Saturday, March 14, 2015

Gender Neutral Confusion and Hebrews 2

Although there is much to be said for using inclusive and gender neutral language, sometimes things can go horribly wrong.

In a Bible study group recently we were looking at Hebrews 2. As is common, there were a variety of English translations being used by different people in the group. Some were using the more recent version of the NIV (either the 2011 version or TNIV). As we interacted over 2:6-8, the gender neutral pluralization wreaked havoc as we tried to understand the text. It was a classic case of gender neutral translation at its worst. At best the pluralization biased the interpretation of the text, and at worst it mistranslated the text and hindered people from a correct understanding by obscuring the meaning. You can see the differences in the versions below (gender neutral pluralization highlighted):
But there is a place where someone has testified: "What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their feet." In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. (TNIV)
For in one place the Scriptures say, “What are mere mortals that you should think about them, or a son of man that you should care for him? Yet you made them only a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You gave them authority over all things.” Now when it says “all things,” it means nothing is left out. But we have not yet seen all things put under their authority. (NLT)
But there is a place where someone has testified: “What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their feet.” In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. (NIV 2011)
It has been testified somewhere, “What is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him? You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honour, putting everything in subjection under his feet.” Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. (ESV)
The problem is that the pluralization slants the whole of 2:6-8 to be talking about humans in general. Yet there is a significant question mark as to whether the author is applying it all to Jesus (singular!). Clearly in 2:9 the language of Psalm 8 is applied to Jesus. Yes, there is some debate as to whether 2:6-8 is used in Hebrews to refer to Jesus or to humans or both (with different commentators taking different positions), but that debate is muted if gender neutral pluralization is used.

Of course, the pluralized translations do have footnotes showing they are not oblivious to the problem, but still, in this case, I think it would be better if the roles of main text and foot note were reversed. Or at least if they used the commonly accepted singular uses of they/their/them rather than pluralizing (since it is supposed to be a current English translation).

In any case, others have already written much about these issues in general (eg here and here). Nonetheless this specific case is a fresh reminder to always read our Bibles carefully and with understanding.

Oh, and by the way, personally, I take 2:8 as relating to humans, but I take Psalm 8 as historically speaking about creation and at the same time eschatologically speaking of the new creation--"the world to come" (Hebrews 2:5)--with Jesus as the prototypical new man/"last Adam".

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