Thursday, May 5, 2011

NRSV: Matthew 2:16

"When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men." -Matthew 2:16 (NRSV)

I was doing some reading over the past weekend from the NRSV and came upon this verse from the Gospel of Matthew. I noticed that instead of saying that Herod sought to kill all the "boys" in Bethlehem, it referred to the "children". I then double checked the other two translations I had close by, and sure enough the RSV had "male children" while the NAB(RE) had "boys". Looking at some additional translations showed that most of the others followed some form of the RSV or NAB(RE), the KJV being the exception. However, there were some resources that suggested that "child" was a better option. It comes down to how the Greek word παῖς (pais) is translated.

Does it matter if παῖς is translated "children" or "boys/male children"?


J.Q. said...

It doesn't matter if you are a Joe Biden/Nancy Pelosi type Catholic who wants to push the notion Jesus may have been female.

For all others... yes it matters.

Timothy said...


I am not sure that is the point of the NRSV and KJV using "children" over "boys". The KJV is 400 years old, while the NRSV is barely over 20.

Diakonos said...

Well, I prefer male children or boys which makes sense by context but "children" would tie in with the adjacent prophecy about Rachel weeping for her children.

Theophrastus said...

τοὺς παῖδας does not determine the sex of the children; the same word παῖς is used in Luke 8:54, for example -- where it is obviously female.

The argument for limiting the translation to male children is only by loose analogy to Exodus 1:16,22; such an argument (a) is not determinative; and (b) can still be read into the text as the NRSV translates it.

Certainly, there is no positive command ("if it is a girl, she shall live"; "you shall let every girl live") in Matthew.

Thus the problem with translations such as the NAB and RSV is that they pre-interpret the text for us -- adding a layer of meaning which was not present in the original Greek.

For me, the more interesting part of this passage is not the sex of the children, but that the Biblical text describes the murder of an entire town's worth of innocent children without any mention of the theodicy involved.

I note that "children" is frequently used in scholarly translations, e.g., the NET Bible, the Anchor Bible, the Hermeneia translation, etc.

Francesco said...

Well it matters if that's what παῖς means ;-)

I think that "boys" or a synonym makes sense for that verse. Herod wasn't punishing the parents of Bethlehem for the departure of the Magi, he was trying to eliminate a competitor to the throne. Could the Messiah be a woman? How many reigning Queens had there been for Israel or Judah? Therefore killing baby girls isn't required to accomplish his political end.

Now if the KJV and the NRSV are trying to emphasize how bloodthirsty Herod was, on the other hand, then this is a (perhaps too) subtle example.

Anonymous said...

While παῖς may be either masculine or feminine, τοὺς παῖδας used in Matthew 2:16 is clearly masculine in the accusative plural and ἡ παῖς of Luke 8:54 clearly feminine in the nominative singular. No pre-interpretation is involved here.

Theophrastus said...

Anonymous --

plural masculine covers both male + female

If you think otherwise, then you will believe that the Beatitudes (which are all in plural masculine) only apply to men:

οἱ πτωχοὶ, οἱ πενθοῦντες, οἱ πραεῖς, etc.

Abraham Manalow said...

Realistically, Herod would have said children. It's not always easy to tell if a baby is male of female without checking, and if you have parents doing their best to protect their babies, there wouldn't be time to check.

So soldiers would likely kill either without regard to sex out of expediency.

Anonymous said...

This is an example of how even the most literal translations sometimes employ dynamic translation theory to the process (ie the RSV, ESV, NKJV, NASB read boy or male child) while some more dynamic translations can at points be quite literalistic (thus, NRSV etc read child.) I find it fascinating to seek the reason why translators decide to break with their chosen methodologies in these particular instances. Why would the ESV, which tends to be very literal, insert the word male into the text? And why would the NRSV, which tends to be a little more speculative, especially when gender is mentioned, decide to break with the RSV to be functionally literal in this instance? These are the questions that interest me.


J.Q. said...

Brad, the answer is plain and simple - politics. Those translators with a leftist agenda (NRSV) go one way, those with a conservative agenda go another.