Gender in Bible translation

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Gender in Bible translation concerns various issues, such as the gender of God and generic antecedents in reference to people.

Translation of the names of God[edit]

There are a number of ways to translate the names of God into English from Hebrew. Hebrew uses only four consonants for the name — Yod-Heh-Waw-Heh (יהוה, YHWH) — hence it is called the Tetragrammaton. Some modern English bibles render this as LORDL capital, and ord in small capital font face. Others use Yahweh, and the old King James Version used Jehovah. In English, outside Bible translations, the tetragrammaton is often written as YHWH or YHVH.

The original meaning of this form is connected with the "I AM" of Exodus 3:14 (and it probably contains a Hebrew masculine verb prefix — the Y or yod). Sometimes this word is rendered into English by using Hebrew Adonai, instead of attempting to directly translate YHWH, following an ancient Jewish custom of respect.

The Hebrew word Adonai literally means my lord (with pseudo-plural), and is usually translated as Lord. The Hebrew names Elohim, El, Shaddai, and Yah are usually translated as God — with Elohim being the most common. Elyon translates as Most High.

There are a number of compound names for God. YHVH Tzevaot is translated as Lord of Hosts. YHVH Elohe tzevaot would be Lord God of Hosts. Among non-Orthodox Jews, there is a growing tendency to avoid the gender-in-English-language debate, and to simultaneously reclaim the vocabulary of Hebrew itself, by not translating these names in English prayers.

An example of a traditional translation is:

  • "The earth belongs to the Lord, and all it contains; the world and its inhabitants." (Psalm 24)

An alternative translation is:

  • "The earth belongs to Adonai, and all it contains; the world and its inhabitants."

Third person pronouns for God[edit]

Many prayers use one or more of the names for God many times within the same paragraph. The first time it appears a proper name is used, while further instances use a third person pronoun (he, she or it). English speakers usually use masculine or feminine third person pronouns to refer to people, and the third person pronoun - "it" - to refer to non-people. Traditionally, in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim writing, the third-person pronoun "He" has been used to refer to God in English translations. In non-religious contexts, English speakers have generally used the word "he" as a substitute for a gender-neutral third person pronoun.

The idea of God being an "It" rather than a "he" or "she" does have some support in Jewish, Christian and Islamic rationalist medieval thought, much of which was based on Neo-Aristotelian philosophy. Some medieval philosophers of all three of these religions took great pains to make clear that God was in no way like a person, and that all apparently physical descriptions of God were only poetic metaphors.

In the Chinese language, translators of the Christian Bible have created a new Chinese character to act as a divine pronoun: 祂 (Pinyin: ). , in essence, is the universal third person pronoun for all objects and persons. However, personhood (as well as gender) can be distinguished in writing. The normal pronoun for he, 他, is also used in generic cases. The radical 亻(rén) marks personhood (distinct from non-human referents), not simply gender alone. The radical in 祂, 礻(shì), marks the "elevated personhood" of divinity, without implying anything about the gender of the divinity referred to.

Translation "mankind" and "humankind"[edit]

The 1611 Authorized Version uses two gendered terms: "mankind" and "womankind". (Leviticus 18:22)

Opponents of gender neutral language argue that readers of English Bible translations who are not familiar with the original languages, can be influenced by feminist assertions that generic masculine language is to be understood literally.[1][page needed]

Gender neutral and gender sensitive prayerbooks[edit]

There are editions of prayer-books in the non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism, and in liberal denominations of Christianity, that have become sensitive to this issue. Several solutions have been proposed:

  • Translating God as both "He" and "She". A few experimental prayerbooks by Reconstructionist Jewish feminists have tried alternating "he" and "she" within the same prayerbook, and sometimes even within the same prayer. This approach has failed to win widespread approval; critics object to it for many reasons, one of which is that this gives the appearance of dualism or goddess worship. Some liberal Protestant Christian denominations use this approach on occasion.
  • Rewriting all prayers in the second person, only using the term "You". A few experimental prayerbooks by Reconstructionist Jewish feminists have tried this, but this approach has failed to win widespread approval.
  • Gender-neutral translation involves rewriting prayers to remove all third-person pronouns. Sometimes this involves changing sentence and paragraph structure. This approach has been adopted by the editors of all new Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish prayerbooks. Some liberal Protestant Christians also have rewritten prayerbooks in this way. Conservative Judaism has rejected this approach because there are many cases where no such changes are possible without totally rewriting the sentence, thereby moving the English far from the Hebrew structure.
    Gender-neutral translation can also be accomplished by replacing third-person singular pronouns with third-person plural pronouns, repeating "God" each time to avoid "he". Some Christian translations of Scripture, including the New Jerusalem Bible, use this technique when referring to humans, but naturally this technique is not used in the case of God.
  • Gender-sensitive translation. This approach is a modified form of the above. In this approach, one rewrites most sentences to remove third-person pronouns, but occasionally the pronoun "he" is allowed in order to preserve readability and the original sentence structure. This is the approach taken by Conservative Judaism in the four most recent editions of the Siddur Sim Shalom prayerbook family. Many inclusive-language Christian translations take this approach.
  • Some Christian groups have created a new pronoun: God (subject or object), God's (possessive), Godself (reflexive). While the Catholic Church officially frowns on this, a significant number of American Catholic parishes alter the Mass responses by repeating "God" each time to avoid the third-person singular male pronoun. The use of the reflexive Godself is more rare.
  • At least one bible translation from the Hebrew and Aramaic, the Hebraic Roots Version Scriptures(HRV)[2] postulates that the Holy Spirit (the Ruach HaQodesh) is referred to in feminine terms unlike the masculine terms applied to the Father and the Son.

Some critics object to this terminology. Particularly for those who believe feminist interpretation is misandrist (see above), terms such as "gender-neutral" and "gender-sensitive" can be offensive. Critics charge that these terms imply traditional interpretations are not sensitive to women. Nevertheless, in the lack of acceptable alternatives these phrases are used in this article.

Over the last twenty years[when?] many Jewish prayerbooks have been rewritten to be gender-neutral (Reform, Reconstructionist Judaism) or gender-sensitive (Conservative). Examples are shown in the following translations of Psalm 24. The following is a traditional translation excerpted from Siddur Sim Shalom, a Conservative siddur. (Ed. Jules Harlow)

A Psalm of David.
The Earth belongs to the Lord, and all it contains; the world and its inhabitants.
He founded it upon the seas, and set it firm upon flowing waters.
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may rise in His sanctuary?
One who has a clean hand and a pure heart, who has not used God's name in false oaths, who has not sworn deceitfully.
he shall receive a blessing from the God of his deliverance.

A modern translation of Psalm 24 now appears in the revised editions of Siddur Sim Shalom.

A Psalm of David.
The Earth and its grandeur belong to Adonai; the world and its inhabitants.
God founded it upon the seas, and set it firm upon flowing waters.
Who may ascend the mountain of Adonai? Who may rise in God's sanctuary?
One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not used God's name in false oaths, who has not sworn deceitfully.
shall receive a blessing from Adonai, a just reward from the God of deliverance.


  1. ^ Poythress, Vern Sheriden and Wayne A Grudem. The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy: Muting the Masculinity of God's Words. Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000.
  2. ^ [1] James Trimm Hebraic Roots Version Scriptures, (South Africa: Institute for Scripture Research, 2004, 2005), pp. lv,577,1358,1359,1464.