A couple of days ago I discussed gender-neutral language in a post dealing with both inerrancy and Bible translation issues. Today, as I was doing some reading about Hebrews, I encountered a vigorous comment against such language in a passage in Hebrews. The passage in question is Hebrews 2:6-8, and it quotes from Psalm 8:4-6. The NIV translates the first anthrwpos as “mankind” and then huios anthrwpou as “a son of man.” They then continue with a series of plural pronouns in the explanation.
In his The New American Commentary: Hebrews, David L. Allen responds to this translation with some vigor. (Note that he is responding to the TNIV, and relying on the text of the 1984 NIV, but the text of the 2011 NIV has in it every difficulty he references in his discussion. I really can’t get the flavor of his arguments without quoting more than I’m going to quote in a blog, but he starts with two major issues. The first is that by obscuring the anthrwpos/’adam reference with a plural (TNIV uses “mortals” while NIV2011 uses “mankind”) one loses the sense of the unity of the human race through descent from Adam. Secondly, by using plural references in succeeding texts, one makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to connect this to “son of man” as a Messianic title for Jesus. Whether this was the intent of Psalm 8 in its original context, it appears to be an intent of the author of Hebrews.
Of these he says:
Third, to change the word or phrase to a more “gender neutral” expression, especially in light of the other two problems above, is simply an exercise in linguistic political correctness. (p. 240, Nook edition)
The issues here are somewhat more complex than any case I was referencing in my earlier post. When you have someone address a congregation that includes both men and women using adelphoi, the issue is more one of referent. In this case, we need to ask a couple of questions:
1) In what way was the author reading the passage? In other words, how would he have understood it in then making his argument? It seems courteous, in a sense, to render a quotation in the same way as the person quoting it intended. This is by no means uncontroversial. If an author quotes the LXX, as is done here, but the Bible translation in question translates its Old Testament from the Hebrew, what should be done? There are cases in which a translation will accommodate their own rendering of the OT verse to the translation as they have it in their OT, whether or not that fits the author. On the other hand, to have the author of Hebrews quote Psalm 8:4-6, and then have the rendering there differ from what a reader will find when he or she turns to the Old Testament in that very same Bible edition can (and will) raise questions. So it is a case of decisions, decisions, and no matter what you do, there will be disagreement.
2) What will your readers miss when they read your rendering? In this case we have two choices. We might leave out some understanding of the unity of humanity and the connection between a singular son of man and Jesus. On the other hand, for some readers, we might be leaving out the sense that this is humanity and not just some particular man. I know of nothing that would cover all options except for an explanatory note, and most of us are likely aware of how many people read explanatory notes.
I don’t consider this a clear case of a change of language requiring a change of translation. The word anthrwpos, as used here, is covering a different semantic range, and the translator needs to take that into account. The danger into which the NIV2011 and the TNIV have both slipped here is that they undercut the author’s presentation by using a different translation of the passage he’s building on. He chose the LXX of his time. Perhaps we should honor the idea of his choosing a translation by translating that translation in a way that matches his use.
What do you think?