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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, there is an Indian family. A Sikh man, complete with turban, takes his daily walk up the street every day, and an Iraqi family lives across the street. 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.

My Position on Inclusive Language

I strongly advocate the use of inclusive language in all originally written materials and oral presentations. One should never use he or she unless that pronoun refers to a specific individual who is masculine or feminine, but you must use he or she when you are referring to a person who is firm in their identity, or it can come across as an insult. When speaking of a person of unknown gender, it is now acceptable to use they and all its forms as a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun. One should also use they when you refer to a specific person who prefers those pronouns. This is just a common courtesy: one does not refer to Gertrude as Clarence or to Herkimer as Mildred. Each person deserves the dignity of the names and pronouns they choose for themselves.

It is good practice to pluralize references to unknown people when you are writing about procedures; for example, instead of writing the usher must hold the offering plate firmly in his or her hand it’s more natural to write the ushers must hold the the offering plates firmly in their hands. It is more accurate to put down whoever rather than he who, brothers and sisters instead of brothers, and anyone instead of any man.

Two Kinds of Inclusive Language

Today, many people 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. They fix it by using inclusive language, and so do I. One can either modify the text, or one can quote the text as is and then interpret it. I prefer the second method.

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.

Inclusive Language Can Be Self-Defeating in Bible Translations

It is necessary to be inclusive in contemporary speech and writing. However, changing ancient documents to contemporary inclusive language during the translation process is problematic, for these reasons:

Translation and exegesis must remain separate disciplines.

It is better to translate the Bible as it is, and then use inclusive language while interpreting it or preaching from it. The translator should not be doing the exegesis, which is the job of the person who is swriting a commentary or preaching a sermon.

Bible translators, in their laudable goal to retrofit inclusive language into the Bible haven’t sufficiently perfected their craft, as I will demonstrate.

Updating English terms that used to be inclusive, but no longer are

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 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.

In other cases, the English language has changed. The English word its is a very recent invention. 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 be picturesque, to personify the inanimate object, or even to impart masculinity to it. His was the possessive form of it at the time, because the word its hadn’t been invented yet.

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 something that is either plural or collective, such as 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 or it could have a collective meaning, as in boldy go where no man has gone before. Inclusive language translators almost invariably pluralize the concept, taking the word a collective noun, but that modifies 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 inteprets ανθρωπος as a collective noun, but that can only refer to the human race as a whole, implying that we have a divine pre-existence and that our lowly predicament is now over, which is a meaning that the context precludes. It 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.

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.

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.

Sometimes you can get away with this because the people you are inclusifying are either dead or absent and cannot fight back, but it also 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.

This is also a form of deadnaming.

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 permanent 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 they didn’t commute to work. A household combined the modern institutions of family and business, the house was both a residence and a place of business, and the slaves lived in the house with the family. This practice didn’t end with the Roman Empire. The servants and the family lived together in the same house in the British TV show Upstairs, Downstairs.

In those days, men and women had equally important responsibilities, but they were not interchangeable. Men could not plow fields at night, but women’s work was not governed by the clock. Hence the saying that men’s work is sun to sun, but women’s work is never done.

In world of the New Testament, the father supervised the business while the son did the work. 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 does the heavy lifting. 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.

What About the Women?

For those who are worried about women in that era, the woman of the house had the task of managing the staff, running her own business, and doing charity. Prominent Roman women were also active in politics, as we know from the ruins of Herculaneum, which was destroyed by Vesuvius along with Pompei. Paul made a point of evangelizing influential women, stayed with a Thyatiran businesswoman named Lydia, and sent his epistles to the Romans by way of Phoebe. Jesus’ ministry was financed by His female followers. And of course, He was born of a woman who was pregnant without the help of any man.

My Great Aunt Laura was in a similar situation as a Methodist pastor in the 1930s. This wasn’t by any means a common occurrence in those days, so the local newspaper interviewed her. The reporters had two questions:

She did not take offense at these questions, because housework had only recently been a full-time back-breaking job.

The Working-Class Household Before the Twentieth Century

Imagine a nineteenth-century watchmaker whose store is the first floor of his house. His wife, the cook, the maid, the children, and the apprentices all live in the same house. The watchmaker manages the business, his sons work the counter, his apprentices repair the watches, and his wife manages the household staff. 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.

In short, there is no way to translate the Bible that removes the need for Bible study, whether for personal benefit or for sermon preparation.

Massively Offensive:

I touched on this under the heading Unnecessary De-Masculinization.

Playground bullies often ridicule smaller boys by giving them feminine nicknames and by referring to them with feminine pronouns. Here come Jesse, but they taunt him as Jessica and they refer to him as she. This isn’t something that happens only to boys. It also happens when bullies call a girl by a masculine name, use masculine pronouns for her, and talk about her as if she were a boy. It isn’t even limited to children; it is also a way of ridiculing adults, usually behind their backs in the breakroom at the office. The bullying can cause depression and even suicide.

Transgenderism has only risen to the public consciousness quite recently, but there have always been transgender people. One example is Albert Cashier (1843–1915), whose birth name was Jennie. He adopted a male identity as a teenager, later enlisted in the Union army, fought during the American Civil War and lived out the remainder of his life as a man. Look up List of Wartime Cross-Dressers in Wikipedia. The earliest entries are from Greek antiquity.

This kind of bullying is now called deadnaming, (referring to a person by their former, or dead name.) It is a weapon on both sides of our culture war.

One side rightly objects to deadnaming the self-professed Son of Man as the Child of Humanity, but wrongly deadnames the self-professed Caitlyn Jenner as Bruce. The other side rightly objects to deadnaming the self-professed Caitlyn Jenner as Bruce, but wrongly deadnames the self-professed Son of Man as the Child of Humanity.

Taking hostages in our culture war by deliberately deadnaming people is not inclusive language, it is not tradition, it is just plain wrong by the standards of both sides! Just because people are dead or their names appear in the Bible doesn’t make them fair game. Both sides must drop their weapons.

My Recommendation for Bible Study

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

The root problem is that inclusive language is an anachronism in an ancient document. If you put the new wine of inclusive language into the old wineskin of the Bible, which is an ancient document, the wineskin bursts and the meaning is lostMatthew 9:16-17, Mark 2:21-22, Luke 5:37-39.

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.

Bible translations should use inclusive language as follows:

Bible translations should not use inclusive language as follows:

My Recommendation for Worship Material

Do not change the wording of Bible translations or hymn texts to put them into inclusive language, or for any other noble purpose, because it can be illegal. Steer clear of copyright infringement, counterfeiting, and forgery.

Instead, put the new wine of inclusive language into the new wineskins of documents you create yourself. Then your meaning is preservedMatthew 9:17, Mark 2:22, Luke 5:37