On the Outside Looking In: One Woman’s History with Bible Translations

Photo by Lacie Slezak on Unsplash

June 7, 2021

Long ago, in a little white church surrounded by a cornfield, my first Bible memory verses included some puzzles. Already then, my young brain struggled with, “How did Mary pound all those things in her heart? Suffer the little children? Conscious Pilot?” What is a damsel, raiment, and so many more strange words I only heard in Sunday School?  Smite, smote, and smitten were words of the wrath of God along with wroth and wrathful. Language filled with “thous” and “thees” was obviously from a foreign place. No one explained all the “begetting!” God was very scary and not on my side.

This was my introduction to the language of the Bible. The following comments are from my personal experience, and I am leaving the scholarly aside. Translation issues are competently addressed in many other sources. The following is a brief overview of the personal impact male-biased translations, mainly the King James Version, has had on me.

A decade later, the mysteries multiplied.  A few examples come to mind: fishers of men. In Mark 1:17, Jesus made his disciples fishers of MEN. Apparently, this lake scene did not include women. I was already understanding how I as a girl, was being distanced from the Christian experience. God is a man, Jesus is a man, the Holy Spirit is a ghost, so I was not identifying. “Brothers” was the default.

In John 15:13, in the words of Jesus, “No greater love has a man.” During the Vietnam years, the first application would obviously be soldiers in wartime. I was very bothered by why women who died in childbirth were not included. In my teen-aged mind, I knew that at least as many women died for another human as men did. The only conclusion was that women’s lives were not as noteworthy. The life experiences of women were not recognized.

On every occasion that Jesus is apparently alone with the disciples, I am excluded. He retreated alone with the disciples, he boated with the disciples, he ate the last supper with the disciples. How I longed for the teaching that they were hearing directly from the mouth of Jesus, but I would have to hear second-hand.

Matthew 28:19: “Go ye therefore teach all nations, baptizing them,” did not apply to me as a woman. First of all, Jesus explicitly said this to the eleven disciples at the end of the book after the resurrection. By the time I am in my 30s, it had been drilled in: Jesus chose twelve men to be disciples. No women period. Never mind that one turned out to be a traitor and they were also all Jewish. Women did not teach, especially nations, and women could not baptize because they were not ordained. Matter settled. Women were not included. Not then, not now. Never. No possibility Jesus’ great commission applied to me.

I, like many girls, felt the unfairness in my bones, but I was isolated and did not have the vocabulary to express it. To those of us old enough to have only heard, read, or memorized the KJV when we were young, these words were swords to our hearts. After my first decades with the KJV, I was fully disempowered and, except for the grace of God, would have disconnected and left the faith. Enrollment at a state university brought new influences as such as Inter-Varsity which showed me a much wider Christian world.

Gaining maturity in years, I questioned and protested, the explanation always included, “Of course, ‘men’ is inclusive. You shouldn’t feel excluded.” Besides invalidating our instincts, by the mid-eighties, in my experience, I noted the patriarchists digging in their heels against empowerment of women. On one hand, women are supposed to automatically feel included with the generic masculine. Yet at the same time, the Bible jabbers- that is what I call the ones jabbing their fingers at the verses limiting women- would point out many verses that were “obviously” for men only. It seemed to my now much more mature thinking, that discerning between the two was arbitrary. They could not have it both ways: generic or exclusive according to their advantage.

It was about this time that I began to become interested in learning Greek so I could independently determine whether the text was truly directed to aner men only, or anthropos in general. An aside: now several years after seminary I realize that reading Greek does not always solve those issues, but at least it peels away one layer of confusion− while adding new mysteries! Studying the biblical languages is worth it.

Praise God, in the last decades, these examples and many more have been cleared up with inclusive translations. So much work has been done, the greatest need now is that readers of the Bible in English are informed of the issues and take advantage of new translations. The use of brothers AND sisters makes the Bible so much less alienating to girls and women. Many have turned away from faith because of unnecessary male bias. Now I progress to translation challenges that remain.

In maturity, I discovered many passages that were not included in Sunday School memory verses. (Can you imagine?) These texts are not routinely included in sermons nor in the lectionary. It is very jarring for the non-initiated to fall upon these passages without ready explanations. This is entering areas where research remains to be done by scholars who are steeped in the languages, accurate translation, and Christian feminist sensibilities.

My first encounter to the concept of “unclean” was probably upon reading the dedication of Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:22), “purification rites according to the law.” One looks up the reference to Lev. 12 where the Levitical instructions include a longer unclean period after the birth of a female child than for a male child. Alarms are set off. Continue to Leviticus 15:19 to learn that anyone who sits where a menstruating woman sat is “unclean.” This is a real head-scratcher for the uninitiated. It can be quickly explained that “unclean” does not mean “sinful” and men also are designated unclean for emissions. Yet, women still face the distain of monthly bleeding, while nowhere in the world are men in any way shamed or confined.

Consider the disadvantages females experience in many parts of the world because of their periods: being forced into filthy confinement and missing education for several days a month. The Bible should not offer opportunity for societal enforcement of these practices. Besides education on the cultural and ceremonial understanding of “unclean,” I have no idea of a possible textual solution, but could a different translation of the Hebrew word TMA be considered?

Looking into feminist issues in Bible translation, one notices the repetition of “adulteress, harlot, and whore” referring to women in many books of the Bible, and indeed the negative feminine can refer to a city! Check a concordance and find that the frequency of negative references to women fills several columns. The NIV 2011 eliminates many of these, but still many denominations refuse to update. Note: try to think of a word for the male equivalent for proliferate sexual activity outside of “adulterer.” Besides much necessary wordy explanation, would some Hebrew scholar consider how the Hebrew can be translated in such a way that women do not feel like they are the primary source of temptation in the world? (Exaggeration for sure, but not that far off!) Consider the “Billy Graham” rule: do not meet alone with a woman who is not your wife.

The last example I am addressing is “humbled” in Deut. 22:24 and 22:29. The NKJV still uses “humbled” which has been exchanged in the NIV by “violated,” which I think is not strong enough; try “devastated” or “destroyed.” Positive sex, always initiated by the husband−Ruth (possible example) and the Song of Solomon may be exceptions−is designated by “knew,” or “to lie with” which is also rather inaccurate! So appropriate sex is designated by a euphemism, but rape is merely “humbled?”

I hope I have made a case for continued study of inclusive translation of the Bible for better accessibility and understanding for both men and women. I have also presented some issues that create barriers to acceptance of the Word especially for women. The careful work that has already been done is unfortunately yet to be endorsed by some churches and is protested by those who deny the maximum empowerment of women. Those that insist on establishing a “male overlay” in the Bible translations are driving women from their Spirit-inspired calling and are discouraging females from the faith.

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