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.

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