A woman church leader in the New Testament

  • Question from JM, Sweden

    I’ve been living in Sweden for two months now and have come across a puzzling difference between the translations of the Bible that we commonly use in the UK and their Swedish equivalent…

    In my NIV (and also my NLT) translation Colossians chapter 4, verse 15 reads:
    Give my greetings to the brothers at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.”
    And I’ve heard teaching from some pretty respectable theologians to the effect that this refers to a woman who was leading a church in her house. The Swedish translation reads almost word for word but with ‘his’ instead of ‘her’ house.

    Then in Philippians chapter 4, verses 2-3 my NIV reads:
    I plead with Euodia and I plead with Syntyche to agree with each other in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you, loyal yokefellow, help these women who have contended at my side in the cause of the gospel, along with Clement and the rest of my fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.

    And again in the Swedish bibles it reads almost word for word, but with the word women taken out and replaced with “them”. Is there some kind of conspiracy going on?

    This is particularly of interest to some of my friends who are female, Swedish and have leadership gifts, but have been taught by the Swedish state church that women are not allowed to lead.

    The problem here lies in the particular texts used by the translators. A variant reading of Colossians chapter 4, verse 15 does read ‘his house’, rather than ‘her house’. It was this reading that was used in the English King James Version, drawing on the ‘Received text’ that was prepared by the scholar Erasmus during the Reformation and was also used by Martin Luther in his German translation of the New Testament. As the Scandinavian state churches are Lutheran, it is highly likely their traditional translations are also based on the ‘Received text’.

    It’s worth noting that the ‘Received text’ is so called because it was the complete Greek text that Luther and others received from Erasmus. Despite the subsequent claims of supporters of the King James Version, the title ‘Received text’ does not imply any greater authority. In fact it was an edited Greek text drawing on the best-preserved manuscripts of the time, prepared in virtually the same way as modern textual scholars collate Greek texts to produce the most accurate version possible.

    In the past 500 years or so, a number of earlier, and therefore arguably more reliable, texts have been discovered. In these earlier manuscripts ‘Nymphas and the church in her house’ (oikon autes: literally ‘house, belonging to her’) is the more common reading. In more recent collated Greek textual versions of the New Testament (e.g. Nestle-Aland fourth revised edition, published by the United Bible Societies in 1993), this textual form is given, with a footnote recording the textual variant oikon autou (‘house, of him’). It is therefore at the discretion of the translator whether Nymphas is considered to be a man or a woman.

    The strong likelihood is that Nymphas is a woman’s name and the earliest texts bear this out. It could be presumed that with the growth of an exclusively male priesthood, it was naturally assumed that Nymphas would be a man, because of the implication that Nymphas led the church that met in his/her house.

    In Philippians chapter 4, verse 2-3, the correct translation is actually the Swedish one. The passage reads ‘help them’ (sulambanou autais) and the word ‘women’ does not appear. But this translation, while accurate, is slightly disingenuous because there is no other way for us to tell in translation that Euodia and Synteche are women, as their names suggest. Paul refers to them as ‘fellow contenders for the truth’ and as ‘co-workers’, indicating some level of equality in service. Translating ‘autais’ as merely ‘them’ does not indicate the gender of the two women (who were undoubtedly women), leaving the modern reader uncertain as to their gender, and perhaps assuming that such named and important individuals would be male.

    So, in short, there is probably something of a conspiracy, but it has its roots way back in the early history of Christianity as women were marginalised from positions of leadership. Most contemporary scholars and translators would seek to redress the balance by highlighting the gender of these leaders who worked alongside the apostle Paul (e.g. by inserting the word ‘women’ into the translation for clarity). The fact that the institutional church in Sweden has not incorporated these findings into current practice or translation probably indicates a continuing bias against women in leadership roles that has more to do with historical prejudice than accurate Biblical scholarship.

    Thanks for your question, JM.

    Posted on