The Word: he, she or it?

Suzanne McCarthy, in a pair of posts All things were made by it … and All things were made by her …, has made an interesting point about the Word in John 1. This is John 1:3-5 in Matthew’s Bible (1537):

All thinges were made by it
and wythout it
was made nothynge that was made.
In it was lyfe
and the lyfe was the lyght of men
and the lyght shyneth in the darcknes
but the darcknes comprehended it not.

Luther’s (1545) German of verse 10 can be translated into English, with “it” in each case rendering a German neuter pronoun (Suzanne, surely dasselbe is specifically neuter, also in verses 2 and 3, the masculine is derselbe):

It was in the world and the world was made through it, and the world did not know it.

Even more startlingly, here is Suzanne’s translation of verses 3 and 14 in the Louis Segond French (1910):

All things were made by her …

And the word was made flesh and she dwelt among us, full of grace and truth, and we contemplated her glory, a glory like the glory of the only Son come from the Father.

The “she” here renders the French feminine pronoun elle. (However, Suzanne, the sa which you have translated “her” does not indicate the gender of the possessor, but only of the possessed “glory”.)

Suzanne compares these with the King James English (1611, modernised spelling):

All things were made by him;
and without him
was not any thing made that was made.
In him was life;
and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness;
and the darkness comprehended it not.

So why the difference? Certainly Luther and “Matthew” did not think that Jesus was inanimate, nor did Segond think that he was feminine. But these translators understood the topic of verses 1-14 to be “the Word”, not specifically Jesus. Yes, I’m sure they recognised that in verse 14 the Word is identified with Jesus. But according to good principles of translation and literary interpretation they did not give away the end of the story at the beginning, just as the translator of a murder mystery would avoid introducing into the translation before the final denouement pronouns giving away whether the murderer was male or female. Rather these good Bible translators rendered the text according to how the author John intended to lead his readers through the story. It is sad that the King James translators didn’t do the same.

So where does the French “she” come from? What happened in the French and the German is that, according to the normal rules for gender-based languages, the gender of the pronoun is chosen according to the grammatical gender of the referent. Thus in German the neuter es agrees with the neuter das Wort, and in French the feminine elle agrees with the feminine la Parole. In English, which is not gender-based, a different principle was applied, and “Matthew” chose the neuter it because the Word is inanimate – at least it is in normal speech, although in this particular story it become animate, or incarnate, in verse 14. The King James translators, however, followed by all or most later English Bible translators, stretched the normal rules of English by using the animate pronoun he to refer to the Word, thereby anachronistically suggesting that it is animate and masculine.

Of course we, who have read the end of the story, know that the One whom the Word became was animate and masculine. That doesn’t mean it is OK to give away the end of the story at the beginning. But there is another potentially serious issue here in that by calling this Word he rather than it as early as verses 2 and 3 (actually in KJV for the first time in verse 3, but in verse 2 in many modern versions) a teaching is implied that masculinity was an attribute of the Word already “in the beginning” and at the time of creation. But there is nothing in the Greek text to support any such teaching of the eternal masculinity of the Word, as was recognised by Luther and Segond as well as “Matthew”.

Still less is there any support in the text for any teaching that the Bible, as the word of God in a secondary sense, is masculine or should only be handled by males.

I would suggest that better Bibles in modern English should return to a modernised version of the reading in Matthew’s Bible, as here in verse 3:

All thinges were made by it
and wythout it
was made nothynge that was made.

0 thoughts on “The Word: he, she or it?

  1. I’ve mentioned this before regarding the Portuguese translations that all use “o Verbo” rather than the more common “a Palavra” simply because of the grammatical gender of the word.

  2. Good thoughts, Peter. It reminded me of something Jürgen Moltmann wrote regarding Proverbs 8.27-31:

    If we understand wisdom not just as a human virtue but in the first place as a presence of God in creation, then we understand why Jesus is presented in the New Testament both as Israel’s messiah and as the Wisdom of creation, so that the Christ mystery is both male and female. When the Gospel of John calls the divine mystery of Jesus the Logos, the Word of God, [then] Sophia, the Wisdom of God is meant too. Jesus is the incarnate Sophia, Jesus is the incarnate Logos — both Sophia and Logos given human form.

  3. But there is another potentially serious issue here in that by calling this Word he rather than it as early as verses 2 and 3 … a teaching is implied that masculinity was an attribute of the Word already “in the beginning” and at the time of creation.

    Peter, I love your analysis here. Seeing that John is telling a story and how that affects his language for readers is incredibly insightful.

    The other “potentially serious issue” you point to identifies that old issue that linguists call “markedness.” The translator using he betrays his or her own presumption that John’s masculine pronoun “αὐτο*” and his masculine noun (λογος or “logos”) point to the notion or concept or reality of “Word” that is unmarked as male. In other words, the default gender of the thing “Word” is male. So naturally, the reasoning goes, John’s Greek words and English translators’ pronouns also must be grammatically and conceptionally male.

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  5. Thanks for the comments.

    JK, I think you are mixing up maleness and grammatical masculinity. Indeed Greek autos is masculine but unmarked for being male or animate. The problem in contemporary English is that “he” is marked as male and animate. So it is not a neutral translation.

  6. Thanks, Peter, for the links to Polycarp’s post and to mine.

    I agree with you that I was mixing up grammar and masculine categories otherwise, intentionally – saying, I hope, that the presumption of the “word” as unmarked (therefore male – as in Jesus the man has always been male and has always been the ‘word’ of God too which has always consequently been male) is mixed up by English translators with their trying to make “he” (masculine and animate, as you point out) the definitive pronoun. I was trying to suggest logical fallacies of category and chronology. You, of course, in your post already made the point so much better than I. Sorry, didn’t mean to muddy the waters more than many English translators have.

  7. A strong link exists here with Wisdom’s personification as a woman in Proverbs. She is also portrayed as having been with God in the beginning. I’m not sure that’s what John had in mind. I’d also be interested to here how this relates to Sophia, a more contemporary personification of wisdom as woman.

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