Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

You are here

Thursday, May 14

Are translators adding to God's Word when they say "Brother and Sister."

This is a common question. People think the Greek New Testament says "brother," and translators therefore add to the Bible when they say "brother and sister." The fact of the matter is that the word "brother' is English, and the New Testament is written in Greek and says ἀδελφός. So the Bible, technically, does not say "brother." The real question is, what does ἀδελφός refer to and how do you convey the meaning in your culture?


I heard someone the other day say, what I've heard other people say, and that is that the Bible says, "brother" and Bible translators are wrong. They are in fact adding to God's word when they say "brother and sister." Is that accurate?

Since the comment was made within the context of Bible translation, we understand the word "Bible" to be the Greek New Testament, not the English, because the person was saying the translators are adding to God's word by translating "brother and sister."

This question is actually very simple to answer. Are translators adding to God's word when they say "brother and sister." Absolutely not. Why? Because the Greek New Testament does not say "brother." Why? Because the word "brother" is an English word, and the New Testament, the Greek New Testament, was written in Greek. So does the Greek New Testament say "brother"? Absolutely not. It says ἀδελφός and the question is, in any context, what does ἀδελφός mean?

If you look at a passage like Matthew 4:18 you can see this. "As he was walking alongside the sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, the plural form of ἀδελφός, Simon, the one called Peter and Andrew, his brother, the singular form of ἀδελφός, casting their nets into the sea. Why? But they were fishermen.

But here obviously you look at auto foods and ἀδελφός and they're referring to males. And so sure, we look at what the word means in this context it means “male.” And so we translate it like everyone does, as “brother.”

But what happens when you look at a verse like Matthew 5:22. “But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his ἀδελφός, a singular form of ἀδελφός, will be liable to judgment. And whoever says to his ἀδελφός, his brother, “Rocca,” will be liable to the Sanhedrin, to the council. And whoever says, “More,” an Aramaic curse for, “fool,” will be liable to the Gehenna of fire.”

So how are you going to translate ἀδελφός? Again, the Bible doesn't say “brother”; the Bible says “ἀδελφός.” What does it mean in this context?

My daughter used to tease her older brother that this verse didn't apply to her because it was just the “brother.” So this was just having to confront Tyler.

Obviously what we're talking about here is a member of your faith community and how are you going to translate that?

It really depends upon how you use language in your context. When making a general statement, do you say “brother” or do you say “brother and sister”? If you say “brother and sister,” are you adding to God's word? No, because the Greek doesn't say “brother.” It says ἀδελφός, and you have to decide in your context how you are going to refer to that member of your faith community.

If you look at some of the other translations, you'll see NIV says “brother or sister,” NASB “brother,” ESV, “brother,” CSB has gone with “brother or sister,” and the NRSV “brother or sister.” The NET Bible says, “brother.“

And very interestingly, the NLT says, “But I say, if you are even angry with someone.” This is an uncharacteristic poor translation for the NLT because by using ἀδελφός, Jesus is saying, this is how you relate to people in your faith community. And the NLT has broadened it to this is how you relate to anyone. And I think that's a mistake. It does not refer to anyone in general, but we're talking specifically about confronting a member of the faith community who is angry with you.

But again, let me repeat my main point. Does the Bible say “brother,” and by “Bible” we have to go back to the Greek New Testament because we're talking about translation theory. Does the Greek New Testament say “brother”? Absolutely not. “Brother” is an English word. The Bible says ἀδελφός. And then you have to look at the original context and decide who the speaker is speaking about. And then you have to look at your modern context and decide how do you refer to that person.


¶ When Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, did he misspeak when he said, "That's one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind"? Should he have said, "That's one small step for a man or woman, one giant leap for mankind and womankind?" Or should he have made a more politically/socially correct, gender-neutral statement, "That's one small step for a person, one giant leap for humankind"? ¶ It is better to let the Word of God speak as it was written and leave it alone. This may seem minor, but it is just one step of compromise in the direction of the depraved way that our society is moving, from twentieth century feminism turned radical to transgender/transexuality and the gender identity crisis of today. ¶ I thought of a good way to explain the gender concept from the ground up. Imagine, if you will, at the beginning, before the creation, there was no such thing as gender. There was only God. God was not "God" as opposed to "Goddess." There was no male or female, because that concept had yet to be created by God. ¶ Next comes the creation. God creates Adam in his own image and after his own likeness. Yes, I realize there are male and female animals at this point, among other life forms, including asexual ones, but only Adam in God's image. So, that defines what the word "man" means. When God created Eve, he fashioned her from out of Adam's flesh. Eve is then called "wo-man" ("ish-ah"). God then gives her back to Adam. Her identity is derived from the man's identity. Sorry feminists, but that is the way it is. It is a "man's world" or, should I say, "Adam's world," with Eve as his helpmate. This is the origin and basis from which the rest of Genesis and the rest of the Bible is written. Again, this is described historically, so it is independent of any language's lexicon. ¶ This is why translators should be careful not to cheapen the Biblical definition, keep "man" and "brother" in the original language as "man" and "brother" in the target language, and not compromise based on changing, socially/politically-correct language standards. ¶ We already have enough male/female role confusion and a growing sexual gender identity crisis. Let the Word of God speak for itself on the subject of gender. αδελφος is brother. ανθρωπος is man. αδελφη is sister. γυνη is woman. Women/sisters are a subordinate definition. It is fair to generalize mankind as intrinsically including woman. I think that anyone is intelligent enough to know that women are not another species of animal distinct from man in the scriptures.

You say "It is better to let the Word of God speak as it was written," but that means we would have to throw away all translations and use just Greek and Hebrew.

I wonder if this is how you translated “ἀδελφός” before you became a father. Is it possible you have changed your view of “ἀδελφός” out of concern for your daughter's feelings, or did you always believe this?

To be sure Kiersten has made me look at things anew. But I think I hold my position for linguistic and not personal reasons.

Dear Bill, I understand what you are saying, but I do not think it is that simple. The Greek "ἀδελφός" can indeed (and often does) simply refer generically to a "member of your faith community" (i.e. be unmarked as to sex), however the English "brothers and sisters" is not unmarked as to sex; it is doubly marked. As such, it has the potential of being an over-translation. This is not theoretical. I recently heard someone preaching from 1 Corinthians 12:1 (NIV): "Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed." He latched on to the phrase "brothers AND SISTERS" (his verbal emphasis) and applied it to every subsequent verse. He used it to teach that every gift in the chapter was for both men and women His point was that women should be free to preach. I do not know what you think of the topic of women preaching or really wish to debate it in this forum, but if you believe in it, this is not the verse to go to for support. I would agree with the NIV translators that Paul was not speaking to only males in this passage, and yet I do not think he was trying to make an egalitarian statement either. The English translation however opens wide the door to that interpretation, because "brothers and sisters" is not read as a generic; it is a read as an emphasized "both/and." Unfortunately, we have all but lost the generic in English because the male generic has become unacceptable in so many quarters, and we do not have a good alternative. Hence, the challenges of translation (and the need for Greek study). Thanks, Jason

Interesting argument but full of holes. He is addressing the entire church ("brothers and sisters") but he is not saying all gifts are for all people. That is a non-sequitur. And at the end of the chapter he explicitly says not all gifts are for all people.