Brothers [and Sisters]

Excavations at Oxyrhynchus 1, ca. 1903, courtesy Wikipedia

If you received a new Bible for Christmas, you might have noticed a change in the new English translations. It might seem like the guardians of political correctness have started working on the Bible. For example, in 2 Corinthians 1:8 the King James Version reads:

“For we would not, brethren, have you ignorant of our trouble,” but the New Revised Standard Version reads: “We do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, of the affliction we experienced.” What is going on?

The Apostle Paul wrote in Greek, and he used the word “adelphoi” (ἀδελφοί). Our English word “Phil-adelphia” combines “philia” (love) with “adelphoi” (brothers) meaning “the city of brotherly love.” 

Our old friend, Brother Curmudgeon asks, “Well, if Paul used the word ‘brothers,’ why do the new English translations add ‘and sisters’?”

The answer is, when adelphoi (the plural form of brother, adelphos) is used, it can mean “brothers and sisters” (So the GW, GNB, NCV, NLT, and the NRSV). “Brothers and sisters” can be awkward so some of the newer English translations work around that by substituting “friends” (CEV, The Message). 

“Yes, but where is the evidence the people in Paul’s day meant ‘brothers and sisters’?”

Without trying to be too technical, archaeologists digging in the sands of Oxyrhynchus, Egypt have discovered thousands of ancient bits of letters and documents from that time. They illustrate how Greek speakers like Paul used words in those days. For example, Leonides wrote a letter to the keepers of the property records asking that they recognize his right to a third of the estate of his mother. There were three siblings – two brothers and a sister – and they are all referred to as the adelphoi – “brothers and sisters.” (Oxyrhynchus Papyri 713, 21f. dated 97 A.D.) There are many more examples, but it does expand our understanding of some biblical passages.

For example, when Jesus warned his followers “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers [and sisters] and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death” (Luke 21:16). He included “sisters” too! Likewise, it is possible to include the sisters of Jesus in Matthew 12:46: “While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers [and sisters] stood outside, asking to speak to him.” So too, when Jesus moved to Capernaum with his mother and brothers that could have also included his sisters as well (John 2:12, see also John 7:3, 5). His sisters may have also been in the Upper Room with the disciples before Pentecost: “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers [and sisters].

Don’t worry Brother Curmudgeon. Our new English translations aren’t changing the Scriptures. They are becoming more accurate.

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