The Wartburg Project

September 13th, 2019

55. Is "boys" too informal? (John 21:5)

In John 21:5 Jesus asks, “Boys, don’t you have any fish?” Isn’t the translation boys too informal and possibly offensive?

We thought a lot about that translation “boys.” The footnote to this verse in the EHV study Bible says: Jesus gives a friendly call to the fishermen in the boat as one might say, “Hey, guys, catch anything?” The Greek term paidion can refer to children, even very small children, but the Greek root from which it comes can also refer to servants. Here the term has the general connotation guys, boys, or lads.

In the EHV, as much as possible, we want to have distinct translations for related Greek words, and there are other Greek words that have the default translation "friends" or "servants," so we did not want to use either of those for this word in this context. The Greek root pais can have either the connotation of servant status or a certain friendliness. The commentaries we looked at suggested lads (too British), boys, and guys (which we thought was the best but that might strike some people as too colloquial). So boys seemed to be the best option.

One reader was concerned that African Americans might be reminded of the condescending use of "boy,” which was intended to be offensive in some contexts. But Jesus here does not seem to be alluding to social status but just giving a friendly greeting. We cannot avoid every word that someone might use in an offensive sense. Sometimes a word like “gay” can be used so frequently in a new sense, so that traditional senses become almost impossible to use. But “boys” and “guys” do not seem to fall into this category. I recently witnessed an incident in which someone expressed great indignation that a speaker had used the word “guys,” which allegedly excluded all the women, but I have heard girls or women call their female friends or their friends of both genders “guys.” While we have to be conscious of changing uses, we cannot tie ourselves in linguistic knots over every term for which someone can manufacture offense where none is intended. Also we cannot allow the concerns (real or imagined) in our culture to erase biblical culture.

Also the language of the Bible is not consistently formal. It is sometimes informal or colloquial. When it is, our translation should reflect that.