One of our brethren, Anthony Esolen, has written to extol that old-fashioned word, brethren . His comments have relevance for that increasingly complicated and contentious enterprise, Bible translation. In the older translations of the New Testament, such as the Geneva Bible and the King James Version, the Greek ??????? (and its related forms) is rendered brethren , as it is in the Revised Standard Version. In the late 1970s and early 80s, the translators of the New International Version, wishing to communicate God’s word in contemporary English, changed these references to brothers . The much newer English Standard Version has followed suit.
However, while the Greek ??????? encompasses male and female siblings, the English brothers does not. This has prompted the revisers of the NIV as well as those who produced the New Revised Standard Version to opt for brothers and sisters , the latter with a somewhat curious footnote indicating that the Greek word means brothers . Nevertheless, the NRSV does not do this consistently: in some passages the word becomes believers (1 Cor. 6:8), beloved (1 Cor. 15:58) or friends (2 Cor. 11:9).
It seems to me that the somewhat cumbersome brothers and sisters is thus to be preferred to brothers for reasons of accuracy of translation. However, for economy of expression, it would be even better to return to brethren , which, as Esolen points out, is never used in a gender-exclusive sense and is found in the names of a variety of Protestant denominations, especially in the Anabaptist tradition. To those who object that the word is too archaic, it should be recalled that the more obviously obsolescent mortals (for ????????) was brought back in both the NRSV and the recent update of the NIV. So, if anyone is listening, I cast my vote for brethren to replace brothers and sisters and brothers in the next updates of the major Bible translations.