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.


8 thoughts on “Gender-neutral and inclusive language

  1. I find your (and Mike Grondin’s) concern about gender to be well founded. Indeed, the world of academe all too often seem to get overly concerned about fine details while lacking broader “perspective”. In the final analysis, it is usage which dictates meaning in language and not vice versa.

    In the case of Thomas per se, logion 22 seems to clarify the use of gender quite readily …

    “Jesus said to them, “… and when you make the male and the female one and the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female … then will you enter [the Kingdom].”

    Further on, Thomas typifies this unisex gender approach by comparing the Kingdom equally (in logion 8 inter alia to a “wise fisherMAN”) and (in logions 96, 97 et alia) to “a certain WOMAN”)

    To the believing audience of the Thomas sayings 2000 years ago, there would have been no difficulty understanding the gender thrust of the logia if indeed one was meant to exist … so why would we be concerned with it today ? (The medium is not the message, the message is the message)

    Indeed, since the discovery of the Gospel of Thomas well over half a century ago, far, far more seems to have been said and discovered about its form and arbitrary aspects than has been said and discovered about its true and substantive message … and this by a far stretch. Are we thus more richly informed about Thomas because of this … I rather think not !


  2. You raise some interesting points, but I suppose the decision to use “people” or “men” in 2 Timothy may rest upon whether you wish to employ a “hermeneutics of suspicion” or a “hermeneutics of reconstruction”. The former would recognise that the original author of the text may have only had men in mind, and is thus faithful to the original import. The latter would recognise that the text is a dynamic text and that it is read by an organic community; whatever the “original” meaning may or may not have been, new communities can render words in such a fashion as to include those who were previously marginalised.

  3. The former would recognise that the original author of the text may have only had men in mind,

    I don’t think so. I had always thought from the KJV that it included mothers and missionaries, people like Eunice, and Lois and the woman at the well. Even if they were only men, the word means people and can refer to a group of only women. There is nothing masculine about the word.

    If a word in Greek meant tree, would you translate it fig tree just because you think that they were only fig trees. I don’t think so.

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  5. I think I agree with Suzanne. Whilst not claiming to be a particularly good Greek scholar, my understanding is that anthrwpos means human being, no gender specified. Aner means man, human being of the male gender although in the plural it can often mean men and women. So, while it is quite possible that, in using aner which is literally “men”, an author could have only men in mind or both men and women, it is much more unlikely that an author would choose anthrwpos for a group that s/he knew to be only male.

    OTOH, if it can be used to refer to a group of women only, I guess it can also be referred to a group of men only. It seems to me extremely unlikely, though, that it would be used to refer to a group that can be only one gender.

  6. Pingback: Greek » Comment on Gender-neutral and inclusive language by Judy Redman

  7. Just discovered this. Judy, you make good points, especially in your last comment.

    Do you know Ann Nyland, who is also in Armidale and associated with ANE (the classics department I think), or at least she was a few years ago? She has written quite a lot about these issues, from a strongly egalitarian viewpoint, including in The Source, her own translation of the New Testament with extensive footnotes.

  8. Hi Peter,

    Yes, I do know Ann, or at least have met her. She is no longer working at the university and is concentrating on her writing. I find the footnotes in The Source really interesting and helpful because she comes to the text as a classicist, rather than as a biblical scholar and provides some very different perspectives.

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