Do Words Have Gender? Word Studies, Part 4

by Jeff Miller | October 07, 2020

This is the fourth and final blog entry on the topic of word studies—more specifically, on a few problems that sometimes work their way into word studies. Previous entries addressed problems with etymologies (relying on the root of the word to understand it's meaning), how we know what words mean, and how to determine which word meaning is intended in a particular instance.

Yes, to answer the question in the title above, words do have gender—in some languages, anyway. I’m referring, of course, to grammatical gender. Hebrew has two genders (masculine and feminine), and Greek has three (masculine, feminine, and neuter). My main point is that we can’t infer anything from the gender of a word. People who speak Spanish, French, German, or one of the many other languages with grammatical gender will likely not need the advice given in this blog entry. English, however, has minimal grammatical gender, and what it does have is fading with time. For example, "blonde" is traditionally feminine, but when the word is spelled "blond," it's masculine.

I have made the claim that we can’t infer anything from the gender of a word, and I admit that claim was (a bit) overstated. I don’t mean we can’t learn anything about grammar, for knowing the gender of certain words is essential to understanding some texts. And I don’t deny that, in Hebrew and Greek, men’s names are masculine and women’s names are feminine. But I do mean that we can’t infer anything about something’s or someone’s essence, personality, or character from grammatical gender.

“Foot” is feminine in Hebrew (regel) but masculine in Greek (pous). Does this difference matter? No. In John 21, Jesus uses two words to describe the same fish, one masculine and one neuter. He then uses two neuter words for “sheep” to describe the same people. Does this have anything to do with the sex, essence, or character of the fish, sheep, or people? No. Hundreds of examples of the insignificance of grammatical gender could be given. In fact, almost every noun in the Bible is just such an example. Here’s one that involves humans: In Greek, at least three words for “child” (brephos, paideion, teknon) are neuter, even when the sex of the child is known (as in Luke 2:12, John 21:5, and Rev. 12:4–5, respectively).

Let’s move to an example that pertains to a woman in the Bible. Though most Greek nouns have one gender that never changes, diakonos is a rarity; it is one of twenty New Testament nouns that can vary in gender. It can be either masculine or feminine, depending on context. This is significant in Romans 16:1, where Phoebe is called a “diakonos of the church in Cenchreae.” That the word is feminine is not significant; it is common sense, for it refers to Phoebe whose name is feminine. What’s significant—and problematic—is that many interpreters say the word is masculine and, more to the point, infer from that (wrong) gender that Phoebe must have been an official deacon rather than a generic servant. They seem to think that describing a woman with a masculine noun somehow makes her more official or important! I’m all for official female deacons, but I consider this a misguided argument. If you want to read more about how and why we can assume Phoebe is an official deacon, read the second article in this series.

Surely the grammatically masculine word that makes the most waves in egalitarian/complementarian discussions is anthrōpos. Focusing on this word here broadens the topic of this blog post, for not only is it grammatically masculine, but it can refer specifically to men even though its more common meaning is “person, human.”

One popular translation, the English Standard Version, says this in its preface:

In the area of gender language, the goal of the ESV is to render literally what is in the original. For example, “anyone” replaces “any man” where there is no word corresponding to “man” in the original languages, and “people” rather than “men” is regularly used where the original languages refer to both men and women. But the words “man” and “men” are retained where a male meaning component is part of the original Greek or Hebrew.1

It didn’t take long for me to find examples of how this approach to translation affects anthrōpos. Its first occurrence is Matthew 4:4: “Man [anthrōpos, singular] shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (ESV). The second is Matthew 4:19: “I will make you fishers of men [anthrōpōn, plural]” (ESV). Clearly these two statements refer to both men and women, so the ESV’s choice to use “man/men” presumably reflects “a male meaning component” as “part of the original Greek.”

But there is no male meaning component! First, to reiterate the main point of this blog post, “grammatically masculine” does not equal “physically male.” Second, anthrōpos means “human, person” and can refer specifically to men when the context so determines (not the word by itself, but the context, as argued in the second blog of this series).

In many cases, even though anthrōpos refers to a man, it points to that man’s humanness, not his maleness. Consider, for example, James 5:17, where ESV persists in using “man.”

  • ESV: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.”
  • NIV: “Elijah was a human being, even as we are . . .”
  • NRSV: “Elijah was a human being like us . . .”
  • CEB: “Elijah was a person just like us . . .”
  • CSB: “Elijah was a human being as we are . . .”

“CSB” in the line above refers to the Christian Standard Bible. Like the ESV, the CSB was translated by complementarians, yet its approach to anthrōpos, it seems to me, is better than the ESV’s: “The Greek anthropos is usually rendered as ‘person’ or some equivalent since it doesn’t refer exclusively to males but to human beings. In some instances the Translation Oversight Committee rendered it ‘man’ or ‘men’ for contextual reasons. The plural anthropoi is usually rendered as ‘people.’”2 This is one reason that, in the New Testament, the CSB uses “man/men” more than 100 fewer times than the ESV does.

This series of blog posts has been about the ways word studies sometimes go too far. They may emphasize etymology over context in the quest for meaning. They may demand too much of a word, expecting it to carry all its possible meanings at one time. And they may betray a misunderstanding of grammatical gender. But don’t forget that the series began with an affirmation of word studies: they can indeed have illustrative, rhetorical, and interpretive value and help us all understand the Bible better.

Notes

1. “Preface to the English Standard Version,” ESV.org, Crossway, accessed September 17, 2020, https://www.esv.org/preface/, italics added.
2. “Q&A: Translation Decisions for the Christian Standard Bible,” Christian Standard Bible, January 2017, accessed September 17, 2020, https://csbible.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Translation-Decisions-QA.pdf.

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