Feminism and the Bible

Feminists have made translators of biblical documents realize that their work is important for the movement of women's liberation. They claim with justification that earlier translations have contributed to ''sex-biased'' language of the Bible by inserting the word ''man'' in passages where it does not exist in the original text. Militant feminists say that the masculine language which permeates biblical narratives, exhortations, and theology makes them feel alienated from the tradition and disenfranchised.

As the Revised Standard Version (RSV) Bible Committee prepares a revision of the text for publication in the early 1990s, diverse rumors have circulated about its response to the feminist pressure for change. Traditionalists, fighting for the preservation of ''Bible English,'' are convinced that the new translation is being executed by a ''team of eunuchs.''

Ardent feminists, on the other hand, urge the committee to move ''more boldly'' in the use of inclusive language and suggest, for example, that Sarah's name appear in passages where only Abraham's name is mentioned. Since they believe that ''accidental limitations of human language'' shaped the masculine-biased language of biblical authors, they argue that the committee should change the translation of biblical metaphors for God - Lord, King, Father , even He - and explore alternate renderings for titles given to Jesus Christ which stress his maleness.

Feminists have raised a fundamental question about principles for translation. Are translators to render an author's text into another language by a literal, word-for-word translation, or by a paraphrase? By following the former procedure the translators of the first revision of the King James Version (KJV), the American Standard Version of 1901, produced a work often called a schoolmaster's translation. An example of their accurate pedantry appears in Luke 9:17, ''And they ate, and were filled: and there was taken up that which remained over to them of broken pieces, twelve baskets.''

An example of a freely translated paraphrase is J. B. Phillips's rendering of Romans 16:16 which in the KJV reads, ''Salute one another with a holy kiss; the churches of Christ salute you,'' and in the Phillips translation reads, ''Give one another a hearty handshake all around for my sake.''

Members of the RSV Bible Committee have been accused by feminists of following the former principle, but in fact it has been trying to avoid both types of translation: the former, because the English expression and style are unsatisfactory; the second, because it violates the meaning of the original text. As the committee works on the problem of using inclusive language, it is evident that a third principle is available for translators.

The RSV Bible Committee has discussed at great length the extent to which inclusive language can be used. The elimination of optional masculine expressions, some of which have been made during the process of translation, presents few difficulties. The least controversial of these changes is rendering ''any man'' or ''no man'' of the KJV by ''anyone'' or ''no one,'' for the original texts have indefinite pronouns.

It is also possible, for example, to translate the words in Psalm 1:1, ''Blessed is the man'' by having it read, ''Blessed are they,'' because the Hebrew word for ''man'' in this passage may be understood in the collective sense.

Also, when Paul addressed members of a local congregation as ''brethren,'' he clearly intended to include women. Here the translator may add ''sisters.'' Faithful translators who wish to preserve the integrity of the text, then, have a third option: one which is neither a literal translation nor a paraphrase but which gives the equivalent effect of the author's intent and purpose.

The committee objects, however, to using fully inclusive language in circumstances which in effect require a rewriting of the original text. An illustration of another kind of suggestion is the proposal to change ''Son of man,'' a title for Jesus Christ, to ''Human Being.'' The question of offensiveness found by feminists in the title, which has a long literary and religious history, is not solved by a facile change in translation.

In general, I have three major reasons for being cautious about moving boldly in the use of inclusive language which requires rewriting the original text.

First, some feminists appear to be more concerned about using the Bible as an instrument of social change than about the basic religious message. The central message of the Bible stresses an understanding of God's nature and will and obedience to His will rather than the promotion of social revolution and the full realization of human potentialities. While the latter are important in the biblical tradition, they are generated and revitalized by the proclamation about God.

Second, translators by catering to the preferences and prejudices of special interest groups will satisfy the religious, moral, and social needs of a limited number of people. Following the tradition of the KJV, which did not permit even marginal notes of a sectarian nature, as had the Geneva Bible, the RSV Bible Committee published in 1977 the first ecumenical edition of the Bible used by Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Greek Orthodox branches of the Church. A development which primarily pursues the feminists' desire for the elimination of ''sexism'' and other related issues would result not in a translation for the entire Church but in a ''Targum,'' a term which refers to the synagogal practice during Jesus's day of rendering Hebrew texts into Aramaic with the freedom of adapting those texts to satisfy the wishes of a congregation.

Third, the procedure of eliminating all that is offensive to the modern mind and mores is too violent a reaction. To speak of God as Parent rather than Father diminishes the power and effectiveness of the biblical metaphor and would be an unnecessary loss. In all religious traditions people make a distinction between the ultimate basis upon which they build their personal faith and the way others before them have expressed it. In the Christian tradition we accept the biblical expression as traditional, for we live not to ourselves alone but by the increment of all that persons throughout the centuries have held to be true and sacred.

Translators, then, can make many legitimate changes for a world concerned with the rights of women. But more important is the concern for producing with integrity a reliable text for interpreters who can explain the meaning of the term ''Son of man'' and can call attention to the fact that biblical authors, in spite of their masculine bias, attribute to women a significant role in the origins of the Jewish and Christian faiths: Miriam's song of victory celebrates God's triumph in the deliverance of Israel from slavery; and Mary Magdalene first announced Jesus's resurrection, God's demonstration of triumph over death.

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