Some Thoughts on Bible Translation Issues

In the comments of the last post a reader asked:

I’d like to pose a question. The ESV and some other “essentially [literal]” bible translations use [exclusively masculine] nouns and pronouns in [passages] that refer to both men and women. I’ve heard proponents for these translations say women should read these passages keeping in mind they’re included in this masculine language. I always find myself mentally editing because that’s not the way we use English anymore.

Here’s the big question. Do men really stop and mentally include their wives, daughters and sisters when they read those passages about men and sons and brothers?


It is impossible to know what exactly men think when they read the generic “brothers” without getting into their minds, but I would say that depending on how careful the reader is he should be able to discern when the basic principles of application are inclusive. Moreover, it is important to note that “essentially literal” translations like the ESV are not the only ones that hold to this gender exclusive rendering. The NIV does as well. On this issue the ESV’s website explains,

Similarly, the English word “brothers” (translating the Greek word adelphoi) is retained as an important familial form of address between fellow-Jews and fellow-Christians in the first century. A recurring note is included to indicate that the term “brothers” (adelphoi) was often used in Greek to refer to both men and women, and to indicate the specific instances in the text where this is the case.

To me it seems rather trivial to hold to a male-only rendering when the obvious meaning of the word is inclusive of both sexes. The meaning of any given word is determined by its immediate context, not a lexicon that associates the word with a variety of different contexts. Where the context demonstrates a gender inclusive setting or proposition it should be rendered accordingly.

And it is important to note that this should not be a complementarian-egalitarian issue; it is an issue of translation accuracy from the original language into the target language that even many complementarians disagree on. I do not want to speculate too much on why the ESV chose to translate obvious gender-inclusive verses (say for example Romans 12:1) as “brothers” but I would surmise that it is because they are more committed to formal equivalence (being “essentially literal”) rather than straightforward accuracy. It’s a commitment to a philosophy over practical results, though I would not say that is any great sin. All translators do this to some degree.

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5 Responses

  1. The seeming insistence on translating adelphoi as brothers (when the context shows the author means to include both males and females under the term) has always annoyed me. We have a perfectly good, neutral English word that would seem to work effectively as a translation for adelphoi: siblings.

    Any idea why this simple fix is not used?

  2. My guess would be that “siblings” is an inartful expression.

  3. I’d go for accuracy over artful.

  4. “Brothers and sisters” is also accurate and it is used in several English versions already.

    “Brothers” is not accurate. I have tested this with English speakers. No one addresses their siblings (both males and females) calling them “brothers”. Today “brothers” is used only for male siblings.

    Adelphoi meant siblings when it *referred* to a mixed group. The ESV translators have confused referential meaning with what they consider core lexical meaning.

  5. Adelphoi in Greek has as its first lexicon meaning brothers and sisters. Electra (a young woman) and her brother Orestes are called adelphoi. It would be impossible to call Donnie and Marie “brothers.” I do not believe that “brothers” is either accurate or essentially literal.

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