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Sunday, February 26, 2006

How many fathers do you have?

"How many fathers do you have?" I asked my wife at breakfast this morning. She gave the answer I expected, that she had one father. Now, my wife is a believer, so she has God as a spiritual father, her heavenly father, so from one point of view she has two fathers, her biological father and her divine spiritual father.

Some people have a birth father and an adoptive father. They might refer to both of them as their fathers. Yet others have a step-father who they might also refer to as one of their fathers.

But that is about as far as we can go with the number of fathers that we have, if we are speaking the English language as a native speaker of English. In English the word "father" refers to someone one generation removed who has a father relationship to you.

Biblical Hebrew speakers, however, could use their word for father, ab, for any male ancestor no matter how many generations he is removed from you. And we find this usage common in the Bible. Abraham is called the father of many nations. That was a multi-generational relationship. A person's ancestors were sometimes referred to as their "fathers."

In contrast, the English word "father" does not include the meaning sense of "ancestor" for most of us. Even when U.S. President Lincoln began his Gettysburg Address with the memorable words, "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, ...," he was not referring to our ancestors, but, rather to those who founded the United States. And "founder" is still one of the meaning senses of the English word "father" for many speakers today. We may speak of Thomas Edison as the father of the electric light bulb, or James Madison as the father of the U.S. Constitution. But, in English, we do not use the word "father" nor its plural to refer to any of our ancestors.

When we translate the Bible to any language, we need to obey the syntactic and lexical rules of that language during translation. We must not try to import foreign syntax or lexical rules to any language when we are translating to that language. If we do so, at minimum we make it more difficult for our translation audience to understand what we have translated, because they, as native speakers, follow the rules of English. And, at maximum, we create inaccuracies when we import foreign syntax or lexical rules.

If, for instance, we try to honor the Hebrew language or try to be "accurate" to its lexical rules and retain both its single-generational as well as multi-generational lexical usages of its plural avot by translating that plural to English "fathers", we have dishonored the rules of English. In the process, we have created an obstruction to clear understanding of the meaning of the Hebrew word, at minimum, and, in the worst case, created an actual misunderstanding, which is often a sign of inaccuracy in translation. Our attempts to honor the biblical languages and their syntax and lexical rules can actually create misunderstanding and even inaccuracy in translation. Every translator knows this is true, at some level, but when we read English Bible versions we often observe that translators do not always follow this principle that they know, namely, that languages do not share the same syntax nor lexical rules.

So, if Hebrew avot or its Greek counterpart, pateres, is referring to multi-generational ancestors, what is the most accurate English translation? If we are referring to both male and female ancestors, the most accurate translation would be the word "ancestors." In my ideolect, if we are referring only to male ancestors we can use the word "forefathers." There may be English speakers who use the word "forefathers" for both male and female ancestors. I have not yet met any English speakers who use the word "fathers" for both male and female ancestors.

Some Bible translation apologists today would have us believe that translating the Hebrew or Greek words for ancestors with the English word "ancestors" is inaccurate. They sometimes claim that we should use the English word "fathers" to translate the Hebrew or Greek words, avot and pateres, respectively, when they refer to ancestors. They point out that the English word "ancestors" is gender-neutral--and they are right about that. But they also say that using this gender-neutral word mutes some of the masculinity of the words of the Bible. It is with this latter claim that they are wrong. Unlike Hebrew, English lacks a grammatically masculine word which refers to both male and female ancestors. If a language lacks a word which both grammatically and semantically matches a source language word, then we must use whatever word the language uses that has the same referential meaning as that of the source language word. That word for English is "ancestors" and it is an accurate translation, no matter the claims of some who wish to retain grammatically masculine but semantically gender-inclusive words in translation, to the contrary.

Let us think carefully about our own language usage when we evaluate English Bible versions. And, perhaps even more importantly, let us think carefully about the language usage of those we desire to accurately understand the Bibles which we translate or encourage others to use. Accurate Bibles will accurately honor the meanings of words and all other language forms in both the biblical languages and the languages into which we translate the Bible, including English.

So, how many fathers do you have? Are you using a Bible version which accurately reflects your answer and the answer of those you encourage to read the Bible?

13 Comments:

At Sun Feb 26, 07:14:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Wayne,

You said, "Some Bible translation apologists today would have us believe that translating the Hebrew or Greek words for ancestors with the English word "ancestors" is inaccurate."

Is it really such a simple issue? If it is why have so many not translated this Hebrew and Greek term as ancestors (and I would shy away insinuating as you did that the Hebrew and Greek words actually mean, "ancestors" since there is debate about that)?

One thought I had - in a Jews mind, when they read the word, "abim", whose names popped up in the mind? Were any of them women?

To be honest, I would say that women didn't even enter their mind (as we see from genealogies).

Just some quick thoughts, that are not thought out very well. Thanks for taking the time to post - it was an interesting read.

Always learning,
-Nathan

 
At Sun Feb 26, 07:56:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Nathan asked:

Is it really such a simple issue?

I don't know, Nathan. I've simply done my best to try to lay out the facts as I understand them. I may be missing something. If so, I welcome hearing from anyone what it might be. I always want to be on the side of accuracy.

I wasn't thinking of Jewish genealogies when I wrote my post, but, rather, of Bible passages that refer to ancestors, with no mention of whether they were male or female ancestors. Examples: Deut. 8:16, John 6:31 (both men and women ate the manna); Joshua 24:6 (not just males were brought out of Egypt); 1 Cor. 10:1 (females and males alike were under the cloud); etc.

If we had a way to prove that only males were being referred to in these passages then the claim could stand. But we know from biblical history that the women were there as well as the men.

I'm not at all suggesting what when only men were referred to we should change the translation to be gender-inclusive. I'm only wanting us to think about when both male and females would be included.

 
At Mon Feb 27, 01:08:00 AM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

Wayne,

Thanks for your explanation on ancestors. I've wondered a bit about that.

All of you folks, keep up the good work. This is in line with your calling.

I've noticed that it little matters what Bible translation one uses as they seek to fulfill God's call on their lives. The essential thing is that they are in the Word, and seek to live it out.

As for myself, my own conviction is with a translation like, and for me it is, the TNIV. (I like NLT too, and others, but not as my main Bible). I think people would realize it is not radical, IF ONLY they were exposed to it. Our church uses the NIV, and it's hardly a hiccup's difference to most people, overall. My wife adjusted to her TNIV from her NIV as if there were no change at all.

 
At Mon Feb 27, 03:19:00 AM, Blogger KAT said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At Mon Feb 27, 03:21:00 AM, Blogger KAT said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

 
At Mon Feb 27, 03:22:00 AM, Blogger KAT said...


sungkhum said...

To be honest, I would say that women didn't even enter their mind (as we see from genealogies).


A solid point, if we only focus on genealogical lists....

But this was also a culture with founding religious figures like Miriam, military heroes like Deborah, political heroes such as Esther; people who gave more than just a passing nod to their queen founder, Sarah, and called Eve the "mother of all the living".

Davidic "genealogy" lists may list men, but they devote an entire book to a female: Ruth. How's that for a genealogical list! :)

This goes without mentioning the New Testament, where the birth of the Messiah is first fully revealed to and employed through a female ancestry: Mary's. Not only that, but the rebirth of the resurrected Messiah is first witnessed by and proclaimed by Mary Magadelene. In a way, the "Geneology" and birth of the Church begins with two women.

 
At Mon Feb 27, 03:44:00 AM, Blogger KAT said...

Just to mention (perhaps it's probably not entirely relevant to biblical study, but I'll say it anyways), but to this day, according to Jewish Halakha, one can not even claim a racially Jewish heritage unless there is proof that one's matriarchal lineage is Jewish. A child with a Jewish father but with a Gentile mother is considered non-Jewish, and can't even claim Israeli citizenship, except in unique circumstances (this is not a liberal, modern, rule either, but an Orthodox rule that's been applied to Judaism since Rabbinic/Halakhic traditions have been codefied -- or more specifically, since the second century CE).

The origin of the practice is complicated if your unfamiliar with Jewish midrashic and halakhic interpretation, but needless to say, it's derived from Deut 7. That being said, if Halakhic codes from the second century were stating this, then they must have been based on older traditions handed down to them.

 
At Mon Feb 27, 06:59:00 AM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

Hi Wayne,

"I wasn't thinking of Jewish genealogies when I wrote my post, but, rather, of Bible passages that refer to ancestors, with no mention of whether they were male or female ancestors."


Yeah, I think in my mind I was just thinking about the patriarchal fathers - that was my misunderstanding, sorry.

I guess was where I was coming from - it seems to me that sometimes the word for "fathers" is used for the patriarchal fathers not for ancestors in general - though "ancestors" could work in those places - It seems to me some of the meaning would be lost lost.

But then again, I am no one - also I was raise in a Christian home, so I don't tend to have a problem with phrases like "fathers".


And Straylight...
I don't intend to get into a debate about women in the Bible - because there is no debate. I did not desire that anything I said would insinuate such a notion. If it did, I am sorry for that.

 
At Mon Feb 27, 07:57:00 AM, Blogger KAT said...

I'm sorry too. I didn't mean it to sound like a debate. Your words sparked some thoughts, and I was just kind of thinking out loud, I guess :)

 
At Mon Feb 27, 08:51:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Nathan said:

it seems to me that sometimes the word for "fathers" is used for the patriarchal fathers not for ancestors in general - though "ancestors" could work in those places - It seems to me some of the meaning would be lost lost.

Nathan, you raise an important point. IF Hebrew abim is referring in some passage to to the patriarchs, esp. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then I think "fathers" would be an appropriate translation in English. My dictionary gives seems to get at the patriarch idea as one of the meaning senses for the English word "father." We know that meaning, for instance, when we speak of the Church "fathers". In this case, we are not referring to our masculine ancestors, but, rather, to the leading men, founders, of the early church.

So, as Ben Witherington noted in his recent comments on the ESV, each translation wording needed to be considered on its own merits, on a case by case basis. Each time Hebrew abim or Greek pateres occurs, we need to try to determine which meaning is intended and then find the most accurate English translation equivalent.

I still suggest that the English word "fathers" is not appropriate to use if the original meaning is 'ancestors' even if it is referring only to male ancestors as in the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke.

I appreciate your stimulating comments.

 
At Mon Feb 27, 03:46:00 PM, Blogger Sungkhum said...

I didn't say this last time: I believe you have brought up something that is right, that in English, the word "fathers" does not convey the whole concept of the word "abim" and or "pateres".

And I think, for a contemporary English translation translators should probably decide when each word should use - but for me personally - I like my own Bible to have as little translator interpretation as possible - so if they translate it "fathers" then that leaves me to study the text and interpret it on my own with God (and based on what I read others are saying) as I study.

But that is not for everyone, I know.

I'm glad I found this blog - it is good to be talking about these things.

Have a good day,
Nathan

 
At Mon Feb 27, 07:14:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Nathan, we're glad that you have found our blog also. And we appreciate your contributions. We learn from our visitors, too.

 
At Tue Feb 28, 05:03:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Wayne, the biblical Hebrew word for "fathers", the plural of אָב 'av, is in fact not abim but אָבוֹת 'avot. For some reason, lost in the mists of time, this word takes the normally feminine -ot plural ending. Now I would expect Grudem and friends to find some deep significance to that, proof that אָבוֹת 'avot incorporates both masculine and feminine aspects and so should be understood as gender neutral. But those of us who understand the arbitrariness of language and especially of grammatical gender will understand that this has no semantic significance, but it simply one of those things which happens.

 

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