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Translating Hebrews 2:6-8 – Gender, Number, and Breaking the Discourse

Translating Hebrews 2:6-8 – Gender, Number, and Breaking the Discourse

dreamstimefree_235996_smI’ve written about this a couple of times before, though using the NIV1984 and NIV2011, in A Gender Neutral Example – Hebrews 2:6-8 and Quick Follow-up on Hebrews 2:6-8.

I covered most of the key issues in those two short posts, but to summarize quickly, I note the questions of how one should translated the quotation of Psalm 8:4-6 as it is presented in Hebrews 2:6-8. One of the questions is the text. In some cases translators have “corrected” New Testament quotations of Hebrew scriptures by using readings from the Massoretic  text even when the NT writer is quoting from the LXX. In this passage “for a little while” gets a footnote to the MT in some translations.

The question for the translator is whether to reconcile the texts, in this case make Hebrews 2:6-8 correspond to the text of Psalm 8:4-6, so that a reader is not confused (or even challenged) by the difference, or whether the texts should be translated faithfully in each instance. In the case of either decision, what should be indicated in the footnotes?

I was reading this passage today in the NRSV, immediately after having read it in Greek. Here it is:

6 But someone has testified somewhere,
“What are human beings that you are mindful of them,
or mortals, that you care for them?
7 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned them with glory and honor,
8 subjecting all things under their feet.”

In this case there is a footnote (one of several), which reads: ”

Gk or the son of man that you care for him? In the Hebrew of Psalm 8:4-6 both man and son of man refer to all humankind

In fact, the plural continues into the remainder of verse 8, which is not quoted: “Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control.” It is not the authors argument here that everything is placed under the command of humanity in general, but rather of one human being, Jesus. I fully agree with the translators (and their footnote), that Psalm 8 is referring, in its original context, to humankind in general, and our relationship, as a whole, to God—our place in creation.

By translating the quotation “accurately,” as it occurs in a different text and location, the translators have disrupted the discourse of this passage. So while I will not call this an error (it’s certainly intentional, and I can formulate the arguments for doing it, even though I find them dismally unconvincing), I do think it’s a very unfortunate approach. One could let readers know that the quoted text, in its historical context, refers to humanity as a whole, but that it is being used here specifically of one particular human male, Jesus.

In fact, one could argue that acknowledging “humankind” in Psalm 8 need not be inconsistent with the usage here, as we will shortly see the author of Hebrews continue with the argument that Jesus must very much be one of us (humankind) in order to be able to redeem us. One could discuss the idea of being “in Christ,” though that is not the language of Hebrews. In Hebrews the language is one of kinship and community.

I do think that this makes it harder, though not impossible to follow the flow of the authors argument in this passage.

Acts 2:45 – A Short and Simple Lesson in Gender Accuracy

Acts 2:45 – A Short and Simple Lesson in Gender Accuracy

This passage in the KJV reads:

And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need. [italics in original]

Note that the italicized “men” is an indication from the KJV translators that this was an addition of a word not reflected in the Greek. But the adjective here, “all (pasin)” is masculine in form (it could be neuter, but in context doubtless is not), and thus is translated “men” by the KJV.

As a side note, the use of italics to indicate added words is questionable, because since there are no words in the English text that are also in the Greek text, it is difficult to draw the line. What exactly is reflected in the Greek text, and what is added by the translators? Note the second word “man,” which is not italicized in my edition of the KJV. (Not all KJV editions are identical.) It is reflected in the Greek text just as little, or just as much, as is the first “men,” but it is not italicized. It is probably impossible for someone to be perfectly consistent on this point.

Now note a couple of modern versions that normally try to reflect the masculine in their translations, at least where those represent words like “adelfoi (brothers)” or “anthropos (human being).”

And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. (ESV)

and sold their possessions and goods, and divided them among all, as anyone had need. (NKJV)

I haven’t searched exhaustively, but I haven’t found any of the translations that avoid gender neutral language that reflect the masculine form here. And of course they should not. They should refer to its referent by the appropriate English form for referring to a referent that doubtlessly included both men and women. One is conveniently available in this case, “all” which is not specified as to gender in English. So we don’t hear about “male representation” in this case.

But I believe a similar argument could be made for dozens of cases at least of occurrences of “anthropos” or “adelfoi” in the Greek text where those terms refer to groups of mixed gender.

In general, this whole debate is more about modern culture and language usage, I suspect, than it is about reflecting the actual meaning of the Biblical writers.

ADELFOI = Brothers and Sisters

ADELFOI = Brothers and Sisters

I’m probably beating a dead horse to death, but I encountered the following quote in reading Victor Paul Furnish’s commentary on 2 Corinthians:

. . . adelphoi is used quite inclusively by Paul when he addresses a congregation; he is thinking of all those, female as well as male, who are in Christ. . . . (p. 112, on 1:8)

Since I’ve discussed this before, I’m going to be brief. This is simply another fine scholar telling us what should be quite obvious. Adelfoiwas used to address audiences that included both genders. There is no need to imagine just how much Paul was addressing one group or another. In modern English, the standard is becoming “brothers and sisters” to address that same type of group.

I think this should be a relatively uncomplicated issue, but certain theological positions seem to complicate it.