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Adult Male Corpses Only, Please

November 14, 2011
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This is the second part of a discussion of translation I began here with the intent of addressing the issue of gender-neutral translation. Having laid some important framework down in the first article, I will now actually address that issue.

“Gender-neutral” can mean a lot of things. I remember from my childhood being shocked to find a hymnal that had decided that “Son of God” was too gender-specific and replaced it with “Sun of God” in a number of old hymns. That’s obviously just being silly. What I wish to talk about is gender-neutrality as it applies to terms that are suspected of being masculine generics.

Masculine generics are terms that can be either specifically masculine or mixed gender/unknown gender. For instance, a phrase like “With the invention of the repeating rifle, man replaced the grizzly bear as the most dangerous species in America,” uses “man” as a masculine generic. “Man” is a masculine term but I’ve described man as a species and so man must include women in this usage as well. In Hebrew and Greek these words are much more common. In fact, in Hebrew all nouns and adjectives have masculine or feminine grammatical gender and all verbs indicate the gender of the verb’s subject. This means that it’s impossible to say something like the English phrase, “The person who bought an orange.” “Person” would have to have grammatical gender and “bought” would have to indicate the grammatical gender of the buyer. In Greek there is a neuter but it’s not the way to indicate mixed-gender groups or individuals of unknown gender.

(It’s worth pointing out that there do not appear to be rules for picking the grammatical gender of non-gendered items. For instance, while one might think that words for power and authority were more likely to be masculine words, in Greek words for rule (αρχη), power (δυναμις), force/strength (ισχυς), and power/authority (εχυοσια) are feminine, while a different word for force or strength, κρατος, is neuter. I have not had any luck detecting a pattern in the assignment of grammatical gender.)

The most normal place to discuss masculine generics, though, is with words like “men”. What you often hear is that while “man” means specifically a male person “men” can mean either “men” or “people”. In fact, the generic nature of “man” seems to go further that this. In cases where an individual is known man means man. So, for instance, “A man came and gave me this book,” specifies a man. However, this is because we are discussing a person of known gender. It appears that it would also be correct to say, “What shall I do if a man were to come and want to buy the donkey?” and mean “man” as “person”. An example of this in Hebrew is Numbers 6:9 where we learn that if a man should die suddenly beside a Nazarite the Nazarite must undergo a particular cleansing ritual. However, “man” almost certainly means “person” here rather than indicating that only adult male corpses are sufficiently unclean to defile the Nazarite. Because we can’t know who might fall dead beside a Nazarite a masculine generic is used. Similarly, in the Greek of James 1:20 the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. Again, it’s hard to imagine that this is male-only. Both Greek and Hebrew have two terms for man, one of which is more male- (and adult-) specific than the other. The examples I have given are both of the more male-specific term

In fact, the specificity of these terms varies by author. In Greek ανθροπος is more likely to indicate generic people than ανηρ. However, Luke uses ανηρ pretty frequently. In Luke 11:31 the Queen of the South will rise up with the men (ανηρ) of this generation (although the queen herself is probably not counted as one of the men her presence suggests that the men of this generation will include women), and in Acts 17:34 “a woman named Damaris” is among the men (ανηρ) who join Paul. Conversely, Paul himself seems to use ανηρ pretty specifically. In the Pauline Epistles ανηρ almost always denotes a man in a male-female relationship or interaction.

Given this widespread use of masculine generics, translating them properly is a real and active problem. Translating suspected masculine generics as generics rather than masculine terms also provokes a lot of ire in many instances. Now, there are obvious underlying differences between how I approach issues of gender roles and how the people who make the most negative noise about gender-neutral translation approach the same issue but for the sake of this argument let’s just leave that undecided. Under what circumstances would translating a reasonable suspect for masculine generic status as generic when it was actually masculine be a seriously bad thing? As far as I can tell these situations are rather limited. Certainly if one had a theology of gender roles in which men and women had very strict roles this could be threatening but how strict must one get? Given that very little of the Bible actually revolves around inter-gender relations I have trouble believing it can be all that much.

A quick Google search gives us some verses in which the sorts of changes I mention are considered objectionable. In the order of their appearance (skipping places where I agree with the complaint) these are Genesis 1:27 and 5:2, multiple uses of “son of man” in Ezekiel, and Psalm 1:1 (there are a lot more but this is sufficient for our purposes).

In Genesis the objection is to changes in the English that have God calling humanity “humanity” or “humans” rather than “man”. This is a fairly strange complaint. Did it mean something that the name humanity is called in Hebrew (because this is simply the rendition in Hebrew unless you think God actually speaks Hebrew as a native language) can also mean “a male person”? Only if you think masculinity is pretty important in the Christian life.

Similarly, “son of” is a common construction in Hebrew and Aramaic to indicate something that shares a nature with something else. (See, for instance, “son of hell” in Matthew 23:15. Depending on translation that’s also a somewhat amusing commentary on when it’s considered appropriate to gender-neutralize “son”.) When God calls Ezekiel “son of man” it almost certainly means “human”. However, the loss of masculine language is objected to. Oddly, it’s not clear that there really is masculine content that is lost. No one will decide that Ezekiel is a woman if we rendered the phrase “child of humans”.

Finally, there’s an objection to making the righteous man a righteous person in Psalm 1, even though the person is fairly generic and probably fits with some of the examples above where “man” means “a person whose gender has not been specified”.

(There’s also a number of objections to turning “he” to “they”. I regard this as a pretty good piece of evidence that people are flipping out with no good reason. The issue is supposed to be that a singular is changed to a plural. However, this same level of excitement is not directed at the second person where we constantly lose that distinction. There’s also the issue of knowing English: in actual usage “they” has been used as a neuter singular for centuries [e.g., uses in Shakespeare]. A better complaint would be that this isn’t “correct” usage [although this gets into debate about what defines correct usage and I won’t be your friend in that debate].)

Note that none of these changes change anything where gender roles are clear. As I noted in the article that set this one up all translation involves some loss of information. Why are these losses critical whereas something like losing the pluralization of “you” or the possibility that “son” means “grandson” are not? There’s really only one answer for this: masculinity and femininity have been deemed to be very important things for the people who make these complaints. Frankly, gender is not that important to the Christian life.

Take, for instance, the Gospels. What advice in the gospels is gender-specific? I won’t swear you can’t find some if you go digging but the best candidate that springs to mind, divorce, where the advice is aimed at men is generally held to apply to woman as well now that we live in a world where women can easily initiate divorce. Certainly the major issues in the gospels are not gender-specific. Should only one gender believe in Jesus, pray, forgive enemies, be generous to the poor, or turn the other cheek? Of course not. Similarly, Paul has no issue asserting that, “In Christ there is no male or female,” (Galatians 3:28). It’s hard to imagine that he would do that if male and female really meant a lot. And, again, what major Pauline advice is gendered? A few verses on husbands and wives.

Let’s use another example for a minute. In both Hebrew and Greek the word for “elder” means “old person”. This is one meaning in English but many churches also appoint elders and these people are not always old. If I began complaining that the translation of the Hebrew and Greek needed to retain the age aspect of these words explicitly you’d probably find that strange. One reason you’d find it strange is because we don’t normally think that there’s any substantial difference between old and young Christians. The level of meaning that is lost isn’t important. If I started insisting that yes, it really was you’d be free to ask me what I was proposing – different flavors of Christianity for young and old people? This is the issue with becoming overzealous about gender in the Bible. At what point do we begin to propose very different ways of being Christian to men and women?

One of the more notable forays into making gender centrally important is the resurgence of the idea that the soul itself has gender. This is a fairly odd claim Biblically, since items that can actually be male and female (like animals) receive a grammatical gender that accords with their physical sex and yet the soul is invariably feminine in both Greek and Hebrew. It also seems to be counter to the teachings of the Church Fathers, although it’s possible I haven’t looked hard enough.

Instead of viewing gender as something fundamental to who we are, with sermons that focus on how to live out separate, gendered flavors of Christianity, I think it is better to view gender as more like our state of birth. Are there different ways Christians born into wealth act out their Christianity than those born into poverty? Certainly – the wealthy should give to the poor but the poor are not obliged to give to the wealthy. However, it’s not what defines you in any important way.

Given this, I have trouble accepting most of the objections to the better sort of gender-neutral translation. All translation is a balancing act between conflicting demands. The demand to preserve language that might speak separately to each gender simply cannot be all that strong without jettisoning orthodox ideas of what it means to be a Christian. Given this, it seems that the weight of argument lies with those who wish to preserve potential inclusiveness in the Bible. It seems a far greater issue to cut someone out of the Bible than to accidentally include women where only men were being spoken to.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. February 2, 2012 10:15 pm

    Nicely put, man. :)

    I’m currently writing a book in which I use the terms “mankind,” “people,” and “humanity” interchangeably. One editor suggested I remove all instances of man and mankind lest I be considered sexist. My reply was that I had more important matters to be concerned about. Interestingly, I personify God’s Wisdom as a female character, as does the Bible, but some folks will probably have a problem with that. You just can’t argue with Pharisees.

    Enjoyed the post.

  2. Eric permalink
    February 3, 2012 7:49 am

    Yes, some people seem exceptionally concerned with gender in the Bible, which normally seems to coincide with some sort of blurring of Christianity with an idea of masculinity. I just think that’s sort of weird, and I think the long tradition of the Church has been to minimize the differences between men and women in religious practice.

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