Sons (and Daughters?)

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As anyone who's been reading this blog for a little while knows, I think most of the venomous language from those who are more conservative about gender issues against inclusive translations is just thoroughly immoral. This includes the literature produced by the Society for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, whose worthwhile original goal of defending complementarianism has been greatly damaged by their vehement ignorance on this issue. I think the overall argument for not wanting any inclusive language is linguistically insensitive. It involves cultural reactionism against what is perceived as a new phenomenon that in reality is so entrenched that anyone resisting it now just seems 19th century. The issue is basically over linguistic facts, and some of the people involved have raised it almost to the level of a gospel issue. That's just incredibly sad.

Still, I don't think all the points against inclusive language are wrong. On some particular issues, the criticism is sound. Some decisions the NLT, TNIV, NRSV, and other translations have made in the attempt to ensure gender neutrality have disguised important theological points. Of course, all translations have that sort of thing. To preserve one element of what a text means, you end up losing another, and sometimes that's something important. The NIV, for instance, translates a word in Philemon 6 that means fellowship in a way that almost guarantees younger evangelicals to interpret it as being about evangelism. It was supposed to make one element of the meaning of that word clearer, and it ended up masking what the passage is really about. One element of the gender neutrality movement in translation does exactly that, and a thoughtful post by Carolyn Custis James at Common Grounds Online points out what that issue is.

Toward the end of the post, she raises the issue of the biblical use of son terminology. Just as believers are called 'adelphoi', the masculine form of the word for brothers and sisters (the masculine was always used for males and for mixed groups; the feminine only for all female groups), so too believers are all called huioi, or sons. The same sort of ending rules apply here, so the masculine has to be used. However, there's one element of sonhood and daughterhood in the biblical context that isn't parallel to brotherhood and sisterhood. Sons inherited. Daughters didn't unless there were no sons to inherit. The concept of sonhood as applied to believers is clearly tied up with that in the biblical discussions of the sonhood of believers.

Many scholars think this is deliberately masculine and not just because some of the people involved are male. Just as humanity was created in God's image, male and female, so too are we all inheritors of God's salvation and all that comes with it. That means all, male and female. Therefore, in the concepts of the immediate context, we're all sons, male and female, not sons and daughters. Carolyn says, "I am a daughter, to be sure. But my heart is deeply encouraged because I know God values, views and counts on me as a son. I carry on my Father's name, build His kingdom and am a full heir alongside my brothers."

That's exactly what you miss out on with inclusive language translations, though I want to be careful here. This sort of missing out doesn't just happen with inclusive translations. It happens with traditional ones just as easily with exactly the same phrases. If the goal of translating the scriptures is to capture what was originally meant in a way our culture can understand it, we have a dilemma. Do we capture the sense that it includes women by translating it as sons and daughters, or do we capture the implication that even women are sons by translating it the way translations have traditionally done so? Each captures a different element of what the original saysh, and each loses the other element of what the original says.

In this case, I can understand going either way, but I think this is an important point not to lose in our translations, which is why I think it's good to have both kinds of Bible translations. Different translation philosophies lead to different emphases, which bring out different elements of the original than you might get if you just use one translation. So what I'm saying here isn't a complaint against the TNIV or other inclusive language translations. It's a complaint against those who would use only that sort of translation, though it's also a complaint against those who insist on using only the opposing kind. You miss out on what the scipture says if you don't take into account the various options for translating with these difficult matters.

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adelphoi and huioi from Theology for the Masses on November 27, 2006 12:28 AM

As I am sure many of our readers know, the masculine Greek word, adelphoi, literally means "sons." In it's usage, however, it referred to any group of people with at least one male. The feminine version was only used for groups that consisted of all ... Read More

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"Do we capture the sense that it includes women by translating it as sons and daughters, or do we capture the implication that even women are sons by translating it the way translations have traditionally done so?"

Maybe it is just me but if one reads the various texts in a traditional translation about being sons contextually, following the flow of thought it seems to me that one would understand that it includes women.

My other thought is that the issue is even more crucial when we realize that "son" is interchangable between a corporate group and individual in biblical theology. Adam and and the kings can be referred to as God's son. Yet Israel collectively can be referred to as God's son (prominently Exodus). Jesus then comes as God's son, recapitulating the history of Israel (early chapters of Matthew) and as the son of David and as the New Adam. So it is not only an issue of inheritance rights. I agree with your comments on translations in general, but here I tend to think that there is so much theological freight in "son" that the traditional translation is important. I know you acknowledge it is important, but I think I would contend that it is even more important than you are acknowledging. Plus, as stated earlier, it seems to me that following the flow of the text in traditional translations can make people realize that it includes women.

I'm not saying anyone would think the statements about sons wouldn't include women, at least not any adults who know anything about the history of the English language. Kids who haven't figured this quirk of language out yet and people just learning the language who don't know a language that does things like that might be confused. What happens is that it doesn't feel as if it was intended to include women as equals. It sounds as if there are the sons, and then there are those who are like sons but not enough to mention that there are daughters too. Most people I know who didn't grow up in the church would hear it that way.

I do think any translation that translates it as 'son' needs to have an explanatory footnote the way the ESV does. Translations that don't need an even longer footnote to explain the inheritance issues and so on.

We are speaking abstractly here so lets take a concrete example. Take Rom 8:14:

"For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God." (NKJV)

It says "as many as" and in the verses before and after he refers to "you" (plural). So one would have to assume that he is only talking to the men in this section or the letter as a whole to think that "sons" of God does not apply to them. The point of the message is even clearer when one keeps in mind verses like Gal 3 which talk about the equality of men and women.

Plus, it would seem to me that this would strike Paul's original audience as it does to us in a tradtional translation. Women who are "sons"? I think the whole point is that the idea is supposed to stand out because at face value it is akward.

It also seems to me that we shouldn't make translation decisions based on what children or people not familiar with the language would think. Putting a footnote doesn't seem to help to me because, from my experience of working with youth, they rarely ever would look at footnotes. You also have suggested that this is the reason for multiple translations, but again, I highly doubt that children or even youth will be checking translations against each other.

I guess my point would be that either way we go there is going to need to be explaining and it seems to me that because of the issue of inheritance, ties to "son" in biblical theology, and the probably intentional ackwardness that Paul himself probably intended that the traditional translation would be better.

Again, I agree with your translation overall, but in this case I differ.

And full grown Sons in Galatians would be an example of what Jeremy's talking about, I think.

If we're putting together a translation designed for people who don't know English as well, as quite a few translations are designed to be, then why shouldn't we consider the audience?

If people don't follow our advice to check multiple translations, we need to keep explaining to them why they should. This is an exhortation. That's what exhortations are for, to move people to do things they might not otherwise do.

If I were translating it, I'd use the word "heirs", which connotes "descendant" and denotes "inheritor" while remaining gender neutral. Yes it does stray a tad from the "word for word" translation of adelphoi, but if "inheritor" is a theologically important idea in the verse, then I think this move is warranted.

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