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 texts. 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 is an example from Paul’s teaching about spiritual gifts.
Paul’s admonition about spiritual gifts in Romans 12:6-8
In Romans Chapter 12, many English translations add seven male pronouns that are not in the original biblical manuscripts. While using male pronouns was consistent with literary practices of the day and considered to be inclusive of women in some cases, English language usage has changed dramatically. Not only are the added pronouns unnecessary today, they interfere with our understanding of this passage. This is especially true for children, young adults, and anyone who didn’t grow up in the church.
Why does it matter? When the seven pronouns are removed it becomes clear that the spiritual gifts Paul is writing about are understood to be given to believers regardless of their gender. Compare the 1984 and 2011 New International Version translations. The added pronouns in the 1984 edition are highlighted in bold:
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 edition)
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 edition)
Imagine how children would be impacted by hearing these different readings growing up. Even as an adult I find reading a gender-accurate translation feels like a breath of fresh air and gives new life to my vision for a church that reflects the full image of God.
Sometimes a translation decision impairs our understanding of the text in ways that go far beyond issues related to gender. 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. Even though “he” is not present in the Greek text (it reads “ego eimi“), translators of the NIV felt the need to insert the pronoun in the name of making the passage more clear to English-speaking readers. I suggest that it has the opposite effect and obscures an important aspect of the story.
“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)
He said to them, “I AM.” (Judas, his betrayer, was standing with them.) When he said, “I AM,” they shrank back and fell to the ground. (Common English Bible)
Previously when reading this passage, I have been curious as to why people would literally fall down when Jesus answered “I am he”. The translation “I AM” makes more sense. Consider the similarities of Jesus’ response to God’s words 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 in John 18; 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 AM” forty-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. The next time you reflect on what was accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, may you also be moved to fall to the ground in the presence of the great “I AM“.
(And if you’re still using the 1984 NIV, I suggest it’s time to upgrade…)