How many fathers do you have?
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?