How can we identify husbands and wives in Greek?

The Claim

Egalitarians sometimes claim that the Greek words γυνή and άνήρ in 1 Corinthians 11 refer to wives (γυνή), and husbands (άνήρ).

The Facts

The scholarly consensus is against the reading ‘husband and wife’ in 1 Corinthians 11:

A few commentators defend husband, but the overwhelming majority of writers convincingly argue that the issue concerns gender relations as a whole, not simply those within the more restricted family circle.’[1]

The majority of lexicons, commentaries, and translations understand the relation referred to as man/woman, rather than husband/wife:

‘a. γυνή (LN 9.34, 10.54) (BAGD 1. p. 168): ‘woman’ [AB, BAGD, Herm, HNTC, ICC, LN (9.34), Lns, NIGTC, NTC; all versions except NRSV, TEV], ‘his wife’ [NRSV, TEV], ‘wife’ [LN (10.54)].

b.           ἀνήρ (LN 9.24, 10.53) (BAGD 1. p. 66): ‘man’ [AB, BAGD, Herm, HNTC, LN (9.24), Lns, NIGTC, NTC; CEV, ISV, KJV, NET, NIV, NJB, REB, TNT], ‘husband’ [ICC, LN (10.53); NAB, NLT, NRSV, TEV].

QUESTION—What is meant by γυνή ‘woman/wife’ and άνήρ ‘man/husband’?

1. The relationship between woman and man in general is in focus here [AB, Herm, Lns, MNTC, NIC, NIC2, TG, TNTC, Vn]: the head of woman is man. Marriage is not in focus, but the makeup of a community and the nature of man and woman as such [Herm]. The relation of man and woman in the Christian assembly is being referred to here, not marriage [Vn]. Unmarried women should cover their heads also [TNTC].

2. The relationship between wife and husband is in focus [Gdt, ICC, NTC, TH; NAB, NLT, NRSV, TEV]: the head of a wife is her husband.’[2]

‘In order to keep the implications of Paul’s argument clear, it is crucial to translate the pairing man/woman (νήρ/γυνή, anēr/gynē) consistently in this particular rhetorical section.

Accordingly, not only is it poor translation technique, but it also confuses the historical issues at Corinth to vacillate between man-woman and husband-wife in this section, or to interpret this section through the situation addressed in Eph 5:21ff where marriage is clearly meant.’[3]

‘This use of head does not likely refer metaphorically to the woman’s husband as Kistemaker25 and Gill26 believe since in this section anēr refers to man and not to a husband.’[4]

Thus ‘man’ and ‘woman’ are in the majority of standard translations; CEV, HCSB, ISV, NASB95, NCV, NET, NIRV, NIV, NLT, TLB, and TNIV. The ESV, GNT/TEV, Message, and NAB have ‘husband’ and ‘wife’ in verse 3, but translate ‘man’ and ‘woman’ throughout the rest of the passage (the ESV and Message also have ‘wife’ in verses 5 and 6).

How Do We Tell?

1.    Genitive case constructions, “of”.

Greek words decline. gyne – woman, gynaikos, woman-of

This is the most simple, since a genitive case, by definition, indicates possession.

*   Spanish : “Sara, la mujer de Abraham”

*   “Woman of [genitive] one man” (in the widow’s welfare list qualifications)

*   “Man of [genitive] one woman” (μιᾶς γυναικὸς ἄνδρες, in the elders’ and deacons’ qualifications)

  1. 2.       Marking with possessive pronouns, “her” “his” “thy” “your” “their”.

Matt 1:20 Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy woman. ~ Matt 1:20 Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy woman:

*   Greek : Mariam ten gunaika sou – Μαριὰμ τὴν γυναῖκά σου –

*   Spanish : María tu mujer – Mary thy woman

*   this example has been chosen to show that the same works with what we would call ‘fiancée’ or ‘wife to be’

*   Greek 5:24 αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς δοις ἀνδράσιν

  1. 3.       Marking with the reflexive possive, ‘eautos, of self, of him/herself.

This can be attached to either “women” or to “men” (only one idios, own is enough for both). Eph 5:24 Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the women [=wives] be to their own men [=husbands] in every thing.

4.    Contextual marking.

Contextual marking is the most difficult. And the default position should be that if there is no clear and demonstrable contextual marking then “woman” “man” as gender categories is meant.

For example in 1Tim 3:11 “Even so must the women be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things.” there is no marker so the default position here should be that “women” means “women” (Spanish las mujeres) not “wives” (Spanish sus mujeres)

* However in this particular example most English versions still translate “wives” because of a series of contextual markers:

(i.) 1Ti 3:8 the deacons be grave… 11 the women be grave = duplication of the adjective “grave”.

(ii.) 1Ti 3:11 the women in the same way [wsautws ὡσαύτως] = use of “in the same way” indicating a comparative connection to deacons.

(iii) 3:12a Let the deacons be the husbands of one wife, = a genitive construction.

(iv.) 3:12b ruling children [no “their own”] children and their own [idios] houses well = a possessive adjective applied to house (oikos i.e. family)

(v.) common sense = beyond these rules a certain amount of common sense also comes into play. For example even if “children” did not have “own house” following, it would still be clear that a deacon does not rule all children.

But then also ‘common sense’ can be wrong – in another context it might be talking about the Sunday School Superintendent where it’s clear he does not only rule his own, idios, children.

So, basically, if the ESV committee (or another responsible mainstream Bible) puts “wife” or “woman”, “man” or “husband”, it’s not by any means a random decision, it also probably isn’t a matter of opinion.

In the vast majority of cases it’s clear cut according to the 5 syntax rules above, and all versions agree. There may be one or two places in the NT where it is debatable.’[5]


[1] Thiselton, ‘The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A commentary on the Greek text’, p. 822 (2000).

[2] Trail, ‘An Exegetical Summary of 1 Corinthians 10-16’, p. 59 (2008)

[3] Oster, ‘1 Corinthians’, p. 249, (1995).

[4] Ibid., p. 255.

[5] Steven Cox (2009).

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