Arguments For And Against Gender-Inclusive Bible Language
The Bible is one of the most widely-read books in the world and has been translated countless times, into hundreds of languages. The past century has seen more new and updated Bible versions than the last thousand years, with English being one of the most frequently updated languages on the market. But with new translation projects, carried out in ever-changing contexts and times, new challenges arise. Gender inclusivity is probably one of the biggest concerns, dividing Bible scholars and readers alike.
This Article Contains
- Arguments For And Against Gender-Inclusive Bible Language
- Gender-Neutral Language In Biblical Contexts
- References To Individuals, Groups Of People And Humanity
- References To God And The Names Of God
- Three Biblical Examples Where Gender-Inclusive Language Really Matters
Bruce Metzger (2010) who edited and provided commentary for many Bible translations claims, for example, that English is biased towards the male gender. For this reason, the English language often obscures the meaning of the original language, which was much more gender-inclusive. Others argue that the Bible is patriarchal. Gender-neutral language thus distorts its meaning in an attempt by translators to impose their modern views on the text (Marlowe, 2005). Proponents of gender-inclusive versions of the Bible are then accused of bowing to the ideology of political correctness rather than trying to 'accurately' translate the Word (Mankowski, 2007; Minton, 2003). Such gender-neutral translations include the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the Common English Bible (CEB), the 2011 edition of the New International Version (NIV) and the New Living Translation (NLT).
Yet, this argument is rather dubious. There is no such thing as a neutral language. The English language is a social product, shaped by historical, cultural and political contexts. Moreover, the process of translation always involves interpretation. It is not a mechanical process of word-for-word conversion, and Bible translations are no exception. In fact, some gender-inclusive phrases in modern Bible editions can even be closer to the original meaning of the text, although we would need to discuss what we mean by 'original' in this context.
Gender-Neutral Language In Biblical Contexts
As the Introduction to the NLT states: The English language changes constantly. Gender-inclusive language is one area where there has been a noticeable recent shift. This causes difficulties for current translators of the ancient Bible text, which was written in a patriarchal society. The translator must respect the historic background while also taking into consideration the concerns of the current readership. Often, the original language allows for a gender-inclusive rendering. The Greek term anthropos, which is typically translated as 'man', really means 'human being' or 'person.' Aner, a separate Greek term, especially means 'male'.
According to the editors, there are other occasions where the original language is male-oriented, but not intentionally so. Most of the regulations in the Pentateuch, for example, are written in male-pronoun-heavy language. But since it is clear in many cases that the recipients of these laws were both male and female, we can use gender-neutral language where appropriate. Another example can be found in New-Testament references to Christians as 'brothers' (adelphoi), a term which is used in the epistles, for instance. Here, too, it is clear that these texts were written to all members of the early Church, both men and women. So, it is possible to translate this word as 'brothers and sisters' or 'Christian friends' in order to represent the historical situation more accurately.
References To Individuals, Groups Of People And Humanity
To understand the significance of such changes, we need to compare a gender-neutral translation of a relevant Bible passage such as the NLT with that of a non-gender-inclusive one such as the English Standard Version (ESV). Bible verses that include the Greek term, anthropos, are a useful example. Let's take a look at James 1:12.
ESV. 'Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.'
NLT. 'God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.'
Moreover, many recent Bible translations have replaced terms like 'men' or 'brothers' with the more gender-neutral forms 'people' or 'brothers and sisters'. For instance, the 2011 edition of the NIV translates 1 Thessalonians 4:1 as 'brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God,' even though the actual word for sisters was not included in the Greek text. In other words, the translators inserted 'and sisters' in order to be gender-neutral.
But does this render the meaning of the original text in any way? Certainly not. Again, the most logical argument would be: since Paul was writing to the Church as a whole (which undoubtedly included sisters in Christ), the insertion of such gender-inclusive language does not affect the intent of this particular passage. On the contrary, using more generic words such as 'people', 'parents', 'descendants' and 'humankind' instead of 'man', 'father', 'sons' and 'mankind' may help to reduce confusion, avoid misunderstandings or even offence to female and non-binary Christians today.
References To God And The Names Of God
The names of God can be translated from Hebrew to English in a variety of ways. In Hebrew, the name, God, consists of the following four consonants, also known as the Tetragrammaton: Yod-Heh-Waw-Heh (YHWH). Modern Biblical translations often change this to LORD, with a capital L, followed by ORD in small caps. Other Bible versions use the term 'Yahweh' whereas the King James Version (KJV) uses 'Jehovah'. This form's original meaning is linked to Exodus 3:14 – the great 'I AM' – which most likely contains a Hebrew masculine verb prefix, the Y or yod. This term is sometimes transcribed into English using the Hebrew term 'Adonai', following ancient Jewish reverence customs. Adonai means 'my lords' (the plural form of adon), and is commonly translated as Lord. Other Hebrew names for the Divine are El Shaddai (God Almighty) and Elohim (The Supreme One or the One With Supreme Powers, although it is worth noting that Elohim, too, is a plural form).
Many prayers use one or more of the names of God several times in one paragraph. The first time it appears, a proper name is used, while further occurrences use the third-person pronouns he, she or it. An example of a female image of God, used in the Bible is that of God as a comforting mother in Isaiah 66:13: 'As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem' (CEB). (Note how non-gender-neutral translations like the ESV use a masculine pronoun here: 'As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you (...).')
There is some support for the argument that 'they' or 'it' would be better pronouns for God. Some Jewish, Christian and Islamic medieval thinkers promoted the view that all apparent bodily portrayals of God were poetic metaphors. According to them, we should avoid describing God as a (human) person altogether.
Three Examples Where Gender-Inclusive Bible Translation Really Matters
2 Peter 1:21
Prior to its gender-inclusive 2011 edition, the NIV translated this passage as: 'For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.' This translation used the male forms 'man/men' even though the Greek word, anthropos, includes both genders and is, therefore, better translated as 'human'. The 2011 edition now reads, more accurately: 'For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.' In other words, the new translation does not ignore the existence of female prophets.
The ESV translates these verses as: 'who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.' Again, both 'men' and 'human' are translations of the term 'anthropos'. So, it is difficult to understand why the ESV would choose two different words for the same concept. By contrast, the more gender-neutral NRSV has this as: '(...) being born in human likeness. And being found in human form (...)'.
According to the ESV, this verse reads: 'Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God', whereas the NLT refers to those who work for peace in this world as 'children of God'. Here, the argument would be that even though the original term is masculine (huioi) and means 'sons' (see also Gal 3:26 and Rom 8:14), the word can still be translated generically to include women. In Paul's letters, for example, the same term is used with reference to Christians in their new relation to God as Father through Christ, in which case the same term comprises men and women.
Gender-neutral translations such as 'children of God' instead of 'sons of God' are therefore not only justifiable but also essential in their theological implications.
- New Revised Standard Version
- The Common English Bible
- New International Version (2011 Edition)
- New Living Translation
- Contemporary English Version
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Metzger, B. (2010). Preface to the NRSV. Date accessed 2021-06-02.
Marlowe, M. D. (2005). The Gender-Neutral Language Controversy. Bible Research.
Mankowski, P. (2007). Jesus, Son of Humankind? The Necessary Failure of Inclusive-Language Translations. Orthodoxytoday.org.
Minton R. (2003). Gender-Inclusive Bible Translations. Chafer Theological Seminary, 9(1).