Why did Paul call abused women ‘little-women’?

Paul was most likely conveying that abused women deserve sympathy and empathy for the underserved suffering they have endured. Paul was probably indicating that we ought to feel compassion for these women, recognising that they are worthy and good people, but relatively powerless and weak against the crafty tactics of abusers and their allies.

In his second letter to Timothy, Paul describes the characteristics of evil men. And he tells Timothy to have nothing to do with men who fit that description.

(2 Tim 3:1-6, KJV)
This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away.

For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts

Paul says that some of these evil men target ‘little-women’ (Greek: gunaikarion) in order to deceive and take them captive.

The KJV translated gunaikarion as ‘silly women’.  As I explained in this post, many English versions of the Bible have rendered the Greek word gunaikarion as two words.  (To see some of the ways 2 Tim 3:6 has been translated into English, click here.)

The single word ‘women’ might well have been an acceptable English rendering of the Greek word gunaikarion. But when English Bibles have rendered it as two words, they have often done so in a way that shows contempt for abused women by calling these women silly, foolish, weak-willed, weak-minded, idle, gullible, etc.

Why did Paul call them ‘little-women’?

Did Paul call them “little-women” to show contempt for those women?

Could Paul have employed the diminutive form to show compassion, pathos, affection and tenderness for these women?

I’ve dug deep to find what Paul might have meant when he uses that diminutive form of ‘women’.

I have found an article by Jonathan Watt which I think is very helpful: Diminutive suffixes in the Greek New Testamennt: a cross-linguistic study. I hope and pray that other linguists and New Testament scholars will do further research which could give us more insight into what diminutive forms in the Bible could be conveying.

Here is a snippet from that article by Jonathan Watt (emphasis mine):

Diminutives carry high emotional connotation and are thereby useful for encoding sympathy and empathy. They may convey informality, familiarity, and even intimacy. They may facilitate euphemism and understatement and consequently may connote politeness when making a request. There are very few careful studies of the range of connotations in a particular language.

….certain conditions favor the use of diminutives, intimacy being one of them, because it involves a “readiness to reveal some particular aspects of one’s personality and of one’s inner world that one conceals from other people; a readiness based on personal trust and on personal ‘good feelings.’

Going by what Jonathan Watt says, diminutives can convey many different things. And sometimes they can convey more than one thing at the same time depending on the context, the audience, the relationship between the speaker (or writer) and the hearers (or listeners).

Let me give you a summary of what I’ve gleaned from Jonathan Watt’s article.

Diminutives can –

  1. convey physical smallness in contrast to something larger
    • minibus, booklet, hillock, kitten (small cat)
  2. demonstrate like quality
    • the Dutch word for green “groen,” with a diminutive suffix “groentjes”  means regionalism
  3. convey affection, endearment, or intimacy
    • calling someone “dearie” or “duckie”
    • affectionately referring to a group of children as “kidlets”
    • a family might refer to one of their members as “Wee Johnny” no matter what his age or stature
  4. denote or characterise ‘in-group’ conversation. This often conveys affection, fellow-feeling or camaraderie among the members of the group.
    • Australians refer to themselves as “Aussies”. They say “tradie” instead of tradesman. They say “footy” instead of football. Australian English uses the diminutive suffix “ie” or “y” a great deal. Between Australians, this use of the diminutive form conveys that we are all Aussies … and we enjoy the camaradie of cutting through the haughty superiority of rulers and aristocrats and traditions.
      The democratizing impulse of Australian English might go back to how the English founded white settlement in Australia as a penal colony; convicts are skilled at derogating their jailers behind their backs!
  5. demean or derogate
    • the fourth-century Western Roman emperor was derogatorily referred to as “Romulus Augustulus” (i.e., “little Augustus”)
    • a deviant jetsetter is headlined as “that poor little rich kid”
    • in some languages, the diminutive form of ‘woman’  means a prostitute.
  6. generate reference to something else
    • in Scots English kilt-ie” (literally “small kilt”) designates the soldier who wears the garment

It is not easy to determine what a diminutive form conveys to the hearers / listeners, if we are not members of the community in which the diminutive is being used in that time and place and cultural setting.

Jonathan Watt says:

A diminutive form of a word can designate both “dear” and “foolish,” “small” and “normal-sized,” derogation and politeness, in-group and marginalized  – at the same time and in the same speech community. The key to determining the appropriate nuance must be located somewhere in the living context and in the minds of both speaker and hearer.

We are looking at Paul’s second letter to Timothy. The older pastor who had acquired wisdom from seasoned experience is writing to Timothy the younger pastor who can benefit from his wisdom.

Paul and Timothy had spent a lot of time together; they had a deep affection and respect for each other. Paul probably had a pretty good understanding of what Timothy was facing in his pastorate. The intimacy of this personal letter can guide us in making a best-guess about what Paul might be conveying to Timothy when he used gunaikaron, the diminutive word for women.

Was Paul conveying to Timothy that these women were deserving of compassion and sympathy?

The meaning of silly has changed a lot over the centuries. Readers of the KJV now read ‘silly women’ and assume it means ‘foolish women’. And many bible translators have followed suit, rather like a line of standing dominoes… you push the first one and it knocks the second one down and the second one knocks the third one down.. and they they all fall down in same direction.

But we need to be aware of how the meaning of a word can shift of time.

It is a widespread phenomenon that the words for ‘innocent’, apart from their legal use, develop, through ‘harmless, guileless’, [and then to] a disparaging sense ‘credulous, naive, simple, foolish.'” [Buck]

We have learned that diminutives often encode sympathy and empathy. And ‘silly’ used to have much more sympathetic and kindly senses than it has today. So the KJV translators may used ‘silly women’ to convey the idea of sympathy and empathy for these women.

In my previous post on this topic, I listed six different senses which ‘silly’ has had over time, according to the OED Online. Let us review that list again and consider each sense to see if it might apply to women who are abused by men. Under each sense I’ve given a few of the OED’s examples of how the word ‘silly was used in a text.

The KJV came out in 1611. Bear that in mind when looking at the date of each usage example. It was interesting to me how many of these examples came from Christian literature in the 1500s and 1600s.

1. Worthy, good. Also: pious, holy. Auspicious, fortunate.

1650  Ther had bene great confluences of people at a chappell..thrie Saturdayes befor Lambas and thrie efter called the six silie Saturdayes. (W. Cramond  Church of Rathven)

Could abused women be deemed ‘worthy, good, pious, holy? Some of them certainly could. And that description tends to be particularly true for Christian abused women.

2. Helpless, defenceless, powerless; frequently with the suggestion of innocence or undeserved suffering.

1644  The Woolfe shall fawne vpon the silly Sheepe. (Francis Quarles· Barnabas and Boanerges; or Wine and Oyle for afflicted Soules.)
1587   Making him repine, To see a sillie dame so sore distreste. (Turberville. Tragicall Tales)
1616    Prouided that you do no outrages On silly women, or poore passengers. (Shakespeare Two Gentlemen of Verona)
1665   There remained fresh Examples of their Barbarism against weak Sea-men, and silly Fisher-men. (T. Manley tr. H. Grotius De Rebus Belgicis )
1703   Who behaved themselves with such inhumanity, that they Charged among the silly Women. (Clarendon’s The history of the rebellion and civil wars in England )

Are abused women helpless, defenceless, powerless? Not entirely. But in comparison to the power and influence abusive men can wield, abused women have much less power.

3. a) Meagre, poor, trifling; of little significance, substance, or value.

1613   Where they found but silly shelter. (T. Jackson The eternall truth of scriptures )
1637   Oh how silly an advantage is my deprivation to men, seeing that my Lord Jesus hath many ways to recover His own losses. (S. Rutherford Letters)
1676  They prize their bodies above their eternity in heaven; this silly clay house above that building of God. ( J. D. Sermon for the Funeral Lady Armyne)
1767   Marsh land, of a light, silly, hungry soil. (Sir R. Colville in R. Dossie Memoirs of agriculture)

Are abused women often seen as lacking in significance or value? Yes! And they are often in poverty because of the financial abuse their abusers have wreaked on them.

3. b) Weak, feeble, frail; lacking strength, size, or endurance (of people).

1574   Why raungest thou then through so many thynges O silie man? (St. Avstens Manuell in Certaine Prayers S. Augustines Medit.)
1633   Thou onely art The mightie God, but I a sillie worm. (G. Herbert The temple; sacred poems and private ejaculations)

Are abused women weak, feeble, frail, lacking in strength or endurance? Quite often they are, due to the accumulation of trauma and financial, social, medical, legal barriers that they’re facing.

Are women typically less strong than men? Yes.

3. d) Sickly, ailing, in poor health; weak or feeble due to illness or infirmity.

1636  To doe the thing we can to please..this silly sickly man. (A. Montgomerie Cherrie & Slae)

Can abused women be sickly, ailing, in poor health, weak or feeble due to illness or infirmity? Most certainly. Think of all the auto-immune disorders which many abused women have from the constant stress of being abused.

4. That provokes sympathy or compassion; that is to be pitied; unfortunate, wretched.

1641   What is poore, and silly man alone, but a very scrich-owle, and satyre. (J. Jackson True Evangelical Temper)
1680   I might have trusted him with all the secret, Open’d my silly heart and shewn it bare. (T. Otway The Orphan)
1723   Good wife, for your Courtesie, Will ye lodge a silly poor Man. (A. Ramsay Tea-table Misc.

Does an abused women deserve sympathy and compassion? Yes.

Is an abused woman to be pitied? It depends on what you mean by pity. So long as ‘pity’ does not connote the idea of patronizing her from a haughty distance without really helping her, then yes, she deserves pity.

5. a) Simple, rustic; lacking sophistication or refinement; (hence) ignorant, uneducated.

1547   The silly herdman all astonnied standes. (Earl of Surrey tr. Virgil Certain Bks. Aenæis)
1597   To make the sillie people belieue that the contrarie is maintained by the Bishops. (R. Hooker Of Lawes Eccl. Politie )
a1633   Socrates..found Philosophy in silly Trades-men. (G. Herbert Priest to Temple)

Are abused women often simple, rustic, lacking in sophistication, ignorant and uneducated about the ways of abusers and evildoers? Yes; often it is due to the conditioning they have received from their family / society / church.

5. b) Of humble rank or status; lowly.

1607   Little thought shee that silly man that sate there..was the Sauiour of the worlde. (S. Hieron Discovery of Hypocrisie)
1647    The siliest and simplest being wronged, may justly speake in their owne defence. (T. Fuller Good Thoughts in Worse Times)

Are abused women of humble rank? Yes; quite often they are. While abuse occurs in all demographics, research shows that poorer women suffer it more. (And what is the chicken or the egg in that correlation?)

Are abused women of low status? The vast vast majority of them are, not least because of all the stigma they suffer when they report the abuse, leave the abuser, divorce the abuser.

5. c) Of a thing (concrete or abstract): plain, simple, uncomplicated; rustic, homely. 

1570   David had no more but a sylie slynge, and a few stones. (J. Foxe Actes & Monumentes)
1587   Consider how the silie netts of those Fishermen drew the pride of the world..to beleeve. (Sir P. Sidney & A. Golding tr. P. de Mornay Trewnesse Christian Relig.)
1798   The silly buckets on the deck.., I dreamt that they were fill’d with dew. (S. T. Coleridge The Ancient Mariner)

Are abused women plain, simple, uncomplicated, homely? Often they are. Generally speaking, abused women are not devious like abusive men are. Most abused women are truthful persons who lack guile and often they just aspire to be good wives and to care faithfully for their families. “Plain, simple, uncomplicated, homely” is a pretty good description of the women that abusive men target for abuse. A skilled male offender sees a plain, simple, homely woman as an easy target.

Take home message

Paul was most likely conveying that abused women deserve sympathy and empathy for the underserved suffering they have endured. Paul was probably indicating that we ought to feel compassion for these women, recognising that they worthy and good people, but relatively powerless and weak against the crafty tactics of abusers and their allies.


Here is my previous post on ‘little women’ in 2 Timothy 3:6 – “Little women” have been called “silly women” which now contributes to misogyny in the church

I am not capable of assessing the value of the following, but I’m putting it here out of interest.

2 Timothy 3:6 (Jonathan Mitchell New Testament)
for you see, forth from out of the midst of these folks are the people repeatedly slipping-in, into the houses, (or: worming their way into households) and habitually leading into captivity little women [note: this is the diminutive of “women, ” thus, perhaps: women of undeveloped character, ability, or inward stature. While the word for “woman” is feminine, the noun “little women” and the following participles are neuter – or neutral – so this rare word may be a figure for what was a cultural view for “feminine” aspects of all people, e.g., their feelings and emotions, or general receptive qualities]

10 thoughts on “Why did Paul call abused women ‘little-women’?”

  1. Can I go slightly off-topic here? It’s a terrible thing to wake up one day, and realize that your abuser fits every single description of 2 Timothy 3:2-5. Of course I didn’t know that when I married him; but sure did figure it out after the first few years. It made me feel guilty. Like I was a “silly woman” who was gullible enough to be led away. And then of course, the abuser made sure I knew that I was ‘full of sin,’ and that I was ‘lucky to have him.’ For someone (him) who honestly knows very little about the Bible and spirituality, he darn sure knew how to use it against me.

  2. These two posts of yours, Barbara, are really neat. I think all of us women grow up in woman-hating society (whether or not we realize or are aware of it, we all get indoctrinated in millions of ways to hate ourselves, our fellow women, female functions like menstruation, female everything) and most people, both male and female, are led to see women with dismissive, contempt. I think that’s how and why this Bible verse’s wording is so widely interpreted as being ‘proof’ of women’s supposed inferiority / children-like status. It’s victim-blaming, and until I read these past two posts of yours, Barbara, I hadn’t even seen or recognized it.

    When a woman hears things like, “should have made better choices” “should have picked a better man to marry” “should have been smarter / wiser / etc” and then finds a Bible verse which seems to touch on that victim-blaming sentiment, of ‘shouldn’t have been so stupid as to be a silly woman who is led away captive’, it is exceedingly painful.

    The possible affectionate version is something I had never thought of before and may or may not be accurate. But men own and control like 90 percent of the world’s resources and men have always been in power, given high status (relative to women) and been held in higher credibility and standing in life. The emphasis should be on the abuser. The abuser is abusing. The evil man is taking someone captive. That is what should be revolting and stressed in this Bible verse, not twisted into being further ‘evidence’ of some poor, abused woman’s ‘silliness’ (and therefore blameworthy status, as though being deceived, lured, captured, abused, victimized, violated, etc. is somehow the victim’s fault — IT ISN’T).

    I wonder if this doesn’t also reinforce an ‘other-ing’ of the abused women much like rape victims are scrutinized for things to pick up on that the outsider woman can reassure herself that she doesn’t do, and therefore she is able to feel as though she is safe from a similar fate of victimization. (Example — she was raped, but she was out at night, walking alone, wearing a skirt, having had a cocktail at a social gathering…….and I, a ‘smarter’ woman would never do such things, therefore I will never be raped, that can’t happen to me, I’m safe.)

  3. I’ve updated this post slightly. I added a final paragraph and slightly altered one of the subheadings in the middle of the post.

    I worked hard on this post last night (and for many days previously) and published it late. My apologies.

  4. Thank you. To me when I read “little women”, it means how these women feel. They often have such low self-esteem in the beginning that they don’t see the red flags until they are trapped.

  5. A manipulative man chooses women who are sympathetic as he “escapes” his supposedly nasty wife and seeks solace elsewhere. The man who chooses to take on the “poor me” persona will find kindness from women who are kind, empathetic and vulnerable. These are the women whose strength — kindness — becomes a weakness when manipulated.

  6. It might be important to point out that “homely” used in the definition above is from an English source where “homely” is a positive word meaning friendly and unpretentious. In the US, homely is an insult, meaning a person who is not very good looking, but I’m sure Barbara does not mean abuse targets are often ugly!

    1. Oh wow, thanks for pointing that out. I had no idea that the British English meaning of homely is so different from the American English meaning. To me, ‘homely’ is a positive word because Australians use it the way it is used in British English.


      1) BRITISH
      (of a place or surroundings) simple but cosy and comfortable, as in one’s own home.
      “a modern hotel with a homely atmosphere”
      synonyms: cosy, homelike, homey, comfortable, snug, welcoming, friendly, congenial, hospitable, informal, relaxed, intimate, warm, pleasant, cheerful; down-home, homestyle;
      informal – comfy
      “a modern hotel with a homely atmosphere”

      (of a person) unattractive in appearance.
      synonyms: unattractive, plain, plain-featured, plain-looking, plain as a pikestaff, ordinary-looking, unprepossessing, unlovely, ill-favoured, ugly; informalnot much to look at, short on looks, fugly; informalno oil painting; informaldrack;
      informal – huckery
      “the girl is clumsy, homely, and desperate for a date”

  7. Barb commented (16TH MAY 2018 – 6:13 PM):

    Oh wow, thanks for pointing that out. I had no idea that the British English meaning of homely is so different from the American English meaning….

    I get confused by ^That MANY times, as my understanding / spelling / etc. of words stems from both the British English and the American English.

    From the original post:

    It is not easy to determine what a diminutive form conveys to the hearers / listeners, if we are not members of the community in which the diminutive is being used in that time and place and cultural setting.

    ^That applies to many facets of the English language.

    Krikit commented (15TH MAY 2018 – 9:58 AM):

    Vulnerable. The word and its meaning seems to cover it all, to me.

    ^That, at least in the context of our time / place / cultural setting (ACFJ community).

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