Is Scripture Addressed Mostly to Males? [Part One]

An unanticipated conversation was generated just last month, when someone suggested to me that it seems the Bible doesn’t talk about women having souls; only men are said to possess souls, the person insisted. From this, it developed into a debate that was focused on something broader. This person asked: why does Scripture address men, and not women, for the most part? Why, for instance, does Jesus talk about “sons of the kingdom” in places like Matthew 13:38 and exclude girls and women? Why are there no “daughters of the kingdom”?

Interesting questions. But let me back us up a bit before I respond.

First, because we’re dealing with English translations from Hebrew and Greek manuscripts, it’s important to remember that English (at least for the time being) doesn’t have an accepted gender-neutral singular pronoun that takes the place of both “he” and “she.” I’ll acknowledge that “them/they/their” has become far more accepted for this purpose, but it’s still technically plural. This is why modern translators have defaulted to using the generic masculine pronoun of he/him, regardless of whether or not the context applies to individuals of both sexes. So, this isn’t an issue about the Biblical text itself per se; it’s more about whether or not there’s a warrant for eliminating all possible appearances of gender bias in translations. That’s a legitimate concern, of course, and many translators have sought to address this very thing. The New International Version (NIV), for example, renders Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 in a very general sense rather than using the solely male pronoun. It does the same thing with hundreds of other passages as well:

“Two are better than one,
because they have a good return for their labor:
If either of them falls down,
one can help the other up.
But pity anyone who falls
and has no one to help them up.” – Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 (NIV)

Both Eccl. 4:9-10 and Ephesians 4:8 (“Therefore it says, ‘When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.’”) are examples of this same translational issue, where the Greek or Hebrew word for humanity in general is the one actually being used in the manuscripts. Some popular translations like the NIV, Holman Christian Standard Bible, and New Living Translation are at least rendering the word accurately by saying “his people” or “people” instead of merely “men.” There’s no question that the underlying Greek in this latter passage is very clear.

This is why no commentator in history has ever understood Eph. 4:8 as referring to spiritual gifts being given to anyone other than all believers, whether female or male. It would only be exclusionary if the verse read in the following way: “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men (Greek anér, meaning biological men) and withheld them from women (Greek guné, meaning biological women).” But we know that it doesn’t say this. Again, instead, it says this: “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men (Greek anthrópos, meaning humankind).”

Statistically speaking, it also simply isn’t true to say that males alone are addressed more than females, or humankind in general, in Scripture. In the New Testament, the Greek word for people in general (anthrópos) is used 554 times, while the word for “men” (anér, which again means specifically male by biological sex) is used only 216 times. By the same token, the Hebrew word for “man” (geber) is used 65 times throughout the Old Testament, while the Hebrew word for “woman” (ishshah) is used 781 times (Source: Strong’s Greek and Hebrew Concordances).

Another key verse that I’ve seen brought up is Matthew 13:38, which specifically uses the phrase “sons of the kingdom”:

“And He said, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels.” – Matthew 13:37-39 (NASB)

Although I might say a similar thing about this phrase (that the Greek word uihos could just as easily be rendered “children” and be accurate), it’s more relevant to note that the term being used here is metaphorical. This is a parable, after all: The Parable of the Weeds.

Thus, taking this description and assuming the idea that only biological males are heirs to the actual Kingdom of Heaven is saying too much. By necessity, this view would still have to mean that there can’t be any women in hell either, because there are only “sons of the wicked one,” and no daughters of the wicked one are mentioned. There’s no warrant for this, though, either linguistically or conceptually. And neither is there any real reason for maintaining that biological males are the only possible recipients of salvation. The text simply doesn’t say this.

Let me provide another example. The idea of sonship through the work of Christ is a similar metaphor used throughout the New Testament. For example, 1 John 3:3:

“Behold, what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us, that we should be called the sons of God.”

Again, this is a figure of speech; believers aren’t literally biological “sons” of God. Rather, the metaphor being communicated is that Christian believers are adopted into a new family and given privileges that were only legally available in Ancient Near Eastern societies (like that of the Jews) by being a son. Since it’s a metaphor, the description is simply used to convey an idea of heirship and position within the “family” of God.

On the flip side, I would point out that the church is also called a “bride” in Ephesians and Revelation. Quite a feminine image. Yet his doesn’t mean that the “bride”—the actual church—is only biologically female. All that this description functions as is a metaphor. Metaphors are purely used for comparison through imagery, not for some description of reality with actual gender specificity.

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5 Comments

  1. When I began studying Spanish, I learned that they have gender-specific words. If I wanted to talk about just sisters, I can use “hermanas” but if I wanted to talk about just brothers or brothers and sisters together, I have to use the word “hermanos” – which is literally just “brothers”; and never, ever “hermanas”. In this way, I know that the male sense of the word is default. It holds true for mothers and fathers (“padres”), aunts and uncles (tíos), cats (gatos), dogs (perros) and boys and girls (niños). It makes sense as Spanish’s root language is that of Latin and we know that much of Rome’s civilization was inspired in some way by that of Greece – also they interacted a lot and that affected how their languages developed.
    Men were simply considered the default, women were “other” – one ancient teacher said that women were “defective men”. Men wrote the rules and constructed the language in ways that gave them priority in every sense of the word. We got the idea to say that “all men are created equal” from that ancient line of thought, but sometimes men excludes women. That’s why women aren’t permitted to teach, because even though they’re men (human) they’re not men (male.) For the most part though, by using the male sense as the default, it’s primarily addressing the men and secondarily including the women. Then when Paul says things like: “I want the women to …” You have to ask, is he telling the men to tell the women what to do, or is he addressing the brothers in such a way that he’s speaking to only the women among them?

    1. Jamie,

      I appreciate your comments. Let me respond on a couple of points.

      First, I would agree with you that there have long been some trappings with language in terms of gender priority. There’s no doubt that linguistic use and vocabulary have often developed out of the most dominant views in terms of how the world operates. My point with the Bible in particular is that, with respect to the original Greek and Hebrew language, we often have the authors using terms for humans in general even when it’s translated as “man” or “men.” So this is a problem with English translation and translators; it isn’t a problem that actually exists in the Bible per se.

      But your application of this idea to the New Testament, specifically the passage in 1 Timothy 2, is problematic for a couple of reasons. It’s interesting that you bring up this verse, in fact, because this is a topic directly addressed by the Philip Barton Payne book I recommend in my second post regarding this issue. Your interpretation of this verse about women and teaching is very strained, in my opinion; none of the preceding or following verses say anything close to the reasoning you provide.

      Indeed, the Ephesian cult of Artemis (criticized by Paul even before this: see Acts 19:23-29) did regard women as superior to men, with converts to the Christian faith still arguing from their previously pagan mindset that (1) Eve was created before Adam, (2) Adam, not Eve, was the one who was originally deceived, and (3) having children is evil. Continuing on with this third point, it’s vital to understand that the Platonists and Gnostics had considered childbearing evil because it supposedly traps a child’s spirit within an evil, material body. When you get to verse 15 about women being “saved through childbearing,” Paul is alluding to the commonly-held idea of Artemis as a supposed helper/protector during childbirth, and he’s insisting that Christ is even more capable of protecting women who undergo childbirth. There’s really no other interpretation of the verse that makes sense as much as this does. Clearly, it’s not teaching that all women have to get pregnant and deliver babies to receive salvation from sins instead of believing in Christ. That would be completely out of step with the entirety of the Bible and the gospel.

      What Payne emphasizes in his book, though, is the grammar of 1 Timothy 2:12: it is a limited present tense. It’s more correct to understand Paul as writing “I am not [currently] permitting,” rather than thinking he’s stating a universal law that stands for the rest of time. The idea of “teaching” as an action and holding the actual office of teacher is also distinguished; Paul didn’t prevent women from being teachers. Instead, he used the infinitive form of the verb alone, “to teach” (instead of, for example, “to hold the office of teacher”), since he was talking specifically about women in Ephesus who were seeking to teach others without having adequate enough knowledge. They were pulling people back very quickly into Gnostic and other pagan heresies. And much more than this, they were domineering and usurping authority from men within the Ephesian church to do so.

      1. The church I’m from – didn’t really care. All it saw was that women shouldn’t teach and they say it applies even now. I was just looking at another post where a blogger says as much – it’s difference in role, he says and that’s just how it is. As if the ancient culture had nothing to do with it.

      2. No doubt I’d agree, as I think you’re suggesting, that your church was embarrassingly wrong. Context is definitely key. That’s been my aim in writing about Scripture since day one of doing so. With respect to the Bible, I only trust those who exegete and pull meaning from the text. I refuse to accept, at least as the final word, the interpretations of anyone who only reads things into the text.

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