Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Sexist Bible Translations?

This is something where my opinion has shifted with time... Here's what I thought last year. Here's a big, big problem with the TNIV and NRSV. Here's what I recommended for translations 6 months ago.

The basic problems are as follows:

  • Greek has three main words for adult human, which are aner (man), gune (woman) and anthropos (person).
  • English used to use "man" as the normal word for a male person or for a person of unspecified gender.
  • Modern English doesn't, but a lot of Bible translations (ESV, NIV, NASB) still do.
  • Greek follows the way of older English when it comes to pronouns. A person of unspecified gender is usually referred to as autos (he).
  • The same is true with a few other words - masculine plurals can include both males and females.

What has changed my interpretation of these data is this:

Most women who are used to reading older English tend to see themselves as included by the language of the ESV (for example). Most women who are not used to reading older English see themselves as excluded.


Here's an example. The Greek word for brother is adelphos, and for sister is adelphe. "Brothers" is adelphoi, which could also mean "brothers and sisters" or "siblings", and is often used in the Epistles by someone addressing a whole church. The NIV and ESV translate adelphoi as "brothers", which to a modern reader looks as if it excludes the women. The TNIV and NRSV have "brothers and sisters", which is better, but looks as if it might be addressing two groups. Some of my friends have suggested using something like "brethren" which could be understood as gender-inclusive.

I think this issue is so important that it over-rides the fact that the TNIV really messes up Hebrews 2, Psalm 8, etc. Adelphoi includes women. "Brothers" does not.

"Son of Man"

The biggest problem facing gender-neutral translations, like the TNIV and NRSV is the phrase "Son of Man", where "man" translates anthropos, the gender-neutral word for person. In the Old Testament, "Son of Man" is often used as a general term for an individual (male) human, sometimes as a representative human. Ezekiel gets it used of him a lot, Daniel 7 has it used of a figure seemingly representing Israel, Psalm 8 has it used of someone who is given authority by God.

All of that baggage is carried by Jesus when he uses the phrase as his own title in the gospels. So it won't do to translate some of them as "mortal" or "people" and not others, which is what the TNIV and NRSV do, which is why they end up in such a mess in Hebrews 2. My somewhat radical suggestion, if doing a new translation from scratch, would be to translate the phrase consistently as "Human One", or something like that, which means pretty much the same as the original. It also has the advantage of being able to point out that Jesus is the only truly Human One, which is part of the significance of the use of the phrase anyway. But it breaks with 500 years of English Bible translations, which is why people are understandably reluctant.


What puzzles me is why a fairly new translation like the ESV consciously decided not to go down the inclusive-language line, at least in part. Why translate anthropos as "man" rather than "person", for example? Was it just a bit of old-fashioned bloody-mindedness? And if so, does that mean it is sexist?

I still like the ESV in a lot of ways though - it's still the main translation I use in my own study, and it's still great for listening to.

Which Translation to Use?

So here's an update of my earlier list:

  • Bible translation I'm most used to: NIV
  • Translations I use for my own reading: ESV, Nick King's translation, LXX.
  • Translations I consult when studying a passage: ESV, NKJV, NASB, Nick King
  • Translations I've preached from: NIV, TNIV, NRSV, GNB
  • Translation I'd choose for pew bibles: TNIV if there's a moderate level of literacy; NLT is there isn't. I'd be strongly inclined to use my own translation for a lot of passages and have it printed in the service sheet.
  • Best translation for keeping poetry sounding poetic: NIV, NKJV


Anonymous said...

"What puzzles me is why a fairly new translation like the ESV consciously decided not to go down the inclusive-language line, at least in part"

Maybe because of their audience? The ESV seems basically the same as the NRSV to me, except without that 'nasty liberal' inclusive language. It consequently sells to a good number of people who want such a translation.

Unknown said...

you have friends? Wow. well, laying that unlikely idea aside for the moment, you say you have friends who think that 'brethren' is a gender-inclusive word. Are they entirely russian monoglots, or just cretins?

John said...

As regards ESV / NRSV differences, I prefer the ESV, especially in the Old Testament, because it was translated as a Christian translation and allowing for the fact that ambiguous passages in the OT are often prophetic of Jesus. The NRSV, as I understand it, wasn't.

Unknown said...

come on. just how can 'brethren' be in any way gender-inclusive?

Unknown said...

I'm trying to help here. Could 'brethren' be gender-inclusive in the same way that it could mean 'courgette'?

John said...

I am not my friend. Perhaps he'll turn up here in a bit - he does comment on here from time to time.

I think he'd argue that because "brethren" uses an archaic form of pluralisation, it still follows the older sense of a masculine plural including the feminine (as in Greek).

Unknown said...

I thought you'd say that, but in your blog you quote him approvingly. it's nonsense.

John said...

I don't remember either agreeing or disagreeing with my friend on this one, merely reporting his view.

Unknown said...

That's the problem with evangelicals (well, one of the problems, anyway, and especially evangelicals with science degrees) you don't know how to read. That, of course, puts you at a disadvantage when you open the Bible. The tone and context of your remark about brethren make it clear that you are offering this, tentatively, as a possible way forward. Courgettes!