Thursday, July 22, 2010

Adoption of children: the NRSV and the ESV

TC has responded to my question as to why he has chosen the ESV rather than the NRSV as his standard Bible translation in this post, A few thoughts on why I chose the ESV over the NRSV. TC offers three main points, first mentioning that the ESV was a winner but not my much in Paul's epistles - no details here.

Second, he provides the example of "fornication" rather than "sexual immorality" for porneia. While I agree with TC on this point, I was also amused because I remember being lectured on how the TNIV was a terrible translation based on the fact that "fornication" had been replaced by "sexual immorality!" I am not able to take this as a serious substantive argument - but I do agree with TC on this point.

His third point is that N. T. Wright found that some of the gender decisions are not as "felicitious as they might be." I am unable to interact with this, simply because there is no indication that N. T. Wright was comparing the NRSV with the ESV when he made this comment. It is a nice quote but fundamentally irrelevant.

Now for the specifics. In spite of a rather amorphous beginning to his post, TC was able to corral a couple of words which he suggests benefit from better gender decisions in the ESV than in the NRSV. This is very helpful for me, because I am always asking myself why the NRSV has not become a standard Bible accross the English-speaking church.

The two terms which TC holds up as difficulties are the word huiothesia etymologically "placement as a son," and adelphos, etymologically "uterine sibling," of "from the same womb." You may find this kind of detail tedious and pedantic, but I hope to demonstrate to TC that those who react as he does to what "seems an overly-zealous move to avoid gender-specific language" in the NRSV, have not "dug deeply" and, in fact, have not even scratched the surface of language. (May she forgive me - language that is.)

TC goes into more detail in an earlier post on adoption of sons, concluding,

So I say to my brothers and sisters who are egalitarians, Don’t be enraged at “adoption of sons” or “sons” in English Bible translations like the ESV and HCSB. Instead, embrace the terms “adoption of sons” and “sons,” because of their theological and christological import.

As a footnote, I hear the objection, “Well, “adoption of sons” is too gender specific, because it excludes women (sisters in Christ).” The solution is not to opt for “adoption of children.”

Rather, we need to teach our people how to read their Bibles—how to dig down deep, until the texts yield their meanings, ala Luther, and to enjoy the discovery, not of our world, but of the biblical world.

But in an effort to make the truth clear, some of our newer English Bible translations have found themselves dumbing down the text too much.

I will argue that "children" is a better term in every way, providing continuity with the Hebrew bible, concordance with Paul's other writing and is the foundation of the Reformation.

First, in the Hebrew bible, the phrase בְנֵי beni can be literally translated as "sons of" and some of the time, it does refer to male offspring only. However, when it is used with the name "Israel, " בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל it is usually translated as "the people of Israel" in the ESV. Often we also read the phrase עַמִּי בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל "my people, the children of Israel." It is recognized that the expression "children of Israel" occurs in apposition to "my people" and refers to the same group of people.

The pattern then for the ESV is that when the word בְנֵי beni refers to males only, it is translated as "sons;" and when it refers to a people, it is translated as "people" except for those times where "people" already occurs in the verse. In that case, to provide variation, the phrase "children of Israel" is used. This is the pattern then for the Old Testament of the ESV. If the word "sons" is used, then it means "males only."

The expression "sons of God" does occur in the Old Testament a couple of times, in Gen. 6 and in Job. In Gen. 6 this phrase appears to mean something like "males with malevolent super powers and a user attitude toward women." In Job it is a bit more difficult to determine whether the "sons of God" are a malevolent or not. In summary, in the Old Testament of the ESV, the phrase "sons of" refers to males, and so this is consistent with the preface of the ESV.

In Stephen's sermon in Acts 7, teh ESV translates his reference to the people of Israel as the "children of Israel" and the pattern found in the Old Testament is continued. The people whom God has chosen are referred to as the "children of Israel. "

Paul takes up the language of "children" in Romans 9, where he uses the phrase "children of Abraham" and "children of God" in Greek τέκνα τοῦ θεοῦ. Paul is not concerned with maintaining the use of a word with male semantic content, or male form. The word τέκνα is neuter.

Later in this same chapter, Paul does write, τῶν υἱῶν Ἰσραὴλ, and this is translated in the ESV as "sons of Israel," with a note that this is the same term as "children of Israel." Is maleness in view here? There is no indication in the references to σπέρμα, the "offspring" or the τέκνα, the "children" of the υἱοί the "sons" that maleness enters into it. In fact, Paul cites the phrase "my people."

For Paul, the phrase which the ESV translates as the "sons of Israel" refers to the "children of Israel" and those people whom God calls "my people.' The only problem with the ESV is that suddenly and for the first time, breaking continuity, it presents this term in English as "the sons of Israel" and continues with "the sons of "God." Clearly, for Paul, a masculine term in not necessary, or he would not be so comfortable with using alternate terms. He appears to use the phrase υἱοί Ἀβραάμ to indicate a formal equivalent with the Hebrew. However, the underlying Hebrew phrase is always translated into English as "children of Abraham."

The ESV has made an odd decision here to masculinize the phrases in their translation. There may be an assumption on the part of many readers that "sons of God" was found in earlier Bibles. I do believe that an equivalent may be found in the Vulgate. However, the Reformation Bibles, and the King James Bible were comfortable with using "the children of God" in these passages.

And it shall come to pass, that in the place where it was said unto them, Ye are not my people; there shall they be called the children of the living God. Romans 8:26. KJV
TC is especially concerned about the phrase "adoption of sons." I will briefly mention that the Luther Bible, Calvin's Latin translation, and the French Bible de Geneve, and the Bishop's Bible, all had the phrase either "adoption" or "adoption of children." Regardless of the technical use of the word in Greek, there is no indication that Paul has maleness in mind, since he so frequently uses gender inclusive terms in his discussion. Evidently Luther, Calvin and important English translators did not sense that maleness was in view in these passages. The Reformation did not suffer for it.

(Of course, TC may wish to go back in time and instruct Paul, Luther and Calvin on how to really read the Bible. That is another option.)

In short, for the Hebrew Bible, for Paul, and for the Bibles of the Reformation, the "people of Israel" and the "people of God" were called by a term which has been considered gender inclusive most of the time. The masculinization of the scripture in English began in the late 19th century, when hyper literal Bibles came into vogue, and the REV and the RSV introduced "sons of God." There is no reason to continue this trend, unless one considers the 19th century sacred n some way, but we should seek an historic response, a response based on the intent of Paul and the foundation of the great Bibles of the Reformation. We should use gender inclusive language because this is in keeping with the heritage God has given us.

I hope to continue this discussion with a further post on the translation of adelphos.


Nathan Stitt said...

The timing of your posts has been interesting, as I've just acquired a copy of the NRSV (NOAB 4th) and have been reading through it. This is really the first time I have used the NRSV for reading, as I normally only reference it when doing a study.

I may try to do some comparisons with the ESV in places, and I look forward to your post about adelphos.

Don said...

In both Hebrew and Greek, the grammatical masculine plural forms are used when a group contains all males, all the way down to whent he group contains just one male and the rest was females.

The claim that "huis" is best translated as "sons" is spurious, it is best translated by determining the context of what it meant.

There is no need to give any credence to masculinists on this, they simply need to remove their blue spectacles.

Bob MacDonald said...

The mind or intent of the author is a rationale I shy away from as a motive for word choice. The only hints we have of an author's 'mind' is the record of what was written (or not). Does Paul ever describe his own mind? Could he? The psalmists do I suppose - there is lots of emotion there - but is that their mind or even intent?

I think rhetorically I could speak of my mind or heart in the psalms but you would still have to take me with a grain of salt.

beni adam I have rendered in many different ways - probably depending on my own whimsical mind - like children of dust, of earth, earthlings, etc. Beni is a word I am not concordant on. I think beni elohim in Job refers to us - we are this council and are quite capable of playing the role of accuser as well.

T.C. R said...

Regarding Luther and Calvin’s arguments for “adoption of children,” I have a few questions: 1. What continuity with the OT are we talking about here? 2. Are we simply to dismiss the obvious referent behind Paul’s choice of huiothesia for some homilectical point by some of the Reformers? By the way, the Reformers have been proven to be wrong at several turns.

Don said...

On porneia, I favor "sexual immorality" over "fornication". Sexual immorality includes things that are not fornication.

Also, I see porneia as the closest Greek word to Hebrew ervah, often translated as nakedness or indecency. In other words, something to do with one's genitals that is wrong, according to Torah.

Don said...

It is always a translator's challenge HOW to translate from one culture to another in addition to translating words.

In the Western world of the 21th century, both men and women can be heirs and it is not "dumbing down" the translation to use "children" instead of "sons"; rather it is mapping to the current cultural realities.

The 1st century cultural things are things that need to be explained in a footnote or a sermon, in any case.

Suzanne McCarthy said...


You are the one to mention the reformers. Evidently you now think they had this one wrong. You shift ground with every comment. You WANT male language regardless.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

"In the Western world of the 21th century, both men and women can be heirs and it is not "dumbing down" the translation to use "children" instead of "sons"; rather it is mapping to the current cultural realities."

DOn, I disagree. I believe that Paul used the word he had available, the word which would show that it is the children who are the children of faith, just as the children of Sarah are the true children of Abraham. I don't think the maleness of the term ever crossed Paul's mind. This is a modern cultural construct. He was not saying that women, by being represented by maleness, gain eternal life. Crap!

Don said...


Yes, I agree with you. I was giving one valid translation reason why "children" is NOT dumbing down. You give another.

I think it is worth a footnote in a translation about the point TC makes, but it is certainly not worth it to be gender specific IN the translation when it can result in confusion for the modern reader. That is a job of a translator, to reduce confusion, to find the closest mapping today, knowing that some things are lost in translation.

T.C. R said...

Here's how the TNIV handled the term in a footnote to "adoption to sonship" in the text: "Romans 8:15 The Greek word for adoption to sonship is a term referring to the full legal standing of an adopted male heir in Roman culture."

Perhaps we willing to conclude that the TNIV translator's got this wrong.

Don said...

On TNIV and sonship, I think the translation could be improved. They have a footnote which explains it.

ISV, LITV, YLT, KJV have just adoption.

The ESV also has a footnote which refers to the Preface, where they believe some words have a "male meaning component". This is not a normal Greek grammar explanation that I have seen elsewhere. They also refer to Roman adoption laws.

T.C. R said...

Don, The ESV's Preface is a bit confusing at times.

Regarding the translation huiothesia, to reduce confusion perhaps "Adoption of children" but with a footnote in the TNIV. This is my concession.

Don said...

I think we all agree that adoption is the key concept, this is how every human but Jesus gets into the Kingdom.

I see the better choices as being just adoption, or adoption of/as hiers or adoption of/as children.

Less clear is adoption of/as sons. And with the ESV one is left wondering if there is some "male meaning component" intended.

P.S. I use many translations, including the ESV, I just recognize it makes some masculinist translation choices.

Kristen said...

If I remember N.T. Wright's statements on Galatians 4:1-7, he was saying that the point Paul was making is that all Christians are adopted as "sons," not "sons and daughters." This is because daughters did not have the same rights that sons did in the family. Paul's insistence in Galatations is that ALL believers, male and female, have the full rights of "sons." I agree that this idea is not brought out very well by simply using the word "sons" in English translations, however. Perhaps "adoption as full heirs" would be a better choice.

Suzanne McCarthy said...

Yes, I forgot about that. I think there are some translations which use "adoption as heirs."