Cows, Dogs, and Political Correctness – Part Three

Cows, Dogs, and Political Correctness – Part Three August 20, 2006

In this series, so far I have looked at how the Bible uses two Greek words which are often translated as “man,” and then how lexicons describe what those words mean. The reason I have been speaking about this is the drive by some Bible translations to comply with what some would describe as political correctness in our modern language.

There is no doubt that English is in a state of flux where the use of the word “man” – with or without pronouns such as “he” – is being attacked for political reasons connected with a feminist agenda. In fact, at least in some quarters, that battle seems to have been lost and ancient English language structures consigned to the trash-heap of history. The question is whether our Bibles should go along with this neutering of our language or whether we should try to use words that are, at times, intended to be inclusive whilst still retaining a sense of male representativeness.

All these arguments about how to correctly render specific Greek words in English leaves us in danger of missing what is the main point about this issue. The controversies about these words in modern English translations often fail to discuss a far more fundamental point – especially when it comes to the translation philosophy of the ESV. That point is the desire to have a Bible that is essentially literal, and as much as possible, transparent to the original language

This all becomes very apparent when you examine an ESV reverse interlinar in comparison with almost any other modern translation. The ESV very clearly attempts to translate each Greek word and it doesn’t take a long time of studying with such a tool before you begin to understand something of what each Greek word means in different contexts. Words which have a clear equivalent in English are not arbitrarily changed to other words with different meanings. Thus, the translation attempts not to capture the “broad meaning,” but the actual word-for-word meaning of the text. If we believe that each word of the Bible is breathed out by God, such an approach to translation is vital.

If, for example, the original language uses the equivalent of our 3rd person male pronoun (i.e. “he”), then the ESV will leave that in. This is anathema to some feminist theologians for it then appears to some modern English readers that important theological statements therefore exclude females. But it seems almost to have escaped some commentators that in order to have an essentially literal translation one has to keep the English translation of individual Greek words accurate.

The verse that seems to have sparked this entire discussion over at Better Bibles Blog is 2 Peter 1:21. They quote three versions:

  • “. . . because no prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (NRSV)

  • “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (ESV)

  • “For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (TNIV)

The writer at Better Bibles Blog gets very hot under the collar about the use of the words “man” and “men” here, claiming that it excludes women. We know that in English that is not necessarily so, but let’s think for a moment about why the ESV may have wanted to preserve the masculinity in this verse (as opposed to some others where they do, in fact, translate anthropos as person).

The context here makes it clear that the prophecy that is being talked about is Scripture-writing prophecy (which, incidentally, makes an interesting contribution to the cessationist debate — If there is prophecy “of Scripture” that is accurate and inerrant, could there be prophecy not of Scripture that is not inerrant?).

Now since all Scripture was written by men as far as we know, the use here of anthropos may be intended to be masculine. In fact, we cannot be sure about that, so the ESV has simply decided to use a word in English which for most readers leaves that ambiguity present in the text — we have to interpret which meaning of the word “man” is intended, and the translators do not tell us!

But notice the terrible laxness with the actual WORDS of the text that the TNIV shows in the rest of this verse. This is immediately apparent when you look at the reverse interlinear of the ESV version. The text itself does not say “prophecy never had its origin” — it says “no prophecy was ever produced.” The text does not say “prophets though human spoke from God” — instead it says “men (or if you prefer, people!) spoke from God.” The word “prophet” is nowhere to be found in the Scriptures here. How can there be any justification for such an addition to the word of God?

There is no doubt that there has been no debate in the English language until relatively recently that our word “
man” can share that same ambiguity that we have argued both aner and anthropos have — even when accompanied by the word “he.” In fact, I believe it is premature to sound the death knell for such usage in English, although I will concede that it is becoming archaic in some contexts. Interestingly, the singular “man” is perhaps better preserved than the use of “men” as being generic, something which came out when I looked at yet another verse causing angst over at the Better Bibles Blog:

1 Timothy 2:5: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.”

The TNIV has “For there is one God and one mediator between God and human beings, Christ Jesus, himself human.”

Again, this is not at all accurate word-for-word with what the text says. The Greek doesn’t say “himself human” — instead it introduces Jesus as a man.

Now, to ensure clarity for readers, here the ESV has a clear footnote that acknowledges this is a word which is often translated “person.” I think, however (and this is perhaps the preacher in me), that a wording that removes the repetition of “men” and “man” is going to lose the impact of the original — so, for example, “one mediator between God and people, the man Jesus” just doesn’t sound right.

It is also just not proper English to refer to a single human being of known gender as a person or a human! We would never say “himself a human”! We would say “the man” when we knew who we were talking about.

A quick bit of Google research showed something quite interesting about the concept behind this verse — the following phrases receive the following number of hits in web pages indexed at Google:

  • “Between God and men” – 128,000

  • “Between God and man” – 392,000

  • “Between God and people” – 21,700

  • “Between God and human beings” – 17,800

It is striking that the most common of these phrases on-line is actually the one that is not used anywhere in any Bible translation of which I am aware. The use of the singular word “man” as representative for humankind is clearly so strong that it has overwhelmed the actual phrase used in several English Bibles. People have perhaps unconsciously “corrected” the words used by the ESV and other Bibles, maybe because we feel more comfortable speaking of “man” than “men” generically. It would, therefore, seem that the use of “man” as a representative title for “mankind” is far from dead – at least among Christians.

My nine year old might not be able to understand all of the argumentation in this post, but one evening I quoted the ESV version of 1 Timothy 2:5 to her, and she immediately knew that it was Jesus to whom the verse referred (even though she had never heard the word “mediator” before). She also realized very quickly that men here could have an inclusive meaning — as she explained, “It is wo-MAN after all, Dad!”. In fact, the use of “man” at the end of human shows how ludicrous all this is — maybe one day we will be told to speak of hu-people instead!

Why do we have to be politically correct and silly about this issue? Why not, as the ESV has done, where possible and appropriate, translate anthropos as people, but where this seems problematic, explain to our congregations that sometimes when the Bible says “men” it really means “men and women”?

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!