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The Problem with Inclusive-Language Bible Translations

Because I live in the Washington DC area, my neighborhood is very diverse. The Chinese family lives next door to the African American family, which lives next door to the Muslim family (the original owners were Vietnamese), which lives next door to a bi-racial family consisting of a white American man, a Rwandan woman, and their children, who like to pet my dog. The Rwandan woman’s sister, who was visiting, told me that she speaks Swedish and prefers to live in Europe. At the end of the street is an Indian family. A Sikh man, complete with turban, takes his walk up the street every day. When my late father collapsed while walking the dog, the Vietnamese couple helped me get him up and back home, and the black pastor’s church has a singing group that performed in my church. Two members of my church have black in-laws and mixed-race grandchildren.

I also have a feminist background. My great aunt Laura was a licensed lay speaker in the Methodist Episcopal Church in the 1930s. Her district superintendent appointed her pastor of a church. She also had a religious radio show. My grandmother used to lecture me on the evils of men. She maintained that women never do bad things on their own, they only do bad things when men coerce them. For some reason or the other, I seemed to be the only exception.

So I see the necessity for being inclusive. However, Bible translators who attempt to use inclusive language haven’t sufficiently perfected their craft.

Two Kinds of Inclusive Language

Today, many writers go to great lengths to avoid offending the sensitivities of people who believe that the use of masculine words in a Bible translation excludes women. The fix it by using “inclusive language.” There are two kinds of inclusive language:

Inclusive-language Bible translations generally use a mild form of the second type. Since the ancient world had different concerns, sensitivities, preoccupations, and social institutions, this can lead to a misleading translation.

Good: updating English terms that used to be inclusive

Some English words were inclusive in the 17th century, but they are no longer inclusive today.

In the epistles, Paul addresses “αδελφοι.” Greek uses the same word for brothers (αδελφοι) and sisters (αδελφαι) with different grammatical endings. The masculine plural includes the feminine plural, as it does in modern French and Spanish. The King James Bible (that is, the Authorised Version) translates αδελφοι as “brethren.” In those days, if someone asked you how many brethren you had, you might answer “two brothers and three sisters,” if that was the case. Today “brethren” is not in common use and we take it to be the plural of “brother.” Translating αδελφοι as “brothers and sisters” is correct. It conveys the meaning that “brethren” used to convey, but no longer does.

There are also apparent gender biases in the text of older translations that are really just antique inclusive language. For example, the Greek words for “anyone,” “no one,” “someone,” and so forth, are all gender neutral. The translators of the King James Version translated them as “any man,” “no man,” “a man,” and so forth, because the word “man” in those usages was inclusive to speakers of Jacobean English, but we don’t speak Jacobean English. Wherever the King James Version translates the Greek as “any man,” and a modern translator translates it as “any one,” they actually mean the same thing. “One” conveys the meaning of the Greek text for a speaker of modern English.

In other cases, the language has changed. The English word “its” is a recent addition to our language. In many cases old hymns and old Bible translations use the word “his” to refer back to an inanimate object. The intent was not to impart masculinity or even personify the inanimate object. “His” was the possessive form of “it” at the time, because the word “its” hadn’t been invented yet.

Problematic: pluralizing the text

One of the ways to write inclusive language is to pluralize the text, because the English masculine, feminine, and neuter third person pronouns (“he,” “she,” “it”) share a common plural form (“they”), just as they do in Dutch and German. It’s now acceptable usage to use the word “they” with a singular meaning, as in “a person wanted their money back.” It is a very good idea to pluralize the text to make it inclusive, but only if the writer is referring to the human race, the general public, or a person whose gender is presently unknown.

If the biblical writer or if historic Christian theology interprets the singular form as referring to Jesus, but an overzealous translator pluralizes it, the meaning is completely distorted. For example, Hebrews 2:6 in the Greek New Testament quotes Psalm 8:4 from the Greek Old Testament. (The New Testament writers quoted the Septuagint, not the Hebrew Old Testament.) Both texts contain “ανθρωπος” in the singular, which is generally translated “man.” The Greek word means “man” in the sense of “member of the human race.” It is grammatically masculine, but semantically it can refer to a male or female person. In German, we could translate it as “Mensch,” but we don’t really have an English word that is suitable. Since Greek does not have an indefinite article, “ανθρωπος” can mean either “man” or “a man.” Inclusive language translators almost invariably pluralize the concept, modifying both passages so that they refer to the entire human race, which is the case in the New Revised Standard Version. In the original text, the writer of Hebrews is interpreting the Old Testament passage as a prophecy of Jesus Christ, and 2,000 years of Christian theology is based on that. Hebrews 2:6 should read “a man.” This is permitted in inclusive language because Hebrews 2:6 is referring to one specific person who happens to be a man. The translators’ pluralized version can only refer to the human race, implying that we have a divine pre-existence and that our lowly predicament is now over. That is historically a heresy, but it doesn’t even make sense, since we are definitely not in control of all things. How should they have translated it? Differently.

I remember hearing a sermon on Hebrews 2 in which the preacher explained in great detail why the modification is dead wrong. The preacher, by the way, was a woman.

Pluralizing the text to make it inclusive requires interpretation, and as we see in Hebrews 2, overzealous translators can make mistakes that lead to serious departures from historic Christian theology.

Over the top: unnecessary de-masculinization

Many people, including the ones who publish the Revised Common Lectionary, de-masculinize things that don’t need it. For example, one often hears of “The Reign of Christ” instead of “Christ the King.” I think this is silly for four reasons.

Now you may say this is harmless, and to a degree you are right, but it breaks continuity with traditional vocabulary, making the last 2,000 years of Christian theology less accessible. You can look up “reign of God” in the ante-Nicene theologians until you are blue in the face, but you won’t find it.

Destructive: changing ancient technical language that has no modern equivalent

In the English language, we have lost grammatical gender. Gender is part of the semantic content of a word, but it never serves a grammatical function in English. We never have the situation as in German, where the word for a soldier on guard duty is feminine, even if the soldier is male and where the word “Person” is feminine, even if it refers to a man, and the word “Mensch” is masculine, even if it refers to a woman. Greek is more like German than English in this regard. Greek has grammatical gender, and the gender of a noun doesn’t have to match the sex of the person to whom it refers. If translators don’t pay close attention, they can destroy part of the meaning of the text.

Many people think that the very crucial word “son” is only a kinship term that means “male child” and thus render it “child” to remove perceived gender bias. If only it were that simple. In modern English, the sole difference between a “son” and a “child” is that a “son” is always masculine and a “child” can be masculine or feminine in meaning, but the New Testament was not written in modern English. In the Greek, the word for “son” is grammatically masculine, in that it takes adjectives with masculine endings. The word for “child” is grammatically neuter, in that it takes adjectives with neuter endings. It should be obvious that biblical languages are neither modern nor English. In the era of the New Testament, “son” was a legal term that referred to the fact that a son, by virtue of being a son, held the ancient equivalent of his father’s power of attorney. If a man wanted to give a slave the authority to run his business, he had to adopt that slave as his son. There was no other way to confer a power of attorney. This meaning of the word “son” is evident in Hebrews 5:18 in which the writer compares Moses as a servant to Jesus as a Son to point out that a relationship with the son is more desirable—the underlying reason being that the father is bound by the son’s actions, but not by the slave’s actions. In both the modern and the ancient worlds, a child is by definition too young to conduct any business at all, so “child” is a bad translation under any circumstance. When the New Testament calls us adopted “sons,” it refers to our responsibilities, when it calls us “children,” it refers to our belovedness. Paul contrasts the two in Ephesians 1, but you’d never know it by reading the NRSV. By rendering both “son” and “child” as “child,” we get a distorted view that our role as Christians is just to let God love and cuddle us. He does, but that’s only half the picture.

The relationship between a father and a son in the ancient world had three dimensions: love, essence, and agency. There is no word in modern English that has that same triple meaning, but “son” comes closest. In our world, love, essence, and agency are separate: I can give someone my power of attorney without that person being my son, I can have a son who does not have my power of attorney, and I can give my power of attorney to someone without particularly loving them. In the modern world, love, essence, and agency are three things; in the ancient world, they were one indivisible thing. Since “son” is a legal term without a modern equivalent, we cannot replace it; instead, we must retain it and learn that an ancient son is not quite the same thing as a modern son. (See? There’s no way to get around the need for Bible study!) Paul even says that women are sons in Galatians 3, so he is obviously thinking of “son” in the sense of “business agent,” not in the sense of “male child.” By changing “son” to “child,” the translator is changing us from the active agents of God’s grace to the passive recipients of God’s love.

In the ancient world, people didn’t live in suburban bungalows and commute to work. A household combined the modern institutions of family and business, and a house was both a residence and a place of business. The father presided over the business while the son carried it out. The terms “father” and “son” are not just kinship terms, they express more than just a relationship of love, they are the ancient terms for business owners and their authorized representatives. This is evident in John 1:1-4, which refers to Genesis 1:1-3: God the Father is the proprietor of the universe and God the Son acts on His behalf. If we inclusify the ancient technical terms of father and son, we destroy the connection to ancient institutions that allow us to understand the theology of the writers of the New Testament.

Imagine a watchmaker whose store is the first floor of his house. His wife, his sons, and his apprentices live on the second floor. He supervises the business, his sons work the counter, his apprentices repair the watches, and his wife does the books. They all take their meals together. Now you have an idea of the ancient household. The words “household” and “family” differ in that the apprentice is a member of the household, but not a member of the family, which means the son is an heir but the apprentice is not. Translating the Greek word for “household” as “family” misleads the modern reader.

The fact that fathers and sons share the same essence and authority, and that the sons’ actions are binding on their fathers is very important in historic Christian theology as worked out by ancient theologians. In fact, it’s the only way we can even understand it. Jesus had to share God’s essence (Son of God) to share His agency (perform divine acts), and He had to share our essence (Son of man) to share our agency (perform human acts). If we understand that, we can follow Athanasius’ argument against the Arians that Jesus had to be fully God to effect our salvation and fully human for us to benefit from it, and we can see how that reasoning was, for many people, a clincher. Then we can also understand why the Pharisees thought that when Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, he was claiming equality with God (John 5:18). None of this makes much sense if they had said it in the modern world with modern words that have modern meanings against the backdrop of modern legal institutions, but they didn’t, and we should not translate it as if they had. They said it in the ancient world with ancient words that had ancient meanings against the backdrop of ancient legal institutions. To a modern reader, claiming to be the Son of God and claiming to be God are two different things. To a person in the New Testament era, it was the same thing. And now you know why.

Counterproductive: accommodating the reader at the expense of the writer

There are two parties to any written communication: the reader and the writer. Translation is the process of putting the words of the writer into a form that the reader can understand. There’s no point to translation if the reader doesn’t understand, so the translator has to pay careful attention to the meanings, connotations, and usages of words in the target language. There’s also no point to translation if it does not accurately convey the meaning of the writer, so the translator has to pay just as much attention to the meanings, connotations, and usages of words in the source language. Inclusive language translations put too much stress on what the reader does not want to hear, and too little stress on what the writer wants to say. Sometimes the inclusive-language translator is completely off-topic, making the passage about the reader when it is not, such as in the mistreatment of Hebrews 2.

I once taught a Bible study on this topic to a room full of women. They left the Bible study very angry, not at me, but at the NRSV for its condescension and for taking away their empowerment.

My Recommendation

I strongly advocate the use of gender-inclusive language in all written materials. One should never use “he” or “she” unless that pronoun refers to a specific individual who is masculine or feminine. When speaking of a person of unknown gender, it is now acceptable to use “they” as a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. It is good practice to pluralize references to unknown people; for example, instead of writing “the customer must have his receipt for a refund” one should write “customers must have their receipts for a refund.” In Bible translations, it is more accurate to put down “whoever” rather than “he who,” “brothers and sisters” instead of “brothers,” and “anyone” instead of “any man.” Going further than that can lead to serious problems.

As I write this, most inclusive-language translations are over-enthusiastic, failing to make important distinctions, generalizing statements that are specific, and obscuring ancient legal institutions. If translators create meaning instead of just conveying it, they are irresponsible.

For that reason, I do not recommend an inclusive-language Bible for serious study, unless you use it with other translations and with resources that allow you to understand the underlying text.