I feel strongly that we should have Bible translations that are gender-inclusive in verses where the original authors were gender-inclusive. So, I was disappointed by two recent conversations where intelligent women stated that “brothers and sisters” is not a valid or accurate translation of the Greek word adelphoi in Paul’s letters. (This Greek word is translated as “brethren” in the KJV.)
Comments about Adelphoi
A reader, who I’ll call Faith (not her real name), suggested I had weakened the credibility of an article because I had quoted Romans 8:28–30 in an English translation that has “brother and sisters” and not just “brothers” at the end of verse 29.
We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to his purpose. For those he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, so that he would be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; and those he called, he also justified; and those he justified, he also glorified. Romans 8:28–30 CSB (italics added)
Faith wrote that Romans 8:28–30 does not have “sisters” in the original text and that the translation in my article had momentarily thrown her. She said “sisters” is added in the English translation I had quoted.
I was dismayed that she believed “sisters” was not part of Paul’s meaning and that “sisters” was unfaithful to the original text.
Here’s some of my reply to Faith.
In the New Testament, adelphoi (plural) and adelphos (singular) occasionally refer to brothers, as in, male siblings. However, these Greek words usually refer to brothers and sisters in Christ rather than biological siblings.
“Siblings” is not usually used in Christian contexts, and “brothers” can sound like it only refers to men, so several recent English Bibles translate adelphoi as “brothers and sisters” when the context is followers of Jesus. This is not being unfaithful to the original text as it accurately captures the intended meaning.
To be clear, “brothers and sisters” is a meaning of adelphoi, and Paul uses this meaning a lot―approximately 130 times. It is safe to assume that Paul typically means “brothers and sisters” or “siblings” when he uses adelphoi unless the context indicates otherwise (e.g., 1 Tim. 5:1).
In comparison, Paul uses the feminine plural adelphai (“sisters”) only once in his letters (1 Tim. 5:2).
Faith’s remark about “sisters” was a side issue to her. Her comment focussed on 1 Corinthians 11:2–16 and she referred to a paper by Mark Finney. Happily, Finney made a few statements that are relevant to “brothers and sisters,” and he even used the word adelphoi in an inclusive sense
… Paul’s conceptual ideology of ‘church’ is that of the fictive kinship of believers drawn together as the new household of God. The gospel proclamation goes out to and is embraced by individuals who are bound together in a new and distinct metaphorical family; they are adelphoi in Christ, and so children of God.
Finney, “Honour, Head-coverings and Headship: 1 Corinthians 11.2–16 in its Social Context,” JSNT 33.1 (2010): 31–58, 46.
Redeemed women and girls are fully included! Redeemed people are adelphoi (“siblings”) in Christ and children of God!
Tweets about Adelphoi
I tweeted about my exchange with Faith, and one seminary-educated woman, who I’ll call Dee, agreed with Faith and confidently stated,
“She’s technically correct though, isn’t she? The Greek text only contains adelphois. Sure, we might want to argue for the addition of sisters in understanding and applying the verse. But that’s an interpretative matter, not a direct translation.”
There are a couple of issues with this comment. First, even the most literal word-for-word translations involve interpretation: we need to understand the meaning of any text before we can translate it. And as Jessica on Twitter pointed out, implying that “brothers” is the better translation of adelphoi is itself an interpretive choice. In the context of Romans 8:29, I believe it’s a poor interpretive choice.
Second, while the Greek text contains adelphoi (exact form, adelphois), which is one word, this is no reason to presume that “brothers,” also one word, is the technically correct or direct English translation. Paul did not have only male followers of Jesus in mind. Dee acknowledged in another tweet that “the broader context of the verses makes it clear that all those who God predestined are called.” This “all” includes women and girls; it includes “sisters.”
Dee continued, “My original tweet was simply pointing out that the comment made [by Faith] is technically true.” Dee seems to believe that because the Greek of Romans 8:29 doesn’t have adelphoi kai adelphai (“brothers and sisters”) we can’t technically or directly translate adelphoi as “brothers and sisters.”
Importantly, however, no New Testament author refers to brothers and sisters in Christ as adelphoi kai adelphai. Rather, Paul repeatedly uses the word adelphoi with an inclusive meaning. And translation is about understanding the meaning in a particular text and conveying that same meaning in another language.
Dee also pointed out that adelphoi is a masculine word. (This may be where she is stuck.) However, the masculine grammatical gender is typically used in Greek when speaking about a group of people regardless of their sex, as well as for a group consisting of only males.
By way of example, there are no grammatically feminine words in Matthew 15:30–31. None. Rather, these verses in Greek contain numerous masculine nouns, substantive adjectives, pronouns, and participles. Yet no one suggests that the lame, the blind, the crippled, the mute, and the many other infirmed people (all masculine words in the Greek) were only males.
Even though the language is grammatically masculine, we don’t usually translate typhloi as “blind men,” etc. And this is despite the fact that Greek has corresponding feminine words for people with the various disabilities listed in Matthew 15:30–31. Matthew didn’t need to use these feminine words because the masculine words include women and girls. That’s how Greek works.
There is not the slightest hint that females were not among those being healed, or part of the crowd, in the Greek, and in English translations, of these verses.
“and large crowds came to [Jesus], including the lame, the blind, the crippled, those unable to speak, and many others. They put them at his feet, and he healed them. So the crowd was amazed when they saw those unable to speak talking, the crippled restored, the lame walking, and the blind seeing, and they gave glory to the God of Israel” Matthew 15:30–31 CSB.
Dee continued to tweet, “adelphois is a masculine gendered noun. It means brothers.” And, “the actual word for ‘sisters’ is not in the text …”
Paul didn’t need to add the Greek word that (only) means “sisters” (adelphai) in his letters. The meaning of “sisters” is implicit in his use of adelphoi. Adelphoi can mean “brothers and sisters,” it can mean “siblings.” It doesn’t always just mean male “brothers.”
Bill Mounce on Adelphos
Brian, who saw the online conversations, told me that Bill Mounce, a well-known professor of New Testament Greek, has a short video where he speaks about the word adelphos, the singular of adelphoi.
In this video, Dr Mounce gives an answer to the question, “Is translating the Bible with ‘brother or sister’ adding to God’s word since the Bible says ‘brother”’?
He starts off by pointing out that the Greek New Testament doesn’t use the word “brother” because “brother” is an English word. (This may be an obvious point, but it needs to be made.) He then uses the example of Matthew 5:22 where adelphos (exact form, adelphō) refers to a member of a faith community.
Dr Mounce goes on to ask, “What word do you use when referring to a member of your faith community? Brother, or brother and sister?” For him the important questions are, Who does adelphos refer to, and how do you convey that meaning in your culture, in your context?
These questions are crucial. I very much prefer “brother and sister” when referring to fellow Christians, as clearly not everyone readily understands “brother” as being a gender-inclusive term.
In this video, Dr Mounce plainly states that “brothers and sisters” is not adding to the biblical text.
So, are translators adding to scripture when they say “brothers and sisters” in Paul’s letters? No. In almost all verses where Paul uses the word adelphoi, “brothers and sisters” accurately conveys his intended meaning. “Siblings” may be an even better translation.
 Adelphoi can also refer to biological brothers and sisters. Bauer and Danker provide several examples of this usage in non-biblical texts in A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd Edition (BDAG) s.v. ἀδελφός. (Their use of bold and italics.)
The pl. can also mean brothers and sisters (Eur., El. 536; Andoc. 1, 47 ἡ μήτηρ ἡ ἐκείνου κ. ὁ πατὴρ ὁ ἐμὸς ἀδελφοί; Anton. Diog. 3 [Erot. Gr. I 233, 23; 26 Hercher]; POxy 713, 21f [97 A.D.] ἀδελφοῖς μου Διοδώρῳ κ. Θαΐδι; schol. on Nicander, Ther. 11 [p. 5, 9] δύο ἐγένοντο ἀδελφοί, Φάλαγξ μὲν ἄρσην, θήλεια δὲ Ἀράχνη τοὔνομα. The θεοὶ Ἀδελφοί, a married couple consisting of brother and sister on the throne of the Ptolemies: OGI 50, 2 [III B.C.] and pap [Mitt-Wilck. I/1, 99; I/2, 103–7, III B.C.]).
 Jesus isn’t just the firstborn of male Christians. So I’m fairly certain that “brothers and sisters/ siblings” is Paul’s intended meaning in his use of adelphoi in Romans 8:29 and in numerous other verses in his letters. Romans 8:29 can be compared in several conservative English translations on Bible Hub here.
 Paul uses the feminine singular adelphē (“sister”) five times in his letters: when referring to Apphia (Phm. 1:2), Phoebe (Rom. 16:1), Nereus’s sister (Rom. 16:15), a Christian woman who ministers with an apostle (1 Cor. 9:5), and a Christian wife who is free after her husband leaves (1 Cor. 7:15).
 Believers are rarely referred to as adelphoi kai adelphai (“brothers and sisters”) in surviving early church documents either. An exception is 2 Clement 19:1 and 20:2. (More about gender in 2 Clement here.)
There are only two places in the New Testament where adelphai (“sisters”) is used in the same sentence as adelphoi. In these verses, different family relationships are spelt out. Adelphoi refers to male siblings here.
~ Mark 10:29-30: “home or brothers (adelphoi) or sisters (adelphai) or mother or father or children or fields … homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields …”
~ Luke 14:26: “his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers (adelphoi) and sisters (adelphai), yes, and even his own life …”
Furthermore, Jesus uses the singular adelphos and adelphē in Matthew 12:50 (cf. Matt. 12:49) when referring to his followers: “For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother (adelphos) and sister (adelphē) and mother” (//Mark 3:35 cf. Mark 3:34).
 Ancient Greek has masculine words and feminine words for a mute or deaf person (m. kyphos, f. kyphē), crippled person (m. kyllos, f. kyllē), lame person (m. chōlos, f. chōlē), and blind person (m. typhlos, f. typhlē). But, according to convention, the masculine, whether singular or plural, can include women and girls as it undoubtedly does in Matthew 15:30–31. Likewise, the grammatically masculine word adelphoi (“siblings”) can, and usually does, include women, in the New Testament.
 Even Wayne Grudem acknowledges that adelphoi can mean “brothers and sisters.” See footnote 1 here: Manhood and Masculinity in the ESV.
Grudem, John Piper, and several other staunch complementarian men with a strong dislike for gender-inclusive Bibles formulated the “Colorado Springs Guidelines for Translation of Gender-Related Language in Scripture.” In their amended guidelines, dated September 9, 1997, they stated that “the plural adelphoi can be translated ‘brothers and sisters’ where the context makes clear that the author is referring to both men and women.” See here: Colorado Springs Guidelines (bible-researcher.com)
 Dr Mounce compares seven popular English translations of Matthew 5:22. The NIV (2011), CSB, and NRSV translate adelphos as “brother or sister.” The NASB (1995 and 2020), ESV, and NET translate it as “brother.” The NLT has “someone” which is inaccurate and misleading. (The CEB also has “brother or sister.”) This comparison corresponds with my observations of gender-inclusivity and accuracy in these translations here: Which Bible translation is best?
© Margaret Mowczko 2022
Image via Lightstock #473506
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All my articles tagged with “Greek words” are here.