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.