In Part One Rebecca wrote about how the Greek word “adelphoi” has been intentionally translated as “brothers” rather than as “brothers and sisters” 135 times in the ESV translation of the Bible. In this post she addresses why this matters.
I had read my Bible for years without being particularly affected by adelphoi being translated as “brothers.”
*Or brothers and sisters. The plural Greek word adelphoi (translated as ‘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.”
Why, then, am I now so up in arms about the gender-exclusive language?
First and foremost, because I think the choice misrepresents the words and intentions of Scripture. The Greek leaves space for men and women; the English does not. I believe that we ought to be accurate to the original words of Scripture. Second, though, the words that we read day after day, especially in the context of Protestant, evangelical Christianity, significantly affect our understanding of the nature of reality.
Contemporary evangelicals have an intense relationship (to say the least) with the doctrine of Scripture, specifically in the areas of inerrancy, accuracy, and reliability.  It has become a theological hill to die on, a way to separate the sheep from the goats. For an inerrantist, translation is awkward. One rarely sees the claim of inerrancy or inspiration applied to translation (e.g. see The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article X), which means that the Scriptural texts that the majority of Christians read daily and worship with corporately are not considered strictly inerrant. But, because of a strong doctrine of (original manuscript) inerrancy, an equally strong doctrine of providence, and a pride in “essentially literal” translation principles (see “Translation Philosophy”, from the Preface to the ESV), the translated text is treated as such in practice.
Gender exclusive choices like “brothers” or other traditional translation choices (dating back to the Vulgate and other early translations) are used to make theological claims. They are not treated as “this our current and best attempt to capture the original language” but as truth that shapes church practice. I think this is irresponsible; we must retain some sense that translation, even with the best of literal intentions, is always interpretive.
It is not popular, in a conservative theological setting to admit that our understanding of the Word of God itself has been shaped by particular English (or Latin or German) translation choices. See, for example, the work of N.T. Wright and the response from John Piper. Yet, as the translators of the ESV acknowledge, our understanding of “slave” and “slavery” is affected by our own sordid history, and here the translators do use the American cultural context as a justification for translation choices. Once we have the humility to admit that there is leeway in translation to respond to changing contexts, it doesn’t necessarily follow that our current Biblical interpretations are wrong. It does however prompt me to ask why this principle seems to be applied inconsistently. After all, in the case of “slave” and “slavery” the ESV “seeks to express the nuance of meaning in each context.” Why not with adelphoi?
There’s a discussion to be had about “explicit” passages concerning the roles of women in the church. But currently, the interpretation of these passages takes place in an environment in which women are already considered secondary to the concerns of Scripture rather than among the primary recipients. Choices such as the one ESV translators made for adelphoi contribute to a subtle but consistent marginalization of women in the church. The question of the roles of women in the church (and other social relationships) needs to be asked after we’ve questioned an unbiblical tendency toward patriarchy in translation choices.
I care that adelphoi is translated as brothers when it could be translated as brothers and sisters. I care because I shape my life by the word of God, and it’s actually quite important whether or not the Scriptures were written to the whole body of Christ or only to my brothers. I care how adelphoi is translated because words shape our beliefs, our choices, and our cultural realities. And the current reality of accepted sexism in evangelical Christianity is not befitting the body of Christ.
I care that adelphoi is translated as brothers because when I open the Word of God each morning, it shouldn’t be a struggle to believe that it is fully the words of life for me, a sister in the family of God.
Read Part 1 of this 2-part series here.
Footnote:  I’ll freely acknowledge that this claim is based on my personal experience of being raised in evangelical Christian communities. The “literal” English translations of the Scriptures (NASB at that point) were treated as inerrant, both by lack of discussion of the original text as key to our understanding of inerrancy and by the weight placed on particular English words. Different possible translations of key words were only used to expand one’s understanding of a passage, never to correct error. The first time I heard anyone mention the possibility of translation affecting our understanding incorrectly was during a university lecture on Beowulf.
Read more about how translation impacts gender issues by other Junia Project authors here and here.
Also recommended:The ESV Men’s Only Club by Marg Mowczko, and Battle for the Bible Translation in Christianity Today.
For suggestions on choosing a translation for personal use, we recommend “How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth” by Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss.
Thank you, thank you, thank you. I so often feel like I am the only woman who struggles with this. Often, while reading the Bible, I have shut it in tears, unable to see how I fit into God’s plan when it seems to only address and apply to men. We need to keep this conversation going, and continue the fight for gender inclusive language.
Hmm. I, like you, had always mental just translated “brothers” to mean “people who share the faith.” I am now filled with consternation. I actually really like the ESV… or maybe now I should say “liked”. 🙂 But really, I do. I love the way Psalms flows and how it retains a lot of imagery (read Psalm 97). I also love the words it uses to retain some key metaphorical salvation language and the way it speaks of our covenant relationship with Christ.
I’m not arguing with your premise, but I do wonder too, how much of the “original” greek word was contextualized to its audience as well (maybe justifying their word choice). Women at that point had little access and means to learn to read. Given that scripture reading was done by males in many faith traditions, it would make sense that it could be addressed to primarily males…who would have represented their household in that culture.
However, regardless of the greek context, it does not excuse the way that the text has currently been executed and does not maintain the implication of “households” in our modern society… hmm… Thanks for the food for thought!
Thanks for this! It used to be that when male-gendered words were considered inclusive, “brethren” or “brothers” was not an issue. But when the English usage changed, our new translations should have done so too. Instead, when the TNIV and the NIV 2011 attempted to be gender-accurate according to today’s English, they were attacked by certain denominations which prefer the ESV and other gender-exclusive translations. You are the first to point out that the Emperor has no clothes– that it is the ESV that is not being gender-accurate, and how unfair it is that young girls reading the Bible today can so easily wonder if they are even included in Paul’s letters to the whole church.
Again, thank you so much for your article, Rebecca. I have been well and truly gobsmacked! Having been a Christian for over 40 years (I’m 61), those words I’ve read for over 40 years have indeed shaped my thinking. Translating adelphoi as brethren or brothers is purposefully inaccurate. I can’t help feeling somewhat betrayed all these years by Bible translators. I’m not waiting until Christmas–I’ve already ordered an NIV2011!
Excellent analysis of how words shape our thoughts, Rebecca. Get told enough times that men means only men and we might start to believe it. How sad that Bible translators would perpetuate this error.
That argument about providence in translation doesn’t really hold up either. there are too many examples of bad translations, including works like the New World Translation (Jehovah’s Witness). Those who disagree with the NWT would best argue against it from the ancient (and close in time to the original) manuscripts, not from modern translations. Yet when their favored translation is subjected to similar comparison they cry foul. It’s inexplicably inconsistent, yet happens too often.