The name that is transliterated as “Mary” in English is translated in Spanish Sign Language with arms folded over chest which is the typical pose of Mary in statues and artwork. (Source: John Elwode in The Bible Translator 2008, p. 78ff.)
In American Sign Language it is translated with a sign for the letter M and the sign for “virgin,” which could also be interpreted as “head covering,” referring to the way that Mary is usually portrayed in art works. (Source: RuthAnna Spooner, Ron Lawer)
The Greek that is traditionally translated as “carpenter” in English is translated in the English by Ruden (2021) as “builder.” “[The Greek word] tektōn means simply |skilled workman|. I choose builder because the likelihood that Jesus| family were among local artisans employed in rebuilding the new city of Sepphoris [which was destroyed in 4 BC], close to Nazareth.” (p. xliii)
The term that is transliterated as “Judas” in English is translated in American Sign Language with the sign for the letter J and the sign signifying holding a bag of money, referring to John 12:6. (Source: RuthAnna Spooner, Ron Lawer)
God transcends gender, but most languages are limited to grammatical gender expressed in pronouns. In the case of English, this is traditionally confined to “he” (or in the forms “his,” “him,” and “himself”), “she” (and “her,” “hers,” and “herself”), and “it” (and “its” and “itself”).
Modern Mandarin Chinese, however, offers another possibility. Here, the third-person singular pronoun is always pronounced the same (tā), but it is written differently according to its gender (他 is “he,” 她 is “she,” and 它/牠 is “it” and their respective derivative forms). In each of these characters, the first (or upper) part defines the gender (man, woman, or thing/animal), while the second element gives the clue to its pronunciation.
In 1930, after a full century with dozens of Chinese translations, Bible translator Wang Yuande (王元德) coined a new “godly” pronoun: 祂. Chinese readers immediately knew how to pronounce it: tā. But they also recognized that the first part of that character, signifying something spiritual, clarified that each person of the Trinity has no gender aside from being God.
While the most important Protestant and Catholic Chinese versions respectively have opted not to use 祂, some Bible translations do and it is widely used in hymnals and other Christian materials. Among the translations that use 祂 to refer to “God” were early versions of Lü Zhenzhong’s (呂振中) version (New Testament: 1946, complete Bible: 1970). R.P. Kramers (in The Bible Translator 1956, p. 152ff.) explains why later versions of Lü’s translation did not continue with this practice: “This new way of writing ‘He,’ however, has created a minor problem of its own: must this polite form be used whenever Jesus is referred to? Lü follows the rule that, wherever Jesus is referred to as a human being, the normal ta (他) is written; where he is referred to as divine, especially after the ascension, the reverential ta (祂) is used.”
In that system one kind of pronoun is used for humans (male and female alike) and one for natural elements, non-liquid masses, and some spiritual entities (one other is used for large animals and another one for miscellaneous items). While in these languages the pronoun for spiritual entities used to be employed when referring to God, this has changed into the use of the human pronoun.
Lynell Zogbo (in The Bible Translator 1989, p. 401ff) explains in the following way: “From informal discussions with young Christians especially, it would appear that, at least for some people, the experience and/or concepts of Christianity are affecting the choice of pronoun for God. Some people explain that God is no longer ‘far away,’ but is somehow tangible and personal. For these speakers God has shifted over into the human category.”
In Kouya, God (the Father) and Jesus are referred to with the human pronoun ɔ, whereas the Holy Spirit is referred to with a non-human pronoun. (Northern Grebo and Western Krahn make a similar distinction.)
Eddie Arthur, a former Kouya Bible translation consultant, says the following: “We tried to insist that this shouldn’t happen, but the Kouya team members were insistent that the human pronoun for the Spirit would not work.”
In Burmese, the pronoun ko taw (ကိုယ်တော်) is used either as 2nd person (you) or 3rd person (he, him, his) reference. “This term clearly has its root in the religious language in Burmese. No ordinary persons are addressed or known by this pronoun because it is reserved for Buddhist monks, famous religious teachers, and in the case of Christianity, the Trinity.” (Source: Gam Seng Shae in The Bible Translator 2002, p. 202ff.)
In Thai, the pronoun phra`ong (พระองค์) is used, a gender-neutral pronoun which must refer to a previously introduced royal or divine being. Similarly, in Northern Khmer, which is spoken in Thailand, “an honorific divine pronoun” is used for the pronoun referring to the persons of the Trinity (source: David Thomas in The Bible Translator 1993, p. 445). In Urak Lawoi’, another language spoken in Thailand, the translation often uses tuhat (ตูฮัด) — “God” — ”as a divine pronoun where Thai has phra’ong even though it’s actually a noun.” (Source for Thai and Urak Lawoi’: Stephen Pattemore)
The English “Contemporary Torah” addresses the question of God and gendered pronouns by mostly avoiding pronouns in the first five books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament (unless God is referred to as “lord,” “father,” “king,” or “warrior”). It does that by either using passive constructs (“He gave us” vs. “we were given”), by using the adjective “divine” or by using “God” rather than a pronoun.
Some Protestant English Bibles use a referential capitalized spelling when referring to the persons of the Trinity with “He,” “His,” “Him,” or “Himself.” This includes for instance the New American Standard Bible, but most translations, especially those published in the 21st century, do not. Two other languages where this is also done (in most Bible translations) are the closely related Indonesian and Malay. In both languages this follows the language usage according to the Qur’an, which in turn predicts that usage (see Soesilo in The Bible Translator 1991, p. 442ff. and The Bible Translator 1997, p. 433ff. ).
See also this chapter in the World Atlas of Language Structures on different approaches to personal pronouns.
Is not this the carpenter’s son? is phrased differently in Mark 6.3: “Is not this the carpenter?” The assumed reply is “Yes,” as is reflected in New Jerusalem Bible (“This is the carpenter’s son, surely?”) and Phillips (“He’s only the carpenter’s son”). The noun “carpenter” may refer to one who builds with wood or stone. Wood is a somewhat rare commodity in Palestine, and houses are most frequently constructed with stone. It is quite possible, therefore, to argue for the meaning “stone mason,” though the majority of the translators evidently prefer “carpenter.”
In 12.46-47 Jesus’ mother and brothers are mentioned, though not by name. The observation that his father Joseph is not mentioned may be due to the fact that he is no longer living at the time this incident occurs. In the Marcan parallel (6.3) the names of Jesus’ brothers and the order in which they are mentioned differs slightly from Matthew. In place of Joseph, Mark has Joses, but it is possible to take Joses as an alternative form of Joseph, as Good News Translation and New English Bible have done. But the order in which the brothers are mentioned is also slightly different: Matthew has the order Simon and Judas, while Mark has “Judas and Simon.” There seems to be no particular significance in this shift of order, but it is problematic in cultures where readers expect the older children to be listed first.
The questions in verses 55 and 56 are all rhetorical. They are not asking for information but are ways of showing surprise that someone who is only a son of a carpenter can have such wisdom and do such wonderful acts. In addition to the models cited above, other renderings have been “He’s only the son of the carpenter, isn’t he?” or “Surely this man is only the son of the carpenter?” The verse will then continue “His mother is Mary, isn’t she? And James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas are his brothers. And his sisters live right here. So how does he come to have this wisdom and power?”
It may be necessary to change all of verse 55 and the first part of verse 56 to a series of statements: “55 We know who he is. He is the son of the carpenter, and Mary is his mother. We also know his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas. 56 And all his sisters are living here in our village (or, district).”
Quoted with permission from Newman, Barclay M. and Stine, Philip C. A Handbook on the Gospel of Matthew. (UBS Handbook Series). New York: UBS, 1988. For this and other handbooks for translators see here .