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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Are sisters brothers?

English, like many other languages, has many sets of words which have a word label which includes all the items in the set. For instance, cats, dogs, frogs, and snakes are all names for living creatures which belong to a set which has the English label of "animal." More concisely, we can say that a cat is a kind of animal, or, even shorter, a cat is an animal. I happen to enjoy studying the lexical sets of language, including these sets which have labels, words which linguists call superordinate terms. Daughter, son, mother, father, uncle, cousin belong to the set of relatives. Mothers and fathers belong to the set of parents. Oaks, pines, and firs belong to the set of trees. Roses, carnations, petunias, and gladiolas belong to the set of flowers. A hammer, screwdriver, wrench, and pliers belong to the set labeled tools.

This is all very basic, simple stuff, isn't it? Many of us typically assume that others view what is grouped together into sets the same way that we do. But what belongs to a set can vary from one language and/or culture group to another. Because of this, such sets are called folk taxonomies. That is, what belongs to a linguistic set and what the superordinate label for a set are determined not by some outside scientific (or other) system, such as the Linnean taxonomy, but, by the people who speak a language.

So, what does all this have to do with Bible translation, and especially how is it relevant to the strange question asked in this post's title, "Are sisters brothers?"

A Bible translation should reflect the linguistic categories, including the syntax and lexicon, of the people into whose language a translation is made. Linguistic barriers to understanding the Bible accurately and clearly are created when translators use linguistic categories (including those of the biblical languages) when those categories are not part of a target language. A Bible translation should not change original biblical historical or cultural information of the Bible. Jesus was born in Nazareth, not Atlanta, Georgia. Abraham was a patriarch, not a matriarch. The death angel killed the firstborn son, not the firstborn daughter, during the tenth plague before the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Jesus chose twelve men to be his disciples, not a group of twelve men and women. But neither should a Bible translation change a target language by importing foreign syntax or lexical rules, including taxonomic labels, through the translation.

What English term serves as the superordinate label for the English kinship words, "brother" and "sister"? For those who know the term, the word "sibling" is the cover term for this set of relationships. For those who do not know the word "sibling," there is no cover term; one simply refers to the set of all of one's siblings as "my brothers and sisters." No matter how much I try to bend my brain around it, I cannot get the English word "brothers" to include sisters. Apparently some people can however, as will be seen below in survey results. To test whether the English word "brothers" can include sisters, we need only ask the question that is the title to this post: "Are sisters brothers?" This is taxonomically parallel to the questions: "Are cats animals?" or "Are pines trees?" Remember, at this point we are only testing the meaning of English words, not the meaning of words in the biblical languages of the Bible.

And to a biblical language word we now turn. The Greek word adelphoi in the New Testament sometimes refers to a group of both males and females who are related to each other by faith. Technically, we could say of such a group, "They are my spiritual siblings." Now, I have not yet read any English Bible version which uses the word "siblings" to translate adelphoi when this Greek word refers to a set of people which includes both females and males. Many, if not most, biblical scholars regard the group of adelphoi addressed in Romans 12:1 (as well as Rom. 1:13; 8:12; 10:1; 15:14, 30) as including both males and female believers. This would follow from many other references within the book of Romans, including its salutation where Paul writes "To all who are in Rome, loved by God, called as saints" (HCSB). Presumably the "all" includes both male and female Christians at Rome. Further support for this is Rom. 16 where both female and male Christians at Rome are sent greetings by Paul.

In Rom. 12:1 some Bible versions (including NLT, NCV, NRSV, GW, NET, and TNIV) accurately reflect that both males and females were addressed as adelphoi by using the words "brothers and sisters," not simply the word "brothers," which, to me (but not all speakers of English) sounds limited to males only. Other recent English versions translate the adelphoi of Rom. 12:1 only as "brothers" (including NIV, ESV, and HCSB).

For those versions which only use English "brothers" to translate adelphoi which refers to a group of both males and females, there are two possibilities for the meaning intended:
  1. The translators believed that only males were addressed.
  2. The translators believed that the English word "brothers" includes both males and females.
For translators who believe option #1, their translation as "brothers" is, obviously, accurate. But, of course, they have chosen an exegetical interpretation which is likely in the minority, since there is a fair amount of evidence that the book of Romans is addressed to both male and female Christians.

Translators who believe option #2 are, I suggest, not translating with the ordinary meaning of the English word "brothers," as it is understood by the vast majority of English speakers. I have asked quite a few people if they would ever address their biological female and male siblings as "brothers" and as far as I can recall no one has every said they would. But does the English word "brothers" ever include sisters as well as brothers, perhaps in some special contexts? My surveys indicate that it does, in particular for English speakers who understand "church English."

I have had a survey posted on this blog for several months which tests the understanding of the word "brothers" within a Christian meeting context. Following is the survey question and poll results:

Susan is a 20-something Christian. She recently returned from a church conference and said, "I enjoyed meeting my Christian brothers there."
Susan most likely was referring to meeting male Christians. 23%117
Susan most likely was referring to meeting both male and female Christians. 18%91
I'd have to know more about Susan to be able to answer. 19%94
Regardless of what Susan meant, I understand "Christian brothers" to refer to both males and females. 20%103
Regardless of what Susan meant, I understand "Christian brothers" to refer only to males. 20%101
506 votes total

As you can see, the results are mixed. Clearly, among the more than 500 respondents, there are those who understand the English word "brothers" to include sisters in a Christian context. These individuals understand a special church dialect of English, one not understood by most of the rest of the English population.

Should English translations be targeted at those who speak church English? Or should they be translated so that all speakers of English can understand the Bible? These are important questions. Not everyone will answer them the same. There are some today who believe that the Bible is only meant for Christians, or only meant for Jews (the Hebrew Bible) and for Christians (the Old Testament and the New Testament). Others, however, believe that the Bible is intended for a wider audience and that all English speakers should be able to understand the language of an English Bible version. I happen to be in the latter group. I do not believe that English Bibles should be written in a special dialect of English.

What is your opinion? Are sisters sometimes brothers?

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At Sun Dec 11, 09:39:00 PM, Blogger Chuck said...

"Should English translations be targeted at those who speak church English?"

Wayne, maybe we could call these Chenglish Bibles? ;-)

All joking aside, I think there's room for a variety of translations that cover the spectrum of translation philosophy. I'd hate to see KJV Onlyism followed up by some other silly onlyism that's legalistic at heart.

My fave translation is the NASB (though the HCSB has been winking at me from across the room and passing perfumed notes to me). Even so, I encourage those who read the NIV as well as the NLT in their readings. If a translation encourages a younger believer or unchurched person to read the Scriptures, then that's awesome.

Keep up the interesting posts, bro.

At Mon Dec 12, 03:08:00 AM, Blogger Joe said...

I usually refer to "brothers and sisters" in Christ. I accept that the Bible uses the word, "brothers," but I understand it to mean "brothers and sisters" in many, if not most, instances.

At Mon Dec 12, 05:16:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Thank you for this, Wayne. But the results of the poll are not properly visible (at least with Firefox), I just see coloured bars with no explanation. For the full results follow this link. For me "brothers" can never include "sisters", which I think puts me with the small majority in the survey.

You suggest that the Bible, or at least the New Testament, may be intended only for Christians, and so it may be justifiable to translate it into church English which they are supposed to understand. But, at least here in the UK, there are huge numbers of Christians who do not understand church English, because they are not long-standing regular churchgoers. Many of these are Christians who have been put off the church by its unfriendliness and archaic practices but have continued to believe privately. Others have recently become Christians. People like these need the Bible in a form they can understand far more urgently than established churchgoers - and anyway there are already plenty of versions for the established churchgoers.

At Mon Dec 12, 04:44:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, thanks for correcting the posting so that the results now appear correctly.

You also clarified that you don't hold the view that the Bible should be in church English. Well, I agree with you. So my comments above should be directed not at you but at any who do argue that the Bible, or the NT, is intended only for Christians, and from that that it should be in church English.

Unfortunately I can't edit my above comment - only delete it entirely, and I don't want to do that because much of it is still valid.

At Mon Dec 12, 08:38:00 PM, Blogger Kenny said...

Interestingly, I do think the word "brethren" is a well-understood archaic/poetic term that does parallel adelphoi pretty closely. Translating it in this way, even in a modern translation, may not be entirely inaccurate as LSJ (definitions A.I.3-5) seems to say that it is used of people who are not actually related only in very restricted contexts, by kings addressing their subjects, or by members of religious communities. This suggests to me that this may be a rare case in which they were already speaking "Christianese" (or church English, or Chenglish, or whatever term you prefer) in the first century. If this is the case, then using "brethren" might be accurate, as it is a somewhat formal term (like what would be used by a king addressing his subjects) that is today used almost exclusively in Christian contexts. The two remaining questions are: is it indeed already Christianese at the time the Scripture is written and, do most people understand the word "brethren" the way I do?

At Tue Dec 13, 04:18:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

The Greek word adelphoi, translated "brethren" or "brothers", was not at all Christian jargon at the time when the Bible was written! It is the normal Greek word for a literal brother; the feminine form was a literal sister, and the masculine plural referred to brothers and sisters. But the word was also widely used, like English "brother", for those who are not literal siblings but had a relationship like that of a brother - especially, I think, for fellow members of some kind of group or society.

English "brethren" might have the correct gender generic referential meaning, for those who understand it. But as an archaic and poetic word it has quite different connotations from the very common word adelphoi.

At Tue Dec 13, 02:49:00 PM, Blogger Kenny said...

Peter, that's precisely my question: how widely WAS it used for people who were not literally siblings? Clearly it is the ordinary, everyday word for a literal brother (or, in the plural, for literal siblings, even if the group is mixed in gender), but the lexica that I have access to cite only a handful of references where it appears to refer to individuals who are not literally siblings, and these in very circumscribed contexts, one of which is a fellow member of a religious group. This seems to precisely parallel the usage of the singular in "Brother Smith," as a sort of title, in some Christian congregations. (Some) English speakers today are used to an unusual usage of brother in religious contexts just as LSJ suggests that ancient Greek audiences were (but I want to know HOW unusual it was in other contexts - you seem to think not very).

It is emphatically NOT normal (in the English I speak) to refer to anyone as a brother who is not a literal brother. The usage of brother to refer to a fellow Christian still sounds funny to me, and I've been in the church all my life. To say that it can refer to those who have a "relationship llke that of a brother" is a big stretch for me.

Now, my question (I don't know, I'm asking) is whether the word had this sort of meaning - a special "religious" usage distinct from its ordinary usage - to Greek speakers in the first century. (If not, the translations that render it "fellow believer" may actually be more accurate for me than those that retain the literal translation "brother"). I might even go so far as to say that "brethren" is the correct plural of this special "religious" usage of brother in my dialect (or at least it flags it as being the religious rather than ordinary usage). That is, when brother is used in a way roughly equivalent to LSJ A.I.5 definition, I think the plural brethren is actually more clear to me.

At Tue Dec 13, 04:58:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Kenny, I understand your point better now. It may be that the use of adelphos for a non-literal brother is in fact not so much a Greek usage as a Semitic one, which found its way into Greek in part through the LXX, in which it is used extensively e.g. Deuteronomy 1:16 to mean "fellow Israelite", rendering Hebrew אח. So this would partly justify using a term with religious connotations like "brethren". But I strongly suspect that this was the normal way in which Greek-speaking Jews referred to their fellow Jews even in normal non-religious conversation, cf. Acts 28:14,15 where the context is not religious. It would therefore be wrong to use in translation a word which is archaic except in a religious context.


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