Gender in Bible translation

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Gender and Bible translation have been the subject of debate for some time. Major disagreements surround the gender of God as well as gendered terms referring to humankind.

Name of God

Conservative Christians, Mormons and others consider the Greek New Testament to be authoritative on matters regarding God. They also share this same conviction with Jews with regard to the authority of the Hebrew Bible. Accurate translation of the Greek, Hebrew (and Aramaic) is a concern for all the groups above, except Hindus and Sikhs. Some of the discussion below would be relevant to the Sanskrit of the Hindu scriptures, and the several languages of the Sikh scriptures, however the examples and sources here are related to the Abrahamaic religions.

There are a number of ways to translate the names of God into English from Hebrew. Hebrew uses only four consonants for the name — Yod-Heh-Waw-Heh (יהוה, YHWH) — hence it is called the Tetragrammaton. Some modern English bibles render this as LORDL capital, and ord in small capital font face. Others use Yahweh, and the old King James Version used Jehovah. In English, outside Bible translations, the tetragrammaton is often written as YHWH or YHVH.

The original meaning of this form is connected with the "I AM" of Exodus 3:14 (and it probably contains a Hebrew masculine verb prefix — the Y or yod). Sometimes this word is rendered into English by using Hebrew Adonai, instead of attempting to directly translate YHWH, following an ancient Jewish custom of respect. The modern Jewish form of this custom is to refer to the divine person as HaShem — The Name.

The Hebrew word Adonai literally means my lords (with pseudo-plural), and is usually translated as Lord. The Hebrew names Elohim, El, Shaddai, and Yah are usually translated as God — with Elohim being the most common. Elyon translates as Most High.

There are a number of compound names for God. YHVH Tzevaot is translated as Lord of Hosts. YHVH Elohe tzevaot would be Lord God of Hosts. Among non-Orthodox Jews, there is a growing tendency to avoid the gender-in-English-language debate, and to simultaneously reclaim the vocabulary of Hebrew itself, by not translating these names in English prayers.

An example of a traditional translation is:

  • "The earth belongs to the Lord, and all it contains; the world and its inhabitants." (Psalm 24)

An alternative translation is:

  • "The earth belongs to Adonai, and all it contains; the world and its inhabitants."

Shekhinah is Hebrew for the imminent presence of God; this name of God appears in some traditional Jewish prayers. Within Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) the Shekhinah represents the feminine aspect of God's essence; other terms represent the male aspect of God.[citation needed]

See also Names of God

Third person pronouns

Many prayers use one or more of the names for God many times within the same paragraph. The first time it appears a proper name is used, while further instances use a third person pronoun (he, she or it). English speakers usually use masculine or feminine third person pronouns to refer to people, and the third person pronoun - "it" - to refer to non-people. Traditionally, in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim writing, the third-person pronoun "He" has been used to refer to God in English translations. In non-religious contexts, English speakers have generally used the word "he" as a substitute for a gender-neutral third person pronoun.

In English, it is improper to speak of a person with the neuter pronoun "it". All Christians that believe in the Trinity by definition believe in the three persons that are one god. For many, referring to God as “It” is heretical.

The idea of God being an "It" rather than a "he" or "she" does have some support in Jewish, Christian and Islamic medieval thought, much of which was based on Neo-Aristotelian philosophy. Some medieval philosophers of all three of these religions took great pains to make clear that God was in no way like a person, and that all apparently physical descriptions of God were only poetic metaphors.

In the Chinese language, translators of the Christian Bible have created a new Chinese character to act as a divine pronoun: 祂 (Pinyin: ). , in essence, is the universal third person pronoun for all objects and persons. However, personhood (as well as gender) can be distinguished in writing. The normal pronoun for he, 他, is also used in generic cases. The radical 亻(rén) marks personhood (distinct from non-human referents), not simply gender alone. The radical in 祂, 礻(shì), marks the "elevated personhood" of divinity, without implying anything about the gender of the divinity referred to.

Mankind and humankind

Translations of the Bible and prayerbooks traditionally have used words such as: man, men, his, mankind, brotherhood, etc. In their historical usage these words in most places have always meant human, human beings, his and hers, humankind, peoplehood, etc. Feminists contend that no such neutrality was implied.

The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) of the Christian Bible tries to correct this by changing words like "man" to "person", and "brothers" to "brothers and sisters", in all cases where the text is not referring to specific individuals but to people in general, or to a group of people that is most likely composed of both men and women. In keeping with this approach, the NRSV does not change the traditional male pronouns that refer to God.

A recent translation known as Today's New International Version (TNIV) attempts to avoid sexist language by using "they" as the pronoun for a single person of unknown gender, a practice that has been common in spoken English for over six hundred years but is often avoided in formal writing. Critics of this translation dislike the usage of "singular they" both because conservative prescriptive grammarians sometimes consider it improper grammar, and because it sometimes may obscure the meaning of verses where it is significant that the pronoun is singular.

However, the continued usage of words such as Father, men, mankind, brotherhood, etc., has been increasingly called into question by some readers who believe these words destroy the Bible's original prose style. Conversely, traditionalists believe the use of gender-neutral terms itself is an aberration from the original books. Moreover, in such works as the Letters of St. Paul, when masculine terms are used, they might very well have been originally intended to refer to males exclusively, as it was common to segregate houses of worship sexually; this practice continues among Orthodox Jews to this day, and it is perfectly conceivable that the Apostle was addressing the males in these communities.

New translations

Readers of English Bible translations who are not familiar with the original languages, can be influenced by feminist assertions that generic masculine language is to be understood literally. There are editions of prayer-books in the non-Orthodox denominations of Judaism, and in liberal denominations of Christianity, that have become sensitive to this issue. Several solutions have been proposed:

  • Keeping the standard translation, which uses the term "He", and using commentary to explain the issue more fully. This is the approach used by Orthodox Judaism and most branches of Christianity.[citation needed]
  • Translating God as "It".[citation needed] For theological reasons, this has been rejected by all branches of Judaism and of Christianity.[citation needed] But, see above for a discussion of why it could be considered legitimate.[citation needed]
  • Translating God as both "He" and "She". A few experimental prayerbooks by Reconstructionist Jewish feminists have tried alternating "he" and "she" within the same prayerbook, and sometimes even within the same prayer. This approach has failed to win widespread approval; critics object to it for many reasons, one of which is that this gives the appearance of dualism or goddess worship. Some liberal Protestant Christian denominations use this approach on occasion.
  • Rewriting all prayers in the second person, only using the term "You". A few experimental prayerbooks by Reconstructionist Jewish feminists have tried this, but this approach has failed to win widespread approval. Interestingly, Contemporary Christian Music often addresses God in this manner, although probably for different theological reasons (that is, to emphasize a personal relationship with the Divine).
  • Gender-neutral translation involves rewriting prayers to remove all third-person pronouns. Sometimes this involves changing sentence and paragraph structure. This approach has been adopted by the editors of all new Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish prayerbooks. Some liberal Protestant Christians also have rewritten prayerbooks in this way. Conservative Judaism has rejected this approach because there are many cases where no such changes are possible without totally rewriting the sentence, thereby moving the English far from the Hebrew structure.
    Gender-neutral translation can also be accomplished by replacing third-person singular pronouns with third-person plural pronouns, repeating "God" each time to avoid "he". Some Christian translations of Scripture, including the New Jerusalem Bible, use this technique when referring to humans, but naturally this technique is not used in the case of God.)
  • Gender-sensitive translation. This approach is a modified form of the above. In this approach, one rewrites most sentences to remove third-person pronouns, but occasionally the pronoun "he" is allowed in order to preserve readability and the original sentence structure. This is the approach taken by Conservative Judaism in three editions of Siddur Sim Shalom. Most inclusive-language Christian translations take this approach.
  • Some Christian groups have created a new pronoun: God (subject or object), God's (possessive), Godself (reflexive). While the Catholic Church officially frowns on this, a significant number of American Catholic parishes alter the Mass responses by repeating "God" each time to avoid the third-person singular male pronoun. The use of the reflexive Godself is more rare.
  • At least one bible translation from the Hebrew and Aramaic, the Hebraic Roots Version Scriptures(HRV)[1] postulates that the Holy Spirit (the Ruach HaQodesh) is referred to in feminine terms unlike the masculine terms applied to the Father and the Son.

(It should be noted that some critics object to this terminology. Particularly for those who believe feminist interpretation is misandrist (see above), terms such as “gender-neutral” and “gender-sensitive” can be offensive. Critics charge that these terms imply traditional interpretations are not sensitive to women. Nevertheless, in the lack of acceptable alternatives these phrases are used in this article.)

Over the last twenty years many Jewish prayerbooks have been rewritten to be gender-neutral (Reform, Reconstructionist Judaism) or gender-sensitive (Conservative). Examples are shown in the following translations of Psalm 24. The following is a traditional translation excerpted from Siddur Sim Shalom, a Conservative siddur. (Ed. Jules Harlow)

A Psalm of David.
The Earth belongs to the Lord, and all it contains; the world and its inhabitants.
He founded it upon the seas, and set it firm upon flowing waters.
Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may rise in His sanctuary?
One who has a clean hand and a pure heart, who has not used God's name in false oaths, who has not sworn deceitfully.
he shall receive a blessing from the God of his deliverance.

A modern translation of Psalm 24 now appears in the revised editions of Siddur Sim Shalom.

A Psalm of David.
The Earth and its grandeur belong to Adonai; the world and its inhabitants.
God founded it upon the seas, and set it firm upon flowing waters.
Who may ascend the mountain of Adonai? Who may rise in God's sanctuary?
One who has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not used God's name in false oaths, who has not sworn deceitfully.
shall receive a blessing from Adonai, a just reward from the God of deliverance.

Colorado Springs

Twentieth century debate on gender and Bible translation culminated in a meeting in Colorado Springs on 9 September 1997. Representatives of major interest groups and academic institutions, 11 men in all who met together with James Dobson, considered the contentious issues and came to a unanimous verdict, that has since been ratified by a wide range of Christian organizations, including denominations, translators and publishers. However, some of these men did not have the support of the translators of the institution which sent them. Individuals who have endorsed the Colorado Springs guidelines include: Charles Colson, Jerry Falwell, J. I. Packer and John Wimber.

Colorado Springs Guidelines For Translation Of Gender-Related Language In Scripture[2]
  • A. Gender-related renderings of Biblical language which we affirm:
  1. The generic use of "he, him, his, himself" should be employed to translate generic 3rd person masculine singular pronouns in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. However, substantival participles such as ho pisteuon can often be rendered in inclusive ways, such as "the one who believes" rather than "he who believes."
  2. Person and number should be retained in translation so that singulars are not changed to plurals and third person statements are not changed to second or first person statements, with only rare exceptions required in unusual cases.
  3. "Man" should ordinarily be used to designate the human race, for example in Genesis 1:26-27; 5:2; Ezekiel 29:11; and John 2:25.
  4. Hebrew 'ish should ordinarily be translated "man" and "men," and Greek aner should almost always be so translated.
  5. In many cases, anthropoi refers to people in general, and can be translated "people" rather than "men." The singular anthropos should ordinarily be translated "man" when it refers to a male human being.
  6. Indefinite pronouns such as tis can be translated "anyone" rather than "any man."
  7. In many cases, pronouns such as oudeis can be translated "no one" rather than "no man."
  8. When pas is used as a substantive it can be translated with terms such as "all people" or "everyone."
  9. The phrase "son of man" should ordinarily be preserved to retain intracanonical connections.
  10. Masculine references to God should be retained.
  • B. Gender-related renderings which we will generally avoid, though there may be unusual exceptions in certain contexts:
  1. "Brother" (adelphos) should not be changed to "brother or sister"; however, the plural adelphoi can be translated "brothers and sisters" where the context makes clear that the author is referring to both men and women.
  2. "Son" (huios, ben) should not be changed to "child," or "sons" (huioi) to "children" or "sons and daughters." (However, Hebrew banim often means "children.")
  3. "Father" (pater, 'ab) should not be changed to "parent," or "fathers" to "parents" or "ancestors."
  • C. We understand these guidelines to be representative and not exhaustive, and that some details may need further refinement.

Of recent Bible translations, only the ESV and HCSB conform to these guidelines. The NRSV, TNIV, CEV, NET, ISV, GNB, Message, and NLT do not. Therefore, the acceptance of these guildeines cannot be said to be strictly unanimous. Historically, in English Bible translations and the Luther Bibel, the expression "children of Israel" and "children of God" has been preferred over "sons of Israel" and "sons of God". Matt. 5:9. See also Eph. 1:5,

Having predestinated us unto the adoption of children KJV und hat uns verordnet zur Kindschaft Luther

In Luther's translation, Adam is translated by Mensch and not Mann, thereby indicating that human beings (generic) are referred to, not men only.

In many languages there is no difference between male and female pronouns or between brother and sister, so these guidelines cannot be applied. These guidelines represent the ideas of a select and influential group of Christians.


  1. [1] James Trimm Hebraic Roots Version Scriptures, (South Africa: Institute for Scripture Research, 2004, 2005), pp. lv,577,1358,1359,1464.
  2. Colorado Springs Guidelines

External links