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The Garden of Gethsemane and Gendered Pronouns

baiser garden

One of my pet peeves about some translations of the Bible is the way translators have added masculine pronouns that don’t exist in the original manuscripts. This was done in the interest of clarity, but in this day and age these additions can give the impression that parts of the Bible were written mostly to men. Here’s an example.

Paul’s admonition about spiritual gifts in Romans 12:6-8

12:6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. 7 If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; 8 if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully. (NIV 1984)

English language usage has changed so much that not only are the added pronouns unnecessary, they can interfere with our understanding of a passage. This is especially true for children, young adults, and anyone who didn’t grow up in the church. In the case of Romans 12, removing the seven added pronouns makes it more clear that gifts are given to all believers regardless of their gender.

12:6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; 7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully. (NIV 2011)

Sometimes a translation decision can impact our reading in ways that go far beyond issues related to gender.

In light of Holy Week, here is an illustration that brought this home to me recently. (I have to give credit to Beth Moore for pointing this out in her video study, “Jesus, the One and Only”.) Here is the account of Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane:

Jesus Betrayed and Arrested in John 18:1-5

1 When he had finished praying, Jesus left with his disciples and crossed the Kidron Valley. On the other side there was a garden, and he and his disciples went into it. 2 Now Judas, who betrayed him, knew the place, because Jesus had often met there with his disciples. 3 So Judas came to the garden, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons. 4 Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?” 5 “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.

Notice how Jesus’ response is recorded in these two translations of verses 5 & 6:

I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. (NIV 2011)

Jesus told them, “I AM.” Judas, the man who betrayed him, was standing with them. When Jesus told them, “I AM,” they backed away and fell to the ground. (International Standard Version)

In the first example, even though “he” is not explicit in the Greek text (it reads “ego eimi“) translators felt the need to insert the pronoun to make the passage more clear to English-speaking readers.

I suggest that it has the opposite effect.

I had been curious when reading this passage before as to why people would fall down when Jesus answered “I am he”. The response “I AM“ makes more sense. Look at the similarity of Jesus’ response and the words God spoke to Moses in Exodus 3:13-14:

13 Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” 14 God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM (ego eimi) has sent me to you.’ 

Jesus was not answering a simple question of human identity; he was making a claim of deity.

This was God speaking. And when He declared “I AM” the force of His voice may have caused the ground to quake in response (something we in California can imagine all too well!). Unfortunately, this nuance is missed in most translations.

Jesus says “I AMforty-five times in the Gospel of John, but the presence of one added pronoun makes it easy to miss that these words were spoken three times during this chaotic scene. As we reflect on what was accomplished through the death and resurrection of Jesus this Easter weekend, may we also be moved to fall to the ground in the presence of the great “I AM“.

Happy Easter from all of us at The Junia Project!

(And if you’re still using the 1984 NIV, I suggest it’s time to upgrade…)

Gail Wallace Bio

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