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Mark Strauss
Mark Strauss
Gordon Fee
Gordon Fee

Gender and Translation

Gordon Fee
Mark Strauss


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The meanings of words change over time, and translations must be periodically updated to keep up with these changes. One of the most significant changes in English over the last quarter century has been related to gender language. While it was once commonplace to refer to people as “men” and all fellow Christians as “brothers,” such usage has declined significantly in recent years. More inclusive terms like “people” and “brothers and sisters” are used more often today. Bible translators, seeking to stay current with contemporary English, have adapted to these changes. Over the past thirty years, almost every English Bible version either produced or revised has adopted this kind of “gender accurate” language (TNIV, NET, NLT, GW, CEV, NAB, NJB, NRSV, REB, NCV, GNT, NIrV). This is in line with the goal of translating words according to their meaning in context.

Even versions like the ESV and HCSB, which have intentionally reacted against the trend toward gender exclusive language, utilize it far more than their predecessors. A search using Accordance Bible software reveals that the ESV removed the words “man” or “men” 671 times from its predecessor the RSV—clear evidence of the changing state of the English language. This article will examine the benefits and challenges of achieving gender accuracy in Bible translation.

 

The Nature of Gender Accuracy

While some critics claim that the movement toward gender accurate language is a form of political correctness, the truth is that such language has made our Bible translations more precise and so more accurate. Consider Romans 3:28, which the NIV translated, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith.” The TNIV, in its revision, renders the verse, “For we maintain that a person is justified by faith.” Since Paul is obviously referring to people, not just men, the TNIV is more accurate.

The primary meaning of the Greek word anthrōpos is “person,” not “man.” (We get the English word anthropology—the study of human beings—from this word.) Greek has other words, such as anēr (“man”) and arsēn (“male”), which more commonly refer to males. Of course the NIV’s translation is not “wrong,” since the original translators intended “man” to be understood generically, that is, referring to people in general. But the English language has changed, and for many readers “man” now sounds like it refers exclusively to males. The TNIV’s “person” is a double-win for translators. It is both more clear and more accurate, clarifying the precise meaning of anthrōpos in this context.

 

Biological Gender versus Grammatical Gender

Much of the confusion related to gender accurate language arises from a misunderstanding of what gender means. In many languages, including Hebrew and Greek, every noun is categorized according to gender. Hebrew has two genders, masculine and feminine, and Greek has three: masculine, feminine and neuter. This is grammatical gender, not biological gender (sexual distinction). For example, the Greek word for “sword” (machaira) is feminine, while the word “book” (biblios) is masculine. Another word for “book” or “scroll” is biblion, which is neuter. There is no relationship between the nature of the object and its gender.

With reference to persons, grammatical gender usually coincides with biological gender. The most common Greek word for “man” (anēr) is masculine, while the word for “woman” (gynē) is feminine. In other cases, however, grammatical and biological gender are at odds. The Greek word for “child” (teknon) is neuter, yet we do not refer to a child as “it.” In German the word for a young woman is Mädchen, a neuter word.

Nor are generic words always masculine. In Spanish, the word for “person” is feminine (la persona). The same is true in German (die Person). In Greek the word is masculine (anthrōpos). Does this mean Spanish and German persons are feminine while Greeks are masculine? No, it means that this is a grammatical category that has nothing to do with biological gender. Our favorite example is from German, where the word for “masculinity”—die Männlichkeit—is feminine!

Since grammatical gender does not necessary coincide with biological gender, it is necessary to carefully consider the words in context to determine their meaning. Thousands of examples could be introduced to show that using inclusive language for masculine generic terms in Hebrew and Greek improves the accuracy of Bible translation.  Here are a few illustrations:

 

Man or Person?

Older versions of the Bible traditionally translated the Hebrew and Greek words for persons as “man” and “men.” Yet, as noted above, these words are generic and usually refer to both men and women. Matthew 12:12 in the ESV reads, “Of how much more value is a man [anthrōpos] than a sheep!” (cf. HCSB, NASU, NKJV, NIV). Jesus is obviously referring to people here, so the TNIV more accurately renders it, “How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep!” (cf. NLT, NET, NAB, NRSV, GNT, NCV). In Mark 10:26-27 the disciples ask, “Who then can be saved?” In the NIV, Jesus responds, “With man [anthrōpos], this is impossible, but not with God.” The TNIV recognizes the inclusive nature of anthrōpos and translates, “With human beings this is impossible, but not with God” (cf. GNT, NET).

The Hebrew term ’adam, like the Greek anthrōpos, usually carries an inclusive sense, referring to both men and women. When in Genesis 6:7 the Lord says, “I will blot out man [’adam] whom I have created” (NASU; cf. NKJV, ESV, RSV, HCSB), it is both males and females who will be judged. The NLT accurately renders, “I will completely wipe out this human race that I have created” (cf. TNIV, NET, GW, GNT, CEV). The phrase, “Whoever sheds the blood of man [’adam]” in Genesis 9:6 (ESV) means “whoever sheds human blood” (TNIV; cf. NLT, NRSV, GW).

 

Brothers or Brothers and Sisters?

The Greek plural noun adelphoi can refer to (1) brothers (male siblings); (2) siblings (i.e., brothers and sisters), or (3) people in some other close bond or association. It is sometimes used in the New Testament of physical siblings (see 1 Cor. 9:5), but more often refers figuratively to the kinship between Christian believers.

English versions have traditionally translated the term either as “brothers” or “brethren.” The NIV at Philippians 4:1 reads “Therefore, my brothers [adelphoi] …stand firm in the Lord” (cf. ESV, HCSB; “brethren” in KJV, RSV, NKJV, NASU). But in this context, and many others like it, the author is clearly addressing the whole church—both men and women. In the very next verse Paul encourages two women, Euodia and Syntyche, to live in harmony. The TNIV and other versions accurately render adelphoi as “Therefore, my brothers and sisters” (cf. NLT, NET, GW, NCV, NRSV). This translation is not a “paraphrase” or a concession to political correctness. It is exactly what the Greek term meant in its first-century context.

The ESV, while consistently translating the term as “brothers,” includes a footnote at its first occurrence in each book acknowledging that it actually means “brothers and sisters”:

*Or brothers and sisters. The plural Greek word adelphoi (translated “brothers”) refers to siblings in a family. In New Testament usage, depending on the context, adelphoi may refer to either men or to both men and women who are siblings (brother and sisters) in God’s family, the church.

This footnote reminds us that the translation is not about “literally” reproducing words or the form of the text (in this case, a masculine form), but about accurately reproducing the meaning. The fact that adelphoi is one word in Greek while “brothers and sisters” is three words in English is irrelevant, so long as the meaning is retained. And the meaning in these passages is “brothers and sisters” or “fellow believers.”

The singular adelphos can also be used in a generic sense, meaning “brother or sister” or “fellow believer.” First John 2:9-11 in the NIV reads “Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother [adelphos] is still in the darkness.” Since adelphos here clearly refers to a fellow Christian believer, whether male or female, the NCV translates “brother or sister.” The NLT has “a Christian brother or sister.”

 

Fathers, Forefathers or Ancestors?

The Greek and Hebrew terms traditionally translated as “fathers” (Heb.: ’aboth; Gk.: pateres) can refer to actual “fathers” (male parents), to mothers and fathers (“parents”; see Heb. 11:23), or to past generations (“ancestors”; “forefathers”). First Samuel 12:6 reads (TNIV), “It is the LORD who appointed Moses and Aaron and brought your ancestors [’aboth] up out of Egypt” (“ancestors” also in HCSB, NET, CNT, NLT, GW, NCV, NJB, NRSV). Since Samuel is speaking of many generations past and since both men and women came out of Egypt, “ancestors” is the most accurate translation here. The NASU renders the verse “who brought your fathers up from the land of Egypt” (cf. ESV, NKJV). This is less precise because it does not clearly refer to generations of long ago and because it could be read as excluding women.

Care must be taken here, since in some cases “fathers” refers to patriarchal heads of households. For example, Deuteronomy 6:10 (NIV) reads, “When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to give you.” In such cases, “ancestors” would not be wrong, since it would include the patriarchs, but a masculine term like “fathers” or “forefathers” is better since it refers primarily to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The TNIV retains “fathers” here: “When the LORD your God brings you into the land he swore to your fathers…” Of course English still uses “father(s)” to refer to people of unique significance as founders (e.g., Americans speak of our “founding fathers” and George Washington as the “father of our country), so almost all versions retain references to Abraham as the “father of many nations” (Gen. 17:4; Rom. 4:16-17; TNIV, NLT, CEV, NCV, NET, etc.). The goal, as always, is to translate the words in context with the clearest and most accurate English equivalents available.

 

Sons, Children or Descendants?

The most common Hebrew and Greek terms for offspring (Heb.: banim; Gk.: huioi) can mean different things: “sons,” “children,” “grandchildren,” “descendants,” as well as appear in many idioms with a wide range of meanings (e.g., “sons of the prophets”; “sons of the bridechamber”; “sons of light,” etc.) Long before the contemporary debate over inclusive language, the KJV often rendered these terms inclusively as “children” rather than “sons.” The phrase “children of Israel” occurs 644 times in the KJV. Similarly, in Isaiah 1:2 (KJV), the Lord says of the nation, “I have nourished and brought up children [banim], and they have rebelled against me.” Matthew 5:44-45 in the KJV reads, “Love your enemies…that ye may be the children [huioi] of your Father which is in heaven.”

In these and many other contexts, the term clearly refers generically to males and females—“children” rather than “sons.” Curiously, while the formal equivalent versions follow the KJV in translating  banim as “children” in the Old Testament, in the New Testament they often revert back to “sons” (see Matt. 5:45 NKJV, NASU, RSV, ESV).

These examples represent the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of passages could be cited from both the Old and the New Testaments to show that gender accurate language more precisely represents the meaning of the original text.

 

Some Clarifications

Several clarifications are in order. First, as the example of “fathers” above shows, we are not advocating the blanket replacement of masculine terms with inclusive language. This is not about gender “neutrality” (as some have claimed), but about gender “accuracy.” The goal is not to eliminate gender distinctions in Scripture, but to clarify them. Passages that refer exclusively to males should remain masculine, and references to females should remain feminine. But when the context indicates that both males and females are in view, inclusive terms like “person,” “brothers and sisters,” “children” and “ancestors” are more precise and so more accurate. This is simply good translation policy.

Another clarification concerns language related to God. Some people have expressed fears that the use of gender accurate language is a “slippery slope” leading to the identification of God as “she” or as “our Mother in heaven.” But this is an unnecessary concern, since such changes would be contrary to the goal of gender accuracy, which is to capture as precisely as possible the original meaning of the text.

Two points must be kept in mind concerning God-language. (1) God is neither male nor female. He is pure spirit (John 1:18; 4:24). Numbers 23:19 reads, “God is not a man [i.e. a human being], that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind” (NIV; cf. Hos 11:9; Job 9:32). (2) Although some of the biblical images related to God are feminine (e.g., God is like a mother who comforts her children: Ps. 131:2; Isa. 46:3; 49:15; 66:13; Hos. 11:3-4), most are masculine. God is King of the universe, sovereign Lord of all, and Father to his people as their Creator and Redeemer (Deut. 32:18; Ps. 103:13; Hos. 11:1). Jesus calls God his Father (Mark 14:36) and invites his disciples to pray to him as “our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). It is appropriate, then, to refer to God as “he”—not because God is a male, but because he is a person, and because the masculine pronoun more accurately reflects the biblical metaphors like “Father” used to describe God.”

None of the versions discussed in this article introduce feminine language for God or eliminate masculine pronouns or metaphors used for him. There are indeed a few feminist versions that do so, such as The New Testament and Psalms: An Inclusive Version (1995) and The Inclusive Bible (2007), produced by Priests for Equality. But these versions have a very different agenda, seeking to eliminate patriarchal references from the Bible. This is a completely different goal from gender accuracy, which is to reflect as accurately as possible the original meaning of the text. Gender accurate versions seek to introduce inclusive language only with reference to human beings and only when the original meaning included both sexes.

 

Some Difficult Issues: Ambiguous Passages

In some passages it is difficult to determine whether the reference is to men only or to both men and women. In such cases translators must make a decision based on a careful examination of the context. While the Greek noun anēr (plural: andres) normally means “man,” in some contexts it may refer to people in general. For example, in Matthew 12:41 Jesus says, “The men [andres] of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it” (NIV; cf. RSV, NASU, HCSB). Since females were among those converted at Nineveh, the sense here seems to be “people” (TNIV, NET, NLT, GNT, CEV, NCV, NRSV).

Similarly, in Matthew 14:35 was it the “people” (NLT, NET, NRSV, GNT, CEV, NJB) of Gennesaret or the “men” (TNIV, GW, NIV) who brought their sick to Jesus? The letter of James also seems to use anēr in an inclusive sense. James 1:12 reads, “Blessed is the man [anēr] who perseveres under trial” (NIV). Does this mean “man” or “person”? NRSV says, “Blessed is anyone who endures temptation.” In 1:20 James says that “man’s anger [orgē andros] does not bring about the righteous life God desires” (NIV). It seems clear that this is human anger, so the NLT translates, “Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires” (cf. James 3:2).

Like anēr, the Hebrew term ’ish can mean either “man” or “person” depending on the context. In Exodus 32:28, did three thousand “men” (NASU, ESV, HCSB, NJB, GNT, CEV) or “people” (NAB, NIV, TNIV, NET, NLT, GW) die in the plague following the golden calf incident? Similarly, did the judgment for David’s census in 2 Samuel 24:15 result in the death of seventy thousand “men” (NKJV, HCSB) or “people” (ESV, NASU, NIV, TNIV)? In Exodus 33:8, 10, was it the “men” (RSV, NKJV) or the “people” (NIV, TNIV, NET, HCSB, NASU, ESV) who stood at the entrance to their tents when Moses entered the Tent of Meeting? Notice that in these examples even the “literal” versions are divided. When the context is ambiguous, translators must make difficult decisions based on the available evidence.

 

Masculine Resumptive Pronouns

One of the most difficult and complex issues related to gender language involves resumptive masculine pronouns. These are pronouns that follow an indefinite noun or pronoun and refer back to it. Consider the following sentence: “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death” (John 8:51 NIV). Although the word “anyone” is generic, referring to either men or women, the resumptive pronoun “he” is masculine. Ideally, it should be neutral to agree with its antecedent “anyone.” But English does not have an inclusive third person singular pronoun (“it” only works for things, not for people). Using “he or she” can be awkward and cumbersome.

There are several ways to translate the sentence:

  1. Use a masculine pronoun (as above): “If anyone keeps my word, he will not see death.”
  2. Pluralize the construction: “Those who keep my word will not see death.”
  3. Use a singular “they”: “If anyone keeps my word, they will not see death.”
  4. Use a second person: “If you keep my word you will not see death.”
  5. Use a noun instead of a pronoun: “If anyone keeps my word, that person will not see death.”
  6. Modify the construction to eliminate the pronoun: “Whoever keeps my word will not see death.”

All of these represent accurate translations, since they all express the generic meaning that a person who follows Jesus’ message will not experience spiritual death. Yet all also have some inconsistency. Option 1 is inconsistent concerning gender, since a masculine pronoun in English is being used for an inclusive reference in Greek (tis, “anyone”). Options 2 and 3 are inconsistent concerning number, since a plural construction is used for an indefinite antecedent. Option 4 is inconsistent concerning person, since a second person (“you”) is used for a third. Option 5 quickly becomes stylistically awkward, since repeating a noun over and over again can become cumbersome. Option 6 changes the construction from a conditional clause to an indefinite one.

There is no perfect solution, and translators must make difficult choices. Some opponents of inclusive language claim that only the first option is accurate, since it is the most “literal.” But this is not actually true. In the Greek sentence of John 8:51, there is no masculine pronoun “he.” The verb “will see” is in the third person singular (he, she it), but verbs in Greek do not specify gender. Even if a masculine pronoun were present, it would not mean “he,” since pronouns get their meaning from the noun or pronoun they replace, in this case “anyone.”

The important thing to remember is that the meaning, not the form, must be retained in translation. Using a second person (“you”—option 4) works in the example above because in English we often use “you” in generic sentences. The proverb, “You get what you pay for” means “A person gets what he (or she) pays for.” Some English stylists consider singular “they” (option 3) to be ungrammatical and warn against its use. Increasingly, however, stylists and English handbooks accept it as legitimate and point to its long and venerable history in the English language, going back as far as Geoffrey Chaucer and appearing in great writers like William Shakespeare, Jane Austen, and George Bernard Shaw.

Even the KJV sometimes uses the singular “they” (Matt. 18:35). Most English speakers today would find it awkward to say “Everybody likes ice cream, doesn’t he?” even though that is grammatically “correct” (according to some grammarians). Instead most people would say: “Everybody likes ice cream, don’t they?” This is singular “they.” In light of its long history in the English language and growing acceptance in standard English, contemporary English Bible versions have begun to use it more often.

Pluralizing the whole sentence (option 2) also works in generic contexts because generics are notionally plural, meaning they refer to people (note the plural) in general: “Those who work hard will succeed” means the same as “A person who works hard will succeed.” Only a wooden literalist would claim that the first sentence means “groups” who work hard will succeed. Any ordinary English reader immediately recognizes that “those” means “those individuals” in generic contexts like this.

Evidence that pluralizing does not necessarily distort the meaning of the text comes from the Bible itself, since biblical writers sometimes translate masculine singular generics with plural constructions. Consider these examples, where the apostle Paul quotes from the Old Testament:

Old Testament Text

Paul’s New Testament Citation

Isa. 52:7: How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.

Rom. 10:15b: …As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”

Ps. 36:1b: There is no fear of God before his eyes.

Rom. 3:10, 18: As it is written…”There is no fear of God before their eyes.”

Ps. 32:1: Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.

Rom. 4:6-7: David says the same thing … “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.”

In all three cases, Paul translated Hebrew singulars with Greek plurals. He clearly recognized that generic plurals in Greek accurately represent the meaning of generic singulars in Hebrew. He changed the form but retained the meaning.

 

The Humanity of Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ was certainly a man (a male human being), and any attempts to remove masculine language related to him should be avoided. There are cases, however, when a passage is not about Jesus’ maleness but about his humanity. In 1 Timothy 2:5, for example, the NIV reads, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” The point is that Jesus is able to save human beings (not just “men”!) because he himself is human. The TNIV more accurately renders the verse, “For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human.” See also Philippians 2:8, where Jesus “was found in appearance as a human being” (TNIV).

While 1 Timothy 2:5 is straightforward, other passages are more difficult. In 1 Corinthians 15 and Romans 5, Paul draws an analogy between Adam and Jesus. First Corinthians 15:21 reads, “For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.” The TNIV reads, “For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a human being.” This passage raises difficult theological questions. Is Paul’s primary point that because humans have sinned, a human being must be the agent of salvation? Or is it—as some have claimed—that Adam serves as the (male) representative head of the human race? Those with different views on Federal theology (where Adam serves as representative of humanity) will likely come to different conclusions. While translators can never be completely objective, it is important to seek Paul’s meaning in context and translate accordingly.

 

Messianic Passages

It has sometimes been argued that pluralizing distorts the meaning of Old Testament messianic texts. In Psalm 8:4 the NIV reads, “What is man [’enosh] that you are mindful of him, the son of man [ben’adam] that you care for him?” Both ’enosh and ben’adam are references to human beings in general, so the TNIV translates, “What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?” (cf. NET, NRSV, NJB, NAB, NCB, NLT, GNT, CEV). Does pluralizing the construction blur the application of this psalm to Jesus in Hebrews 2:6?

To address this issue, we must consider the meaning of the psalm both in its Old Testament context and in its application to Jesus in Hebrews 2. It can hardly be denied that the psalmist is speaking inclusively rather than exclusively in Psalm 8. He does not mean, “What are males…” but rather “What are human beings…” All commentators agree that ’enosh and ben’adam are generic references to humanity.

Most commentators also agree that this same meaning applies to the use of the psalm in Hebrews 2:6-8. The author is not claiming that the psalm refers exclusively to Christ, but that the destiny of humanity as expressed in the psalm (“to be crowned with glory and honor,” vv. 6-8) has been fulfilled in Christ (v. 9). The reference to “him” in verse 8 is not to Jesus but to humankind. Though man’s (= humanity’s) original destiny was to be crowned with glory and honor and for creation to be subject to him (see Gen. 1:28), “at present we do not see everything subject to him.” In its present fallen state, humanity has not achieved its true destiny.

Jesus, however, through his suffering and death has fulfilled the ultimate destiny of humanity by being made for a time “a little lower than the angels,” but now “crowned with glory and honor” (vv. 7, 9). William lane sums up well: “In Jesus we see exhibited humanity’s true vocation. In an extraordinary way he fulfills God’s design for all creation and displays what had always been intended for all humankind, according to Ps 8.”1 Psalm 8, both in its Old Testament context and in its context in Hebrews, is about God’s intention for humanity. Jesus fulfills this destiny by acting as the true human representative. The plural references in both Psalm 8:4 and Hebrews 2:6-8 capture this sense well.

Another Old Testament messianic passage where pluralizing has been criticized for blurring a messianic reference is in Psalm 34:20. Compare the RSV of verses 19-20 with the NRSV:

RSV: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous; but the LORD delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken.”
NRSV: “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all. He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken.”

The TNIV, NLT, GNT, CEV, NJB and NAB also introduce plural references. Some critics have claimed that pluralizing the sentence distorts the messianic application to Jesus in John 19:36, where Jesus fulfills the prophecy that “not one of his bones will be broken” (NIV).

Several comments are in order. First, it is not certain that John 19:36 is referring to Psalm 34:20. Many commentators see instead a Passover lamb allusion drawn from Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12. Even if we assume for the sake of argument that Psalm 34:20 is in view, the psalm is fulfilled typologically, rather than uniquely, by Christ. Verse 18 of the psalm reads: “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (NIV). In the Hebrew text both “brokenhearted” and “those who are crushed” are plurals, indicating that the singulars in verses 19-20 are also generic, referring to righteous sufferers in general. The translators of the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament) understood it this way, since they translated using plurals throughout. In its original context, then, this is a psalm of righteous sufferers, who persevere in their faith in God. Jesus dies as the righteous sufferer par excellence.

 

Conclusion

This article has demonstrated that the use of gender accurate language can significantly improve the reliability of a translation. Terms like “person,” “brothers and sisters,” “children” and “ancestors” are more specific than their masculine generic counterparts and so more accurate. Inclusive language, however, should be introduced only when the original meaning of the text included both males and females.

 


1.  William Lane, Hebrews (Word Biblical Commentary; Waco, TX: Word, 1991), 1:47-48.



Excerpted from How to Choose a Translation for All It’s Worth, © 2007 Zondervan.

Gordon D. Fee, Ph.D. is professor emeritus of New Testament studies at Regent College, Vancouver, BC. He is a member of the Committee on Bible Translation and the author or coauthor of numerous books including (with Douglas Stuart) the bestselling book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth.

Mark L. Strauss, Ph.D. is professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary in San Diego. He has written Four Portraits, One Jesus: The Davidic Messiah in Luke-Acts; Distorting Scripture? and "Luke" in the Zondervan illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary series.

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