Gender in Bible Translation: How Fallacies Distort Understanding of the New Testament Gender Passages

By: Vern S. Poythress

How do we handle gender in English Bible translation? A special meeting in Colorado Springs on May 27, 1997, convened by Dr. James C. Dobson, produced the “Colorado Springs Guidelines for Translation of Gender-Related Language in Scripture”1 (hereafter CSG). Those guidelines criticize some of the practices of existing “gender-inclusive” translations.2 But other people disagree with the guidelines and defend gender-inclusive translation. The discussion continues to grow, so that it is difficult to keep track of all its strands.

I propose to focus on a common pattern belonging to quite a few of the passages whose translation is disputed. The disputed passages use a male human being or a word with a male semantic component in order to articulate a general principle. Let us consider some of the disputed translation practices in detail.

Translating Aner

In Greek the word aner usually has the sense of husband or man (male human being).3 Until recently, English translations included the male semantic component in translation. But the new gender-inclusive translations show some changes.

In Acts 1:21 Peter discusses the replacement of Judas: “Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men (aner) who have been with us…” (New International Version [NIV] 1984). But in the New International Version Inclusive Language Edition (NIVI 1996) and in the New Living Translation (NLT 1996) “men” becomes “one of those” (NIVI) or “someone else” (NLT). The change is theologically significant because it no longer conveys in English the Greek evidence that Peter did not think that a woman could be an apostle. In Acts 20:30 Paul warns the elders at Ephesus about false teachers: “Even from your own number men (aner) will arise and distort the truth…” (NIV). Indirectly Paul indicates that the elders were all men. This theologically significant detail drops out in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV 1993), NIVI, and NLT.

Male marking also drops out in some other places. “A wise man” (aner) building his house on the rock becomes “a person who builds…” (NLT Mat. 7:24). In Acts 11:20 “men” (aner) who brought the gospel to Antioch become “believers” (NLT).

Some people would claim that aner sometimes means “person” or “people” without a male semantic component. But it is evident that “man, male human being” is the “default sense” of aner. Other senses may possibly occur in specialized contexts. But the burden of proof is on those who claim that in a particular context aner has lost all its male semantic component. After all, another Greek word anthropos is available that can be used in referring to situations involving both sexes. It is linguistically improbable that we would find aner moving toward near synonymy with anthropos, leaving Greek with no obvious, convenient term to use when one wants to specify that one is talking about male human beings.

What is common to all the verses cited above? They all involve situations where males are examples of larger principles. For example, the wise man building a house in Matthew 7:24, represents anyone, male or female, who takes to heart Jesus’ teaching. The men who spread the gospel to Antioch provide an example for anyone who spreads the gospel. In all these cases, the gender-inclusive changes eliminate male marking, but retain the general principle that the specific example embodies.

Translating ‘Ish

Next, consider the translation of ‘ish. It almost always means “man.” It can be used in idiomatic constructions with the sense “each one” (e.g., 1 Chron. 16:3, Job 42:11). The main problem is that gender-inclusive translations eliminate male marking in other passages where they have no lexicographical warrant.

Consider Psalm 1:1, “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers” (NIV). NRSV, NIVI, and NLT change it to read, “Blessed are those who…,” or a similar phrasing. The change from singular to plural produces a description that is “less specific…, less easy to visualize.” Moreover, with the singular, the reader tends to picture a single man standing against a multitude of wicked people, sinners, and mockers.

In addition, Psalm 1:1 starts with the picture of a person who happens to be male. The native speaker of Hebrew reads ha’ish, “the man.” Nothing in the immediate context overturns the instinct to assign tentatively the meaning “the man,” and to think first of all of a male human being rather than a female. The native speaker knows, in the back of his mind, that a masculine rather than a feminine term is likely to be used in a context where the author wants to talk about a sample human being from within a group composed of both sexes. The sex of the sample person may or may not be germane to the point that the author wishes to make. That is, the reader must determine from the larger context whether the sex of the sample person functions to qualify the range of application of the sentence (in Deut. 22:13 and Prov. 6:27 it does; in Ps. 1:1 it does not). The native speaker therefore holds open the range of application.

After reading Psalm 1, sensitive readers know that it offers the “man” as a representative, an ideal, for men and women. The principle applies to many. But the starting point is the picture of one, and that one is male. The semantic component as well as grammatical gender is present for the original readers.

The gender-inclusive translations simply eliminate this semantic component. They contain a formulation that expresses the general principle of equity, and that is part of the point. But they drop one aspect of the meaning, by not expressing the subtle interplay between a male representative on the one hand, and a general principle applying to both men and women on the other.

Electronic Note: FootnoteReference numbers 4 and 5 missing in source document.

“Man” For The Human Race

Consider now the use of “man” to designate the human race.6 While such a use still exists in English, there are distinct advantages to using it in Bible translation.7 Genesis 1-5 in its use of words and names links the naming of man, woman, and the race with the headship of Adam. The Hebrew word ‘adam is both the name of Adam and the word used for the race in Genesis 1:26, 27, and 5:1.

The word “man” in English, used to designate the human race, is not an absolutely exact equivalent to ‘adam in Genesis 1:26 and 5:2. But I cannot find anything better. We cannot capture everything in translation. Moreover, I think it is easy to overestimate the alleged problems with using “man” with this meaning. For the most part, it is not that people do not understand such a meaning, but that they do not like it.

Neither would they like what Genesis 1-2 and 5:2 do in the original Hebrew-for more or less the same reasons. In both Hebrew and English a term with male connotations designates the whole human race. This usage resonates literarily with the context in Genesis 5:2 and the context in Genesis 3, in which Adam is representative of humanity. His obedience or disobedience has consequences for all his descendants, as Paul states in Romans 5:12-21. It is therefore fitting that his name should match the name for the human race in Genesis 1:26-27 and 5:2. Gender-inclusive translations, while preserving the main point, leave out the connotation of a male representative by translating Genesis 1:26-27 with “humankind,” “human beings,” or “people” instead of “man.”8

Generic “He”

Now we come to the largest problem, affecting thousands of verses. How do we treat generic “he” in English?9 Matthew 16:24-26 says, “Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it. What good will it be for a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?'” (NIV)

The verses contain several occurrences of generic “he,” referring back to “anyone.” Some people find this usage distasteful, so the NIVI eliminates it: “Those who would come after me must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their lives will lose them, but those who lose their lives for me will find them. What good will it be for you to gain the whole world, yet forfeit your soul? Or what can you give in exchange for your soul?” Singulars are converted to plurals, third person “he” becomes second person “you.”

Changes like these are not exceptional. Because generic singular is a convenient and frequent usage in the Bible, the NRSV, NIVI, and NLT end up using “they” and “you” in a large number of passages where earlier translations had generic singular “he/his/him.” In still other instances, the new translations adopt passive rather than active constructions, or substitute descriptive nouns for pronouns in order to avoid using “he.”

Now, let us be clear. The gender-inclusive translations still achieve a rough approximation of the meaning of the original when they change the pronouns. But it is an approximation. When we look at finer nuances, shifts from singular to plural and from third person to first or second person result in subtle alterations.

It is often claimed that no harm is done, since the original meaning of the text is still implied, directly or indirectly, in the translation. A statement about a plurality using “they” still implies an application to each individual (“he”) within the group. Conversely, a statement about a single sample member using “he” implies truths concerning the plurality of all members of the group. Similarly, readers can infer a general truth from something that explicitly addresses “you.”

Explicit And Implicated Meaning

But in reality the people who argue this way have already conceded that the meaning has subtly changed in their translation. An explicit semantic content in the original has to be inferred in the translation, while what was only inferable from the semantics in the original becomes explicit in the translation. The shift from direct statement to inference is significant. It is a subtle change in meaning. To appreciate this difference fully, biblical scholars have to shift their point of view somewhat. Many biblical scholars spend most of their time thinking and writing about the theological value and interpretive implications of the passages they study. Their goal is to make explicit the many implications of the text. If two wordings leave the theological implications the same, they are equivalent from the scholar’s point of view.

But literary stylists and linguists studying discourse focus on other aspects of the text. They would note that subtle differences exist between explicit and implicated information, direct and indirect address, active and passive constructions, second person and third person discourse. These produce subtle nuances in the meaning-texture of the total act of communication. Translation into another language never succeeds in conveying absolutely all of such nuances. But the faithful translator endeavors to do so as far as possible.

Translators console themselves by saying that “all translation is interpretation.” They are right. The most accurate translation can only be accomplished when we thoroughly understand the meaning of the original, including all its nuances in all their dimensions. Only then are we ready to produce a translation that conveys not only the main meaning but all the nuances of the original.

But the motto, “all translation is interpretation,” is turned into another meaning if we then use it as a blanket justification for rewriting the text in the way that an interpretive commentary would do. An interpretive commentary expounds the implications of a text, and makes explicit what the text leaves implicit. Such has not generally been the job of mainstream translation. But the American religious public has become lazy about the Bible and busy with other affairs. So a translator may try to include the extra information in the text explicitly, in order to make it easy for them. He paraphrases. He explains metaphors in ordinary prose. He expands tightly packed theological exposition. By doing so, he provides a commentary through which he hopes to help readers to understand the Bible better. But when he labels his commentary “The Bible” and “translation,” he has blurred the line between translation and commentary in an unfortunate way.

Whatever we think of the result, we must remain clear about the meaning of the original. That meaning includes not only “basic content,” but nuances arising from style, focus, emphasis, allusion, metaphorical color, literary form, thematic structure, rhythm, tone, register, literary density of information, directness and indirectness, explicitness and implication, and intertextual connections, to mention a few complex dimensions of the whole. In translating generic singulars, something is lost or changed through pluralization, shifts in person, and passivization.10

Distortions In Meaning

In addition the changes introduce possibilities for distortion and misunderstanding. John 14:23 in the NIV reads, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” The NRSV reads, “Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.”

The NRSV substitutes plurals for the generic singulars found in Greek and in the NIV. But this results in an unintended ambiguity in the product. The last clause, “make our home with them,” has a plurality of people, “them,” combined with a single dwelling place, “our home.” Conceivably, it might mean that the Father and the Son make a home with each person. But it might also mean that the Father and the Son make a single home with the plurality of people together. That is, they come and dwell with the church corporately. This latter interpretation is closer to the surface or more “obvious” than the first, since it responds to the difference between the singular “our home” and the plural “them.” Such a thought of corporate dwelling is genuinely biblical (see 1 Cor. 3:10-15, Eph. 2:22). But it is not the thought found in the Greek text of John 14:23. Both the Greek and the NIV picture the Father and the Son making a dwelling with each person, not with the church corporately.

I have heard people observe in response that American Christians are far too individualizing. The danger, they say, is not of missing an individualizing note, but of missing the corporate dimension of NT Christianity. I would agree with this assessment of American Christianity as a whole. But I would not agree with the intended conclusion, namely that we can safely reduce the individualizing aspect of these particular texts. In the context of doing translation, this sort of argument is an embarrassment. Readers’ problems with other texts and with other teachings of the Bible must not become an excuse for a loose attitude toward translating these texts.

Moreover, not all English-speaking readers are the same. The translator does not have the luxury of addressing different groups according to their different problems. Even if he did, it would be paternalistic for him to decide what he thinks is “good for them” and then alter nuances of the biblical text accordingly.

The Situation In English

In 1999 generic “he” no longer occurs as frequently as it once did. Writers have tried to find work-arounds. But generic “he” still occurs in the secular press. Sensitive writers in our day still use generic “he” on occasion because they find that that is sometimes what they want to say, and they would lose nuances by adjusting to plurals or first or second person.11 In the fourth edition (1990) of the book On Writing Well, William Zinsser eliminated many of the generic masculines that occurred in earlier editions of his book. But, in the fifth edition (1995), he also says, “Where the male pronoun remains in this edition I felt it was the only clean solution.”12 Of third person plurals Zinsser says, “I don’t like plurals; they weaken writing because they are less specific than the singular, less easy to visualize… A style that converts every ‘he’ into a ‘they’ will quickly turn to mush.”13

Now, in the context of Bible translation one ought not to tolerate these losses as long as a way exists of avoiding them, namely by using generic “he.” Translation differs markedly from original writing. Modern writers have authority over their own meanings, and can alter them if they choose. They can rephrase or restructure what they are saying in order to eliminate all generic masculines. They can convert their styles to “mush” if they like. But the translator does not have the same authority to introduce subtle alterations in the meaning of the biblical text.

A Male Representative In Generic “He”

Now what is the significance of the use of generic “he”? “He” is used generically, that is, to speak of a sample individual to whom a general principle applies. The general principle typically applies to both men and women. In this sense, “he” encompasses both men and women; it is inclusive. But is it truly “gender neutral”? That is, does there remain no connotation of “male” deriving from the masculine gender? Reality is more complicated. The American Heritage Dictionary perceptively comments:

If he were truly a gender-neutral form, we would expect that it could be used to refer to the members of any group containing both men and women. But in fact the English masculine form is an odd choice when it refers to a female member of such a group. There is something plainly disconcerting about sentences such as, “Each of the stars of It Happened One Night [i.e., Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert] won an Academy Award for his performance.” In this case, the use of his forces the reader to envision a single male who stands as the representative member of the group, a picture that is at odds with the image that comes to mind when we picture the stars of It Happened One Night. Thus he is not really a gender-neutral pronoun, rather, it refers to a male who is to be taken as the representative member of the group referred to by its antecedent. The traditional usage, then, is not simply a grammatical convention; it also suggests a particular pattern of thought.14

Does the same thing happen in Hebrew and Greek? Hebrew and Greek have gender systems of their own. The two languages differ from one another as well as from English. But when pronouns refer to human beings, the gender usually lines up with sex. The listener’s instincts are to try tentatively to identify the sex of human referents by the gender marking of personal pronouns. Hence, the listener to some extent “pictures” a male figure on the basis of a masculine personal pronoun. The context decides whether the reference is literally to a particular male human being, to a group of males, or to a male as an illustration or sample from a group. Thus, in Hebrew and in Greek as well as in English, the usage “suggests a particular pattern of thought,” namely a picture using a male representative.

The larger cultural context of the Bible reinforces these tendencies. Within patriarchal cultures people are comfortable with the idea of taking a male person as a sample, as representative of anyone within a larger group.

Thus we may state as a general observation that, in eliminating generic “he,” gender-inclusive translations endeavor to retain the general principle expressed in a verse. But they lose part of the meaning by not expressing the fact that the original uses a male sample, a male representative who embodies or illustrates the principle in operation.

The Ideological Basis For The Taboo On Generic “He”

People’s reactions vary greatly to the use of generic “he.” Some are not aware that they have encountered a “controversial usage.” They just read on contentedly. Others are aware but see no problem. Others understand generic “he,” but prefer not to use it themselves. Others understand, but with some stumbling or mild irritation. Still others are positively offended. Now that attention has focused on the issue, it seems to some people that generic “he” displays insensitivity.

In all this we must notice one important point: the “problem” with generic “he” is not that it is obscure, but that it has uncomfortable connotations for some people. It connotes things of which the dominant ideology disapproves. People do not misread it as literally excluding women, but view it as insensitive to women.

In other words, the basic problem, though most noticeable in the case of generic “he,” is not confined to generic “he.” Generic “he” appears as part of a broader cultural pattern. The culture has determined that asymmetrical use of male and female semantic components and semantic connotations is unfair, especially in cases involving the description of mixed groups. The student on whom the professor imposes these standards asks, “Why is it unfair?” The obvious answer is that men and women are equal, and that any practice in language or society that gives asymmetrical attention to the two shows sex discrimination. So might run a typical answer from a college professor.

But is the professor right? The Bible in the original languages shows the very dissymmetries that the professor attacks. The professor implies that the Bible itself is unfair. I side with the Bible and against the professor. Indeed, I side against the whole ideology that he represents.

In short, we are dealing here with an aspect of egalitarian and feminist ideology, pure and simple. As many acknowledge, the rejection of generic “he” arose historically mostly through the pressure of feminist ideology. What fewer people acknowledge is that this rejection can continue only through the repeated application of ideology when professors and cultural leaders reiterate why certain apparently innocent manners of expression are taboo. The basic reason for avoiding generic “he” is that egalitarian ideology says that it is unfair.

The Ideological Clash

In principle, people possess the ability to understand generic “he.” But some do not or will not. The basic problem is ideological clash. These problems are symptomatic of deep cultural sickness that has boiled over into elitist standards of linguistic usage. Any culture is sick if it stumbles over a story of a wise man building his house on the rock, or a father warning his “son” about the loose woman. Such a culture is resistive, as The American Heritage Dictionary puts it, to “a particular pattern of thought.”15 It resists using a male representative to express a general truth. Many things are needed for its healing. At the center is the gospel of Christ Himself. But if there is sickness here, we do not help the sickness by sickening the Bible a little in order that the sick person can be more at home with it.

The language of the Bible demonstrates again and again the ethical principle that it is all right to use a male figure or a malemarked term as representative of a truth applying to both men and women. In fact, in view of the representative character of Adam as head of the whole human race, of men as heads of their families (Eph. 5:22-33), and of Christ as head of his people, it is singularly appropriate. We need not be embarrassed.

Why not believe that God will use these differences between the Bible’s way of talking and that of our modern cultural elite in order subtly to rebuke and reform us, to give us life and healing and peace? Precisely at these points the Bible can enrich us, if we stand firm rather than simply caving in to what the world says is now the new standard for “offense” and “sensitivity.”

The Slippery Slope

If one disagrees with this reasoning, the following question must be faced. How far will we go with the principle of conforming to cultural sensitivities for the sake of avoiding offense? Should we refrain from calling God our Father because some people have had sinful, oppressive fathers? Should we stop using “He” to refer to God because some people will think that God is literally of the male sex? If we allow these concessions, will not others enter from the wings, seducing us into an indefinite series of mollifications of the Bible for the sake of not “unnecessarily” offending modern readers?

It is better not to overreach in translation, not to try to ‘fix’ too much, not to claim too quickly that we know what we are doing in making these changes. Let us not be like Uzzah and attempt to steady the ark (2 Sam. 6:6-7).

This article has been adapted from “Gender in Bible Translation: Exploring a Connection with Male Representatives,” originally published in the Westminster Theological Journal 60 (Fall 1998):225-53.