P.P.P.P.S. Also, of course, please check out my fiction and support my work if you would be interested. You can find out all about me and my stories at https://www.patreon.com/stantlitore) … Meanwhile, may this particular story, of the early church, move you and make you think.

You can also find more posts like this one here:

https://stantlitore.com/category/radical-reading

The Badass Women of the Bible

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Both in protest of our nation’s rampant misogyny that walks around wearing religion’s clothes — and also because I love their stories — here’s a shoutout to the badass women of the Bible: to Rizpah, who guarded the bodies of her children from wild animals and carrion beasts all night, defying the king and his soldiers; to Deborah, a middle-aged prophet who settled the court cases no one else could and led armies against an invading force; to Jael, who drove a tent peg through a dude’s head; to Mary, who fled to another country to keep her baby from being killed and then later after returning raised her child in a small town where everyone thought she was a “slut” — and raised him so well that the world still reveres his name (and hers) to this day; to Mary Magdalene, who endured the disbelief of everyone she ever told about what she saw, but didn’t disbelieve herself; to Judith, who seduced an invading general in order to get close enough to chop off his head; to a woman whose name we don’t remember, who stood on the wall of a starving city and killed the tyrant Abimelech by chucking a brick down at his head; to Miriam, the first of the prophets of the Children of Israel after their departure from Egypt, singing on the shores of the Red Sea moments after seeing her people’s enemies crushed under falling water; to Huldah, who commanded such respect that when the lost sacred texts were discovered, the priests handed them over to her and said, “Please interpret these for us, Huldah”; to Dorcas the healer, who refused to leave those dying of fever, no matter the contagion; to the Queen of Sheba, who traveled a continent to meet people of learning and establish trade deals for her nation; to Joanna and Susanna, who funded Jesus’s ministry and had a great deal to do with the early disciples not starving on the road; to Prisca, Mary, Julia, Phoebe, Junia, Chloe, Euodia, Syntyche, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and others, apostles and leaders of the early church; to Mary sister of Martha who studied with a rabbi, and to Martha sister of Mary who did the dishes and cooked so she could; to the unnamed, brave woman who suffered continual bleeding and a life of being outcast and untouchable by her community and who yet found the courage to seek out a miracle worker and commit what her community would treat as an unforgivable act: to touch him; to Anna, who spent nearly a century prophesying in the Temple; to Jochebed, who sent her baby down a river in a basket rather than let him be found by genocidal soldiers; to Abigail, who prevented a massacre; to Dinah, who got blamed for one; to Hadassah (Esther), who stopped a genocide from happening on two continents; to Tamar, who found an unusual, daring, and quite horrifying solution to her father Judah’s neglect in leaving her unprovided for and starving; to Delilah, who outwitted and captured her people’s greatest foe; to Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah, who marched up to Moses in the desert and said, “We don’t have a brother, and we want to inherit our father’s property”; to the eshet hayil (the “woman of valor” who “stretches out her hands to the needy”) who fed Elijah when he staggered, exhausted and starving, to her doorstep, though she had only a single cake of bread left in the house; to the Shulammite, who loved a foreign king, survived prejudice and brutality, and chose love over fear, even against all the terror-pressure of past trauma; to Bathsheba, so often remembered as a victim of either rape or seduction, so often reduced in our retellings to a momentary plot device, but whose actual story lasted decades and who successfully maneuvered her only son to the throne; to Naomi, who lost so much to famine and tragedy, yet found joy again; to Ruth, who immigrated to a land hostile to her people, yet stayed and kept her mother-in-law and herself fed and alive, daily risking rape or worse in the fields where young men followed the vulnerable, “exotic” immigrant gleaners at a near distance; to Lydia of Thyatira, the businesswoman who funded Paul’s missionary work in Macedonia because a story he told once lit her heart on fire; and to so many, many others who lived such stories.

Stant Litore

Related:

God’s Self-Confident Daughers: Early Christianity and the Liberation of Women

The Rebel Virgins and Desert Mothers

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

4 Facts that Show that “Head” Does Not Mean “Leader” in 1 Cor 11:3

More Reads:

The Acolyte (a powerful book of narrative poems telling some of these stories) by Nancy Hightower

The Acts of Paul and Thekla (one of the early narrative works written by Christians after the New Testament)

Pliny’s letter to Emperor Trajan in the year 112 (in which he complains about not being able to stamp out the Christians successfully and mentions putting to torture two women who Roman society sees as “slaves” but who were held in honor and “were called deaconnesses” among the Christians; the egalitarianism of the movement is so shocking (and offensive) to Pliny that he makes special note of it)

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

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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.

No, Mr. Sessions, the Apostle Paul Does Not Tell Us to Stand Quietly By While You Put Children in Concentration Camps

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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!

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FOUR POINTS

…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.

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IN RECAP:

– 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.

Stant Litore

A Camel Through the Eye of a Needle, and Other Wild Tales of Translation

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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 bit absurd, as there is a separate Greek word for that. “Arsenokoite” is a cognate of “man” and “bed” and no one knows what the word means because its usage is so rare. It’s been suggested that it was a reference to gigolos, but that’s an equally unsupported guess. Because the word occurs next to “malakos” (luxurious) it is more likely a colorful reference to the soft-living and pleasure-loving rich (who have a harder time in the New Testament than camels do). Malakos (soft) also gets mistranslated “effeminate,” mostly in order to support the reading of “arsenokoites” as “homosexuals.” But “malakos” doesn’t mean effeminate; there’s a different word for that, too. Malakos means luxury-loving, softened by easy life and too many soft cushions. In Greek, that concept doesn’t carry gendered connotations. Romans associated that with being “like a woman,” and because Romans had issues with effeminacy/masculinity*, we inherited both their commentary and their misreading. But the Greeks didn’t have these issues. (They had other issues.) There’s no evidence that “malakoi arsenokoites” had anything to do with sexual orientation, gender identity, or manliness or lack thereof. Greece is not Rome. Malakoi arsenokoites are most likely 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. Rich, luxurious, gaudy living was also a vice that Greeks tended to scorn and treat with mockery. They would have found Trump Tower hilarious.

Other problematic cases include “ezer kenegdo” (which the West translated as “a helpmeet,” which in the 17th century simply suggested a “fit partner” but to our modern ears sounds too close to “helpful mate”), to describe the status of women toward men, but which in Hebrew 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 mistranslation 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.

Stant Litore

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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. And if you would like to read more free posts on this and closely related topics, you can here:

  • What We’ve Forgotten.” There is a lot of evidence to suggest that first-century Christianity in Europe was largely a women’s movement. But how we’ve told and translated that history not only deletes much of what happened and why — it has significant impact today.
  • Aletheia, or What Is Truth?In Latin, truth is a blunt object you can use to bludgeon people into submission. But in Greek, truth is an activity.
  • In a Time of Refugee Crisis, We’ve Forgotten Who We Are.” American Christianity is forgetting that in the New Testament, the most core fact of our identity is that we are those granted refuge (literally by a “Soter,” a Refuge-Giver) and that our first calling is to give refuge, both spiritually and physically, to other exiles.
  • Do You Need Religion to Be a Good Person (Or: Levinas for Everyone)?” Come cartwheel into the topic of ethics with me. This also will give you a peek behind the curtain at the thinking that underlies the lurching but exuberant experiment that is The Zombie Bible.
  • Why Christians Shouldn’t Ignore Derrida.” In the U.S., Derrida is treated largely as a bogeyman. But that means we’re missing out on a really exciting way to read. We’re missing out on how to read with humility and with all of a child’s curiosity and openness.
  • Stant Litore on the Bible: How and Why I Read It.” I wrote this because my readers asked. It was my first post on the subject. So here is a storyteller’s approach to an ancient library of sacred texts.
  • And not free but affordable, here is a heartfelt study of the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount, called Lives of Unstoppable HopeIt’s also the story of my time with my infant daughter in the hospital, when I learned that hope, which I had thought small and delicate and frail as a moth in the night, might actually be sharp and strong as a blade.

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.

P.P.S. After this post went viral on Facebook, it led to some vigorous conversation, mostly around “arsenokos,” which appears to fire up the most controversy. I have copied some of my responses with further insight into “arsenokos” into the comments below this post, in case they should prove useful.

Stant Litore writes about tyrannosaurs, zombies, aliens, and ancient languages. He does not own a time machine or a starship, but would rather like to. His books include:

Nonfiction:
Lives of Unstoppable Hope
Write Worlds Your Readers Won’t Forget
Write Characters Your Readers Won’t Forget

Fiction:
The Zombie Bible
Ansible
The Running of the Tyrannosaurs
Dante’s Heart

A Reality Check on American Christianity

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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.)

So, a small plea for humility.

Stant Litore