Translation of Paul 1 COR 9:6 - Wives or Sisters?

Author: Fr Anthony Zimmerman, S.T.D.


Fr. Anthony Zimmerman, S.T.D.

The translation used by Father Jean Ruiz of I Cor 9:4 ("Two Styles of Pastoral Authority," November 1995) is tendentious: "Do we not have the right to take along a Christian wife, as do the rest of the apostles... ?"

Paul didn't refer to a wife here but rather to a missionary assistant. The Greek original reads "adelphaen gynaika." St. Jerome's Vulgate reads "mulierem sororem." If Paul had meant a wife, he would not have interposed the word "sister" to explain his meaning.

All of the English versions I have access to translate the text as "wife," which is completely contrary to what Paul qualifies as "sister." The Fathers of the Church, who spoke Greek as their mother tongue and were closer in time to the apostolic tradition than we are, refer to her as a sisterly assistant, not a wife.

"The Church Fathers interpreted this phrase with reference to the women who accompanied Christ and took care of His material needs on trips during His public ministry," wrote Richard Kugelman, C.P., in The Jerome Biblical Commentary (1968). According to Christian Cochini, S.J., in The Apostolic Origins of Priestly Celibacy (p. 79), the "majority of contemporary exegetes" interpret it to mean a Christian woman as an assistant, not a wife.

In the context, Paul is not at all arguing about a right of an apostle to live a conjugal life. That is far from his thoughts. He argues here that he has an equal right to have a paid assistant and a stipend for his own work as any other apostle. In the view of Elizabeth Schuessler Fiorenza, in Harper's Biblical Commentary (p.1181), Paul's rhetorical questions in the text "present 10 arguments for his rights to food and drink, to be accompanied by a woman missionary." Allow me to quote some texts of the Fathers, as Father Cochini lined them up on pages 80-81 of his enlightening book:

Clement of Alexandria (d. ca. 215): If they took women with them, the women "were not treated as wives but as sisters, to serve as interpreters for women whose duties kept them within their homes ... to prevent the apostles from being blamed or unjustly suspected by people of ill will" (Stromata, 111,6).

Tertullian (d. ca. 220): "Those women taken along by the apostles are not described by him (Paul) as wives ... but simply as women who were at their service, just like those who followed the Lord" (De Monogamia, 8).

Jerome (d. 419 or 420): "It is clear that (they) must not be seen as wives but, as we have said, as women who assisted them with their goods" (Ad. Jovinian 1, 26).

Isidor of Pelusium (d. ca. 415): If women accompanied the apostles, "it was not in order to procreate children or to lead with them a common life but, in truth, to assist them with their goods, to take care of feeding the heralds of poverty." If Paul called them sister-women, it is "because by the word sister he wanted to show that they were chaste, while describing their nature with the word women" (Ep. 111,176).

So let's stop translating the phrase of 1 Cor 9:4�adelphaen gynaika or mulierem sororem�wrongly. The phrase means a believer woman, a sisterly assistant or a housekeeper, not a wife. Let's not allow ideology to give us wrong translations. Even if present English versions uniformly read "wife," they are uniformly wrong. A translator's virus bedevils them.

Anthony Zimmerman, S.T.D., Nagoya, Japan

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