Gender-Neutral Bible Translations - Island of Sanity

Island of Sanity

Issues Within Christianity

Gender-Neutral Bible Translations

In the last couple of decades several translations or versions of the Bible have been introduced that use "gender neutral" or "inclusive" language. Perhaps the best known of these is the New International Reader's Version. Others include the New Jerusalem Bible, the Revised English Bible, and the Contemporary English Version. The basic idea of these new versions is that they replace words like "he" with "they", "sons" with "children", "brothers" with "brothers and sisters", and the like. They make these changes, of course, to eliminate any male-oriented bias and make the text apply to both males and females.

I think the debate really comes down to three issues. Let's discuss each in turn.

Greek group nouns versus English group nouns

This is a more accurate translation into modern English. For example, the Greek word "adelphoi" is traditionally translated "brothers". (Or "brethren" in older translations.) But to a Greek-speaking person, depending on the context this word could refer exclusively to a group of males, or it could refer to a group of both males and females. To a modern American, the word "brothers" is understood to mean only males. So in such cases, "brothers and sisters" more correctly expresses the idea of the original.

There is certainly reasonableness to this. In many languages, including Greek and Hebrew, there is a masculine version of the plural and a feminine version of the plural of most words that apply to groups of people. When the group is a mix of men and women, the masculine version is routinely used. When referring to an individual person who could be either male or female, they use masculine pronouns. Only if the person is known or expected to be female is the feminine version used. People who speak these languages understand this and do not normally think anything of it.

This used to be true of English. If you said, for example, "When the applicant fills out the form, he must write his name in the space provided", no one would think that the use of the words "he" and "his" meant that only males were allowed to apply. I think most Americans would still understand that today. Nevertheless, there has been a movement since the 1970s or so to change the way we understand masculine pronouns and group nouns. To the extent that this movement has been succesful, it could be said that words like "he" and "brothers" no longer includes women to American readers, and so to properly convey the sense of the Greek word, we should translate it "he or she", "they", "brothers and sisters", etc. Whether the word means just a group of men or a group of both men and women must be determined from the context. But translators do this sort of thing all the time. That's the job of a translator.

Anyone who as ever learned a foreign language knows that there is often not a one-to-one correspondance between words. The English word "trunk", for example, may refer to an elephant's nose, a large suitcase, the storage compartment of a car, or the main branch of a tree. Another languages might have different words for each of these. It would be simply wrong to insist that when translating from English to another language, that you must always use the same word in the target language every time the English says "trunk". The reader might well find himself puzzling over why, when your car broke down, you sought to find a spare tire in an elephant's nose.

Ancient ideas of patriarchy versus modern egalitarianism

In Bible times, society was very patriarchal: men were in charge and women were subordinate. But such thinking is out of date and unacceptable today, and so the Bible must be updated to reflect modern understanding of gender equality.

Sometimes this argument is worded in a way that sounds similar to the previous argument, but it is really an entirely different thing. It is one thing to say that the English language has changed and so to properly understand the meaning of the original Greek and Hebrew, we must translate words differently then earlier English translators did. It is quite another to say that the culture has changed, and so we must change the meaning of the original words to accomodate current ideas.

To put it another way, it is one thing to say that a change in culture since Bible times means that we must do something differently for the modern reader to properly understand what the original language of the Bible meant. It is a very different thing to say that a change in culture since Bible times means that we must change what the original language of the Bible meant.

I have a lot of problems with this justification. Whether you believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, an interesting historical book, or a lot of superstitious nonsense, if you change the meaning, you are not "translating" any more. You are putting your words in someone else's mouth. If you don't like the original book, fine, debate what you don't like about it. Or write your own book. But don't write your own book and then claim that it was written by someone else who has more prestige than you do.

We could certainly debate what things the Bible says about men and women really mean, and whether you approve of that meaning. If you think that the Bible is sexist and out of date, fine. Write your own book explaining why the Bible is sexist and out of date. But don't change the Bible to say what you want it to say. That's just dishonest.

God has no gender

God is not a human being. God does not have sex organs, and so is neither male nor female. Thus we should not refer to God with either masculine or feminine words, but should use gender-neutral words.

Some gender-neutral versions of the Bible have eliminated gender-specific terms for God. For example, a typical traditional translation of John 5:26 reads, "For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself." (New King James) The New Testament Inclusive Version translates it, "For just as God has life in Godself, so God has granted the same thing to the Child."

Similarly, John 3:16 is usually translated something like, "For God so loved that world that he gave his only begotten son." (New King James) The Inclusive Language Lectionary translates it, "For God so loved the world that God gave God's only Child." Not only is this very awkward wording, using the word "God" three times in one sentence just to avoid a pronoun, but it's simply silly. Whatever you can say about God the Father (or I suppose I should say "God the Parent") not being either male or female, clearly "the Child", Jesus Christ, was a male human being. When God came to Earth in human form, he came in male human form. We could certainly debate whether this fact is important or relevant. Maybe God could just as well have come as a woman, and it was just a toss-up which it would be, no more important than whether he was left- or right-handed. Maybe he only came as a male because this was more practical given the customs of the time. But whatever the reason, he did come as a male, so why can't we call him "he"?

Greek group nouns versus English group nouns, revisited

Earlier I said that a fair case can be made that gender-neutral pronouns and group nouns are a better translation to modern English. But as I noted, this requires determining from context whether the original Greek was intended to refer to men only or to both men and women. This can be far more difficult than you might think.

Some cases are highly debatable.

1 Timothy 3:1-4, New King James: "This is a faithful saying: If a man desires the position of a bishop, he desires a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, temperate, sober-minded, of good behavior, hospitable, able to teach; not given to wine, not violent, not greedy for money, but gentle, not quarrelsome, not covetous; one who rules his own house well, having his children in submission with all reverence."

1 Timothy 3:1-4, Contemporary English Version: "It is true that anyone who desires to be a church official wants to be something worthwhile. That's why officials must have a good reputation and be faithful in marriage. They must be self-controlled, sensible, well-behaved, friendly to strangers, and able to teach. They must not be heavy drinkers or troublemakers. Instead, they must be kind and gentle and not love money. Church officials must be in control of their own families, and they must see that their children are obedient and always respectful."

But there are some Bible verses that indicate that women should not be pastors or bishops. Therefore, changing the text to include women in a discussion of the qualifications for a bishop may well be simply wrong. Note that the CEV has not only changed the "he"s to "church official"s, they also changed "husband of one wife" to "faithful in marriage". Again, let me emphasize that the question is not whether you or I think that women should be bishops, but whether the original writer, the Apostle Paul, intended to include women. Debating the wisdom of the original writer is fair and legitimate. Changing his words to what you think he should have said is dishonest.

I found an interesting article by Michael Marlowe that takes issue with the translation of Matthew 18:15-16 in Today's New International Version.

The old New International Version translates it, "If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'"

The TNIV translates it, "If a brother or sister sins, go and point out the fault, just between the two of you alone. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'"

This is a pretty obvious application of gender-neutral language. "Brother" is changed to "brother or sister", "he" to "they", and so on. On first encounter this looks like a model case for where it makes sense. Surely Jesus meant these rules for conflict resolution to apply to both men and women, right? We wouldn't suppose that Jesus meant that men should follow this reasoned, step-by-step process for resolving conflicts, but women should engage in gossip wars or fist fights.

But Marlowe points out that making this gender-neutral means that a man who has a grievance with a woman is required to take her aside with no one else around. This could certainly be considered bullying. And a woman who has a grievance with a man is required to confront him alone, no matter how intimidating he may be to her. He points out that in the culture of the time -- and, I might add, in most cultures throughout history -- if a man had a problem with a woman he was expected to go to her husband man-to-man, not to pick on her when her husband wasn't around. And if a woman had a problem with a man, she would ask her husband to deal with it. Indeed -- this is my thought, not Marlowe's -- what if her complaint is unwanted sexual advances? Did Jesus really mean that if a woman believes that a man is making inappropriate advances, that she is supposed to arrange for the two of them to be alone together to discuss it? That if she wants to tell a man that she thinks that it is inappropriate or unwise for them to be alone together, that she must arrange for them to be alone together to discuss this?

One could reply to Marlowe that Jesus is giving general guidelines here, and that there might be any number of special cases and exceptions. While a man might intimidate a woman, a strong muscular man might equally well intimidate a small frail man. I've read some of Mr Marlowe's other comments on gender issues in the Bible and I don't agree with a lot of what he says. But you don't have to agree with Marlowe's conclusions to say that he has a point worth considering. And that's where these gender-neutral versions cause trouble. By changing the text to what they think the writer really meant or what the writer should have said, they mislead the reader. They take a section that might be ambiguous and impose their own interpretation on it. This is perfectly valid if you make it clear that you are presenting your commentary. It is not valid if you claim to be merely translating.

God has no gender, revisited

It's true that God is neither male nor female. But for the most part, God chose to refer to himself in the masculine. Maybe this means nothing. Maybe God was just accomodating limited human understanding. If there are no pronouns in the language other than "he", "she", and "it", and God doesn't want to call himself "it" because it makes him impersonal, then he has to choose from either "he" or "she". Maybe he just picked one and might just as well have picked the other.

Or maybe he had a good reason for picking "he". Maybe, although he is not biologically male, he nevertheless has attributes associated with masculinity.

I'm not prepared to say. But I am prepared to say that if God chose to refer to himself as "he", I certainly would not presume to correct him.


There are many places in the Bible where additional information is helpful to make the translation clear. Bible study books often include notes about the culture of the time. Serious Bible students routinely look up the definition and connotations of a Greek or Hebrew word being translated. If anyone is truly unaware that the Bible sometimes uses masculine words to apply to both men and women, surely we could solve this problem with one sentence of explanation: "Hey, remember that the Bible sometimes uses masculine words to apply to both men and women."

I think the problem is vastly overstated. Is this really a source of confusion? Or is it just that modern feminist philosophy is offended?

I heard a lecture once in favor of gender-neutral translations. To illustrate the problem, he offerred as an illustration that if a pastor said, "Would all the men of the church please stand?", that we wouldn't expect women to stand, just men. Then he added a comment that teenage boys would likely be unsure if it applied to them, they might stand hesitantly or be looking around to see if other teenagers stand. I don't know why he brought that up because he made no further comment about it. But it's surely true. I know that when my church announced an event for "men", I literally was 40 before I was confidant that I was old enough to be included. If when I was 16 I had told a friend that when the Bible says that God offers salvation to "all men", that this means that teenagers cannot be saved, he would surely have thought that this was a joke.

Are there really women who read that salvation is for "all men", and who think that that excludes them? Maybe the difference between me and the feminists is that I have a higher opinion of the intelligence of women than the feminists do.

Or maybe God should just be grateful that people have finally come along to help him fix all the mistakes he made in his book.

© 2011 by Jay Johansen


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