Most people are aware that Bible translation is influenced by theology, since translation is always interpretive in thousands of little choices. Theology and translation work together; they affect each other. I have studied biblical Greek and Hebrew (missing the Aramaic for Daniel), but I now do most of my reading and study of the Bible in English translation. I am grateful for having learned enough of biblical languages that I can use lexical resources and exegetical commentaries. Working with translations alone is not reliable enough for my work of teaching, writing, and preaching. One item of original language study that stood out to me recently was reading Luke 8 in a group discussion.
We were crawling through the Greek text so I had time to notice that English translations write the Greek phrase in Luke 8:3 ἕτεραι πολλαί as “many others.” The context of Luke 8:1-2 specifies some women among the disciples of Jesus, naming three: Mary (Magdalene), Joanna, and Susanna. Luke’s next sentence tells that these “and many others” funded Jesus’ ongoing mission trip. I suppose it should be clear that the “many others” are women, but I have not noticed this whenever I’ve read the English translation in the past. The Greek phrase is clear that among Jesus’ disciples there were many women. The English phrase is gender-neutral, but the Greek phrase is clearly feminine. I think an accurate translation should repeat the intention shown by Luke’s choice of Greek terms to say “many other women” to be clear that there was a crowd of female disciples among the crowd of men following Jesus. That item stood out to me as a detail about the many women that Luke had slowed the narrative down to present, but I was always missing it.
Luke’s repeated emphasis on women has gotten my attention recently. His unique triad of parables revealing God’s search to rescue his lost people features a diligent woman as a figure for God searching for the one coin of ten that belonged to her. Luke highlights Elizabeth, Anna, Mary, Martha, and Mary the sister—in parallel with male figures. Luke’s gospel (and Acts) helps to show the presence of women in Jesus’ ministry and the early church.
Women have a higher value in the 21st century than they did in the ancient world, so it can be easy to miss the contrast of such high regard for women in the Bible: women and men are the image of God, women functioned as prophets and examples of faithfulness in the OT, and women were among Jesus’ disciples and examples of faithfulness in the NT. The ancient world surrounding the Bible did not value women in the way we see in biblical accounts.
An influential authority of the ancient view was Aristotle, who taught that women were inferior to men. Unfortunately, this low view of women has been held by many male authorities of the ancient, premodern, and modern world. The lower status of women in Western society shows in the restrictions from property ownership, college education, and voting. The bias against women in modern culture may be to blame for ignoring details in Bible translation such as Luke 8:3.
Just as successive generations move beyond some skills and technology of their parents and grandparents (such as the transitions to microwave ovens, cell phones, and online commerce), so also the current society has moved beyond using masculine collective terms in an inclusive way. The result is that English translation from earlier decades now speaks in a distorted way about the intended audience of many biblical passages. This (unintended) translation slippage makes the Bible unnecessarily difficult for a female reader to use. The Bible is hard enough with all the features of the ancient cultures and God’s own strangeness to our intuitions and sentimentality. We should be highly concerned to remove further (and unbiblical) barriers appearing in translations that do not speak in 21st century English usage.