The Bible: Women Are More Present Than We Might Think

Recently, I heard from a woman who said that since about the age of 12 years, she has attended church weekly, sometimes multiple times a week. Yet in all those years, she heard little teaching that features, highlights, or affirms women. She said, “From a very early point in my journey I would consider whether words like ‘he,’ ‘men’ or ‘disciple’ were intended for everyone or just males. In many instances during my studies, I would replace those words with ‘she’ or ‘women’ in my notes, because it made it feel more personal and applicable to me as a woman. Still, I have pretty much always felt like an outsider or like there was something wrong with me…. I have often felt like the church was the most repressive institution for me as a woman, and I do not think that could possibly be Jesus’s intent, given the way he interacted with women.”  

 Indeed, exclusion of females is not reflective of Jesus. Paul gets a bad rap, too. But he held a much higher view of women than we often hear. Is it any wonder that women are leaving churches in unprecedented numbers?  

 In the weeks ahead, I plan to address some of this woman’s concerns. And today I’ll begin with this assertion: Bible translations sometimes hide the presence of women. But we’re there.

 Case in point: a familiar verse I heard quoted this week—words the apostle Paul wrote to his protégé Timothy: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 2:2). When I heard the word “men” in that saying, I knew the underlying Greek said anthropoi. That is, people. As in, “Teach people who will teach other people.” But I wondered if others in the room heard it that way? Did the males in the room do the mental gymnastics to include their sisters, daughters, wives, nieces, female co-workers? Did the females hear themselves represented? Or did they assume the apostle’s exhortation applied only to somebody else? Increasingly, when people hear the word “men,” they don’t think “humans”; they envision only “males.” Some good data on language use backs up this assertion. In fact, saying “men” when we mean “people” now qualifies as Christianese. 

Anthropoi can mean humans or males. So, we ask: were the many witnesses to whom Paul spoke males only? No, Paul publicly taught women and men. Did he expect women also to pass on what they heard? He did (see Titus 2:3). So why render the word as the exclusive “men,” and thereby exclude females?

The translation I’m citing here was published not in 1611, but in 2001, by a team of more than 100 all-male evangelical scholars and pastors. Some think Bible translations have become more female-inclusive since the dawn of radical feminism in the US; but since World War II, some translators have actually given us less inclusive translations. If we believe it is not good for a man to be alone (Gen. 2:18)—indeed, if we believe Genesis teaches the complementary relationship of men and women—we know we need each other. Including in translation work. One would think that would be a no-brainer, especially in an area in which God seems to have given one sex unique gifting.

Last week, I heard another example—the famous quote from Jesus: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Matt. 4:19). Now, again, we know Jesus expected the twelve to seek both male and female disciples. But sure enough, translators have rendered anthropoi as “men.” In fact, they included this tiny footnote: “The Greek word anthropoi refers here to both men and women.” So, these translators acknowledge the author has both men and women in view, but they still render the language in a way that excludes females. Why would they do that?

I’ve already written about other examples of translation gender bias here (a man who walks in the counsel of the wicked vs. a person who…) and here (a man should provide for his own family vs. someone providing for that person’s own family). As is evidenced by the correspondence I referred to above , many people have not even been told that the very word “disciple” in the New Testament refers to male and female followers of Jesus. But Dorcas is explicitly called a disciple (Acts 9:36). 

Bottom line: Women are more represented in the scriptures than many translations indicate. Far more.

And I haven’t even mentioned passages that actually outright address women in ministry. Romans 16 is filled with them. Theologian Marg Mowczko observes, “Most English Bibles, including the ESV [which is the source of my examples above], are reliable and trustworthy in how they translate verses and passages that pertain to the doctrine of salvation. The same cannot be said about how they translate verses that pertain to women in ministry. Some Bible readers aren’t even aware that many women are mentioned in the New Testament as being ministers and church leaders. This is because English translations have typically obscured or downplayed the passages that mention these women. The English Standard Version (ESV) and the New Living Translation (NLT), in particular, are notorious for downplaying the ministries and roles of New Testament women in their translations.” 

Andrew Bartlett, author of Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts (IVP, 2019), wrote a piece for CT in the past year in which he highlighted some of the most egregious renderings of New Testament verses relating to women.    

The best source for clarity on the topic of women’s inclusion is the Greek New Testament. But the ability to learn Koine Greek—or Hebrew, languages in which the Bible’s human authors wrote—is a privilege most people don’t have. So, we need to use and recommend the best translations we can find. Check the front pages of your Bible(s) and see who served on the translation committee(s). Look for male and female teamwork and geographic and denominational diversity. For English, I like the NET, the CEB, and the 2011 version of the NIV.  I especially like the NET in the YouVersion app, which makes it easy to check out translation notes that are accessible to most English readers. 

 Yesterday, I received a text from a female Bible teacher with whom I’d been discussing this topic. She wrote, “I’m going to look up every verse that says ‘man’ in Logos [Bible software] to see if I’m included. Mind blow. I just looked up James 5:16. ‘The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.’ So, my prayers are powerful and effective too!” 

Yes. Yes. Yes! They are. 

Next time: Why we don’t see more women in the biblical text? 

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.