Sometimes the thought crosses my mind, “Are you just making all this stuff up about men and women working together as co-equals in the church? Who do you think you are? You aren’t qualified to make judgments about the Scriptures–you don’t have any training in these areas.” And it’s true. I don’t. So I love to have the help of theologians. When Gary Shogren contacted me a while back and said, “If I may offer, I do a great deal of work in the Greek New Testament (my field – my PhD is from Aberdeen University) and I would be very happy to serve as a resource if you have any issues dealing with exegesis or early church history,” I took him at his word. Gary and his wife are missionaries in Costa Rica and professors in a Bible College and Seminary. I’ve sent him various questions, including ones posed by people commenting on this blog, and he’s been incredibly helpful in response. Here’s his latest “rant”!
Who did Paul write to? Brothers, or Brothers and Sisters?
May I draw your attention to 1 Thessalonians 1:4 ESV – “for we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you…”
Here’s a puzzle: why is it that in the English Standard Version, Paul addresses his readers as brothers (ESV, HCSB; brethren in the KJV and NASB). But in other versions of that same verse, he writes to his brothers and sisters (e. g., GW, NET, NRSV). What happened? Have modern translators caved in to feminist pressure and pasted the sisters into the Bible? Are other translators manning the barricade in order to defend God’s Word?
Here’s the facts: in 1:4 and elsewhere, we are dealing with a plural Greek noun, adelphoi/ἀδελφοί (memory hint = Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love). In the body of the text, the ESV renders adelphoi as “brothers” (never “brothers and sisters”). Then at the first use of the term in each Pauline epistle there is an explanatory footnote: 1 Thessalonians 1:4 footnote says:
2 Or brothers and sisters. The plural Greek word adelphoi (translated ‘brothers’) refers to siblings in a family. In New Testament usage, depending on the context, adelphoi may refer either to men or to both men and women who are siblings (brothers and sisters) in God’s family, the church.
Did I hear this right? Aren’t the ESV editors conceding that rendering adelphoi as “brothers and sisters” in this context would be the more accurate and literal rendering, but for some unstated reason they haven’t used it? Indeed that is just what they are saying.
I minister full-time in Spanish, and here it helps me to understand the Greek. The Spanish hermano means “brother”, while hermana, with the feminine ending, means “sister”. But hermanos, plural, is generic. As in the Greek, the Spanish plural can refer to “male siblings only” or it could refer to “siblings.” So in Spanish, if someone asks me, “Do you have any hermanos?” the proper response in my case would be “Yes, I have two brothers. I have one brother and one sister.” But in English, if someone asks me, “Do you have any brothers?” my response would be to tell you how many male siblings I have: “Yes, I have one brother.” And maybe I would add: “Oh, and I also have a sister.” Do you see the difference? If I ask you if you have brothers and you start in by saying, “Yes, I have three sisters,” then it should be evident to all that the English doesn’t work the same way as the Greek does.
So, the plural adelphoi in Greek can mean “male siblings” or “siblings,” depending on the context. Since Paul addresses male and female adelphoi in his letters, then a perfectly proper and literal translation in English is siblings or, less clunkily, brothers and sisters. In fact, even the “complementarian” Colorado Springs Guidelines would not take issue with “brothers and sisters,” since it states that “the plural adelphoi can be translated ‘brothers and sisters’ where the context makes clear that the author is referring to both men and women.” (see the text of the Guidelines)
Translating these verses with brothers and sisters is not a paraphrase; translating it only with the male brothers is. It is not political correctness to translate brothers and sisters, nor is it a rejection of pc to translate it brothers.
So my question is not “Why does the NRSV or NLT or NIV have brother and sister?” but rather,“Why doesn’t the ESV put brothers and sisters right where they say it belongs, in the text of 1 Thessalonians 1:4?” And why this odd footnote that contradicts the choice that the editors made when they put in the inferior translation brothers in verses where brothers and sisters is the more accurate rendering?
Thus, the translation of 1 Thessalonians 1:4 that I made for my commentary is “We acknowledge [before God], brothers and sisters whom God loves, that you were chosen…”
This material is adapted from 1-2 Thessalonians by Gary S. Shogren, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012). The reader may also visit my blog at openoureyeslord.com to download my full commentary on 1 Corinthians and for articles on 1-2 Thessalonians, including my full translation of both epistles.