Grammatical gender

Samuel Payne sam at
Mon Feb 19 03:33:17 EST 2001

> I agree, Raymond, that the gender of PNEUMA is neuter, and the NT almost
> always uses the neuter with reference to it, but some passages suggest

> the masculine would be appropriate in English.

One must be careful not to confuse GRAMMATICAL gender with PHYSIOLOGICAL
gender, even when an idea is being personified. The WORD 'pneuma' is
invariably neuter in Greek. Just as the word for 'light' (fos) is, even when
referring to 'the true light that lightens the world' (the Messiah or the
Logos, as the text
takes it), and just as the WORD 'sophia' (wisdom) is feminine - even in a
church dedicated to Christ in Constantinople - Hagia Sophia. One cannot play
around with the grammatical gender of a word in a language that uses
grammatical gender.

Obviously the grammatical gender of a word linguistically will tend to
influence the way the idea is personified. It has been plausibly suggested
that Philo, for example, preferred to take the idea of the Logos
(Word/Order) as his central theme, rather than Sophia, partly because it is
grammatically masculine and therefore (as he saw it) more appropriate for a
personified "Son" of a masculine God. He consistently takes the MALE figures
of scripture as symbolising intellectual faculties, and the women as
symbolising emotional faculties, so it fitted his philosophic style of
interpretation. Sophia, as a "daughter" of God would have muddled his whole

English does not use grammatical gender, so the instinctive assumption of an
English-speaking person is that all gender references are to physiological
gender. But this is very misleading - though it leads to some very difficult
choices when translating from a language that does have grammatical gender.
The beginning of John's Gospel starts "In the beginning was the Word
(Logos - grammatically masculine)" and goes on ". . . All things have come
into being through him(?)" Or should it read "though IT?" It depends whether
one thinks the author is still talking about the philosophic Logos (as in
Philo) or whether he has already identified it with the Messiah. In fact the
former seems more likely, as it is much later that he takes the next step
with "The Logos became flesh . . " So I would say the above verse OUGHT to
read "All things were brought into being by IT" ** (the commonly accepted
Logos of the Hellenistic thought - being used, of course as a bridge with
Hebrew thought of the DBR of God.)

In a language that uses grammatical gender there is no such confusion. The
French translation of John, for example, reads "Au commencement était LA
parole . . . Toutes choses ont été faites par ELLE." The "elle" is feminine,
and forced by the grammatical gender of "parole".

** Alternatively, since "by it" is very awkward English, one should perhaps
translate it as "It was through it that all things came into being." (A
thought which is equally acceptable, so far, of the Hebrew DBR of God to a
Jew, and of the Logos to a Stoic philosopher.)

Samuel Payne

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