As part of an annual reading group several summers ago, I decided to read the Bible in a month. I was reading a set of long novels (War and Peace, Atlas Shrugged, and others) and was curious to reread the familiar book as I would other long texts, in extended stretches every day over a short period of time without stopping for study and note taking.
It took 90 plus minutes of reading every day, but I finished, and it significantly changed the way I thought about the Bible. I experienced the unity of the law, the histories, the prophets, the poetry, the Gospels and the Epistles, seeing the consistent heart of God for his people. I saw the literary beauty of a work inspired by the Holy Spirit and written over centuries by diverse individuals.
The Epistles are such a relatively short part of the Scriptures that I read them in their entirety the last couple days of the month. Reading Romans to Revelation in a matter of days brought to light repetitive language which I had never noticed.
After the week of reading, I couldn’t ignore a painful little word: adelphoi.
Let me be forthright about my theological and linguistic presuppositions. I am a feminist but often land in more theologically conservative circles than those opinions might warrant. Although I wrestle deeply with traditional interpretations of Biblical passages about women, I have no problem affirming that Christ took male form and respect the Scriptural God’s use of male roles and vocabulary (while also acknowledging the use of female/mothering imagery).
As a student of literature, I have sympathy with the historical use of “man” for “humanity” and for the difficulties of writing in gender inclusive language. I get this. I usually think there are other, more harmful areas of patriarchal oppression to battle. I have become so used to the mental translation of “men, that means me too!” that I rarely even notice it as I read through the Scriptures.
So, honestly, I probably would have not noticed this particular Greek word had I not happened to be reading the 250 pages of my New Testament so quickly and had my little ESV not so dogmatically pointed it out . This footnote though, is now forever imprinted in my mind.
“Or brothers and sisters. The plural Greek word adelphoi (translated “brothers”) refers to siblings in a family. In New Testament usage, depending on the context, adelphoi may refer either to men or to both men and women who are siblings (brothers and sisters) in God’s family, the church.”
This footnote first occurs in Matthew 5:47, “And if you greet your brothers only …” I remember thinking “Huh?! Totally didn’t know this! Interesting!”
One hundred and thirty-five times later I was in shock. Brothers, brothers, brothers, brothers. This footnote (or the truncated footnote “brothers and sisters”) appeared at the bottom of more pages than not in my New Testament. I had always mentally translated “brothers” to something like “fellow Christians” without a second thought. But here, in no uncertain terms, translators were telling me that the original language provided the choice between brothers and brothers and sisters, and they had chosen the former. There were other options brothers was an intentional choice.
For the first time in my life, I looked at the Bible in my hands and wondered if it was actually for me.
Was this actually the Word of God for all the people of God? Was I an afterthought to the inspiring Spirit, like I obviously was to the translators?
I went through a period of intense theological questioning. I felt shunned by the New Testament and retreated to reading Isaiah for six months. Were the epistles written to me, or only to the men in the body of Christ? Am I a full member of the body of Christ? Were there women present at Pentecost? Were women active in the early church? And on and on.
After a time, these questions quieted, mostly calmed by careful reading and prayer. They even started to look silly. Of course I’m part of the body of Christ, how could I read the end of Galatians 3 and think otherwise! Of course women were active in the work of Christ, how could I read the Gospels (or the closing requests of so many of Paul’s epistles) and think otherwise!
But then I would open the Scriptures and find myself slapped in the face again…adelphoi (translated “brothers”) refers to siblings in a family … BAM. Over and over again I had to face that, to someone, I was an afterthought–a footnote.
I’ll make the caveat here that other major translations do not treat adelphoi in the same way, but given the ESV’s prominent place in the American evangelical church, its choice is powerful. More importantly, it was the Bible in front of me.
As I’ve said, I have sympathy with direct translation choices forced by archaic locution (such as “man”); I’m wary of changing the literal meaning of the original text. But, as the translators kept repeating, this was not such a case. Adelphoi refers to siblings in a family; depending on the context, sisters ought to be included in the meaning. The sticky phrase “depending on the context” implied that the translators had examined the context and made the choice that brothers was correct in a way that brothers and sisters would not have been.
In some cases, I simply couldn’t believe the choice.
Take the story of Pentecost, for example. Acts 1:14 clearly states that women are present in the upper room. But in Acts 1:15, we read, “In those days Peter stood up among the brothers…” Romans 16:14, “Greet Asyncritus … and the brothers,” amid Paul’s closing addresses feels strange, nestled among numerous references to women (Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Julia, Nereus’ sister, and others). In the dozens of theologically rich phrases throughout the Epistles, it is troubling. Take Romans 8:12,“So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh” or Galatians 4:28, “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise” or Hebrews 10:19, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus…” If the context implies “male siblings” instead of “siblings”, does it follow that these texts are specifically addressed to men? And, what does this mean for my own responsible interpretations? But, if the context does not imply “male siblings” particularly, than why the choice of brothers?
Why indeed? Given the choice between being excluded by the actual word of God and being excluded by the specific choice of translators, I choose the latter. Reading the Scriptures carefully and holistically, it would be ludicrous to assume that each use of the word adelphoi excluded female members of the church. So, I’m left to think that an influential portion of the community of saints has specifically chosen to linguistically exclude me and my sisters in Christ from the pages of Scripture.
But, why? And, more to the point, some might ask, why do I care?
(Rebecca addresses the distancing effect of the repetitive footnote, especially for female readers, in Part 2.)