Thursday, February 02, 2006

Generic Pronoun 'he' III

In my last post on the generic pronoun 'he', I misunderstood a technical detail. I shall correct that now and continue. I said that there was no 'he' in the Liddell-Scott online dictionary. Debbie pointed out that 'he' was one of the "stop words", words too common to be indexed, and that is why it was not in the dictionary. That is true. However, I shall continue with my argument that αυτος in Greek, the word that is usually translated into 'he' in English, is not necessarily 'he' in English, but could equally be 'he or she' or 'they'.

In the Liddell-Scott dictionary entry for αυτος, one finds this.

II he, she, it, for the simple Pron. of 3 pers as well as 'self', or 'the same one'.

So αυτος means not 'he' but 'he, she or it'. If we eliminate 'it' since we are talking about how the pronoun is used for people in the NT we end up with 'he or she'. However, αυτος does have a masculine grammatical ending, -ος, which is usually not translated.

Since Poythress and Grudem, in this book which I am now reading, claim that the masculine ending should be translated, I want to look at why αυτος has a masculine ending in the first place.

In the Bauer Lexicon, BAGD, αυτος "refers with more or less emphasis to a subject, often resuming one already mentioned." And later, "The oblique cases of αυτος very often take the place of the third person personal pronoun," "with reference to a preceding noun" and "with reference to a noun to be supplied from the context."

Now consider this verse.

    Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. ESV Rev. 3:20
In this verse, 'anyone' is τις in Greek. The form is both masculine and feminine at the same time; it is unspecified. If one asks from the context who τις refers to, one would have to say that it refers to a human, either male or female.

The word for human is ο ανθρωπος, a word with a masculine grammatical ending. However, this word means 'a human being', or 'a person'. The Liddell-Scott dictionary says that it denotes 'man' both generically and as individuals. In the BAGD, it refers to 'man' generically, as a class, in contrast to plants and animals, in contrast to the gods, etc. These dictionaries all use the term 'man' generically, and the word applies to people, both men and women. There is another word for 'man' in Greek, ανηρ.

In any case, Poythress and Grudem do believe that women are candidates for salvation, that is not in question.

However, ανθρωπος has a masculine grammatical ending, so αυτος must have a masculine grammatical ending, as well, to agree. In Rev. 3:20 αυτος refers specifically to 'anyone', 'the human being', who hears the voice of Christ and opens the door to him. There is no necessary equivalence between αυτος and 'he' in English. There is a grammatical reason why αυτος has a masculine ending, not a semantic reason.

So what is the most natural way to translate this. Here is an English sentence in three variations. Which one is correct?

    1. If I drop by someone's house for tea at 5:00 I hope he will invite me to stay for supper.
    2. If I drop by someone's house for tea at 5:00 I hope he or she will invite me to stay for supper.
    3. If I drop by someone's house for tea at 5:00 I hope they will invite me to stay for supper.
Now let's reverse the social situation, to check and see if there is a female bias to the previous sentence.

    1. If anyone comes to visit at 5:00 I will invite him for supper.
    2. If anyone comes to visit at 5:00 I will invite him or her for supper.
    3. If anyone comes to visit at 5:00 I will invite them for supper.
Didn't change much. I would still say that only #3 is accurate.

For me, only one of these is correct. And so the TNIV has translated Rev. 3:20 as follows,

    Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.
    However, a statement signed by 100 Christian leaders said this.

      We believe that the TNIV has gone beyond acceptable translation standards in several important respects.

    • The TINV translation often changes masculine, third person, singular pronouns (he, his and him) to plural gender-neutral pronouns. For example, in Revelation 3:20, the words of Jesus have been changed from "I will come in and eat with him, and he with me" to "I will come in and eat with them, and they with me," Jesus could have used plural pronouns when he said this, but he chose not too. (The original Greek pronouns are singular.) p. 100

    First, of course, Christ, spoke in Aramaic, not Greek. Second, the Greek says αυτος, and the lexicons give 'he or she' as the meaning of αυτος, depending on the noun it refers to. Third, it does refer to a person, any person, not only a male person. And forth, Poythress and Grudem themselves now accept that 'they' has been used as a generic singular in English since the days of Chaucer.

      Language Log in particular delights in demonstrating the merits of the generic singular 'they'

        The pronoun form 'they' is anaphorically linked in the discourse to 'this person'. Such use of forms of 'they' with singular antecedents is attested in English over hundreds of years, in writers as significant as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Austen, and Wilde. The people (like the perennially clueless Strunk and White) who assert that such usage is "wrong" simply haven't done their literary homework and don't deserve our attention.

      Here is an example from Shakespeare.

        There's not a man I meet but doth salute me
        As if I were their well-acquainted friend (Language Log here.)
      The statement against the TNIV continues,

          In hundreds of such cases, the TNIV obscures any possible significance the inspired singular may have, such as individual responsibility or an individual relationship with Christ.
          But we can see that English speakers have used and understood 'they' as a singular in an individual relationship at least since Shakespeare, without ambiguity. So what is the real reason that Poythress and Grudem want to retain the generic masculine?

            On the one hand, in the original, the net effect of the masculine marking may be subtly weaker than in English, because grammatical gender occurs in other uses besides the cases that identify the sex of the referent.

            But on the other hand, in generic statements, masculine forms tend to occur more frequently in Greek and Hebrew than in English (because most nouns, adjectives, and participles are gender-marked in Greek and Hebrew, and verbs are marked in Hebrew). This greater frequency of gender-marked words referring to persons may push listeners in the opposite direction, toward reinforcing the impression of a predominance of male orientation in generic statements. These two effects are both extremely subtle. Because they work in opposite directions, the net effect is probably still similar to the use of generic "he" in English. p. 451
          For this "extremely subtle" and "probable" reason, having to do with the need for "frequency" and "predominance of male orientation", 100 Christian Leaders signed a statement that the TNIV was not sufficiently trustworthy. That, and it uses the language of Shakespeare.

          Poythress and Grudem say that it is feminism which is to blame.

            Feminism replaces Biblical honour with a misguided attempt to wipe out the differences in people with respect to prominence, order, leadership, and representation. p. 257
          Since woman has no right to any of the above, she must not seek to be represented in the Bible on the same basis as man.

            And we must emphasize again that the Bible does teach the dignity of all human beings. Men and women alike are created in the image of God, and all have fallen into sin. But the Bible also indicates that there are differences in the gifts that God gives them and the roles that he assigns to them in this life. Feminism and egalitarianism fight against those differences. p. 255


          Kevin Knox said...


          I could kick myself for not learning the original languages, but I don't believe it is ever going to happen for me. Your explanation of "he" is a delightful read, and so frustrating! I wish I knew a tenth of what you put into this post. I have believed for years that this was self-evident, but I will never have sufficient skill even to convince myself that I'm right, much less those who are afraid to listen.

          As long as you post like this, you'll have at least one reader!

          Ted M. Gossard said...

          Suzanne, thanks. It is too bad that the "culture war" they're fighting trumps good scholarship. But keep on keeping on. Good, helpful stuff.

          Suzanne McCarthy said...


          I can only say that I am lucky I learned what I did in my teenage years, a bit of a fluke. It would probably be more correct to say that linguistics is my profession -not my hobby. I am a practioner working with dyslexic and deaf kids, not a scholar, but this is my training. Could one do this on the side? Some people seem to, but not me.

          Suzanne McCarthy said...

          Hi Ted,

          I was really touched by reading a passage in the TNIV on your site recently. It did indeed mean more to me.

          DavidR said...

          Some good thinking and writing! Some random thoughts in response:

          1. Part of your argument seems to rest on the idea that αυτος can mean "he" or "she" or "it", and therefore rigid 3rd masc. sg. "he" is incorrect. (Have I understood you rightly?) The question is not "what COULD it mean", but "what DOES it mean"! As you will know, words have meaning not in isolation, but in context, so that if the referent is a human being "he" will be the better lexical equivalent in the target language. At that point, the range of options in the lexicon fails to make a meaningful contribution.

          2. The specific context of Rev 3:20 ... well, yes, Jesus did speak Aramaic, but Rev 3:20 isn't a report of a conversation (as in the gospels), but was composed in Greek. I wonder what John was hearing in his head? :)

          3. English is mutating. The Oxford English Dictionary people seem to be open to the notion that "they" can act as a pseudo-singular generic pronoun (have a look here), so that in principle the "they" solution is available. However, what if you wish to avoid implying a plural?! That could be just as undesirable as excluding by gender implication!

          It's a poser, and no mistake....

          Anyway, thanks for your thoughts.