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Inclusive Language in Bible Translations

One of the most difficult issues that the New Revised Standard Version translation committee had to address involved the use of inclusive language.  Part of the problem was that this issue was not a generally recognized issue (by the wider reading public) when the translators began their work, but was very much an issue when they were already finished with a large chunk of it.  The translators were mainly senior scholars who had acquired their linguistic skills before virtually anyone in the academy knew (or at least said) that there even was a problem with inclusivity, and so they themselves were learning how to communicate in the new idiom.  And it took a while before they figured out how exactly to handle it.

I myself was first introduced to the problem when I entered graduate school, and like a lot of people from my generation (especially, but not only, us males) at first I thought it was a fairly ridiculous much ado about nothing and that writing inclusively simply threatened to destroy the beauty of the English language.  But at Princeton Seminary, when I arrived, it was already a hot issue.  There I learned that there were people who did not think that the term “men” referred to “men and women” but to “adult males,” that “man” did not refer to the human race but to only half of it, that the pronoun “he” did not refer to someone without male genitalia.

It took me a long time to accept this view or get used to it.  For about thirty years now I’ve been completely and passionately on the side of speaking and writing inclusively.  But at the time it was hard to get used to, and I put up some serious resistance.  I suppose growing up in a town in the Midwest didn’t help me much there….

But now I firmly believe that it is of utmost importance to speak and write inclusively.  This is not simply because of some liberal political correctness.  It is because …

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Problems with Inclusive Language Translations
Lost in Translation

35

Comments

  1. Avatar
    Todd  December 19, 2016

    Why not just place a notice on a separate page stating that the use of male terminology also refers to females…I know, no one will read that !!

    Recently, on my cell phone, I am not receiving your posts daily. Maybe one a week. It’s a Facebook issue, but I have lots of catching up to do. For example, I missed your announcement of the Fresno City College lecture. I could have easily attended that !!! I will just have to go to your page to read every entry. You’re too good to miss…even for a day.

  2. talmoore
    talmoore  December 19, 2016

    There’s another sticky issue of inclusivity with translating Hebrew into English. Unlike Indo-European languages, Semitic languages use male and female pronouns and particles to distinguish whether a group is male or female. For instance, when referring to a group of men, there is a Hebrew form of “them” (hem), and when referring to a group of women, there is another form of “them” (hen). Moreover, what makes Hebrew even more patronizingly patriarchical is that a mixed group of people, made up of both male and female individuals is referred to by the male form (hem). Even if the group consists of 999 women and 1 man, the male form is still used! Therefore, in order to capture this feature of Hebrew one would literally have to use sexist language.

  3. Avatar
    Stephen  December 19, 2016

    Isn’t the real problem that people today who are themselves products of modern secular enlightenment values still want to privilege these ancient texts somehow as divine pronouncements? As a secularist I wholeheartedly endorse inclusivity in our communications and relationships but then I view these ancient texts as literary historical artifacts. I want to know what they said in the context of their own culture and I am capable of then deciding what relevance if any that can possibly have for me in my current life.

    No amount of inclusive language can mask the reality of the message being delivered by the writer of 1 Timothy 2:11-15. Yet many still consider it holy writ and the damage is done.

    • Avatar
      stevenpounders  January 4, 2017

      I whole-heartedly agree. Inclusivity is a valuable guideline for texts composed today, not a veil to mask the lack of inclusivity in ancient texts.

  4. Avatar
    Tempo1936  December 19, 2016

    Recently I saw a presentation of Art about The birth story from the Bible. It was interesting that many artists showed Mary reading a book in a scholarly manner.
    of course this is a complete fabrication from the artist’s mind. It’s all part of the propaganda put out by the church over the last 2000 years. You will have a lifelong job trying to educate people about the historical Jesus.

    • Avatar
      Tempo1936  December 19, 2016

      One of the positive social aspects of an artist showing an educated Mary in artwork is That it elevates and encourages women in society. This is true of many new testament stories if one looks for positive spiritual truths and Encouragement.

  5. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  December 19, 2016

    Bart…. Sabbath.. have you heard it being the day of Saturn?

    Sabbath (/ˈsæbəθ/) is a day set aside for rest and worship. According to Exodus 20:8 the Sabbath is commanded by God to be kept as a holy day of rest, as God rested from creation.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 20, 2016

      Yes, Saturday was “Saturn’s Day” — but I don’t think that influenced the ancient Israelite view that it was to be a day of rest. That instead was related to the idea that it was the “seventh” day of the week and so was the day on which God rested from his creation.

  6. Avatar
    godspell  December 19, 2016

    It’s a huge problem, and not just in writing about the scriptures.

    Though you know, sometimes women should be happy to be left out–this is from Moliere’s “Le Misanthrope”, translation by Richard Wilbur.

    “Men, sir, are always wrong, and that’s the reason
    That righteous anger’s never out of season;
    All that I hear in their conversation
    Is flattering praise or reckless condemnation.”

    Leaving aside the fact that the passage loses something if you say “People” or “Humans”, no doubt Alceste is attacking his own sex, who are the ones holding most of the real power in France at that time.

    But how far do we want to take this? Do the poems of Sappho have to be made gender-neutral as well? The Greeks had both male and female deities–none were of neither gender. Of course, they did have genitals. Language, as you say, tells us a lot about how people in earlier eras thought, and if we don’t respect that language in translating it, we learn little of importance about them–or about ourselves.

    Language merely reflects social realities, responds to them. You don’t change those underlying realities by fiddling with the language, anymore than you make a dog into a cat by switching the names around. If we want to change the world, let’s do so. Let’s not engage in this symbolic change that does nothing to make the reality any better (and distracts us from the real work to be done). If women truly were equal with men, we would, in fact, be referring to all humans when we say ‘mankind’.

  7. Avatar
    wostraub  December 19, 2016

    I’m all for it, Bart, but by all means let’s avoid replacing the word “slave” with “employee” or “contractor” or “hired worker,” which conservatives seem to be leaning toward for obvious reasons.

  8. Avatar
    Tony  December 19, 2016

    The use of inclusive language is an important contemporary movement. However, the writers of the Christian Canon were not nearly as enlightened.

    Roman society was male dominated and the family structure was headed by the Paterfamilias. That included male adoptions from other families whereby the adoptee became a legal heir, by acquiring Sonship, in his adopted family. Projecting todays values on the writings from antiquity, and even modifying those, may lead to misinterpretations of the writers original intent.

    Paul’s use of the word “brother” may be one of those. Paul’s term “brother” carries a lot more significance than just a salutation! Paul writes in Romans 8:22-24 that he and his followers expect the be adopted as “sons”. Sons of who? Sons of God, the ultimate Paterfamilias!

    But, if you will become a Son of God that also means you will become a brother of the Lord Jesus. That is exactly what Paul means and he confirms it a few verses later in Romans 8:29-30, where Paul states that Jesus, on his arrival, will be the firstborn among many brothers (those who were predestined) within a large family.

    This is why Paul’s reference to James “the Lord’s brother” in Galatians 1:19 is not to a biological brother of Jesus. It only identifies James as one of the pre-destined brothers of the Lord.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 20, 2016

      “Brother” in the NT refers to one of two things: a blood-related “brother” (the son of the same mother) or a spiritually-related “brother” (someone who was closely related spiritually, but not physically). So the only question is which of these two meanings Paul has in Galatians 1:19. In my book Did Jesus Exist I explain why, in my judgment, it has to be the former, not the latter.

      • Avatar
        Tony  December 20, 2016

        There may be a third category “brother of the Lord” which goes well beyond a brotherhood of spiritually related “brothers”. This third category “brother”, as per my comment, derives from verses Romans 8:22-24 and 8:29-30.

        How do you interpret these Roman verses?

        Paul stresses in Gal 1:11-12 that he received nothing about Jesus from human sources. That was his claim to apostleship. When Paul states a few verses later that he met with a biological brother of Jesus he directly contradicts his earlier strong denial that he obtained his Jesus information from any human sources.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 22, 2016

          Yes, in the early Christian usage the reason believers were all spiritually related as brothers and sisters is because Jesus was their brother and God was their father. But that still can’t solve the problem of Gal. 1:11-12: James cannot be that kind of brother for the reasons I explain in my book.

          • Avatar
            Tony  December 23, 2016

            The Brothers of the Lord status referred to in Rom 8 is a future promise. It only takes effect at the end of times – soon to come. In the meantime the title appears to be used as an identifier for some, or all, non-Apostle, rank and file members of the church. The Apostles were also understood to become Brothers of the Lord but that additional designation was mostly redundant.

            The use of the term in a letter would have been immediately understood by the membership. Ah, that James – he is one of us! A (future) Brother of the Lord!

            Galatians 1:11-12 delivers a serious blow to the historical Jesus theory if we assume that Paul refers to the historical Jesus of the Gospels and that this was well known by his reading audience – as claimed by historicists.

            Paul writes that he got his Jesus information ONLY through direct revelation from Jesus himself. Next he tells his audience that he met with both the lead follower of Jesus as well as his brother. Imagine the howls of laughter and ridicule bestowed on Paul – he just identified himself to be a clumsy liar!

          • Bart
            Bart  December 23, 2016

            I understand that. But precisely the same problems that I’ve talked about in the book apply. Have you read what I say about it?

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 20, 2016

        And your argument was highly persuasive, but in either context, wouldn’t that mean Paul met someone who knew Jesus as a flesh and blood person? A close blood relation or a follower and friend–what’s the difference, from the standpoint of whether Jesus existed? Were there pagans then who described themselves as brothers of Jupiter, or Shiva, or Yahweh, or Ahura Mazda? Who describes him or herself as a sibling to his or her deity? A child of god, yes. Not a brother. In fact, if Paul used the term in that sense, that would tend to indicate he saw Jesus as being less divine, not more.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 22, 2016

          I don’t know — good question. But Jesus — the brother — was not God and only God. He was a human who became God.

  9. Avatar
    Pattylt  December 19, 2016

    Growing up with the older versions of the Bible that only referred to males made me happy! They didn’t mean me. I preferred that. It also meant I had few problems leaving it all behind since it didn’t include me to begin with. (grin)

  10. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  December 20, 2016

    At the very first medical grand rounds I attended, an extremely famous surgeon was speaking. One minute into his presentation, he was interrupted by the one woman student present, who took him to task about using “he” to refer in general to a patient who could have really been either male or female. I was shocked to say the least. She was the only woman in our class and was often called “Honey” by attending physicians.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 20, 2016

      Wow. That’s courage.

      • Avatar
        Kazibwe Edris  December 20, 2016

        doctor Ehrman

        i re-listened to your debate with justin bass and you said that some jewish thinkers thought that mortals could become equal to yhwh.

        i don’t know but maybe i have misquoted you , but if i am correct, does that mean deity like yhwh could make some one omniscient but lesser than his omniscience?

        or is it simply human rule over animals and the animals which fly in the air?

        clarification would be appreciated.

        • Bart
          Bart  December 22, 2016

          I think by definition no one could know anything more than someone who is omniscient.

  11. Avatar
    gorlim  December 20, 2016

    I find your example about the use of singular “they” interesting, because that use (“they” in the singular, referring to a person of unspecified gender) is very common nowadays, and will seem completely normal in a few decades, if it isn’t already. (http://www.npr.org/2016/01/13/462906419/everyone-uses-singular-they-whether-they-realize-it-or-not)

    • Bart
      Bart  December 22, 2016

      Yes, I don’t believe in mixing plurals and singulars, any more than I believe in split infinitives or the use of the adversative “however” in anything but the postpositive position!!

    • Pattycake1974
      Pattycake1974  December 22, 2016

      I’ve noticed a trend in using “they” as a singular, unspecified gender. I like it, but it’s too problematic for the Bible. That would be a scholarly nightmare.

  12. Pattycake1974
    Pattycake1974  December 21, 2016

    Personally, I prefer to think of God as a He and fishers of “men” rather than “people.” Should I feel guilty about that?

    “Fishers of people” sounds unnatural to me, and if Jesus did say that phrase, I really think he said “men.” When I read a phrase like “fishers of men” I don’t look at it as sexist language. It’s not until someone points it out as being *wrong* that it makes me feel bad about it. I feel bad because I should have recognized that it was sexist language in the first place. I feel bad because I’m okay with it saying “fishers of men.” I feel bad because I think “people” sounds stupid! So then I just feel horrible all the way around.

    Wasn’t the NRSV committee made mostly of men? Of course it was. Do I care? Mmmm….no.

    During the after party in Milwaukee, a very nice gentleman asked me why there weren’t more women there. Why weren’t more women in line to ask questions? Why weren’t there more women involved–period?

    That makes me think about the NRSV committee–would you (rhetorically speaking) feel comfortable with a translation of the bible that was made entirely by women? Not one, single, solitary man involved throughout the whole process?

    But anyway, I like “fishers of men” and God as He. That comforts me. That is, until someone comes along (inevitably) and tells me how I’ve betrayed our sex at every level….

  13. Avatar
    Jason  December 21, 2016

    Not to be puerile but you’ve piqued my curiosity-are there any references in the antiquity of the Abrahamic Faiths to God’s genetalia? The subject itself suggests so many names for mediocre rock bands.

  14. Avatar
    Tony  December 23, 2016

    “I understand that. But precisely the same problems that I’ve talked about in the book apply. Have you read what I say about it?”

    ——————————————-

    I assume “the book” refers to DJE. Yes, I’ve re-read what I think are the relevant sections. My version is Kindle with Location #’s but no page numbers. Specifically, I re-read starting with pg 144 “Paul’s Associations” until Mythicist Views of James.

    I obviously fail to grasp your argument. I see that you also identify the Brothers of The Lord in 1 Cor 9:5 the same way (biological brothers). No doubt, the identified Brothers could be biological, but in my opinion the explanation I provided fits the data better. Perhaps you can identify the specific para’s I should be rereading. Thanks!

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2016

      I have dealt with the problem on the post before, and said this: “The same logic applies to what Paul has to say in Galatians 1:18-19. When he says that along with Cephas, the only apostle he saw was “James, the brother of the Lord,” he could not mean the term “brother” in a loose generic sense to mean “believer.” Cephas was also a believer, and so were the other apostles. And so he must mean it in the specific sense. This is Jesus’ actual brother. (The word, by the way, does not mean “cousin” as has sometimes been claimed; there is a different Greek word for that – ANEPSIOS).”
      Mutatis mutandis for what you are saying. If Paul was simply saying that James was one of those who would become a brother of Jesus by adoption in some future event, then that could be said about *every* follower of Jesus, and would not be a distinguishing mark to differentiate him from Cephas and others. But he identifies him as a brother precisely in order to differentiate James from Cephas and the others. Therefore he cannot mean brother in that sense. He means it in a way that makes James a brother in a sense (different from all other followers of Jesus. (And note, he says “the” brother of hte Lord, not “a” brother of the Lord)

      • Avatar
        Tony  December 24, 2016

        Right. That is straight from DJE. Thank you for clarifying that. I’ll will write a response comment later. Mythicists – you can’t shut them up….

        Meanwhile, I wish you and your family a merry Christmas and a prosperous and happy new year!

        Tony

      • Avatar
        Tony  December 26, 2016

        “When he says that along with Cephas, the only apostle he saw was “James, the brother of the Lord,” he could not mean the term “brother” in a loose generic sense to mean “believer.” Cephas was also a believer, and so were the other apostles. And so he must mean it in the specific sense. This is Jesus’ actual brother.“

        —————————————————————————-

        I’m reminded of an old joke: “Is the Pope Catholic?” The joke is the redundancy of that question. The reason that apostles, like Cephas and others, were not referred to as “Brother of the Lord” was that their elevated status made that term redundant. “Brothers of the Lord” had been universally conferred to all believers as per Romans 8:23 and 8:29.

        “Brothers of the Lord” is a mouthful and was shortened to “brothers” in most of Paul’s communications.

        You could identify that since James appeared to be an apostle, why the additional designation? There are a number of possibilities. Perhaps there was more than one James in the picture. Maybe James was a newly appointed apostle. Maybe James was not an apostle at all.

        Look at the peculiar sentence structure of Galatians 1:19. Compare it to: “There were no comments on the posting, except the one by Tony, the mythicist.”. How can someone say that was “no comment” – if in fact there was one? By the same token, why does Paul say, “I saw no other apostle”- when in fact he did see one? Which is it?

        But all of this is a moot point, because some verses earlier, Paul is unequivocal in Galatians 1:11-12: “I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ”.

        Six verses later Paul reports, according to your interpretation, on a meeting with the Lead Disciple Peter and the biological brother of Jesus – both of whom would have told Paul plenty about an earthly Jesus!

        Paul knew exactly what he wanted to communicate. Galatians 1:19 refers neither to a biological brother of Jesus nor to Cephas as an earlier disciple of an earthly Jesus. Paul’s audience would have known precisely what he was talking about.

        • Avatar
          Saemund  January 6, 2017

          “You could identify that since James appeared to be an apostle, why the additional designation? There are a number of possibilities. Perhaps there was more than one James in the picture. Maybe James was a newly appointed apostle. Maybe James was not an apostle at all.”

          Sure, there are a number of *possibilities*. But history deals in *probabilities*. So, do you have any evidence for those possibilities? If no, then it’s irrelevant. If yes, is your explanation more parsimonious? I doubt that.

          “Look at the peculiar sentence structure of Galatians 1:19. Compare it to: “There were no comments on the posting, except the one by Tony, the mythicist.”. How can someone say that was “no comment” – if in fact there was one? By the same token, why does Paul say, “I saw no other apostle”- when in fact he did see one? Which is it?”

          I really can’t see a problem here. Paul says that he saw Cephas, and then he adds that he saw no other apostle except James. Sure, Paul could have said, “I visited Cephas and James the Lord’s brother” instead of the longer version “I visited Cephas, and I saw no other apostle except James the Lord’s brother,” but then again, Paul often uses longer phrases rather than short ones.

          “But all of this is a moot point, because some verses earlier, Paul is unequivocal in Galatians 1:11-12: ‘I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ’.

          “Six verses later Paul reports, according to your interpretation, on a meeting with the Lead Disciple Peter and the biological brother of Jesus – both of whom would have told Paul plenty about an earthly Jesus!”

          I don’t see a problem here either. I’ve always seen Carrier’s interpretation of Gal. 1.11–12 as problematic. Paul says that he didn’t receive his knowledge from any human but from Christ. So what? A lot of people today say the exact same thing while believing that Jesus was indeed once a human. When I was a Jehovah’s Witness, we used that same kind of language a lot, but we still believed that Jesus was a human on earth in early first century who then was exalted after his resurrection. As an example, ask any Jehovah’s Witness where their knowledge of the Bible comes from. They’ll say it comes from God even though it actually comes from Watchtower which is published bimonthly by… yes, you guessed it, humans.

          I see it as a common language used among Christians and even other religious people. So, could have Paul been referring to a mystical Jesus who was never a human being? Sure, he could have. But he also could have been using this language that Christians use today. We, atheists, see it as inaccurate. But Christians do *NOT*, and therefore, Paul’s audience would *NOT* think he was lying even if they thought both that Jesus was a human and that Paul received his knowledge from Jesus and not a human. It’s a weird language that we, atheists, see as inaccurate. But zealous people have minds that are wired *completely* differently.

          • Avatar
            Tony  January 8, 2017

            Maybe James was a biological brother of Jesus. There, I said it. It is possible.

            But, as you wrote, “history deals in “probabilities” and, not wanting to appear parsimonious, I’ll give you some additional reasons why James is probably not a biological brother of Jesus.

            – Paul did not pull the term “brother(s) of the Lord” out of thin air. I’m sure you’re familiar with Romans 8: 23 and 8:29 where Paul identifies that he and his followers were “brothers of the Lord”. And not just as a clubby fraternity term, but as real brothers of Jesus by having been adopted by God the Father!

            – Paul mentions James a few more times in 1 Corinthians and Galatians, but never as James “the brother of the Lord”. This is very peculiar. Surely, being the brother of Jesus would carry great status and deserve frequent mention for the one identified as a Jerusalem Church pillar!

            – In all likelihood James was not an apostle. Not because I think so, but because Paul writes so in 1 Corinthians 15:7: “Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” James is not included as an apostle! So, who was James? Well, he was a “brother of the Lord”…..

            – Projecting the Jesus beliefs of contemporary Evangelicals on Paul’s first century followers is inappropriate. Your use of this as an ad hoc explanation for the total disconnect of Galatians 1:11-12 with 1:18-19 serves only to support an historical Jesus.

            Jesus Historicists keep grasping at straws to defend their historical Jesus. The mistaken notion that Jesus had a brother is one of those straws.

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