Ephesians 5:21-22

How Bible Translations Lost the Vision of Mutual Submission in Marriage

by Kalinda Rose Stevenson

Mutual Submission in Ephesians 5:21-22

How Bible translations lost the vision of mutual submission in marriage in Ephesians 5:21-22 by adding a verb.

What Difference Does a Verb Make?

Those who use the Bible to define the role of women in biblical marriage often cite Ephesians 5:22 as the primary requirement for biblical marriage.

My earlier post, “What's Wrong with Bible Interpretations of the Role of Women in Ephesians 5:22?,” had one intention. The post referred to the Greek text to make the point that there is no verb in the Greek version of Ephesians 5:22. This means that English translations of Ephesians 5:22 that turn a phrase without a verb into a complete sentence are mistranslating the Greek. Every English translation I know adds a verb to Ephesians 5:22 to turn a phrase into a complete sentence.

How Dare You Challenge Tradition?

After my earlier post, I was flooded with comments — ranging from polite to irate — informing me that the sense is clear enough even if the verb is missing. I have been told with great certainty that, even if the verb is missing here, other bible verses in both Old and New Testaments make clear that God has ordained the submission of women from the beginning of time and commands that this submission must continue in the Church, apparently until the end of time.

To this point, I have chosen not to address any of these claims. As a biblical scholar, I find these arguments especially interesting when they come from people who claim that every word of the Bible is inspired by God. If a verb that does not exist in Ephesians 5:22 in Greek is added to every English translation, what does this say about obedience to the authority of scripture?

Rather than add a verb that is not there, those who profess obedience to biblical authority would do well to consider what it would mean for Christian marriage relationships to take seriously that the Greek in Ephesians is clearly referring to mutual submission, not just the submission of wives to husbands. Rather than cite other biblical references to claim that women are always supposed to be submissive, why not take Ephesians seriously on its own terms? Many Christians who profess obedience to Bible authority have done just that and regard Ephesians as a biblical vision of marriage based on mutual submission between husband and wife.

At this point, I will make no attempt to do more with the question of submission in Ephesians, except to point out that this mistranslation is rooted in in the division of the Bible into chapters and verses centuries after the original letter was written to the Ephesians — centuries before before English existed as a language.

Ephesians 5:22 is one of the most obvious examples of getting the translation wrong because of the divisions into chapters and verses. By separating the flow of the statements about “submission” into separate verses, translations have not only missed the point, they have turned an original vision of mutual submission into something that only wives are to do.

Badly Divided Bible Verses

The real culprit in all of this is that the original Greek text started out without spacing between words. Ponder this. Very few people could read or write in the early Christian era when the letters by Paul and other apostles were written. Writing on parchment was extremely expensive, and so the few people who could read and write conserved space by running all of the words together. There was no punctuation. The division into chapters and verses came much later and developed over time. Then these chapter and verse divisions became authoritative. Even the distinction between capital letters and lower-case letters developed slowly over time. In the earliest manuscripts in Greek, everything was either in all capitals or all lower-case.

Bible publishers have always made their own choices about how they arrange the chapters and verses on their pages. The King James version treated every sentence as a stand-alone paragraph. Other publishers divide text into paragraphs. In the process, they decide what sentences are put in the same paragraph and what sentences are put in different paragraphs. Sometimes, they add headings to the paragraphs. All of this goes beyond the earliest Greek manuscripts that consisted only of wordswithoutspacesbetweenthem. (If you had to think about this for a moment, these are only five words run together. Imagine reading all of Ephesians as a string of words without spaces between them.)

Let's go  back to the problem with Ephesians created by division into bible verses. In Greek, Ephesians 5:21 has only five words. Ephesians 5:22 has only 8 words. Only Ephesians 5:21 has a verb in the form of a participle. (Please note that the definition of the verbal function in Ephesians 5:21 is very complicated. You can consult a wide array of scholars who will define the verbal function of the Greek word. Here, I want to keep it simple to make the point that Ephesians 5:21 has a verb and Ephesians 5:22 doesn't.)

You might wonder why those who divided Ephesians by verse number felt the need to create separate verses for what was clearly a complete statement in Greek. Whoever made the original decision to separate Ephesians 5:21 and 5:22, the result was that the phrase "wives to your husbands as to the Lord" got its own verse without a verb.

For a publisher, a verse without a verb is incomplete. What's the solution? Easy. Fetch a verb from the previous verse. This is how the lonely phrase in 5:22 got its very own verb. And this is how every Bible translation I have ever seen inserts a verb to turn a phrase into a complete sentence. Because of the numbering system, translators add a verb that dramatically changes the meaning of the whole. In the process, the original vision in Ephesians 5 about mutual submission to one another was replaced by submission of wives to the authority of their husbands.

Imagining a Better Translation of Ephesians 5:22

I wonder what difference it would make to believers if translators could break out of the restrictive tyranny of Bible verses to read all of Ephesians as one whole. Those who translate Greek into English surely recognize that Ephesians 5:22 is a verbless phrase that long ago was given its own chapter and verse number.

There are at least three possibilities why translators persist in adding a verb to English translations that does not exist in Greek:

  • Perhaps they feel so constrained by the verse divisions that they are unwilling to translate 5:22 as the verbless phrase that it is:  “…wives to your own husbands as to the Lord…”
  • Perhaps they are so conditioned by tradition that they are translating by habit.
  • Perhaps they really do know better but they don’t want to challenge the traditional power structure of churches and marriages.

Whatever the reason, there is no verb in Ephesians 5:22 in Greek. Imagine what it would mean if Bible translators would translate the Greek into English without adding a verb that does not exist in the phrase in Greek. And just imagine how this could change the way that husbands and wives think about their relationships.

If you're interested in more examples of how Bible translations sometimes miss the intended meanings of the Bible in its original languages, take a look the books in my Does the Bible Really Say That? series.

[Original Post June 16, 2008]
What are your thoughts about reading Ephesians 5:21-22 as a whole sentence without the added verb in verse 22? Please leave a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you.

Does the Bible Really Say That? Series focuses on the impact of Bible translations on what people believe "the Bible says" on any topic.

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Wealth and poverty are significant themes in the Bible. If you focus on isolated Bible verses, you can claim that God wants you to be poor. You can also claim that God wants to you to be rich. But neither claim can be justified if you go beyond the verses and read whole stories set in their original social, economic, political, and religious contexts.

Available on Amazon in either Kindle or paperback versions. Click Buy Now From Amazon to get your copy right away!

Does the Bible Really Say That? Series focuses on the impact of Bible translations on what people believe "the Bible says" on any topic.

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One glaring example of the effect of Bible translations on identity is Chapter 18 of the Gospel of Matthew. Careful analysis of familiar translation choices in English language bibles demonstrates how sin doctrine creates false identities by turning the innocent into sinners.

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