Friday, June 26, 2009

The Greek Word Diakonos in Romans 16:1

The Greek word diakonos is often translated as deacon. It is a New Testament term that refers to leaders or ministers in the local church body. This post is about how the term is translated in Romans 16:1, when it refers to the person of Phoebe.

Here's the NIV translation of diakonos when referring to Phoebe: Romans 16:1 I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church in Cenchrea.

Here' the NIV translation of diakonos elsewhere when referring to a man: 1 Timothy 3:12 A deacon must be faithful to his wife and must manage his children and his household well.

I was curious how different English translations would handle these two passages, given the possible relevance to women in leadership. Here are the results:

Notice that in 1 Tim 3:12 diakonos is always translated as deacon. But in Romans 16:1 when it refers to Phoebe it is frequently translated as servant.

Servant does not at all convey the idea of leadership, while the word deacon does. We can't be certain what Phoebe's role was in the church in Cenchrea, however, I don't believe that the word servant adequately conveys the leadership aspect of her role.

Specifically, I wonder if there is translation bias going on here. The translators who are suspicious of female leadership pick the word "servant". The translators who advocate female leadership pick the word "deacon".

The gender specific translations (ESV, NASB, NKJV) go with servant (which interestingly is also a gender neutral term). The usually more gender neutral translations (NRSV, TNIV, NLT) go with deacon. None go with the female specific term of deaconess, although the NIV and ESV do list that as a footnote alternative (to their credit).


bossmanham said...

Interesting question. Perhaps the translators are trying to reconcile some of the teachings Paul wrote about in 1 Corinthians 11, Titus 1, and in 1 Timothy so as not to make it confusing to the readers?

Kevin Jackson said...

The idea of translators "reconciling" doesn't make me real excited. :) Could be though.

Passion said...

Reconcilation. Hmm... just like how translators added the word "if" in Hebrews 6:6 so that readers won't get confused when reading John 10:28?

Kevin Jackson said...

"If" is a faithful translation for the conditional situation in Hebrews 6. The writer is referring to those who are saved and then fall away. -If- they fall away, they can't be renewed.

In John 10 Jesus is speaking to unbelieving Jews who are demanding that he show them miracles to prove he is the Christ. He says that his true disciples listen to him and follow him instead of demanding proofs and then ignoring them.