Footnoted: Was the Bible Written Only for Men? Part 1

Rebecca Card-Hyatt

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Footnoted! Part 1

As part of an annual reading group several summers ago, I decided to read the Bible in a month. I was reading a set of long novels (War and Peace, Atlas Shrugged, and others) and was curious to reread the familiar book as I would other long texts, in extended stretches every day over a short period of time without stopping for study and note taking.

It took 90 plus minutes of reading every day, but I finished, and it significantly changed the way I thought about the Bible. I experienced the unity of the law, the histories, the prophets, the poetry, the Gospels and the Epistles, seeing the consistent heart of God for his people. I saw the literary beauty of a work inspired by the Holy Spirit and written over centuries by diverse individuals.

The Epistles are such a relatively short part of the Scriptures that I read them in their entirety the last couple days of the month. Reading Romans to Revelation in a matter of days brought to light repetitive language which I had never noticed.

After the week of reading, I couldn’t ignore a painful little word: adelphoi.

Let me be forthright about my theological and linguistic presuppositions. I am a feminist but often land in more theologically conservative circles than those opinions might warrant. Although I wrestle deeply with traditional interpretations of Biblical passages about women, I have no problem affirming that Christ took male form and respect the Scriptural God’s use of male roles and vocabulary (while also acknowledging the use of female/mothering imagery).

As a student of literature, I have sympathy with the historical use of “man” for “humanity” and for the difficulties of writing in gender inclusive language. I get this. I usually think there are other, more harmful areas of patriarchal oppression to battle. I have become so used to the mental translation of “men, that means me too!” that I rarely even notice it as I read through the Scriptures.

So, honestly, I probably would have not noticed this particular Greek word had I not happened to be reading the 250 pages of my New Testament so quickly and had my little ESV not so dogmatically pointed it out . This footnote though, is now forever imprinted in my mind.

“Or brothers and sisters. The plural Greek word adelphoi (translated “brothers”) refers to siblings in a family. In New Testament usage, depending on the context, adelphoi may refer either to men or to both men and women who are siblings (brothers and sisters) in God’s family, the church.”

This footnote first occurs in Matthew 5:47, “And if you greet your brothers only …” I remember thinking “Huh?! Totally didn’t know this! Interesting!”

One hundred and thirty-five times later I was in shock. Brothers, brothers, brothers, brothers. This footnote (or the truncated footnote “brothers and sisters”) appeared at the bottom of more pages than not in my New Testament.  I had always mentally translated “brothers” to something like “fellow Christians” without a second thought. But here, in no uncertain terms, translators were telling me that the original language provided the choice between brothers and brothers and sisters, and they had chosen the former.  There were other options brothers was an intentional choice.

For the first time in my life, I looked at the Bible in my hands and wondered if it was actually for me.

Was this actually the Word of God for all the people of God? Was I an afterthought to the inspiring Spirit, like I obviously was to the translators?

I went through a period of intense theological questioning. I felt shunned by the New Testament and retreated to reading Isaiah for six months. Were the epistles written to me, or only to the men in the body of Christ? Am I a full member of the body of Christ? Were there women present at Pentecost? Were women active in the early church? And on and on.

After a time, these questions quieted, mostly calmed by careful reading and prayer. They even started to look silly. Of course I’m part of the body of Christ, how could I read the end of Galatians 3 and think otherwise! Of course women were active in the work of Christ, how could I read the Gospels (or the closing requests of so many of Paul’s epistles) and think otherwise!

But then I would open the Scriptures and find myself slapped in the face again…adelphoi (translated “brothers”) refers to siblings in a family … BAM. Over and over again I had to face that, to someone, I was an afterthought–a footnote.

I’ll make the caveat here that other major translations do not treat adelphoi in the same way, but given the ESV’s prominent place in the American evangelical church, its choice is powerful. More importantly, it was the Bible in front of me.

As I’ve said, I have sympathy with direct translation choices forced by archaic locution (such as “man”); I’m wary of changing the literal meaning of the original text. But, as the translators kept repeating, this was not such a case. Adelphoi refers to siblings in a family; depending on the context, sisters ought to be included in the meaning. The sticky phrase “depending on the context” implied that the translators had examined the context and made the choice that brothers was correct in a way that brothers and sisters would not have been.[1]

In some cases, I simply couldn’t believe the choice.

Take the story of Pentecost, for example. Acts 1:14 clearly states that women are present in the upper room. But in Acts 1:15, we read, “In those days Peter stood up among the brothers…”  Romans 16:14, “Greet Asyncritus … and the brothers,” amid Paul’s closing addresses feels strange, nestled among numerous references to women (Phoebe, Prisca, Mary, Junia, Julia, Nereus’ sister, and others).  In the dozens of theologically rich phrases throughout the Epistles, it is troubling. Take Romans 8:12,“So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh” or Galatians 4:28, “Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise” or Hebrews 10:19, “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus…” If the context implies “male siblings” instead of “siblings”, does it follow that these texts are specifically addressed to men? And, what does this mean for my own responsible interpretations? But, if the context does not imply “male siblings” particularly, than why the choice of brothers?

Why indeed? Given the choice between being excluded by the actual word of God and being excluded by the specific choice of translators, I choose the latter. Reading the Scriptures carefully and holistically, it would be ludicrous to assume that each use of the word adelphoi excluded female members of the church. So, I’m left to think that an influential portion of the community of saints has specifically chosen to linguistically exclude me and my sisters in Christ from the pages of Scripture.

But, why? And, more to the point, some might ask, why do I care?

(Rebecca addresses the distancing effect of the repetitive footnote, especially for female readers, in Part 2.)

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[1] I don’t know Greek. But, from the research I’ve done, the arguments focus on whether or not the “male orientation” of the plural adelphoi outweighs the evidence that the context might imply a gender inclusive meaning. But, my interest here is primarily in the particular articulation in the ESV’s footnotes, which implies the possibility of gender inclusive meaning while choosing masculine articulation.

Rebecca Card-Hyatt

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26 Comments

  • LOVED this post. Misogyny is alive and well still. Just talked to a woman today whose church teaches that women are for making babies and don’t worry about them enjoying sex, that’s for men anyway. Appalling, and of-so-dangerous. Really appreciate your intelligent look at this. Beautifully done.

  • Thank you, Rebecca. Excited to read part 2 and continue this conversation!

    JC

  • Rebecca, this is a good reminder that all translations should be scrutinized rather than revered. Why the ESV chose to go with an exclusive and not inclusive rendering is beyond me, but I’m grateful for people like you who will expand our understanding with constructive articles like this.

    Cheers,
    Tim

  • “But here, in no uncertain terms, translators were telling me that the original language provided the choice between brothers and brothers and sisters, and they had chosen the former.”

    I think the translators who made this decision need to answer the obvious question, “Why? If we are all siblings in Christ, why are we as sisters deliberately excluded from the text?”

    Rebecca, thanks for summarizing this concern in such a well written piece.

    • One of my friends brought up the question of the term “siblings” vs. brothers or sisters. She noted that it felt more clinical and less familiar. I’m not sure why that is, but it’s interesting to consider how ad why these words affect us. I’m starting to think that I love the unity of “siblings,” as opposed to even “brother and sisters” … but this just might be the English teacher in me talking 🙂

  • I appreciate the Junia Project so much!

    Growing up in conservative Christianity where traditional gender roles were preached & (over)emphasized, I always felt like God didn’t love me as much as my brothers.

    I also knew from a young age that God wanted me in some sort of ministry position, so I assumed I was supposed to marry a pastor (which I did). The expected roles were not a good fit for either of us, & we many times said we wished we could trade jobs. The stress of trying to conform proved too much for us, & we resigned from ministry two and a half years ago.

    Within the last eighteen months, I have had a growing, burning desire to attend seminary. Maybe there is a place for me in ministry still! Thank you all for helping to show women can (& should) permeate every part of the Church.

  • Thank you for your article. Like you did, I’ve always made the mental correction, and never felt the purposeful exclusion quite so strongly before. I read recently that Fuller Theological Seminary has approved the CEB translation (along with the NRSV) for study because of readability and gender inclusion. This is actually a difficult shift in thinking for me because I became a Christian in a conservative church and many Christians I’ve respected are strongly against the gender inclusive versions. Thank you for making me think!

    • Donna, I have a similar experience of growing up in a conservative church. I have felt guilty for these questions and concerns (and especially the way it’s affected my reading of the scriptures) for a long time, and so part of why I feel led to write is due to the freedom of realizing that the scriptures DON’T in fact, exclude me. There is so much joy in this!

    • Haha! Yes, Sarah, we thought you and Tim Peck would appreciate that! Love that we have had writers representing Westmont, APU, Biola, Point Loma, Multnomah, and George Fox – probably more that I have missed. What a great cause to rally around 🙂

  • I agree that there are some battles to be fought, and I also am not interested in fighting the issues of ‘sons’ etc… but it is downright painful to know that the NT writers included the other half of the Church so much more than we have been given to understand. It gets so boring, so irritating, so personally hurtful.

    • I agree Bev. It can really make us feel invisible sometimes. I go back and forth between the New Revised Standard Version and the 2011 NIV. I like those ones a lot 🙂

  • I am so looking forward to part 2 of this fine post. Thanks for asking the hard questions. I have a dear friend who was on the translation committee for the TNIV many years ago and they got slammed for choosing the inclusive translation of that word. So much so, that the new NIV has supplanted the TNIV and it’s tough to find it anywhere. It was a good, readable effort and the way it was treated in the more conservative edge of the church was sort of shameful, actually.

    • Wow, Diana! You have a friend who was on the translation committee? That’s awesome! I personally like the TNIV. It really is a shame about how much that was put down. I do like the 2011 NIV as well. It’s much better than the earlier one was.

  • Great post. I am reminded of what complementarian New Testament scholar D. A. Carson says about this topic in his now out of print (and mostly ignored by complementarians) book “The Inclusive Language Debate: A Plea for Realism.” Speaking specifically about the NIV’s translation of adelphoi as “brothers and sisters,” Carson says, “There is plenty of unambiguous evidence, both in the New Testament and outside it, that ‘brothers’ very often meant what we mean by ‘brothers and sisters'” (p. 130), and “This is not flawed translation: rather, the expanded English expression is including people who would have felt included in the Greek adelphos but who by and large do not feel so included in English ‘brothers’ (p. 131).

    Although a complementarian Carson argues for what he calls a “gender accurate” translation that endorses many (though not all) of the changes the NIV made in its update a few years ago. Why the ESV doesn’t do the same is beyond me.

    • Great post, Rebecca, and thank you Tim for a fascinating extra bit of info.
      I long ago made my peace with being included as a “son of God” in Christ, even though I am a woman, understanding that the son was the fully privileged heir, and that those privileges and the coming inheritance would belong to all those (male and female) sons who belonged to the Son. I had not thought about the gender inclusiveness of adelphoi before, though, and this is excellent food for thought.

  • Wow! What a beautiful and honest post about this journey (or at least the first part!)
    🙂
    Thank you so much for your perspective – you are certainly not alone in your questions and I am so looking forward to reading what comes next!

    • Thank you so much, Sarah. I’ve found so much freedom in sharing the process of wrestling with the Scriptures & Christian practice within a community. I’m grateful for support like yours!

  • The ESV is an admittedly masculinist translation, altho they do not use those words. As such I use it as a “reverse oracle” in the gender area; if they thought it was important enough to change things from their claimed “essentially literal” translation philosophy, I want to know about it, as something is up.

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