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Thursday, January 05, 2006

The theological (in)significance of male-representative language

I am repeating here for a wider audience something which I wrote in a comment on a posting on Gerald Hiestand's iustificare blog.
Now for a more general look at this posting. Thank you, Gerald, for your kind words acknowledging how I have helped you to understand better the arguments for gender-inclusive translations.

But it seems that in this posting you are confusing characteristics of the Greek and Hebrew language, such as that male-oriented terms are generally used to refer to mixed groups, with the teaching of the Word of God. The old theories that the original languages of the Bible are special divine dialects has now been thoroughly discredited: biblical Hebrew and Greek are basically the normal languages of the peoples who spoke them. When someone merely says what they are forced to say by the structure of the language, they are conveying no information; for example, if I say "two words", the -s on "words" conveys no new information because the structure of the language requires it to be present. Similarly, when the biblical authors use male-representative language (if I grant for the moment that that is what we find in the Bible) in Greek and Hebrew, they do so because that is what the structure of those languages requires them to do, and therefore by doing so they cannot be conveying any teaching, anything of theological significance.

Therefore I would totally reject your "surely the use of a typically male term to denote both sexes at least implies male headship". If this use is part of the language, as we can see that it is, it cannot be part of the author's specific teaching. Now I accept that in some sense the Bible does teach "male headship" (but see my previous comment about the meaning of κεφαλή kephalē), but that teaching, and the typological link to the "headship" of God over Christ, is based on explicit teaching e.g. in 1 Corinthians 11:3 (whatever that verse means), and not on the characteristics of Greek and Hebrew of using male-representative language.

The implication of this is that there can be no theological significance in the use of male-representative language in the Bible, and therefore, by your own argument, there is no need to preserve this kind of language in translations.
Here is a further comment which I made on the same posting:

Gerald wrote:

So it would matter little for my argument whether or not the various languages of the world have consistent grammatically gender terms as long as they had consistent “real-world” male/female terms (which I’m fairly certain they all do).

I wouldn't count on it, Gerald. Many languages do not have distinct pronouns for males and females, and are almost lacking in distinct male/female terms, e.g. they don't even distinguish "brother" and "sister" except by adding specific separate words "male" and "female". These are not only languages of peoples for whom gender distinctions are of little importance, for those which don't have gender marked pronouns include Persian, used in Iran with its society based on very strong male dominance. Of course these languages do have to have at least one pair of specific words "male" and "female", and I don't know of any which don't have distinct terms for "mother" and "father". But you certainly shouldn't assume that all languages make anything like the same consistent male/female distinctions as English and the biblical languages do.

By the way, I thought of an example of feminine-representative language which is Latin but used in English: persona non grata, which is used gender generically in English and presumably in the original Latin, although anyone who knows even a smattering of Latin will recognise this as grammatically feminine. Does this imply something about the theology of the Roman Catholic church? Surely not! I hope bringing up this example doesn't make me persona non grata!

For more on the meaning of κεφαλή kephalē, I will refer you now not to my earlier comment but to Suzanne McCarthy's posting about this on her Bookshelf blog.


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