Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The Text and Me

Marg Mowczko writes about a woman who wept when reading the many masculine pronouns in 1 Corinthians in her 1984 NIV. She asked, “Where am I in the text?

Marg herself admits to a similar issue with nouns: “Masculine nouns, such as ‘brothers’ when the meaning is ‘brothers and sisters,’ effectively distance women from the text.” She finds the book of Hebrews much less personally relevant when she reads it in the ESV.

Accordingly, Marg prefers the TNIV, which uses more gender-inclusive language, giving women the prominence in the text which it is thought they need and deserve.

But since the question of distance from the text is being raised, let’s explore that a bit.

A Recipe for Disappointment

So how is it that equality between the sexes has become such a hobby-horse? How is it that, after literally centuries of serviceability, insufficiently-inclusive nouns and pronouns have suddenly acquired this magic ability to estrange Christian readers from their English Bibles? The commonest of common little words, many of them only three or four letters long. That is a pretty awesome power for a fleeting cultural trend to wield against the people of God. Meanwhile, cultural, circumstantial, national and historical differences between ourselves and the people we read about in the scriptures are so vast they absolutely dwarf perceived gender differences. We are straining at gnats while swallowing a train of camels.

If my enjoyment of the Bible is conditioned primarily on my ability to find myself in the text, I am going to be disappointed on a regular basis. If the standard by which I measure the relevance of Hebrews depends on my ability to find myself in it, I too will find it “unpleasant and disconcerting” to read.

Someone Else’s Mail

In fact, much of the time when we open our Bibles, the answer to “Where am I in the text?” is “Nowhere obvious.” This remains the case regardless of whether I am male or female. At the interpretation level, Bible study is almost always an exercise in reading someone else’s mail.

Some examples follow:

•  Jewish Mail

Matthew, James and Hebrews are someone else’s mail, for reasons that have nothing whatsoever to do with masculine nouns or pronouns. God never spoke to my “fathers” by the prophets. I do not belong to any of the twelve tribes in the Dispersion. These books are written from a Jewish perspective to fellow Jews separated from us by considerable time and space; in the case of Hebrews, Jews struggling with issues which are not and will never be a problem for modern Christians in the West. The Jewishness of Hebrews in particular introduces numerous cultural, theological and linguistic issues that, at least on the interpretive level, appear quite irrelevant to me. I couldn’t “find myself” in the text of Hebrews if you gave me a bloodhound, but I can still get lots out of reading it.

•  Personal Mail

Paul’s personal letters to Timothy, Titus and Philemon are someone else’s mail, as are John’s to Gaius and to the “elect lady and her children”. My slave has not gone missing. I am not a young man trying to guide a new church full of hard-living former pagans. I do not have stomach issues, and I have never met either Diotrephes or Demetrius, though I’ve known one or two people of similar character.

•  Historical Mail

The entire Old Testament was written to people living under the Law of Moses, with its system of animal sacrifices and legal obligations. Practically speaking, it has precious little to do with my life, so much so that some modern preachers advocate chucking it altogether. It is someone else’s mail. Its books of history speak to people from other times and cultures about things I’ve never seen or experienced, both good and bad.

For example, in the Old Testament, women — even Israelite women — found themselves in wartime situations so miserable they were occasionally reduced to eating their own children. As a Christianized product of over a millennium of Western civilization, Marg Mowczko has way more in common with a 21st century Western male like me than with a woman capable of boiling and consuming her own child. I’d bet a million bucks Marg would happily starve to death before she’d ever even think about eating a baby, and she is not alone in that department.

Sisterhood doesn’t bridge a moral gap that size. At least I hope it doesn’t ...

•  Instructions to Very Different Churches

All the epistles are someone else’s mail. They were written to address unique situations in cultures we can hardly begin to really understand. The church meetings of the first century were the furthest thing from 25 minute professionally-led praise-fests with audio-visuals, followed by half an hour of the tepid pontifications of a single, professionally-trained man. If we are trying to find out how to conduct that sort of production, we are reading in the wrong place entirely. For many modern evangelicals, Acts and the books which follow it are an alien landscape.

Neither to Us Nor About Us

All Christians today, men and women, live country miles from the original text. The translation of a few nouns or pronouns is the very least of our worries.

The Bible was certainly written for us, and to instruct us. That cannot reasonably be questioned. But not only was most of the Bible not written directly to us, most of the Bible was not even written about us. We cannot find ourselves where we are not. Even if you add the words “and sisters” to every single occurrence of the word “brothers” in the entire New Testament, you still have not put yourself into the text. You have put a bunch of women from another time and place altogether into the text, and you may have done so either correctly or incorrectly.* To see yourself there is a hallucination.

The extent to which those first century women were really very much like Christian women today is open to considerable debate. In terms of governing assumptions, expectations, sense of individuality, independence, autonomy, desire to self-actualize, worldview, opinions about the relationship between the sexes, beliefs about rights and freedoms, and so on, I suspect Christian women today have far more in common with their male contemporaries than with their first century Christian sisters.

My Experience, and the Book of Hebrews

When I open Hebrews, I run into two full chapters about the supremacy of the Son, citing evidence graciously provided by the Father. These passages are not made more intelligible to me by the fact that during my lifetime I have now been both a father and a son, nor would they shed more spiritual light for anyone if we were to change the relationship they speak of from father-son to mother-daughter. I understood what the writer was trying to get at when he wrote, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,” long before I ever thought about having children. There are implications here for me too, in my relationship with God, but they are very much secondary.

These words are magnificent not just in spite of the fact that they address a relationship far outside our human experience, but even because of it. And if the brilliance of these passages vanishes for us the moment we come to the end of chapter 2 and learn that “he had to be made like his brothers in every respect” as opposed to being made “like his brothers and sisters”, I respectfully submit that our fixation with a single, relatively minor issue is robbing us of glories it has no right to.

An Illustration

When you read someone else’s mail, the fact that the letter is not specifically addressed to you (and may not even mention you at all) does not prevent you from learning all sorts of fascinating things you didn’t know about the person who wrote it, the person who received it, the friends and acquaintances they have in common, the circumstances in which they live, and the particular worldviews they espouse. Moreover, someone else’s mail may contain all manner of insights you might not find anywhere else.

Let’s just suppose for a moment that we live in the 17th century. My father has gone overseas on a long journey during which he is not able to regularly communicate with his family. I then come across a letter from him to my brother. Under such circumstances, the letter is not of less interest to me because my father does not happen to mention me at length. I do not weep and say, “Where am I in the text? Why is he in there more than I am?” There may be all manner of reasons for this of which I am not aware.

I am not there. So what? The text is still of immense value in understanding my father’s character, motivations and purposes. It may clarify some things about his dealings with my brother that I never previously understood, making him even dearer to me than he is already. If I find him formidable, resolute, loving or gracious, I can reasonably expect him to behave that way with me too when he returns. If I find that certain things very much displease him, I am better equipped to practice avoiding doing them now so as to improve our own relationship. Even if he gives my brother some sound advice that doesn’t directly apply to my own situation, I may still be able to deduce from his reasoning a principle or two that may be of help to me somewhere down the line.

Mucking with the Text

What Christians have traditionally tried to do when we encounter something that was not written directly to us is to take from the text whatever can reasonably be applied to our own situation and leave behind those aspects which cannot.

What we don’t generally do is change the text itself. That way lies madness. It may start with a few nouns and pronouns, but it will not end there. If my interest in reading any particular version of the English Bible is primarily contingent on whether it makes me feel valued and validated rather than whether it accurately represents the content of the Hebrew and Greek originals — whomever they may have been written to and in whatever circumstances they may have been written — then, for me, no amount of mucking about with the text is really off the table.

Hey, if retranslating the Bible makes me feel more included, reimagining it entirely may make me feel even better.

* Certainly the TNIV does not do it particularly well. Carefully peruse their rendering of the Greek nouns an─ôr and adelphos throughout Acts 2 and 3 if you doubt that (2:14, 22, 29; 3:12, 17). The translators were either bent over backward in service to political correctness, or else failed to recognize that the fact that contemporary Greek usage permits gender-inclusive translation in contexts where it seems logical to believe it was intended does not mean all such nouns and pronouns ought to be translated gender-inclusively across the board. The words they put in Peter’s mouth are at best unnecessary and at worst highly improbable. Either way, the decision about meaning should be left to the reader, not the cutting-and-pasting ideologue.

Further, the TNIV retranslation does a tremendous disservice to the Jewish women present. In that cultural setting, it is not possible for Jewish wives and unmarried daughters to have been responsible for the national rejection of Christ in the same immediate sense as their husbands and fathers. After all, God did not hold Eve responsible for the fall of mankind in the same way as Adam.


  1. Not that it's important, but the statement "Marg prefers the TNIV" is a presumption of the author. I have never stated a preference for the TNIV. I've never recommended it. I've barely used it myself. Just saying.

  2. Thanks, Tom.

    Also, the woman who cried is Dr Lynn Cohick, provost/dean and professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. She is a highly respected professor and author.

    Here's a link to her publications.