On Translation Choices and Pastoral Concerns

This morning I noticed an example of the NIV being very politically correct–or, to be kinder, very pastorally aware:

The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. (1 Cor. 7:4)

The Greek text for this verse has no word that corresponds to the NIV word “yields.” The ESV translates the end of each sentence well: “but the husband/wife does.” This translation supplies the implied verb, “does.” The KJV does not supply any implied verb. So it is less clear but mirrors the Greek even more closely: “but the husband/wife.”

On Translation Choices…

In the NIV Paul sounds like he is urging voluntary mutual submission in this verse, rather than providing a reason why such submission is important. It is more likely, I think, that Paul is urging mutual submission in the previous verse (“The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband” 1 Cor. 7:3.) and then adding a reason why in this verse. In other words, I think verse verse 3 says what married people should do–give each other their conjugal rights–and verse 4 says why–because married people don’t possess autonomous authority over their own bodies.

There, I find myself being PC, too! There is no word “autonomous” in the Greek to soften the force of Paul’s assertion.

The ESV, interestingly, shows it agrees with my understanding of how verses 3 and 4 are related by adding a “for” at the start of verse 4, even though none is present in the Greek.

So is there any linguistic basis for the NIV’s choice here? There probably is, for the NIV is usually very intentional. I’m speculating here, because I don’t know what discussion the translation committee had on this verse. But I suspect the textual basis for their choice is found in the verb “have authority over.” They may understand this as “keep authority over,” concluding, therefore, that the opposite idea is to yield. But it seems odd to me, if this is really what Paul was thinking, that he would end his sentence with “but the husband/wife.” Rather, it would be more natural, if he understood the verb this way, to end, “but yields it.” This, of course, is how the NIV translates the end of the sentence. So the NIV provides what Paul should have said if their understanding of the verb is correct, not what Paul actually said!

At least, that’s my best guess at what’s happening linguistically here with the NIV.

Let me contrast the NIV and ESV translations another way. In the ESV, Paul is contrasting persons: Who has authority over the husband’s body? Not the husband but the wife. In the NIV, Paul is contrasting actions: What does the husband do with his body? Not rule it himself but yield it to his wife. I think the ESV reflects the Greek more accurately.

I quickly surveyed all 50 translations on Bible Gateway. If I counted correctly, only the Phillips, the Message, the NLT, and VOICE translations agree with the NIV here. That’s not proof that the NIV is wrong, but neither is it a ringing endorsement.

A few translations find other ways of “softening the blow,” such as EXB’s “The wife does not have full rights over her own body; her husband shares them…” This translation softens the blow at two points: by adding the word “full” before “rights” (but they add a note after “full rights” that provides a literal translation: “authority”) and by providing the word “shares” in the final clause, where the Greek gives no suggestion of anything being mutual.

Probably little real damage is done by NIV’s choice, and it may prevent some dangerous misapplication. But it’s yet another reminder of (a) how pastoral concerns can shape translation choices, and (b) the importance of comparing translations when we can.

And Pastoral Concerns

The pastoral concern that probably motivated the NIV translators is legitimate: We do not want to encourage abusive spouses to demand sexual rights from their spouses. Just as slave owners have pointed to texts commanding slaves to obey their masters, so abusive husbands have pointed to texts like this to convince their spouses that they must submit to abuse.

The pastoral problem is very real. So is there another way to address the problem besides rewriting Paul’s thoughts (as I think the NIV is doing)?

I think there is. I think the answer is to preach and teach “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). We need to constantly discourage people from building theologies and practices on isolated proof-texts. I believe proof-texting can be legitimate and even important; the NT authors do it regularly as they quote the OT. But we must not use isolated proof-texts. Our proof-texts must reflect the whole counsel of God. We can do this by choosing proof-texts that are balanced within themselves. We can also do this by providing multiple proof-texts. And we can avoid proof-text problems by remembering that, according to Scripture, Scripture often requires explanation, not mere quotation (see Neh. 8:7-8).

Here is an example that parallels the problem in our text: The question of relating to civil authorities. Paul says some very hard-to-swallow things about this question, too:

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. (Rom. 13:1-2)

Taken in isolation, this can be a dangerous proof text. But we don’t solve this problem by rewriting Paul. We don’t translate Paul like this: “Let every person be subject to those governing authorities which have been instituted by God.” (At least, I hope we don’t.) Rather, we recognize that Paul is stating a foundational principle. We quote this principle and feel its full force. Then we pull in other Scriptural data and recognized that there are exceptions. For example, the apostles said “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) and Jesus even commanded his disciples to flee authorities who tried to persecute them (Matt. 10:23).

If we apply these parallels to the question of conjugal rights and sexual submission in marriage, then several conclusions are suggested: (1) There are times when one spouse will need to tell the other, “I must obey God rather than you.” (2) There are times when a spouse will need to flee abuse.

Other passages could enrich our observations here. My point is that I think this kind of theological and expositional legwork is a good way to address the pastoral concerns of a text like 1 Corinthians 7:4. I appreciate when translations try to avoid leaving misimpressions. But I don’t appreciate when they do this by changing what the text actually says. So, in this case, I prefer the ESV over the NIV.

What do you think? Leave a comment and share your perspective.

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6 thoughts on “On Translation Choices and Pastoral Concerns”

  1. For the record, I checked four commentaries on 1 Corinthians tonight and still can find no valid linguistic basis for the NIV phrase “yields it to…” All four recognize that Paul is making a point about who already possesses authority, not giving a command to yield authority. The yielding already occurred, to paraphrase one commentary, at the moment of marriage. That accomplished fact is the basis for Paul’s command for ongoing giving of conjugal rights.

    The four commentaries were:
    * David E. Garland (BECNT), 2003
    * Anthony C. Thiselton (Shorter Exegetical and Pastoral C.), 2006
    * Craig Blomberg (NIVAC), 1994
    * Kenneth Bailey (Paul Through Mediterranean Eyes), 2011

    Bailey correctly notes that this verse is actually an argument against abuse: “Each partner in a marriage has authority over the body of the other. No sexual games are possible in this kind of marriage. There can be no power plays such as, “Give me what I want, and I will sleep with you.” No form of abuse is even thinkable. Each partner can say to the other, “I have gifts, I have rights, and I have authority over your body.” [I think a more Pauline statement for each to say would be, “You have gifts, you have rights, and you have authority over my body.”] The granting of these gifts, rights, and powers to each partner (on an equal basis) is truly amazing to discover in a first-century document!”

  2. I’m not a Greek scholar so I’m unable to verify the correct reading for 1Corinthians 3,4. I noticed in the KJV that v.3 speaks of ‘due benevolence’. On investigating further I noticed that many of the pre-KJV English versions (Geneva, Bishop’s, Coverdale, [although these were maybe referenced in the KJV’s production ?] as well as Calvin’s Commentary) have a similar reading for v.3. A couple of the Peshitta versions use love instead of benevolence.
    In David Guzik’s Commentary on 1Corinthians he renders v.3&4 this way.
    “Let the husband render to his wife the affection due her, and likewise also the wife to the husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body but the wife does.”
    He then comments;
    “The affection due her is an important phrase; since Paul means this to apply to every Christian marriage, it shows that every wife has affection due her. Paul doesn’t think only the young or pretty or submissive wives are due affection; every wife is due affection because she is a wife of a Christian man.
    Paul also emphasizes what the woman needs; not merely sexual relations, but the affection due her. If a husband is having sexual relations with his wife, but without true affection to her, he is not giving his wife what she is due. Affection also reminds us that when a couple is unable – for physical or other reasons – to have a complete sexual relationship, they can still have an affectionate relationship and thus fulfill God’s purpose for these commands. On the same idea, also the wife to her husband – the wife is not to withhold marital affection from her husband; Paul strongly puts forth the idea that there is a mutual sexual responsibility in marriage; the husband has obligations toward his wife, and the wife has obligations toward her husband.
    ….The emphasis is on giving, on ‘I owe you’ instead of ‘you owe me’.”

    As I said, I’m not qualified to say if this is a good rendering or not.
    Sounds good, maybe, but…?

    1. I like that! I don’t know, though, whether “affection” is a very literal translation. Based on a quick review here of a couple commentaries (David Garland and Anthony Thiselton), comparing them with the Greek text, this is what I can see:
      * A pretty literal translation of the Greek would be “what is due let him fulfill.” Garland says the term “what is due” is “another euphemism for coitus” (as the term “to touch” is in verse 1). This more narrow focus on sexual activity (rather than “affection”) fits with the rest of the chapter, which includes other references to sexual desire–repeated comments about the need for “self-control” and the comment about it being “better to marry than to burn.” If the term in vs. 3 means affection, it would maybe fit better with Ephesians 5 than 1 Corinthians 7.
      * That said, both commentaries point out that Paul is concerned not merely with sexual duty, but with sexual pleasure. Given Jewish writings about sexual relations from the 2nd Temple Period, it is surprising that Paul never mentions procreation as a reason for sexual intimacy. And Thiselton says that “Paul appears to be the first writer to suggest that such ‘pleasure’ could be mutual.” So this concern for satisfying a spouse’s sexual desires in a way that gives them pleasure does fit with the idea of giving affection. Merely “fulfilling sexual obligations” in a cold manner wouldn’t fit the bill.

      So, based on that quick review, I’d be hesitant to translate that word in vs. 3 as “affection,” but I’d be quick to point out Paul’s concern for mutual pleasure and selfless giving–something that sounds an awfully lot like affection. 🙂

      1. I thought that the comments Guzik made were very good and very appropriate for husband/wife relationships, but I wasn’t sure that his reading actually fits in with any text I had seen. This is the first time I recall that I questioned his interpretation of a text, perhaps there should have been other times but maybe I’ve been too careless.
        In Spiros Zodhiates’ ‘Complete Word Study New Testament’ based on the KJV he has “due benevolence” as coming from ‘opheilo’ ‘eunoia’ although ‘eunoia’ doesn’t seem to appear in an interlinear text I looked at so I don’t know what’s up with that. Interestingly enough, J. P. Green’s Literal Translation reads …”give due kindness”… and Young’s Literal Translation …”the due benevolence render”…
        Oh well, I guess we have enough clear guidance in Scripture on how we should live with our wives, as Eph. 5:25, for instance, that we can spend our whole lives trying to get it right.

        1. But now I’m confused: What exactly do I owe my wife? 🙂

          I enjoy your quotations from multiple sources, especially since they are different sources than the ones I am more familiar with.

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