The electronic Bible shouldn't only be for a privileged few

David Ker has posted a claim that the Bible Societies Feast on hummingbird tongues and throw scraps to the rabble. His language is, as so often, highly emotive and somewhat exaggerated – I don’t think anyone at the Bible Societies is living in excessive luxury, although things might look a bit different from the perspective of rural Mozambique. But he certainly has a good point. Bible Societies are not living up to their mission statements if they restrict availability of electronic texts of the versions they control.

A few months ago I posted a short series about Copyrighting the Word of God (part 2, follow-up 1, follow-up 2). These posts were mainly about the original language Bible texts. But especially in the last of these posts I criticised the German Bible Society’s overblown and frankly ridiculous claims to hold the copyright of the Luther and Good News Bibles, as well as of the Greek and Hebrew texts.

David’s point is related but a bit different. He is talking mainly about Bible translations whose copyright is legitimately owned by particular Bible Societies. He doesn’t challenge this copyright, except at the end when he mentions the possibility of breaking it. But he appeals to the Bible Societies’ mission statements (I’m not sure if he is basing this on any specific such statements), which he calls “empty promises”, as the basis of his appeal for them to make their best translations available in electronic form even to “The most disadvantaged students of the Bible”.

This is a complex issue. The various Bible Societies have to fund their work somehow. They cannot do this if they simply give away Bibles, whether in print or electronically – at least unless there is a massive increase in their income from donations, or from selling at a large profit the kinds of luxury Bibles which make David want to puke. There are also complex issues of the independence of national societies: the United Bible Societies (that is, the single organisation with that plural name) does not have the power to “take action across the board” as David wants it to.

But the basic point is a good one. In an age where the poor in Africa have mobile phones but no books, the Bible Societies really should not be trying to make money by pricing electronic Bible texts as luxury items that only the rich can afford. Instead they should recognise that this has become an important way of reaching with the Bible massive audiences that would never buy books – and without the considerable expense of printing and distributing books. Once an online text has been produced its distribution is essentially free of charge and can now, as phone networks grow, reach to the remotest corners of the earth. These electronic texts should be recognised as no longer just something for the privileged but as a major way for the Bible Societies to fulfil their international mission of distributing the Word of God.

Why no NIV Apocrypha?

In my post Answers about the NIV update I wrote the following:

Some people will be disappointed to read that

The Committee on Bible Translation has no plans at the present to produce a translation of the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical books. (Q21)

But to the evangelicals who make up the target audience of NIV these books are simply off the radar.

This issue has generated quite a bit of discussion. The Anglican priests Tim Chesterton and Doug Chaplin confirmed in comments that they were indeed disappointed by this news. Doug repeated his point in a post at clayboy, in which he noted the discrepancy between the CBT answer I quoted above and this which they also wrote:

The NIV is, and always has been, conceived as a Bible for the whole church.

There is indeed a discrepancy. If the NIV sponsors consider “the whole church” to include those churches which include within their Bible one or another selection of apocryphal or deuterocanonical books, then they really should include these books within their “Bible for the whole church”. Their current policy can’t help raising suspicions that by “the whole church” they mean only the evangelical church, suggesting a very narrow and exclusivist theology. I don’t think they really have this theology, but they need to try harder not to give the impression that they do.

The answer which the CBT and Biblica would probably give to this is simply that they don’t believe that the Apocrypha is part of the Bible. On that I would agree with them. I won’t attempt to justify my belief in this post, but I touched on my reasons recently in the slightly heated comment thread on another of Doug’s posts. Unfortunately CBT and Biblica need to look beyond this very reasonable belief if they really want to produce “a Bible for the whole church” – or else they should modify this statement to clarify that their version is intended only for evangelicals.

Zondervan, the commercial partners, might at least privately give a different answer, that translating and publishing the Apocrypha would not be commercially viable. But if so they might want to think again. The NRSV Bible, including in most editions a broad selection of apocryphal or deuterocanonical books, is the favoured translation in mainline denominational churches and in academic circles, and as such sells quite well. But, like the 1984 NIV, this translation is showing its age – and unlike NIV no update has been announced. The Common English Bible, an ecumenical project sponsored by the United Methodist Church, might take quite a lot of sales from NRSV. But a version of the updated NIV with the Apocrypha would also be a strong competitor for NRSV, and so allow Zondervan access to a significant market which it cannot penetrate with the NIV update as currently planned.

Probably there is not now time to produce a proper NIV Apocrypha in time for the 2011 update launch. But, despite my personal opinion of the status of these deuterocanonical books, I would suggest that Zondervan commission Biblica to start work on a translation of them for later publication.

Anthropos, gender and markedness, part 3

This continues the series from Part 1 and Part 2. In the former I started to examine Joel Hoffman’s claim that the Greek word anthropos has a male meaning component. In the latter I introduced the concept of markedness and outlined how it might be applied to gender in Greek. Now I want to bring these two together by considering how the markedness helps to explain how anthropos is used.

As I explained before, anthropos is one of a group of Greek nouns which can be either masculine or feminine. The technical word for this is “epicene”. The feminine form of anthropos is rare, and not found in the New Testament. I guess many epicene nouns are much rarer in the feminine than the masculine – although the opposite is true, at least in the NT, of parthenos “virgin” which is usually feminine, but presumed (on the basis of usage elsewhere – the gender is not marked in the NT text) to be masculine in Revelation 14:4 (referring to men only) and perhaps 1 Corinthians 7:25 (referring to both men and women).

Let us now consider how anthropos is used in the New Testament. According to the rough figures in my Modern Concordance to the New Testament (Darton, Longman & Todd 1976) the 552 occurrences can be divided as follows: 88 in the phrase “son of man”, mostly referring to Jesus but including Hebrews 2:6 which I discussed here yesterday; 5 referring to Adam; the 5 occurrences I discussed earlier in which there is a contrast with “woman”; 29 other cases referring to Jesus; 39 referring to other named individuals; 43 referring to unnamed individuals; 5 referring to inhabitants or citizens; 1o referring to the self or nature; 2 in the phrase “man of God”; and the rest, more than 300, referring to “MAN, HUMAN(ITY) – PEOPLE, EVERYBODY, EVERYONE – SOMEONE, ANYBODY”.

Some of the 111 references listed as to named or unnamed individuals are in fact to groups which may well have included women. But it appears that every reference to a single individual is to a man, an adult male, rather than a woman or a child. I say “appears” because in many cases the gender and age of the referent is not otherwise stated. But I would not dispute a claim that in the New Testament anthropos never refers to a specific woman – although it does (with feminine gender) in other Greek literature.

Here is the Greek text of the most convincing example of feminine anthropos, from Herodotus 1:60, the first of the six examples Suzanne quotes in English translation:

οἱ ἐν τῷ ἄστεϊ πειθόμενοι τὴν γυναῖκα εἶναι αὐτὴν τὴν θεὸν προσεύχοντό τε τὴν ἄνθρωπον καὶ ἐδέκοντο Πεισίστρατον.

Here we have two feminine epicene nouns: he theos “goddess”; and he anthropos, rendered “human creature” and referring to the woman who had just been described, more typically, as gune. Presumably she is called anthropos because she is being contrasted with the goddess Athene. I can’t help thinking that anthropos would have been used in a somewhat similar incident in the New Testament, at Acts 12:22, even if the referent had been a woman.

To complete this study it is important to look at that majority of the occurrences of anthropos classified as referring to “MAN, HUMAN(ITY) – PEOPLE, EVERYBODY, EVERYONE – SOMEONE, ANYBODY”. The significant point here is that only a very few of these more than 300 refer to men rather than women or indeed have any gender significance at all. Many of these gender generic examples are plural, but there are also a considerable number which are singular but still gender generic. Consider for example the use of singular anthropos in Mark 7:14-23 and Romans 3:28, teaching which surely applies to women as much as to men. So there really is no evidence to support the common claim that anthropos is gender generic in the plural but specific to men in the singular.

To put this in the language of markedness, this very common use of anthropos to refer to men and women indefinitely without specifying gender seems to show that this word is the default or unmarked one for referring to human beings in general, singly or in groups. In the thinking of the time (and to some extent today) the default or unmarked person, the prototypical person (to use the language of another semantic model), was a man, an adult male.

This explains why when it was known that a person was a woman or a child it was normal to use not anthropos but a different word, one marked as referring to a female or a young person. But in exceptional cases, perhaps for stylistic variation or to contrast with a god or an animal, anthropos could be used of a specific woman or child. And when used of a woman it was also marked as such with its gender, feminine rather than the unmarked masculine. But the selection of grammatical gender seems to have been independent of the choice between anthropos and other words.

The implication of this is that anthropos is a word entirely devoid of gender marking within itself, that it in no sense “means” “man” to the exclusion of woman. The fact that it is rarely used of specific women is entirely explained by markedness theory, and does not indicate any male meaning component.

I accept that this is only the outline of an argument, which would need to be firmed up by a more careful examination of the evidence, not relying on the sometimes questionable classifications in my concordance and not restricted to the New Testament. But I think I have given enough evidence to show that Joel’s hypothesis that “one meaning of anthropos is “man”” is unlikely to be correct.

Manuscript support for the TNIV rendering of Hebrews 2:6

The TNIV Bible has been widely criticised for its rendering of the latter part of Hebrews 2:6, a quotation from Psalm 8:4. In TNIV this reads:

What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?

Compare NIV:

What is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

The common complaint is that TNIV has lost the reference in this verse to Jesus, the Son of Man. In response to this the CBT (I presume) have defended their rendering in one of their Most-Requested Passage Explanations, of which this is a summary:

“Son of man” is not a messianic reference in Psalm 8:4 or Hebrews 2:6. Rather, it is used of human beings in contrast to God.

Interestingly I just spotted some manuscript evidence to support this position in a post at the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog. Peter Head examines the slightly variant text of this verse in the very early (about 200 AD) biblical manuscript P46, and writes:

if P46 had wanted to indicate that ‘Man’ and ‘Son of Man’ were christological titles it could have used nomina sacra for ANQRWPOS [i.e. anthropos, that word again!].

In other words, the copyist of this very early manuscript did not understand “son of man” here as a reference to Jesus, because the words are written in the normal way and not marked as a divine title.

Now it would be interesting to know, but I don’t, whether Greek manuscripts are consistent in not using special nomina sacra forms (abbreviations marked by an overline) in this verse, and whether they do use those forms when “Son of Man” certainly refers to Jesus. But Wikipedia does confirm that the nomen sacrum ΑΝΟΣ for anthropos is used elsewhere in P46. (It really is amazing what obscure information can sometimes be found in that infamous online encylopaedia.) So there is certainly evidence here to support the TNIV rendering of this verse.

I certainly hope that the CBT sticks to their guns on this verse, perhaps encouraged by this further evidence, and does not bow to any pressure to change back to “son of man”.

Calvin spoke in tongues

The great Reformer John Calvin “may have spoken in tongues”, according to Ben Witherington, in an article in Christianity Today to which TC Robinson links. (Actually more or less the same article was published online in July this year, and noted by Brian among others.) The evidence seems to be that “one morning he woke up and found himself speaking in lingua barbaria.” Witherington refers only to a half remembered article, which, he writes,

went on to speculate that Calvin may have spoken in tongues!

Perhaps it is safer to use the word “speculate”, but what else could this lingua barbaria have been? But I wish someone could find the original article “in Gordon-Conwell’s newspaper”, or the letter from Calvin from which these words are taken.

Meanwhile in another article in the same issue of CT Roger Olson writes:

Calvin was no charismatic, but he was closer to it than some Reformed people readily admit. At least one does not read much about the crucial role of the Holy Spirit in their own interpretations of Calvin’s theology. This Arminian, raised Pentecostal, deeply admires and enthusiastically applauds the attention Calvin himself gave to the Spirit by basing even the authority of the written Word on the Spirit and his work.

At the same time, of course, Calvin also warned against basing any truth claims about God on ecstatic revelations claimed to be from the Holy Spirit. This is a relevant warning against modern-day prophets who say things like, “The apostle Paul would be surprised if he knew the things the Spirit is teaching today.” According to Calvin—and I agree with him—the Spirit does not reveal new truths; the Spirit and the written Word are interdependent and inseparable.

I agree too. But this sounds a bit like a straw man argument: how many people are really saying things like “The apostle Paul would be surprised if he knew the things the Spirit is teaching today”? If this is Olson’s definition of “charismatic”, then neither Calvin nor I are charismatics, but then nor are most of the well known charismatic leaders, who are very careful to teach that “the Spirit does not reveal new truths”, especially not “truth claims about God”, but only applies the old biblical truths to new situations and individuals’ lives.

Yes, we charismatics may agree with the words of John Robinson, surely no charismatic, in his farewell sermon to the Pilgrims leaving for America on the Mayflower:

I Charge you before God and his blessed angels that you follow me no further than you have seen me follow Christ. If God reveal anything to you by any other instrument of His, be as ready to receive it as you were to receive any truth from my ministry, for I am verily persuaded the Lord hath more truth and light yet to break forth from His holy word.

It is the task of the Holy Spirit to bring out this “more truth and light”, but only what is already in the word of God. And, even though Robinson went on to criticise the Calvinists of his day who “stick fast where they were left by that great man of God” (rather like some Reformed Calvinists today!), Calvin would surely have agreed with his sentiments.

Anthropos, gender and markedness, part 2

In Part 1 of this series I outlined the issue with the Greek word anthropos and Joel Hoffman’s claim that this word has a male meaning component. I showed that the word is used only extremely rarely to contrast with words meaning “woman”. I also linked to evidence that the word is used of specific women, although rarely and never in the New Testament, in which case it has feminine grammatical gender.

At this point I want to introduce my readers to the concept of markedness. This is an important idea in linguistics, one which was first developed in the field of phonology but is now proving useful in describing other aspects of languages.

Steve Runge helped me to learn more about markedness in a series of posts earlier this year on his NT Discourse blog. The most important post for this discussion is the first one; in his other with the markedness tag he applies this theory to Greek verbs and discourse. Here is part of Steve’s introduction:

Markedness is an organizational framework for taking a complex set of data and organizing it into meaningful groupings to facilitate description of the members. The organization is accomplished by taking the most simple, basic member of the set, and using it as the canon against which the other members are contrasted. The most basic member is referred to as the default. The other members of the set are then described by how each differs from the default and from the other members. The default option is the one used when, to paraphrase the Hallmark commercial, “you do not care enough to send the very best.” In other words, when there is nothing special that one wants to signal as present, the default is the natural choice. For this reason, the default is generally the most frequently occurring member of the set. It does not signal or mark the presence of any special feature. In this way the default is also called the unmarked option.

This system that I have described is an asymmetrical approach to markedness, where each different member of the set marks the presence of a different, unique feature. There is another approach to markedness that is far more widely known within NT studies, though it is not used nearly so prevalently in linguistics proper. I mention it here for clarity sake, knowing that it may cause confusion for some. The intention is to show what I do not mean by markedness when I use the term.

The second approach to markedness is the symmetrical one. …

At this point I would like to make it clear that I am also using the “asymmetrical approach to markedness”, and not “the symmetrical one”. Read Steve’s post for more explanation of the difference.

I would like to apply this concept of markedness not to Greek verbs and discourse but to Greek gender and gender-related words. Of course I can only do this very inadequately in the course of a short blog post – there is very likely enough material here for a PhD. But I would like to make some provisional observations based on my experience of how Greek works.

First, I think Greek makes a clear distinction between gendered lexical items and grammatical gender. At the lexical level one can distinguish between gender pairs of words which are very different in form, e.g. ho aner “man” and he gune “woman”; pairs which differ only in their ending, in effect declining like adjectives, e.g. ho adelphos “brother” and he adelphe “sister”; and words which can be masculine or feminine depending on the gender of their referent but do not change their form, e.g. ho diakonos “servant/deacon (male)” and he diakonos “servant/deacon (female)”. The word we are mainly discussing here, anthropos, fits in the third category, although its feminine form is rare and not found in the New Testament. Some words fit in more than one category: the female form of ho theos “god” can be he theos, as in Acts 19:37, or he thea, in Acts 19:27.

In Greek, as in all gendered languages as far as I know (certainly also in French, Latin, German, Italian, Russian and Hebrew), the masculine plural is regularly used to refer to groups of mixed gender. This is already a strong indicator that masculine is the unmarked or default gender and the feminine gender is marked. Further evidence of this, at least in Greek, comes from the regular use of the masculine gender in indefinite sentences, e.g. to refer back to the genderless pronoun tis “someone”/”who”, even when the sentence is clearly applicable equally to men and women.

So how might these principles apply more specifically to anthropos? I will discuss that in Part 3.

Anthropos, gender and markedness, part 1

I’m sorry that this post is rather technical, and so may be hard for some of you my readers to understand. But in view of some of what I have read recently on blogs it is important to get these matters right.

There has been quite a lot of discussion on various blogs about whether the Greek word anthropos “means” ” man”, 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 “man,”

and that in some places where the word is used

the Greek text means to emphasize “man” over “woman” … anthropos emphasizes “man” in contrast to “woman.”

I have strongly opposed Joel’s position in comments on these posts. Also disagreeing with Joel have been Suzanne McCarthy, here and here as well as in comments on Joel’s blog, and Kurk Gayle, here with links to several other related posts, also here and in comments elsewhere. See also Mike Aubrey’s related post, here. I also touched on this issue in two previous posts of mine, here and here. Read the comments on each of these posts.

In particular, I had to correct Joel for the following demonstrably false statement which he made in comment 5 here:

3. I still haven’t seen any convincing evidence from extrabiblical sources to support anthropos referring specifically to a woman. Did I miss one?

There is convincing evidence, provided by Suzanne, and Joel had earlier commented on this post showing that he had seen the evidence. I have twice asked Joel to correct this error. His response the first time suggests that he may have intended to qualify his statement with “with the masculine determiner”. With this qualification the statement would be correct: when anthropos is used of a specific woman or a group of only women it is grammatically feminine. But Joel has refused to correct or withdraw his original statement, which, without the qualification and so stating that anthropos is never used of specific women, is factually incorrect and highly misleading.

However, my main purpose here is not to correct Joel on a detail, but to look in more detail into why his overall approach to this issue is wrong-headed.

The essential feature of Joel’s argument seems to be this: because anthropos is sometimes used to contrast with words meaning “woman”, that implies that there is something male about its essential or core meaning. I consider this to be an incorrect deduction. The core meaning of a word is not found by looking at a few unusual examples.

This usage of anthropos in contrast to a word meaning “woman” is in fact rather rare in the New Testament. According to my Modern Concordance to the New Testament (Darton, Longman & Todd 1976), out of 552 occurrences of anthropos in the NT only five are “IN RELATION TO WOMEN”. Three of these, Matthew 19:5, Mark 10:7 and Ephesians 5:31, are direct quotations from the LXX Greek translation of Genesis 2:24, rendering Hebrew ish. So this is translation Greek – and as linguists know it is never good practice to study the characteristics of a language from a translated text.  A fourth case, Matthew 19:10, immediately follows one of these quotations and so can be understood as an echo of the translation Greek.

This leaves just one example, 1 Corinthians 7:1. I dealt with this issue as long ago as 1988 (long before I had a particular interest in gender issues), in an essay which I posted on this blog in 2006, in a section dealing with possible quotations in 1 Corinthians from a letter to Paul from the Corinthians:

A second characteristic is the use of ἄνθρωπος [person (anthropos)] in both 7:1 and 7:26 for man as opposed to woman, where ἀνήρ [man (aner)] is normally expected. These are the only unambiguous examples in Pauline writing of this use, except in Ephesians 5:31 where Genesis 2:24 is quoted. This provides added evidence that there is a quotation in 6:18, for in context the ἄνθρωπος in this verse is probably male. The similar use of ἄνθρωπος in 7:7, contrasting with the regular pairing of references to men and women in 7:1-16, strongly suggests that here also there is an adapted quotation from the Corinthians: θέλω δὲ πάντας ἀνθρώπους εἶναι ὡς καὶ ἐμαυτόν [but I want all people (anthropos) to be as also myself]. The similarity of this to καλὸν ἀνθρώπῳ τὸ οὕτως εἶναι [good for a person (anthropos) to be like this] in the acknowledged quotation of 7:26 is more evidence for this further quotation.

In other words, I am suggesting that this non-generic use of anthropos was a characteristic of the letter from the Corinthians, reflecting the dialect or idiolect of its author. It certainly doesn’t seem to be characteristic of the rest of the New Testament.

So we have effectively shown that this gender specific use of anthropos is extremely rare in the New Testament, being found only in translation Greek and in an exceptional case. This is already enough to cast serious doubt on the proposition that gender is a core component of the meaning of the word. But I accept that further proof is needed.

There is still a lot more that I would like to write about this issue, but this post is getting too long already, so I will continue in Part 2 and Part 3.

Answers about the NIV update

It is a few weeks since I discussed here the announcement of the NIV Bible 2011 update. Now the consortium responsible for the update has released a set of FAQ answers, at least based on questions submitted at their website. Thanks to Joel and Suzanne for the tip.

I am pleased to see some kind of confirmation of my general understanding of the revision process. The independence of the Committee on Bible Translation is affirmed. The team clarifies that

The CBT has not “caved” in to any interest group in this decision.  Indeed to do so would fundamentally betray their mandate which is simply and solely to monitor developments in English usage and biblical scholarship and reflect them in the text. (Q1)

Members of the CBT are charged with the responsibility of monitoring developments in English usage and biblical scholarship and reflecting these developments in improvements to the text. This mandate leaves no room for following an external agenda … (Q29)

So, while they will not commit themselves on any specifics, they will not change the text because of external pressures:

If they see compelling new data on the state of contemporary English usage, or if a compelling exegetical argument is made – whether it involves moving backward or forward – the CBT will make the changes that are necessary. (Q7)

The update will be based on TNIV rather than directly on the 1984 NIV:

The CBT works with its “existing text,” which is the latest form of the translation that first appeared in the NIV and then later in the TNIV. They make revisions to this text based on their best understanding of the underlying Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. (Q27)

Presumably this implies that the TNIV text, with the minor updates already published, is the starting point for

no change to the text can be ratified without a 70 percent majority vote. (Q19)

The CBT are certainly not going to retreat to follow the Colorado Springs guidelines, with which they respectfully disagree:

The Colorado Springs Guidelines, however, do not reflect the range of opinions that was represented by the signatories to the original NIV charter, and it does not represent an accurate summation of the NIV translation philosophy. (Q13)

In the light of this post of mine I was interested to note that they accepted and answered this question:

Q17:  If you’re going to do this, at least donate $10 of every Bible sold to Wycliffe so people who still need one Bible in their own language can get one.

Since the inception, with each NIV Bible sold, Zondervan pays a royalty to Biblica so that it can continue to get the Bible, free-of-charge or at a very low cost, into the hands of less fortunate people around the world.

By the way, the person who asked for $10 from each Bible obviously doesn’t realise that many Bibles are sold for less than that in total!

Some people will be disappointed to read that

The Committee on Bible Translation has no plans at the present to produce a translation of the Apocrypha/Deuterocanonical books. (Q21)

But to the evangelicals who make up the target audience of NIV these books are simply off the radar.

This question and answer sums up the aims of the team:

Q25: Are you going to make this version as gender inclusive as possible so that a whole generation of young believers can know that they are all included in God’s love and Word, not just a few?

CBT’s mandate under the NIV charter is to maintain the NIV as an articulation of God’s unchanging word in contemporary English. To the extent, therefore, that gender inclusive language is an established part of contemporary English and that its use enhances comprehension for readers, it will be an important factor in the decisions made by the translators.

The NIV is, and always has been, conceived as a Bible for the whole church. Our aim is to create a Bible which allows diverse groups of people to get together and read it without any one having preferential access to the text whether they are young or old, whether they are well-educated or less-well educated, whether they are an experienced Bible-handler or an interested newcomer. So we won’t be trying to create a Bible that favors the needs of young believers over the needs of other groups, but neither will be creating a Bible that favors the needs of other groups over the needs of the young. We will be seeking to create a Bible that offers unobstructed access to the unchanging truths of God’s love and Word for all.

A laudable goal. We need to hope and pray that they can reach it.

The value of women, oxen and cows

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.

  1. 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

ox (ŏks) pronunciation

n., pl. ox·en (ŏksən).

  1. An adult castrated bull of the genus Bos, especially B. taurus, used chiefly as a draft animal.
  2. 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.

Archbishop Rowan: a prophet after the event

There is irony in the way that Ruth Gledhill praises Archbishop Rowan Williams:

Repent, or be doomed, is the Jeremiah-style message of the Archbishop of Canterbury over our financial excesses. … Our Archbishop is at last fulfilling his prophetic potential.

But is this truly prophetic? Rowan may look the part of the Old Testament prophet, but is he really speaking from God? Ruth also reports:

We were ‘intimidated by expertise’, Dr Rowan Williams said when asked by Jeremy Paxman [in a BBC interview] why the Church of England had not spoken out earlier on how finance appeared to be operating, and what it seemed to be generating in terms of wealth rather than community.

But the Old Testament prophets were never intimidated by anything. This is not a “Jeremiah-style message”, but only the pale echo of one. The Archbishop has at last found the courage to speak out a year after the events of last autumn. But, as I reported last October, the true prophets were fearlessly proclaiming what God had to say about those events before they even happened. Prediction is not the essence of true prophecy, but nor is comment after the event.

As Ruth writes in her Times Online article,

Dr Rowan Williams … has consistently taken a left-of-centre line on economic issues …

Indeed. His new criticisms of our financial excesses are not so much prophetic as another example of the Church of England timidly following trendy politicians. Now I agree that in this case those politicians and Rowan are right in most of their criticisms. But that is not because God has given me a prophetic message about it, but because my God-given sense of justice confirms it to me.

If the Archbishop cannot find any truly prophetic messages for the country about political and financial matters, he should stick to speaking about the Christian faith and the church.