When St Jerome’s new translation of the Book of Jonah into Latin was read out in church in Oea in North Africa, it nearly caused a riot. It was the passage where God causes a bush to spring up to shelter Jonah from the scorching sun (Jonah 4:6-7). The word for the bush was usually described as a “gourd”, but Jerome’s Vulgate had it as “castor-oil plant”. The people were not pleased: they wanted their gourd back. So the bishop, who knew no Hebrew, was compelled to ask the local Jews which was correct – and found that they supported the Old Latin version.
St Augustine wrote tentatively to Jerome to ask whether he was sure of his ground. Jerome replied tersely that he was, and would Augustine (who was nine years younger than Jerome) kindly stop pestering an old man.
We Bible translators have to bear in mind that language changes: new words are introduced, old words change their meaning (safeguarding, furlough, staycation, webinar). Circumstances change: a far higher proportion of Bible-readers are using English as their second language, miles give way to metres, shortened attention-spans require shorter sentences. The printed page gives way to electronic communication. Since the Covid lockdown, virtual presence often does duty for physical presence. As always, some prefer the stimulus of novelty, others the comfort of familiarity.
One fluctuating factor is inclusive language. For some the use of non-inclusive language – “man” not “person”, “he” not “one”, “mankind” not “humankind” – is a sign of deliberate exclusion, a suggestion that the message of the Bible is intended only for males. For others this is considered a passing fad, waxing and waning with the decades. Defenders of the traditional language would sometimes dismiss the issue as a foible of “female American academics”.
It was in the late 1970s, when the New Jerusalem Bible was being prepared, that some notice was taken: “the human heart” was deemed preferable to “the heart of man”.
The problem came fully into view with the publication of the New Revised Standard Version in 1989, which embraced inclusive language whole-heartedly. “Brothers” became “brothers and sisters”. A frequent solution was pluralisation: “prophets are not without honour except in their home town”.
This was condemned by the Vatican’s Liturgiam Authenticam (2001) as “imprudent”. It was argued that the plural expressions frequently fail to express adequately human individual responsibility and divine care for each individual human being.
Other ploys might be to use the vacuous “person”, “that person”, “such a person”, or even to descend into a welter of “he or she”, “him or her”. (Or should it be alternated: “he or she” but “her or him”?)
Another solution, occasionally used, was to substitute a neutral noun for a gendered personal pronoun or adjective, so “a member of the church” or “the offender” or “a believer” to avoid this overload of “he/she” (eg Matthew 18:15-17). This could be seen as too restricted: is Jesus prescribing reconciliation only with members of the church, or with all offenders?
The Revised New Jerusalem Bible, of which I was editor, tries every method to avoid sexist language. Whether these are worth the price, others must judge. Some of the solutions might be judged weak or clumsy, with too wide a use of “person” or “the one who…” (Jeremiah 17.5-7; Ezekiel 3.18-19; 18.21-26). Others may be considered strained English: can one really say baldly, “servant is not greater than master” without a “his” (John 13.16; 15.20)? Is it justified to allow Jesus to address his disciples directly in the second person instead of the third at Matthew 18.6-7?
Sometimes, however, I could find no solution. The prophet remains unrecognised in his own country (Mark 6.4). On a couple of occasions a Christian raises himself up or purifies himself (Matthew 23.12; 1 John 3.3) or God abides in him (1 John 4.15-16). On one occasion brothers work for reconciliation while sisters slip out of sight (Matthew 18.15-17).
I only hope that the herculean efforts to soften the natural bias of the English language will earn a pardon for the half-dozen instances where it remained recalcitrant.
There are, of course, also tricky theological problems: on the occasion of the selection of a substitute for Judas as twelfth of the Twelve, is Peter addressing the women (including Mary, the mother of Jesus) present in the assembly when he twice calls them “brothers” (Acts 1.15-16)?
At the Council of Jerusalem, similarly, both Peter and James seem deliberately and forcefully to be addressing only the male members of the gathering (Acts 15.7, 13), saying andres adelphoi, not using the more general word anthropoi. So was male preference so deeply engrained in Christian thought that Paul too was addressing only the male members of the community? In this case must “brothers and sisters” elsewhere (e.g. 1 Corinthians 14.20, 26) be jettisoned as an unjustified and doctrinaire interpretation rather than a justified translation? Here even the NRSV shows some unease, by translating the same word adelphoi as “brothers and sisters” in verse 20 and “friends” in verse 26.
I have met scholars – not only those “female American academics” – who reject the whole message of the Bible because, they say, the sexual morality of the Old Testament is intolerably unbalanced between men and women. I would rather appeal to the idea of gradual revelation and to our deepening understanding, as the Holy Spirit guiding the Church into all truth (John 15.16).
Fr Henry Wansbrough OSB was General Editor of the New Jerusalem Bible and the Revised New Jerusalem Bible
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