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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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5 Answers 5

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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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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?

The Greek reading and meaning of Heb 11:11 is unambiguous and clear. I have difficulty finding the reasons why certain "translations" (NET, NIV, HCSB etc) find the verse difficult and translate Sarah as Abraham, or simply insert Abraham out of the blue in the sentence clearly written about Sarah. You should just add this to the list of various bad translation examples, if you have a list. The phrase "power to conceive seed" applies to the Σάρρα στεῖρα barren Sarah alone. I can only speculate the reasons for their bizarre translations as to why they translate a female as male. Perhaps, they are influenced by the modern American convention of men being pregnant, or some similar anti-gender studies they received in their universities which led them to interpret that Sarah shouldn't be the referent of the honorary mention in the list of men, although another female Rehab, is mentioned. The word στεῖρα (sterile) barren is unlikely to be used for men, but in the modern anti-gender convention of certain cultures, it is perfectly alright to interpret otherwise.

The writer of Hebrews would definitely and accurately attribute Sarah's faith to the miraculous conception, given the list which separately mentions Abraham twice, and another woman once. There is hardly a miracle if an old man becomes a father in old age, since men produce capable sperms during old age, only the sperm quality degrades over time. According to Guinness World Records, the oldest man to father a child was Les Colley from Australia, who had his ninth child at the age of 92 years and 10 months. However, there are other claims of older fathers, such as Ramjit Raghav from India, who fathered his second son at the age of 96. But, it is a miracle if a very old woman past her menopause to conceive.

If by referring to the Genesis account, you mean that it presents Sarah as unfaithful or weak in faith, it is rather a weak interpretation, cf. Luke 1:34 "Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, seeing I am a virgin?"

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  • While I share your distrust of the translation, I think it highly unlikely that the translators were significantly influenced by recent insane ideas about gender.
    – WGroleau
    Dec 15, 2023 at 19:20
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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, 2015 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, 2015 at 3:20
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I think the confusion that is found is because of not translating katabole=2602 correctly, which is strangely translated conceive in the passage under consideration. There seems to be a consensus that has been emerging that this word has the meaning of overthrow, a casting down, seen in its use in the Septuagint and has the same meaning in the new testament in regards to its use with the kosmos. Whether by Abraham or Sarah, it was by faith that her physical incapability was cast down and she was able to bare, believing God would keep His promise Rom. 4

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    – agarza
    Jan 30, 2023 at 5:29
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In short, there is no provable answer to your question.

But there are the two issues you bring up:

  • Textual Critical
  • Exegetical

Philip Comfort brings up both the issues in his commentary:

Hebrews 11:11  

NU Πίστει καὶ αὐτὴ Σάρρα στεῖρα δύναμιν εἰς καταβολὴν σπέρματος ἔλαβεν καὶ παρὰ καιρὸν ἡλικίας “by faith he (Abraham), even though past age—and Sarah herself was barren—received power to beget” [see also translation in commentary below] 𝔓 D Ψ it NRSV NIV TNIVmg NAB NLT HCSBmg NET

variant 1/TR WH Πιστει και αυτη Σαρρα δυναμιν εις καταβολην σπερματος ελαβεν και παρα καιρον ηλικιας “by faith even Sarah herself, though past age, received power to conceive [from] a seed” 𝔓 ℵ A D 33 Maj KJV NKJV RSV NRSVmg ESV NASB TNIV NEB REB NJB HCSB NETmg

variant 2 Πιστει και αυτη Σαρρα η στειρα δυναμιν εις καταβολην σπερματος ελαβεν και παρα καιρον ηλικιας “by faith even Sarah herself, the barren one, received power to conceive [from] a seed, though past age” D 81 1739 1881 none

This verse is fraught with grammatical and textual difficulties. The first problem pertains to who is the subject of ελαβεν (“received”)—Abraham or Sarah? When we consider that the wording καταβολην σπερματος is a Hellenistic idiom for the male act of procreation (literally “putting down sperm”), it does not fit that Sarah would be the subject. However, it hardly makes sense to exclude Sarah from being the subject, because the verse mentions her by name and speaks of her sterility. Thus, there are two ways to include both Sarah and Abraham as subjects of this verse: (1) “by faith he [Abraham], even though past age—and Sarah herself was barren—received power to beget,” and (2) “by faith he [Abraham] also, together with barren Sarah, received power to beget, even though past age.” The first rendering considers the words και αυτη Σαρρα στειρα to be a Hebraic circumstantial clause, allowing for Abraham to be the subject. The second rendering considers this phrase to be a dative of accompaniment (TCGNT). The first variant is probably the result of scribal error—due to homoeoteleuton: σαρρα στειρα. But if στειρα was purposely omitted, it may have been done in the interest of avoiding redundancy, inasmuch as “barrenness” is tantamount to “being past age.” This variant appears in the majority of manuscripts and in TR; hence, it is followed by KJV and NKJV. It appears that many other modern versions have also followed this reading. However, translators could have followed one reading or the other and still have needed to make a decision about who is the subject of the sentence—Abraham or Sarah or both.

<Philip W. Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary, Accordance electronic ed. (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008), 713.>

The first two readings are the most reliable. But either of them doesn't change the meaning of the text. So that leads us to talk about the exegesis.

If one takes "Ⲡⲓⲥⲧⲉⲓⲕⲁⲓⲁⲩⲧⲏⲥⲁⲣⲣⲁ" as a nominative, then there could be room (exegetically) for Sarah to be the subject.

But, unlike the versions we have now, the words weren't pointed (with accents) in the primary manuscripts. Much later punctuation was added. So,"ⲁⲩⲧⲏⲥⲁⲣⲣⲁ" could be either...or...

  • αὐτὴ σάρρα (nominative)
  • αὐτῇ Σάρρᾳ (dative)

BDF highlights this:

  1. Associative dative with adjectives and adverbs.

(1) Adjectives of identity etc.: ὅμοιος often (with genitive? §182(4)), ὁ αὐτός only 1 C 11:5 ἓν καὶ τὸ αὐτό. Ἴσος Mt 20:12 etc. In addition circumlocutions: ἴσος ὡς καί A 11:17, cf. in a quotation R 9:29 ὡς Γόμορρα ἄν ώμοιώθημεν; ὁ αὐτὸς καθὼς καί 1 Th 2:14. H 11:11 αὐτῇ Σάρρᾳ ‘(Abraham) together with Sarah’ in classical style, as Westcott-Hort well conjecture in their margin and Riggenbach in his commentary in loc., for αὐτὴ Σάρρα which is hardly explicable.

<F. Blass, A. Debrunner, and Robert W. Funk, A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Accordance electronic ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1961), paragraph 5.>

In short: with either variant the text is solid. How you punctuate the words changes the direction you go in your exegesis. But neither of these paths is proven since the original manuscripts did not contain accents (other than dieresis).

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