“Little women” have been called “silly women” which now contributes to misogyny in the church
When Paul wrote to Timothy about pseudo-christian men who beguile women in order to take them captive, Paul used the Greek word for women in its diminutive form (gunaikarion). How have English Bibles translated that? And what does this have to do with misogyny in the church today?
The way most English Bibles have translated gunaikarion (γυναικάριον) in 2 Tim 3:6 is very problematic. The KJV rendered it as ‘silly women’:
For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts
I have made a list of how a English versions have rendered gunaikarion. I’ve roughly ordered the list from the least to most disparaging of women (as the adjectives sound to our modern ears). The way I’ve ordered it may not be the way you would order it. My straw poll of a few women shows that other women would tweak my ordering.
little women ………… Wycliffe-Purvey ~1380 (Purvey’s words in square brackets**)
little-women ……….. DLNT 2011
some women ………… NIRV 2014..
simple women ………. Great Bible 1539
immature women ….. CEB 2011
idle women ……………. HCSB 2009
To show how much the KJV’s translation ‘silly women’ has influenced subsequent translations, I have created this table. The yellow cells show translations which to our modern ears do not sound disparaging of women.
All languages change over time. For example, ‘gay’ used to mean ‘happy’; now it usually means ‘homosexual man’.
Roughly 60 years after William Tyndale was executed (martyred) for his doctrine and for translating scripture into English, the King James Version was published. The KJV would become the main Bible used in the English-speaking world for the next three and a half centuries. (If you want to learn more about this, I recommend the article A brief history of Bible Translations.)
The KJV rendered gunaikarion (little women) as ‘silly women’. It says that evil men “lead captive silly women laden with sins…”
Nowadays ‘silly’ means foolish, thoughtless, empty-headed, ridiculous, frivolous, causing amusement or derision. But in the 16th and 17th centuries, ‘silly’ was used in a number of senses which it does not have today.
When the translators of the KJV used the word ‘silly,’ it is likely they meant something different than what ‘silly’ means to us now.
Let me set out a bit of linguistic history. The term ‘early modern English’ denotes the form of English used from about 1485 to about 1670. Several of the Bible versions I quoted above come from the early modern English period: Tyndale’s New Testament (1535), the Great Bible (1539), the Geneva Bible (1539), the King James Version (1611).
Ruth Magnusson Davis, who has gently updated Tyndale’s New Testament into modern English, makes the following remarks about early modern English in her preface to The October Testament:
A significant feature of early modern English is the polysemy of words; that is, words had multiple meanings (poly– many; semes- meanings) – much more so than today. When a word has many semes or meanings, we say that ‘it shows polysemy.’ The early modern English vocabulary was much smaller than ours today and words typically showed great polysemy, so that one word was used to express thoughts for which we now use more or narrower words.
An example is the noun ‘mansion,’ which once not only meant a large or stately house, but could refer to almost anything that served as a dwelling, including a tent, and was also used to refer to stopping places in a journey. Clearly ‘mansion’ said to our ancestors something quite different than it now says to us at John 14:2: “In my Father’s house are many mansions.” We are familiar with this verse because the KJV followed Tyndale here. But the KJV preferred ‘house’ at 2 Corinthians 5:1-2, where Tyndale again had ‘mansion’ in an obsolete seme:
We know surely that if our earthly mansion wherein we now dwell were destroyed, that we have a building ordained of God, an habitation not made with hands, but eternal in heaven. And therefore sigh we, desiring to be clothed with our mansion which is from heaven.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) the word ‘silly’ has had many different senses. The OED lists the different senses, giving each sense a number.
Here are senses 1-6 of ‘silly’ according to the OED Online.
As you read each of these senses, I invite you to consider whether they might apply to women who are abused by men.
1. Worthy, good. Also: pious, holy. Auspicious, fortunate.
2. Helpless, defenceless, powerless; frequently with the suggestion of innocence or undeserved suffering.
3. a) Meagre, poor, trifling; of little significance, substance, or value.
b) Weak, feeble, frail; lacking strength, size, or endurance (of people).
c) Weak, flimsy, trifling; lacking strength, size, or substance (of inanimate objects).
d) Sickly, ailing, in poor health; weak or feeble due to illness or infirmity.
4. That provokes sympathy or compassion; that is to be pitied; unfortunate, wretched.
5. a) Simple, rustic; lacking sophistication or refinement; (hence) ignorant, uneducated.
b) Of humble rank or status; lowly.
6. a) Lacking in judgement or common sense; foolish, thoughtless, empty-headed; characterized by ridiculous or frivolous behaviour.
b) Characterized by or associated with foolishness. Causing amusement or derision; having a comical appearance.
The OED Online says:
In the 16th and 17th centuries ‘silly’ was very extensively used as an adjective in senses 2–5 and in a number of examples it is difficult to decide which shade of meaning was intended by the writer. In modern use the dominant adjectival sense is sense 6.
So senses 2-5 were very common when the King James Version was produced. And the OED Online says that in a number of usage examples which the OED has cited, it is difficult to decide which shade of meaning was intended.
Here are the usage examples which the OED cites for sense 6 a). I have gently updated the spelling to make it easier to read and I’ve put one citation in red. Pay attention to the date of each example.
6. a) Of a person: lacking in judgement or common sense; foolish, thoughtless, empty-headed; characterized by ridiculous or frivolous behaviour.
1555 And like as it is a gentle and old proverb, Let losers have their words: so by the way take forth this lesson, ever to shew gentleness to ye silly fooles. (The most vile and detestable use of diceplay)
1576 Wee silly soules, take the matter too too heavily.
1611 Of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women. (KJV 2 Tim 3:6)
1691 A wise and good man..will neither be so stupid, as to be surprized with any disaster, nor so silly, as to increase it by a fruitless anxiety.
1833 I should be very silly to pay when I might have them without. (French Wines & Politics)
1889 The gentlemen often came into the drawing-room with glassy eyes, and silly of speech.
The OED Online says that the early compilers of the dictionary may have ascribed the wrong sense to a number of its citations of ‘silly’. It is reasonable, therefore, to put this question: Did the compilers of the Oxford Dictionary ascribe the wrong sense to the KJV’s translation of 2 Timothy 3:6?
The compiling of OED was a long project which began in the 1850s. By that stage ‘silly’ usually meant ‘foolish’. The people who worked on the OED in the 1800s were almost all men. All of them would have been familiar with the KJV. As men of their time, they most likely assumed that women are pretty foolish, particularly women who get abused by men.
We know that abusive men typically – and wrongly– accuse their victims of being senseless, stupid, crazy, etc. And abusive men have spread that myth so widely that most people in society believe it. The first compilers of the OED would have been just as conditioned by that myth as everyone else was.
In her scholarly book Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary (2005) Lynda Mugglestone shows that the men who first compiled the OED revealed themselves vulnerable to the prejudices of their own linguistic preferences and to the influence of contemporary social history.
Absolute neutrality is perhaps impossible. The lexicographer is inevitably bound to time and place, embedded in his (or her) own cultural preoccupations. … The idea of impartiality can soon fracture when faced with historical positioning of ideologies of gender, race, and class. (“Lost for Words” 162)
…the intended empiricism of the [OED] dictionary is filtered through distinctly male-as-norm ideologies… (166)
…the level to which lexicographers are able to disentangle themselves from ‘generally accepted prejudices’ in providing a record of the language remains a real and fundamental problem. The level of incomplete ‘disentangling’ in the OED is hence both predictable and, to a large extent, understandable. Almost invariably the human interface between dictionary-maker and dictionary creates a certain latitude in which, alongside the ideals of impartial objectivity, the all too fallible preoccupations and predilections of ordinary life creep in. (167-8)
Paul described these women as “ever learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth.” We might (perhaps) be able to infer from those words that these women are foolish. But now that we know a lot more about the long-term effects of trauma on the brain, it behoves us to be cautious in making that inference. Some of these women – or many of them – might have been abused by previous abusers before they got targeted by the wicked men Paul describes in 2 Tim 3:1-5. Some of them may have suffered brain damage as a result of being choked or smothered. Many of them may have been sexually abused as children and/or as slaves in the Roman empire.
I urge you to watch this short video in which an experienced police officer talks about the effects of sexual assault:
When describing the false teachers who slyly bring in damnable heresies, the Apostle Peter deftly spells out their trident of evildoing: false doctrine, sexual immorality and financial greed. Paul says they target unstable souls:
They count it pleasure to live deliciously for a season. Spots they are, and vileness, living at pleasure, and in deceptive ways feasting with you, having eyes full of adultery, and that cannot cease to sin, beguiling unstable souls. Hearts they have exercised with covetousness. They are cursed children and have forsaken the right way, and have gone astray, following the way of Balaam, the son of Beor, who loved the reward of unrighteousness
(2 Peter 2:13b-15, New Matthew Bible, emphasis mine)
My next post will discuss what Paul might have intended to convey when he used the diminutive form of ‘women’ in 2 Tim 3:6.
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*By 1535 William Tyndale had courageously translated the New Testament from Greek into English at a time when England deemed it a capital offence in to have a Bible in any language other than Latin. Tyndale’s translation was printed in Europe and smuggled into England. But English has changed a lot since the early 1500’s, so Tyndale’s translation is pretty hard for most of us to comprehend. Thankfully, Ruth Magnusson Davis has gently updated the early modern English of Tyndale’s New Testament so we can now read it easily.
Lord willing, Ruth Magnusson Davis will be publishing the entire New Matthew Bible. It will comprise not only the New Testament (which she has already published here), but the Old Testament as well. She is gently updating the OT of the Matthew Bible: i.e., Tyndale’s translation of parts of the Hebrew OT, and the parts Tyndale did not manage to translate before he was executed. Those parts were translated from the Latin Vulgate by Myles Coverdale who was Tyndale’s contemporary and fellow believer.
** There are two distinct versions of the Wycliffe Bible. The earlier version was translated during the life of Wycliffe and is called the Wycliffe Version. The later version is regarded as the work of John Purvey and is called the Wycliffe-Purvey version.