I deeply love my wife, who is a gifted and strong woman. I adore my daughter. I love and respect my mom for raising me to love Jesus. I have four sisters and I’d die for any of them. I care that women are properly empowered and respected and I resonate with those who draw attention to the ways we have failed to do this both past and present. One of those issues is how we translate the Bible from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek into today’s languages.
More than once and for different reasons, I’ve heard folks deride new translations of Scripture that verbally include the female half of humanity in certain words and phrases: “humankind” instead of “man,” or “brothers and sisters” instead of “brothers” alone. Without sanctioning all the motives for these recent changes, I believe gender-inclusive translations are superior. I’ll tell you why, and then I’ll answer what seems to be the most common objection.
They are superior because they better represent what the original authors said. When writing the Hebrew word historically translated into English as “man,” they often had in mind both men and women. When they addressed a community with the Greek word translated “brothers,” they were speaking to both “brothers” and “sisters” alike. Since the purpose of translation is to accurately represent in our language and culture what the original writers meant in theirs, gender-inclusive translations make sense in cases like this.
Many object that this is all about political correctness and not offending people.
- No it’s not, or at least it doesn’t have to be. It is about faithful verbal representation of original meaning.
- Political correctness isn’t always lame. If someone would rather not be called a certain word, call them something else. It’s called kindness.
- As Christians we’re commanded to be sensitive to our context and not cause unnecessary offense.
(I went over my word limit at “correctness” so stop reading if you must. I do have an appendix today though. After the jump I critique a blog post a friend sent me that argues against today’s point. Click “continue reading” below the next paragraph.)
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NOTE: In light of my 30th birthday and in honor of the guys who have all the fun, I’ll be offering thirty reflections in thirty days starting December 19th. Today’s post is #23 (see the so-far list here). The only rule is that I have 250 words to make my point. After that just stop reading. Thanks for making my blog part of your internet experience.
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Here is the blog post. The author denounces gender-inclusive translations with ten arguments. I’ll include them with my thoughts below.
(1) It obscures the profound symbolism of gender.
Not even sure what this means and it isn’t explained, but the paragraph that follows does not provide anything close to a sound argument: Gender has a profound, cosmic meaning. [Okay.] God created manhood, womanhood, marriage and sex to put the love story of Christ and the Church on display. [Agreed.] When we mess with the Bible’s gender language, we obscure gender’s symbolism. [This is nothing more than a restatement of the original point. There is no additional explanation of either (a) what this even means or (b) why it is true. There is no argument here, only raw assertion.] We make truths about God and the gospel more difficult to understand. [Um, how in the world is this true? Because we translate adelphoi “brothers and sisters” instead of “brothers” it becomes more difficult to understand that God saved the world through the crucified and resurrected Jesus of Nazareth? This makes no sense whatsoever.]
(2) It exalts gender above that to which it points:
She explains, “Changing the Bible’s gender language implies that the Bible’s gender language is about us. It’s not.” While I appreciate the following point that emphasizes the centrality of Jesus, she is committing the logical fallacy known as “the law of the excluded middle.” It’s when you set up two opposing points and knock one down so the other looks legit, where as there is actually a third point that stands above both of them. Here she says either gender language is about us or it is about Jesus, and she picks Jesus. But while theologically it may be about Jesus, it is also about us. She is just wrong here. When Genesis says “man” or “mankind” or “humanity,” it is talking about all of us. When Paul writes to the brothers (and sisters) in Colosse, he’s not talking to Jesus, he is talking to people about Jesus.
(3) It diminishes the unique beauty of womanhood.
She says it contributes to the blurring of gender distinctions. Wait a minute, so me calling a woman “sister” rather than “brother” actually makes her less of a woman? I am very confused by this. I think this point could much more easily be argued for translation changes than against them.
(4) It is less inclusive of women.
She says new translations cast women as “other” and exclude them from the whole. (Again, argument seems to work better the other way around.) She explains that God collectively named male and female “man,” and that without maintaining this translation women are excluded from representation by both the first man (Adam) and the second (Christ). For starters, no, God collectively named male and female adam, which is a Hebrew word referring in this instance to both men and women. “Man” is an English translation choice that has to answer for itself the same as “humankind” or any other proposed translation. And while her theological concerns are not foolish at all, she’s setting up scary arguments that once again simply aren’t sound. She asks, “If woman is not specifically identified as “man” then how can she be represented by the first man, Adam?” The answer is that she is more (not less!) obviously included in the newer translations. Same applies to the rest of her case. (In this paragraph she also subtly accuses the new translations of a more sinister motivation: “to appease modern sensibilities.” On this see today’s actual post.)
(5 & 6) It demeans women. It patronizes women.
Supposedly inclusive translations assume that women are too stupid to know “man” and “brothers” includes them. Aside from the fact that this denigrates all the female Bible translators who sit on committees producing inclusive-language editions, this just sounds like empty rhetoric. I know women know you are included in “man” and “brothers,” but I have no idea why we wouldn’t reflect this common knowledge in what is actually a more accurate translation. It’s not about helping women see what they can’t see on their own; it’s about putting on paper what all of us know we already mean. I don’t feel like I’m doing anyone a favor (less still that it is a favor “women” need big strong men to do for them); I’m just being a good translator.
(7 & 8) It calls God’s attitude toward women into question. It calls God’s wisdom into question.
Now she argues that gender-inclusive translators think God was too dumb to get it right and now needs our help. These entire points ignore the fact that God inspired the Scriptures in particular cultures and met them on their own terms. They ignore the way the Bible talks to itself as it unfolds. And she seems oblivious to the fact that her argument could be used against translations as a whole. Her logic is exactly why Islam believes you can only read the Qur’an in Arabic: if God wanted it in any other language he would have done so himself. The only difference is that she offers the same authority to one equally culturally-bound family of English translations!
(9) It encourages further changes to Scripture.
Here she implies that changing “man” to “humankind” and “brothers” to “brothers and sisters” is only the beginning and will eventually lead to calling God “Mother-Father God,” “Jesus, child of woman and man,” “Great Source of Being in the Sky” and our “God-Goddess.” And she implies that anyone who doesn’t see this as the feminist grand master plan is naive. None of this holds water once you start from the premise that the desire here is accurate re-presentation of the original meaning in today’s language, and that the original authors had women in mind too.
(10) It leads women away from truth.
She is preaching here and I don’t want to treat sermonic material as if she’s offering a syllogism for dissection. I applaud her heart and motivation here, but based on all the problems I’ve pointed out her actual appeal falls flat.
I hope I’ve not been mean. If you want to prefer non-inclusive translations or argue on their behalf, go for it. I know better arguments are out there, and maybe they’re correct. But don’t use these arguments because they are not good arguments. If you want to argue against gender-inclusive translations, you either have to demonstrate (a) that the original authors did not have women in mind, or (b) strong enough reasons in this particular case to actually not follow the general translation principle of getting as verbally close to that original meaning as possible.