Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Are Modern English Versions of the Bible Corrupt? -- Part 9

This is the ninth installment in a multi-part series concerning social media posts that are circulating and accusing the NIV and other modern English translations of the Bible of taking out important words and concepts, leaving out verses, and other nefarious things.

Read part 1 here
Read part 2 here
Read part 3 here
Read part 4 here
Read part 5 here
Read part 6 here
Read part 7 here
Read part 8 here

Gender-Inclusive Language

One of the objections raised against the New International Version is that it uses “gender-neutral” language. When this allegation first started popping up, many people were claiming that the NIV was capitulating to a radical feminist agenda and removing masculine terms for God (such as Father, and the pronouns he, him, and his). The NIV has not changed any of the masculine nouns or pronouns referring to God, so this accusation is without merit.

Now, the explanation on this one is going to get a little more technical regarding how languages work. It will be helpful (though not necessary) if you have had a first-year class in a language that uses grammatical gender (such as Spanish, Italian, Latin, etc.). I will use examples from Spanish, as that is the non-English language I know best.

“Grammatical gender” refers to a concept in linguistics where nouns can be classified as masculine, feminine, or neuter. This has nothing to do with the actual biological sex of a person or animal, but with how words are grouped. Spanish has two genders: masculine and feminine. Koine Greek (the language of the New Testament) has all three. English does not use grammatical gender.

In Spanish, the word for “book” is libro, which is a masculine noun and takes the definite article el. The Spanish word for “flower” is flor, and is feminine, taking the definite article la. (In English, we only have one definite article, the word “the,”which is used for both singular and plural nouns.)

In Spanish (as in Greek), any words associated with the noun in a sentence, such as definite/indefinite articles or adjectives, have to match the noun in gender and number. If I want to say “red book” in Spanish, I would use libro rojo, with rojo being the masculine form of “red.” To talk about “red flowers,” I would use flores rojas, changing rojo to roja to give it a feminine ending, and adding an “s” to make it plural like flores. (This doesn’t directly impact our main argument, but is background for those not familiar with the concept of grammatical gender.)

In Spanish, the word for “brother” is hermano, and “sister” is hermana. In Greek, the corresponding words are ἀδελφός (adelphos) and ἀδελφή (adelphē). Notice that it is just the ending on the word that makes the difference in these languages, whereas in English we have two entirely separate words.

Now, here is where things get really different in modern English. In Spanish and Greek, a plural masculine noun referring to human beings can be taken as either a group whose members are all masculine, or as a mixed group. Hermanos and adelphoi can mean strictly “brothers,” or it can mean “brothers and sisters.” My wife, for example, is the oldest of four siblings—three sisters and a brother. If you ask her in Spanish, “¿Cuántos hermanos tienes?” she may answer “uno” if referring only to her brother, or she may say “Tres—dos hermanas y un hermano” (“Three—two sisters and one brother”). Either one is technically correct. And if you ask my brother-in-law “¿Cuántos hermanos tienes?” he could answer “Cero” if he’s wanting to say he has zero brothers, or he could answer “Tres” in reference to his three sisters—hermanos can mean both “brothers” and “brothers and sisters” (in English we sometimes just use the word “siblings” to refer to both brothers and sisters together).

The English language in the Elizabethan period, when the King James Version was translated, also used this convention of having the plural masculine noun refer to a mixed group including both males and females. For example, the KJV in John 1:12 says:
12 But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:

The NIV here says:
12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God

In the Greek, the word translated “sons” by the KJV is actually a neuter plural noun, tekna. Since the context here is obviously talking about children regardless of their biological sex, the NIV’s use of “children” is more accurate (otherwise, once could make the claim that only males can believe in Christ and become part of God’s family, based on the “sons” language).

Perhaps the most common example comes in the Apostle Paul’s letters, where in the KJV he addresses his instructions to “brethren.” We know Paul was not talking only to the men in the churches when using this language. Even preachers who primarily use the King James, when reading these parts of Paul’s epistles to their congregations, will often interject, “That means sistren too, ladies,” recognizing that English the way we speak it today does not automatically assume that a plural masculine noun includes individuals of both sexes.

The NIV makes it explicitly clear that both males and females are being addressed. For example, Romans 12:1 in the NIV uses “brothers and sisters” where the KJV says “brethren.” Similarly, where the KJV has “your brethren only” in Matt 5:47, the NIV says “only your own people,” because Jesus is clearly not talking about greeting (or saluting, as the KJV says) only male persons. In Acts 11:29, the King James says that the believers in Antioch “determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea.” Were they only aid to the male Christians? Obviously, no. So the New International Version says they “decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea.”

There are also several New Testament verses which include the phrase, “if any man,” such as Matt. 5:40, Matt. 24:23, Mark 4:23, John 7:17, John 12:26, 1 Cor. 3:17, 1 Cor. 10:28, 2 Cor. 5:17, 1 Pet. 4:16, 1 John 2:15, and Rev. 3:20 (this is just a representative list, not an exhaustive one). In the Greek, none of these verses contains the Greek word for “man” (ᾰ̓νήρ—anēr) or even for “person/human being” (ἄνθρωπος—anthrōpos).

Most of these verses have the word τις (tis), which is what is known in grammar as an “indefinite pronoun.” It basically means “someone,” “anyone,” or “any person.” Both the masculine and feminine forms of this pronoun are exactly the same, so it is not specifying whether a man or a woman is the subject—it’s just specifying that it is a person (the neuter form of this pronoun in Greek— τι [ti]—would mean “anything,” and would not be used when referring to a human being). The King James Version translators in 1611 used “any man” as their translation of tis because, as English was used at that time, “man” could be used as a generic term for “person” or “human being.” While some people still use the word that way today, the majority of English speakers (especially internationally) do not. So the NIV translates these terms the way modern English is actually written and spoken.

The Christian Standard Bible from Broadman & Holman (the book publishing arm of Lifeway Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention) has also made the decision to use this type of inclusive language when a mixed-gender group is in view. Other modern English translations also do this, because modern English no longer common uses masculine nouns and pronouns to refer to people of both genders.

Contrary to what detractors say, the NIV’s use of “gender inclusive” or “gender neutral” language is not a capitulation to the LGBTQ+ agenda, but is done for the purpose of accurately rendering in English—the way it is spoken today—the meaning of the original Greek text. In my personal experience, most of the people warning about "gender neutral" language in modern translations are simply repeating talking points they have heard from someone else, and have no concept of the linguistic issues addressed above.

(If there is any particular verse you have a question about with regards to gender language, feel free to ask about it in the comments. I’ve probably already put some people to sleep with linguistic nerdiness, so I don’t want to go further here unless someone has a specific question.)

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