The Bible is one of the most widely-read books in the world and has been translated countless times, into hundreds of languages. The past century has seen more new and updated Bible versions than the last thousand years, with English being one of the most frequently updated languages on the market. But with new translation projects, carried out in ever-changing contexts and times, new challenges arise. Gender inclusivity is probably one of the biggest concerns, dividing Bible scholars and readers alike.
This Article Contains
- Arguments For And Against Gender-Inclusive Bible Language
- Gender-Neutral Language In Biblical Contexts
- References To Individuals, Groups Of People And Humanity
- References To God And The Names Of God
- Three Examples Where Gender-Inclusive Bible Translation Really Matters
- 5 Popular Gender-Inclusive Bible Translations Compared
Arguments For And Against Gender-Inclusive Bible Language
Bruce Metzger (2010) who edited and provided commentary for many Bible translations, including gender-inclusive Bibles, claims that English is biased towards the male gender . For this reason, the English language often obscures the meaning of the original language, which was much more gender-inclusive. Others argue that the Bible is patriarchal. Gender-neutral language thus distorts its meaning in an attempt by translators to impose their modern views on the text (Marlowe, 2005) .
Proponents of gender-inclusive versions of the Bible are then accused of bowing to the ideology of political correctness rather than trying to “accurately” translate the Word (Mankowski, 2007; Minton, 2003) . Such gender-neutral translations include the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the Common English Bible (CEB), the 2011 edition of the New International Version (NIV), the New Living Translation (NLT), and the Contemporary English Version (CEV).
Yet, this argument is rather dubious. There is no such thing as a neutral language. The English language is a social product, shaped by historical, cultural, and political contexts. Moreover, the process of translation always involves interpretation. It is not a mechanical process of word-for-word conversion, and Bible translations are no exception. In fact, some gender-inclusive phrases in modern Bible editions can even be closer to the original meaning of the text, although we would need to discuss what we mean by “original” in this context.
Gender-Neutral Language In Biblical Contexts
As the Introduction to the NLT states:
The English language changes constantly. Gender-inclusive language is one area where there has been a noticeable recent shift. This causes difficulties for current translators of the ancient Bible text, which was written in a patriarchal society. The translator must respect the historic background while also taking into consideration the concerns of the current readership. Often, the original language allows for a gender-inclusive rendering. The Greek term anthropos, which is typically translated as “man”, really means “human being” or “person.” Aner, a separate Greek term, especially means “male”.
According to the editors, there are other occasions where the original Bible language is male-oriented, but not intentionally so. Most of the regulations in the Pentateuch, for example, are written in male-pronoun-heavy language. But since it is clear in many cases that the recipients of these laws were both male and female, we can use gender-neutral language where appropriate. Another example can be found in New-Testament references to Christians as “brothers” (adelphoi), a term which is used in the epistles, for instance. Here, too, it is clear that these texts were written to all members of the early Church, both men, and women. So, it is possible to translate this word as “brothers and sisters” or “Christian friends”, to represent the historical situation more accurately.
Bible References To Individuals, Groups Of People And Humanity
To understand the significance of such changes, we need to compare a gender-neutral translation of a relevant Bible passage such as the NLT with that of a non-gender-inclusive one such as the English Standard Version (ESV). Bible verses that include the Greek term, anthropos, are a useful example. Let’s take a look at James 1:12.
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.(ESV)
“God blesses those who patiently endure testing and temptation. Afterward they will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”(NLT)
Moreover, many recent Bible translations have replaced terms like “men” or “brothers” with the more gender-neutral forms “people” or “brothers and sisters”. For instance, the 2011 edition of the NIV translates 1 Thessalonians 4:1 as “brothers and sisters, we instructed you how to live in order to please God,” even though the actual word for sisters was not included in the Greek text. In other words, the translators inserted “and sisters” to be gender-neutral.
But does this render the meaning of the original text in any way? Certainly not. Again, the most logical argument would be: since Paul was writing to the Church as a whole (which undoubtedly included sisters in Christ), the insertion of such gender-inclusive language does not affect the intent of this particular passage. On the contrary, using more generic words such as “people”, “parents”, “descendants” and “humankind” instead of “man”, “father”, “sons” and “mankind” may help to reduce confusion, avoid misunderstandings or even offense to female and non-binary Christians today.
Bible References To God And The Names Of God
The names of God can be translated from Hebrew to English in a variety of ways. In Hebrew, the name, God, consists of the following four consonants, also known as the Tetragrammaton: Yod-Heh-Waw-Heh (YHWH). Modern Biblical translations often change this to LORD, with a capital L, followed by ORD in small caps. Other Bible versions use the term “Yahweh” whereas the King James Version (KJV) uses “Jehovah”. This form’s original meaning is linked to Exodus 3:14 – the great “I AM” – which most likely contains a Hebrew masculine verb prefix, the Y or yod. This term is sometimes transcribed into English using the Hebrew term “Adonai”, following ancient Jewish reverence customs. Adonai means “my lords” (the plural form of adon), and is commonly translated as Lord. Other Hebrew names for the Divine are El Shaddai (God Almighty) and Elohim (The Supreme One or the One With Supreme Powers, although it is worth noting that Elohim, too, is a plural form).
Many prayers use one or more of the names of God several times in one paragraph. The first time it appears, a proper name is used, while further occurrences use the third-person pronouns he, she, or it. An example of a female image of God, used in the Bible is that of God as a comforting mother in Isaiah 66:13: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem” (CEB). (Note how non-gender-neutral translations like the ESV use a masculine pronoun here: “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you (…).”)
There is some support for the argument that “they” or “it” would be better pronouns for God. Some Jewish, Christian, and Islamic medieval thinkers promoted the view that all apparent bodily portrayals of God were poetic metaphors. According to them, we should avoid describing God as a (human) person altogether.
Three Examples Where Gender-Inclusive Bible Translation Really Matters
2 Peter 1:21
Before its gender-inclusive 2011 edition, the NIV translated this passage as: “For prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
This translation used the male forms “man/men” even though the Greek word, anthropos, includes both genders and is, therefore, better translated as “human”. The 2011 edition now reads, more accurately: “For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” In other words, the new translation does not ignore the existence of female prophets.
The ESV translates these verses as: “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Again, both “men” and “human” are translations of the term “anthropos”. So, it is difficult to understand why the ESV would choose two different words for the same concept. By contrast, the more gender-neutral NRSV has this as: “(…) being born in human likeness. And being found in human form (…)”.
According to the ESV, this verse reads: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God”, whereas the NLT refers to those who work for peace in this world as “children of God”.
Here, the argument would be that even though the original term is masculine (huioi) and means “sons” (see also Gal 3:26 and Rom 8:14), the word can still be translated generically to include women. In Paul’s letters, for example, the same term is used with reference to Christians in their new relation to God as Father through Christ, in which case the same term comprises men and women.
Gender-neutral translations such as “children of God” instead of “sons of God” are therefore not only justifiable but also essential in their theological implications.
5 Popular Gender-Inclusive Bible Translations Compared
#1 – New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The NRSV is a revision of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) and was first published in 1989. Even though it does not use the term in its marketing, it is often described as the first explicitly “gender-neutral”, English translation of the Bible. As stated in its Introduction:
The NRSV stands out among the many translations because it is “as literal as possible” in adhering to the ancient texts and only “as free as necessary” to make the meaning clear in graceful, understandable English. (…) It differs from the RSV in four primary ways:
- updating the language of the RSV, by replacing archaic forms of speech addressed to God (Thee, Thou, wast, dost, etc.), and by replacing words whose meaning has changed significantly since the RSV translation (for example, Paul’s statement in 2 Corinthians 11.25 that he was “stoned” once)
- making the translation more accurate,
- helping it to be more easily understood, especially when it is read out loud, and
- making it clear where the original texts intend to include all humans, male and female, and where they intend to refer only to the male or female gender.
- Many people like the NRSV because it is the updated version of the classic RSV with a particular focus on gender-neutral references to humanity. Despite continuing to use male-specific language in reference to God, it is one of the better “inclusive-language” texts.
Many people like the NRSV because it is the updated version of the classic RSV with a particular focus on gender-neutral references to humanity. Despite continuing to use male-specific language in reference to God, it is one of the better “inclusive-language” texts.
#2 – The Common English Bible (CEB)
The CEB, completed in 2011, was born out of the desire to offer a Bible that “is both faithful to the original languages and accessible to the general reader.” To achieve this goal, it uses a combination of language that is “clear and natural” as well as language that is “literary and beautiful”.
Concerning the use of pronouns, the Editorial Board of the CEB explains:
In ancient Hebrew and Greek, a pronoun is often bound with the verb. If the translator is too literal, the English reader loses the antecedent of the pronoun so that one cannot tell who is speaking or acting in the sentence or paragraph. This problem occurs throughout much biblical literature. The CEB addresses this issue by substituting a noun for a pronoun, but only when the antecedent is clear. Because this problem and its resolution are so common, the CEB usually does not offer footnotes to identify these substitutions. CEB translators also use gender-inclusive or neutral syntax for translating pronouns that refer to humans, unless context requires otherwise.
One controversial aspect of the CEB is its use of the term the “Human One” as a translation of the terms “ben adam” (Hebrew) and “huiou anthropou” (Greek), both of which have traditionally been translated as “Son of Man”. For example, the CEB uses “Human One” throughout the New Testament to refer to Jesus, probably to emphasize the humanity of Christ as an integral part of the Incarnation. The language of Jesus as Son of God is retained, though.
Here is the CEB’s explanation of this translation choice:
Why “Human One”? Jesus’s primary language would have been Aramaic, so he would have used the Aramaic phrase bar enosha. This phrase has the sense of “a human” or “a human such as I.” This phrase was taken over into Greek in a phrase that might be translated woodenly as “son of humanity.” However, Greek usage often refers to “a son of x” in the sense of “one who has the character of x.” For example, (…), in the Greek of Acts 13:10, Paul calls a sorcerer “a son of the devil.” This is not a reference to the sorcerer’s actual ancestry, but it serves to identify his character (…) Human or human one represents accurately the Aramaic and Greek idioms and reflects common English usage. Finally, many references to Jesus as “the Human One” refer back to Daniel 7:13, where Daniel “saw one like a human being” (Greek huios anthropou). By using the title Human One in the Gospels and Acts, the CEB preserves this connection to Daniel’s vision.
#3 – New International Version (NIV) – 2011 Edition
The 2011 edition of the NIV is a significant revision of the NIV first published in 1978. It is one of the most widely read Bible versions in the world, and it is favored by many for its readability. The 2011 translation has also been praised by many for its gender-inclusive language. One example of this is its use of the term “brothers and sister” to refer to the Christian community. Another example is its use of the term “believers” to refer to all Christians, including both men and women.
As the 2011 Preface clarifies:
One of the main reasons the task of Bible translation is never finished is the change in our own language, English. Although a basic core of the language remains relatively stable, many diverse and complex linguistic factors continue to bring about subtle shifts in the meanings and/or connotations of even old, well-established words and phrases. One of the shifts that creates particular challenges to writers and translators alike is the manner in which gender is presented. The original NIV (1978) was published in a time when “a man” would naturally be understood, in many contexts, to be referring to a person, whether male or female. But most English speakers today tend to hear a distinctly male connotation in this word. In recognition of this change in English, this edition of the NIV, along with almost all other recent English translations, substitutes other expressions when the original text intends to refer generically to men and women equally. Thus, for instance, the NIV (1984) rendering of 1 Corinthians 8:3, “But the man who loves God is known by God” becomes in this edition “But whoever loves God is known by God.” On the other hand, “man” and “mankind,” as ways of denoting the human race, are still widely used. This edition of the NIV, therefore, continues to use these words, along with other expressions, in this way.
So, it’s worth noting that this inclusive-language edition doesn’t go as far as other translations in terms of revisions. However, the NIV still counts as one of the better gender-inclusive Bibles.
#4 – New Living Translation (NLT)
The NLT was published in 1996. It is a significant revision of the Living Bible, published in 1971. The editors describe it as “a Bible translation for everyday life”. It uses language that is “clear, natural, and contemporary” and is particularly intended to be easy to read. Like other gender-inclusive translations, the NLT has been praised and criticized for its use of gender-neutral language.
It uses a dynamic-equivalence translation (or thought-for-thought translation) that attempts “to produce in the receptor language the closest natural equivalent of the message expressed by the original-language text – both in meaning and in style”. The main intention of this translation is to have “the same impact on modern readers as the original had on its own audience”. In this way, the NLT seeks to be both exegetically accurate and idiomatically powerful.
With regard to gender concerns, the Introduction states:
One challenge we faced was in determining how to translate accurately the ancient biblical text that was originally written in a context where male-oriented terms were used to refer to humanity generally. We needed to respect the nature of the ancient context while also trying to make the translation clear to a modern audience that tends to read male-oriented language as applying only to males. Often the original text, though using masculine nouns and pronouns, clearly intends that the message be applied to both men and women. One example is found in the New Testament epistles, where the believers are called “brothers” (adelphoi). Yet, it is clear that these epistles were addressed to all the believers – male and female. Thus, we have usually translated this Greek word “brothers and sisters” to represent the historical situation more accurately.
We have also been sensitive to passages where the text applies generally to human beings or the human condition. In many instances, we have used plural pronouns (they, them) in place of the masculine singular (he, him). For example, a traditional rendering of Proverbs 22:6 is: “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. We have rendered it: “Teach your children to choose the right path, and when they are older they will remain upon it.”
One criticism of the NLT is that the translators have drawn a very distinct line as to how far this version of the Bible includes women in all aspects of Christian faith and practice. For example, while they stress in the context of salvation that both men and women are equal before God, their word choice in other places of the Bible often implies that spiritual authority and church leadership is a possibility only for men. Nevertheless, the NLT is one of the few, relatively gender-neutral translations on the market.
#5 – Contemporary English Version (CEV)
The CEV, published in the 1990s, is sometimes referred to as the EFL (English as a Foreign Language) Bible. It uses contemporary, conversational English that “is clear and easy to read” for everyone who wants to study the Bible.
The Bible’s language is simplified into more common terms and phrases in this translation. Exodus 20:14 provides an example, where the commandment against adultery is interpreted favorably in terms of marital faithfulness. So, “Thou shalt not commit adultery” (KJV) becomes “Be faithful in marriage”. Furthermore, the CEV frequently paraphrases to make the underlying sense of a paragraph evident.
With respect to gender concerns, the CEV uses gender-neutral language for humanity, but not for God. It is a simple Bible translation that is perfect for primary school students, second-language readers, and those who want a simple modern and gender-neutral version.
The Bottom Line
The past thirty years have seen a growing movement to create gender-inclusive Bibles in modern English. These gender-neutral versions of the Bible seek to correct many of the gender biases, reflected in the male-dominated language that appeared in earlier translations. The five most popular gender-inclusive translations are the:
- New Revised Standard Version
- Common English Bible
- New International Version 2011
- New Living Translation
- Contemporary English Version
Where To Go From Here?
Are you looking for new ways of approaching the Bible with an open heart and mind? Why not check out this article on the Power of Biblical Affirmations In Times Of Spiritual Isolation?
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