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The Forgotten Sisters

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On March 04, 2014

Many readers of The CBE Scroll will be familiar with the tendency of some modern English Bible translations to render the Greek word “brothers” (adelphoí) as “brothers and sisters,” “believers,” or something similar. Consider, for example, Romans 16:17, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to watch out for those who cause divisions…” (NIV 2011). This tendency became mainstream in 1989 with the publication of the New Revised Standard Version. The tendency has continued, for example, in the New Living Translation (1996), the Common English Bible (2010), and the most recent revision of the New International Version (2011). The tendency is also evident in nearly 140 footnotes in the English Standard Version (2001).

This preference for gender-inclusive translation of adelphoí is largely limited to metaphorical uses of the word—more specifically, to the practice of many early Christians to refer to each other with the familial metaphor adelphoí. In this blog I am arguing that adelphoí should sometimes be translated as “brothers and sisters” or “siblings,” not only when it symbolizes a spiritual relationship, but also when it is used of actual family members. Please know, however, that this is not a new argument; any Greek lexicon, even one from more than a century ago, will offer “brother(s) and sister(s)” as one translation of the plural adelphoí.

In Matthew 13:55-56, we have the fullest list of the holy family of Nazareth (see also the close parallel in Mark 6:3). In addition to Jesus himself, verse 55 mentions Mary by name and Joseph by profession; it then lists Jesus’ four brothers: James, Joseph, Simon, and Judah. Verse 56 begins, “And are not all his sisters with us?” We can fairly infer from the plural “sisters” and from the presence of “all” that Jesus had three or more sisters.

If Jesus, therefore, had both brothers and sisters, we might ask why most texts about his family only mention brothers (see, for example, Luke 8:19-21; John 2:12 and 7:3-10; and especially Matthew 12:46-50). I would respond by questioning that question. If the plural adelphoí can indeed mean “brothers and sisters,” and we know that Jesus did have both brothers and sisters, then let’s not make this harder than it is! I offer Acts 1:14 as an example of a text where “siblings” or “brothers and sisters” is an appropriate translation of adelphoí. NIV 2011 renders Acts 1:14 as follows: “They [the eleven apostles] all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” I would change the last phrase to “…and with his siblings.”

While this small change in translation may not seem important to some modern Christians, I imagine it would be important to Jesus’s forgotten sisters.

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