Thursday, May 17, 2012

Gender Language


Gender language is one of the most contentious issues in biblical translation. "Inclusive language" Bibles are welcomed by some and reviled by others. The Today's New International Version (2005) was scuttled by controversy concerning its inclusive language, while the masculinist English Standard Version (2001) has been warmly adopted by "complimentarian" churches.

Unlike English, biblical Greek and Hebrew are gendered languages. In Hebrew every noun and adjective is either masculine or feminine. Greek has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Grammatical gender does not necessarily correlate to any physical reality. For example, a city is not female, but the Greek word πόλις (polis = "city") is feminine.

The Greek word ἀδελφός (adelphos) means "brother," a male sibling. It's (nominative) plural is αδελφοι (adelphoi). The Greek word ἀδελφή (adelphe) means "sister," a female sibling, and has its own plural, αδελφαι (adelphai). When refering to a mixed group of male and female siblings the masculine plural αδελφοι (adelphoi) is used. How, then, should this word be translated?

Context is a key factor in translating αδελφοι (adelphoi). In some instances it clearly means "male siblings" as at Mark 12:20 ff, where the Sadducees tell Jesus a story about a woman who married seven brothers in succession. In other cases, it is not so clear. The Apostle Paul regularly refers to his fellow believers as αδελφοι (adelphoi). Are his words intended only for male believers? In some cases I think it is clear that Paul is addressing both men and woman. I've heard it suggested that the Christian community at Galatia was exclusively male, and I have a pet, though unproven, theory that the community addressed in 1 John was all male. Does that mean that αδελφοι (adelphoi) should be translated as "brothers" in Galatians and 1 John? Or does the message of these works apply also to female readers?

Don't even start me on the word ἄνθρωπος (anthropos), a masculine noun that refers to a  human being without reference to their physcial sex.

The bottom line is: modern English doesn't work the same way that biblical Hebrew and Greek work. Translation always involves compromise. Personally, I prefer to err on the side of inclusion. I recognize. however,  that this reflects my own theological biases, just as masculinist translations reflect someone else's theological biases. There is a lot of sloganeering and vituperation around issues of gender language. Perhaps it is wise simply to note that the issues exist and that they are by no means simple.

When choosing a Bible, be sure to read the translators' preface carefully. It will probably tell you a lot about the translators' approach to gender language. When reading a translation of the Bible, pay attention to footnotes.

Don't take any wooden nickels.


  1. I'm in general agreement on the general gender issues that you nicely explicate here.

    But... really? you think there were exclusively male Christian communities? Really?

    On what grounds do you think so?

    Maybe I'm overly naive, but I have trouble imagining a functioning community without any women in a patriarchal society. Especially a community that had a primary ritual involving sharing a meal.

    1. I mean...aren't the vast majority of monasteries that have ever existed "functioning communities without any women in a patriarchal society"? I mean, I'm sure some monastic communities have had female servants around. But there have been lots and lots that only had men.

      Just as an example:

  2. Hi, Victoria.

    As always, I appreciate your comments.

    I once heard a reputable New Testament scholar say that the Galatian church was exclusively male. It was an off-hand and off-topic remark in his lecture. It is possible that I misunderstood his point and I never got a chance to pursue it.

    My notion about the community in 1 John comes out of a close reading of that letter that I did a couple of years ago. In the second chapter of that book verses 12-14, the author twice addresses three distinct groups of people. Without going into the Greek, I'll call these groups "children," "fathers," and "youngsters."

    I think that these three titles are most likely used metaphorically and probably refer to ranks within the community rougly equivalent to "initiates" (= "chiildren"), "full members" (= "youngsters") and "leaders" (= "fathers"). This suggests a semi-monastic community.

    I also think that the Johannine communities were probably celibate, and this suggests the possibility that the sexes were segregated for worship. I don't picture these communities as cloistered, only separated during worship.

    If you are suggesting that the eucharistic meal (and I do think that Johannine Christianity was sacramental) required women to prepare or serve, I would answer that 1. there might well have been women in the kitchen, and 2. the (male) disciples are said to have prepared Jesus' last supper.

    It is also possible that the meal was enjoyed by men and women together, but other community functions were segregated.

    I know that this is all highly speculative and far from proven, but it seems at least possible that the community to which 1 John was written was made up exclusively of men.

    And that is my point. Translation of gender languate is complicated by the fact that we do not have clear and detailed knowledge of workings of those early Christian communities.

  3. Funny thing.... we are inescapably biased as we are inescapably either male or female. (Well, the vast majority of us anyway!)

    I really appreciate your insights, Brant - always a joy to read!