“She is really cool.”
How many ways can you understand that short statement? Is it referring to someone’s temperature as below average? Is it referring to someone’s attitude as aloof and impersonal? Is it referring to someone doing well under pressure? Is it referring to someone’s popularity? All of these are common understandings of the word “cool,” but only one would be the correct understanding in a specific situation. To determine which was correct, you would need to know something about the situation and the subject to determine the speaker’s intended meaning.
Bible translators face choices like this on a regular basis. As with many words in English, words in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek can have more than one meaning and only careful study of the context can determine the correct English word choice. The very common Hebrew word elohim can refer to the one true “God,” as in Genesis 1:1 and more than 2,300 other verses. But, it can also refer to pagan “gods,” as in Genesis 31:30 and more than 200 other verses. There is no built-in meaning to the Hebrew word elohim that is correct in every context.
The same is true of words that refer to individuals and groups of people in the Bible. Hebrew feminine nouns like ishah (“woman”), em (“mother”), bat (“daughter”), and ahot (“sister”) almost always refer to female persons. But Hebrew masculine nouns can be used of male individuals as well as mixed groups of males and females and even of generic individuals without specific reference to gender. So the grammatically masculine words ish and adam can refer to a male individual, an adult male, or a group of males; but they can also refer to a human being with no specific gender or age reference, as well as to a group of people, male and female. Similar, ab can refer to a father or male ancestor, as well as to a parent of either gender and of any generation. Ben can refer to a son or male descendant of any generation, as well as to a child, children, or descendant(s) of any generation. And ah can refer to a brother or a male member of one’s community, as well as to any sibling or member of the community without specific reference to gender. The counterparts to these words in the Greek New Testament (anthropos and aner, pater, huios, and adelphos, respectively) have the same range of meaning.
Most English Bible translations of the mid-twentieth century followed patterns set by the mechanically literalistic English Revised Version of 1881-1885 and its counterpart the American Standard Version of 1901. These versions tended to translate grammatically masculine words with masculine English words, even when those words referred to mixed groups of men and women. Such grammatical gender equivalence may seem accurate, but when the English word is read or heard as referring only to males, instead of males and females, the intended meaning is lost or distorted.
The earliest Bible translators understood this to some degree. When William Tyndale in 1526 published the first English New Testament translated from the Greek, he rendered Matthew 5:9 “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shalbe called the chyldren of God.” Every translation of the sixteenth century, culminating in the King James Version of 1611, followed Tyndale in using the phrase “children of God.” Although the Greek word huioi is grammatically masculine, the gender-inclusive translation “children” is more gender-accurate than the mechanical masculine translation “sons,” since peacemakers can be male or female. But most versions of the twentieth century read “sons of God” in Matthew 5:9, following the Revised Version. And, as mentioned above, this grammatically equivalent translation is not accurate in meaning because “sons” can be misunderstood as referring to males only.
Late twentieth-century translations like the New Revised Standard Version and the New Living Translation and twenty-first century translations like the revised New International Version have returned to the more gender-accurate renderings of Tyndale and the KJV. But they have been more systematic in rendering gender-oriented language so that “men” refers to males (1 Tim. 2:8) and “people” to both genders (1 Tim. 2:1,4); “brothers” refers to males (Matt. 4:18) and “brothers and sisters” to both genders (see the NIV footnote at Rom 1:13); “sons” refers to males (Matt. 20:20) and “children” to both genders (Matt. 5:9).
Men do not cease to be male, nor are they excluded from the community of faith when they are referred to as “people,” “parents,” or “children.” But when women are referred to as “people” instead of “men,” as “parents” instead of “fathers,” and as “children” instead of “sons,” how much more must they feel included in the community of equals (Gal 3:26-29). Wouldn’t it be cool if the whole church was cool with this and used language to unite instead to divide?