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. 

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