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Bible Translations and Mistranslations

On Anthropos: Men, Women, and People

Anthropos

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Following up on the brouhaha I seem to have started, here are some more thoughts on anthropos. Everyone agrees that, in various forms and contexts, anthropos is sometimes gender neutral (meaning something like “person”) and sometimes specifically masculine (meaning something like “man”). Can we tell when the word is used which way?

I think the answer is yes.

What Are We Looking At?

Singular/Plural

To get started, we note that words that are gender-specific in the singular are frequently gender-neutral in the plural. Examples from modern languages are very common, and two from Modern Hebrew will illustrate the point. (I pick Hebrew just because I know it so well. We could just as effectively use many other languages.)

The Hebrew words student and studentit both mean “[university-level] student.” The former is for men and the latter for women. Native speakers never say “he is a studentit” or “she is a student.” The plurals for these two words are studentim and studentiot. The former is gender-neutral, while the latter is limited to women. So the following are grammatical: “Those two men are studentim.” “Those two women are studentiot.” “The man and the woman are studentim.” In other words, even though a student must be a man, studentim need not just be men.

Furthermore, in some contexts studentim can be used for women only. That’s because it’s gender-neutral, and that neutrality encompasses “men,” “women,” or any combination. (Another time I’ll talk about the difference between studentim for all women and studentiot for all women.)

The Hebrew words yeled and yalda, “boy” and “girl,” work essentially the same way. The plural y’ladim can include girls, even though a girl cannot be a yeled.

From this we learn that we cannot use anthropoi (the plural of anthropos) to figure out what anthropos means, or, at least, it is a methodological mistake to start with the obvious fact that anthropoi is used for women and conclude that anthropos can be used for a woman.

Generalities and Instances

Just as a word can have different gender roles depending on whether it is plural or singular, a word can behave differently when it’s used to express a generality versus a specific instance. We see this in Hebrew and also in some dialects of English.

Many speakers use “man” to mean “someone,” as, for example, “man is the highest form of intelligence.” (You don’t have to agree with the statement to understand the grammar in it.)

Yet even the people who use “man” for men and women alike do not use it for a specific woman. They only use it for a specific man. So even speakers who use “man” generically do not say, “there’s a man I’d like you to meet” when they have in mind a woman. They certainly do not say, “Sarah is an interesting man” if she’s a women.

So we see that “man” (in some dialects) refers to people in general but only to a male adult specifically.

Accordingly, when we look at anthropos we have to distinguish between its general use (Aristotle’s “anthropos kai probaton,” for example) and its specific use (“I saw an anthropos yesterday.”)

Summary

In short, what we are looking for as we try to figure out what anthropos means is only the singular, specific use of the word.

Before actually doing that, a few thoughts about one way languages can differ are in order, and I turn to them next.

Be Specific

Languages differ in the degree of specificity they require in different contexts. For example, in English we conveniently have a word “person” that includes males and females of any age. (“Human” does the same. As the cliched exercise for the reader: what’s the difference in English between the two?) But it’s not hard to imagine a language that didn’t have such a general word. In such a language, speakers might have to indicate the approximate age of the people they were talking about

An Example: Students

To help understand the issue, we can look at English and Hebrew. In English we have a word “student” that conveniently encompasses elementary school students, high-school students, college students, graduate students, etc. In Hebrew, by contrast, there’s one word (talmid) for grade-school students, and a whole other word (student) for college onward. (It’s a common mistake for English speakers to think that student means any “student.”)

So it is impossible in Hebrew to use one word to refer to a “student of any age” the way we think of the concept in English. So what if I have a “student” in mind, generally, of no particular age, maybe in grade school, maybe in college? I have to spell the notion out in Hebrew, perhaps with the phrase “talmid or student.

Similarly, an Israeli will almost never tell a story about a student without specifying whether the student is in grade school or higher education because it’s so hard to do linguistically.

Another Example: Travel

It’s such as important point that another example seems in order. In English, we have a nice general word “go.” It includes walking, running, biking, driving, flying, boating, etc. When I say “I went to New York City,” I don’t specify at all how I got there. In Hebrew, there are two verbs: halach and nasa. The former excludes travel by vehicle, while the latter excludes travel by foot. So in Hebrew, a speaker almost never mentions going to a place without at least giving some indication of the means of getting there because it’s so hard to do. (Russian is even more complex. It has different verbs for various modes of travel and also for mono-directional travel versus bidirectional travel. In Russian, going to New York and not coming back is not the same verb as going to New York for the day and then returning.)

Once again, for us the important point is that it’s impossible in Hebrew to say “go” without specifying whether or not a vehicle was involved.

How Is Anthropos Used?

With all of this in mind, we can look at how anthropos is used.

To the best of my knowledge, when it is specific and singular, it always refers to a specific man, never to a specific woman. In other words, anything of the sort “an anthropos was….” refers to a man. If the person is a women, we instead find the word gune. (My search is limited to the OT LXX and the NT, so there may be examples I don’t know about. What we’re looking for is something like “I saw an anthropos and she said….”)

Unfortunately, we may not have a fair sampling of how anthropos might apply to women, because the overwhelming majority of people in the Bible are men, and of the women, many are mentioned in the context of their specific role as women, either as mothers or wives. For example, in Genesis 24:5, Abraham’s servant is concerned that the “gune might not be willing to follow me back.” If anthropos were entirely neutral, used when gender is irrelevant, we might expect to see anthropos here, rather than gune. But on the other hand, even though Rebeka is just a person here, she is also the person Isaac is going to marry. So Gen 24:5 is suggestive but not convincing.

Still, we have a few clearer examples. Some of the ones I’ve found are these:

  • Joshua 2:4. The woman who hides the Israelite spies is just a person, really, and she doesn’t have any particularly feminine role, yet she is a gune, not an anthropos.

  • Matthew 15:28. Jesus calls the Canaanite woman, gune, not anthropos, even though she isn’t doing anything that only women can do.

  • Matthew 26:7 and 26:10. The woman with the alabaster jar (side note: someone has to remind me what alabaster is) is referred to as gune, not anthropos.

To me, two facts are important:

1. We see gune for a specific person when the person is female, even when her gender doesn’t seem germane.

2. We never see anthropos for a specific woman.

These two facts, combined with the theory above that tells us where we should look, point me to a very clear answer.

Conclusion

I don’t think anthropos means “person.” Rather, it is one masculine form of gune (the other being aner — a topic for another time). When the word is used to refer to an individual person, that person is a man. When the word is used to refer to a person in general (“one” in English, or the French on), it can be a man or a woman. And when the word refers to “people,” it again can be men or women.

In fact, Greek had no way of referring to a specific person without specifying gender. In other words, Greek didn’t have a word “person.” (This is parallel to Modern Hebrew, which doesn’t have a general word for “student” or for “go.”)

So even though anthropos in its various forms and contexts means different things, I think we can usually know when it is gender specific and when it is not.

The next question, what to do with that knowledge when we translate, will have to wait.

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September 16, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics | , , , , ,

19 Comments »

  1. Not convinced.

    We never see anthropos for a specific woman.

    I don’t know there are probably 10,000 instances of the word in the TLG and I haven’t looked at them all. But I am familiar with these verses:

    Ὁμοίως αἱ* γυναῖκες, ὑποτασσόμεναι τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν, ἵνα καὶ εἴ τινες ἀπειθοῦσιν τῷ λόγῳ, διὰ τῆς τῶν γυναικῶν ἀναστροφῆς ἄνευ λόγου κερδηθήσονται, 2 ἐποπτεύσαντες τὴν ἐν φόβῳ ἁγνὴν ἀναστροφὴν ὑμῶν. 3 ὧν ἔστω οὐχ ὁ ἔξωθεν ἐμπλοκῆς τριχῶν καὶ περιθέσεως χρυσίων ἢ ἐνδύσεως ἱματίων κόσμος 4 ἀλλʼ ὁ κρυπτὸς τῆς καρδίας ἄνθρωπος ἐν τῷ ἀφθάρτῳ τοῦ πραέως καὶ ἡσυχίου πνεύματος, ὅ ἐστιν ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ πολυτελές.

    *NA27 has this in brackets, I’ve removed them on the authority of P72.

    1 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— 4 but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.

    I should note that this translation is the ESV. Either way, the text is rather clear – that is, unless you believe that every woman has an inner man…

    Are you familiar with prototype theory in semantics? I would suggest that the male human being (as a referent, not a sense) is for Greek, the prototypical person? I would suggest the data would be explained a whole lot better by such an approach.

    Comment by Mike Aubrey | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  2. Anthropos is considered to be a word of common gender because it can refer to a single woman. η ανθρωπος is a woman.

    http://powerscourt.blogspot.com/2009/09/enter-anthropos-woman.html

    Comment by Sue | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  3. Sue has just written a post documenting examples of ANTHROPOS being used to refer to specific women:

    http://powerscourt.blogspot.com/2009/09/enter-anthropos-woman.html

    Comment by Mike Aubrey | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  4. […] On Anthropos: Men, Women, and People […]

    Pingback by Person Posts – Two of them « ΕΝ ΕΦΕΣΩ | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  5. unless you believe that every woman has an inner man…

    The King James Version apparently does! :mrgreen:

    But let it be the hidden man of the heart, in that which is not corruptible, even the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God of great price.

    Comment by A.Admin | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  6. I think every woman should have an inner man.

    Comment by Sue | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  7. […] Thanks goes to Mike Aubrey for indirectly pointing this out. […]

    Pingback by Every woman has an inner man! « Aberration blog | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  8. hmmm…good point.

    not to mention that the KJV was handed down from heaven by Jehovah himself!

    Comment by Mike Aubrey | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  9. Joel, this is certainly an interesting argument. I accept that usage in the plural and general usage does not prove what the word means when used in a specific singular case. But neither does it imply the opposite. You have not for example proved that Greek anthropos has the same gender usage as Hebrew student and not more like that of English “actor”, which in current usage does not specify gender even though you can still find lots of examples of “actress” used of women in the same line of work. This example can also warn us that language can change quite rapidly in these areas.

    Anyway I am not at all convinced that a word that can be used in the plural of groups of all women, like Hebrew student and Greek anthropos (but not “men” in English), can be said to have a gender specific meaning. I would suggest that it is more a matter of the availability of another preferable word, studentit or gune, which prevents their use in the singular of specific females.

    You still have to answer my evidence that the great majority of professional lexicographers of Greek, including the famous Victorians Liddell and Scott who were by no means feminists(!), took the primary meaning of anthropos as gender generic. Their knowledge of Greek was far broader than yours.

    Also I see in your study a continued confusion between meaning and reference. Yes, of course anthropos is used to refer to specific men, and much less if at all to specific women. But that does not imply that it means “man” rather than “woman”. The example you gave earlier of “President” makes that clear: in the US context it is always used to refer to a man rather than a woman, but that does not imply that it has a male meaning component.

    I wonder if this kind of test would be helpful. In English “Chris is an actor” doesn’t tell you whether Chris is a man or a woman. In Hebrew would Chris student tell you this? (Or how about “that person is a student“, in Hebrew, of someone of ambiguous appearance and dress?) In Greek would Chris anthropos estin (perhaps in response to a question about whether Chris is someone’s pet dog) specify Chris’ gender, or simply that he/she is human? I really don’t know. Do you?

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 16, 2009 | Reply

    • Anyway I am not at all convinced that a word that can be used in the plural of groups of all women, like Hebrew student and Greek anthropos (but not “men” in English), can be said to have a gender specific meaning. I would suggest that it is more a matter of the availability of another preferable word, studentit or gune, which prevents their use in the singular of specific females.

      It’s an interesting theoretical question, but I think the end result is the same. If the availability of another word means that, say, anthropos is only used of a specific man, never of a specific woman, doesn’t that mean that when we see an account of an anthropos we can assume that it was a man?

      (The issue of masculine plurals for all female groups is really complicated, by the way. I’ll try to address it soon.)

      You still have to answer my evidence that the great majority of professional lexicographers of Greek, including the famous Victorians Liddell and Scott who were by no means feminists(!), took the primary meaning of anthropos as gender generic. Their knowledge of Greek was far broader than yours.

      This is true. Suzanne has a post with the female examples of anthropos from LSJ. My limited knowledge of extrabiblical Greek makes it hard to know how to evaluate them. (I don’t even have access to the original Greek.) Still, I know that the advances in linguistics have given us insights that Liddell and Scott couldn’t have known about. For example, I don’t see any clear differentiation between singular and plural in their entry on anthropos (which, by the way, is available on-line here — the site is a little slow, so be patient).

      Also I see in your study a continued confusion between meaning and reference.

      I haven’t addressed it, but I’m aware of the important distinction. It is possible that anthropos means “person,” but for whatever reason (cultural bias, happenstance, etc.) it only ends up referring to men in the Bible. I don’t believe this is so, but it’s certainly a reasonable theory. I was trying to address this concern with the examples from Joshua and particularly Matthew.

      Even so:

      Yes, of course anthropos is used to refer to specific men, and much less if at all to specific women. But that does not imply that it means “man.”

      I think if anthropos is only used to refer to a specific man and never to a specific woman then (trivially) we can conclude then when we see anthropos it refers to a man, so in Matthew 12:10 we can deduce that the person with the whithered hand is a man. As a matter of translation, I can see reasons for not translating “man,” but the person there is not of unknown gender.

      I wonder if this kind of test would be helpful. In English “Chris is an actor” doesn’t tell you whether Chris is a man or a woman. In Hebrew would Chris student tell you this? (Or how about “that person is a student“, in Hebrew, of someone of ambiguous appearance and dress?) In Greek would Chris anthropos estin (perhaps in response to a question about whether Chris is someone’s pet dog) specify Chris’ gender, or simply that he/she is human? I really don’t know. Do you?

      Regarding Hebrew, yes. “Chris student” tells you that Chris is a man (or, at least, that the speaker thinks that Chris is a man). It also tells you that Chris is in university.

      I don’t know for sure about the Greek, but my best guess is that “Chris anthropos estin” can mean two things. “Chris is a human” or “Chris is a man.” It cannot mean “Chris is a person.” (Returning to Matthew 12:10, I don’t think anyone is tempted to translate, “a human with a whithered hand…”) As a further guess, the meaning “Chris is a human” is awkward in Greek.

      Comment by Joel | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  10. I think if anthropos is only used to refer to a specific man and never to a specific woman then (trivially) we can conclude then when we see anthropos it refers to a man …

    This argument is in fact not so trivial because it is circular. In some cases (indeed probably very many) where anthropos is used, as in Matthew 12:10,13, the gender of the anthropos is not specified in the text. We cannot argue from the existence of some texts where the anthropos is definitely male, or even from the absence (in the Bible) of definitely female cases, that all cases of anthropos are male. This is the logical fallacy of converse accident, or of hasty generalisation. So, while I agree that the person in Matthew’s account probably was male, I don’t accept that this is indicated by the word anthropos.

    In English the distinction between “person” and “human (being)” (as a noun) is a rather subtle one. The only persons who are not human are divine beings and spirits, and if the context clearly rules them out it is fine to use “person” instead of “human (being)”. But we wouldn’t use “human (being)” in a general purpose translation of Matthew 12:10 because it is from the wrong register of language.

    In any case this is irrelevant to the real question, which is whether there is any male meaning component in the use of anthropos in 12:12. This I am steadfast in denying. That is because it is very clear that, even with partially gendered words like Hebrew student, generic uses of this kind do not imply restriction to just one gender. Unfortunately English “man” is no longer partially gendered in the same way, and so “How much more valuable is a man than a sheep!” is understood by many speakers to exclude women, in a way which was certainly not intended by the original Greek text.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  11. “a fair sampling of how anthropos might apply to women…. We never see anthropos for a specific woman…. I don’t think anthropos means ‘person’…. When the word is used to refer to an individual person, that person is a man.”

    These comments and Suzanne’s post linked in comments here inspired my post:

    http://speakeristic.blogspot.com/2009/09/novel-daughter-man-of-1st-century.html

    Comment by J. K. Gayle | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  12. Joel, what’s the difference between “human” and “person,” semantically speaking?

    Comment by Mike Aubrey | September 16, 2009 | Reply

  13. […] Much Meaning Do You Want? At the end of my discussion of anthropos, I concluded that one meaning of anthropos is “man,” and that we see that […]

    Pingback by How Much Meaning Do You Want? « God Didn't Say That | September 17, 2009 | Reply

  14. […] in any way to the exclusion of women. In particular Joel Hoffman has taken the position, here and here (see also this post), that one meaning of anthropos is […]

    Pingback by Gentle Wisdom» Blog Archive » Anthropos, gender and markedness, part 1 | September 25, 2009 | Reply

  15. […] the gender implications of anthropos, have come up over and again recently (for example, my posts here and here, some great information from Suzanne here, and a response by Peter here). I hope to have […]

    Pingback by Two Examples of Just How Tricky Gender Can Be « God Didn't Say That | September 26, 2009 | Reply

  16. Isn’t Anthropos the same as Adam Kadmon, the androgyne from before the fall?

    Comment by Kim Graae Munch | April 30, 2010 | Reply

    • Hi Kim,

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Maybe anthropos can be used to convey the same ideas as adam kadmon, but I think that’s a different kind of question than “what did the Greek word anthropos mean?”

      Comment by Joel H. | April 30, 2010 | Reply

      • Maybe, but pattern matching between languages and concepts are a good tool, besides that, Wikipedia have the following, which compares nicely with Adam Kadmon:

        1. a human being, whether male or female
        1. generically, to include all human individuals
        2. to distinguish man from beings of a different order
        1. of animals and plants
        2. of from God and Christ
        3. of the angels
        3. with the added notion of weakness, by which man is led into a mistake or prompted to sin
        4. with the adjunct notion of contempt or disdainful pity
        5. with reference to two fold nature of man, body and soul
        6. with reference to the two fold nature of man, the corrupt and the truly Christian man, conformed to the nature of God
        7. with reference to sex, a male
        2. indefinitely, someone, a man, one
        3. in the plural, people
        4. joined with other words, merchantman

        They also mention:

        Anthropos, in Gnosticism, the first Human Being, also referred to as Adamas or Geradamas

        Comment by Kim Graae Munch | May 29, 2011


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