All languages contain figures of speech where words have a figurative meaning instead of the literal one. The same is true for the Bible. It’s important to correctly recognize figurative language so we don’t treat figurative language as though it were literal, or treat literal language as though it were figurative.
The passage “by his wounds you have been healed” is mentioned in Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24. What does it mean? From the context, “his wounds” refers to Christ’s suffering on the cross. Does it mean that through Christ’s death we can be miraculously healed from illness or injury? Or does it mean something else?
This passage is also alluded to in Deuteronomy 32:39NIV: “There is no god besides me. I (God) put to death and I bring to life, I have wounded and I will heal, and no one can deliver out of my hand”.
This verse is a part of the song of Moses which deals with the punishment of the nations which God used to punish Israel. Here God is shown to be sovereign over the nations. He can destroy them (“put to death”) and create them (“bring to life”). He can judge them (“wound”) and restore them (“heal”). So in this context, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech for restoring the fortunes of a nation. It has nothing to do with recovering from an illness or injury.
We will now look at Isaiah 53:5, followed by 1 Peter 2:24.
The Hebrew word nirpa (Strongs #7495), which is translated “heal”, is mentioned in six verses in the book of Isaiah. According to the Appendix, in 80% (4/5) of these verses, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech. So what does it mean in the other verse, Isaiah 53:5? Is it figurative or literal?
Isaiah prophesied and wrote in Judea in about 700BC when there was great wickedness and idolatry amongst the Judeans. There are four “servant songs” in the book of Isaiah in which the servant is the promised Messiah (Isa. 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-9; 52:13 – 53:12). The fourth song describes a servant who would experience suffering and exaltation. Isaiah 53:5 is set in the following context.
4 Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
Here the servant endured: pain, suffering, punishment, striking, affliction, piercing, crushing, and wounding. This punishment was from God and in this way the servant took the punishment that “we” deserve for “our” transgressions, iniquities and sin (v.10, 12). In this context the “we” and “our” were the faithful remnant of Judah (Isa. 10:20-23; 11:11; 37:31-32; 46:3). The result is that they experience peace and healing and justification (v.11). Their problem was that they “had gone astray” (v.6). They had sinned and transgressed the law of Moses. There is no mention of illness or injury. So in this verse “healed” means forgiveness of their sins and transgressions, not physical healing. According to the NET version, “Healing is a metaphor for forgiveness here”. It’s a spiritual healing, not a physical one. Brown-Driver-Briggs says that its figurative and addressing a nation or city like Babylon (Jer. 17:14). This means that the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech in 83% (5/6) of the verses where it is mentioned in the book of Isaiah.
In 1 Peter
The Greek word iaomai (Strongs #2390), which is translated “to heal”, is only mentioned once in the books written by Peter (1 Pt. 2:24). Most of the other instances of this word in the New Testament refer to physical healing. The exceptions are:
Acts 28:27, which is a quotation of Isaiah 6:10 in which the phrase “I (God) would heal them” is used as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival (see Appendix).
Hebrews 12:13 “’Make level paths for your feet,’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed”. The context of this verse is enduring hardship as God’s discipline (v.3-13). They are encouraged to persevere instead of giving up. The desired outcome is to “share in His (God’s) holiness” (v.10). This is a spiritual solution, not a physical one. So it was a spiritual problem, not a physical one. The “lame” is a weak believer (who had maybe drifted away, Heb. 2:1) and to be “healed” is to be built up, strengthened and restored (instead of stumbled). The NLT says “Mark out a straight path for your feet so that those who are weak and lame will not fall but become strong”. So the words “lame”, “disabled” and “healed” are being used metaphorically in this verse.
So what does “heal” mean in 1 Peter 2:24. This verse is set in the following context:
23 When they hurled their insults at Him (Jesus), He did not retaliate; when He suffered, He made no threats. Instead, He entrusted himself to Him (God the Father) who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by His wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
After dealing with submission to authorities, Paul gives the example of Christ’s submission when He suffered for our sins. Then he quotes from Isaiah 53:4-6 to encourage believers to live godly lives: “so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right” (v. 24, NLT). The verse is referring to sin and righteousness, not sickness and disease. Therefore, being “healed” means to be forgiven and saved, not to be physically healed. According to Thayers’ Greek Lexion “by His wounds you have been healed” means “to bring about (one’s) salvation”. It’s a way of saying that Christ’s death brings salvation to those who trust in Him. So, it’s spiritual healing. This is consistent with the finding that Isaiah 53:5 is also addressing spiritual healing, which should be the case as that is the source of the quotation in 1 Peter 2:24.
This study has illustrated how to use the surrounding context to distinguish figurative language from literal language in the Bible. The verses and passages in each book of the Bible are set out in an order determined by God. Don’t try to understand a verse or passage in isolation. Look at the message in the whole book. Look at the message in the same chapter, in the previous chapter and in the following chapter. Look at the message in the verses before and in the verses after. Read it like any other book; don’t just read here and there. Proverbs is the only book of the Bible where the verses aren’t always related to each other.
If a verse is quoted and explained without looking at the surrounding context, there is a danger of eisegesis (an interpretation that is imposed on the biblical text by the reader – it comes from the reader’s preconceived ideas) instead of exegesis (an interpretation that is obtained/derived from the biblical text).
In our everyday language the meaning of the words we use is mainly given by the surrounding context. The same rule applies when interpreting Scripture. It’s not good practice to select verses elsewhere in Scripture (i.e. “cherry picking”) to derive the meaning of a particular verse. Who decides which selection is best? But once the meaning has been explained, it’s OK to look for other passages of Scripture that are consistent with the meaning.
If this passage from Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24 is not relevant to illness and injury, then what is a proper Biblical response to such circumstances? Paul prayed about his health problems, but when it was clear that that weren’t going to be taken away, he knew that God doesn’t promise to remove our ailments and problems (2 Cor. 12:9). Instead God can give us the strength to live with our ailments and problems, because human weakness enables the display of divine power. Like a parent trains their children, God uses suffering for our spiritual development (Heb. 12:4-13). It’s how our self-reliance, pride, and earthly wisdom can be replaced with godliness and a stronger faith. James taught that the purpose of such trials is to develop our endurance, patience and perseverance (Jas. 1:2-3). Because our problems can develop our Christian character, we should accept them joyfully instead of getting angry, complaining, giving up, having self-pity, or believing that God will take them away. That can be a challenge for us!
We have seen that the passage “by his wounds you have been healed” mentioned in Isaiah 53:5 and 1 Peter 2:24 doesn’t mean that through Christ’s death we will be miraculously healed from illness or injury. Instead it means that through Christ’s death our sins can be forgiven and we can be spiritually healed and revived. However, physical healing is promised in future when believers will be resurrected to experience no sickness, pain, suffering, or death (Rev.21:1-4, 22:1-3).
Paul’s response to his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:9), parental training of their children (Heb. 12:4-13), and James’ advice on trials (Jas. 1:2-3) are good examples on how to react to illness or injury.
Appendix: Usage of the word “heal” in Isaiah
The Hebrew word nirpa (Strongs #7495), which is translated “heal”, is mentioned in six verses in the book of Isaiah. We now look briefly at the meaning of this word in five of these verses.
Isa. 6:10b: “Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed”. This verse is in a passage describing the results of Isaiah’s ministry to Judah. The people would be unresponsive (like being deaf and blind) and turn even further from God. It’s opposite to people turning back to God (being repentant). And opposite to a spiritual revival. And opposite to spiritual healing. So the phrase “be healed” is used in this verse as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival.
Isa. 19:22: “The Lord will strike Egypt with a plague; He will strike them and heal them. They will turn to the Lord, and He will respond to their pleas and heal them”. Here the Egyptians are able to pray for deliverance from the plague like the Israelites (1 Ki. 8:35-40). In this verse, the word “heal” is used for physical healing from the plague, which is a disease.
Isa. 30:26: “The moon will shine like the sun, and the sunlight will be seven times brighter, like the light of seven full days, when the Lord binds up the bruises of his people and heals the wounds he inflicted”. This chapter describes Israel relying on political alliances instead of on God, which results in suffering and sorrow. The suffering and sorrow are referred to metaphorically as “bruises” and “wounds”. But they are promised blessing if they repent. The end of their suffering and sorrow is likened to a metaphorical healing. So the word “heals” is used as a figure of speech for a spiritual revival when the Israelites repent to obey God once again.
Isa. 57:18-19: “I have seen their ways, but I will heal them; I will guide them and restore comfort to Israel’s mourners, creating praise on their lips. Peace, peace, to those far and near,” says the Lord. “And I will heal them”. These verses are in a passage where God promises to restore the Israelites who turn away from idolatry. The meaning of the word “heal” is given as to “guide”, to “restore comfort to Israel’s mourners” and to bring “peace”. There is no mention of illness or injury. So the word “heal” is used here as a figure of speech for forgiveness and restoration.
So in 80% (4/5 of these verses, the word “heal” is used as a figure of speech. The other verse that we haven’t considered here is: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed“ (Isa. 53:5). The meaning of “healed” in this verse is discussed above under the heading “In Isaiah”.
Written, February 2017
Esperanto is an international auxiliary language devised in 1887 to help break down the language barriers between different ethnic groups. It was to help communication while allowing retention of different languages and cultures. And a language to unite humanity and bring world peace. However, its proponents were persecuted by the Communists and Fascists and it remained a small movement. In this post we look at an international religious language.
When I was investigating the Islamic faith, I realized that to follow Muhammad and the Quran (Koran), you need to learn how to recite classical Arabic. Classical Arabic is a sacred language for Muslims because it was the language of the 7th century AD used by Muhammad and the language of the Quran. It’s no longer spoken in everyday language (except for religious purposes), being equivalent to Shakespearean English in the English speaking world.
The Quran is Islam’s holiest book; which Muslims believe are the commandments of Allah (God). Muslims believe that the Quran is divine (being Allah’s final message) and must be recited and studied in classical Arabic. A translation into another language (such as English) is viewed as being not divine because a human being did the translation – so it’s viewed as being only a human interpretation. Therefore, one needs to learn classical Arabic in order to properly understand the Quran.
This belief is based on a particular interpretation of this verse from the Quran: “We have revealed/made it (the Quran) an Arabic Quran, that you may understand” (12:2; 43:3). Of course, this is a translation into English, not the original version in classical Arabic! So Muslims would say that it’s not from the “real” Quran because it’s the wrong language! See my exegesis (interpretation) of this verse in the Appendix which gives a different interpretation because it includes the context given in the Quran.
As Islam forbids translation of the Quran from classical Arabic into another language, in all mosques around the world the recitation of the Quran is done in classical Arabic. In this way, classical Arabic is the world-wide liturgical language of Islam.
The mandatory prayers
Muslims are required to pray five times a day facing Mecca. They believe that all these prayers are to be recited in the classical Arabic language because the prayers include extracts from the Quran. Non-Arabic speakers often learn them by heart and recite them from memory. That’s why the Call to prayer announced by loudspeakers five times daily from mosques is only given in classical Arabic; even in non-Arabic communities. Has anyone ever heard this announcement made in any other language?
A sacred language
So to become a Muslim, you have to adopt the classical Arabic language for these most important religious activities. No other language is accepted except classical Arabic. In this way, Islam is a language-exclusive religion. It is monolingual.
Muslims have many native languages, but one religious language. Non-Arab Muslims have to accept this bias as a natural part of life. As language is a part of culture, the daily use of classical Arabic language would affect one’s culture. In this way, it is understandable that Muslims would adopt aspects of Arabic culture into their local culture as well. For example, some non-Arabic Muslims adopt Arabic names and give their children Arabic names. They also often adopt Arabic modes of dress. So Islam is closely associated with Arabic language and Arabic culture.
On the other hand, Christianity is definitely multilingual. The Bible has been translated into all major languages and is being translated into minor languages as well. When the church began on the day of Pentecost (50 days after Christ’s death), there was a miracle whereby the apostles were able to speak in the native languages of people from at least 15 different language groups (Acts 2:5-15). This was called the gift of tongues (the ability to speak a foreign language without learning it). So from the beginning, the message about Jesus Christ was given in the native languages of the hearers, and not in only one “sacred” language (such as Latin or Koine Greek or Aramaic, John 19:20).
If Christianity was monolingual, then all public usage of the Bible would have to be in a single language like Koine Greek, or Latin or King James English.
Christianity is also multicultural and multinational. Peter had to change his attitude towards Gentiles after being shown that the barrier between Jew and Gentile had been removed because God doesn’t favor people because of their nationality (Acts 10:28, 34).
There is another example in the Bible of God using a multilingual approach rather than a monolingual one. After the Jews returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon, in about 444 BC, Ezra read the Pentateuch (Genesis to Deuteronomy in the Old Testament) to them. But the people no longer understood the Hebrew language as their native language was now Aramaic. So the Levites “instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear (translating it) and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read” (Neh. 8:7-8NIV). Afterwards the people were pleased “because they now understood the words that had been made known to them” (Neh. 8:12). It seems as though the Levites were translating the Scripture from Hebrew into Aramaic on this occasion. Many Hebrew words needed to be explained as it was no longer their native language.
Evidence of the usage of Aramaic in this era is given in the book of Ezra. The only portion of the Old Testament that wasn’t written in Hebrew is Ezra 4:8 – 6:18; 7:12-26, which was written in Aramaic. These passages refer to correspondence to and from the king of the Persian Empire written between 534 BC and 458 BC.
Muslims claim to worship the same God as the Jews and the Christians. But we have seen from these examples that the God of the Jews didn’t ask the Jews to treat Hebrew as a sacred language and the God of the Christians didn’t ask the Christians to treat Koine Greek (or Aramaic or Latin) as a sacred language. Yet Allah asked the Muslims to treat classical Arabic as a sacred language. Clearly Allah is inconsistent with the God of the Jews and the Christians. Is seems like Allah is a different god.
To follow Muhammad, Allah and the Quran, you need to learn to recite classical Arabic because classic Arabic is the international liturgical language of Islam. Fortunately, you can follow Jesus Christ in your native language.
Appendix: My exegesis of Quran 12:2; 43:3
This verse says, “We have revealed it (the Quran) an Arabic Quran, that you may understand” or “We have made it (the Quran) an Arabic Quran so that you may apply reason”.
The steps involved in understanding an ancient passage like this are as follows:
– What was the meaning when it was written? This is the original meaning.
– What were the original principles behind this meaning?
– What has changed since then?
– What are the universal principles for us today? Here we update the principles.
– What is the meaning for us today? How should we apply these universal principles? Here we update the applications or practices of the principles.
The Quran was written in 7th century AD Arabic language (Classical Arabic) so that the 7th century AD Arabic people could understand it. This is different to Islam whose original meaning seems to be; “the Quran was written in Classical Arabic because that’s the language that Allah used”.
The Quran must be understandable. This is different to Islam whose original principle seems to be; “the Quran must be in Classical Arabic because that’s the language that Allah used”. Islam seems to ignore the context, which is given as “that you may understand”.
What has changed since then?
It is claimed that the Quran was written at least 1,300 years ago. Since this time Islam has spread to other nations. This means that Muslims no longer speak the same language and no longer speak classical Arabic in everyday life. And for many Muslims, Arabic isn’t their native language.
For the Quran to be understandable by all Muslims, it needs to be available in their native language. This is different to Islam whose modern principle remains; “the Quran must be in Classical Arabic because that’s the language that Allah used”. As mentioned above, this seems to ignore the context, which is given as “that you may understand”.
Translate the Quran into native languages so it can be readily understood by those who read and recite it. This application of the verse is different to Islam because I took the context into account, which is given as “that you may understand”. However, I am in the minority!
Written, January 2017
Correcting disorder at Corinth
In December 2014 a Santa Cruz City Council meeting was shut down because of disorder. After council approved a bulletproof vehicle for the police department the discussion got out of hand when people spoke up during the public comment portion, several of them speaking over the mayor. After everyone was asked to leave, some people continued to knock on the windows in protest.
Let’s look at God’s commands for orderly church meetings at Corinth. In particular, what is the good behavior for Christian women given in 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 and how does this relate to us today? This article is based on an assessment of the text and context of this passage.
In 55 AD Paul (who was in Ephesus) wrote the letter of 1 Corinthians to the church in Corinth. Paul established a church at Corinth in 52 AD during his second missionary journey (Acts 18:1-17) and he stayed there for about 18 months (Acts 18:11).
At that time Corinth was the chief city in Greece. It was in southern Greece on the trade route between western Europe and places further east such as Asia Minor, Phoenicia, and Egypt. Its people worshipped at pagan temples and there was a Jewish synagogue.
The church at Corinth was plagued by factions and spiritual immaturity. When he was in Ephesus, Paul received a letter from Corinth informing him of their difficulties and asking questions about Christian behavior. So Paul wrote this letter to address the problems in the church and to answer their questions. It addresses topics such as factions, sexual immorality, marital difficulties, lawsuits, abuse of the Lord’s Supper, and misuse of spiritual gifts.
The section on spiritual gifts deals with: testing the spirits (12:1-3); unity of the spiritual gifts (12:4-11); diversity of the spiritual gifts (12:12-31a); the necessity of exercising the gifts in love (12:31b – 13:13); the superiority of prophecy over tongues (speaking in foreign languages) (14:1-25); and participation in meetings (14:26-40). It’s preceded by correcting abuse at the Lord’s Super (11:17-34) and followed by instruction on the resurrection (15:1-58).
The Christians in Corinth had overemphasised the gift of tongues (speaking in foreign languages) (Ch. 12). Apparently this caused strife in the local church. There was also jealousy, confusion and argument. Paul corrected this by insisting that all spiritual gifts be exercised in a spirit of love (Ch. 13). He also showed that prophecy was superior to speaking in other languages, particularly when there was no interpretation (translation) of the latter (14:1-25). After 25 verses of doctrine, Paul begins to explain what this means in practice.
The context of 1 Corinthians 14:26-40 is a meeting of Christians. It says “When you come together” (v.26NIV). The subheading in the HCSB is “Order in church meetings”. Paul uses the same Greek verb sunerchomai (Strongs #4905) to describe when the church came together to celebrate the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11:17-18, 20, 33-34) and when the “whole church” comes together to hear messages interpreted from other languages and prophesy (messages from God) (1 Cor. 14:23). Men (husbands) and women (wives) are present (v.35).
Christian meetings (1 Cor. 14:26, 40)
“What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue or an interpretation. Everything must be done so that the church may be built up.
… But everything should be done in a fitting and orderly way”.
Paul describes a meeting where there was singing, teaching (teachers instruct and teach) prophecy (prophets receive revelations) and other languages with interpretation. Anyone in the congregation could participate (”each of you”). But because it was disorderly, Paul puts some regulations in place. If these are followed the meeting will be carried out in a peaceful (v.33) and “in a fitting and orderly way” (v.40).
What does “fitting” and “orderly” mean (v.40)? The Greek adverbeuschémonós (#2156) means properly, or decently (Rom. 13:13). It’s something that is presentable (1 Cor. 12:24) and respectable (1 Th. 4:12) and harmonious. The Greek noun taxis (#5010) means due or right order. For example, Paul said that the church in Colossae was “in good order” (ESV) or “disciplined” (NIV).
The first regulation for their meetings at Corinth is that “Everything must be done so that the church may be built up”. Paul has already used the Greek noun translated “built up” oikodomé (#3619) three times in this chapter (14:3, 5, 12). So it’s a major theme of the chapter. This means that everything they do in their meetings must promote spiritual growth. The NET translation says the objective is “the strengthening of the church”. Of course, this means the people of the church.
Foreign languages (1 Cor. 14:27-28, 39)
“If anyone speaks in a tongue, two—or at the most three—should speak, one at a time, and someone must interpret. If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God.
… Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.”
The gift of tongues is the ability given by the Holy Spirit to speak a foreign language without ever having learned it. “Tongue” glóssa (Strongs #1100) means tongue, language or nation. In this case it means miraculously speaking in other languages. The word is used many times in this way in 1 Corinthians chapters 12-14. It is also used in this sense in Acts 2:4; 10:46; 19:6.
Obviously the meetings at Corinth were disorderly with more than one person speaking at once and using words that no one could understand. So Paul gives them three regulations for the use of other languages in a Christian meeting at Corinth:
• No more than three people (men, see below) should speak in other languages.
• They should speak in turn (“one at a time”) and not at the same time. This makes the message clear and not confusing.
• No one should speak in another language unless the message is interpreted (translated). The interpretation enables those in the congregation who don’t know the language to understand the message. If there is no interpretation, they must be silent with regard to speaking in the other language (because most of the congregation wouldn’t understand the message). This is a conditional temporary silence.
As long as these regulations are followed, Paul didn’t prohibit speaking in other languages in the early church (v.39).
Prophecy (1 Cor. 14:29-33, 39)
“Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said. And if a revelation comes to someone who is sitting down, the first speaker should stop. For you can all prophesy in turn so that everyone may be instructed and encouraged. The spirits of prophets are subject to the control of prophets. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people.
… Therefore, my brothers and sisters, be eager to prophesy, and do not forbid speaking in tongues.”
The gift of prophecy is the ability given by the Holy Spirit to receive messages (revelations) directly from God and communicate these to others. They were God’s spokesmen before the Bible was available in written form. The objective of prophecy is that “everyone may be instructed (learn) and encouraged” (v.31).
The Greek noun translated “prophet” prophétés (#4396) means a person who brings a message from God. In the Old Testament, a prophet was a messenger of God. He delivered God’s messages. They wrote most of the Old Testament. Abraham was the first to be called a prophet and John the Baptist was the last one before Christ.
Like the apostles, the New Testament prophets were concerned with the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20). An apostle was also a prophet because what they wrote are called “prophetic writings” (Rom. 16:26). Their message is preserved for us in the New Testament.
“The one who prophesies speaks to people for their strengthening, encouraging and comfort” (1 Cor. 14:3). Prophecy also builds up believers and convicts unbelievers of their sin (1 Cor. 14:4; 24-25).
The Greek verb translated “revelation” apokaluptó (#601, verb) means to uncover or reveal. For example, God used the Holy Spirit to reveal to the writers of the New Testament things previously unknown to humanity (1 Cor. 2:10). Also, the value of the work of preachers and teachers will be revealed at the Judgment Seat of Christ when their service for the Lord will be reviewed (1 Cor. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:10). That is why the prophets were said to receive a revelation from God (v.30).
The noun form of this word apokalupsis (#602), which means uncovering or revealing, is used to describe Christ’s visible return at the second advent (1 Cor. 1:7) and the disclosure of truth concerning divine things that were previously unknown (1 Cor. 14:6, 26).
Another problem at Corinth was speakers saying things they shouldn’t and stopping others from speaking by going too long. So Paul gives them four regulations for prophecy in a Christian meeting at Corinth:
• No more than three people (men, see below) should prophesy
• The other prophets should “weigh carefully (evaluate) what is said” as they are responsible to ensure it is indeed a message from God. They were to detect false prophets. Maybe they had the gift of “distinguishing between spirits” (1 Cor. 12:10).
• They should speak “in turn” and not at the same time. This makes the message clear and not confusing.
• A prophecy should stop when another person receives a revelation from God. In this case, the first prophet must be silent with regard to prophecy (also the longer one speaks, the greater the chance of using one’s own words instead of God’s words). This is also a conditional temporary silence.
As long as these regulations are followed, Paul encouraged prophecy in the early church (v.39).
As Biblical Greek has no punctuation, the phrase “as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people” (v.33) may relate to what goes before or what comes after it. But because they are all God’s command (v.36-38), its location doesn’t affect the interpretation. So I think the phrase applies to both what goes before and what comes after it. All congregations were to obey these commands.
Women (1 Cor. 14:34-35)
“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church.”
The word for “woman” and “wife” is the same in Greek. Because of the reference to husbands in v.35, the word may be translated “wives” here. But in a passage governing conduct in church meetings the general meaning “women” is more likely.
Before we list the regulations for women in a Christian meeting at Corinth, we will look at the meaning of the Greek words for “silence”, “speak”, “submission” and “law”.
The Greek verb for “silence” sigao (#4601) means to keep silent or to keep secret. Paul uses it for the secret truth that through the gospel believing Gentiles and believing Jews would be fellow members of the church (the Body of Christ) and share together in the promise in Christ (Rom. 16:25; Eph. 3:6). He also uses the same word in v.28, 30 and 34. We have seen above that it is used for conditional temporary silence in the contexts of speaking in other languages and of prophecy (v.28, 30). Therefore is seems that the women are also to be conditionally temporarily silent (v.34). But in what context? As the passage (v.26-40) is devoted to speaking in other languages and prophecy in a general church meeting, this would be the context.
The Greek verb translated “speak” laleó (#2980) means “to speak or say”. It is mentioned 24 times in this chapter. The cases that are closest to v.34 mean speaking in another language (v. 27, 28, 39) and speaking a prophecy (v.29). They are in the context where one person is addressing the whole church. Therefore, the best interpretation of v.34 is that Paul is prohibiting women from speaking in another language and speaking a prophecy in a meeting of Christians when men and women are present. This is in the context where one woman is not to publicly address the whole church. It refers to public speaking, not private speaking (conversation).
The Greek verb translated “submission” hupotassó (#5293) means to submit, to place under, or to obey. Paul uses it in five verses in this letter. Everything will be subject to Christ (15:27) and Christ will be subject to God the Father in an administrative sense (15:28). Paul urged them to submit to those who were serving God’s people (16:16). In our passage, a prophet was subject to the control of the other prophets (14:32). Likewise, the women were to be in submission (v.34). Who or what are they to be submissive to? Their husbands? The church elders? Those speaking at the meeting (prophets and teachers)? Or to the Scripture being taught?
The Greek noun translated the “law” nomos (#3551) means the Pentateuch (the law of Moses, 1 Cor. 9:8-9) or the Old Testament. Paul used this word twice in chapter 14. It means the Old Testament when a quotation is from Isaiah (v.21). In v.34 the law may be referring to Adam’s leadership over Eve (Gen. 2:18), which Paul quoted in chapter 11 (11:8-9). As this is only three chapters before our passage, Paul doesn’t need to repeat the reference. Furthermore, the Old Testament teaches that wives were to be submissive to their husbands (1 Pt. 3:5-6). Also, men were the leaders in Israelite/Jewish society, religion and family.
What does v.35 mean? It seems that women were disrupting a meeting by asking questions. As it refers to learning, the context is probably prophecy or teaching. The situation seems to be when a woman wants to ask a question in order to help her understand the message. Rather than disrupting the meeting, they were advised to ask their husbands at home. In this scenario, the disgrace/shame would be to interrupt the meeting with a question. Also, this prohibition stops women making comments or teaching via questioning.
Is v.35 an explanation of v.34 or an additional requirement? It begins with the Greek words for “if moreover” ei de (#1487, #1161). These are two conjunctions that mean “if on the other hand” and imply that the restriction in v.35 is different to that in v.34. This idea is expressed as “And if” in the HCSB.
Some think that the restriction in v.34 is the same as in v.35 and that it stopped the women interrupting church meetings by making remarks or asking questions (or chattering). Because of the two conjunctions , I consider this is poor exegesis (interpretation of the text).
Some think that the prohibition in v.34-35 relates to evaluating the prophets (v.29, 32). In this case, female questioning during an evaluation would violate their submission to male leadership, but female prophecy and speaking in other languages in a general church meeting wouldn’t violate their submission to male leadership. Is this consistent? After all, those who evaluated the prophets were fellow prophets (v.29, 32). This would mean that male prophets could prophesy and evaluate, and female ones could prophesy, but not evaluate! Also, the women were asking questions, not making judgments (v.35) and the solution was to do this at home.
Some think that the restriction in v.34-35 is due to women being uneducated at that time. But if that is the reason, why does Paul ignore the men who were uneducated?
As it related to when they wanted to “inquire about something” and the solution was to “ask their husbands”, it seems as though the women were asking questions. And Paul says that this was “disgraceful”. He used the same word to describe a short hair cut for women (11:6). We don’t know why this was disgraceful. Were they interrupting the meeting? Were they disrespecting the speakers? Was this disrespectful in their society?
Therefore, the best explanation seems to be that there were three regulations for women in a Christian meeting at Corinth when men are present:
• Don’t speak in other languages. This is a conditional silence.
• Don’t prophesy. This is a conditional silence.
• Don’t disrupt the meeting by asking questions. Instead they should ask them at home (that’s the place for spiritual discussions). This is also a conditional limit on speaking in church.
What about when Paul wrote “every woman who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head” (11:5)? Doesn’t this mean that women prophesied in church meetings at Corinth? The subheading of 11:2-16 is “On covering the heads in worship” (NIV). But there is no reference to a church meeting until v.17, which is outside the passage! The focus of this passage is on the need for a head-covering when they prophesised, not on “worship”. And there is no definite reference to a meeting. So from 11:2-16 it is debateable as to whether women prophesised in meetings at Corinth or not. In this case, the best exegesis is to use the clearer example of 14:34 which definitely implies that women didn’t prophesy in meetings when men were present at Corinth.
Another possible interpretation is that the conditional silence applies to all instances when one woman would publicly address the whole church like speaking in other languages or prophesy. This would extend the restriction to all other such spiritual activities. However, this changes the meaning of the silence sigaó (#4601) from conditional to absolute, which is out of context (being inconsistent with the rest of the passage). Also, note that prayer (speaking to God, which is another verbal spiritual activity) isn’t mentioned in this case as it was in 11:4-5.
God’s command (1 Cor. 14:36-38)
“Or did the word of God originate with you? Or are you the only people it has reached? If anyone thinks they are a prophet or otherwise gifted by the Spirit, let them acknowledge that what I am writing to you is the Lord’s command. But if anyone ignores this, they will themselves be ignored.”
Next Paul asks two rhetorical questions in an ironic, satirical and sarcastic manner. These absurd questions matched their absurd behavior. The Corinthians were acting as though they were the authority on this subject and that they wrote the Bible. They were also acting as though they were the only Christians on earth. So they were independent of Paul and the other churches. Paul says that any spiritually gifted person would recognize his God-given authority. He has been given the Lord’s command on this topic. He is the authority, not them. They are God’s commands for the church and not just Paul’s viewpoint.
Any who disobey this command will be ignored by Paul, by the churches and by God because they don’t have the spiritual gift they claim. They won’t be recognized as a godly prophet or as a spiritual person, but as false prophet.
What about Galatians 3:28?
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Some use this verse to claim that as the gospel eradicates the differences between men and women, there should be no restrictions on women’s ministry in church. But this verse doesn’t address the roles of men and women in church meetings. It has a different context which is the unity that salvation in Christ brings to a diverse group of people. Race, social status and gender make no difference in terms of salvation (one’s standing before God) and its blessings. In the promised inheritance there is no distinction between male and female. There is now no division in Christ Jesus (also see: 1 Cor. 12:13; Col. 3:11).
But does Galatians 3:28 abolish all sexual distinctions? Can Christians now approve same-sex marriages? No! It doesn’t address these topics and others like husband-wife roles at home or male-female roles in the local church.
But how do these commands apply to us today? Let’s look at what’s changed since then.
Lessons for us
As 1 Corinthians was probably written about AD 55, it describes the early days of the church. The only earlier books in the New Testament are James, Galatians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians and events described in the gospels and Acts chapters 1-19. When applying the principles in it to us today we need to consider the changes since then. There is Scriptural evidence that the frequency of speaking in other languages and prophecy changed later in the first century AD.
Speaking in tongues
Speaking in other languages is only mentioned in two books of the Bible (Acts and 1 Corinthians). Also, it isn’t mentioned in any Scripture written after 55 AD (or in the case of Acts, events that occurred after 55 AD). Therefore, it appears that this gift was primarily for the early church. So I will not apply the principles for speaking other languages to us today.
Prophecy is mentioned in the book of Acts up to AD 57 (Acts 21:9-10). Paul mentions prophecy in his books written in AD 55-60 but not his last six books (written AD 60-66). The only biblical record of prophecy after this time is the apostle John (Rev. 1:3; 10:7, 11; 19:10; 22:6, 9, 10, 18-19). He also mentions false prophets (1 Jn. 4:1). Therefore, it seems as though the prevalence of prophecy decreased significantly after AD 60. We now have the record of God’s revelation to the prophets in the early church in the New Testament. These truths are now communicated to us by preachers and teachers who also build up (strengthen), encourage and comfort believers and convict unbelievers. Therefore, I will apply the principles for prophecy to preaching and teaching.
The church is founded on Christ’s completed work (1 Cor. 3:11) as taught by the apostles and New Testament prophets (Eph. 2:20; 3:5). This work was completed in the first century AD and we have a record of this foundation in the New Testament. So, in this sense, we no longer have apostles or prophets in the church today. As Paul links speaking in tongues with prophecy (1 Cor. 14), both of these gifts are no longer required now the church’s foundation has been laid.
The revelation given to the writers of the New Testament finished in the first century AD (Jude 3, Rev. 22:18-19). Just as the close of the Old Testament canon was followed by a 400 year silence (no prophecies from God), so the close of the NT has been followed by a 1,900 year silence. Since the book of Revelation was completed, no new written or verbal prophecy has ever been universally recognized by Christians as divine truth from God. The Scriptures are final and complete. According to Scripture, God will speak again with new prophecies, visions and revelations after the rapture, during the tribulation and Christ’s millennial kingdom (Acts 2:16-21; Rev. 11:1-13).
As we don’t know why it was disgraceful for women to ask questions during a church meeting at Corinth, we will look at what Paul says elsewhere on this topic.
1 Timothy 2:11-12
Nine years after correcting disorderly meetings at Corinth, Paul described appropriate behaviour for Christian women in Ephesus. We need to take this into account here as God’s will is revealed progressively in the Bible. The relevant passage is, “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1 Timothy 2:11-12). This means that within the context of the Christian church, women are not to preach/teach men or to lead the church as a whole, and to respect the men that do this.
This instruction about preaching/teaching is consistent with the one reached above with regard to the principles for prophecy. Also, to “learn in quietness and full submission” may help explain why it was disgraceful for women to ask questions during a church meeting at Corinth. Maybe they weren’t submissive to the male teachers in the church.
Therefore, from this passage we can deduce that the principles for women in a church meeting today when men are present are:
• Women are not to preach or teach as this is a male role.
• Women are to respect the male teachers in the church. If they have any questions, it’s best to ask them after a meeting instead of disrupting the meeting (that’s the best time for spiritual discussions).
These are conditional silences as other verbal activities are acceptable. It’s orderly (v.33, 40) and enables the church to be built up (v.26). They are God’s commands for all churches (v.33, 37).
The restriction in preaching and teaching men in a church meeting can be difficult to accept because it goes against our culture today where women are encouraged to do everything a man does.
In January 2014, there was a disorderly meeting of Auckland Council. After the applications to speak of five members of the public were refused the crowd erupted and the Mayor made an adjournment in an attempt to restore order. He said that the only people who should be speaking at the meeting are those sitting around the councillor’s table. Two campaigners tried to speak despite being denied. Likewise, breaching God’s regulations has an adverse impact on our church meetings.
The ability to do something doesn’t come with the right to do it. Do we encourage Christian women with the ability to preach or teach to use this with women and children? Do we train both men and women to preach and teach? Are our preachers and teachers prepared and willing to answer spiritual questions? Is a prime objective of our church meetings to build up (strengthen) believers? Do we explain what we say and do in our meetings so that everyone can understand? Do we evaluate the messages against Scripture?
From an assessment of the text and context of 1Corinthians 14:26-40 we have found God’s commands for orderly church meetings in AD 55. These involved restrictions on the participation of both men and women. After taking account of changes since then, we have developed equivalent commands for today. Because some of these are counter-cultural today, they can be difficult for us to accept. The main principle is that women are not to preach or teach in a church meeting when men are present as this is a role for males with this gift.
Written, December 2015
I received a comment on my blog claiming that the Hebrew language didn’t exist until the Jewish exile in Babylon. So, what does the evidence say?
According to the Bible, all people spoke the same language until around 2200 BC when God caused different languages to develop at Babel and people scattered to form different nations across the earth (Gen. 11:1-9). This was the source of the diversity of human languages.
The Hebrew nation settled in Canaan in the 14th century BC. They occupied Canaan until the first Jewish captives were deported to Babylon in 605 BC and the second wave were exiled in 586 BC when the city of Jerusalem was destroyed (Dan. 1; 2 Ki. 25).
According to Wikipedia, the Siloam inscription records the construction of Hezekiah’s tunnel. The NIV Study Bible states that Hezekiah was king of Judah between 715 BC and 686 BC (2 Ki. 18:1-2). The tunnel, leading from the Gihon Spring to the Pool of Siloam, was designed as an aqueduct to provide Jerusalem with water during an impending siege by the Assyrians, led by Sennacherib (2 Ki. 20:20; 2 Chr. 32:30). The inscription, which was discovered in the tunnel in 1880 and has been dated at 701 BC, is written in the “Biblical Hebrew” language, which uses the ancient Hebrew alphabet. So here we have a written example of the Hebrew language that dates at least 100 years before the Jewish exile.
Hebrew belongs to the Semantic family of languages which were used in the middle east. Geographically it was a Canaanite language like Phoenician, Ugaritic and Moabite. The Bible notes that Jacob’s language was different to Aramaic (Gen. 31:47). Scholars believe that Hebrew was spoken in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah during the 10th to 7th centuries BC.
Therefore, the reader’s comment seems to be inconsistent with the evidence available. It can be shown that the Hebrew language originated well before the Babylonian exile. In fact, Wikipedia claims that there is evidence of “Biblical Hebrew” as far back as the 10th century BC, which extends to the days of king David (2 Sam. 5:4). The Gezer calendar is dated in this time period. Likewise, the earliest known example of the Hebrew alphabet discovered at Tel Zayit is dated in the 10th century B.C.
Written, March 2013
In part 3 of this evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible, we assess some criticisms of this translation by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and the Southern Baptist Convention in the USA.
The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW)
The CBMW issued “An Evaluation of Gender Language in the 2011 Edition of the NIV Bible” in mid-2011. They are concerned that “the 2011 NIV … unnecessarily removes male-oriented terminology that was present in the 1984 NIV — especially the use of generic masculine forms of expression”.
Their accusations against the NIV 2011 are summarised below, including the verses referenced.
It adopts feminist-leaning translations – 1 Tim. 2:12
“The 2011 NIV changes some key verses on women’s role in the church so that they favor an evangelical feminist position, especially in translating 1 Timothy 2:12 in a way that differs with all other commonly-used modern English translations and that gives women a wide open door to serve as pastors and elders in churches, contrary to the actual teaching of the New Testament.”
Rom 16:7; 1 Corinthians 14:33-34; Romans 16:1
It incorrectly changes “father” to “parent” or something else – Proverbs 15:5; 1 Samuel 18:2
It incorrectly changes “forefather” to “ancestor” – Joshua 19:47
It incorrectly changes “mighty men” to “mighty warriors – 2 Samuel 23:8
It incorrectly changes “son” to “child” – Proverbs 13:24; Psalm 8:4
It incorrectly changes “man” to a gender-neutral term – 1 Kings 9:5; Proverbs 27:17
It incorrectly changes “brother” to “brother or sister” or to other non-family words –
Luke 17:3; Deuteronomy 22:1
It incorrectly changes “mighty men” to “mighty warriors – 2 Samuel 23:8
It incorrectly changes “he” and “him” to “they” and “them” – John 14:23
It loses many more masculine singular pronouns than the “Translators’ Notes” suggest –
Proverbs 28:19; John 6:40; John 15:6; Proverbs 5:21; Romans 4:8; Matthew 10:24; Matthew 12:35; Matthew 18:15; Revelation 3:20
It incorrectly changes “women” to “weaklings” – Nahum 3:13
It waters down or omits details of meaning that modern culture finds offensive – They object to the removal of male examples to teach general truths, by removing words such as “father,” “son,” “brother,” “man,” and “he/him/his.”
Most of these accusations have been responded to generally by the NIV translators and specifically by Decker (2011).
The translator’s response is summarised below.
- The NIV translators have never been motivated by a concern to avoid giving offense. We were simply following what wide-ranging, objective research tells us about the state of modern English.
- It is the scholarship that has influenced the translation decisions – not a modern agenda of any kind.
- The CBMW review betrays a simplistic understanding of word meaning.
- Why single out the NIV for criticism for translation decisions that, to some degree, are being widely adopted by modern translators? We, along with translators of other modern versions, are not trying to “avoid” certain words. Rather, positively, we are trying to find the right word in contemporary English to represent the meaning of ancient Hebrew and Greek words.
Dr Rod Decker is Professor of New Testament and Greek at Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania USA. His response to the CBMW report is summarised below.
The CBMW is a very vocal single-issue group that has determined that one of the primary ways to champion their position is to advocate a single approach to translation: formal equivalence with explicit objection to “gender-neutral” translation. Their single issue is defending a complementarian view of men and women and opposing egalitarianism. I personally hold a complementarian position, so my objection is not to the position itself but to some of the ways in which CBMW has attempted to advance that cause.
The tone of their official review of the NIV 2011 is unhelpful, and the methodology employed is designed more for rhetorical effect than it is for a substantive engagement in the issues. The methodology essentially collates a large quantity of data presented in summary form. This gives the uninformed reader the impression of thousands and thousands of errors. In reality there are a few basic issues in regard to how gender-related language should be translated. These get too little attention in the review. One sometimes sees a parallel in the manner in which “KJV-only” advocates defend their preference against all comers.
More specifically, 1 Timothy 2:12 is not a feminist-driven translation choice. To say that “in one stroke the NIV 2011 removes the Bible’s main barrier to women pastors and elders” is ill-advised rhetoric. Decker also quotes Paul Wendland:
The CBMW overstates the case when it claims that the NIV 2011 translation of 1 Timothy 2:12 will give “an open door” to women pastors since “in one stroke it removes the Bible’s main barrier to women pastors and elders. As soon as a church adopts the 2011 NIV, the debate over women’s roles in that church will be over”. The NIV 2011 still says that the husband/man is the head of the wife/woman and that an elder/overseer in the church is to be “faithful to his wife.” How has a wide open door been given to women pastors when NIV 2011 says these things? Just as gender roles could be taught on the basis of the KJV, in spite of “usurp authority” in 1 Timothy 2:12, so it will be possible to teach gender roles on the basis of NIV 2011.
Also, I do not find the CBMW’s argument convincing when they say that ‘assume authority’ must be understood as ‘assume authority on one’s own initiative.’ If I would say in a conversation, “The president assumed office today,” would anyone think, “He means the president is assuming office on his own initiative”? I have a hard time believing it.
Moo has stated “that in order to have or exercise authority, it must first be assumed”. You could even argue that “assume” is stronger than “have” or “exercise”. You can have authority but never exercise it. You could exercise authority without having it (in any official, designated capacity). But you can’t have or exercise authority without first assuming it.
Decker also addresses the linguistic concerns of the CBMW, including:
- To state that Luke 17:3 incorrectly changes “brother” to “brother or sister” “is biased and ill-informed”.
- To suggest that eliminating a “male-oriented” term (i.e., generic “man”), as in Proverbs 27:17, is capitulating to the feminist agenda is foolishness.
- To ask why is the male meaning that is present in the source text of John 6:31 eliminated makes an unwarranted semantic assumption.
People like the CBMW are concerned about neutering masculine pronouns. John 6:44 is an example of a masculine singular pronoun (“him”) being replaced by a gender-neutral plural pronoun (“them”). In this instance they think that a corporate element is being added to a verse that originally had an individual focus. However, the “them” in this verse does not refer to a group of people, but to the “one” referenced in the start of the verse. The NIV 2011 verse is worded exactly how people speak today!
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day||No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day||John 6:44|
However, there is a verse in the NIV 2011 that I think would be improved if it was translated like John 6:44. Revelation 3:20 is not worded how people speak today. Is there any reason why “them” can’t be used in this verse instead of “that person'”, because “them” is much more readable than “that person”.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||My suggestion||Reference|
|Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me||Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.||Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.||Revelation 3:20|
The Southern Baptist Convention (SBC)
Other opposition has come from the US SBC, which passed a resolution opposing the NIV 2011 at their annual convention in June 2011. The heart of the 2011 resolution claims, “this translation alters the meaning of hundreds of verses, most significantly by erasing gender-specific details which appear in the original language.” It also references a 1997 resolution on translation that condemns “gender inclusive translation”. It is understood that the CBMW report would have given the 2011 resolution momentum. The resolution has also been used to claim that the NIV 2011 undermines the verbal plenary inspiration of the Bible (God supernaturally guided the biblical authors to write the exact things that He wanted expressed).
The NIV translators and Decker (2011) have responded to this accusation.
The translator’s response is summarised below.
- We object strongly to the accusation that the NIV “alters the meaning of hundreds of verses, most significantly by erasing gender-specific details which appear in the original language.” Our concern is always, in every decision we make, to represent God’s unchanging Word accurately and naturally in modern English.
- We object strongly to the accusation that “the 2011 NIV has gone beyond acceptable translation standards.” In fact, our translation standards are exactly those followed by professional translators around the world. We employ these standards in combination with the best biblical and linguistic scholarship to render God’s eternal Word accurately into modern English. This mandate is what guides us in all our decisions — not any other agenda.
According to Decker (2011):
Unfortunately, neither “gender-neutral” … nor “gender inclusive” in the 1997 resolution are defined. Definition is the heart of any such statement … It appears that the resolution assumes a very broad definition of the term and applies it to a translation that itself uses a very narrow definition. .. the only changes in the NIV 2011 that may be termed “gender inclusive” are those that the translators understood to be inclusive of both men and women in the original text. That is hardly objectionable. It is unfortunate that the SBC has not issued a more accurate statement …
The 1997 resolution of the SBC that is referenced in the 2011 resolution indicates that their concern is with regard to “gender inclusive language” in “Bible translations with the intent of translating the Scriptures into the current language of the people”. In their opinion this is a deviation from the historic principles of biblical translation. As translations such as the KJV were in the current language of their day, this seems to be a bias against translating the Bible into modern language. Instead they prefer to retain the language of a previous era and reject aspects of current language, which is similar to how the Amish view aspects of technology. This is acceptable provided their view is not forced on others with a differing opinion.
As the SBC doesn’t provide any biblical examples of its concern or any reasoning, it could be difficult to convince others of their viewpoint. Instead they only provide a brief statement. This may have been due to their reliance on the CBMW report.
It is instructive to compare a selection of verses in different translations. Here we see that translations like the ESV and HCSB, which are accepted by the CBMW, sometimes make similar choices to the NIV 2011. However, they are not as consistent as the NIV 2011.
As these criticisms of the NIV 2011 by the CBMW and the SBC have been answered adequately by the NIV translators and Decker (2011), the criticisms appear to be weak in view of current biblical scholarship. As most of their claims were linguistic, it is appropriate that they be answered by biblical linguists. Furthermore, according to Dr Daniel Wallace, a professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, the NIV 2011 is a well-thought out translation, with checks and balances through rigorous testing, overlapping committees to ensure consistency and accuracy; the scholarship is excellent both in text and translation decisions; and it has great readability. Dr Wallace is an expert in Greek grammar and New Testament textual criticism and a strong complementarian. It would be helpful if more biblical linguists confirmed this to help counter the negative comments by non-linguists on the internet.
As a result of this 3-part series it is clear that most of the changes between 1984 and 2011 are improvements to the accuracy and understandability of the NIV Bible.
On the whole, this assessment of the statement by the NIV translators, of the paper by an independent New Testament scholar, Decker (2011), and of criticisms by the CBMW and the SBC, indicates that the NIV 2011 is an improvement on the NIV 1984.
Written, January 2013
See the previous articles in this series:
– Improvements in the NIV Bible between 1984 and 2011 – Part 1
– Improvements in the NIV Bible between 1984 and 2011 – Part 2
In part 2 of this evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible, we assess a statement by an independent New Testament scholar. In order to avoid duplication, points already made in Part 1 of this series will not be repeated.
Dr Rodney Decker is Professor of New Testament and Greek at Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania. This is a conservative Bible college which serves a (theologically) conservative constituency. He teaches courses in New Testament (NT) Greek language and NT textual criticism.
Rodney Decker has a doctorate in NT Theology from Central Baptist Theological Seminary, Minnesota USA. His 1998 doctorate dissertation was titled, “Temporal Deixis of the Greek Verb in the Gospel of Mark in Light of Verbal Aspect”. He is the author of numerous journal articles on linguistic, exegetical (explanatory, expository), and theological topics and has written text books on Koine Greek, which is the original language of the New Testament. Rod holds a complementarian position where men and women have complementary roles that include male leadership in the home and in the church (as Paul’s instructions on men and women were intended for all times and cultures), whereas egalitarians believe that men do not have the sole rights as leaders in the home or church (as Paul’s instructions on men and women were intended only for his time and culture).
Further information on Rod’s activities is available on his website: NT Resources.
Assessment of evaluation done by Dr. Rodney Decker
“An Evaluation of the 2011 Edition of the New International Version” (Themelios 36, 3, 415-456) was published in November 2011.
Decker explains the two general approaches to translation – “formal equivalence” (attempts to reproduce the word order, grammar and syntax of the donor language as closely as possible in the receptor language, with minimal changes for intelligibility) and “functional equivalence” (attempts to accurately communicate the same meaning in the receptor language, while it may relax the form of the source language). All translations include both formal and functional equivalents to a certain degree. The NIV balances both approaches, whereas the ESV and HCSB are more “formal” and the NLT more “functional” on the translation spectrum. Every translation, including the most formal, makes many substantial revisions to the form of the source language.
Decker explains that an update of the NIV Bible was necessary because “our language has changed”. With regard to changes in the NIV 2011 in English usage, advances in scholarship, and improved clarity, he agrees that most of these changes are “very good ones that contribute to understanding the Word of God in English”.
Changes related to gender language
If a translation intends to communicate in contemporary English, then that translation is fully justified to make changes that reflect current usage. The change in English usage of gender language was determined by a study based on the Collins Bank of English—a 4.4 billion-word database of English usage worldwide based on both print and audio recordings. This is the first time that such an objective approach has been used in Bible translation. For example, of the current terms referring to both men and women, about 70% use “people” or “human” and about 15% use “man” or “mankind”.
The principle involved in the NIV 2011, as is the case with a number of other evangelical translations (e.g., ESV, HCSB, NET, NLT), is that wording in the source language that is not gender specific should not become gender specific in the receptor language. In this respect, the receptor language for a passage should match the donor language. If one is addressed to men and women then so should the other. Likewise, of one is addressed to men (or women), then so should the other.
Seven guidelines were used to revise gender language in the NIV 2011. Decker lists these and gives some examples using NT passages. In all cases he is in agreement with the approach adopted by the translators.
Decker did a sample comparison between the NIV 1984 and the NIV 2011 using the book of 2 Timothy. Some of the changes he found are given below.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference / Note|
|ignoble||common||2 Tim. 2:20
|weak-willed||gullible||2 Tim. 3:6
|forefathers||ancestors||2 Tim. 1:3
|reliable men||reliable people||2 Tim. 2:2
|workman||worker||2 Tim. 2:15
|a man||those who||2 Tim. 2:21; 3:13
|the man of God||the servant of God||2 Tim. 3:17
|the servant of God||the brothers and sisters||2 Tim. 4:21
He didn’t think that any of these seven gender changes are controversial. However, he did identify three potentially controversial passages.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference
|I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servanta of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.||I commend to you our sister, Phoebe, a deacona of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.||Romans 16:1-2|
|a Or deaconess||a Or servant|
Whether one objects to this translation, will probably depend on how deacons function in their church. The NIV 2011 has reversed the text and marginal translations that were found in the NIV 1984. In this case Decker prefers the NIV 1984. Of the changes in 12,000 verses between 1984 and 2011 (most of them are minor), this is the only one that Decker quotes where he prefers the 1984 version. Whether a technical term (“benefactor”) is used in this verse or a general descriptive (“great help”) is probably a minor matter.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.||Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding amonga the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was.||Romans 16:7|
|aOr are esteemed by|
In Greek only a difference of accent distinguishes between Junias (male) and Junia (female) and accents were not part of the original text. There are arguments for either accent pattern. Contemporary NT scholarship appears to favor the feminine form, but it is not certain.
The issue is not with Junia being a woman, which seems likely, but the nature of the statement made about her. Decker provides evidence that it may have been better if NIV 2011 had reversed the text and marginal readings, though including the alternative reading is an improvement over the NIV 1984.
1 Timothy 2:12
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference
|I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.||I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.||1 Timothy 2:12|
The Translators’ Notes explain the reasoning behind this change as follows. Much debate has surrounded the meaning of the rare Greek word authentein … The exercise of authority that Paul was forbidding was one that women inappropriately assumed, but whether that referred to all forms of authority over men in church or only certain forms in certain contexts is up to the individual interpreter to decide. “Assume authority” leaves the question open … until we discover more conclusive evidence.
Decker states that from a translation perspective, this position is defensible. Given the uncertainty in meaning, it is most appropriate for a translation not to decide the issue. Instead, one’s conclusions regarding this text must come not from one word but from the immediate context, Paul’s teaching elsewhere, and a biblical theology of the subject.
It is a translation that allows multiple interpretations (“assume” may be read in either a positive or negative sense), but that may be a wise choice in this case. Those who want to proof-text certain positions (whether that position is valid or not) may not be happy, but we must be honest with the text and acknowledge that this is an issue that must be resolved on a much broader basis. He also states that this is not a feminist-driven translation choice.
Changes related to “Messianic” texts
Decker looked at the most commonly cited example of changes related to “Messianic” texts, the use of Psalm 8 in Hebrews 2.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|What is man that you are mindful of him,||What is mankind that you are mindful of them,||Psalm 8:4|
|the son of man that you care for him?||human beings that you care for them?a|
|5You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings||5You have made thema a little lower than the angels||Psalm 8:5|
|and crowned him with glory and honor.||and crowned thema with glory and honor.|
|a 4 Or what is a human being that you are mindful of him, a son of man that you care for him?|
|a 5 Or him|
This is a typological OT text that does not specifically prophesy Messiah directly but that the NT identifies as typological in relation to Jesus.
Decker thinks that the NIV 2011 more accurately reflects this text than the NIV 1984 and other similar translations. When Psalm 8 is interpreted on its own (without reading any NT use back into the OT text) the psalm refers only to human beings. This is the original meaning – what it meant to the original readers and hearers. The point of the psalm is that even though humans are puny beings in comparison with God, we are God’s special creations with privilege and responsibility to rule over the rest of creation (v. 5-8). Both “man” and “son of man” refer to the human race, not to any specific person. As such, using English plural pronouns (“them”) following them is appropriate. There is no hint here of anything Messianic. If we had only Psalm 8, we would never suspect that it had any relevance to Jesus.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|But there is a place where someone has testified:||But there is a place where someone has testified:||Hebrews 2:6|
|“What is man that you are mindful of him,||“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,|
|the son of man that you care for him?||a son of man that you care for him?|
|7You made him a little lower than the angels;||7You made them a little lower than the angels;||Hebrews 2:7|
|you crowned him with glory and honor||you crowned them with glory and honor|
|8and put everything under his feet.”||8and put everything under their feet.”b||Hebrews 2:8|
|In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him.9But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.||In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them.9But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.||Hebrews 2:8b-9|
|b 7,8 Or 7You made him a little lower than the angels; you crowned him with glory and honor 8and put everything under his feet.”|
Hebrews 2:6-8 quotes Psalm 8:4-6. Once again it’s all about human beings, although “at present we do not see everything subject to them” (v.8b). The dominion over the rest of creation given to humans has never been properly administered. This problem is solved in v.9 where Jesus is introduced as the One who became human to fulfil the typology of Ps 8 – He will demonstrate this dominion in His coming kingdom. The incarnation began demonstrating how someone who is fully human should and will exercise the dominion God intended.
This means there is nothing obscured in the NIV 2011 version of Psalm 8. A generic reference for humanity is thus valid for Psalm 8:4-8 and Hebrews 2:5-8. Only in Hebrews 2:9 does the reference become Christological and singular, and at that point the NIV 2011 is perfectly clear.
The NIV 2011 more often explicitly represents the conjunctions compared with the NIV 1984, which often left them untranslated for reasons of English style (see Rom. 1:16). Also some passages that have been debated and for which there are multiple options have been left open (see Rom. 1:17). Decker thinks most of these of changes are improvements that contribute to understanding the Bible in English.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference|
|I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God||For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God||Romans 1:16|
|For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed||For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed||Romans 1:17|
In Part 1 of this series, it was noted that the Greek word “sarx” was usually translated as “the flesh” in the NIV 2011 instead of “the sinful nature” as in the NIV 1984. Although this was because “sarx” can mean either part or all of the human body or the human being under the power of sin, I expressed some uneasiness about this change. Decker thinks that this change encourages some people to think of the physical body as sinful and is inclined to think the earlier choice was better in many cases, but “sarx” does not always have the same meaning. However, “sinful nature” remains in Romans 7:18, 25.
Decker also evaluated the NIV 2011 in terms of its accuracy, clarity, naturalness, and appropriateness. He rates it high in terms of accuracy as the meaning is communicated accurately. By taking a mediating position between formal and functional equivalence (though tending closer to the formal end of the spectrum), the NIV 2011 has been able to produce a text that is clearer than many translations, especially those weighted more heavily with formal equivalence. It excels in communicating clearly in the language of the average English-speaking person. By using expressions that a receptor-language speaker would use, the NIV 2011 sounds much more natural than many other translations. Also, it is as well-suited for expository preaching as it is for public reading and use in Bible classes and children’s ministries.
In Decker’s opinion, the NIV 2011 is a usable translation in many situations. It continues the NIV tradition largely unchanged, though improved in many small ways. It is not perfect, but no translation is. Overall, however, it improves an otherwise fine translation. He thinks that many churches would find it helpful in ministry. It is of sufficient quality and accuracy to serve as the primary Bible in the local church, just as was the NIV 1984. So long as one realizes that the purpose of gender accurate language is to accurately reflect the language in the original texts of Scripture, it is hard to fathom objections.
One group of churches that uses the NIV 1984 is of the opinion that if a church began using the NIV 2011 in public reading tomorrow, most congregation members wouldn’t even notice the change.
In this part of an evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible, the contributions of an independent New Testament scholar, Dr Rodney Decker, have been presented. As Professor of New Testament and Greek at a US Baptist Bible Seminary, Dr Decker has provided expert input on the linguistic aspects of this evaluation including grammar and syntax (the rules that govern the ways in which words combine to form phrases, clauses, and sentences). Dr Decker confirms that the NIV 2011 is an improvement on the NIV 1984.
Written January 2013
See the next article in this series:
– Criticisms of the NIV Bible
It’s important for people to be able to read and hear the Bible in their own language.
How the Bible came to us is described in the blog, Can we trust our Bibles. The steps in the process are:
- God-breathed: The original text was “God-breathed” via the prophets and apostles
- Preservation: Faithful copies of the original text have been preserved
- Scholarship: Textural scholars have reconstructed the original text
- Translation: The reconstructed text has been translated into various languages
The two most recent translations of the NIV Bible were done in 1984 and 2011. The process of translation involves transferring the message from a source language to a receptor language. In the case of the NIV2011 the source languages are Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament) and the receptor language is everyday English. New translations are needed from time to time because all languages are constantly changing.
This evaluation of the NIV 2011 Bible looks at:
- Part 1 A statement by the committee that did the translation
- Part 2 A statement by an independent Bible scholar
- Part 3 A statement by a group that is critical of the NIV 2011
Assessment of statement by the committee that did the translation
The update reflects advances in biblical scholarship and changes in the usage of the English language between 1984 and 2011. Some examples of these are given below (italics added to highlight the changes). About 95% of the text is unchanged between 1984 and 2011.
Changes in English usage
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Sample reference|
|ankle chains||anklet||Isaiah 3:20|
|heart will be glad||he will be glad||Exodus 4:14|
|overweening pride||great . . . arrogance||Isaiah 16:6; Jeremiah 48:29|
Advances in scholarship
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Sample reference|
|inn||guest room||Luke 2:7|
|demons||false gods||Psalm 106:37|
|richly ornamented robe||ornate robe||Genesis 37:3|
|something to be grasped||something to be used to his own advantage||Philippians 2:6|
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Sample reference|
|when Jacob saw Rachel daughter of Laban, his mother’s brother …||when Jacob saw Rachel daughter of his uncle Laban …||Genesis 29:10
|If only there were someone to arbitrate between us, to lay his hand upon us both||If only there were someone to mediate between us, someone to bring us together||Job 9:33
Explains the second clause.
|I can do everything through him who gives me strength||I can do all this through him who gives me strength||Philippians 4:13
Stops misapplication outside the context of v.12 (to be content in all circumstances, whether in riches or in poverty).
Improved accuracy in gender language
About 25% of the changes related to gender. The Collins Bank of English was used to determine current usage of gender language. Some of the guidelines used were:
- ‟Ancestors” usually replaced ‟forefathers”.
- When it was clear that a passage addressed both men and women, ‟brothers and sisters” usually replaced “brothers” (Greek “adelphoi”). In this sense, the NIV 2011 is more gender accurate than the NIV 1984.
- When the Greek word “anēr” (‟man” or ‟person”) refers to both men and women, this is made explicit.
- A variety of words were used to replace words that referred to both men and women. For example: ‟people”, ‟humans”, ‟human beings”, ‟humanity”, ‟human race”, ‟mankind”, and ‟man” (which has been retained for some memorial phrases, such as ‟The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”, Mark 2:27). Here is an example of some of these changes.
Examples of texts that now have ‟mankind” where they didn’t before include:
- ‟Let us make mankind in our image” (Genesis 1:26a);
- ‟Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12); and
- ‟For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
Some other examples are given below (italics added).
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference / Note|
|I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.||I commend to you our sister, Phoebe, a deacon of the church in Cenchreae. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of his people and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been the benefactor of many people, including me.||Romans 16:1-2
According to current scholarship, “diakonos” means “deacon”, not just ‟servant” and “prostatis” means patron or benefactor not just someone who was a ‟great help” in some unspecified way.
|For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.||It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels||1 Corinthians 11:10
‟a sign of” did not correspond to anything explicitly in the Greek.
|I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.||I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.||1 Timothy 2:12
There is uncertainty in the meaning of the rare Greek word “authentein”. Other alternatives are “exercise authority” and “usurp authority”.From the context, I assume that “authentein” includes the authority of an elder in the local church (1 Timothy 3:1-7)
|In the same way, their wives are to be women worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything.||In the same way, the women are to be worthy of respect, not malicious talkers but temperate and trustworthy in everything||1 Timothy 3:11
From the context, it is possible that these women were either deacons’ wives or women deacons.
Some other improvements include:
- ‟Saints” often becomes ‟God’s people,” ‟the Lord’s people,” ‟the Lord’s holy people” and the like.
- In the Gospels and Acts, when associated with the coming deliverer of the Jews, ‟Christ” has often been changed to ‟Messiah.”
- In the New Testament, ‟spirit” has been capitalised whenever a reference to the Holy Spirit made good sense in a given context.
- Most occurrences of ‟sinful nature” have become ‟flesh”. Especially in Paul’s letters, “sarx” can mean either part or all of the human body or the human being under the power of sin. In an effort to capture this latter sense of the word, the NIV 1984 often rendered sarx as ‟sinful nature.” But this expression can mislead readers into thinking the human person is made up of various compartments, one of which is sarx, whereas the biblical writers’ point is that humans can choose to yield themselves to a variety of influences or powers, one of which is the sin-producing sarx. The updated NIV uses ‟flesh” as the translation in many places where it is important for readers to decide for themselves from the context whether one or both of these uses of sarx is present.
Some well-known texts that have been updated are given below.
|NIV 1984||NIV 2011||Reference / Note|
|Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me||Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me||Psalm 23:4
“shadow of death” is a metaphor
|‛I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God of Israel, ‛and I hate a man’s covering himself with violence as well as with his garment,’ says the Lord Almighty. So guard yourself in your spirit, and do not break faith.||‛The man who hates and divorces his wife,’ says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‛does violence to the one he should protect,’ says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.||Malachi 2:16
The beginning of the verse is hard to translate.
|Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!||Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!||2 Corinthians 5:17
It is likely that Paul is making a much more sweeping claim than just the salvation of the individual believer.
|For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world.||For everything in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—comes not from the Father but from the world.||1 John 2:16
Returns to KJV rendering.
It is clear that most of the changes mentioned above are improvements to the accuracy and understandability of the NIV Bible. As I am not qualified to comment on some aspects of the linguistic changes, these have been omitted above.
With regard to the word “mankind”, I prefer to use the word “humanity”. Other changes that may take a while to get used to are “the flesh” (from “the sinful nature”), “impure spirits” (from “evil spirits”) and “forbearance” (from “patience”). I need to investigate these further.
As the changes to 1 Corinthians 11:10 and 1 Timothy 3:11 move the verses closer to the Greek text, they are an improvement.
The change to Romans 16:1-2 was based on current scholarship, although I suspect that whether Phoebe was a deacon in the local church will be debated by some. On the other hand they would probably accept a woman as the coordinator of a children’s ministry at church, which could be deemed to be the role of a deacon (Acts 6:1-6; 1 Tim. 3:8-13).
The change to 1 Timothy 2:12 has some ambiguity, but this may be appropriate as there is uncertainty in the meaning of the rare Greek word “authentein”.
On the whole, this assessment of the statement by the committee that did the translation indicates that the NIV 2011 is an improvement on the NIV 1984.
Written January 2013
See the next article in this series:
– Improvements in the NIV Bible between 1984 and 2011 – Part 2