As is well known, it is now commonplace for English Bible translations to make use of pluralization as a device to achieve gender-inclusive renderings. Scores of instances of this from several translations published within the past 20 years could be readily offered, but let us take St John 14:23 as an example:
ἀπεκρίθη Ἰησοῦς καὶ εἶπεν αὐτῷ· ἐάν τις ἀγαπᾷ με τὸν λόγον μου τηρήσει, καὶ ὁ πατήρ μου ἀγαπήσει αὐτὸν καὶ πρὸς αὐτὸν ἐλευσόμεθα καὶ μονὴν παρ᾽ αὐτῷ ποιησόμεθα.
“Jesus answered him, ‘If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him’ ” (RSV).
“Jesus answered him, ‘Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them’ ” (NRSV).
Also well known is the charge that pluralization does undue violence to the Biblical text by erroneously generalizing what is meant to be particular. Wayne Grudem’s objection to the NRSV’s translation of our passage is typical:
“The problem is that Jesus did not speak with plural pronouns here; he used singulars. Jesus wanted to specify that he and the Father would come and dwell within an individual believer. But the NRSV has lost that emphasis because of the plurals ‘those’ and ‘them’ indicate a group of people, such as a church. The words of Jesus have been unnecessarily changed in translation, and the meaning is different”1.
Of course, D. A. Carson (pace Grudem and Poythress’ protestations to the contrary2) has decisively put to rest the basic linguistic thrust of such arguments in his superb (but regrettably out-of-print) study, The Inclusive Language Debate: A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998). Hang on momentarily, however, to the notion that “the rejection of the generic ‘he, him, his’ obscures the personal application of Scripture”3, and that it therefore fundamentally distorts the meaning of the Biblical texts, for this line of thought is what concerns us here.
With this in mind, I wish to offer the following extract from Gordon Fee and Mark Strauss’ excellent little book, How To Choose a Translation for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007):
“Evidence that pluralizing does not necessarily distort the meaning of the text comes from the Bible itself, since Biblical writers sometimes translate masculine singular generics with plural constructions. Consider these examples, where the apostle Paul quotes from the Old Testament:
Old Testament Text
New Testament Text
|Isa. 52:7: How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news.
||Rom. 10:15b: . . . As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!”
|Ps. 36:1b: There is no fear of God before his eyes.
||Rom. 3:10, 18: As it is written . . . “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
|Ps. 32:1: Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.
||Rom. 4:6-7: David says the same thing . . . “Blessed are they whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered.”
In all three cases [St] Paul translated Hebrew singulars with Greek plurals. He clearly recognized that generic plurals in Greek accurately represent the meaning of generic singulars in Hebrew. He changed the form but retained the meaning”4.
To be sure, this is hardly breaking news: careful students of the Bible have doubtless noted at least as much in their own reading. Further, Strauss himself had previously included the above table in his book Distorting Scripture? The Challenge of Bible Translation & Gender Accuracy (Carol Stream: IVP, 1998)5, and even earlier in a paper presented at the 1997 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. Strauss’ paper, in turn, led Carson to comment on these texts in The Inclusive Language Debate (see below). Thus, notice of these clear and unambiguous instances of Pauline pluralization has long been available from a variety of sources—and indeed, they stand right there in the Bible for all to see.
As I revisited the literature of the “Bible wars” over the past several weeks, however, I kept coming back to our three Pauline quotations of the Old Testament with a sense that I was missing something in spite of my long familiarity with them. After much reflection, it finally dawned on me that there were some rather obvious parallels to be drawn (how could I miss them!) between the issues they raise for the contemporary debate and the subject of Apostolic exegesis. I ask your indulgence, then, in allowing me the following heuristic thoughts on the matter.
Now, frequent readers of this blog are no doubt aware that one of the chief burdens of The Voice of Stefan is to promote the cause of the normativity of Apostolic exegesis for our own reading and interpretation of Scripture. To quote once again our Infallible Hero, Moisés Silva:
“If we refuse to pattern our exegesis after that of the apostles, we are in practice denying the authoritative character of their scriptural interpretation—and to do so is to strike at the very heart of the Christian faith”6.
Yet this obvious truth is not so obvious to all, and it is not difficult in the least to find scholars who, in spite of their high confessional commitment to the authority of Scripture, would deny that it is desirable or even possible to reproduce the exegesis that the Apostles model for us in their use of the Old Testament in the New. In like manner also, though in our three Pauline quotations of the Old Testament we have not only an example of Apostolic exegesis, but indeed of Apostolic translation, they are not few who oppose the use of the translation method that St Paul modeled for us in these and other texts. E. Earle Ellis protests:
“Some suppose that if Christian apostles or prophets could elaborate the biblical text from, e.g. ‘he shall be my son’ (2 Sam. 7:14) to ‘you shall be my sons and daughters’ (2 Cor. 6:18), why cannot they do the same? They are not the first transmitters of the Scriptures to think like this.”
And then he proceeds to compare the unfortunate “supposers” with the villains of Bart Ehrman’s youthful nightmares, those scribes who took it upon themselves to smooth over and improve upon the manuscripts which they were copying7. Of course, Ellis denies that it is possible to reproduce the exegesis of the Apostles, which he considers a charismatic exercise exclusive to the apostles and prophets of the earliest Church (cf. Ephesians 2:20)8; it is no coincidence, I believe, that he also strongly rejects the possibility of reproducing the translational example of St Paul. But let us not get ahead of ourselves.
St Paul’s use of pluralization in our three passages is nothing short of remarkable on two counts. Firstly, he can hardly be accused of playing translational fast and loose with singulars and plurals, as witnesses his argument in Galatians 3:15-18, which depends entirely on καὶ τῷ σπέρματί σου (“and to your seed“) being in the singular. Secondly, it should be remembered that using the generic singular masculine in Greek would still have rendered the meaning of these passages inclusive—yet St Paul uses the inclusive plural here. Carson comments:
“I am certainly not suggesting the singulars may be translated into plurals indiscriminately. [ . . . ] But at the very least, one must conclude, from [St] Paul’s own habits, that the apostle does not think something of truth is lost when he renders a singular by a plural. In the last of the three cases (Ps. 32:1 in Rom. 4:6-7), he is quoting the LXX. The apostle neither condemns the translation nor reverts to the Hebrew to retain greater accuracy”9.
This brings us to my ultimate point: if, as Grudem argues, pluralization fails to accurately translate the Biblical text and effectively changes its meaning, can we accuse St Paul of distorting Scripture in the passages we have quoted? Would this not bring into question the authoritative character of his handling of Scripture? And would this not strike at the very heart of the Christian faith?
But this is not the end of the matter. The apostles do not pluralize their quotations from the Old Testament in every instance, and as Carson suggests, neither should we. Further, each side must resist the temptation to simply “[bless] its own translation preferences with divine sanction”10. But St Paul’s example does clearly suggest that pluralization does not necessarily distort the meaning and application of Scripture, as many contemporary critics aver. His example should also give pause to those critics who accuse others of so doing, lest they place the Apostle under their injunction, and thus also the Apostolic exegesis on which their faith is founded.
Of course, Apostolic exegesis interprets Christologically many of the singular masculine references in the Old Testament (especially in the Psalms). This poses a delicate problem for pluralization for which I’m not sure there is a satisfactory solution, but I will comment on this and other matters in my next post.
1. Wayne Grudem, What’s Wrong with Gender-Neutral Bible Translations? (Libertyville: Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 1997), page 3. Available online here.
2. Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem, The TNIV and the Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2004), pages 467-478.
3. Grudem, What’s Wrong, page 3.
4. Fee and Strauss, How to Choose a Translation, page 105.
5. Cf. Strauss, Distorting Scripture?, page 126.
6. Moisés Silva, “The New Testament Use of the Old Testament: Text and Form,” in D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (eds.), Scripture and Truth (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), p. 164.
7. Let me note in passing that altering the form of a text in translation according to the needs of the receptor language is hardly comparable to tampering with the particulars of the original text!
8. See, for example, Ellis’ Prophecy and Hermeneutic in Early Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), especially pages 173-187, and The Old Testament in Early Christianity: Canon and Interpretation the Light of Modern Research (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), especially pages 77-121.
9. Carson, The Inclusive Language Debate, page 116.
10. Ibid., page 108.