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Tuesday, July 19, 2005

What is a better translation than the "weaker vessel"?

Suzanne of Abecedaria blog asks in a BBB (Better Bible Blog) comment:
Here is a further question. Why is 1 Peter 3:7 translated with wives are the "weaker sex" or "weaker partner" I realize "vessel" is not so great either but why can't someone just say that women, on average, are physically weaker than their husbands. That would make a relevant comment. Women are physically more poorly equipped than men (on average). The weaker partner - hmm. They sometimes have less economic viability. These things are important but it shouldn't mean be used as a way to justify a disparity in power relations - "women are the weaker sex so therefore ...?"
This is the kind of feedback that Bible translation teams need to make better Bibles. First, the easy part, the word "vessel" is no longer adequate for contemporary English translations. The primary meanings people have today for "vessel" refer to some kind of ship or to a conduit in the body through which blood flows. In previous stages of English, the word "vessel" could refer to a person, at least metaphorically. But that usage is now outdated, and not acceptable if we want our Bible translations to communicate accurately to the widest possible audiences.

The more difficult question is: What is a better way of translating Greek asthenetero skeuei of 1 Peter 3:7 to English so that its original meaning, in context, will be understood more accurately and clearly than many of the less acceptable wordings in other English versions?

In what sense are women weaker than men, so that their husbands need to treat them with understanding? The UBS Handbook on 1 Peter says this:
It is not shown in what way the wife is the weaker sex, whether physically, intellectually, or spiritually, but perhaps the physical and the social are intended here, that is, women were considered physically inferior to men, and during that time at least, they were of a much lower social status than men.
As I would for several of the UBS Handbooks, especially the older volumes, I would consider some of the comments here to be inadequte. I think objective studies have clearly shown that women are not intellectually weaker than men. I remember "resenting" the women in our Greek class at Bible school because they were nearly always at the top of the grading curve, making it more difficult for us men to get as high grades as we might like. My wife is a mathematician, with a very sharp mind. It is possible that Peter was referring to a "weaker" social status for women. There could be a tendency for a husband to lord it over his wife, because of the traditional social status for women at the time Peter was writing (and, at least in some religions and societies, including among some conservative Christians, there are still remnants of this idea of a lower social status for woman). But if social status was referred to, Peter quickly makes sure that it is not used as an excuse to treat a wife as not equal spiritually to her husband, since he says:
since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered. (ESV)
The most likely sense of "weaker" that Peter was referring to was that women are generally physically weaker, smaller, than men. Husbands need to be understanding of this difference between men and women, as I read Peter's words here. It is inappropriate for a husband to expect his wife to be able to lift up the opposite end of a heavy couch (sofa) just as easily as he can (if he can!), to move the couch. Husbands should not expect their wives to be able to dig ditches as easily as they can.

And even though women are generally smaller than men, experience and studies have shown that women often outperform men in some "physical" areas. Women often have a greater threshold for pain. Few men, I think, would do very well if they had to endure the intensity of pain experienced during childbirth. Women often work longer hours than men, taking care of the children, clothes washing, housecleaning, etc. None of this is easy work, as husbands quickly find out when their wives are gone and they are responsible for household chores, including taking care of the children!

Peter seems to be saying to husbands that they should be sensitive ("understanding") of the fact that their wives are not as physically strong as they are. But husbands, don't take advantage of that fact, because husband and wife will share alike in spiritual blessings. And, Peter adds, that if husbands aren't understanding toward their wives, their prayer life will suffer. There may be some hint of spousal abuse here. Any man who abuses his wife cannot expect to have a vibrant prayer life, getting answers to prayer that a godly, considerate man can expect.

Traditional translations of the Greek here as "the weaker sex" (what does that mean?) or "the weaker vessel" (obsolete) do not cut it for me. Following are some Bible versions which do communicate accurately, I think, what Peter was saying to husbands:
Treat her with honor, because she isn't as strong as you are (CEV)

live with your wives with understanding since they are weaker than you are. (GW)

you husbands should live with your wives in an understanding way, since they are weaker than you. (NCV)

Treat her with understanding as you live together. She may be weaker than you are, but she is your equal partner in God's gift of new life. (NLT: I especially like this wording)

live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman (NASB; this is good, IMO)
As I understand what Peter is saying, these seem to be better translations, and, as I like to quote the TV commercial, "better is better."

What do you think?

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At Tue Jul 19, 10:53:00 AM, Anonymous Suz said...

Hi Wayne,

When I used the term "equipped" it sounds very odd in English but that seemed to be the original Greek. It was in general a vessel, instrument or equipment. Anyhow this is just to explain my awkward phrase "more poorly equipped" as a 'literal' translation. Definitley not a serious candidate as a translation.

At Wed Jul 20, 11:46:00 AM, Blogger Tim said...

Wayne, you say: "In previous stages of English, the word 'vessel' could refer to a person, at least metaphorically." This fits with the old KJV "we have this treasure in earthen vessels" so the question seems to me to be, is there evidence which demands any more precision that "women are weaker than men"...

At Wed Jul 20, 02:29:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Hi Tim. You asked: is there evidence which demands any more precision that "women are weaker than men"...

I wondered about this also. As far as I can tell the answer is no, and it has the advantage of allowing for other kinds of weakness, without the odd sound of "weaker sex". I think what needs to be avoided is any connotation that women are somehow weaker as persons than men. I don't think that is taught anywhere in scripture. We clearly know that most women cannot lift as much weight as most men. But women are often stronger than men is other areas of strength of personhood, etc. For example, some wives have a higher IQ than their husbands. But IQ is a measure of only one kind of intelligence. It does not measure what is now called "emotional intelligence," visual intelligence, mechanical intelligence, etc.

I think most people understand the phrase "women are weaker than men" to refer to physical strength, and not to any inherent character flaw. So I think the NASB wording works OK, for instance.

At Wed Jul 20, 05:27:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, I was surprised by your statement:

In previous stages of English, the word "vessel" could refer to a person, at least metaphorically. But that usage is now outdated, ...

Do you have any evidence that this was ever a genuine English usage, rather than translation English in KJV and other translations, and in quotations from and allusions to them? In other words, is it in fact just a sense of the Greek word σκεῦος (skeuos), which has been illegitimately transferred to the partially equivalent English word "vessel"?

In fact it seems that this Greek word had a sense "body". In his commentary on the letters of Peter and Jude (on 1 Peter 3:7), JND Kelly wrote: "Skeuos and its equivalents ... were regular Greek terms for 'body', the underlying idea being that the soul is contained in the body".


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