Lost in Translation: Are Women Really Missing?
Jesus Wants Male and Female Disciples
Years ago, during Vacation Bible School, I learned a little song based on Jesus’s words to his fisherman-followers. It went like this:
I will make you fishers of men,
Fishers of men,
Fishers of men.
I will make you fishers of men
If you follow me…
Men, men, men, men. Four times. I must have unconsciously internalized that, because I heard this: the male Jesus told his male followers to go find other males and invite them to follow the Lord.
These words of Jesus to which I’m referring are recorded by Matthew (4:19). The English Standard Version (ESV), published by Crossway in 2001, translates Matthew’s Greek this way: “And he [i.e., Jesus] said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’” But after the last quotation mark in this version, a little footnote appears adding, ”The Greek word anthropoi refers here to both men and women.”
Wait. What? Why for the sake of holy love if they knew women were included did they add us only as a footnote?
You recognize the word anthropoi, right? It’s the word they translated as ”men,” and it’s the root from which we get anthropology, the study of people. Humans. And human people include, but are not limited to, men.
Since the time I learned the little song, I have spent decades mentally flipping the English ”men” in other places to “men and women” when the Greek is inclusive, but I missed it on this one. Only recently did it occur to me that Jesus had women in mind too.
I wondered what other passages with male-leaning words in the English I needed to re-learn. Below are a few of interest.
Holy Men and Women Spoke
A key passage on the inspiration of Scripture is 2 Peter 1:21: “…for prophecy never came by the will of man [anthropino], but holy men [anthropoi] of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit (ESV).
It means: “for prophecy never came by the will of people/men and women, but holy people/men and women of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.
Have women uttered prophesies recorded as Scripture? Sure they have! A few immediately come to mind. There’s Deborah (Judges 5). And Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1–10)—whom Mary quotes in her own prophetic words that we sometimes refer to as “The Magnificat” (Luke 1:46–55). In Song of Songs, female voices make up more than sixty percent of the text with voices full of boldness, urgency, and even play.
God Wants Equipped Men and Women
While we’re on the subject of God-breathed truth, let’s look at 2 Timothy 3:16–17.
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (ESV).
What is the purpose of God’s word? To equip godly men, it would appear. Now, again, after “man of God” we do find a little footnote in this translation. This time it says, “That is, a messenger of God (the phrase echoes a common Old Testament expression)” [parentheses theirs].
Were women excluded from being messengers of God?
No. They were included. Check out Psalm 68:11: “The Lord gives the word; the women who announce the news are a great host” (ESV). You might know a variation of this from Handel’s Messiah: “Great was the company of the preachers.” And that last word has a feminine ending. The “preachers” whom the psalmist had in mind were all women.
Public proclamation of the Lord’s word is holy work given to both men and women. So let’s take a second glance at 2 Timothy 3:16–17, translating with language that reveals the Greek’s inclusiveness, which is lacking in some English translations (which lack women on their translation committees):
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person/man or woman of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
Spiritual maturity is not reserved exclusively for males. Such maturity is God’s desire for all his children—that the Scriptures He breathed would teach, reprove, correct, and train us all, so we are all mature, equipped for every good work.
Men and Women Provide for Needs
A verse I have heard cited often at marriage conferences is 1 Timothy 5:8. Most translations of this verse, including the ESV’s, make it sound like providing is totally the man’s job. That is certainly the emphasis that came through from the speakers, and it’s how the verse sounds in a lot of translations like this one:
“But if anyone does not provide for his relatives, and especially for members of his household, he has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (ESV, emphasis mine).
Notice the three male pronouns in that short little verse? Imagine my surprise when I learned Paul did not assign “providing” to one sex as opposed to the other:
“If anyone does not provide for that one’s own relatives, and especially for members of that one’s own household, that person has denied the faith….”
Later in the same passage, when Paul finally does give a sex-specific suggestion, he says that Christian women should provide for their family members in need (v. 16). Same context. Same subject. But totally different assignment of responsibility from what we usually hear.
And a female contributing economically aligns with what we know from other Scriptures. Consider the ideal woman—wisdom personified—whom we read about in Proverbs 31. Is her husband a financial provider? He doesn’t appear to be. Is he lazy? No. Disabled? No. Does she have wrong priorities? No.
Rather than expecting her husband to be the sole provider, this mom with children (v. 28) is buying and selling a field (v. 6). She also sells linen garments and sashes (v. 24), and she does volunteer work for the poor and needy (v. 20). Meanwhile, where is her guy? He appears to be bringing in no income because he is sitting with the elders in the gate, where justice happens (v. 23). Together they make a better world possible through their division of labor. And in her likeness came the women who supported Jesus and his disciples from their income (Luke 8:3).
People of Athens
Until recently, I’d always pictured the people on Mars Hill in Athens to whom Paul spoke as an all-male group. In the translation I had, when Paul spoke at the Areopagus, he began with, “Men of Athens!” But in his chapter on Bible translations and gender for Discovering Biblical Equality, Jeffrey D. Miller directs readers’ attention to what happened after Paul had finishing speaking: “Some of them sneered, but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’ At that, Paul left the Council. Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was… a woman named Damaris” (Acts 17:34, NIV).
Let’s Do the Work
Sometimes people ask why we don’t see more women in the biblical text. Maybe for starters, it’s because women are more present than our translations would have us believe.
We hear a lot about how the secular culture is causing gender problems that drive people out of church. And it is. But it looks like we must also own some responsibility here.
In the UK, one study showed that single women are the most likely group to leave Christianity. In the US, the numbers tell a similar story. And I doubt pressure to marry is the only factor driving these women away. Imagine it. If a female HR manager hears about speeches addressed only to men, how does she find herself in that story? Or if a single female cashier hears men are supposed to be the providers for women, what is she to do? If women with gifts of shepherding never hear that Rachel was a shepherd (Gen 29:9) or that the woman in Song of Songs was grazing her goats (1:8), she may never see there’s a place for her in shepherding others, helping them “be equipped,” as mentioned in 2 Timothy 3:16–17.
I get that extremes of feminism threaten, that goddess worship is a thing, and that sexism can go both ways. I do. I get it. But honestly? I never meet women in church who are into that. Instead, I have heard from women in overwhelming numbers about their need to hear “you can do this” as opposed to “you need to hold back.” And it’s not because most women are insecure. They might be killing it in their HR jobs. It’s because they don’t hear or see themselves represented, valued, or invited from the biblical text and consequently from Christian leaders.
Maybe if women saw themselves in the stories and applications where they actually belong, they might think the church has a place for them.
If you’re a woman, I urge you to dig for the data that shows you’re included. You are! And Jesus urges you, as he urges all who come after him, to follow him, pursue others who might also follow, and get equipped so you can help others mature.
If you’re a male pastor or male Bible teacher, would you please retire translations that are less than faithful to authorial intent? And be as inclusive as God reveals himself to be in the original text as you preach and teach? Because if a female seminary professor misses it when she has access to the Greek, we can’t expect female congregants to do the work of including themselves. It’s going to take a little hospitality.
Oh MAN I loved this!! . . . So what translation(s) do you prefer and recommend?
Thanks. The NET is great, and its notes are an added benefit. I also really like the latest NIV.
P. S. My former student Cynthia Hester has pointed out: “The utterances of seventy-one individual women are recorded in the Bible, of which the words of fifty-one women are in the Old Testament (Source: Lindsay Hardin Freeman, Bible Women: All Their Words and Why They Matter, (Cincinnati, OH: Forward Movement, 2015), 465–468.
Deborah’s song (Judg 5:2–31), Huldah’s prediction of judgment on Judah (2 Kgs 22:16), Hannah’s song (1 Sam 2:1–10), and the Queen mother’s instructions to her son, King Lemuel (Prov 31:1–9) are part of the Scriptural record.
(Source: Saucy and TenElshof, Women and Men, 77–78.)