Lessons in Greek
By Elisabeth Duckworth
Today's Greek word is: brother(s).
Guys, guys, or guys. Three words that look and sound identical, yet one means “men”, another “people”, and the other “women”. All three meanings are legitimate, but how do we choose? The context might help. Assumptions also come into play. If we say “they're some guys hanging out in a dark alley”, we'd probably assume those guys were young men. But to translate the sentence accordingly would show an unfair bias, since we don't know if the “guys” are young or men. It would be better to translate “guys” as people in this situation. We might decide that “the default translation for ‘guys’ shall always be ‘people’, unless the text or context makes it absolutely clear otherwise.”
Similarly in Greek, the word adelphoi (οι αδελφοι) means “brothers” and “siblings”. Same word, same spelling, two meanings. Traditionally, Bibles translated adelphoi as “brothers”. Some modern translations use “brothers and sisters”. I have a modern Bible translation that opted for “brothers” only. A footnote at the beginning of every chapter acknowledges adelphoi could be translated as brothers and sisters in certain contexts, but the translators never do. Another modern translation uses “brothers and sisters“. However, in every instance a footnote emphatically states that the “actual” meaning of the word adelphoi is “brothers”, the implication being that using “brothers and sisters” is more a concession to modern sensitivities than good Greek scholarship. It seems battle lines are drawn over this simple word.
Let's look first at a little grammar. English is one of those rare languages that does not use masculine, feminine, or neuter articles for our nouns. French has la and le; German uses der, die, das, and so on. A grammatically masculine or feminine noun does not mean the person, place, or thing is actually male, female, or neutral. The Greek word adelphos is grammatically masculine. So is the word for a saint (ο αγιος), an angel (ο αγγελος), and a Christian (ο γριστιανος). Yet we know there were and are women Christians, and there were women saints in Paul's early churches. Christ said angels are neither male nor female. So too, the masculine noun adelphos refers to siblings, male and female.
Jesus understood this in Mark 3:31-35; Matthew 12:46-50; and Luke 8:19-21. Jesus was teaching in crowded house and was told His mother and adelphoi were outside. Every translation I have read translates adelphoi as “your mother and brothers“, even the ones which use “brothers and sisters” elsewhere. I'm not sure why this cautious reluctance, since Jesus Himself assumes the latter. Matthew 12:46-50 (NIV): 49Pointing to His disciples, He said, “Here are my mother and my brothers (adelphoi). 50For whoever does the will of my Father in Heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Why the fuss? Unfortunately, I believe there is a great deal of conscious and unconscious bias behind the translation of adelphos. Much of it has to do with defining and maintaining authority and roles within the church. If “adelphoi” means Christian men and women in virtually every scriptural context, it becomes difficult to defend excluding women from full participation in the church and from claiming all the gifts of the Spirit, including teaching and preaching.
Perhaps like our “guys” analogy above, we should decide that “the default translation for adelphoi shall always be ‘brothers and sisters’, unless the text or context makes it absolutely clear otherwise.”
Next time, we'll look at the mythological story behind the word groping in Acts 17:27.