A few days ago I posted on The value of men, women and sheep. The issue I brought up there, the meaning and translation of Matthew 12:12, generated quite a lot of discussion on this blog and elsewhere. Suzanne, in a comment on one of Joel Hoffman’s posts, raised the issue of the rather similar passage in Luke 13:
Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman on the Sabbath
10 On a Sabbath Jesus was teaching in one of the synagogues, 11 and a woman was there who had been crippled by a spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not straighten up at all. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her forward and said to her, “Woman, [a] you are set free from your infirmity.” 13 Then he put his hands on her, and immediately she straightened up and praised God.
14 Indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, the synagogue leader said to the people, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, not on the Sabbath.”
15 The Lord answered him, “You hypocrites! Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie your ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? 16 Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?”
17 When he said this, all his opponents were humiliated, but the people were delighted with all the wonderful things he was doing.
- 12 The Greek for Woman does not denote any disrespect.
Luke 13:10-17 (TNIV)
Structurally this story is rather similar to Matthew 12:9-14, although here the healing takes place before the objection. Also the comparison of the value of a human being to that of an animal is only implicit in this story, but explicit in Matthew 12:12. However, the two passages cannot be considered parallel passages. That is because the Matthew passage has much closer parallels in Mark 3:1-6 and Luke 6:6-11 – although only Matthew makes the human-animal comparison explicit.
Interestingly in Luke’s account of the man with the withered hand he is initially introduced as anthropos, i.e. his gender is not specified, but later referred to as aner, confirming that he is male. This may be simply stylistic variation, but from memory it is not the only place where Luke has aner and other gospels have anthropos.
But Luke balances his story of a man being healed in the synagogue with the rather similar story of a crippled woman being healed in the same setting, which has no parallels in the other gospels. Clearly Jesus showed no gender discrimination in his healing, and Luke wants to make that clear.
I did find one interesting translation point in the story of the crippled woman. In TNIV, and most other translations (including NLT and CEV, but not The Message), she is implicitly compared with an ox or a donkey, and considered to be of much greater value.
Now the Greek words used for these two animals, bous and onos respectively, work like anthropos in that they do not specify the gender of the animal. All these words can be grammatically feminine (without changing the form of the noun) when referring to a specific female: onos is feminine in Matthew 21:2,7, but masculine in Luke 13:15; bous is also masculine here and, like anthropos, in every case in the New Testament where its gender is specified. However, again like anthropos, when used in generalisations onos and bous are masculine, but this should not be taken as specifying the gender of the animal.
Thus in Luke 13:15 the translation of onos as “donkey” is correct, as this word is gender generic in English. But the rendering of bous as “ox” is more questionable. First we need to clarify what is meant by “ox”. Here is the definition from answers.com:
n., pl. ox·en (ŏk‘sən).
- An adult castrated bull of the genus Bos, especially B. taurus, used chiefly as a draft animal.
- A bovine mammal.
[Middle English, from Old English oxa.]
Which definition did the TNIV translators have in mind? If the latter, then they are exegetically correct. But would it be normal language, among their target group of speakers of contemporary English, to refer to bulls and cows as oxen? I think not. The generic term in current use is “cattle” or “bovine”, or colloquially “cows” although as a country boy I find it strange, and a sign of city-dwellers’ ignorance, when male cattle are called cows.
I would suggest that the word “ox” is more or less obsolete in modern English. If it is used at all, it is used in the rather specific sense 1 I quoted above, of an adult castrated male bovine. This is probably how it is understood by most Bible readers today who have any real understanding of the word.
So, I would suggest that TNIV, while being carefully gender generic about humans, has failed to follow the same principle when referring to cattle. To be consistent, it should drop “ox” in this verse and 14:5 and find an alternative gender generic rendering.
“Ox” can remain in 14:19, 1 Corinthians 9:9 and 1 Timothy 5:18 as these verses are about draft animals which in the cultural context probably would have been castrated males. But the cultural context in 13:15 is quite different. Here we have a person, probably an ordinary villager, who keeps one bovine and one donkey in a shed or courtyard and has to untie them to lead them to water. This is still common practice in the Middle East. And the bovine would normally have been a cow, a female – such families would have had little use for an ox but a cow would have been an important source of nutrition.
So in 13:15 I would actually suggest “cow”, as in The Message. I thought of “one of your cattle”, but that implies that the person has more than one whereas the text and the cultural context suggest the opposite. Thus “cow” is better. If anyone complains that “cow” is not gender generic, one can point them at this sense in the dictionary:
A domesticated bovine of either sex or any age.
But if a choice has to be made between a term with male connotations and one with female connotations, in this case of a comparison with a woman surely the more female word is preferable.
I hope no one thinks this is political correctness gone mad! My point is simply that translations need to be accurate. To use a gender specific term to translate a gender generic one, whether for humans or for animals, is inaccurate translation.
The ironic thing here is that in first century Palestine a cow, a female producing milk, was probably more valuable than an ox, a castrated male – at least to an ordinary village person. Jesus in his parable compares the woman to a cow, more valuable than an ox, or for that matter than the sheep of Matthew 12:12. Translators should not demean women by comparing them to something less than Jesus had in mind.