Hebrews 11:11 - "By Faith Sarah Received Ability"

In the Spring 1999 issue of the Asbury Theological Journal, J. Harold Greenlee writes an article titled Hebrews 11:11 - "By Faith Sarah Received Ability" in which he forcefully argues that the only correct interpretation of Hebrews 11:11 is that Sarah is the subject of the sentence, not Abraham (surrounding passages have Abraham as the subject). However, he somehow ignores all of the ancient and modern writings (such as Van der Horst's) that supported the idea of females having sperm, and thus wrongly concludes that the meaning of the sentence is that Sarah is receiving the power to receive Abraham's sperm. We will assume that his excellent linguistic analysis is not undermined by his lousy historical analysis.

Hebrews 11:11 - "By Faith Sarah Received Ability"
J. Harold Greenlee
The Asbury Theological Journal, Spring 1999
[PAGE 67]

(Note: the works referred to by the author in this article, and the English Bible translations mentioned, are identified in the bibliography at the end of the article. References are to their discussion or translation of this verse unless otherwise noted.)

πιστει και αντη Σαρρα στειρα δυναμιν εις καταβολην σπερματος ελαβεν και παρα καιρον ηλικιας

The purpose of this article is to show that the subject of Hebrews 11:11 is Sarah, not Abraham. I am confident, moreover, that the assumed need to make Abraham the subject is largely due to a misunderstanding of one phrase in this verse.

Someone reading the first part of Hebrews 11:11, πιστει και αντη Σαρρα ... δυναμιν ... ελαβεν, for the first time, either in this shorter form or with the additions στειρα 'barren', η στειρα 'the barren one', or στειρα ουσα 'being barren', following 'Sarah' would surely have no reason to interpret it as anything other than "By faith Sarah herself also received ability ...". The difficultly lies later in the verse.

We do, however, need to deal with these alternate readings, since they are significant. Indeed, GNT reads ... Σαρρα στειρα ... Sarah barren ... although with a "C" decision, indicating that "the Committee had difficulty in deciding which variant to place in the text".

As for internal evidence, it is an accepted principle that scribes were more likely to add a word or words intentionally, but to omit unintentionally. Metzger suggests that the majority of the GNT committee nevertheless considered 'barren' to be original but was ommitted accidentally by similarlity in appearance to the immediately preceding 'Sarah' written in uncial letters. However, these two words in uncial letters do not appear to be sufficiently similar to make such omission by homoioteleuton likely. I submit, rather, that it is far more likely that the original text read 'Sarah' alone, and that scribes not surprisingly made intentional additions in order to include Sarah's situation: 'Sarah barren', 'Sarah the barren one', and 'Sarah being barren'. Turning to external manuscript evidence, the textual apparatus of GNT and of Aland indicate, I am confident, that the support for 'Sarah' alone is as strong as, and probably stronger than, the support for the addition of 'barren', 'the barren one' and 'being barren' combined. In thus reading 'Sarah' alone I am in agreement with Alford, Bloomfield, Dods, Montefiore, Moffatt, Lunemann, Westcott and the KJV, NAB, NASB, NJB and REB. On the other hand, 'Sarah barren', or 'Sarah being barren' (it is not possible to determine with certainty which of these two readings some follow) is read by Miller, Bruce, Ellingworth Nida, Lane and the GNT, NIV, NRSV, TEV, TNT.

I am confident, then, that both internal and external evidence support the shorter reading. To anticipate a point to be discussed later, if the original text does not include στειρα in some form, the whole case for making this phrase a subordinate circumstantial or concessional phrase collapses, of course, and the verse can only be read, "By faith Sarah herself received ability".

It is true that the subject of verses 8, 10 and again in verse 12 is Abraham. How, then, is the change of subject to Sarah in verse 11 justified? The words και αντη 'herself also' are linguistically significant. They are doubtless emphatic, as Moll, Lunemann and Ellingworth Nida agree, both by their position and by the words themselves. According to Alford, these words indicate a transition to a new subject, with prominence. Moffat thinks they refer to Sarah's physical condition. According to Bloomfield, Dods, Hewitt, Moll, Lunemann, Bruce and Westcott they indicate a contrast with Sarah's former unbelief. Each of these interpretations has something to commend it. This is the only example of the persons of faith in this chapter who is introduced by such a phrase. If και has the sense of 'also' (which I believe is preferable) it presents Sarah as a special instance in addition to Abraham, not merely one more in the list of heroes. If it means 'even' it may reinforce the emphatic sense of αντη 'herself'. In any case, αντη 'herself' may well imply a contrast with her initial unbelief and also refer to her physical condition.

Note: at this point, Greenlee's article goes on to discuss the very troubling "conceive" phrase: εις καταβολην σπερματος, which in the end he argues refers to Sarah being able to conceive by receiving Abraham's seed, and not Sarah receiving the power to conceive seed. But his argument ignores all of the ancient Greek science and early versions of Bible that assumed that women had sperm. Instead, Greenlee has to make much more untenable assumptions about what the original writer of Hebrews meant. How Greenlee was able to write this article in 1999 without referring to Horst's 1990 article is impossible to understand.

In summary, then, I maintain that both internal and external evidence support the shorter text: και αντη Σαρρα 'Sarah herself also' (without στειρα 'barren'), as the original. This makes it impossible to interpret the phrase as a concession. Even if στειρα 'barren' is accepted, the nominative case must be read, which clearly shows that the subject is Sarah. To assume the dative case or to assume that the reference to Sarah was not original, as we stated above, is totally without support.


Bauer, Walter, A Greek/English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, Translated and adapted fom the 5th edition, 1958, by William Arndt and Frederick Danker, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Louw, Johannes and Eugene, Nida, Greek/English Lexicon of the New Testament Based on Semantic Domains, New York, United Bible Societies, 1988.


Alford, Henry, The Greek Testament, volume 4, Londom, Rivingstons, Cambridge, Deighton, Bell, 1859

Bloomfield, S.I., The Greek New Testament with English, volume 2, London, Longman et al., 1839

Bruce, Frederick Evvie, The Epistle to Hebrews, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1990

Dods, Marcus, The Epistle ro the Hebrews, in The Expositor's Greek Testament, edited by W. Robertson Nicoll, volume 4, New York, George H. Doran, no date

Ellingworth, Paul, Commentary on Hebews, The New International Greek Testament Commentary, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1993

Ellingworth, Paul and Eugene, Nida, A Translator's Handbook to the Letter to the Hebrews, London, New York, Stuttgart, United Bible Societies, 1983

Guthrie, Donald, The Letter to the Hebrews, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, edited by Leon Morris, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1983

Hagner, Donald, Hebrews, A Good News Commentary, edited by W. Ward Gasque, San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1983.

Hewitt, Thomas, The Epistle to the Hebrews, The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, edited by Leon Morris, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1960

Hughes, Philip Edgcumbe, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1977

Kistemaker, Simon, Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews, New Testament Commentary, Grand Rapids, Baker, 1984

Lane, Willam, Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 47A-B, Dallas, Word, 1991.

Lenski, RCH, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistles to the Hebrews, Minneapolis, Augsburg, 1966

Lunemann, Gottlieb, Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, translated from the fourth German edition by Maurice Evans with additional notes by Timothy Dwight, Meyer's Commentary on the New Testament, New York, Funk and Wagnalls, 1890

Miller, Neva, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Dallas Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1988

Moffatt, James, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, The International Critical Commentary, edited by Alfred Plummer, Edinburgh, T. and T. Clark, 1924

Moll, Carl Bernhard, The Epistle to the Hebrews, Langes Commentary on the Holy Scripture, volume 11, translated from the second German edition by A.C. Kendrick, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1971

Montefiore, Hugh, A Commentary on the Epistle to the Hebrews, Harpers New Testament Commentaries edited by Henry Chadwick, London, Adam & Charles Black, 1964

Morris, Leon, Hebrews: The Expositor's Bible Commentary, edited by Frank Gaebelen, volume 12, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1981

Westcott, Brooke Foss, The Epistle to the Hebrews, London, MacMillan, 1909

Wilson, R. Mel, Hebrews, New Century Bible Commentary, edited by Matthew Black, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1987

Greek Texts and Textual Commentary

Aland, Barbara and Kurt, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo Martini, and Bruce Metzger, Novum Testamentum Graece, 27th edition revised, Stuttgart, Deutsche Bibelgesellschatt, 1993

GNT, Aland, Barbara and Kurt, Johannes Karavidopoulos, Carlo Martini, and Bruce Metzger, The Greek New Testament, 4th revised edition, Stuttgart, Deutsche Bibelgesellschatt, 1994

Metzger, Bruce, Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition, Stuttgart, Deutsche Bibelgesellschatt, 1994