In this series we’ve been considering the question: what is the worst mistranslation in our English Bibles relating to women?

We’ve been looking at ‘the worst’ in different senses. We looked at the mistranslation with the least shred of justification (Part 1) and the one with the most negative description of women (Part 2). In Part 2 I included a reminder of the difficulties of Bible translation. We all owe a great debt to those who labor in this work and produce translations for us to use which most of the time are very good.

Moving on, which mistranslation is the most misleading?

For this category, it’s hard to choose between 1 Corinthians 7:4 and 1 Timothy 5:13. Let’s take a look.

1 Corinthians 7:4

The ESV is sometimes regarded as making translation choices which are biased against women. But at 1 Corinthians 7:4 it comes through with flying colors. It faithfully follows the Greek when it says: ‘For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.’

Some other versions have baulked at such a plain statement of the authority of each marriage partner over the other. According to the 1984 NIV, ‘the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife’. According to WE, ‘the husband does not have full right over his own body. But his wife has a right to it.’ TPT says: ‘Neither the husband nor the wife have exclusive rights to their own bodies, …’ These translations water down Paul’s words, apparently to avoid having to say that the wife has authority over the husband. Unfortunately, that is rather misleading.[i]

1 Timothy 5:13

In 1 Timothy 5:13, younger widows are traditionally described as ‘gossips’ (or ‘tattlers’ or ‘prattlers’) and ‘busybodies’, who say things that they ought not to say. A translation on these lines appears in most English versions from the 16th century to the present day. It paints a stock picture of gossipy women, poking their noses into other people’s business. Paul appears to be guilty of a misogynistic generalization about younger widows.

The word ‘gossips’ translates the Greek term ‘phluaros’. But this translation is not derived from the context. Nor is there any clear instance in ancient Greek literature where phluaros means ‘gossips’ or ‘gossipy’. It normally refers to talking nonsense. The traditional mistranslation of phluaros was corrected in the 2011 NIV. ‘Talking nonsense’ corresponds with the description of false teaching in 1 Tim. 1:6 as ‘meaningless talk’ (NIV) and as profane empty utterances in 6:20 and 2 Timothy 2:16. This is what the women are saying. ‘Gossips’ is definitely wrong.

‘Busybodies’ is probably wrong also. The Greek term ‘periergos’ means a meddler and refers more specifically to meddling by means of magic arts (sorcery). In Ephesus, a well-known center for magic, this would be expected (compare Acts 19:19, which contains the only other use of this word in the NT). Among the things which these women ought not to say are their magical incantations.[ii]

Paul does not think that all younger widows are gossips and busybodies. His concern is about these particular younger widows in Ephesus. They are probably false teachers, dabbling in magic, a probability that has been obscured by the traditional translations.

Who wins?

I’m not sure which is more misleading, translating 1 Corinthians 7:4 so as to obscure the wife’s mutual authority over the husband, or translating 1 Timothy 5:13 in a way that makes the younger widows into gossips rather than talkers of nonsense. The first has practical implications for Christian marriage. The second has a bearing on how we understand the issue of false teaching at Ephesus, which Paul commissioned Timothy to deal with. So, I would declare them joint winners.

In our final part, we will consider the mistranslation with the greatest impact on women.

[i] The 2011 NIV has made a partial correction.

[ii] For more information, see Andrew Bartlett, Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts (IVP, 2019), 253-263.