Sunday, May 20, 2007

Changing he/him/his/himself TO they/them/their/themselves

One problem members of The Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood have with the TNIV is that the TNIV several times translates singular pronouns such as he/him/his/himself into plural forms such as they/them/their/themselves in order to avoid masculine gender. They state that the TNIV inaccurately translates that way some 217 times in the New Testament where the verb in Greek is singular and there is a masculine third person pronoun. The same substitutions are made an additional 159 times according to their study when the antecedent in English is singular.

I will not dispute their stats. I don't doubt the Greek is singular and that the TNIV is translated in the plural those times. If I understand the basic complaint with it, other than changing a masculine singular into a neuter plural, is that readers might miss personal application in some passages by mistakenly taking such passages to be applicable to a group setting. Take for example Wayne Grudem's comment on Revelation 3:20 . . .

VERSE: Revelation 3:20

NIV: I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.

TNIV (2005): I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.

CHANGE IN MEANING: The idea of Christ coming into an individual person's life is lost; Christ no longer eats with “him” but with “them.” Readers may well understand “them” to refer to the plural group “those whom I love” in the previous verse, so the TNIV now pictures Christ coming into a church and eating among a group of people. The clear teaching on individual fellowship with Christ is blurred.

I like Wayne Grudem. But I think he's overstating his case. I looked up these plural pronouns in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th ed. MW allows for this translation of the TNIV . . .

usage They, their, them, themselves: English lacks a common-gender third person singular pronoun that can be used to refer to indefinite pronouns (as everyone, anyone, someone). Writers and speakers have supplied this lack by using the plural pronouns and every one to rest themselves betake —Shakespeare I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly —Jane Austen it is too hideous for anyone in their senses to buy —W. H. Auden. The plural pronouns have also been put to use as pronouns of indefinite number to refer to singular nouns that stand for many persons ’tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear the speech —Shakespeare a person can’t help their birth —W. M. Thackeray no man goes to battle to be killed. — But they do get killed —G. B. Shaw. The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts. This gives you the option of using the plural pronouns where you think they sound best, and of using the singular pronouns (as he, she, he or she, and their inflected forms) where you think they sound best.

Merriam-Webster, Inc. Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. 10th ed. Springfield, Mass., U.S.A.: Merriam-Webster, 1996, c1993.
This is the way people in the 21st century speak. I was born in 1971. As far back as I can remember, people have been using these plural pronouns in reference to individuals. It's the course that English has gone. If an antecedent is singular, the plural pronoun is acceptable in the consequent or predicate or what have you.

Besides it being acceptable English in the 21st century and thus an exceptable translation, the Bible has cases even in formal translating where a plural referent is meant to be applied on an individual basis. Take the Beatitudes (from the ESV - the preferred translation of the CBMW) - emphases mine . . .
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2001), Mt 5:3.
Should we conclude that none of these are applicable on an individual basis but only in a group setting because of the use of they and theirs? I don't think so and you probably don't either (and I doubt Dr. Grudem does either).

Now while I think the TNIV did fine in Revelation 3:20, I'm not saying every time is perfect. Revelation 3:20 was fine to me because the antecedent was singular which interprets them and they as singular also in the context based on MW. In Matthew 10:24, I think the TNIV could have represented the singular more clearly. Here is the NIV . . .

24 “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master.

The Holy Bible : New International Version
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996, c1984), Mt 10:24.
And here is the TNIV trying to remove the masculine term his . . .
24 "Students are not above their teacher, nor servants above their master."
The subject and predicate are both plural in the TNIV. I don't know why they didn't do something like this. . .
A student is not above their teacher, nor a servant above their master.
This would have done away with a masculine gendered pronoun in a teaching that obviously applies to women also, yet it would have retained some of the singleness of the Greek by basically doing the same thing that was done in Revelation 3:20, i.e. having a singular antecedent. The NRSV and the NLT handled it more the way I just suggested by removing the pronoun and replacing it with a definite article . . .
24 A student is not greater than the teacher. A servant is not greater than the master.
24 “A disciple is not above the teacher, nor a slave above the master;
The Message (which doesn't even pretend to be a translation - it's an extreme paraphrase) made one feminine and one masculine . . .
24 “A student doesn’t get a better desk than her teacher. A laborer doesn’t make more money than his boss.
I would recommend that option the least. Because surely students can be male and laborers can be female, correct? And sometimes laborers do make more than the boss. Eugene Peterson could have done better on this. But let's not sidetrack . . .

However, even with the TNIV as is, I don't see any grievous crime. Whether students and servants are represented singularly or in the plural, no theology is changed by the TNIV's rendering of Matthew 10:24. I don't see any change in meaning whether we have one laborer or multiple laborers or one student or multiple students. Perhaps in other passages, theology is changed. I have yet to run across that and I would be glad to look at any that you may think change theology by doing so. I don't think Grudem's comments on Revelation 3:20 are convincing.

Bottom line . . .
  • Be informed.
  • Look at the issue -- from both sides.
  • Both sides have multiple people who are Bible believing conservatives and complementarians (people who hold to traditional roles of men & women).
  • Don't make a reactionary/hasty conclusion.
  • Don't accuse either side of bad motives.
Sometimes, such as in Revelation 3:20, I think the TNIV translation is fine and will not be misunderstood. Sometimes it isn't as good as it could be, such as in Matthew 10:24. In no case have I yet seen something that gives me reason to make a lot of noise of concern as if this Bible is leading us down some road of feminism or anything anti-Evangelical.

Maybe that will change. If so, I need to hear better arguments from those who have problems with the TNIV. Meanwhile, I will keep carrying around the TNIV along with my ESV (and my NIV, NASB, KJV & NKJV) as I listen to pastors and read through the Bible and compare how the TNIV reads and what impact all these points make or do not make.


Suzanne McCarthy said...

Thanks for this good post. Nice examples and very balanced.

Kevin said...

Joe, the TNIV's flawed use of plurals in order to make it gender-neutral has not been perfect but hopefully they'll get these kinks fixed in the next edition.

It's great to see you blogging here too.

John Radcliffe said...

I don't know why they didn't do something like this. . .
A student is not above their teacher, nor a servant above their master.

To me at least, this doesn't sound right. The clue is probably is your dictionary quote, "English lacks a common-gender third person singular pronoun that can be used to refer to indefinite pronouns?" (my emphasis). As "a student" isn't a pronoun, the principle probably doesn't apply. For me something like, "Someone who studies is not above their teacher", would be idiomatically OK, but it's not an approach I would advocate. On the other hand, I think more is lost by changing the possessive to "the" (as NLT and NRSV do, unless we use a generic "the" twice: "The student ... the teacher") than going the plural route as TNIV does .

Wayne Leman said...

John commented:

As "a student" isn't a pronoun, the principle probably doesn't apply.

Actually, the original statement was too limiting. It's true that the singular "they" often has an indefinite pronoun as its antecedent. But singular "they" can also have an indefinite noun phrase as its antecedent. So the more general principle is that a singular "they" often takes an indefinite as its antecedent.

It could easily be true for you that "a student" doesn't sound as natural as an antecedent for a singular "they" as an indefinite pronoun, such as "everyone", "no one", etc. does. English is in a time of transition for singular "they." Although singular "they" has been used since the 1400's, the contexts in which it is used are increasing these days. But, as with all ongoing language changes, not everyone feels the same sense of naturalness for usage of a form in the same contexts.

Some linguists these days observe the different syntactic and semantic contexts in which singular "they" does occur.

John Radcliffe said...

I take you point, Wayne, which is why I was careful to say "To/For me" a couple of times: it's impossible for me to know what might sound natural to someone else. As you say, some forms probably have a wider acceptance than others, so translators (or their linguistic advisors) have to decide where to draw the line.

I now think that the TNIV pitches it about right for me (although my opinion has changed since first looking at the TNIV NT some years ago), but others will judge differently. Of course the prescriptivists will continue to reject *any* singular use of "they".

Peter Kirk said...

John quoted "A student is not above their teacher, nor a servant above their master.", then wrote "To me at least, this doesn't sound right."

I agree. But would this be better?

"No student is above their teacher, nor any servant above their master."

It seems that a simple noun with "a" cannot be referred back to by singular "they", but perhaps nouns with "no" or "any" can be.

John Radcliffe said...

Good suggestion, Peter. It would get my vote. Your final paragraph would seem to describe how I "hear" such constructions. But is it just coincidence that we're both "British English" speakers?