Last week at General Conference, President Burton delivered a talk titled “Certain Women.”
She began by referencing two passages in Luke: 8:1-3 (which refers to “certain women” who ministered to Jesus) and then 24:22-23 (which concerns “certain women” who went to Jesus’ tomb). She then says:
I have read and passed over the seemingly unremarkable expression “certain women” numerous times before, but recently as I pondered more carefully, those words seemed to jump off the page. Consider these synonyms of one meaning of the word certain as connected to faithful, certain women: “convinced,” “positive,” “confident,” “firm,” “definite,” “assured,” and “dependable.”
Then there is a footnote to that paragraph:
In English the word certain has a second meaning of “a selection of” or “a variety of.” But it is the meaning of assurance, confidence, and faithfulness that I most wish to emphasize today.
The Greek word translated as “certain” in these two passages is the indefinite pronoun, so the meaning is “some,” which is how virtually all modern translations translate it. In the New Testament, the word does not have any connotation of being sure/confident. See, for example, Luke 7:36 or 8:49, where it is translated as “one.” Sometimes the connotation is rather negative, as with the “certain men” in Jude 1:4.
It’s hard to know what precisely President Burton had in mind: the speech itself implies that “convinced” is a synonym for “certain” in this context, although it also suggests that they are synonyms for just “one meaning” of the word. The footnote seems to back off from the claim of the talk, but is itself somewhat problematic in that the issue isn’t what the English word means; it is what the Greek word meant. And in Greek, this word doesn’t have “a selection of” as a secondary meaning–it has it as the only meaning. Had she more clearly signaled that the text itself has nothing to do with the idea of “certain [=sure] women” and that she was just sort of riffing on the language and using it as a springboard, that would be one thing. But I don’t think that is what the talk or footnote does here. And, speaking anecdotally, that isn’t how at least some members of the audience interpreted it.
Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Straining at gnats? Whining like only a grammar snob can whine? Maybe. But there are three reasons that I am bothering to write about this:
- President Burton uses these passages as a launchpad to talk about women who were certain (=sure) of their testimony. But these passages don’t do that. I worry that women (and men) today might think that they need to be certain (=sure) in order to be disciples, but that isn’t a message that you find in the scriptures. Actually, the message of the scriptures is precisely the opposite (see, e.g., Mark 8:33 and 9:24).
- I don’t want to live in a world where the scriptures can mean anything I want them to mean. I think they mean something, and I don’t think we are at liberty to disregard that meaning or advocate for other meanings. In English, words like “cleave” and “sanction” each have two (opposite!) meanings. When those words appear in the scriptures, we aren’t free to pick whichever meaning we prefer: we need to look at the underlying language (where possible) and the context and determine which meaning the author intended.
- Inasmuch as her talk can be interpreted as describing a spiritual impression (“recently as I pondered more carefully, those words seemed to jump off the page”), the inaccuracy of her usage will undermine her credibility and perhaps raise disturbing questions for those who are already struggling.
I don’t wish to pick on President Burton personally. She delivered a phenomenal, woman-focused talk, and mostly used the “certain” thing just as a frame to allow a variety of material to cohere well. Her substance is good; I would like to see more talks like this. And it is not her fault personally, but rather a systemic one, that we do not have in the church a mechanism to vet talks for issues such as this, nor any training in using the kinds of tools and techniques which would have permitted her to check it herself. Which is really a shame, because the tools are out there and they are easy to use. A website such as this one will allow you to do everything you need without any specialized training: just click on any word in the KJV and you can (1) see a basic definition of it, (2) see what part of speech it is, (3) see what other contexts it is used in and (4) see how the underlying word is translated in other places where it occurs.