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it's a girl: the Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven


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Greek New Testament translator Ann Nyland has the following footnote on Matthew 18.2:


"Bible versions traditionally translate the personal pronoun here as 'him', but the personal pronoun in the Greek is 'it' following the neuter grammatical gender of 'child'. The gender of the child is not mentioned [by the narrator of the Greek gospel of Matthew], and the Greek provides no clues."


She herself translates the verse this way:


"Jesus called a child over, and put the child down in the middle of them." 


Dr. Nyland's English is emphasizing the mystery or the non-specificity of Matthew's Greek.


καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος παιδίον ἔστησεν αὐτὸ ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν


She could have translated it with it, the way Hebrew-Bible and Greek-New-Testament translator Julia Smith has:


"And Jesus, having called a young child, set it in the midst of them,"


Beyond how "Bible versions traditionally translate," and apart from the few non-traditional versions such as Nyland's and Smith's, there are three versions that seem to get at something greater in Matthew. (For a quick look at the traditional, one can click here.)

That is, three Greek New Testament translators have regarded the larger context and the regular gendered contrasts of the Greek gospel of Matthew. These three highlight the plausibility that this male Rabbi called a little girl over and put her down in the middle of these men who were his all-male talmidim clamoring for the answer to their question about who could be the very greatest in the Kingdom of this God their teacher called his Father. 

Let me end my post with these three. But first let me consider more what Dr. Nyland is advising and why that matters. Ann Nyland like Julia Smith advises that we pay close attention to gender in the Greek. Grammatically we all know how very important that is. Neither translator wants to over-translate the gender. For those readers inclusive of the LBGT community, Nyland has stressed how important getting gender in translation right is. For those readers inclusive of first-wave feminist activism, Smith's translating has been remarkably important both for the facts that (1) she herself without the aid of a man translated not only the Greek Septuagint and the Greek New Testament but also the Hebrew Bible and that (2) her close reading of the original language texts have yielded an English version that brings to light gender in clearer ways (as noted in The Women's Bible commentary here).

Neither woman translating wishes to read more gender into the Greek than the grammar necessitates. Nonetheless most translators default in English to the male-child gender. Nyland uses the English adverb traditionally to describe this male default in the rendering into English here: 


"Bible versions traditionally translate the personal pronoun here as 'him', but the personal pronoun in the Greek is 'it' following the neuter grammatical gender of 'child'. The gender of the child is not mentioned [by the narrator of the Greek gospel of Matthew], and the Greek provides no clues."

She is correct of course that the Greek pronoun αὐτὸ is neuter. To say "it's a boy" or to say definitively "it's a girl" is to go beyond the clues Matthew provides his Greek readers here. He as author narrator does nonetheless provide an antecedent to the next pronoun αὐτῶν. That next pronoun refers back to the men asking their male Rabbi the question. And he, this Teacher, has been referred to by the very Greek pronoun that Matthew uses again in 18:2.  The singular (non plural) form of this same neuter pronoun in Matthew 2 actually refers to the child Jesus, to the boy, to the male son of Mary. There are nine pronominal references to this lad in the tight space of a very close context. There is no ambiguity. The clues are abundant. But in Matthew 18, the writer's same pronoun "provides no clues."

What I would like to suggest is that English translators have three choices, and the third choice is most compelling because of the larger context of the gospel. The first choice is almost no choice at all; it is to default male; and it is precisely how "Bible versions traditionally translate the personal pronoun here as 'him'."


The second choice is Nyland's and Smith's. That is the translator is providing the English reader the opportunity to attend to the importance of grammatical gender in the Greek. That is the Greek hides whether "it's a boy" or "it's a girl."


The third choice is to let the English reader see what Matthew and what Jesus have been doing with the Patriarchy, with the male-superior hierarchy, as the Greek gospel goes along. Already we have taken time to see this male dominance and predominance and default position in Matthew 15.21-29. And so when we readers come with Jesus and his disciples to their question about which one of them in their male only schooling gets the top position when they all go to Heaven, we readers are not surprised that Jesus continues to deconstruct their notions of privilege.


When he calls a child over and sets it in front of them, even though Matthew's Greek at this point provides no clues as to whether he's a boy child or she's a girl child, we wouldn't be too surprised by now if "it's a girl." Girls in comparison to boys had no statuses. They were never great like Jesus himself as a boy would be in his family. They were never great as a great disciple of a great Rabbi would be in the Kingdom of greatness. 

Maybe by providing us his Greek readers with no clues as to the gender of this child Matthew is asking us to use our imaginations. And so we must. We cannot just imagine a sexless child. When we read a story that includes a child being stood up in front of a group of men, we don't usually think of it as dressed androgynously or as having hair that gives no clues as to its gender. We picture a boy in boy clothes with boy hair if we think it's a boy. And we picture in our mind's eye a girl with girl clothes with girl hair if we think it's a girl. Another way to put this is to imagine ourselves casting a play or theatre or film version of this very story. We would choose a boy or a girl to play this part of the child set in front of the men. And we would want the costume department and the make up department to provide clues to the audience in the theater whether he was a boy or she was a girl. This exercise would perhaps betry our default imagination. We might be biased. We might have implicit bias. We might even be deeply sexist participating in the systemic sexism of the social constructs of our society. We could even test ourselves for this thankfully. 

But I want to suggest that Matthew is pushing our imaginations in the direction of the plausibility if not simply merely the possibility that Jesus calls a girl to stand in front of the gaze of these men. The end of Jesus's teaching here is the repetition of his likely admonition against the "male gaze."

There are three New Testament versions in English that also help us this way. They are the one by the Jesus Seminar, the one by Willis Barnstone, and the one by N. T. Wright. Since I'm now short on time, let me just show the latter fully, the one by N. T. Wright. It's not getting consistently at all that the Greek does with respect to addressing the patriarchy to deconstruct it, but it does pretty well enough show Jesus teaching men in the context of their clamor for superiority:

Matthew 5:
27 ‘You heard’, Jesus continued, ‘that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” 28 But I say to you: everyone who gazes at a woman in order to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye trips you up, tear it out and throw it away. Yes: it’s better for you to have one part of your body destroyed than for the whole body to be thrown into Gehenna. 30 And if your right hand trips you up, cut it off and throw it away. Yes: it’s better for you to have one part of your body destroyed than for your whole body to go into Gehenna.

Matthew 18:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus. ‘So, then,’ they said, ‘who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ 2 Jesus called a child and stood her in the middle of them. 3 ‘I’m telling you the truth,’ he said. ‘Unless you turn inside out and become like children, you will never, ever, get into the kingdom of heaven. 4 So if any of you make yourselves humble like this child, you will be great in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And if anyone welcomes one such child in my name, they welcome me.’ 6 ‘Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to trip up,’ he went on, ‘it would be better for them to have a huge millstone hung around their neck and be drowned far out in the deep sea. 7 It’s a terrible thing for the world that people will be made to stumble. Obstacles are bound to appear and trip people up, but it will be terrible for the person who makes them come.’ 8 ‘But if your hand or your foot causes you to trip up,’ Jesus continued, ‘cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter into life crippled or lame than to go into eternal fire with both hands and both feet! 9 And if your eye causes you to trip up, pull it out and throw it away. Going into life with one eye is better than going into hell with two!

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