Monday, March 13, 2017

Ephesians 5:22

I went to a church conference the other day, where the priest mentioned Ephesians 5:21-33, the part of the Bible where Saint Paul talks about how wives and husbands should act towards each other. That particular section is very hard to hear with modern ears, and it comes across as sexist and anti-feminist. Most people stop paying attention at line 22:

"Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord." or "Wives should be obedient to their husbands as to the Lord"

The priest explained that "subordinate" doesn't mean what we think it means; it actually means something more like "support" or "lift up", which is decidedly different from "obey". I know Greek and Latin, though, so I thought I'd take a look at the original words.

The official Latin is "mulieres viris suis subditae sint sicut Domino", "women should be to subject their men as to the Lord". My dictionary is giving me half a page of definitions for "subditae". "Subditae" is literally "sub" + "do", "under" + "place", so it's "place under", "put under", "lie under" or "underlie", "be located under". Definition #2 is "bring under" and "subject", with "subdue" being an uncommon version. Definition #3 is "bring on", "furnish", "supply", "yield", "afford". Definition #4, which I've never seen applied to this passage, is "substitute" or "take the place of".

The original Greek is "Αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν ὡς τῷ κυρίῳ," "the women to their own men as to the Lord", and oh, hey. There's no verb in that line. Like, at all. It's "the women [insert verb here] to their own men, as to the Lord". Normally, if the verb is missing in Greek or Latin, you assume the verb is "is". So that'd be "women are to their own men as to the Lord".

But in this case, people assume the author is reusing the verb from the previous sentence, "ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ἐν φόβῳ Χριστοῦ", "be subject to one another in fear of the Lord". "ὑποτάσσω" is literally "ὑπο" + "τάσσω", "under" + "arrange/order", especially with the military meaning of "arrange troops", "set up your army". The military meaning pervades most of the definitions here. Definition #1 is "place under", "arrange under", "assign". Definition #2 is "shelter", "draw up behind", "post in the shelter of", and from this, we get Definition #3, "subdue", "subject", "make submit", "make to submit", with the passive "to be obedient". Definition #4 is "underlie", "imply", "be associated with". Definition #5 is "put after", "subjoin", "append", "follow". Definition #6 is a grammatical definition, "govern the subjunctive tense of a verb".

Yeah, I know, I just gave oven ten possible definitions for the one word. That's what translating is like, sometimes. Since we have to pick a verb that fits both sentences, I would probably go with "take the place of" or "serve", echoing Jesus' words "serve one another as I have served you". Marriage is all about mutual service, right? I could also accept the definition the priest was offering, "support", "raise up", "lift up from below". But I wouldn't go with "obedient", because it has bad connotations in this context, and further, that definition is only in the passive tense, and this section is in the active tense.


Anonymous said...

My family attended Catholic school. Much of what was taught seemed to focus on consequences surrounding letting people, priests, teachers and religious figures down. There was great motivation inspired by how "guilty" one would feel if they didn't do the right thing. I would love to read your thoughts on "Catholic Guilt."

Michael Gray said...

I don't really have anything to say on Catholic guilt. The last time I heard it talked about was a few years ago, when someone was venting some angry feelings.