When is a Brother a Sister? Gendered Language and Bible Translation

It was a pretty typical home group, with everyone sitting around expounding on what the passage of the evening meant to them, saying all the usual things. I can’t remember exactly what Bible text we were discussing, but it might have been this one:

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. (Matt. 5:23-24)

Then Rick spoke up, altering the course of our discussion with one simple comment. He told us that he had recently been praying, talking with God about his relationship with fellow believers. Basically, Rick said, he was thinking he was respectful of others and careful to make things right if he had mistreated someone. He was pretty sure he was doing a good job of being quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.

His confidence was flying high. 

That is, until a still, small thought came to mind: 

What about your wife?

Rick admitted that he never thought of his wife when he considered how he was treating other believers. It hadn’t occurred to him to ponder how all those basics of humility and service and honor applied to his relationship with his wife. For whatever reason, in Rick’s mental universe his wife simply did not inhabit the planet known as “fellow Christian.”

Looking back, I wonder if Rick’s oversight stemmed from choices made by Bible translators. Rick, like the rest of us, had read “brother” in so many verses for so many decades that when he saw them what came to mind was, well, brother

The Bibles in our hands never spoke of our attitude toward our sisters in Christ, only our brothers.[1] When Jesus taught us what to do when we’ve sinned against someone or someone has sinned against us, this someone was always our “brother,” never our “sister.” When John challenged us not to claim we love God even as we hate a fellow believer, this believer was our “brother,” not our “sister.” 

If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. (Matt. 18:15; NIV84)

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him. (I John 2:9-11; NIV84)

In our Bibles, Paul addressed his letters to the “brothers” (e.g. Rom. 1:13). The people who should offer their bodies as living sacrifices and who were competent to instruct one another were the “brothers” (Rom. 12:1; 15:14). The ones who ought to strive with Paul in prayer and watch out for divisive people were, as always, the “brothers” (Rom. 15:30; 16:17). 

Those Paul proclaimed the gospel to, who were called and chosen by God, and who ought to be in agreement were, once again, “brothers” (1 Cor. 2:1; 1:26; 1:10-11). It was also the “brothers” that Paul could not address as spiritual, who should not go beyond what is written, and who were taking each other to court (1 Cor. 3:1; 4:6; 6:6).

On and on it went.

Of course we knew that “brother” meant more than “brother”; we weren’t entirely ignorant. It’s just that, well, the word “brother” got in the way. It kept us from easily making the connections we ought to be making.

TRADITION IN BIBLE TRANSLATION

The words we were reading reflect a very long tradition in English Bible translation. From the Wycliffe Bible in the 14th century to the Geneva Bible in the 16th, the King James in the early 17th, the Young’s, Darby, and Douay-Rheims translations in the 19th, the only way to translate the Greek term adelphos into English was with “brother.” I doubt anyone thought much of it or had any idea that adelphos could or should be rendered in any other way.

Now, though, numerous translations use “brother or sister” or “brothers and sisters” when the context indicates both men and women.[2] Among the exceptions is the ESV, which retains “brothers” as “an important form of address” and does not “change” adelphos to “brother or sister.”[3] Here is how they explain their approach:

In the area of gender language, the goal is to render literally what is in the original.[4]

Which sounds like a worthy goal. 

A good question, then, is what is “literal” and what is not.

One key consideration is the extent to which the basic ideas behind two words line up. In the case of adelphos and “brother,” do the concepts differ enough that claiming “brother” is the best and most “literal” translation of adelphos is misleading?

Let me illustrate with other languages. Take the word “son,” for example. In Spanish the word for “son” is hijo, yet in the plural it can refer to both sons and daughters. So, although I have one son and three daughters, in Spanish I can say that I have four hijos. I cannot translate this into English as “four sons,” however. That would not be a “literal” translation; it would simply be wrong. 

Why? Because the concepts behind the words “son” and hijo do not line up precisely; they are not the same.

This fact became eminently practical to me as I was stumbling my way through a little interpreting in Monterrey, Mexico, where I learned that the locals work around this ambiguity by adding a gender qualifying term. For example, my new friends would describe my family by saying that I have four hijos, one varón (man) and three mujeres (women).

Yet it would be very strange and very confusing and very incorrect to translate that into English by saying I have four sons, one man and three women. What in the world would that mean? I would just say I have four children, one boy and three girls.

Here’s another example for you. I always thought I had three brothers, a setup that is pretty easy to translate into various languages. I could say I have three brothers, tres hermanosdrei Brüder, and treis adelphoi. Whether English, Spanish, German, or Greek, everything comes up roses.

Then this year, thanks to the wonders of DNA research, I discovered that I also have a sister. 

Family secrets are just not safe anymore.

Never again can I use only “brother” or Bruder to describe my siblings; I have to say four brothers and sisters or vier Brüder und Schwestern. However, I can stick with hermano and note that now (who knew?) I have cuatro hermanos. In fact, it would be redundant to say I have cuatro hermanos y hermanas.

No self-respecting interpreter would use that phrase.

Which makes me wonder if no self-respecting New Testament author would use the phrase adelphos and adelphe when it’s obvious that women are included.[5]

A BROTHER IS A BROTHER IS A BROTHER?

You see, in some languages a brother is a brother is a brother, but in other languages a brother can also be, well, a sister.

So where does adelphos land in the “brother” galaxy? 

The standard lexicon for New Testament Greek gives the basic meaning as “a male from the same womb as the reference person, brother.” However, surprise surprise, the plural adelphoi can also include sisters.[6] Take for example the ancient phrase Theoi Adelphoi, used to designate “a married couple consisting of brother and sister on the throne of the Ptolemies.”[7] If you’ve ever heard of Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIII, then you’ve heard of the Theoi Adelphoi

Maybe you’ve never heard of Cleopatra and Ptolemy. All this time you thought it was Cleopatra and Marc Antony. Or Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. Or possibly Cleopatra and Richard Burton.

Well, it was, at least with Marc and Julius.

But it was also Cleo and Ptolemy.

Busy woman.

Instead of forever monologuing about all my hijos and hermanos and family surprises, I want to give you an opportunity for you to weigh in. So here you go:

What would you say is the “literal” meaning of adelphoi in Theoi Adelphoi? The “brothers” Cleopatra and Ptolemy? 

Do I note a little hesitation there, a little suspicion that this might be a trick question? 

Okay, here’s an easier one:

Are we “changing” adelphoi if, heaven forbid, we translate it with “brother and sister”?

Do we even need to have this conversation?

This is not something we can do in English. I can’t introduce you to my “brothers” Larry, Harry, Jerry, and Mary, even if those were their real names.

Beyond referring to offspring from the same womb, adelphos expands to designate other relatives, fellow countrymen, and people who share your faith.[8] For Christians, adelphos would refer to a fellow Christian, whether male or female. 

We see this throughout the New Testament. Jesus consistently used adelphos for a fellow believer without consideration as to sex, and Paul repeatedly utilized adelphos and adelphoi to speak to and about fellow Christians, all the while clearly including women. 

Just as I don’t have to add the feminine form hermana to include my sister in real life, Jesus and John and Paul didn’t need to add the feminine form adelphe to include their sisters in the faith. 

CAN A BROTHER BE A SISTER?

The question is, do we need the feminine form in English?

Some say no because, they duly note, in English we have the same figurative usage of “brother” for “fellow believer” as we find in New Testament Greek.

This is true.

Sort of.

The deal is that we no longer speak like this, if we ever did. We don’t ask the “brothers” to listen up if we want the women to pay attention too. We don’t tell the “brothers” to stand and worship if we expect the women to stand and sing as well. And we never direct the “brothers” to get the potluck ready if we want the women to help.[9]

Well, no one would ask the “brothers” to set up the potluck.

We don’t talk like this because it would be confusing, because we want to illuminate, not obscure, our intention, because “brothers” is not “an important form of address” for men and women that is still in use, if it ever was.[10]

Instead we say, “Let’s all stand and worship,” or “Friends, listen up,” or “Could everyone help with the potluck?”

If it’s really true that we have the same figurative meaning for “brother” in English as for adelphos in Greek, why don’t we use it?

Maybe it’s because we don’t have the same usage in English. Yes, we have something similar, but it’s not really the same.

You see, the basic meaning of a word informs the mental concept a listener forms as they subconsciously translate words into ideas. When you have two words whose foundational concepts differ, like adelphos and “brother,” the figurative meaning will be impacted as well. 

It’s totally natural to think of the sisters in the hermanos and the sisters in the adelphoi, but we have to make a mental leap to remember there are sisters in the “brothers.”

And, depending on how long our day has been and what’s been plaguing our mind and how much coffee we’ve had before Bible study, we might not make that leap.

This happens all the time between languages, making what you learned in first year Spanish a bit more complicated than you knew. It’s also one of the reasons I think “word for word” translation is dubious. Sometimes it takes more than one word in one language to capture the true meaning of a single word in another.

What I’m trying to say is that just as “sons and daughters,” not “sons,” is the best and most literal translation of hijos when speaking of a set of male and female offspring, and “brothers and sisters,” not “brothers,” is the best and most literal translation of hermanos when referring to male and female siblings, so also “brother or sister” and “brothers and sisters” are the best and most literal translations of adelphos and adelphoi in verses that clearly refer to fellow Christians. 

This should not be so hard.


Image by drkiranhania on Pixabay.

[1] A good book on this subject is Suzanne McCarthy’s Valiant or Virtuous? Gender Bias in Bible Translation (Wipf & Stock, 2019).

[2] Including but not limited to: NIV2011, CSB, CEB, NCV, NRSV, The Living Bible, God’s Word Translation, The Message, and The Passion Translation. Translations that retain “brother” include the NASB, GNT, NET, RSV, MEV, and HCSB, among others.

[3] See “10 Things You Should Know About the ESV Translation” and the “Colorado Springs Guidelines for Translation of Gender-Related Language in Scripture.”

[4] “10 Things You Should Know,” point 6.

[5] This is not to say that a biblical author could not use this phrase when the meaning was unclear. For example, in 1 Cor. 7:15 Paul has just used adelphos for the Christian husband (v. 14), so he clarifies who he is talking about by stating that neither the adelphos nor the adelphe is enslaved to the marriage if the unbelieving spouse leaves. Otherwise, we might misunderstand Paul to be granting freedom only to men in such cases.

[6] A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed., ed. Bauer, Danker, Arndt, Gingrich, 18.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Interestingly, the Plymouth Brethren avoid this ambiguity by utilizing “brethren” when referring to all members, men and women alike, and “brothers” when the women are excluded. McCarthy, Valiant or Virtuous, 97-98, notes that as a woman it was easy for her to say, “I am Brethren.” However, she was not a “brother” and could never become one: “Brothers could speak in church, sometimes beginning at the age of sixteen… A sister, however, could never speak in church. The ‘brothers,’ men only, were invited to Brothers’ Meetings, where the business of the assembly was determined… In these communities, Brethren functioned as a word that included women, while ‘brothers’ was a term of exclusion in every sense of the word.”

[10] See previous note. Although in past generations (and in some circles) “brethren” may have been a usual way of addressing a mixed gathering of believers, it is doubtful that “brothers” has been commonly used in this way. According to McCarthy, 97, “Using ‘brothers’ to refer to a group of people is not common in English, other than in very specific contexts.”


2 thoughts on “When is a Brother a Sister? Gendered Language and Bible Translation

  1. As usual, I found your latest offering challenging and fascinating. It’s good that you make us think about things that we have taken for granted for many decades.

    Hope you and your entire family are doing well. Miss you guys.

    Bob Baker

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    Like

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