Bible Translation, Pluralization, and Apostolic Exegesis

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 sourcesand 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 interpretationand 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 inclusiveyet 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.


13 responses to “Bible Translation, Pluralization, and Apostolic Exegesis

  1. Good job, my friend! I’ve never been one for gender-inclusivity, but this was a sound argument and you really made Grudem look like a fool–or more accurately, pointed out what a fool he made himself look like. Also, Ellis’s claim that Apostolic exegesis was ‘a charismatic exercise exclusive to the apostles and prophets of the earliest Church’ reminds me of the old idea that New Testament Greek was a ‘Holy Ghost language’. What a testimony to the extraordinary blindness of so much of evangelicalism when it comes to the ancient Church! I’m anxious to see the next post!


  2. Brilliant! Now if only we could figure out a way to include footnotes in blog posts rather than end notes. ;-) And now I have a number of volumes to add to my library. Darn you Esteban Vázquez, darn you I say!


  3. This is why we love the Voice of Stefan, each individual one of us, male and female, all of us. Wonderful quotations and examples and case building too!

    And may I chime in with a couple of little notes? First, is the RSV’s “a man” for τις really better than the NRSV’s “Those who”? The former implies that Jesus is excluding the non-man (i.e., the woman) while the latter can even imply “Those individuals who.” And doesn’t the dogmatism in the “war” fizzle a bit when we recognize that Jesus never said “τις” or “αὐτὸν” or “αὐτῷ” at all but that St. John is his translator just as the LXX translators are St. Paul’s?!

    Second, hasn’t English in 2009 changed substantially since the dogmatic warriors began snipping at each other? I mean, just this morning I read the following from a book of Brennan Manning’s published in March of this year:

    “To affirm a person is to see the good in them that they cannot see in themselves and to repeat it in spite of appearances to the contrary… When a person is evoked for who she is, not who she is not, the most often result will be the inner healing of her heart through the touch of affirmation.”

    Manning uses good English to mean “a person” as generic inclusive-gender plural (i.e., “them,” “they,” “themselves”). And then the author uses equally good English to mean “a person” as generic singular (i.e., the feminine gendered, “she,” “her”).

    Indeed, in Greek, in English translation, and in English writing: “it is desirable… even possible to reproduce the exegesis that the Apostles model for us in their use of the Old Testament in the New.”


  4. I guess I have a hard time believing that there are people out there who would think that a woman does not need to keep God’s Word but I suppose there are always a few nuts. I just think that most people are able to understand the passages without the use of the plural in the name of gender neutrality. It makes sense to me that a pastor would read the passage and then when preaching it to his congregation shift into the plural and I think that would be perfectly acceptable and seems to be what Paul is doing. Paul is not providing us with a Greek translation of the Old Testament but using Old Testament passages to prove a point. If I said “Jesus says we are to love one another” I doubt that anyone will correct me and say, “The Bible does not say we are to love one another but simply love one another.” I understand the need to be less than literal when translating the Scriptures in order to get actual meaning across, I just don’t think the shift from singular to plural is really necessary. Maybe the Apostles wouldn’t share my concern. They certainly didn’t give a lick about the original autographs that modern textual critics are so obsessed with.


  5. It’s your last paragraph, Esteban, that describes my own greatest and unshakable reservation relating to the indiscriminate use of pluralization.

    But we also need to take into account the contextual usage of each such translation. I am wholeheartedly behind a contextually appropriate pluralization guided by a particular hermeneusis, as in the case of St Paul. Speaking to a church, he naturally uses the plural. Speaking of Christ, he uses singular. And the good fun of it all is that both are potential in the Hebrew, despite overly simplistic squawking to the contrary.

    A very important addition is that St Paul’s overarching concern is not at all the modern concern with “accuracy in relating the Hebrew” but rather the application of Scripture in the life of the Church. It’s Tradition in action: the unwritten, unstated direction of Apostolic interpretation by concerns ulterior to the flat sense of Scripture. His is a perfect example of it.

    I look forward to the next installment.


  6. Aaron> Well, I think it is no secret that The Voice of Stefan is the electronic publishing arm of Anti-Grudemites International. ;-) Seriously, though, for all my dislike of Grudem’s published views on just about everything, my main concern is that they often have very dangerous implications. Given his influence in certain circles, this deeply worries me.

    As for Ellis, his position attempts to uphold both the authority of Apostolic exegesis (it was a revelatory charismatic function of apostleship and NT prophecy) and the necessity of post-enlightenment hermeneutics and exegetical method (which would be the correct way for us to interpret Scripture in the absence of such charismatic endowment). His is a valiant attempt, and his views are well worth exploring, but I believe he ultimately fails the cause of Apostolic exegesis as the Church’s foundational, authoritative, and normative reading of Scripture.

    Nancy> Patience, patience! I took me 4 days to write this one more or less to my satisfaction, and that after weeks of pondering the subject — who knows when the next post will appear. ;-)

    Nick> Oh, no! Well, I’m sorry to inform you that I have just added a note containing the bibliographical information for Ellis’ seminal books on the subject of the OT use of the New, which I neglected to do earlier. Sorry to add to your book-buying load! ;-)

    Kurk> Why, of course you may!

    The 1946 RSV’s “if a man” becomes “if anyone” in the 2001 ESV, since evidently the former is too gender-exclusive even by CBMW standards. This, of course, underscores your point about language change. As I reread the books by Carson and Strauss, I often had the same thought as you: yes, this or that might have reflected an incipient trend back in the mid ’90s, but a decade and a half later this or that has become nearly universal. I wish Carson would publish a second edition of The Inclusive Language Debate; I’d be quite interested in learning what his “linguistic antennae” (his charming term) have detected in terms of language change since the book was first published.

    I must say this, though: I don’t find Manning’s (and others’) use of “she” as a generic singular to be particularly helpful or reasonable. Substituting one gender-specific pronoun for another does not deal with the problem of “gender inaccuracy.” I think the language itself, in moving towards a standard generic plural (complete with the dreaded, supposedly ungrammatical “singular they”), is headed in a better, more organic direction.

    Charles> Well, I think the shift from singular to plural is becoming necessary due to the ongoing evolution of the English gender system. As far as I’m concerned, the point is strictly linguistic and related to English as a receptor language in Biblical translation. We’re not quite to the point where the generic plural (or the “singular they”) is the standard English way of expressing gender inclusivity, but we’re not that far off.

    I do believe, however, that you are underestimating what St Paul is doing here. Note that our three passages from Romans directly quote the OT, and each is introduced with a formulaic expression. Further, these are no mere illustrative quotations or paraphrastic allusions (both of which do exist in the NT, of course), but each is firmly entrenched in St Paul’s argument at its respective place. This is Apostolic exegesis in action. In in this context, St Paul is providing us with a Greek translation of his Old Testament, and his Greek translations come with pluralizations in spite of the form of the Hebrew. This alone is my point, that St Paul: innocent of all contemporary agendas, does not imagine that this changes or distorts the meaning of the biblical text, and that those who suggest otherwise must also accuse St Paul of such distortion — and strike at the very heart of the Christian faith in the process.

    But of course, you are quite right (as is Kevin below) that the concern with critical texts (as opposed to traditional, living texts) is far, far removed from the thought world of the Apostles — and that of the Fathers and the Liturgy, as well.

    Kevin> Well, way to anticipate what I will be arguing in the posts I haven’t written yet! I couldn’t agree more with both of the points you make in your comment, as my next two post will show. Now, if I only had the time to write them…


  7. Is St. Paul even translating from the Hebrew? Or is he quoting from the LXX? If the latter, does that make a difference since he’d be following the lead of the LXX translators?


  8. Brian> Indeed — but not quite as much as Leland Ryken is!

    Brad> As Carson notes, only in one of the three passages is St Paul arguably quoting from the LXX; the other two definitely represent an independent translation of the Hebrew. All three passages are pluralized, however, which is not the case in the LXX text of the first two.


  9. A semi-related comment: Reading the most disparaging review of Fee and Strauss on Amazon convinced me to finally buy the book, exactly the opposite of what said reviewer aimed for.

    Sometimes “heat” has the opposite effect we desire.


  10. We must also point out, however, that St. Paul was not intending to translate the passage for those unfamiliar with it, but rather to quote it for a specific purpose. This says more about how St. Paul preaches a sermon than how he would translate in a proper sense. Thus, Jesus answered Satan: “you will worship the Lord your God, and him alone shall you serve,” though the ‘alone’ was added for emphasis.

    Part of Paul’s specific purpose in Romans 3 was to quote a poetic chain of Scripture (not including Torah) that linked back logically to the Greco-Roman vice list of chapter 1. If I were in his shoes, it would feel awkward there to use a generic masculine singular in chapter 3 to link back to the plurals of the vice list in chapter 1.

    Oddly, Romans 3:10 says “as it is written,” and then proceeds to paraphrase, not “directly quote,” Ecclesiastes 7:20. “There is not a righteous person on earth who does what is good and does not sin” is shortened to “there is no one who is righteous, not even one.” Verse 14 also abbreviates Psalm 10:7 (LXX 9:28), and even changes the word order so that “mouth” comes first to create the chiasm effect there. 15-16 likewise abbreviate LXX Isaiah 59:7. This technical data comes from Leander Keck’s Romans commentary, but I’ve checked it myself (enough to see that the LXX equivalents are indeed longer). Parts quoted are also his translation — I give credit where it’s due.

    I’m not sure what to make of Keck’s statement that this poetic string was compiled by someone else and St. Paul borrowed it, but the possibility certainly has some effect on this discussion. One way or another, though, Paul did not intend to quote in the context of making a translation. Even with the other two texts discussed, he was quoting within the context of building a case or argument. Some poetic license is acceptable there, and I don’t think one can accurately say that it is also his translation philosophy.

    I guess my point is this: quoting texts fluidly to prove a point does not necessitate translating texts fluidly.

    Thank you for this post. I enjoy your thoughts!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s