In this series of posts, I have been trying to document how modern translations seem to be shy away from references to nakedness unless it is a negative context and/or we associate that nakedness with sin or improper behavior.
The next example doesn’t mention nakedness at all, but it does reference the genitals. Here, the words selected to translate the KJV seem to be very accurate to the original Greek text. However, the newer translations render the text differently, using words that—in my opinion—betray a bias against the genitals being seen. I see no evidence of that sort of squeamishness in the Greek, nor in the KJV.
“Uncomely” Body Parts…
The text is 1 Cor. 12:23-24a and the context is Paul’s instructions to the Corinthian believers about diversity in the “body” of Christ, the church. His illustration using the physical human body declares that there are different roles performed by different body parts, yet all are important and all are needed. In the same way, every believer is a part of the body of Christ, and every one is important and needed.
|Greek||23 καὶ ἃ δοκοῦμεν ἀτιμότερα εἶναι τοῦ σώματος τούτοις τιμὴν περισσοτέραν περιτίθεμεν καὶ τὰ ἀσχήμονα ἡμῶν εὐσχημοσύνην περισσοτέραν ἔχει 24 τὰ δὲ εὐσχήμονα ἡμῶν οὐ χρείαν ἔχει ἀλλ᾽ … |
23 And those members of the body, which we think to be less honourable, upon these we bestow more abundant honour; and our uncomely parts have more abundant comeliness. 24 For our comely parts have no need…
|NASB||23 and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, 24 whereas our more presentable members have no need of it… |
|NIV||23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty, 24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment.|
- This passage is not primarily about human body parts…
To start with, it’s important to note that Paul’s discussion of the body parts is really for the purpose drawing a parallel to the Body of Christ, the church; our view of and response to different body parts and their functions correspond to how we view and respond to different people and their roles in the church. This is an important point to make because it means that however we interpret the physical body parts, we must be able to apply it to people within the body of Christ, or else our interpretation of the physical references will be suspect.
In other words, if we misunderstand Paul’s statements about the human body, we will not correctly understand Paul’s teaching about the church. And if we cannot discern an application that makes sense in the Body of Christ, then it should alert us that our perception of Paul’s words about the physical body is askew.
- Paul is talking about the genitals…
Paul does not actually name the “less honorable” or “uncomely” body parts. However, my take from digging in to the Greek and reading the KJV is that Paul is referencing the genitals. Also, as I read the NASB and NIV, I surmise that they both have reached the same conclusion. Consequently, I’m going to take this for granted for the sake of this article, even though some people may suggest alternative meanings.
- The Greek words used…
We need to examine the Greek words here to start with. I see no dispute over the words in verse 23a translated “honorable,” as all the versions agree. But in verses 23b-24a, there are two other words of interest.
- The words are the same except for the prefix.
- “schemon” (G4976) has to do with form, structure, or design; we get the English words “scheme,” “schema,” and “schematic” from it.
- “a-” is a negative prefix
- “eu-” is a prefix that means “good.”
- Because of the prefixes used, these two words have essentially opposite meanings:
- aschēmōn is “bad form.”
- euschēmōn is “good form.”
- Within this specific context, it seems that the KJV’s rendering of “uncomely” and “comely” is very appropriate, since it is only by the external visual appraisal of human body parts by which we might assess some to be of “good” design and others of a negative or “bad” design.
- The other two translations usage of “presentable” seems also to confirm a consensus that Paul is really talking about the external visible form of the body parts.
- What Paul means…
Now, if I consider the passage in the attempt to understand Paul’s references to these body parts, here’s what I believe it means:
- (vs. 23a) Body parts that we might be tempted to look down upon (dishonor), we instead give great honor to because of their role in our lives.
- Our sexual virility is housed in our genitals, therefore, they are very important to us. Consider how we view them today:
- Think how protective men are of “the family jewels.”
- We even refer to a man’s genitals as his “manhood.”
- Our sexual virility is housed in our genitals, therefore, they are very important to us. Consider how we view them today:
- (vs 23b-24a) There are body parts that are not that “lovely,” yet because of the role they play, we pay special attention to them.
- Human genitals are not very pretty… male or female, but this is not the reality that determines their value to us.
- My wife’s vulva is not visually “attractive” in reference to objective beauty. Yet, because if its role in our sexual relationship, I am very attracted to it and I am delighted to see it (it has more abundant “comeliness”).
- My penis is nothing special to look at. Penises are not pretty. But to my wife, it’s another matter altogether. She’s attracted to it for reasons completely other than how it looks.
- This exactly matches Paul’s teaching about certain body parts and how we respond to them.
- To apply this understanding to the Body of Christ, Paul is saying that there are people in the church that do not necessarily attract the attention and praise of the rest of the church for their obvious gifting and outward ministry involvement, but who perform functions and serve in ways that are indispensible to the health of the body. Consequently, they are honored and appreciated for very different reasons. This is (or should be!) true in the church.
- Are Genitals really “unpresentable”?
When we look at the rendering of aschēmōn in the NASB or the NIV, we read the words “less presentable” or “unpresentable.” But is this a good rendering?
The KJV renders it “uncomely” which implies (in English) that the passage only speaks of how visually appealing the body parts are. However, the English word “unpresentable” adds the idea that this part is something that should be hidden. “Presentable” things we readily put on display; un-presentable things we hide away so no one sees them… we don’t even publicly acknowledge their presence.
I submit to you that this is not implicit in the Greek word aschēmōn.
In other words, I sense that the words “presentable” or “unpresentable” represent—in some measure—a hostility towards nakedness in general, and the genitals in particular. These words introduce a concept of response to the genitals that is not conveyed by the Greek text itself.
- What Paul doesn’t mean…
Some may disagree with my assertion that “presentable” and “unpresentable” are not the meaning in the Greek, and not intended by Paul. The real test, however, is in determining if the NASB or NIV’s renderings actually fit with what Paul was trying to communicate about the Body of Christ.
If Paul were trying to say that there are body parts that are rightly hidden and unfit to be seen, can we also conclude that there are people in the church that are rightly hidden from view? Can it be that their presence in the body should be concealed and their function within the church never publicly acknowledged?
That would be ludicrous to suggest. But is there any palatable way to apply the notion of “unpresentable” members of Christ’s church?
I don’t think there is.
Correctly understood, Paul is actually saying something very positive about the genitals… and—by application—the people in the church whose role and function do not naturally attract attention. Paul would rather that we publicly acknowledge and thank those in the body of Christ who serve in important yet un-celebrated roles. He absolutely is not telling us to hide them.
- Is ugly “unpresentable”?
Some might suggest that the difference between “uncomely” and “unpresentable” is not important… that both indicate that there is a need to keep that body part covered.
But if a body part is ugly—that is, if it is “uncomely”—does that really mean it should be considered “unpresentable”? Should unattractive physical attributes by hidden from view?
The Academic Dean of the Bible College that I attended had a deep red birthmark that covered the left side of his face (middle right). Such a mark is certainly not pretty… but would anyone suggest that he should have worn a mask to hide the deformity as the “phantom” did in Phantom of the Opera (lower right)?
The Academic Dean was a great man and he was highly honored by the school. He never made any effort to cover the birthmarks on his face. We all accepted and honored him exactly as he looked. His value as a man and as a leader had nothing at all to do with the fact that he had an ugly mark on his face.
Ugly Does Not Equal “Unpresentable.”
The Apostle Paul does acknowledge that some body parts are not as pretty as others. But the notion that some body parts must be hidden because they are “unpresentable” is foreign to Paul’s teaching. That is not what he meant and therefore it cannot be how we should understand it.
Without question, this passage should not have been translated that way by the NASB and NIV translators. The use of the words “presentable” and “unpresentable” is in direct conflict with Paul’s teaching about the Body of Christ in 1 Cor. 12.
Squeamishness… (and Subtle Hostility)
By translating aschēmōn as “less/un- presentable” and euschēmōn as “presentable” (or “with special modesty”??), I believe that the NASB and the NIV betray two elements of bias against the human body:
- There is an assumption that certain body parts must be covered at all times. There is a squeamishness over simply talking about the human form unless there is an implication that it really should not be seen fully naked.
- There is a bias particularly against the genitals (What other body parts might be considered “unpresentable”? What part of the human anatomy must be hidden?).
Does the Greek text really justify even a small measure of hostility towards any body part?
Does Paul’s teaching here justify denigrating any member of the Body of Christ?
No body part is “unpresentable,” and neither is any Christian.
The Price of Protecting the Bias…
One of the tragic consequences of the NASB and NIV rendering of this passage is the implication that there are some people in the church that are best hidden. The squeamishness about the human body has resulted in a translation that introduces a foreign concept into the Scriptures, leading to a false application of that Scripture.
In truth, I have never heard anyone expound the application that I suggested above… that some people should be “hidden” in the church. But how else can we make application of this passage to the Body of Christ when we say that certain physical body parts are “unpresentable” and must be hidden?
It is as if they sacrificed the meaning that Paul intended in order to insert an antagonism towards human genitals… making the passage teach something that is actually foreign to Greek text.
As I said at the beginning of this post, Paul’s intent is not to teach about the human body or genitals; he’s teaching about the church. This body-part analogy is core to what Paul is trying to teach… we can’t just ignore the implications of our understanding of the physical when applying the truth to the ecclesiastical. If our understanding of first element of the analogy is incorrect, it will lead to a false application to the second element. The “squeamish” rendering leads to that false application… therefore, it must be incorrect.
Thankfully (once again), the KJV demonstrates both an accurate rendering of the Greek, and a willingness for us to read it in English precisely (or as precisely as possible…) as it was given by God in the Greek.
— Matthew Neal
Squeamish Translating (PDF of the entire series)