Incoherence in 1 Timothy 2

I just got home from an event of which I was in fact one of the organisers: Jim Ramsay,  Director of the Department of Evangelism in the Diocese of Sydney, was speaking at my home church building (as a hired venue) on Every church a mission centre – strategy, leadership and ideas. I appreciated what he had to say, much of which was about the importance of prayer in evangelism. But it came as no surprise to me, and probably wouldn’t to others familiar with Sydney Anglicanism, that he based his talk on a passage from the ESV Bible. And, given his subject, it made sense that he used the very same controversial chapter from ESV that Suzanne McCarthy has recently been complaining about: 1 Timothy 2. But Jim, reading only as far as verse 8, avoided the gender issue which upset Suzanne, except that on verse 8 he said that women were also called to pray.

It was concerning the ESV rendering of verse 5 that Suzanne wrote:

It is no longer possible to preach even the basic salvation of half the human race from the ESV … the ESV states clearly that Christ Jesus is not a mediator between Christ and women.

In a follow-up post Suzanne quotes the following from the ESV preface:

Therefore, to the extent that plain English permits and the meaning in each case allows, we have sought to use the same English word for important recurring words in the original.

What I noticed when Jim read out the passage was ESV’s lamentable failure to keep to this principle in this passage, 1 Timothy 2:1-8. In the Greek two different words for “man” or “human being” are used, one four times and the other once. Here is how they have been translated in various versions, in approximate date order:

Original Greek: v.1: panton anthropon; v.4: pantas anthropous; v.5: anthropon, anthropos; v.8: andras.

KJV: v.1: all men; v.4: all men; v.5: men, the man; v.8: men.

RSV: identical to KJV.

NIV: v.1: everyone; v.4: all men; v.5: men, the man; v.8: men.

NRSV: v.1: everyone; v.4: everyone; v.5: humankind … human; v.8: men.

ESV: v.1: all people; v.4: all people; v.5: men, the man; v.8: men.

TNIV: v.1: everyone; v.4: all people; v.5: human beings … human; v.8: men.

It seems that none of these versions have done a good job of maintaining the coherence of this passage. In verses 1-7 there is a clear theme of what is applicable to the whole of humankind irrespective of gender (anthropos): prayers are to be made for them (v.1) because God desires them to be saved (v.4) and has provided the mediator to make this possible (v.5). Following that the author provides different instructions for male (aner) (v.8) and female (vv.9-15) readers. For this passage to make sense as a whole the Greek words anthropos and aner need to be translated consistently and distinctly. But none of the versions I have quoted have done this properly.

I applaud KJV and RSV for maintaining coherence in their rendering of anthropos as “man”, a good rendering at the time when “man” was commonly used in this gender generic sense. But they were let down by the weakness of the English language of the time, which has since been corrected, in that there was no suitable distinct word that they could use to refer to male humans only.

NRSV and TNIV have at least managed to make a clear distinction between gender generic anthropos and gender specific aner. But they have done so at the expense of losing the coherence of the “all people” theme in vv.1-7.

ESV, I am sorry to say, has gone for the worst of both worlds. It starts well by revising RSV’s “all men” in vv.1,4 to “all people”, and maintaining the contrast with “men” in v.8. But it is let down by its rendering of v.5, which seems to have been considered in isolation from its context. Or perhaps they simply omitted to revise this verse, which is identical to RSV. As a result a reader of ESV could easily assume that the “men” referred to here are to be contrasted with the “all people” of the previous verse and are instead to be identified with the “men” of v.8. Indeed this is how Suzanne seems to have read this verse.

Now I am sure that it is not the intention of the ESV translators to teach that “Christ Jesus is not a mediator between Christ and women”. But if so they need to demonstrate this. I suppose they have done so by putting this footnote on verse 5:

men and man render the same Greek word that is translated people in verses 1 and 4

But Jim Ramsay didn’t read out or refer to this footnote, or copy it on his handout, and I’m sure the same will almost always apply when this verse is read out during public preaching or teaching. It is simply not appropriate to put a misleading translation in the main text and a correction in a footnote.

So I call on the ESV translation team, as well as the TNIV and NRSV teams, to revise their wording of this passage to ensure that the theme of “all people” is clear in verses 1-7 and contrasted from the “men only” instruction of verse 8.

The Trinity: he, she or they?

I hadn’t intended this to become a series, but following my posts The Word: he, she or it? and The Holy Spirit: he, she, it or they? it is beginning to look like one. In fact this post has arisen from comments by John Richardson on the Holy Spirit post, especially this one where he wrote:

The Scriptural tendency in these circumstances is, if [Calvin] is right, to give the name of God specially to the Father. To use ‘She’ of, as you put it, “the whole Trinity”, would be a contradiction of this, and to use ‘They’ would be to suggest, as the Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses assert, that we do indeed worship three gods.

So, is John right to insist that the Trinity as a whole should not be called “She” or “They”, but should rather be referred to only as “He”?

Those people who still think grammatical gender is relevant to this discussion, like Chris Bishop commenting on John’s blog, should I think conclude that the Trinity is “She”. After all, our English word “Trinity” is derived from the grammatically feminine Latin word trinitas (and the concept was first written about explicitly in Latin, by Tertullian). The Greek word used for the Trinity, trias, not in the Bible, is also feminine. As a result in Latin and Greek, also French etc, theological works about the Trinity, including those of Calvin which John quotes in translation, I would expect to find grammatically feminine pronouns used of the Trinity. But I think it should be clear that I do not consider this a valid argument for calling the Trinity “She” in English. I leave open the question of whether “She” is any less appropriate than “He”.

But I do find objectionable John’s rejection of calling the Trinity “They”. Although as orthodox Christians we do not worship three gods, we do worship three Persons, a plurality, although those Three are of one substance etc. Why is it wrong to refer to those Three as “They”? Indeed it cannot be, for Jesus used a plural pronoun for himself and the Father even as he testified to their unity: “we are one” (John 17:22). The context of this is that Jesus is praying for those who believe in him, “that they may be one as we are one” (17:22, TNIV). So the unity within the Trinity is of the same kind as that intended for believers in the body of Christ, not a unity which erases plurality and effaces personal distinctions such as gender, but a unity which preserves but also transcends this individuality and plurality.

I note that the Athanasian Creed, in the English translation in the Book of Common Prayer also calls the members of the Trinity “They”, again while affirming their unity:

So the Father is God, the Son is God : and the Holy Ghost is God.
And yet they are not three Gods : but one God.

Therefore, I conclude that we should follow Jesus’ example as followed in the creeds of the church and use a plural pronoun, “They”, to refer to the three Persons of the Trinity together.

John 21: Peter as Jesus' friend

Bill Heroman has just concluded a heroic series of twelve posts in just over a week putting forward A New Take on John 21 (this link is to the final summary post; the individual posts are preface 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10). I am not convinced by some of this, such as his argument that this encounter by the beach took place at Tiberias and that Jesus and Peter actually spoke in Greek (actually that was in an earlier post by Bill). But I do find his main conclusion about their conversation rather persuasive, even if I have to say that it was crafted into its surviving Greek form by John rather than being a precise record of Greek words spoken by Jesus and Peter.

I have heard two main lines of interpretation of the conversation about love, and why in the Greek text Jesus uses agapao in his first two questions to Peter, and phileo only in his third, whereas Peter always answers with phileo. One interpretation is that agapao is a strong word for “love” and phileo is a weak word, and so Peter is committing himself only to a lower level of love than Jesus is looking for. The other interpretation is that no distinction is to be made between agapao and phileo, that this is merely stylistic variation.

Into this debate rides Bill Heroman with a radically new proposal, based on pre-Christian Greek usage, that in this context (before the Christian concept of agape love was fully developed, on his hypothesis) phileo is the strong word for “love”, the committed love between friends, and agapao is the weak word, referring to doing favours. More specifically, Jesus’ first two questions “Do you love me?” (agapao) would have been understood as “Will you do something for me?”, whereas Peter’s reply “I love you” (phileo) would have meant “I am your friend”, alluding back to John 15:14-15 and implying “Of course, I will do anything for you, my friend”. Then Jesus’ continuing questioning, especially the final question “Do you love me?” (phileo), would have been his probing of the genuineness and depth of Peter’s friendship.

This seems quite convincing to me. It also implies an interesting take on the call to Christian discipleship, on whether we who call ourselves friends of God (John 15:14-15, cf. James 2:23) are actually prepared to do what he asks us to do. Does anyone have any constructive, or other, criticism of this proposal?

Bill also recently told this wonderful joke, especially for maths geeks like him and me:

One day Jesus began teaching The Kingdom of Heaven is like 3x squared plus 8x minus 9.

The disciples began to wonder about this until Peter said, I’ll bet this is another one of his parabolas.

The Holy Spirit: he, she, it or they?

Hard on the heels of the controversy which I helped to fuel with my post The Word: he, she or it? there has arisen another rather similar controversy, although apparently from a very different direction. It was prompted by a piece from Graham Kings, Bishop-Elect of Sherborne, in which he wrote, introducing a Pentecost Prose Poem:

It seems to me that the Holy Spirit may appropriately be called ‘He’ or ‘She’, but not ‘It’, for the Spirit is profoundly personal not a simple force. For a change, let’s try ‘She’.

Fellow Anglican clergyman John Richardson, the Ugley Vicar, objects to this, writing:

Personally, if he did this in a service while I was there, I’d walk out.

He seems to modify his position a little in agreeing with Tim Goodbody’s comment:

The person of the Trinity we refer to as the Spirit does not have a gender identity as Jesus did – and so should not be anthropomorphised as man or woman, as the Spirit is not human, but we have to use a pronoun of some sort.

But John doesn’t explain why he would walk out of a service in which the Spirit is anthropomorphised as “She” but presumably not one where (as in every regular Anglican liturgy) the Spirit is anthropomorphised as “He”. The best he can come up with is the logically fallacious argument that if the Spirit is called “She” then

might we not then use ‘She’ instead of ‘He’ for the whole godhead?

No one is suggesting this, John, so let’s drop the straw man approach and get back to the real issues.

So, what are the issues? I agree with John that

we cannot settle this decisively by grammatical analysis

but it is worth rehearsing the results of this analysis.

As is well known, the Greek word pneuma for “spirit”, and the Holy Spirit, is grammatically neuter, and the Hebrew word ruach is grammatically feminine. On the basis of this Hebrew usage some have tried to claim that the Holy Spirit is female and should be called “She”, but that is just as poor an argument as the one which I demolished that the Word in John 1 is male and must be called “He”.

Various different Hebrew and Greek words are used in the Bible to refer to the Holy Spirit, with all three grammatical genders. Among them is the Greek masculine noun parakletos (“Paraclete”, usually translated “comforter”, “counsellor” or “advocate”), used of the Holy Spirit only in John 14:16,26, 15:26 and 16:7. I have sometimes heard the argument that the Holy Spirit is animate, and presumably male, because the masculine (not neuter) pronoun ekeinos is used to refer to him in 14:26, 15:26 and 16:8. But it seems clear from the Greek text and the rules of Greek grammar that ekeinos is masculine because it refers back to the masculine noun parakletos. That implies that this tells us nothing about the Spirit being male, or animate.

There are good arguments from elsewhere in the Bible for the Holy Spirit being an animate and intelligent person. For example, it is possible to grieve the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30), and grief is not an action or attitude of which an inanimate force can be the subject. Therefore it is inappropriate, in English, to refer to the Holy Spirit as “it”, a pronoun reserved for inanimate beings, and sometimes for animals, but never used for intelligent persons.

So, we conclude that the Holy Spirit is an animate and intelligent person who is neither male nor female. What pronoun should we use to refer to such a person? I note first that this is an issue only in English, at least of all the several languages I know. Every other language either has proper grammatical gender, and so (as in Greek and Hebrew) the pronoun has the same grammatical gender as the noun used for the Holy Spirit, with no implication of real-world gender or sex; or else the language has no gender at all, neither in nouns nor in pronouns, and so the single pronoun meaning he/she/it is used for the Holy Spirit.

The problem in English is that the gender of a pronoun, i.e. whether “he” or “she” is used, is determined not by grammatical gender (English lost its grammatical gender distinctions during the Middle Ages) but by the real-world gender or sex of the referent. This leads to a problem when this real-world gender is unknown or undefined.

One solution to this problem which has been widely used in English for many centuries, but is not acceptable to some prescriptive grammarians, is the use of “they” as a singular pronoun. Another solution, to use “he” with a gender generic sense, is now also unacceptable to many English speakers, especially but not only women. It is hardly surprising that people who have rejected the use of gender generic “he” in indefinite situations, e.g. referring back to “anyone”, are also beginning to reject its use to refer to the ungendered person the Holy Spirit.

Yet there are also very good grounds for rejecting the Bishop-Elect’s solution, to use “She” for the Holy Spirit. This is simply to replace one error by an equal and opposite one. This may be seen as an attempt to produce a balance, but is more likely to cause confusion.

In a further comment on his same post John Richardson writes:

if we speak about the Holy Spirit as She, it establishes a fundamentally different relationship. Furthermore, it is based on our own selection of the terms.

Yes, in a world in which patriarchal thinking is not dead it does make a difference whether we call the Holy Spirit “He” or “She”. But the traditional use of “He” is also “based on our own selection of the terms”, or at least on the selection of those who first translated the Bible and the church’s liturgy into English (perhaps complicated by the rapid changes in English at that period). These translators left for us English speakers a tradition of understanding the Holy Spirit as male which has distorted our theology ever since. It is time to repent of our own “selection of terms” and follow true biblical understanding.

Perhaps, if I put my tongue in my cheek a little, the best solution is to call the Holy Spirit “they”. For some this will be understood as a singular “they”. But, to those who might object to the singular “they” or insist that it carries nuances of plurality, I point out the ancient Christian tradition of the sevenfold Spirit, based on Isaiah 11:2 and repeated references in Revelation (1:4, 3:1, 4:5, 5:6) to the seven Spirits of God. So there should be no objection to using an apparently plural pronoun to refer to them.

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.

Election day

It’s election day here in the UK, for the European Parliament and in many places for local councils as well. Two years ago I stood for election to the local Borough Council, but was not elected. This year I am not a candidate, but I am helping with the election in various ways – taking a break just at the moment.

These elections have been overshadowed by the ongoing scandal over MPs’ election expenses. This has led to concern that certain extremist parties will gain extra support. The BNP has also caused controversy by suggesting that Jesus would support its policies. In response, as the BBC reports,

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have urged voters not to let anger over the expenses scandal drive them to vote for the BNP …

Dr Rowan Williams and Dr John Sentamu said it would be “tragic” if people abstained or voted BNP at the local and European elections on 4 June.

I will agree with them by urging any of my readers who can vote in today’s elections to go out and do so. Polls are open until 10 pm.