Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Biblical Languages and Gender: Final Thoughts


First, ordinary English still uses “he” for the generic third person. The only people who don’t think so are those who are committed to “gender neutrality” or those who are forced by their work and connections to use gender-neutral language. If you think that is not the case, try listening to the conversation at a local diner sometime (and I don’t mean Starbucks). The conversation will be liberally sprinkled with the generic use of “he.” Or ask some college or seminary professor who is trying to get his students to write in gender-neutral English. It doesn’t come naturally, and students will generally not do it unless forced to. Or ask some editor for a publication that requires gender-neutral language how many times he has to direct an author to clean up his language.

Second, the use of gender-neutral languages in Bible translation gives the reader the impression (however unconscious that may be) that the ancient Israelites and the early Christians had the same phobias about language that we do. It isn’t true. The Bible is filled with generic uses of masculine forms for generic reference.

Third, the use of gender-neutral language often hides the use of singular pronouns by turning them into plurals. These changes often introduce meanings into the text that were not there originally, or remove understandings that are originally in the text.

Fourth, the use of gender-neutral languages in Bible translation seems to me to be an attempt to make a Bible that we are more comfortable with. Here’s a secret. The Bible was not intended to be a book that we are comfortable with. It is intended to confront us with our sin and to call us to repentance. It is also intended to call into question our assumptions about what the world is and how it works; about who God is and how he works. It is intended to challenge our world-views and to correct them. When Paul says in Romans 12:2, “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect (NAS),”he means that our minds are to be changed by learning from God’s word how to think properly about all things. It is intended to overcome the corruptions of our thinking that sin has brought. How can it do that if we are constantly changing it to make it more comfortable for us?

I do recognize that there is a need for Bible translations that are “simple language” translations, both for those who are new readers, and for those for whom English is a second language. But it should be made clear that such versions are not reliable as guides for serious study of the Bible, and that the reader should seek to progress in his understanding beyond the basics that such a translation is able to provide.

A final aside: Why, in a translation, should translators change measures into modern equivalents? For example, some modern versions use feet and inches in place of cubits. But the ancient Israelites did not think in terms of feet and inches. They thought in terms of cubits. In some sense, the modern reader is required to get into the head of the ancient text in order to understand it. That is not helped by putting modern equivalents into the body of the text. If you must, put them in a footnote, or in an appendix at the back. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Biblical Languages and Gender (3)


We left off last time with the gender-neutral treatment of Psalm 1. In addition to what I mentioned last time, there is one more element in the first verse that the gender-neutral versions cover up. That is that the beginning of the verse says “blessed is the man.” The word translated man is ish in Hebrew, and it means specifically a human male. It can sometimes be translated husband, particularly when used in connection with its feminine counterpart isshshah, which means woman or wife. Does this mean that women are specifically excluded from consideration in Ps 1? No, because ish is sometimes used inclusively (for example, 1 Chron 16:3 “and he distributed to every man [ish] of Israel, both men [ish] and women [ishshah]. In addition, the context of the psalm makes it clear that any person is in view here. The noun also has the definite article (the) attached to it. Hence, “blessed is the man.” It may well be the case that by the use of the definite article the psalmist has in view at least an allusion to the Messiah. As Andrew Bonar says in his Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms, “Can we help thinking on Him as alone realizing the description in this Psalm? The members of his mystical body, in their measure, aim at this holy walk; but it is only in him that they see it perfectly exemplified.” The possibility of seeing this is left open to those who are reading a “gender-specific” version, but it is completely removed from the readers of the TNIV, the NLT.

The gender-neutral versions regularly replace masculine singular pronouns with plural nouns and pronouns. In this fashion, subtle details of the text are regularly lost. For example, there is a very interesting set of usages in John 2:25-3:1. In the KJV, the passage reads, “And needed not that any should testify of man: for he knew what was in man. There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews:” In the NRSV it reads, “and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone. Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews.” Every occurrence of “man” in the KJV reflects an occurrence of the Greek word anthropos (man, mankind) in a singular (as opposed to plural) form. Every use of anthropos has been removed in the NRSV. But John has created a subtle connection between the end of chapter 2 and the beginning of chapter 3, as follows, “And he did not have need that any should testify concerning man, for he knew what was in man. But there was a man from the Pharisees, named Nicodemus.” Jesus knows what is man, and so a man comes, and Jesus is able to speak to his heart, and get to the heart of the situation. He does this throughout John’s gospel, as we also see, for example, with the woman at the well. But if someone is reading the NRSV, he will never pick this up.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Biblical Languages and Gender (2)


Like Greek, Hebrew nouns and adjectives have gender. Unlike Greek, they occur only as masculine or feminine. There is no neuter gender in Hebrew. In addition, there is a small number of nouns that sometimes occur as masculine, and sometimes as feminine. As an example, when the English Bible reads “people” on the basis of the Hebrew word ‘am it is reflecting a masculine noun. So those poor Israelite women had to suffer the pains of knowing that there was no way in their language to “include” them, as the very word that referred to the people as a whole was masculine in gender. Perhaps to emphasize the point that noun gender has nothing to do with sex, most body parts that occur in pairs are feminine in gender. The exception to this rule is the word for “breast,” which is a masculine noun.

Also unlike Greek, Hebrew verbs have gender. So in the Book of Ruth, if one passage says, “Ruth said” and another passage says, “Boaz said,” the form of “said” will differ between the two occurrences, since Boaz is masculine and Ruth is feminine. The only point at which this is not the case is with first-person (I/we) forms of the verb. Further, Hebrew generally uses masculine verbs forms for a mixed-gender subject, whereas a feminine verb form always implies a feminine subject. Or, as one of the standard Hebrew grammars puts it, “A feminine verb form can indicate that the subject noun is feminine, but nothing certain can be inferred from a masculine form (Jo√ľon-Muraoka, ¶89b). Another way to put it is that the masculine verbs forms are not necessarily gender-specific, while feminine verb forms are. In short, Hebrew uses masculine forms for generic references.

Pronouns are the only parts of speech in English that are “gender specific” in terms of how that term is usually defined. “She” is used for specifically female, “he” refers to male or generic, while “it” generally refers to things. Idiomatically, some things are referred to by masculine or feminine pronouns. So, for example, boats are usually called “she/her.” I don’t know enough about the history of the language to account for these exceptions. Until the latter part of the twentieth century, “he” and “him” were regularly used, and were understood to be used, in generic cases. That is, in a situation where the sex of the subject is unknown, “he” was used. For example, “When the reporter calls, tell him I’ll get back to him.” Though the pronoun “him” is used, there no expectation that the reporter was actually a male. In the 1970s, certain feminists began to insist that using the masculine pronoun in this fashion did in fact deliberately exclude women. Despite the fact that no one had ever thought so, this philosophical silliness quickly took over academic circles in the USA and, more slowly, in Europe. For some reason, it also quickly infected the area of Bible translation. Hence, as early as 1976 (the publication date of Today’s English Version (also known as the Good News Bible), some attempt was made to eliminate the generic use of masculine pronouns.

I will conclude today with one example, and then move on in the next posts to consideration of further examples. Psalm 1:1 (KJV) says, “Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor standeth in the way of sinners, nor sitteth in the seat of the scornful.” Notice that the only specifically masculine term in the verse is “man.” In order to eliminate that reference to “man,” the TEV says, “Happy are those who reject the advice of evil men…” In order to eliminate “man” as in the KJV, the translators introduced a plural (the original is singular). They then proceed to introduce “men” where none stood before. It is curious that “evil men” is acceptable (are only men evil?), but “the man” is not.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Biblical Languages and Gender


From James Taranto’s column at the Wall Street Journal on October 27, 2011:
“One of the things we most loathe about feminism is its effect on the language. Self-appointed feminist language cops make a pretense of aiming for "gender neutrality," but in fact their aim is to make language ugly and unnatural so that you constantly have to think about their ideology. When the traditional terms are gender-neutral, such as "chairman," they insist on changing them ("chairwoman" or "chair"). Only when the traditional terms are gendered do they want to neutralize them, such as calling actresses "actors."”
This move toward forcing general English usage into “gender neutrality” has been going on for nearly half a century. It is rampant in colleges and universities and other centers of higher education. Academic publishing is replete with it. In many cases, academic journals or book publishers indicate that submitted manuscripts must be written in gender-neutral language. “Man” is not acceptable unless you are referring specifically to a human male. “Mankind” is not acceptable under any condition. You must use “humankind” instead. And this is simply the tip of the iceberg.
Unfortunately, this movement has profoundly affected the Bible translation business. Even the translators (or perhaps editors) of the ESV, which is not a gender-neutral translation, felt compelled to add a footnote saying “Or brothers and sisters” everywhere the Greek New Testament reads adelphoi (traditionally translated “brothers” or “brethren”), just to make sure no one felt left out.
From my perspective, there are two fundamental problems with this enforced move to “gender neutrality” of “gender inclusiveness.” First, it is a politically motivated corruption of language. I will not go into that here, but I suggest you find a copy of George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” and read it carefully. Then reread 1984. Then ask yourself if this is the kind of world you really want to live in. The second problem is that it also corrupts the biblical languages, and makes it more difficult for the reader to actually hear what the Bible is saying.
For those who don’t know anything about New Testament Greek or Old Testament Hebrew, I want to give you a little background, starting with English. First, gender is a grammatical category, not a sex category, though that distinction has been corrupted over the last half-century. English nouns, adjectives, and verbs do not have gender. In practical terms that means that you do not use a different form of “say” with “Susie said” than you do with “John said.” It also means that you don’t use a different form of “green” when you say “Susie was green with envy” than you do when you say “John was green with envy.”
In New Testament Greek, any noun belongs to one of three genders (again, remember this is a matter of grammar, not of sex): masculine, feminine, or neuter. Adjectives may appear in any of the three genders, but they have to correspond to (grammarians usually speak of “being in agreement with”) the gender of the noun they modify. So if you want to say “green tree” you have to use a neuter form of the adjective “green” because the noun dendrov (tree) is neuter. On the other hand, if you wanted to say “a little green man” you would have to use masculine forms of “little” and “green” because the two nouns in Greek usually translated “man” are both masculine in gender. Greek verbs, like English verbs, do not have gender.
Next time we will talk about Hebrew and then move on to how these things affect the way we read our English Bibles and how we are to understand them.

Monday, November 07, 2011

Matthew 18 and the Other Matthew 18


This past Thursday in chapel we had a very fine message from one of our seniors on the parable of the man who owed 10,000 talents. He referred to it as “the other Matthew 18” because Matthew 18 is so readily identified with the “church discipline” section in vss 15-20. As I reflected on the message, I began to wonder what the relationship is between the “church discipline” verses and the following material.

This material, at least as it is laid out in Matthew 18, is unique to Matthew. This is part of the fourth of Matthew’s five extended discourses of Jesus. This fourth discourse begins with the question posed by the disciples as to who is the greatest in the kingdom. Jesus begins by speaking of the little ones of the kingdom, and the warning against being stumbling blocks. He then moves to the church discipline passage, then to Peter’s question, and finally the parable. Hagner, in ISBE, characterizes the theme of this discourse as discipleship and discipline. While there is certainly that aspect to the passage, it seems to me that the greater emphasis is on the issue of sin and dealing with sin in the context of the kingdom. Jesus uses the question of greatness to draw attention to the little children. He then warns against being a stumbling block to them, i.e., sinning against them, or causing them to sin. This draws forth the summary of how sin is to be dealt with.

Peter then poses a question for Jesus which seems at first glance not really to follow from the “church discipline” material. He asks Jesus how often he is supposed to forgive his brother. How did Peter get there from church discipline? I think the transition is from the issue of dealing with someone who won’t admit his sin (the church discipline verses) to the issue of someone who does admit his sin, but then sins again and again, each time asking for forgiveness. Note that in both cases, the issue starts with someone who sins against a brother. Jesus’ answer astounded Peter. But where does Jesus’ response come from? I think it is a deliberate allusion to Lamech’s violent statement in Gen 4:23-24. In other words, Jesus is saying that his disciples need to be the opposites of Lamech. By the way, the difference between “seventy-seven times” (TNIV and some others) and “seventy time seven” (most English versions) is not a difference in the reading of the Greek text, but rather a difference in how what is there is understood. The Greek in Matt 18:22 is identical to the Septuagint of Gen 4:24. The Hebrew of Gen 4:24 is clearly “seventy and seven” rather than “seventy time seven.”

From this statement regarding our need to be forgiving when brothers sin against us, Jesus move to the illustration of the parable. The point of the parable, of course, is to emphasize that we are to forgive others as Christ has forgiven us (Eph 4:32).