Should we translate the Bible into a gender-inclusive language?

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Should we translate the Bible into a gender-inclusive language?

In our society, gender-inclusive language is getting increasingly used. But should we use it in the Scriptures, where every word counts? As an example, why would some feminist theologians want to stop calling God “father”? And what are the criticisms against them?

Why do we want to touch the text?
The text of the Bible is the result of a work of translation. But this work is not insignificant. Translating is reading a text with the glasses of the translator’s time. As an example, the word “homosexual” did not appear in the Bible until 1946.[1]

Sometimes, the translation can be corrected in a more inclusive way. However, sometimes the problem comes from the original version itself. In this way it is not a daring thesis to say that the Bible is talking more about men than women and that the great majority of important characters (e.g. the prophets, Jesus, and God) are depicted as males.

For some feminist and queer theoreticians, the Scriptures are therefore a source they can work on to criticise the dominant discourse and show in which way it is broadcasting an heteronormative and patriarchal vision of the religious world.[2]

Where are the women?
It is obvious to see that when in the original text we read “man” or “men”, the authors often meant “everyone”. Some translations try to stay as closely as possible to the original version but use a gender-inclusive language to include women (transforming “every man” into “everyone” or “every person”).

As an example, in the Holman Christian Standard Bible, for 1 Thessalonians 4:10, we can read: “We encourage you, brothers.” (following the original Greek). In the New International Version Bible we can read: “We urge you, brothers and sisters.”

Even for conservative Christians this is not a big deal. Some people might argue that males and females are not equal but have distinct functions in the eyes of God. In this way they cannot be replaced equally. However, this is a minority.[3]

The problem arises when the use of gender-inclusive language begins to change the sense the author possibly gave to the text.[4] Several debates are going on in different places of the Bible, but the consensus frontier is really exceeded with the question of God himself.

The question of God
Why is God a Father? For some theoreticians, this is the result of an accommodation. In Hebrew society, the central figure was the father. To illustrate his power and authority, God therefore chose a masculine imagery, that of the father.[5]

But for Mary Daly and Rosemary Ruether, two well-known feminist theologians, this is not acceptable. Daly became famous with her catchphrase: “If God is a male, every male is God.” For them, describing God as a Father is the first step into an androcentric society leading to patriarchal practices and discrimination.[6] Both suggest new words to speak about God: Father and Mother, parents, redeemer, or sophia (wisdom in Greek).

But without surprise, these propositions are not accepted by many theologians and scholars. For them, the question of asking whether God is male or female is wrong, because gender does not apply to God. Moreover, we must respect, in church, that God has revealed himself by using masculine words. In addition, feminine words are also used to talk about God, but they are always metaphors of God’s particularities. God’s description is not only about what is written in the Scriptures but also about his revelation (as a masculine figure) to humankind.[7]

A solution might be the use of an epicene language: a language which is more gender neutral.[8] In this way, we could move beyond the question of God’s gender, but express the complexity of something we cannot really understand.

This debate forces us to rethink the image we have of God as a Father. Gender-inclusive language cannot solve everything, but it can lead us to new ways to read the Bible and imagine its characters.

Juliette Marchet

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[1] Homosexuality and the bible
[2] Joan Charras Sancho, « Qu’est-ce qu’une liturgie inclusive ? », in : L’accueil radical. Ressources pour une Eglise inclusive, Yvan Bourquin, Joan Charras Sancho (éd.), Genève : Labor et Fides, 2015, p.170.
[3] Dieu masculin et ou féminin?
[4] Gender inclusive Bible translation
[5] Faut-il continuer d’appeler Dieu père?
[6] Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father: Toward a Philosophy of Women’s Liberation, Boston: Beacon Press, 1993.
[7] Dieu masculin et ou féminin?
[8] Joan Charras Sancho, L’écriture inclusive : un acte politique, un acte liturgique ?, In : Vie & Liturgie, N°118, February 2020.