The policy of the NRSV translation committee on inclusive language, as I began to discuss in the preceding post, was sensible, in my view.  It involved a three-pronged approach.

  1. Any passage that was referring to both men and women was to be rendered inclusively, even if the original language (Hebrew or Greek) used masculine terms (“men,” “man,” “brothers,” “he” etc.).
  2. Any passage that was explicitly referring only to men, or only to women, was to be left as referring only to men or to women.
  3. All references to the Deity that in the original used masculine terms were to be left masculine.

Here I will say a few things about each of these policies, in reverse order.  First, the deity.  No one on the committee thought that the deity actually has male genitalia or other sexual distinctions.  But changing every reference to God (a masculine term, since there is a feminine alternative: Goddess) or Lord (again, a feminine alternative: Lady) or … anything else, would be hugely cumbersome and distracting.  And there are not literarily satisfying options.  It really would not do to alternate every other time between God and Goddess; and neutral terms such as “the deity” (for “God”) or “the Sovereign One” (for Lord) are awkward and not literarily pleasing.

Moreover, the committee decided that the reality is that ancient Jews and Christians understood God to be a male figure.  And so, for the translation, they left all male-exclusive language in reference to the deity as masculine.

Second, there are numerous passages in the Bible that explicitly speak about men only or about women only.  There are more of the former, obviously.  These were to be left masculine or feminine.  For example, in Acts 2 Peter gives his famous speech on the day of Pentecost to the crowd of Jews who are gathered there, to convince them that the miracle of the coming of the Holy Spirit shows that Jesus really was the messiah who died and was raised again.  One might think the crowd comprised both men and women, but when Peter addresses them he calls them ANDRES ISRAELITAI – literally “men [i.e. males] of Israel” (2:22); and later he calls them ANDRES ADELPHOI – literally – “men [male] brothers.”

The translators kept these explicitly male terms explicitly male, so that in the second instance they translated the term as “brethren.”  This was in contrast to other passages, such as in the letters of Paul, where ADELPHOI, the word for “brothers” occurs without the male designation ANDRES; these passages were taken to refer to both men and women, and so were translated accordingly, often with something like “brothers and sisters,” where “and sisters” was not explicitly represented in the Greek text but was nonetheless understood to be the case because Paul was not talking only to the men but to the women as well.

This policy of keeping male-only language male-only but male-language that referred to males and females inclusive made for some very difficult decisions in places, especially in the Old Testament, and nowhere more problematically than in the legal codes of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers.  There are some verses that give laws directed explicitly to either males or females.  For example, Leviticus 15:2 refers to the ceremonial impurity that comes on a man from an abnormal discharge (e.g. from a sexually transmitted disease) from his penis.  That law in the NRSV is kept male only, as directed to “any man” (as opposed, say, to “anyone”).   Later in the chapter, in 15:19, is a reference to ritual impurity that comes on a woman during her menstruation period.  That law is directed to a “woman.”

On the other hand, there are other laws that appear to apply to both men and women, even if the Hebrew uses male-specific terms.  The laws concerning leprosy occur in Leviticus 13, and are phrased, in the Hebrew, as referring to ADAM (= a man).   But the laws surely applied to women as well, and so the NRSV translates the term as “a person.”  In many ways, this approach to translation clarifies the sense, since if one translated it as “a man” then these particular laws might be taken by modern readers as referring only to male and not to females.  But for the translators it was always a judgment call and often proved difficult.

The third prong of the inclusive language policy, then, was to render all references to humans generally as inclusive, rather than as referring only to males.  Apart from the problems imposed by the legal codes of the Old Testament, this policy created real difficulties for translators who wanted to present a literarily satisfying and even elegant translation, but were faced with real conundra when it came to phrasing passages accurately (as including both men and women) but pleasingly.

In some instances there was not a big problem.  “Men” could be translated as “people” or “human beings” or even “mortals” without much of a problem in most places.  “Brothers” could be clarified as “brothers and sisters.”  And so on.  But in some passages the results are clunky and unattractive.  One that I’ve always thought was completely impossible was Mark 1:17.   At the very beginning of his ministry Jesus, Jesus calls his disciples, beginning with Peter and Andrew.  Passing by the Sea of Galilee he sees them fishing, and he calls out to them “Follow me and I will make you fishers of men.”  They drop their nets and come to follow him.

But surely Jesus does not mean that in their new role as “fishers of men” they will catch only males (for the kingdom), but females as well.  So by translating the word “men” as “men” the translators would do a disservice to the reader, who may misconstrue the meaning.  Moreover, the Greek word used is not the male-only designation ANDRES but the generic term that refers to both males and females ANTHROPOI (= people/humans).  And so the passage should be rendered inclusively.  But how?

I’ve puzzled over this problem for years, and have never come up with a good solution.  The original suggestion that the NRSV committee wanted to go with was to render it “Follow me and I will make you fishers of humans.”  I thought that was terrible.  Maybe it’s because I spent too many years in Vacation Sunday School singing “I will make you fishers of men.”  That King James rendering is so catchy and flows, literarily, so well.  In contrast, “fishers of humans” simply seems clunky.  Eventually the committee went with a translation that I preferred (remember, I was not one of the translators: I was just the research grunt for the committee.  But I still had my opinions!), “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  Still clunky and not the sort of thing you’ll make into a song for kids.  But at least it’s accurate.  And I’ve never come up with anything that works better, that both gets the correct meaning across (the disciples will catch people – both men and women – for the kingdom) and expresses that meaning elegantly.

In a subsequent post I will talk about other problems that arose from the inclusive language policy of the committee.

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2024-01-02T12:26:00-05:00January 2nd, 2024|History of Biblical Scholarship, Reflections and Ruminations|

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  1. notforcing January 2, 2024 at 9:12 am

    “I will make you fish for people” reads to me like the disciples would end up on the dinner plate, in some metaphorical sense. Wonder why they didn’t go with “fishers for men and women”.

    • BDEhrman January 3, 2024 at 4:36 pm

      They didn’t think it was very lyrical. And they were right. But good luck finding a good option!

  2. fishician January 2, 2024 at 10:06 am

    I have no problem with translating a word like anthropoi as “people” rather than “men,” but if the text says “men”, “man” or “male” I want to know that, without assumptions about what is meant. On the other hand, some translations seem to go out of their to add “maleness.” I believe the RSV translates Mark 6:12 as “So they went out and preached that MEN should repent” even though the word “men” is absent. The NRSV has “that ALL should repent.” That makes more sense than inserting “men” there. However, I’m struggling to think of any passage in the Gospels in which Jesus specifically calls a woman to be his disciple, even though we have stories like the rich young MAN, and the members of the Twelve were all male. Are we trying too hard to make Jesus gender-sensitive? Maybe he thought if you convert the men, the women will follow?

  3. Apocryphile January 2, 2024 at 11:51 am

    I generally agree with the policy of using inclusive language as much as possible, but there is also a point at which it becomes ridiculous, as with your “I will make you fish for people” example, or trying to use gender-neutral language for God. You can’t make a literarily ugly phrase elegant, no matter how hard you try.

    • BDEhrman January 3, 2024 at 4:38 pm

      Yup, it’s a tricky business. It was interesting to see how those on the committee who started out being highly resistant to the change to inclusive language ended up becoming big supporters of it, and to see how they got better and better at it over time. Still, some problems are just insoluble.

  4. jbhodge January 2, 2024 at 6:35 pm

    Regarding the OT. for a religion that identifies itstelf as Judeo-Christian then why wouldn’t the use of Yahweh suffice for God? It is totally gender nutral. Just leave the Hebrew unique indentification in the Hebrew language. Nothing wrong with that and cannot be inferred as any other gods.

    Regarding the New Testament, there are Men, Women and together they are the “children of Yahweh” for all within and without Judism? For those only within Judism, then “family of Yahweh” would be appropriate. “Men of God” would change to “Family of God” unless only men can be of God.

    • BDEhrman January 3, 2024 at 4:43 pm

      I guess the problem is that Yahweh is actually a name, not a general noun. So it wouldn’t be accurate to translate the noun God with the name Yahweh.

      • jbhodge January 3, 2024 at 6:42 pm

        Then is it accurate to lable Yahweh with the same noun as any other God? Reading the interlinear of Exodus 20, Yahweh is used for Yahweh and Elohe is used for God. So how in the English Translations did the separation get thrown away? Judism is a religion of Identity and so is Christianity. How did the manuscripts and translations loose that identity within the text itself? General vs Proper Noun is a lousy excuse. If the Gospels were originally written in Greek and not Hebrew, then the Greek authors must have wanted to remove Jewish Identity out of the text itself even though they included judism. They made it an object rather than a people.

        • BDEhrman January 6, 2024 at 2:27 pm

          I”m not sure I’m seeing your point. If I say a person named George is a man, then George is his name and man is his description. Elohim is used for other gods in the OT, and for angels, and apparently for humans. YHWH is used for … YHWH.

  5. FrankLoomer January 2, 2024 at 10:51 pm

    how about “fishers of all or all people”???? sounds not bad to me. Separately, i still wonder why mankind has not been overtaken in modern parlance by humankind, which has been around for quite a while. Then, these days, there is the new transgender pronouns. Mary now would be they or them … hmmm

    • BDEhrman January 3, 2024 at 4:44 pm

      Yeah, not too bad. Though some readers might think it means trout, perch, catfish, cod, flounder… etc.

  6. nanuninu January 3, 2024 at 12:49 am

    Follow me and I will make you fishers for souls. One day they’re out fishing for sole, then Jesus comes along…

    • BDEhrman January 3, 2024 at 4:45 pm

      Wow. Wish I had thought of that.

  7. brenmcg January 3, 2024 at 2:58 am

    When Mark 10:11-12 writes “He answered, Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man she commits adultery.”

    isnt he correcting Matthews gender specific version of it?

    Matthew 19:9 “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery”?

    • BDEhrman January 3, 2024 at 4:46 pm

      I don’t see any reason to think so, no.

      • brenmcg January 3, 2024 at 5:41 pm

        Well the only conceivable reason for Matthew editing Mark’s version of Mark 10:11-12 to his Matthew 19:9 would be to allow for the possibility of a woman divorcing her husband and marrying another man without committing adultery. (but not vice versa)

        But wouldn’t that a non-credible edit by Matthew?

        • BDEhrman January 6, 2024 at 2:21 pm

          Credible to whom?

          • brenmcg January 7, 2024 at 5:45 pm

            Credible to anyone – who finds it credible that Matthew looked at Mark and said “I think I’ll remove just the bit about women re-marrying and committing adultery and leave in the bit about men remarrying”?

            Isn’t it clearly obvious that in this instance its Mark editing Matthew? clearing up a possible ambiguity re women re-marrying?

          • BDEhrman January 10, 2024 at 1:24 pm

            No, not to me.

  8. GeoffClifton January 3, 2024 at 3:31 pm

    I too have difficulty imagining an effective alternative to ‘Fishers of Men’, even though I am in favour of inclusive language. And I guess that ‘Son of Man’ also presents problems for translators, as it is such a totemic phrase that alternatives, like Son of People or Humans, just don’t cut the mustard.

    • BDEhrman January 3, 2024 at 4:55 pm

      People have suggested things such as “mortal” or “mortal one” or “human one” or … well, nothing particularly catchy.

  9. Stonefeather January 4, 2024 at 12:13 am

    I think it is your remembrance of the song that is the stumbling block for you. To me “fishers of people” seems neither more nor less elegant than “fishers of men.”

    • BDEhrman January 6, 2024 at 2:35 pm

      Good point. But it is indeed hard to put it into a catch tune…

      • Stonefeather January 8, 2024 at 3:50 am

        It could easily fit well into a catchy tune, just not that one. What is trickier is trying to rhyme it.

        • BDEhrman January 10, 2024 at 1:34 pm

          Yeah, probably so. But in the original tune “men” doesn’t rhyme with anything, so maybe that’s not a problem. It just scans very well.

  10. Alfred January 4, 2024 at 6:01 pm

    ‘Fishers of men’ is an archaic term. It has no modern English equivalents where you would expect to find them: ‘fishers of eels’; ‘fishers of swordfish’; ‘fishers of oysters’. It sounds good because we know it as a term, not because it is good modern English. When I am asked to rewrite the NRSV I will suggest: ‘Follow me and you will fish for men and women’.

    In modern fishing terminology: ‘Follow me and your target species will be humans’. Maybe not.

  11. Pcrtje January 5, 2024 at 10:10 am

    B: “The original suggestion that the NRSV committee wanted to go with was to render it “Follow me and I will make you fishers of humans.” I thought that was terrible. Maybe it’s because I spent too many years in Vacation Sunday School singing “I will make you fishers of men.” That King James rendering is so catchy and flows, literarily, so well. In contrast, “fishers of humans” simply seems clunky.”

    When I read “Follow me and I will make you fishers of humans”, it immediatly sounded natural and familiar, since in my native German and Dutch, the translations of both the 16th and the 21st centuries, translate it literally as “fishers of humans” or “humans fishers”. It’s interesting that a certain translation can feel so dear or terrible to one, but someone other doesn’t even see the problem.

  12. Elkojohn January 5, 2024 at 3:35 pm

    “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of those in need.”

  13. Publilius January 17, 2024 at 7:31 pm

    I’m late to the party, so you may not even see my comment here. But it seems that “I will make you fish for people” slightly changes the meaning. “I will make you –verb–” carries a nuance of coercion. “I will make you fishers of people” seems to mean “I will make you into someone who can fish for people (whether you decide to do it or not)”, while “I will make you fish for people” seems to mean I will make you do it whether you want to or not.

    • BDEhrman January 24, 2024 at 6:34 pm

      Good point! It could easily be misread.

  14. Duke12 January 30, 2024 at 1:34 pm

    Can’t think of a better way to rephrase “fishers of men,” either, but many years ago when I was younger and more conservative, a friend read off that “fish for people” phrase and we both did a major eye roll and head shake. I stuck with the NKJV and the NASV as a result.

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