Bible translation and gender: whats all the heat about? (Matt 10:24, Ro 3:28)

Last week Dave Warnock brought up Matthew 10:24. Unlike most other translations, the TNIV translates this verse as follows-“Students are not above their teacher, nor servants above their master.”

Dave prefers this translation as it is more inclusive of women than other translations, but asks what the original Greek says. Wanting to obligue my fellow Brit and bearer of a common surname, I have been waiting for a chance to get my libronix software out to answer his question whilst hoping someone else would!

The greek and inter-linear English translation according to the NA27INT is-

Not is learner above the teacher butnot slave above the master ofhim

According to the markings in my NA27 all the nouns in this sentance are singular and male. For comparison with all the other English Bibles I have in my collection:

  • A disciple is not greater than his teacher, nor a slave greater than his master. (NET )
  • The disciple is not above his teacher, nor the bondman above his lord. (DARBY)
  • A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his lord. (ASV)
  • Disciples are not better than their teacher, and slaves are not better than their master. (CEV)
  • A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. (ESV)
  • No pupil is greater than his teacher; no slave is greater than his master. (GNT)
  • A disciple is not above his teacher, and a slave is not above his master. (ISV)
  • The disciple is not above his master, nor the servant above his lord. (KJV)
  • A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher. A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss. (Message)
  • No disciple is above his teacher, no slave above his master. (NAB)
  • A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a slave above his master. (NASB95)
  • A student is not better than his teacher, and a servant is not better than his master. (NCV)
  • A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. (NIV)
  • A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. (NKJV)
  • A student is not greater than the teacher. A servant is not greater than the master.(NLT)
  • A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master (NRSV)
  • A pupil is not above the teacher nor even a slave above his master. (WUESTNT)
  • A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his lord (YLT)

The vast majority of these translations translate these nouns as singular and masculine. The question is, does it matter? In the context Jesus was talking to his twelve disciples who were all male. He chose to make this statement individualised. I think that singling out “a disciple” has a different rhetorical impact to simply speaking of the disciples as a group. Certainly if we want our translation to accurately reflect the exact words Jesus used, then it should reflect these words as singular and not plural.

An area of debate is should our translations be concerned about what the actual words were or is it more important to convey an idea. The reason a couple of versions decide to not speak of these words as masculine is because they desire to be inclusive of women. Clearly no one would argue that women are excluded from being disciples. One area of debate about modern English usage is wether women today feel that they are excluded by the use of a masculine pronoun like “he” or wether they take the old meaning that “he” can in places also apply to women.

Thus, because of all this, we should understand that there may be a legitamate tension being felt in translating these words between a desire for women to identify with the meaning of the bible and a desire to literally translate the words we find in the originals.

The truth is that the English language really has not yet come up with an alternative to the use of the word “he” as an ambiguous pronoun. There have been two main attempts to replace it both of which to my ear at least sound inelegant- “he/she” and the use of the word “they”. Since the word “they” cannot be used with a singular noun, translators who did not want to use the word “he” here made words like “disciple” plural. All the translators have steered away from “he/she” which I feel does not read very well out loud.

Ironically considering its reputation as a paraphrase, the NLT is actually fairly accurate to the Greek here since there is in fact no word “he” in the text. Thus, if you want a gender-neutral translation of this verse, you could use its translation “A student is not greater than the teacher. A servant is not greater than the master.(NLT)”

We need to understand that translators really do have a dilemna about gender when translating certain passages. It is not the case that only the TNIV have wrestled with these issues- the ESV translators do so also. A good example is the word anthropos which is understood by scholars to refer to a person rather than an adult male. Interestingly both the Oxford dictionary and wikipedia notes that the word “man” can still be understood to refer to men and women. It does seem, however that this usage is becoming less regular. Thus there is a debate about how we should translate this word into English.

Bible translations of Ro 3:28 have tried different things to deal with the word anthropos- some such as the NIV simply translate the word as man, and assume that women will identify with this. Others, such as translate the word as “person” whilst the ESV chooses “one”, which I must confess I personally do not like the ESVs choice of “one” since it is not widely used in modern English.

  • For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (NIV)
  • For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from observing the law. (TNIV)
  • For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.(ESV)

Accuracy of translation of words is in my view important, but so is translation of the overall meaning. I do think in debating these issues we should be careful in our attribution of certain attitudes to certain groups. For example the TNIV translators are very careful to exlain on their website that they believe that they are only using gender neutral language to the extent to which it is justified by the meaning indended in the original. We may find that some translators disagree with them about to what extent this is justified, but as we have seen, we will find that even translators of literal versions like the ESV do on occasion change the traditional gender renderings to make them more comprehensible to modern readers when they feel it is appropriate.

We must ensure that the bible lives for a modern generation, and as a bare minimum, our preaching needs to be very clear that the message of the bible is not one simply for adult males!

I am not sure that we will readily settle the issue of how we should handle this difficult issue until our language has settled how it is going to do so. Personally, in the majority of cases I am happier for us to continue to use masculine language where necessary in our bible translations, simply because we often do not really have a viable alternative in the English language.

I think I may have flip-flopped!

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About Adrian Warnock

Adrian Warnock is a medical doctor, and a writer. Since 1995 he has been a member of Jubilee Church London. Adrian serves as part of Jubilee's leadership team alongside Tope Koleoso. Together they have written Hope Reborn - How to Become a Christian and Live for Jesus, published by Christian Focus. Adrian is also the author of Raised With Christ - How The Resurrection Changes Everything, published by Crossway.
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