Are sisters brothers?
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:
- The translators believed that only males were addressed.
- The translators believed that the English word "brothers" includes both males and females.
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:
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?
Categories: bible translation, gender accuracy, inclusive language, church English, Biblish