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The Gender Language Debate in Biblical Translation: A Plea for Reasonableness

Posted by Gary

Recently, Zondervan released the text of the updated NIV on Biblegateway. If you don't keep up with the politics of Bible translation, then I'll fill you in on what you've missed the past ten or so years. The Committee on Bible Translation for the original NIV released a gender-inclusive version in the UK, but since it was copyrighted by name in the UK, the US release was renamed the TNIV. The TNIV updated scholarship and fixed some things that made the English simply better styled English. However, the idea of using gender-inclusive language in a Bible was something of a minefield.

For the most part, Evangelical churches were not very thrilled with it, though some mainline churches adopted it. Honestly, though, most mainline churches prefer the NRSV (as would I). In fact, some conservative pastors got together and marketed a Bible that was specifically anti-TNIV: the ESV. I received the ESV the same way John received the scroll in Revelation 10. It was good at first, but now that I really sit back and digest it, I'm none too thrilled. The ESV is essentially the same as the REB of the 1930s with just a few touch-ups here and there. It's really nothing extraordinary, in that respect.

So, now the Committee on Bible Translation for the NIV has released an updated NIV, which they call the NIV2011. The confusing part is that it's copyrighted to 2010 since they've released it electronically. They intend to release it in print next year, since next year is the 400th anniversary of the KJV. This new NIV retains very much from the TNIV, but they did something very interesting in determining how to approach gender issues in language.

You see, they actually did a statistical search of English usage from a very WIDE body of contemporary literature among English speakers all across the globe, including nonnative speakers. In doing so, they found that the singular use of "they" is rather common and acceptable, yet in some cases "man" and "mankind" can be used generically. So, the new NIV is a slight compromise by toning down on the "human beings" and "mortals" for what used to be translated as "man" and "mankind."

Forgive me for oversimplifying, but I'm going to pretend the only two types of people are those who support singular they and those who don't. To those of you who don't support it, let me ask you this: what concern might lead someone to want to clearly spell out "brothers and sisters" or to use "they" as a singular?

The reason is clarity. Specifically, they [plural] don't want to give the false impression that God only ever addresses men. Any biblical scholar worth his [this generic masculine was written unconsciously] salt knows that when Paul uses adelphoi he refers not just to brothers but to sisters also (most of the time, anyway). But not everyone is a biblical scholar. What about the first-time reader? First impressions are important, and if the first impression people get is that women are excluded from anything of substance, that's definitely gonna turn them off to the Gospel. Clarity reduces the number of possible interpretations you could give a passage, with the specific purpose of reducing someone's chances of an erroneous interpretation. To some people's ears, it can be just downright frustrating to hear someone in the Bible always speak as if the major movers and shakers of the world were predominately male.

One translation gaffe this clears up is the ESV's wording of Philippians 2.29: "So receive [Epaphroditus] in the Lord with all joy, and honor such men." (Thanks Sue for pointing this out.) There is no particular reason for them to use men here. My translation is: "So receive him in the Lord joyfully, and honor those like him." There's no reason logically to consider this male-only, and there is no word "men" here in Greek. The problem is that we can't just say "honor such as him" in English today. If we use "such," we have to supply some noun there. The NIV uses "people," but I still like my own translation better, to be honest. It gets across the comparative aspect better.

Now, I ask: what reason might there be to prefer the use of generic "he" constructions in English?

Well, the summary word for this side of the debate is concordance. If the entire Bible is rendered fairly consistently in gender constructions, then that helps experienced readers see the connection between different verses or passages of Scripture. Keeping the original form of the wording can allow a reader to see multiple interpretations for a passage. It's one thing to take Psalm 1 and say "blessed is the one who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked," as the new NIV does. However, since we Christians don't conventionally use "the one" with reference to Jesus, this closes the door on any Jesus-centered interpretation of the text. Even if the immediate context is referring to a man generically and not Jesus, it's a poor idea to close the door to Christological interpretations. We should be able to see Jesus on every page of the Bible, not just in the red letters.

The TNIV lost serious points on Psalm 8:4 by saying "What are mere mortals that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them?" and then rendering Hebrews 2's quote of Psalm 8 quite differently. The updated NIV is only marginally better. The fact is, there's no way to read this and see how the Hebrews author came up with a Jesus-centered interpretation unless you look at the footnotes. Or if you read the ESV, then both Psalm 8:4 and Hebrews 2:6-8 make sense together. The ESV there has another issue, but that's unrelated to this.

What're the main differences between these two approaches?

One approach restricts options to avoid obvious misconceptions, but in the process loses some coherence. Not just coherence between how the NT uses the OT, but coherence with the tradition of English Bible translation and with how interpreters through the centuries have read things with a Jesus-centered interpretation. The masculinist approach seeks to remain faithful to how open the Bible is to several interpretations [technical term: polyvalence]. Nobody on either side (I hope) wants to make people think women don't matter. Nobody on either side (hopefully) wants to cut down your ability to read the OT with Christ's fulfillment in mind and/or see how the NT uses the OT.

Gender-neutral translations seem geared more toward beginner readers whereas the masculinist translations are more geared toward advanced readers, as found in this nice chart. The reason for this is simple: Bibles that are concerned more with clarity will of course drift toward avoiding masculinist language, lest they give the impression that the Bible means only men when it sometimes/often means both men and women. Likewise, translations on a higher reading level will expect you to struggle with not having everything spelled out for you.

So, what's the answer?

Uh, answer to what? Which should you choose? Choose whichever you feel comfortable with, but I would suggest keeping a few different translations with you of both types. Personally, I favor the NRSV, NET, ESV, and some form of the NIV -- not sure which yet. I've heard wonderful things about the Holman Christian Standard Bible, and as far as paraphrases go, God's Word is excellent.

What we need to do is increase general literacy and most especially Biblical literacy. If we did that well enough that people could be equally able to use translations of either gender approach, then the disadvantage of each side would cancel out while retaining the advantage. That is, you could read your KJV for concordance with the history of English tradition and Bible usage but also use your NRSV for understanding what is intended to address both genders.

Of course, it's not completely that simple. There are texts involving gender roles in which using gender-inclusive terms would be highly debatable. That causes problems. There's no easy answer to clearing that up for everybody. Unfortunately, people may just end up picking and choosing solely based off hearing 1 Timothy 2 rendered the way they'd want to hear it. People on both sides are guilty of that. So, unfortunately, my plea might go unheeded. Short of teaching everyone Greek and Hebrew, I don't know an answer other than just telling everyone to interpret it how I say it should be interpreted. :)


  1. Suzanne McCarthy

    There is some good stuff here. However, the REB is an unrelated Bible version.

    Also masculinist versions of the Bible lead even educated readers into serious misinterpretations. Many readers believe that 1 Tim. 5 says that the male Christian must provide for his family, when the Greek nowhere in this passage uses a male noun or pronoun. Using "he" in English often introduces maleness into a passage which has no masculine reference whatsoever in the Greek. It is not a scholarly thing to do at all and misrepresents the original text in serious ways.

    Thanks for writing on this topic in such a fair way.