Dynamic equivalence and inclusive language

In response to my previous post on dynamic equivalence, Mike Grondin asked some questions about my approach to inclusive language on the Gospel of Thomas email list. In particular he asked

  1. why I think that “kingdom” excludes women since women can be both subjects and rulers?
  2. why worry about the word “kingdom” when Coptic Thomas talks about the “kingdom of the Father”?

Seeing I am sure that not all readers of this blog also belong to the email list and I thought these were very good questions that made me think further about the issue, here are my responses in a somewhat more considered form than my response on-list:

Re Question 1:

I don’t think that the notion of  kingdom actually excludes women.  It simply makes them into second class citizens. Growing up as a woman in a British Commonwealth country, I have known ever since I was quite small that a kingdom is a place where men are privileged above women in the leadership stakes. We’ve had a queen for as long as I have been alive, but only because Elizabeth had no brothers. Although Princess Anne was her second child, as soon as her younger brothers were born, she was moved down the list of those in line to the throne to third and then fourth. While the wife of a king is a queen, the husband of a queen who is ruling in her own right is only a prince. A king or queen can have twenty daughters and their succession to the throne is in birth order, but as soon as a son is born, he gets shunted straight to the top of the line. This is why England has only had six queens in modern history – two Elizabeths, two Marys, an Ann and a Victoria. To give you some sense of how few this is, Elizabeth II’s father was George VI and his father was Edward VIII, then there were at least 8 Henrys, 4 Williams and quite a few James and Charles.

Because Commonwealth countries are constitutional monarchies, we all learn this stuff at school. It is quite clear to us that a kingdom is a place where a male is in charge unless there is no male available.  A woman in charge is always the last resort and the choice is based on chromosomes, not ability. Of course, it doesn’t work like this in all countries and in the US, I suspect that this kind of gendered hierarchy is not so deeply engrained and obvious.

In addition, if Crum is to be believed, Coptic speakers didn’t have the option of an alternative to MeNTERO to talk about the concept that we name “kingdom”, so the writer of Gos Thom didn’t deliberately choose a term which has masculine overtones – that was the only option available to express the desired concept.

Re Question 2

The term “Father” is the title, or  one of the titles,  of the current ruler. It doesn’t say anything about who’s allowed to be ruler, just who is currently in charge. The fact that the author of  Gos Thom has chosen to use  “Father” rather than “God” is at least as likely to be because the term “Father” emphasises the relational aspect of the divine as that the divine is conceptualised in masculine terms. I think the use of Father lines up with the notion that we are reading the secret sayings of Jesus that only those “in the know” get to hear.  Surely the readers of this kind of thing would be encouraged to think about the divine in the closer “Father” terms rather than the more distant “God” terms?

Comments, anyone?


3 thoughts on “Dynamic equivalence and inclusive language

  1. As Judy and I have discussed on the GThomas list since she wrote this entry, Greek and Coptic speakers actually did have a word for ‘reign’ if that is what they intended instead of ‘kingdom’. The word is ‘hegemonia’, and it occurs in both the Greek and Coptic versions of Lk 3:1 (“… in the 15th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar ..”)
    -Mike G.

  2. As someone interested both in theology and in the history of government I’d like to put a few comments of my own here.

    I am not entirely sure, but I had read in McGrath’s introduction to Christian Theology that the early Church also used the term “Mother” to describe God in certain aspects. There is a chapter in that book which specifically discusses the use of the word “Father”, and its general conclusion is that the word is not supposed to reflect masculinity, but to show the role of God as being similar to that of a father in that society.

    As for whether Kingdom reflects masculinity, while it is true that the term “King” suggests masculinity, I don’t think it’s true even in modern English that it actually entails males being placed before females. There is such a thing as cognatic primogeniture, where men and women are on an equal footing in the succession (like in Sweden).

    • Vince,

      My problem in dealing with this kind of terminology is that the average reader has very little idea of what the role of a father was in the societies in which the biblical texts were written. Many are only peripherally aware that the original language of the texts was not English (or whatever language they are reading it in). They therefore read in whatever their particular understanding of father is and it almost invariable includes “male parent”. What the author intended and the message that the reader extracts are not always the same.

      I think that you have helped me make my point about “kingdom” in English. Cognatic primogeniture does not exist in any English-speaking country. Citizens of the US, at least in my experience, have no real understanding of how monarchy works at all, but anyone who lives in a country that is part of the British Commonwealth and was paying attention in primary school is well aware that the only condition under which we have a queen is if there are no males in direct line to the throne. This is reinforced by the fact that the majority of Christians in English-speaking countries either belong to churches that don’t ordain women or belong to churches where women have not been ordained in their relatively recent living memory.

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