The Original Source Material

This is part of a series on patriarchy, headship, and submission. See this index.

Over at Sigma Frame is a pseudonymous comment by “thedeti”:[1]

Once again, we need to return to the original source material.

Eph. 5:22-24 (NIV)

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

But what about this?

αι γυναίκες τοις ιδίοις ανδράσιν ως τω κυρίω ότι ο ανήρ εστι κεφαλή της γυναικός ως και ο χριστός κεφαλή της εκκλησίας και αυτός εστι σωτήρ του σώματος αλλ΄ ώσπερ η εκκλησία υποτάσσεται τω χριστώ ούτω και αι γυναίκες τοις ιδίοις ανδράσιν εν παντί

This is not the original source material either, but it is much closer. The original physical source material is lost. What we have are many copies with many different variants, selected and combined through the scholarship of textual criticism to form various critical texts[2] from which translations are based. There are no less than three major variants for v22 alone.

Why does this matter?


The most significant and oldest textual variants in v22 elide the verb ‘submit’. The NET claims that early lectionaries started the reading (or, more likely, listening) at v22 (rather than start at the beginning of the sentence). To make this work, copyists had to alter the text to add the verb in, much like English translations add in the verb. In other words,

(1) Copyists translated the original scripture into another form that suited their teachings.

They altered the original.[3] The new work was not the original. They changed scripture, to suit their chosen delivery.[4]

(2) This alteration exists in every English translation.

The Bible quote above from the NIV is not a return to the original source material. The only reason we know about the original is because the earlier writings managed to survive, no thanks to those who rewrote the original.


So how did we get from original scriptures to the traditional modern translations we have today? Uncountable numbers of men poured over copies of scripture, examined and cross-referenced, looked at the semantic and  lexical scope, produced papers and sermons, polemicized and anathematized, reasoned and implored, redacted and altered, and on and on. In short, they examined the scriptures from every possible angle they could think of until a wider consensus could be established and/or opponents were silent or silenced. This has gone on for nearly two thousand years.

This is just like the Pharisees did, right, with their obsession over details and establishment of traditions? Tradition upon tradition after tradition.[5]

Many of these men were among the 37 “Doctors of the Church“, but it also included countless more theologians, laymen, and heretics. Many of these were very well-educated and spent large portions of their lives dedicated to the intense study and review of the scriptures. In recent years, men like Grudem—a Protestant—and Ehrman—an unbeliving agnostic—would influence how Bibles are translated.

It is all so very … simple?


The comment we examined at the beginning of this post continues for a while before concluding:

It was intended that the rabbis were to read these letters to the church and the church was to hear them and immediately understand what they were to do and how to do it. This was not intended to be hard to understand requiring theological degrees and years of training and intense review and study to understand this stuff.

Had the original church heard just Ephesians 5:22-24, they would not have understood what was said to them, because verse 22 is a sentence fragment containing no verb.

(3) The early church would not have immediately understood scripture in the way we understand it.

This is an extremely important point. When we hear that passage as translated, we are hearing something that the early church would never have heard when read from the original. Our experience, however minor, would have been different. The early church could not have started reading at v22, because it would have made no sense of what Paul was saying. The irony is that it took centuries of scholars and theologians, with their intense training, review, and study, to alter the understanding of the passage so that we—in English—cannot simply grasp the meaning in the same way the original audience did.[6]

(4) Centuries of churchman have altered scripture. We cannot understand it the same as the original audience could.

In modern English translations, the alterations to Ephesians 5:22-24 are generally not disclosed, or they they can be complicated and involved like the footnote in the NET translation. Here is an approximation—and it is only that—of what the original audience might have heard if scripture had been left alone (read it out loud):

And don’t get drunk with wine, which leads to reckless living, but be filled with the Spirit:

speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs

singing and making music with your heart to the Lord

giving thanks always for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ

submitting to one another in the fear of Christ, wives to their own husbands as to the Lord, because the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, himself the Savior of the body, but as the church submits to Christ, so also wives to their husbands in everything.

This shows how the original was one big compound sentence, but even this quotation is not complete enough. Cutting it even this much subtly alters it from what the original audience would have heard, and so I make no claims to originality. The passage includes indentation, punctuation, and capitalization, which, just like all English translations, are not original, but affect the interpretation. I’ve also added underlines and bolding (which are obviously not original) to highlight to readers how the original audience would have identified the various pieces of the compound whole. I removed verse numbers, which are not in the original. I also removed the verbs Paul elided, because the original audience would not have heard that which was not there.

(5) It is impossible for us to know for sure what the original audience would have heard.

Passages, like Ephesians 5, have been the subject of many early church fathers. For example, we know of a small number of early church fathers (Athanasius, Socrates Scholasticus, John Chrysostom, Cyril of Alexandria, Ambrosiaster, and Theodore of Mopsuestia) who were explicit that the ‘head’ of man being used in Ephesians 5 does not carry the sense of authority, leadership, or governing. Other writers like Clement of Alexandria interpreted the entire passage in an authoritative context.

(6) The early church fathers were not unanimous on a simple understanding of Ephesians 5:22-24.

That there was disagreement at all shows that it was not simple, even then.


We can conclude by summarizing what we have found.

The early church fathers were not unanimous on a simple understanding of Ephesians 5:22-24.  Copyists translated the original scripture into another form that suited their teachings. This alteration exists in every English translation. Centuries of churchman have altered scripture. We cannot understand it the same as the original audience could. The early church would not have immediately understood scripture in the way we understand it.  It is impossible for us to know for sure what the original audience would have heard.


[1] It has been brought to my attention that my posts are a stumbling block to some of the Christians who read the Sigma Frame blog. I have no desire to generate ill-will or stir up a spirit of disunity. Debate can and should be engaged in without causing harm. I request that anyone who is uncomfortable with what I write do not read it.

[2] The main text types are the Byzantine text-type, the Western text-type, and the Alexandrian text-type. While most modern versions are weighted towards the Alexandrian text-type, they are also eclectic: using scholarship to reference varying witnesses and using various tools to select which variants to use, rather than only use specific ones.

[3] The probable original content. No original physical documents exist, and there is no documented chain-of-custody that can prove which specific variant (if any) or combination of variants is the correct one. One’s view on the originality of scripture and which variants are correct is a matter of one’s chosen axiom(s).

[4] Translation does not imply malicious intent. Indeed, the vast majority of changes are considered minor or insignificant. However, the translation effectively replaced what came before it. No modern translation—such as the NIV cited at the beginning—replaces the original.

[5] The underlying axiom is that alterations to scripture are justified forms of permanant translation if they come from the faith tradition that conforms to the chosen theology of the person(s) or denomination(s) doing the asserting. All alterations and translations are forbidden from people who subscribe to a different theology.

“It’s okay if my group’s scholars pick nits over scripture, so long as your group’s scholars do not. My translations are easy and obvious, yours are complex and non-intuitive.”

I do not agree with this. This is nothing more than “I’m right, you are wrong, and you are a bad person for saying I am wrong.”

[6] Due to the differences between languages and changes within languages, listeners hearing some differences compared to the original audience cannot be avoided, especially with many different versions. The argument that scripture must be curated by some authority in order for it to be understood fails to 1 Kings 13, where the Word of God is self-evident in the form it is given. It must be followed on its own authority alone and in opposition to other claims of authority. This is the axiom of sola scriptura.


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