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Monday, 27 April 2009

In Hebrews 11:11, who got the power--Abraham or Sarah?

One more post on the TNIV, and then I think I'm done for another few months. Actually, as I looked into this verse, I found it to be a fascinating study of translation theory, in which the TNIV plays but a part. What makes this verse so interesting is that there are two textual variant units, each consisting of the inclusion or omission of a single word. The general--but by no means exclusive--tendency is for any given manuscript--any given version--and any given alternate within a version--to omit one and include the other, and this is reflected in the majority readings of the Greek and Latin manuscripts respectively.

There are nine discrete elements in the Greek text/s of this verse that can be broken down and listed by letter, as translated into English.

A) By faith
B) also,/, even
C) Sarah herself (several translations merge 'herself' into B)
D) barren, [variant unit 1] ('herself' is always attached, and 'being' supplied, when 'barren' is present)
E) received power to conceive [literally 'lay down'] seed
F) even/(translated as ',and,' when variant unit 2 is present, and often as 'when' when it isn't)
G) beyond the time of age,
H) gave birth, [variant unit 2]
I) because s/he considered the one having promised to be faithful.

Notice that of the two textual variants, either inclusion is awkward to the sense, and often requires an entire phrase rather than a single word or clause to translate it.

The least awkward rendition would include both variants, which I do here, showing all nine elements of the text apparently for the first time in the 600 year history of Bible translation into the English language:

"[By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called] . . . . By faith also, Sarah--herself barren--received power to conceive seed, and, beyond the time of age, bore a child--because she considered faithful the one who had promised.

Edited to add: No, I wasn't the first after all (whew). James Murdock in 1852, although in a slightly different order, gave the following rendition of the Western Peshitta:

"By faith, Sarah also, who was barren, acquired energy to receive seed; and, out of the time of her years, she brought forth; because she firmly believed, that he was faithful who had promised her."

I give a wide variety of translations here, to show that they all fall into several different patterns based on textual preference and translation style. Let's start with the earliest one, from the perspective of English translations:

Wycliffe (ABCDEFGI):
By faith also that Sara barren, took virtue in conceiving of seed, yea, against the time of age; for she believed him true, that had promised.

Here we see that Wycliffe's Latin text differed in a couple of places from the Greek text which existed in his day: the inclusion of 'barren' as a modifier of 'Sarah' (with 'that' for the usual 'herself'), and the omission of 'bore a child' as the secondary predicate.

Tyndale (ACBEHFGI):
Thorow fayth Sara also receaved stregth to be with chylde and was delivered of a chylde when she was past age because she iudged him faythfull which had promysed.

Tyndale, following the Greek rather than the Latin text, generates a unique pattern when he carelessly omits the word ‘herself’ in transposing ‘Sarah’ and ‘also’, which lie on either side of it in the Greek text.

Rheims (ABCDEFGI):
By faith also Sara herself, being barren, received strength to conceive seed, even past the time of age: because she believed that he was faithful who had promised.

Rheims pretty much follows Wycliffe, being from the same Vulgate text--but isn't as literal.

Through faith also Sara herself received strength to conceive seed, and was delivered of a child when she was past age, because she judged him faithful who had promised.

The KJV remedies Tyndale's omission, but both translations have to transpose later elements of the text in order to fit in the part about her giving birth. In this rendition, the Greek word kai is translated as ‘, and’. Indeed, this is the only way to make sense of the majority Greek text.

By faith Sarah herself also received strength to conceive seed, and /she bore a child/ [NU-Text omits] when she was past the age, because she judged Him faithful who had promised.

I'm not sure where they get "the age" from; it's a common replacement for "the time of age." But there's a problem with the idea of a woman "conceiving seed." It's neither scientifically accurate, nor does it appear to reflect the prevailing idea in Wycliffe's, Jerome's, or even Paul's day.

Darby (ABCEFGI):
By faith also Sarah herself received strength for the conception of seed, and that beyond a seasonable age; since she counted him faithful who promised.

Darby, who is the only one so far to follow the Greek order, is also the first to leave out both variant units. Not only does he continue the custom of leaving out 'barren', but, following evidence compiled by his friend Samuel Tregelles, he also drops 'bore a child' as a spurious interpolation. This was the first step in admitting the idea that Abraham could be the subject of "received," rather than Sarah.

Westcott and Hort conjectured the reading (ABCEFGI):
Through faith, and by Sara herself, he received strength to establish seed when he was past age, because he judged him faithful who promised.

This reading (adding iota subscripts to 'herself' and 'Sarah'), found in no manuscript, apparently never made it into the text of any version--but observe the influence it had on the Revision in which they were key participants, the ERV.

By faith even Sarah herself received power to conceive seed when she was past age, since she counted him faithful who had promised.

The ERV was more or less contemporaneous with Darby. Note, though, how the 'she's' limit the interpretation to Sarah, even without the inclusion of 'bore a child'.

By faith even Sarah herself received ability to conceive [Lit. power for the laying down of seed], even beyond the proper time of life, since she considered Him faithful who had promised.

Although Westcott & Hort's order is still being followed, note the Foundation's discomfort with the combination of literally rendering 'laying down of seed' and Sarah as subject. The time was getting ripe for a full switch to Abraham.

By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he [/By faith even Sarah, who was past age, was enabled to bear children because she] considered him faithful who had made the promise.

The CBT finally made the break in 1973, relegating Sarah's faith to a footnote with the addition of the textual variant 'barren', as recently added to the United Bible Society's Greek Text (NA26).

The Holman Christian Standard Bible reversed the trend, sending Abraham down to the footnote and bringing Sarah back up.

By faith even Sarah herself, when she was barren, received power to conceive offspring, even though she was past the age, since she [/By faith Abraham, even though he was past age--and Sarah herself was barren--received the ability to procreate since he] considered that the One who had promised was faithful.

The Revised Standard Version did away with the footnote, and the English Standard Version left the RSV unchanged. New scholarship at work? No, we've not made any progress since Darby, 100 years earlier. Sarah's barrenness has disappeared!

By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.

As in the CEV, where, despite a third of the Greek elements being missing, that pesky TR variant is back with a vengeance, at least in translation!

Even when Sarah was too old to have children, she had faith that God would do what he had promised, and she had a son.

The trend has taken on, though. The New Living Translation, still a paraphrase, keeps Abraham in the footnote, but gives him the ability to bear the child!

It was by faith that even Sarah [/that he] was able to have a child, though she [/Sarah] was barren and [/and he] was too old. She [/He] believed that God would keep his promise.

The gender-sensitive NRSV reverses the RSV, but cautiously: Abraham himself is not named, and the footnote leaves an out, where we see the first mention in almost 400 years of a barren Sarah receiving power to conceive.

By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old—and Sarah herself was barren—because he considered him faithful who had promised.

By faith Sarah herself, though barren, received power to conceive, even when she was too old, because she considered him faithful who had promised.

Ah, now we come to that most recent product of the CBT, the Today's New International Version.

And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, [/By faith Abraham, even though he was too old to have children—and Sarah herself was not able to conceive—]was enabled to bear children because she [/was enabled to become a father because he] considered him faithful who had made the promise.

Yep, they reversed themselves to follow the latest trend. Sarah's barrenness, though, only comes through in the footnote's version. And 'bore a child' makes it back into the text, but not apparently as a direct translation of the Greek variant. Note that the mutually exclusive use of two different textual variants serve to change the subject from Sarah to Abraham and back, even though both of them clearly modify Sarah!

So, why did the CBT reverse itself--was it part of a desire to 'give Sarah balls', to put it in a vulgar expression common among Today's Young People, which would no doubt nonetheless be translated by the CBT as "instill courage?" Or was it only to capitalize on a trend of which no one knows how or why it started?

I can't say. But there's a deeper question here. In an earlier post, I showed that it was nothing uncommon for a man in Abraham's day to become a father after the age of 100--but quite unknown for a woman to have her first baby at the age of 90. So the question arises, was it only Sarah, or also Abraham, who was supernaturally enabled to become a parent? Countless sermon illustrations depend upon the answer; but the present confusion among expert translators does little to settle the question.


Going back a bit, it turns out that Ken Barker addressed this verse in his NIV defense piece, Accuracy Defined (IBS, 1995). He writes:

"[F.F] Bruce [Hebrews Commentary] points out that the major problem is that the Greek phrase for "to conceive seed' (KVJ) does not mean that. Instead, it refers to the father's role in the generative process. A literal translation would be 'for depositing sperm,' thus more likely referring to Abraham."
For whatever reason, Barker & Co. decided not to go with Bruce in these latest two revisions--the NNIV is unchanged.


I've moderated a bit in my criticism of the CBT since I wrote this post three years ago. For one thing, other translation teams have done even worse. For another, I've come to appreciate a little of the tension they were under to be modern, but not too modern. I'll admit that the text itself is problematic, even before it is translated: the context is Abraham's faith despite his feebleness, and yet Sarah's feebleness is also specifically mentioned, regardless of the textual variation.  So it appears that they both got the power--and the only remaining question is whether this power came strictly by Abraham's faith, or by Sarah's too. Obviously, the gender-sensitive approach of the CBT durst not give Sarah any less than her full due.

By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

Speaking of textual variation, though, the Good News Testament (© 1992 ABS), in footnoting the verse for the 4th edition of the TEV, blames the Abraham vs Sarah confusion on the varying manuscripts!

Today's English Version (First edition, 1966, GNFMM)
It was faith that made Abraham able to become a father, even though he was too old and Sarah herself could not have children. He trusted God to keep his promise.

Today's English Version (Fourth edition, 1976, GNT) marginal reading:
It was faith that made Sarah herself able to conceive, even though she was too old to have children. She[a] trusted God to keep his promise.

[a]It was faith ... children. He; some manuscripts have It was faith that made Sarah herself able to conceive, even though she was too old to have children. She


  1. Hi, interesting discussion.

    You have a section ... "Westcott and Hort conjectured the reading ..." yet it does not match Westcott's own text and translation:

    Epistle to the Hebrews

    Now I realize that Westcott and Hort are not always consistent, could you look at the two and compare ?


    Steven Avery

  2. It's the marginal reading in W & H. Their commentary only has the text.

    W & H marginal readings are rarely cited in TC discussions; Michael Marlowe is a notable exception.


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