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Πίστει καὶ αὐτὴ Σάρρα δύναμιν εἰς καταβολὴν σπέρματος ἔλαβεν καὶ παρὰ καιρὸν ἡλικίας, ἐπεὶ πιστὸν ἡγήσατο τὸν ἐπαγγειλάμενον (Hebrews 11:11, Westcott and Hort)

The traditional translation of Hebrews 11:11 implies that it was (at least partially) Sarah's faith that allowed her to conceive. For example ESV:

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

However, I came across an argument that it is more likely Abraham's faith is in view of the writer. The crux of the argument, I think, is that δύναμιν εἰς καταβολὴν σπέρματος ἔλαβεν (roughly "received power to conceive/deposit seed") more naturally refers to the male role of reproduction than the female role.

The NIV footnotes offer a not-very-literal translation that captures this alternative understanding:

By faith Abraham, even though he was too old to have children—and Sarah herself was not able to conceive—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise

Likewise the NET Bible has:

By faith, even though Sarah herself was barren and he was too old, he received the ability to procreate, because he regarded the one who had given the promise to be trustworthy.

There is a significant textual variant,

Πίστει καὶ αὐτὴ Σάρρα στεῖρα δύναμιν εἰς καταβολὴν σπέρματος ἔλαβεν καὶ παρὰ καιρὸν ἡλικίας, ἐπεὶ πιστὸν ἡγήσατο τὸν ἐπαγγειλάμενον

listed in NA27 and elevated to the main reading in NA28 that might lend support to the alternate understanding. Textus Receptus (Stephanus) has a ἔτεκεν after ἡλικίας, which probably does not affect much.

What is the original reading and whose faith is more likely to be in view of the author? Is there any evidence about which sex a phrase like δύναμιν εἰς καταβολὴν σπέρματος ἔλαβεν would be more refer to in period writing? How likely is it that the writer of Hebrews would attribute a miracle to Sarah's faith based on the rest of the letter, the Genesis account, and the culture in which he wrote?

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John Chrysostom - a 4th century Byzantine Greek reading in Greek and commenting in Greek - attributes the faith discussed in the verse to Sarah herself:

"By faith also Sarah herself," he says. Here he began [speaking] in a way to put them to shame, in case, that is, they should themselves more faint-hearted than a woman. But possibly some one might say, How “by faith,” when she laughed? Nay, while her laughter indeed was from unbelief, her fear [was] from Faith, for to say, “I laughed not” (Gen. xviii. 15), arose from Faith. From this then it appears that when unbelief had been cleared out, Faith came in its place.

Homily XXIII on the Epistle to the Hebrews

It would also seem odd for Sarah's account to be placed where it is unless the verse referred specifically to her faith and not Abraham's. Chapter 11 consists of a list of Old Testament personages who accomplished various things:

  • Through faith [Πίστει] Abel ... (v. 4)
  • Through faith [Πίστει] Enoch ... (v. 5)
  • Through faith [Πίστει] Noah ... (v. 7)
  • Through faith [Πίστει] Abraham ... (v. 8)
  • Through faith [Πίστει] Noah ... (v. 7)
  • Through faith [Πίστει] Sarah ... (v. 11)
  • Through faith [Πίστει] Isaac ... (v. 20)
  • Through faith [Πίστει] Jacob ... (v. 21)
  • Through faith [Πίστει] Joseph ... (v. 22)
  • Through faith [Πίστει] the harlot Rahab ... (v. 31)

It would seem odd if Sarah would be the sole exception in this list in that what she accomplishes is not through her own faith, but someone else's - especially given the inclusion of Rahab in the list.

A modern commentator, the late American Orthodox bishop Dmitry Royster, writes:

Her faith in God's promise, even though it was the result of later reflection, was more consistent with her spiritual state and earns her a place in a list of Old Testament faithful. She is cited among those barren women, whose miraculous birth-giving intervention, and whose offspring played a prominent role in the history of salvation.

The Epistle to the Hebrews: A Commentary, p. 183

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It seems to be Sarah's faith in the Lord's promise.

"By faith Sarah herself (αὐτὴ Σάρρα) received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised (πιστὸν ἡγήσατο τὸν ἐπαγγειλάμενον)." (Heb 11:11)

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    The point is that “[she] received power to conceive” could mean instead “[he] received power to procreate” (relegating αὐτὴ Σάρρα to a dependent clause - the text variant mentioned in the Q helps this along), and “considered” could also refer to Abraham rather than Sarah, since the finite verbs (ἔλαβεν / ἡγήσατο) aren’t marked for gender. You haven’t really provided any argumentation one way or the other. – Susan Nov 4 '15 at 11:16
  • Some Divine gynecology focused on Sarah's ability to conceive would have been needed in addition to Abraham's 'power to procreate'. "Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. (Gen 18:11) – Geoff Bull Nov 5 '15 at 3:20

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