A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

“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.

women ………………. Wycliffe ~1380; Tyndale 1535 *

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

weak women ………… WNT 1903; GNT 1992; NASB 1995; NET 2006; ERV 2006; ICB 2015; TLV 2015; ESV 2016

weak-willed women …. NIV 1984; CJB 1998;  OJB 2011 

weak-minded women .. GW 1995; NOG 2011

vulnerable women …… BSB ~2000; VOICE 2012; NLT 2o15; EHV 2017;  TPT 2017;

gullible women ………. NKJ 1982; WEB 1997; HNV 1997; NIV 2011; CSB 2017

silly women ……………  KJV 1611; WBT 1833; YLT 1862; DARBY 1890; DRA 1899; ASV 1901; TLB 1971; PHILLIPS 1972; NRSV 1989; ERV 2004; NCV 2005; JUB 2010; BRG 2012; MEV 2014

idle women ……………. HCSB 2009

foolish women ……….. BBE 1941; NLV 1969; WE 1998; NTE 2011; LEB 2012; ISV 2014

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 fxwe 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, italics 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. 

***   ***    ***   ***   ***   ***

*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.

Further Reading 

God’s view of women who get targeted by abusive men (2 Timothy 3:6-7)

21 Comments

  1. This is a great piece of analysis and brings understanding of trauma into our understanding of the Bible, which most commentaries fail to do. Thanks so much!

  2. This is extremely helpful. Thank you, Barbara.

  3. Wondering

    Someone told me that this verse has nothing to do with abuse as it’s talking about the end days. I am unsure how to reply to them as it’s true, it said in verse “in the end days…”

    • Hi Wondering,

      Welcome to the blog! We like to encourage new readers to check out our New Users’ Info page as it gives tips for how to guard your safety while commenting on the blog. You will notice I changed your screen to something less identifying. If you want it changed feel free to contact me at twbtc.acfj@gmail.com

      Again Welcome!

    • Hi Wondering, in Christendom there are many different interpretations of what ‘the end days’ refers to. Sounds like you were hearing from a person who had a fix and rigid view of what ‘the end days’ means and had boxed all his interpretations of scripture into that rigid view.

      There is a good possibility his view of ‘the end days’ was not sound. I’ve met many people in the protestant world who get such a bee in their bonnet about the doctrine of the end times (eschatology) that they become almost insufferable. If you don’t conform to their view on that, they dismiss you completely. And often they say crushing things to you while they are dismissing you.

      I’m not wanting to open up a big debate here about what ‘the end days’ refers to. In my experience it’s a usually a waste of time to debate that.

      But I want to assure you that many people think that ‘the end days’ could mean the entire span of time between when Christ ascended to heaven and when He winds up the cosmos like a scroll and brings in the New Heavens and New Earth. And many people also think that phrases like ‘the end days’ can have multiple meanings in Scripture and we need to take into account the context in which a phrase was used each time it was used.

      In this letter written by Paul, he is clearly warning Timothy about something Timothy was facing (or would very soon be facing) in his own pastorate. Why would Paul warn Timothy about it if it were not something Timothy would be grappling with at the coal face in his own local church? Since Paul intended Timothy to apply it to his own church situation, we can apply it to our own situations too. I personally believe it is wisdom that can be applied to all times and places, because it is pastoral wisdom.

  4. Anonymous Woman

    Let’s say, for argument’s sake, the most damaging translations were correct, it still showcases a predator targeting the vulnerable, which makes it all the more reprehensible in my eyes. It also shows that abusers aren’t making a mistake, or losing their temper, or just an insecure guy needing the love of a good woman to sacrifice herself, be punched enough times to have their ‘coming to Jesus’ moment, etc.

    Wife beating, coercive control, abuse, sexual violence, etc is predation. Some abusers are more skilled than others but its still the same core evil.

    It doesn’t matter if the target was the ‘silliest’ of women, without an abuser targeting her and taking her captive and preying on her, she’d be OK.

    • Good point, Anonymous Woman!

      • Anonymous Woman

        Its good that you include the Sexual Assault videos as many may be unable to trcommonly enforcement or the courts or any others and in watching the videos they can get validation, learn the how’s and why’s to why they reacted the way they did, etc.

  5. Some good points, Barbara. looking forward to your next one

  6. Still Struggling

    Barbara,
    You do an incredible amount of research and work and share it with us so readily. I came across and have been reading the Amplified Bible on an app lately so I looked up 2 Timothy 3:6.
    What is your opinion of this version? It seems to make it more clear to my understanding especially in light of the previous verses:

    “For among them are those who worm their way into homes and captivate morally weak and spiritually-dwarfed women weighed down by [the burden of their] sins, easily swayed by various impulses, always learning and listening to anybody who will teach them, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.
    2 TIMOTHY 3:7 AMP
    https://bible.com/bible/1588/2ti.3.7.AMP

    • I think the Amplified Bible has gone beyond the Greek text there.

      The Greek says these women are ‘weighed down with sins’ but that does not mean the women are necessarily ‘morally weak’. They may be morally weak, or they may be weighed down by having been repeatedly sinned against by evil people. Or a bit of both. I think the compilers of the Amplified version have given us insight into their own assumptions about women (and their underlying misogyny).

      And calling these women ‘spiritually dwarfed’ is going way beyond the diminutive of women (‘little-women’) which is in the Greek. Here is my own observation and experience of abused women — and I include myself in this by reflecting back on how spiritually gullible I was prior to my conversion and how, even after I was converted and going to church and studying the Bible, I was pretty spiritually immature for quite a long time….

      My observation is this: some women who are abused by men do seem to be ‘little women’ compared to ‘great women’ such as the woman described in 2 Kings 4 who built a room for Elisha. (I want to thank Ps Sam Powell for giving me this comparison.)

      But I also think that any true (regenerate) Christian including spiritually immature women can progressively grow into greater spiritual maturity. Seek and ye shall find. Cast out the false notions and face and embrace the truth.

       

      • Still Struggling

        Thank you for explaining that, Barbara. That helps me understand far better. I often have a hard time understanding scripture. Growing up KJV only I had so much confusion because I just could not understand some things. I like to use different versions of the bible to shed light on passages but I’ll be more careful with the Amplified from now on.

      • Hi, Still Struggling 🙂

        You might like to check out the New Testament of the New Matthew Bible. It is online at Bible Gateway (click here). It is William Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament gently updated by Ruth Magnusson Davis. It has quickly become my preferred version for reading the New Testament. You can also get it in hard copy (do a search for The October Testament at Amazon or any bookseller.)

        No English version of the Bible is perfect. Whenever a language is translated into another language, some things which are in the original language are very difficult to convey in the new language. And translators can often bring their biases into what they do. But the New Matthew Bible is very very good, in my humble opinion.

        When I’m studying a passage, I always check it out in multiple translations. To do this I use Bible Gateway, Bible Hub, the Blue Letter Bible, and Study Bible. Study Bible is a website I only recently discovered; it has many old and lesser known versions on it. 🙂

      • Still Struggling

        Thank you so much, Barbara. I’ve seen your posts on the New Matthew Bible but did not realize it is easily accessible online! I’m definitely going to start reading that version. I’ve learned so much from this blog and articles you link to from others. I’m so thankful you and the others that contribute take the time to share with us and take up the hard job of fighting for truth. I knew God led me here when I cried out for help. It’s not only eye-opening but a balm to my soul.

      • Anonymous

        The whole idea of “weighed down by sins” being the effects and aftermath of others’ sins against the “little woman” who gets targeted by abusers is new for me, in terms of biblical understanding. That concept is shown in reality so much. Research points out that indeed there is no precursor for being an abused woman aside from being a woman and having a wife-beater/abuser in your life, preying on you, but there is a subset of victims who are the really sad souls, in my experience. Research shows that many victimized woman are indeed rendered vulnerable to such abuse because of prior abuse in their life. Maybe they were raped at 16. Maybe their parents abused them. Maybe they grew up in poverty and spent time being homeless, bounced from shelter to shelter, living in the streets.

        All of the vulnerability variables add up and abusers are known to test targets and hone in on the pre-traumatized ones. Not all abusers, not all women, but there is a definite targeting/vulnerability mix, which makes abusers all that much more wicked, evil, and heinous.

        Predation is predation. Everyone alive can be broken. It’s human frailty. Maybe a person is severely injured in a car accident, sustaining paralysis and head injuries and hence becomes instantly more vulnerable than they have ever been before, and perhaps the person is struggling already in life, just barely making it, not really supported, and then BOOM, life is altered.

        Then the predators swoop in. Is that injured, now disabled, vulnerable person going to be targeted? Quite possibly. Because criminals, predators, abusers, scammers, etc. all love honing in on a person who is vulnerable.

        Persons with disabilites are abused at greater rates. Almost all developmentally disabled women are sexually abused, assaulted, etc. at some point, the stats are seriously disturbing, but reflective of reality (and actually probably conservative as the incidents reported versus unreported is a big factor in all sorts of interpersonal crime, abuse, and violence).

        So, anyhow, the “little women” comment being possibly weighed down by others’ sins is a nice, new way of thinking about such because even with the “weighed down” part, it can be easily twisted into victim-blaming, accusatory, blaming statements…… I can just hear a self-righteous (possibly out of ignorance) person saying to the abused that they should have not been “weighed down” and then they wouldn’t have been vulnerable and targeted.

        But I think it the real emphasis should be on the abuser, seeing how the abuser targets someone vulnerable (in some way, shape, or form) and “creeps in” and “leads captive” and that should be used in countering all sorts of abuser-apologist arguments in the church about how we need to be nicer to the supposedly stressed-out, mistaken, ‘sorry’, abuser whose lies are just that — lies.

        How many churches focus on the description of the abuser in these Bible verses? It should show the evil, wicked mindset and predation of the abuser even more clearly. Instead it is turned into more victim-blaming fodder.

  7. Anon

    Only in a misogynist culture can we possibly use this Scripture to further shame and blame women. Think about what is really being said and where the emphasis actually belongs — the abusers. We’ve got some man “creeping in” and “leading captive” his targeted woman and people in the church use this to browbeat women into further shame and blame?!

    Victim means innocent. Someone preying upon, “creeping in” and “leading captive” is being wicked and evil. In American culture it is all about “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” and that win-at-all-costs, ‘succeed’ no matter what or you are nothing, rugged individualism and poison of capitalism that makes for such a toxic blend. Nobody wants to be a victim. Victims are blamed, shamed, criticized, ostracized, etc.

    Everyone alive has vulnerability. Everyone. Men act as though they are so tough but I know of one experiment which had a man undergo a transformation into looking like a woman with excellent special effects makeup, etc. and he walked the streets with a ‘cameraman’ in front of him, secretly filming him being catcalled, followed, propositioned by men and the guy did this post-experiment interview and said he was scared at one point when this guy kept calling him and following him and he looked stressed, rattled, and relieved he was no longer a woman and just a mere partial day spent as a woman on the street had him questioning how women do it.

    This is old-fashioned woman-hating and victim-blaming. But, had it not been for Barbara’s post, I’d have not seen this for what it truly is. Thanks for laying it all out, doing such impeccable research, and bringing it to our attention. With one word “silly” the emphasis goes from the man who creeps in and leads captive, to the victim and blames her for her victimization. “If only,…… I hadn’t been a ‘silly’ woman….”

    Nonsense. Put the emphasis back on the active person in the verse, the man who is being an evil, wicked man, creeping in and leading captive another human being.

    The very fact that said verse is used against targeted women is just showing what a ‘for men, by men’ woman-hating place churches can be and we woman have been indoctrinated from birth in the same misogyny. Some of us come to see the lies for what they are: woman-hating men’s self-serving misdirection and lies.

    Some women are very, very misogynistic, too, which is another post in itself.

    Love your ministry, Barbara!!

  8. Initium nova

    Your mention of the word ‘diminutive’ made me get quite emotional. Three years ago I was alone in my room and woken up by something in the night. I sat up to hear these words.
    “take the French ‘ette’ off your name; I don’t see you like that anymore”.
    The following morning I googled what French ‘ette’ meant, and found it means: less than, a smaller version of, diminutive.
    I’m so grateful to my Father God that he took the less-than off my life and re-named me.
    Now I have a great testimony to share when people ask me why my name is slightly different. I’m the complete version of what God intended!
    Restored from all that put me down!

  9. Ruth M Davis

    I checked to see where the change first entered the English Bible.

    All the Reformation Bibles had simply “women,” including the Great Bible: “women laden with sin.” (I’d like to see a word study of ‘sin,’ because I think it might be meant in the wider sense of ‘folly.’ Folly has led me astray.)

    A change first came in the 1560 Geneva Bible, with “simple women.” Then the KJV changed it again, to “silly women.” But the OED does show ‘silly’ as once meaning ‘weak’ or ‘vulnerable.’ See this very apt quotation in this sense, from 1620, around the time of the KJV: “The Woolfe shall fawne vpon the silly Sheepe” – i.e. upon the vulnerable sheep.

    I wonder if that was in fact the intent! It certainly rings true and makes me feel a bit better about the KJV.

    God bless your ministry Barbara.

    • Thanks Ruth!

      And what you said here is intriguing and definitely worth following up —

      I’d like to see a word study of ‘sin,’ because I think it might be meant in the wider sense of ‘folly.’ Folly has led me astray.

      I did my research about “silly” by joining a large library (the State Library of Victoria) which has access to the OED Online.

      So readers: if any of you are keen word lovers and like to do that kind of research, you might like to emulate what I did. Look at what the OED Online says about the meanings of “sin” and how the word has had different senses. In particular, look at the examples which OED from the period around 1500 to 1650.

      Have I inspired anyone to do this? If you are like me and love words, then it will be great fun I assure you!

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