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Friday, March 31, 2006

Sōfrosunē: modesty or good sense?

We have been discussing for some time the rendering of 2 Timothy 2:15. Now, just to confuse everyone (well, not really!), I am bringing up an issue which relates to 1 Timothy 2:15 - an even more controversial verse as it is the one which seems to say that women will be saved by bearing children. But, you will be relieved to hear, I don't intend to get into that controversy here, although this issue has some indirect bearing on it.

Over the last few days, as part of my Bible translation work, I have been looking at the Pastoral Epistles, and have been struggling with the rendering of σωφροσύνη sōfrosunē and related words like σώφρων sōfrōn. σωφροσύνη sōfrosunē is generally understood as meaning something like "good sense, sound judgment". Louw and Nida give an alternative, slightly different sense "moderation, sensibility". But for some reason which is unclear to me, in 1 Timothy 2:9,15 this word is commonly understood as meaning "modesty" (RSV, TEV etc, v.15) or "propriety" (NIV, TNIV). Perhaps this is because it is used of how women should behave, and in v.9 in explicit contrast with expensive clothing. But the regular meaning "good sense, sound judgment" fits very well in both of these verses; a woman with this quality will not waste money on expensive adornment.

In fact in v.9 there are two nouns linked together describing how women should adorn themselves, αἰδώς aidōs and σωφροσύνη sōfrosunē. RSV and NRSV render the phrase "modestly and sensibly" and TEV "modest and sensible", and this is good, for αἰδώς aidōs does mean something like "modesty, decency", and "sensibly" is a good rendering of μετὰ ... σωφροσύνης meta ... sōfrosunēs. The problem in RSV, NRSV and TEV comes in v.15, where μετὰ σωφροσύνης meta sōfrosunēs is rendered "with modesty", as also in NLT, cf. CEV "modest". Why no consistency here? Why not "sensibly" or "with good sense" in v.15? I note that KJV, ERV and ASV are all consistent in using "sobriety" in both verses. So I wonder if this actually started as an accidental error in RSV: someone may have tried to make v.15 consistent with v.9 but misunderstood "modestly" there as rendering σωφροσύνη sōfrosunē rather than αἰδώς aidōs. But, if so, it is an error which has perpetuated itself in TEV, NRSV, CEV and NLT, and has even found its way back into v.9, through NIV and TNIV's consistent rendering "propriety", and JB's consistent "modest".

For once I can report a real improvement in ESV over RSV: this is consistent in having "with modesty and self-control" in v.9 and "with self-control" in v.15. But is "self-control" a meaning of σωφροσύνη sōfrosunē? Not according to Louw and Nida. Nor are RSV, JB, NRSV, TEV, CEV and NLT's "modesty"/"modest" or NIV and TNIV's "propriety". Nor for that matter are JB Phillips' "gravity" or The Message's "maturity"; and whereas the "sobriety" of older versions may originally have had the right meaning, its modern sense of not being drunk is also misleading.

So I find myself in the interesting position that not one of the English Bibles on my shelf can offer an acceptable rendering of this word.

I hope that the Bible in another language which I am working on now will be an improvement, although it was hard to find a suitable word: the one which I am currently suggesting to the translators means something like "prudence", and is related to the adjective already accepted for σώφρων sōfrōn in 1 Timothy 3:2 and elsewhere in the Pastoral Epistles.


At Fri Mar 31, 04:37:00 PM, Blogger Carl W. Conrad said...

In older Greek literature the adjective σώφρων and the noun σωφροσύνη when used with reference to women always meant sexual self-control: chastity. Usage in Euripides' Hippolytus is interesting. I've always wondered whether the author of 1 Timothy could have had that sense in mind in 2:15.

At Fri Mar 31, 07:23:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

The 'episkopoi' in the following chapter also had to be σώφρων,so it seems to have ben applied by Paul to both men and women. Certainly the term does not need to be a sex specific characteristic. A quick glance suggests that the ESV does a good job of this, using self-controlled in both 1 Tim. 2:15 and 1 Tim. 3:2.

At Fri Mar 31, 09:47:00 PM, Blogger lingamish said...

So I find myself in the interesting position that not one of the English Bibles on my shelf can offer an acceptable rendering of this word.

Hmmm, when everyone else comes to a conclusion different from mine I always wonder if maybe they might just be right...

At Sat Apr 01, 12:01:00 AM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

A quick look at some other contexts shows that translators of Aristotle, who is fairly explicit about what he is talking about, have also wrestled with his use of sophrosune; notably in the "Nicomachean Ethics." Their problem is, of course, finding the English word (or words) to convey the right range of meanings, and still show that they are part of the same concept Aristotle has in mind: as against the problem of translating passages from Paul, which are not setting out the philosophically proper way of using Greek.

Among those renderings aimed at a popular or student readership, Hugh Tredennick's 19776 revision of J.A.K. Thomson's translation of the "Ethics" (1953; Penguin Classics, new edition, 2004) uses "temperance," but notes in the glossary that sophrosune is literally "soundness of mind," and that the sense is often "self-control." Martin Ostwald (Library of Liberal Arts, 1962) mostly favored "self-control," suggesting that "temperance" was too limiting. So the ESV has company for its translation.

Ostwald's glossary also endorsed "soundness of mind" as the literal meaning, with the explanation that it "describes the full knowledge of one's limitations in a positive as well a negative sense." Which is not going to be easy to convey in one or two words, even assuming that view would be useful for understanding the Epistle! And "soundness of mind" perhaps suggests these days either a testamentary or a psychiatric context, neither of which quite fits any of the settings.

At Sat Apr 01, 09:56:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

David wrote: "when everyone else comes to a conclusion different from mine I always wonder if maybe they might just be right..." Well, maybe I am not right, but it is not that "everyone else" comes to a single conclusion, for there are at least two very different suggestions, "modesty" and "self-control", not to mention "gravity" and "maturity". The only thing all of these four have in common is that none of them agree with Louw and Nida!

Carol wrote: "the adjective σώφρων and the noun σωφροσύνη when used with reference to women always meant sexual self-control: chastity." And Ian seems to agree. In that case ESV is correct, and RSV etc with "modesty" are not correct - for at least to me "modesty" in such a context implies something very different, women keeping themselves well covered up. But I note that in Titus 2:5 σώφρων sōfrōn is listed separately from ἁγνός hagnos, and as the latter word seems to mean "chaste" this suggests that the former has a rather different meaning, maybe "self-controlled" but not exactly "chaste".

Ian, could you summarise for us what Aristotle has to say about the word, for those of us without easy access to his works, especially in the original?

At Sat Apr 01, 11:49:00 AM, Blogger Ian Myles Slater said...

This really needs (a) an Aristotelian, and (b) a lot more space, but I will try for a reasonable summary, and suggest some of the problems. (And apologize in advance for any inadequacies.)

The Nicomachean Ethics, Book III, Chapters 10-11 [1117a-1119b] has a description of sophrosune as, like courage, a "virtue of our irrational part," specifically "a mean in regard to pleasures." (Note that this is Ostwald's translation; Christopher Rowe, Oxford, 2002, offers "moderation" as an "excellence." The old H. Rackham translation in the Loeb edition, available on the Perseus site, has "Temperance" as the virtue, which is now out of favor as too likely to suggest abstinence from alcohol.)

Aristotle opposes sophrosune to self-indulgence (Rackham's "Profligacy;" *akolasia,* not having been corrected in childhood, according to Sarah Broadie's commentary to the Rowe translation), and further describes it in terms of bodily pleasures and appetites, and not all of these: "for people who find delight in visual objects such as colors, shapes, and pictures are called neither self-controlled nor self-indulgent."

This is reasonably clear, and doesn't present too many difficulties with how the word is used in the rest of the "Ethics." As usual, Aristotle is very concerned with finding the appropriate balance, in order to achieve self-mastery. It is not necessarily evidence for how ordinary Greeks, then or later, would have used the term. And there are problems, at least in the eyes of some of the commentators, in reconciling this description with how Aristotle actually uses the word elsewhere.

At Sat Apr 01, 04:25:00 PM, Blogger Mike Sangrey said...

Could it mean something like controlling the passion one feels about something? From the discussion here that definition appears to fit the contexts listed. Though, perhaps, that's a little too strong.

At Sun Apr 02, 09:47:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thank you, Ian, for your explanation of Aristotle's explanation.

Mike, it does seem to me that "controlling the passion one feels about something" is too strong. For one thing, in many of the verses where the word is used there is no mention in the context of anything specific to feel passions about, e.g. 1 Timothy 3:2, Titus 2:2,5: in such cases the word must refer to general behaviour. The same would seem to apply to 1 Timothy 2:9, for it seems to me that the woman who ignores these instructions is carried away by fashion, not passion! - even if the original idea of the "immodest" clothing was to be sexually attractive. And I think the same must be true of 2:15. This is why I would continue to prefer a rendering more like "good sense" than "self-control".


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