God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Mothers, Fathers, and Ancestors

I’ll admit. I had an agenda when I composed my last post. And the agenda is this:

The Greek pateres is one of the words that has more than one correct translation into English. Among the reasonable possibilities are “fathers,” “parents,” and “ancestors.”

For example, in Ephesians 6:4 (and Colossians 3:21) it is clearly male parents: “Pateres, do not antagonize your children….” The instruction is to literal parents, one generation removed from their children.

By contrast, in, for example, John 6:31, it is clearly what we call “ancestors” in most modern dialects of English: “Our pateres ate manna in the desert….”

Once again, it’s a simple point. The same Greek word may have more than one English translation. (For those who know where I’m going, the NIV has “fathers” in Ephesians and “forefathers” in John, while the T-NIV has “fathers” and “ancestors.”)


September 2, 2009 - Posted by | Bible versions, translation theory | , ,


  1. And pateres may mean “parents”, as in Hebrews 11:23, assuming that Moses didn’t have more than one biological father.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 3, 2009

  2. Thank you. I was looking for a clear case where pateres means “parents.” This comes really close.

    Comment by Joel | September 3, 2009

  3. Let’s have an imaginary dialogue with the translators of the NLT.

    provocateur: “Why do you translate “πατέρες” as “ancestors” in the NLT?

    NLT translators: “Because we recognise that πατέρες can refer to any ancestors, not merely male ancestors, therefore we chose gender neutral language.

    provocateur: “But I’ve looked up a number of English dictionaries, and they allow “ancestors” as a meaning for “fathers”, which also does not imply gender. So in light of this, why did you have depart from the traditional English translation of “fathers”?

    NLT translators: “Errm, Hmm… yes well I acknowledge that argument, but nevertheless the English word, whilst acknowledging it can be used in a way not really gender specific, I think it still retains in people’s minds a masculine overtone, that really can’t be shaken off. So to be even more clear, we went with the overtly gender neutral term.

    provocateur: “Yes, but what makes you so sure that πατέρες in the Greek mind is completely purged of gender, in the way you have chosen to go with your English translation? It would not be accurate to use an English word fully purged of gender to replace a Greek word that is not fully purged of gender. Isn’t the English word “fathers” the correct one, precisely because it retains the same ambiguities and overtones that the Greek πατέρες has?

    NLT translators: ?????

    Comment by John | September 6, 2009

    • It’s an insightful dialog.

      The (hypothetical?) provocateur is essentially asking two questions:

      1. What does “fathers” in English mean? Does it mean “ancestors” generally? Does it have masculine overtones, or more forceful implications of “men”? Etc.

      2. What does pateres mean? And does that word mean “ancestors” generally, or more specifically “ancestors” with masculine overtones.

      I think we find the answer to the first question by probing people who speak English. (In my own dialect, “fathers” only means “men.” I would never use “fathers” to mean men and women.)

      The second one is harder, because we can’t ask native speakers of ancient Greek. But, fortunately, linguistic theory helps us out a lot. I’ll post more soon.

      Comment by Joel | September 6, 2009

  4. “In my own dialect, “fathers” only means “men.” I would never use “fathers” to mean men and women.”

    But maybe you are wrong, and the dictionary is right, since we can find examples where women are included.

    “The second one is harder, because we can’t ask native speakers of ancient Greek.”

    Given something like Acts 7:32 ‘I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob.’, who would have the burden of proof? Was it the God of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel? If the one writing this text was of a gender neutral mentality, isn’t that what he would say?

    Comment by John | September 6, 2009

    • “But maybe you are wrong [about your own dialect].”

      I’m not sure what it would mean for me to be wrong about my own dialect. What I’m saying is that I never use “fathers” for anyone except men, and when I hear the word it means “men” to me. Even if a dictionary tells me I should, I still don’t.

      “…since we can find examples where women are included.”

      As others have pointed out, your examples seem to come from other dialects and time periods, but even a modern example wouldn’t be all that helpful, because words can take on specialized meanings when they are in frozen phrases.

      For example, the “common bearpoppy” is a flower that’s so rare that it’s endangered.

      Similarly, “in the olden days…” is perfectly good, grammatical, and common American English. But that doesn’t mean that “olden” can in general be used instead of “old.”

      For that matter, there’s a legal phrase, “term of art,” that essentially means “technical phrase.” But that doesn’t mean that we can use “term of art” to figure out what “art” means more generally in English. (As an aside, we note how subtle language can. “Term of art” and “art term” don’t mean the same thing at all.)

      Comment by Joel | September 7, 2009

      • I think “the fathers” IS a frozen phrase as you put it, and one whose meaning isn’t captured by “ancestors”. The Fathers and Mothers would be more preferable than ancestors, but I doubt anyone can stomach that.

        Comment by John | September 7, 2009

  5. John, that very Wikipedia page about the “Pilgrim Fathers” in fact proves Joel’s point that “fathers” is not used of mixed groups in much contemporary usage. Notice how it starts:

    Pilgrims (US), or Pilgrim Fathers (UK), is a name commonly applied …

    This group of men and women was indeed long called the Pilgrim Fathers, probably in the USA as well as here in the UK. This name goes back at least to 1825, to a time when society was largely patriarchal, and the word may even then have been understood to apply primarily to the male leaders of the community. It is no accident that in contemporary American usage (although perhaps not by every speaker) “Fathers” has been dropped, very likely because this word is considered inappropriate for a mixed group. The change has not happened in British usage probably only because here we talk about this group much less often than you do in the USA.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 7, 2009

  6. Does the New York Times speak American? What about in Washington, do they speak American? Is Los Angeles part of America? What about Chicago?

    Could it be that the PC forces are telling us what they want to be reality, rather than what actually is reality?

    If the 1st century was “patriarchal”, don’t we want to make them look like what they were, instead what we want them to be?

    Comment by John | September 7, 2009

  7. John, did you notice the dates of the articles you linked to? The NYT article was from 1853! The Washington Post is quoting a certain Brandeis writing in about 1914. The LA Times, in 1998, calls the group “the Pilgrims” twice before using “The Pilgrim fathers” probably for literary variation, but continues with “these Englishmen and their families” making it clear that the immediate reference is only to the men, the only ones who in that society could be “vocal in their deeply held convictions”. The Chicago Tribune is quoting a book by Felipe Fernández-Armesto, who is a British historian of Spanish descent, who has also previously referred to “The Pilgrims” and uses “fathers” only with in the context of “a creation myth arose” – and I accept that the long-standing myth includes the word “fathers”. But I think all of this goes to show that the word “fathers” is not used by contemporary American writers to refer to the mixed group.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 7, 2009

  8. Ok, mia culpa I wasn’t expecting the NY Times to have 1870 articles online. But it only takes about one minute of looking to find an an example from 2006. That the LA Times or Tribune uses Pilgrims as well is not a refutation. That multiple terms are available doesn’t refute the appropriateness of one of them. Again, its easy enough to find more examples. How many examples would we have to find before you would admit defeat?

    Comment by John | September 7, 2009

  9. John, you are determined on this one. Your 2006 NYT article is quoting words on a plaque in England, although admittedly quotation marks are not used. Your 2003 Chicago Tribune article quotes the wording on an 1884 statue in Central Park, New York.

    Now I accept that there may be some people in the USA who still use the words “Pilgrim Fathers” as a fixed idiom for a particular group of people, women as well as men. But that tells us no more about the general meaning of the word “fathers” than the idiom “kick the bucket” tells us about the meaning of “bucket”.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 7, 2009

  10. The Pilgrim fathers are the only semi-contemporary equivalent I can think of to the Jewish idea of the Fathers. They aren’t merely ancestors, but they were the ones who preceded us in a much more profound way. We have the early church Fathers, not our early church Ancestors. There is much more than genetic descent going on. Do you think we are going to any time see talk of the “Pilgrim Ancestors”? I don’t think so, because Ancestors really does not convey the same idea. You may say that Pilgrim Fathers is idiomatic, but it is the very idiom which matches what is going on in the bible. They had become not merely ancestors, but “THE Fathers”, τοὺς πατέρας even to the gentile readers, for whom they were in fact, not ancestors at all. Look at 2 Peter. For the sake of avoiding a sexist bible, it has now become a racist bible, because it now assumes the audience are Jews by referring to “our ancestors”, instead of “the Fathers”.

    Comment by John | September 7, 2009

  11. John, who do you think are the “the fathers” (RSV) “our fathers” (NIV) or “our ancestors” (TNIV) of 2 Peter 3:4? And who are the scoffers using these words? I really don’t know. But you seem remarkably confident that they are the Jewish patriarchs (in that case, let’s call them “patriarchs” rather than “ancestors”), and that the scoffers are not all Jews. I tended to assume that “our ancestors” here was a generic term for past generations.

    Do you really think any non-Christian Gentile would call the Jewish patriarchs “the fathers”, or a Greek equivalent of it? I rather doubt it, unless we are talking about proselytes who would probably think of the patriarchs as their ancestors by adoption (compare Romans 4:16-17, of Gentile Christians but very likely also reflecting Paul’s understanding of proselytes).

    I do get your point about a broader concept of “the Fathers”. Of course in many cases, like the Jewish patriarchs and the Church Fathers, also I suppose the founding fathers of the USA, historically they were all, or almost all, male. I’m really not sure whether this word is used of any group of this kind which was not all male. I doubt if anyone would talk about “the founding fathers of modern nursing” because it is well known that women like Florence Nightingale were major founders of nursing. Do you have any evidence of the use of this kind of wording about mixed groups?

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 7, 2009

  12. Given v2 in the context, I would have thought it at least highly likely that it is the prophets and patriarchs in view. Of course, the more difficult the meaning, the more a non-literal rendering will obscure the issues.

    Rom. 4:16 – not even the NLT thought of changing this from Father. The word Father suggests an intimacy and relationship of adoption as you put it, that is lacking from ancestor, which is a much more sterile word. If I was told that Abraham was the ancestor of all who believe, my reaction would be so what? What is interesting about having an ancestor? Now a Father, that is much different.

    Ok, why wouldn’t a gentile refer to the patriarchs as the fathers? We call the church fathers as “the fathers”, without any genetic relationship. And you brought up Ro 4:16.

    Were there many men who founded nursing? It might be odd to talk about the fathers of something which is exclusively female. That is no different to Greek however.

    If I search Google for “Fathers of Medicine” however, there are tons of entries, even though I don’t think anyone would suppose that women have had nothing to do with the origins of medicine. Another would be “fathers of technology” or even “fathers of the atomic age”, when we know that Marie Curie discovered Radium. I think the point is, if you just want to be generic, you talk about “the fathers of….”, nobody seems to feel the need to say more. If you specificially have a woman in mind in your list, you *may* say “the fathers and mothers of…”. But you won’t say “the ancestors of…”. “The Fathers of…” remains the generic terminology.

    Now, is anybody going to buy a bible that says “I am the God of your Fathers and Mothers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”? I think not because its idiotic. If not, why should we accept “The God of your ancestors”?

    Of course the question remains whether a text that is inherently patriarchal ought to be modified anyway. As I said, we have the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob, not the God of Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel.

    Comment by John | September 7, 2009

  13. “Do you really think any non-Christian Gentile would call the Jewish patriarchs “the fathers”?

    The Sunday before the Nativity of the Lord (December 18-24) is known as the Sunday of the Holy Fathers. On this day the Church commemorates all those who were well-pleasing to God from all ages, from Adam to Joseph.

    Comment by John | September 9, 2009

  14. So, John, the people in the Church who invented this name are non-Christians? Whatever one may think of their personal faith, surely they considered themselves Christians. Anyway, how old is this usage? I accept that in the 19th century “fathers” may have been used in a slightly different way, and I am sure this name is at least as old as this.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 9, 2009

  15. I don’t think I understand the argument about what non-Christians have to do with anything.

    I’m not quite sure what you are saying about the 19th century. Churches commemorate the Sunday of the Holy Fathers, not the Sunday of the Holy ancestors.

    Comment by John | September 9, 2009

  16. John, you quoted my comment about how non-Christian Gentiles use the term “the fathers” and then apparently tried to disprove it by quoting usage in the church. Don’t you see the inconsistency?

    As I said before, “fathers” may be used differently in frozen expressions going back to previous centuries. That Sunday has surely had that name for centuries, probably as an officially frozen expression which can only be changed by a formal decision of the church. That is by no means the same as current normal usage. It might be interesting to survey ordinary church members about who they think these “Holy Fathers” were. I doubt if they would include any women in their lists.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 9, 2009

  17. I probably misread non-Christian as Christian. The point is that people call them the Fathers when they are not ancestors. I don’t know how non-Christians come into it.

    Three problems remain: it’s unproven that “the fathers” includes women. (“God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob”) and secondly, it’s unproven that the term is meant to refer to people who are your biological ancestors, and thirdly, “the fathers” is a term, call it frozen if you will, that is still used to refer to these people. Ancestors is not used, nor would it be accurate to use it.

    Comment by John | September 9, 2009

  18. A few comments:

    1. Regarding my own dialect, I don’t think I have to prove that I use “fathers” only to mean “men,” though, certainly, there may be things I haven’t thought of. The most convincing potential counterexample is “fathers of modern medicine,” which apparently may (does?) include women, but I would never use the phrase that way, nor would I understand the phrase that way. I do recognize that other people — mostly much older than I but also in others parts of the country (and world) — use “fathers” more inclusively. (I would use “founders of modern medicine.”)

    2. Regarding the meaning of pateres, we have to allow for the possibility that it meant “ancestors” but that the people who used the word had a male-oriented view of the world. When they thought of their “ancestors,” they may have thought that only the men counted. (Let me be very clear: I do not view the world that way. I’m just reporting on how some people may have.) Alternatively, they may have thought that women could count, but that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob enjoyed a relationship with God that their wives did not. Or there may be other reasons I haven’t thought of that would account for someone using the word “ancestors” and only listing men.

    3. We know that pateres sometimes includes women, and (I’ll post on this in more detail soon) we fully expect, based on linguistic theory, that a word like pateres could include women.

    4. Some of the phrases John cites here seem to be so well known that they have become fixed terms. My recent post helps explain why “Sunday of the Holy Fathers” couldn’t become “Holy Ancestors” even if it were a more accurate phrase. It is indeed difficult to know what to do with these, but using them to figure out what “fathers” means in English — when we can just ask native speakers — doesn’t seem like a well-grounded approach.

    In short, I think we have a representation in this thread of two different English dialects, one in which “fathers” is generic and another in which it is not. I would hope that we would recognize that people can speak different dialects. Equally, I would hope that we would not assume that ancient Greek mirrors our own speech patterns directly.

    Comment by Joel | September 9, 2009

  19. You say that John 6:31 clearly refers to ancestors. But it is a quote from Psalm 78:24 which is a long argument that starts from v9 saying that The sons of Ephraim were archers equipped with bows, they turned back in the day of battle etc. yet despite all that God gave them manna. Some of the things refer to both sexes, but some of them probably don’t. If you specifically go out of your way to make sure it includes both sexes, then it implies that the women were archers who went into battle.

    You might say, it doesn’t matter anyway, because they all ate manna, and that’s all that matters in Jn 6:31. But then Ps 78:21 mentions Jacob, who is one of the primary spiritual Fathers of Israel (cf Acts 7:32). Then the question also arises, are the people saying that they had some ancestors who ate manna, men, women and children, or are they saying that the Jewish Patriarchs ate manna, for whom they are spiritual successors. It seems to me they are probably saying more than that they are genetically related to people who ate manna, which is a rather sterile and uninteresting argument.

    As much as you don’t want to say “Fathers of modern medicine”, you wouldn’t substitute “ancestors of modern medicine”. You suggest founders of medicine, but you wouldn’t say “our founders ate manna in the desert”, even though that might add the nuance that Jacob was a founder of spiritual Israel, you would abandon the nuance that they actually were ancestors. It’s another instance where dynamic translations tend to force particular interpretations on the text. “Fathers” contains all the right nuances, and I think everyone no matter their dialect can figure out what the gender implications may or may not be, or at least they can wrestle with those issues like anyone else.

    While pateres can include women in the case of parents, I’m not sure what evidence there is that “o pateres” can include all ancestors. If it happens that it “sometimes” as you say include women, does that give us the right to force that on the text, when most people are smart enough to at least surmise that “the Fathers” may include women, but nobody can tell that “ancestors” actually implied not including women? Once you desex the text, those artifacts are hidden. My guess is that if we’d posed all these questions to the original audience they would probably have all the same arguments and difficulties we have, and I don’t see why we should want them glossed over as if they don’t exist.

    Comment by John | September 9, 2009

  20. John, non-Christians came into it as we were referring to the scoffers of 2 Peter 3. I agree with you that “fathers” and “ancestors” have subtly different meanings. The issue is, which is closer to the meaning in the biblical passages in question.

    “Jacob” in Psalm 78:21 (parallel with “Israel”) is clearly intended (as very often) as a reference to the entire nation of Israel (men and women), not to the individual patriarch who of course didn’t eat manna. If anyone was “saying that the Jewish Patriarchs ate manna”, they were lying.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 9, 2009

  21. Re 2Pe 3, I don’t how one gets from οἱ πατέρες to “our ancestors”. Now if it said οἱ πατέρες ἡμῶν, one might perhaps translate it as our ancestors. Since the passage is a prophesy, its quite speculative who might be in view, and we have to imagine what Peter is envisaging people in the last days to be like. But whoever they are, they are in dialogue with believers to be making these statements, possibly using their terminology. The point is again, “our ancestors” rules out a whole range of possibly legitimate interpretations that “the fathers” does not.

    That Jacob can be used as a proxy for the nation really only highlights the what I’m talking about. You can refer to the well known Fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, aka “the Fathers” as a proxy for all people. But why should the translator bypass this and make the Dr Seuss version of the bible?

    In any case, I was using “patriarch” in a general sense of well known Jewish forefathers including Moses, Joshua etc. They could have in mind these people specificially whilst secondarily having in mind everyone. That’s why we have statements like “Abraham is our Father”. They could just say “I am Jewish”, but they prefer to identify with the famous spiritual figures. Because a Father is someone who was a father in the faith, not just a biological ancestor.

    The point is again, whether you are convinced or not, one translation allows the arguments to take place, the other one just pretends there never was an issue.

    Comment by John | September 10, 2009

  22. Fathers to me appears to be emotive and relational, whereas Ancestors appears distant and disconnected.

    Additionally, in the U.S., I believe we also refer to the “Founding Fathers’

    Related to the comments about era of quoted material and the patriarchal nature of that era, is it not also true that the eras in the Bible were also patriarchal? And if so, aren’t the examples even more representative of what was both said AND meant, than less so?

    Comment by Artheos | October 31, 2009

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.