God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

More on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

Suzanne McCarthy brings up the issue, again, of whether the Greek word anthropos is exclusively masculine (“man”) or gender neutral (“person”).

The short answer is that it is both.

We’ve been through this before, but the Greek framework of gender really is difficult for speakers of languages like English to grasp in the abstract, so here are some English examples that will help make things clearer.

The first example is the English word “day,” which has two clear, mutually incompatible meanings. The first is “24-hour period.” There are seven days in a week, 365 days in a year, stores are open for 24 hours a day, etc. The second is “part of a day.” Some pharmacies are open day and night, night follows day, days get shorter in winter, etc.

The second example is “luck,” which again was two clear, mutually incompatible meanings. The first is “good fortune.” The phrase “with any luck” means “with good fortune.” The second meaning is more general, “fortune of any sort.” That’s why people can have good luck or bad luck, and why “I can’t believe his luck” applies equally to lucky people and unlucky people.

The third example is “child,” which yet again has two meanings: “young human” and “any human with a parent.” So we have the phrase, “men, women, and children,” but also “adult children of aging parents.”

This final case is particularly interesting, because every person has a parent (even if the parents are dead: “children continue to mourn their parents’ death for years”). Just looking at the two definitions, it would seem that “child” in the sense of “someone’s offspring of any age” is a pretty silly word to have. How would it be different than “person”?

The answer is that “child” in this broader sense is only used in connection with parents. “Here comes a child” almost always refers only to a juvenile. But “parents and children” is ambiguous.

The case of “day” shows us a pattern that is similar in some ways, different in others. It’s different in that “day” is completely ambiguous. In my dialect, at least, if a store is “open all day,” I don’t know if it’s open at night or not. But it’s similar in that the phrase “day and night” is entirely clear.

One important lesson we learn from all of this is that words often have one meaning when they are used alone, and a separate meaning when they are used in distinction to something else. And, perhaps counter-intuitively, the various meanings can seem confusing, inconsistent, or even contradictory. Nonetheless, native speakers usually find the words entirely clear.

Not surprisingly, the Greek anthropos works just like these words.

By itself, it usually means “person.” John 16:21 is a pretty clear example: “a woman in labor suffers pain, but when her child is born she doesn’t remember her pain on account of her joy at having brought a person [anthropos] into the world.” To the best of my knowledge, no one thinks that this only refers to male children.

On the other hand, anthropos also contrasts with female-gender words like thugater (“daughter”), e.g. in Matthew 10:35; gune (“woman”), e.g., in Matthew 19:3; etc. Looking at the second instance, it’s clear that “an anthropos leaves his father and mother and joins his wife” refers only to men taking wives, not women. I don’t think anyone believes otherwise.

These examples point in a very clear linguistic direction. The Greek word anthropos — like many gendered words in gendered languages and like many other words in other languages — has more than one meaning.

In this context — and I think this was Suzanne’s point in her posting — it’s common to observe (as the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood does here) that “in the New Testament, when this term [anthropos] is used for specific individuals, it always refers to males” (their emphasis).

Maybe. But it does not follow from this (potential) fact that anthropos cannot refer to a specific woman. And they even provide the evidence, in their next paragraph: “The list of specific men of which anthropos is used is quite long […] as distinct from the three times Christ refers to a woman (gune) in a parable.”

The lopsided nature of the text here — that is, the very fact that our data set includes a long list of men and only three women — warns us not to draw general conclusions about the word. If we enlarge the data set, to include, for instance, Suzanne’s example from Herodotus’ Histories (1.60), we do find anthropos used in regard to a specific woman.

Two additional points seem in order:

First, I gather from the CBMW piece that some people are trying to use the linguistic qualities of the word anthropos to determine Jesus’ gender. This doesn’t seem like the right approach to me. Again from the CBMW piece: “That Jesus is an anthropos means first of all that he is a human being; but it also means that he is a male human being.” I don’t think so.

Secondly, I frequently read claims like, “Jewish women [in Jesus’ day] were kept in subjection and sometimes even in seclusion” (from Scanzoni and Hardesty’s All We’re Meant To Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, quoted in the CBMW piece). Again, I don’t think so. Salome Alexandra ruled Judaea as queen for about a decade shortly before Jesus’ time. This was a hardly a culture that universally denied power to women.

At any rate, and in summary, lots of words have a variety of interrelated, sometimes contradictory meanings that are determined in part by context. The Greek anthropos is no different. Sometimes its meaning most closely overlaps with “man,” sometimes with “person,” sometimes with “human.” But picking and choosing examples without taking into account how language works will almost always lead to a conclusion that is as convincing as it is wrong.

September 20, 2013 Posted by | general linguistics, grammar, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , | 59 Comments