Gender-neutral and inclusive language

Mike Grondin notes on the Gospel of Thomas email list that the Patterson and Robinson translation gets a little overenthusiastic in its use of gender-neutral language and I agree that in a translation of parables like the Hidden Treasure and the Assassin with the Sword it makes little sense to use the word “person” when it’s clear that the story is about a man, not a woman. In addition, since it’s not possible to recast these stories in the plural, using “person” instead of man has the effect of suggesting that “people” are male, so while it’s gender neutral, it ceases to be inclusive and is not at all helpful to the cause of including women as equals in church and society. I suspect that in the case of the Patterson and Robinson translation of Thomas, this is totally unintentional.

I was, however, reminded of some of the recent discussion on Iyov’s blog about the ESV which he and a number of other people don’t like very much for a number of reasons. In the comments, Suzanne (sometimes posting as Sue) makes an interesting point.

She says:

…the NIV, and older translations still used the word “men” to mean “people.” The ESV and HCSB do not. They use the word “people” for people and the word “men” to exclude women. Oddly they are translating the same Greek word [anthrwpos] , so it is the decision of the translator to exclude women.

She indicates that 2 Tim. 2 is translated in the ESV as:

And what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, commit to faithful men (anthrwpois) who will be able to teach others also.

She then says that she asked Dr Packer, one of the members of the translation team about this and was told that the translation team thinks it means men, not people. Now, I can understand how it is possible to argue that there are circumstances where aner is clearly intended by the authors to mean men only and not to include women, but I find it very difficult to see that, given the choice between a word that means “people – male and female” and another that means “people of the male gender only”, you would choose the former if it actually mattered that people knew that women were excluded.

I keep forgetting how far my denomination has moved on in this regard, although there are people in our congregation who really don’t want us to call a woman minister, so perhaps we haven’t moved all that far. I also find it fascinating that women stay in churches that run this kind of line. I know a lot who have moved out of them, and often out of the church altogether, which I find sad, but so many women actually believe that God doesn’t want them to use their very obvious gifts for teaching etc!!

Note that this is not intended as a comment on the ESV as a translation. I haven’t looked at it, so I can’t comment. It is a reflection on the kind of theological approach that would do this kind of thing and the harm it has done to the church and to women.


New Features on Grondin’s Interlinear site

Mike Grondin has added some new features to his Gospel of Thomas in Context website. You can now access the Gospel of Thomas saying by saying using a split screen format that gives you access to Mike’s interlinear Coptic/English version with notes in one part of the screen, together with the English translations by:

  • Thomas O. Lambdin in Robinson, ed., 1988. The Nag Hammadi Library
  • Beate Blatz, as in Schneemelcher, 1991. New Testament Aprocrypha
  • Stephen Patterson & James Robinson, 1998, in The Fifth Gospel

in the other screen. Mike has added to his interlinear version the Jesus Seminar voting on the likely authenticity of the saying in question found in Robert Funk and Roy Hoover’s The Five Gospels: The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus: New Translation and Commentary. New York, Toronto: Macmillan, 1993 and April DeConick’s categorisation of the saying as Kernel or group one or group two accretion as found in her bookRecovering the Original Gospel of Thomas: A History of the Gospel and its Growth. London: T&T Clark, 2005.

Well worth a visit!!

PS – please excuse the funny formatting of the dates, above. If I put them in parentheses, it appears that browsers will read the html wrongly and produce emoticons!!

On keeping and open mind…

…and being suspicious

The other day, one of our international students asked if he could come and talk to me about sending his daughter to the preschool that is part of the local Presbyterian Ladies College. I had no idea why he wanted to talk to me about this, but said to come on over.

He has a Muslim name, but he offered to shake my hand, which is not normal for Muslim men when they meet a woman. He comes from India, and almost all our Indian students are Hindu or Sikh. He wanted to send his daughter to a Christian school, so he could also have been Christian. I decided that, rather than try to put him in a box, I had better just listen and find out where he fitted.

It turns out that his name was my best clue – he is actually Muslim, but wants to send his daughter to a school where she will be taught moral values that are similar to those of his own faith tradition. He wanted to talk to someone who is familiar with the local school system and one of his colleagues (another Muslim student) speaks very highly of me, so he chose me.

I try to use the same method when I am approaching my texts. When they present me with a number of contradictory clues to how I might understand them, I try to keep an open mind as I dig deeper, rather than jumping to conclusions that may cause me to treat it inappropriately because I’ve been blinded by my assumptions to other information.

Of course, with text, I can’t just ask a direct question to settle my dilemma, so I need to find or develop some criteria for choosing between the contradictory clues. Listening to what others say about it is often helpful, but working out which others to pay attention to is sometimes challenging. As I said on the Gospel of Thomas email list (perhaps a little more forcefully than is really tactful 🙂 ), I am at least as interested in the reasons given for opinions as I am in who is giving the opinion. Of course, there are some people whose opinions I respect more readily than others and I started thinking what criteria I use when I evaluate the opinions of others. Here’s my working list:

  • does the person who is expressing the opinion have a track record in the particular area? if so, what is it like?
  • does the opinion being offered take the text seriously ie
    • does it look at the whole text rather than just picking up a few keywords and running with them?
    • does it look at the text in its context, rather than treating it in isolation?
  • does the person expressing the opinion make explicit his/her underlying assumptions about the text? eg is s/he assuming it is Christian, gnostic, early, late etc?
  • does the opinion being offered provide evidence from the text itself and/or from other sources or at least reasons to back up the opinion or does it just rely on the audience’s willingness to trust the authority of the person expressing the opinion?
  • where relevant, does the opinion being expressed make sense in other contexts? eg if the interpretation being offered relies on a particular translation of one or two key words, does this interpretation make sense in similar contexts? If not, does the author acknowledge this and provide a justification of using this particular meaning in this particular context?

There may be more, but I can’t think of any just at the moment. You may have some you’d like to add.

So, I’ve come to the conclusion that good textual interpretation is about finding the right balance between keeping an open mind about what is being said – both by the text and its interpreters – and being suspicious. You don’t knock back an idea just because it’s new, but you don’t accept ideas uncritically just because they’re new, either. And you treat tradition in the same way. You don’t accept someone’s opinion just because they have a big name in the field; you certainly don’t accept someone’s opinion just because they have a big name in a related field; but at the same time, you recognise that people don’t normally become big names for no reason. 🙂

How they got here

The person who found this page because they did a keyword search for “Snodgrass gospel Thomas” is almost certainly looking for:

Snodgrass, Klyne. “The Gospel of Thomas: a Secondary Gospel.” Second Century: A Journal of Early Christian Studies 7, no. 1 (1989-1990): 19-38.

No idea where you might find it electronically, mind you, but it’s the only thing I’m aware of that Snodgrass has written on the Gospel of Thomas, although he does mention Gos Thom in his new book on parables whenever it’s relevant.

Writing for the web vs writing for print

Tim Bulkeley over at SansBlogue has recently posted about writing differently for the web. I started posting a comment but it grew out of all proportion, so I decided to move it here instead. Tim talks about the need to write more simply on-line than for print and I agree. I think we need to think very carefully about the relationship between content and formatting and I offer the following observations:

  1. For some reason, it is more difficult to follow long, multiclause sentences on line than it is on paper. Shorter, more simple sentences are easier. I wonder if this is because we tend to think of the web as a more informal medium, so we expect less complex material?
  2. I am sure that extended argument is more difficult to follow on line because of the nature of the medium. I know that I tend to want to glance back at a previous part of most extended academic works and this is far more difficult to do on line than in print. I think this is how it works:
  3. Mostly, when people read an academic article, they read with a purpose in mind – to find out more about X. This means that they don’t pay as much attention to some parts of it as they do to other parts, because they really only pay careful attention to the bits than are informing their quest for information about X. The author almost certainly doesn’t have the same purpose in mind in writing as most readers do in reading. Thus, the reader reaches various places in the text where s/he goes “huh? I don’t remember her/him saying that!” and needs to backtrack. I don’t know about others, but some of the way I navigate around a paper text is visual – I know that the bit I want to re-read is on the top of a left-hand page and several pages back. On-line text doesn’t work like this, so there need to be other landmarks. Thus, just dumping a paper text into electronic format doesn’t make it on-line-friendly.
  4. It is also very much more difficult to skim-read effectively on line. We teach our students that in order to get the gist of an author’s argument they should read the abstract (if there is one), then the opening paragraph or two, then the first sentence of each paragraph and then the conclusion. This is reasonably easy to do with a paper text and very much more difficult to do on-line, where it involves constantly moving the text in front of your eyes, rather than working with a stationary text.
  5. I have been proof-reading an PhD thesis for an international student who is now producing his final draft back home and emailing chapters to me for final proofing. I am reading on-line and adding comments/suggested changes electronically and I find it most uncomfortable to read from the top to the bottom of a screen, then move the line at the bottom of the screen to the top. It takes time for me to relocate myself in the text before I can read on. This suggests to me that when writing for on-line rather than print, we need to try write in “chunks” that are no more than a screen long and to format so that each sense unit is easy to find.
  6. I have access to quite a large number of journal articles on line one way and another and I find that I need to print them out in order to be able to get the information that I need out of them. The on-line version is fine for seeing if it has enough information in it to make it worth printing, but not for reading. Some journals offer me the option of html or pdf format, but the html is invariably not formatted well for either on screen on paper reading!!
  7. Even with paper versions, formatting makes a huge difference. I read the manuscript version of April DeConick’s <i>The Thirteenth Apostle</i> while I was working with her at Rice University and then bought a copy of the book when it was published. The published version is much nicer to read because the publisher has paid significant attention to formatting.
  8. There are simple things about web vs print that people often ignore – like:
    • a serif font works better for blocks of print, while a sans serif font works better for blocks of on-screen material so just using the “save for web” option in your wordprocessor to turn your manuscript into html is not a good way to go.
    • two columns are quite nice to read in print, but if the columns are more than a screen long, they are the pits to read on-line because you have to scroll down and then up and then down. ( I wish my daughter’s school would understand this about formatting their newsletter, which is now distributed by email – I try to tell myself that it’s not too environmentally unfriendly to print it if I either use recycled paper or double side it.)
    • there is an optimum number of words per line for comfortable reading of large amounts of information and high resolution displays on large screens put far more than this on your screen, so on-line text needs to be formatted to control this somehow

Gospel of Thomas facsimiles on-line

Mike Grondin has scans of the facsimile edition of the Gospel of Thomas up on his website at They’re in a split screen format, so you can display his interlinear version of the text on one half of the screen and the facsimile of the text on the other half and compare them. You click on the Saying number on the right hand side of the screen to display the correct section of the interlinear. This is very cool!! Finding the corresponding text in the facsimile is a little more difficult. In his email about it to the Gospel of Thomas email list, he says:

There’s only one difficulty, and I can’t figure out how to do anything about it without a heck of a lot more work – you’ll have to count down to the correct line of the image. What I mean is this: suppose you’re looking at logion 19, for example. The page and line numbers given in the presentation indicate that it begins on line 17 of page 36 of Codex II. No problem in bringing up page 36 in the bottom half of the screen, but you will have to count down to line 17 to match it up.

A very nice tool. Thanks, Mike.

Two or three books on parables

Several weeks ago, I ordered three books on parables. They arrived in today’s mail. One, Hear Then the Parable by Bernard Brandon Scott, was published in 1989 and is probably well known to people who are interested in parables, so I don’t propose to comment on it. The other two are more recent.

The book I went on-line to order is Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to Parables by Klyne Snodgrass (Eerdmans, Michigan, 2008). It’s 844 pages and hardcover so I was happy to pay $31.50 at Amazon and I’m grateful to Chris Tilling over at Chrisendom for drawing my attention to it here (a review), here (scandal of the day) and here (guest post by Snodgrass). You can also find an interview with the author on Matthew D. Montonini’s New Testament Perspectives blog here.

The book starts with an introduction to the parables of Jesus – looking at what a parable is, how parables should be classified, the vexed question of allegories, a method for interpreting parables and then a section called “NT Criticism – Assumptions and Hesitations, Method and Procedure”. The next section covers Parables in the Ancient World – the Old Testament, Early Jewish Writings, Greco-Roman Writings, the Early Church and Later Jewish Writings. He follows this with analyses of individual parables. These analyses include helpful primary source material from the Ancient World, further reading and highlight issues requiring attention as well as providing comment on the texts themselves. There are also appendices at the back that detail the incidence of parabole in both the New Testament and the LXX and of mashal in the Hebrew Scriptures. These are followed by extensive endnotes. Snodgrass indicates in his guest post that he is no greater fan of endnotes than most other scholars, but some were too long to fit comfortable as footnotes. I’ve only skimmed the early material, but it looks like a really, really useful reference book.

The third book is a more recent one by Scott: Re-Imagine the World An Introduction to the Parables of JesusI (Polebridge Press, California, 2001). I must admit that it was something I bought because Amazon told me that other people who had bought Hear Then had also bought this one. It’s meant for a more general, rather than a scholarly audience, but it nevertheless provides some interesting insights into and background information on a number of parables, including the Woman with the Jar (Gos Thom 97). It also provides some information about the Jesus Seminar in the first chapter and it looks like the kind of material that would be useful for someone who is not trained in biblical studies but interested in progressive theology. He says in the introduction that this is not just a simplifying of Hear Then, but a rethinking of issues and in some cases he has changed his mind.

I know that Snodgrass’s work is going to have some effect on my thesis methodology. Scott’s Hear Then already has and Re-Imagine may do, too.