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Problems with Inclusive Language Bible Translation

From the marvels of the universe (yesterday’s post) to the use of inclusive language in Bible translations (today’s post) – easy!   All in one step.

The Psalm I quoted yesterday presents a problem to Bible translators who want to render the text to include both men and women.   Here is what Psalm 8 says in the (non-inclusive-language) King James, as quoted yesterday:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained;

What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

For thou hast made him a little lower than the angels, and hast crowned him with glory and honour.

Thou madest him to have dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet:

When the New Revised Standard Version came out in 1989, it altered the translation by making it more inclusive, as follows:

3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;

what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?

Yet you have made them a little lower than God,
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,

 

As is true of all things biblical, different readers will have (and did have!) different reactions to the new translation.   I actually rather like it, but some of you may not.  You’ll notice that in v. 5 they have changed humans’ elevation to a status slightly lower than “angels” (King James) to a status slightly lower than “God.”  That’s a bold change.  But in fact…

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But in fact the Hebrew word is indeed the standard word ELOHIM, which is normally rendered “God.”  It could mean “gods,” though (it’s a plural word), and if that’s what it means here, then it would mean something like “divine beings,” i.e., angels.  Translators could reasonably go either way with it.

My main interest, though, is with the inclusive language – which I think is done pretty well.  The BIG problem is one you might not expect.  It is that the verses get quoted much later in the New Testament, in the book of Hebrews, as referring specifically to Christ (the “man” and the “son of man”), in the context of an argument that next to God, Christ is superior to all things, including the angels.  Here is the passage from Hebrews 8 in the King James Version.


For unto the angels hath he not put in subjection the world to come, whereof we speak.

But one in a certain place testified, saying, What is man, that thou art mindful of him? or the son of man that thou visitest him?

Thou madest him a little lower than the angels; thou crownedst him with glory and honour, and didst set him over the works of thy hands:

Thou hast put all things in subjection under his feet. For in that he put all in subjection under him, he left nothing that is not put under him. But now we see not yet all things put under him.

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man.

10 For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.

The NRSV translators wanted to render the passage inclusively, as was their wont, and so revised it to read as follows.

 

Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels. But someone has testified somewhere,

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,[b]
or mortals, that you care for them?[c]
You have made them for a little while lower[d] than the angels;
you have crowned them with glory and honor,[e]
    subjecting all things under their feet.”

 

Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them, but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

 

This inclusive rendering more or less “works,” just as it did in the Old Testament passage, but with one rather major problem.  In fact, it’s an enormous problem, that for some reason the NRSV translators didn’t see or at least didn’t have adequate concern for.   In the book of Hebrews the Psalm is being taken as a messianic prophecy, a reference specifically to Christ.  Not to all humans/mortals.   When Psalm 8 says “what is man that you are mindful of him, or the son of man that you care for him” and indicates that “man” was made for a little while “lower than the angels” – the book of Hebrews takes this to refer specifically to Jesus, who was, as an incarnate being, made lower than angels for a little while.

That’s what Hebrews is trying to say.  But the NRSV mistranslates the passage so that the reader can’t see (very easily) that this is what it is trying to say.  By rendering “man…son of man” as “human beings…mortals” – as was done in the Old Testament (where the rendering was appropriate because it really was referring to humans in general) – the NRSV translators have robbed the passage of its Christological significance (since now it no longer refers just to the one man who was made lower than angels, Christ, but – as in the OT – to humans in general).  The NRSV translators have in effect undermined the Christological point of the entire passage, through their inclusive rendering.

Translation is an incredibly hard job, and on the whole I think the NRSV translators have produced a superb translation.  But in this instance I’m afraid they have come up short.[/private]

 

 

 

 


A Reflection on Christmas: Blast from the Past
The Marvels of our Universe

25

Comments

  1. Avatar
    Scorpiored48  December 23, 2016

    Given the many religious traditions that surrounded the Jews, would it be reasonable for the Jews to have simply understood Elohim to mean gods rather than angels or God?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2016

      That is indeed the word they used when referring to multiple gods. The context determines what the word means (as with all words)

    • talmoore
      talmoore  December 24, 2016

      Hebrew is a tricky language to translate into an Indo-European language like English. Sometimes the plural is used in Hebrew to mean the literal plural, i.e. more than one of something. So in that sense Elohim could mean multiple “gods”. But sometimes the plural in Hebrew is used as a form of superlative, as if we’re talking about only one thing, but that thing is the greatest of those things. Besides Elohim, a good example is the Behemoth in Job. Behemoth, in Hebrew, literally means “beasts,” i.e. it’s the plural of the Hebrew behemah, “beast”. But within the context of Job it actually refers to only one creature, that creature being the ultimate “beast”, the Behemoth. This superlative expression in Hebrew may have originated in the longer expression of saying blank is the blank of blanks — such as, for example, saying a king is the “king of kings” etc. And over time that longer expression got shortened to where the plural alone is the shorthand of the longer expression. So El ha-elohim, “god of gods” (i.e. the greatest god), became simply Elohim.

  2. Avatar
    godspell  December 23, 2016

    What did the original psalm mean by ‘son of man’, though? It’s confusing. Obviously not referring to Jesus, and it doesn’t seem like a Messianic prophecy, but what’s the difference between ‘man’ and ‘son of man’? All men are sons of men (and women). All men are mortals. It’s redundant. And to be sure, poetry is often redundant. But ‘mortals’ doesn’t really get across what the original passage is saying, does it?

    “What is the son of man that thou visitest him?” Obviously the King James is a problematic translation, always has been. But what would be the most correct interpretation of that line? And yes, even interpreting the meaning of a modern-day poet who uses the same language you do can be problematic, that goes without saying. 🙂

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2016

      The words “man” and “son of man” are used in synonymous parallelism in the Psalm (that’s how Hebrew poetry works). In other words, they mean the same thing, in different words. Both mean “human being”

      • Avatar
        godspell  December 24, 2016

        So the poem is saying “What is man that you care for him, what is humanity that you attend to it?”

        It’s a good question.

        I think the answer is rather up to us, isn’t it?

        • Bart
          Bart  December 26, 2016

          Yup, that’s what it’s saying. And for the author, no, the wonder of it all was that God should care for us mere mortals, not on the basis of the good / great things we do….

          • Avatar
            godspell  December 28, 2016

            I’ve never believed, when reading great literature, that we are only allowed to consider the author’s intentions. If it has outlasted the ages, it clearly has meaning and significance beyond what whoever wrote it perceived at that moment in time. He (presumably it was a he) had a question. We still have to answer it.

  3. Avatar
    MajorBilly  December 23, 2016

    This thread reminded me of the phrases “They are blind guides of the blind”, & “Can a blind person guide a blind person? Will not both fall into a pit?” (Definitely not inclusive)

    I posted a question about it in Discussion Forum-The New Testament Gospels. I would appreciate your thoughts on it.

    -Ken D.

  4. Avatar
    Kirktrumb59  December 23, 2016

    I am ignorant of (book of) Hebrews.
    “…next to God, Christ is superior to all things, including the angels” (if, for a little while, lower than the angels).
    Is this not Arius’ argument (Jesus is next to god, i.e., divine, but not…God [the father])?
    Is there evidence that Arius used Hebrews to buttress his thesis? Just curious.
    And poor Arius. Sapientiam sapientum perdam.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 24, 2016

      I don’t know if we know if he used this passage or not, but it does seem likely that he would have seen it in a favorable light!

  5. Avatar
    smackemyackem  December 23, 2016

    Outstanding post! Illustrates how easily context can be altered or missed altogether.

  6. tompicard
    tompicard  December 24, 2016

    Dr Ehrman,
    I don’t exactly see the issue you and/or Paul is trying to make, then again I often don’t understand what St Paul is saying.

    Is it that Paul MEANT that ONLY Jesus is/has become higher than angels? and NRS hides that? and it was clearer in KJV?

    But Paul has said in I Corinthians 6.3
    “we (christians) will judge angels”, so he must also think that we (christians, not only Jesus) will also become higher than angels.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2016

      Paul almost certainly did not write the letter to the Hebrews (it doesn’t claim to be written by him, and there are overwhelming reasons for thinking it’s not his); but in any event, the author of Hebrews is not saying that humans will *not* become greater than angels. He is saying that Christ himself *did* become greater after being made lower than them.

  7. Avatar
    alanpaul  December 24, 2016

    I enjoyed how the NRSV translators bent over backwards to come up with a gender inclusive translation of Psalm 8, and ended up falling on their faces, christologically speaking! Personally, I’m not a fan of this kind of approach to translation, preferring to read the bible in the terms that the original writers intended, rather than through the politically correct rose tinted spectacles of the 21st century. Anyway, the use of gender neutral language will do nothing to erase the blatant sexism in passages such as 1 Timothy 2:11-15, to quote one of many examples.

    On a somewhat related point, I dislike the translations of John (eg NIV) which dilute the (to 21st century minds) anti-Semitic overtones of the Greek οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι “the Jews” by rendering the phrase “Jewish leaders” or “Jewish authorities”. And I wonder whether or not the author of John really meant “leaders” or “authorities” or whether he even meant “Jews”? The Pharisees were not exactly the ruling class and arguably the writer was referring to Judeans specifically (as distinct from northern Galileans). So translating οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι as “the Judeans” would address the political correctness issue and give the modern reader a more accurate impression of the idea the 1st century author was trying to convey. Two birds with one stone. What do you think?

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2016

      My sense is that he really did mean “the Jews” and by that meant “those Jews who are not followers of Jesus.” (Note: “the Jews” are Jesus’ enemies not only in Judea in John, but also in Galilee) So I think “Judeans” doesn’t really work. But it’s much debated.

    • Avatar
      Prizm  January 2, 2017

      Alanpaul said “Personally, I’m not a fan of this kind of approach to translation, preferring to read the bible in the terms that the original writers intended, rather than through the politically correct rose tinted spectacles of the 21st century.”

      Agreed! I’m also put off by the commentary in the NRSV, particularly how it tries to make apologetics for the anti-homosexual verses. The bible is a product of its time and culture, warts and all. We don’t need these George Lucas Special Edition modifications.

      • Bart
        Bart  January 3, 2017

        There isn’t any commentary in the NRSV itself. You may be using a study edition that a publisher has produced, based on the NRSV.

        • Avatar
          Prizm  January 3, 2017

          Yep, I should’ve clarified. HarperCollins I’m pretty sure.

  8. Avatar
    Rogers  December 25, 2016

    So Hebrew Bible translators have to be mindful of later Christian retro interpretations per the New Testament authors?

    IOW, there’s no such thing as a Bible that has been translated so as to simply let the chips fall where they will.

    • Bart
      Bart  December 26, 2016

      Yes, it’s a very tricky business, and it is hard being constantly mindful.

  9. cheito
    cheito  December 27, 2016

    Dr Ehrman:

    YOUR COMMENT:

    The NRSV translators have in effect undermined the Christological point of the entire passage, through their inclusive rendering.

    MY COMMENT:

    The translators were wrong in not interpreting the passage in psalm 8 as the author of Hebrews interpret it, and the author of Hebrews was wrong for interpreting psalm 8 as though David was speaking about the future Christ, when it’s obvious, as you stated, that David was speaking about man and the descendants of man or humans.

    I think this is one of the problems that has confused scholars and those who interpret the scriptures: They quote books like Hebrews, Matthew and Revelation, as though these books have the same authority as a Letter from Paul or a psalm of King David or a prophecy from Jeremiah.

    It’s plain to see that the author of Hebrews is misinterpreting psalm 8 when he attempts to make the case that David is speaking about Jesus in this passage, just as Matthew misinterprets Isaiah 7:14-16 when he asserts that this scripture is fulfilling the virgin birth of Christ which is self evident that this is not what Isaiah is prophesying about.

  10. Avatar
    stevenpounders  January 4, 2017

    As the NT book of Hebrews was written in Greek, does it use the Septuagint rendering of the passage in Psalms?

    And if so, is there a difference in the gender intentions between the Greek and Hebrew?

    • Bart
      Bart  January 5, 2017

      Yes, it is based on the Greek text, and both Greek and Hebrew speak of the “son” of man (or “son” of a human).

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