Why Translation Matters (ἀνθρωπος/anthropos doesn’t mean “man/men”)
Periodically, I will offer some translation notes in this blog series. Today, I want to point out how many modern translations default to androcentrism (a “male” orientation where it is unnecessary). I will focus my concern on the ESV, because of its popularity and its dominance in many evangelical churches.
According to most reputable lexicons, anthropos means “person/human,” without any specific assumption of gender. I would guess that 99% of the time, anthropos is used in the New Testament in this generic way. There are a small number of occasions, where anthropos is used as a clear reference to a man only (and, thus, as a synonym for aner, “male”; cf. 1 Cor 7:1).
Translations like the ESV often render anthropos as “man” even though nothing in the context suggests this gendered limitation. Here are a some examples.
ESV Romans 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men (anthropos), who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. (Rom. 1:18 ESV)
Note: Here the wrath of God is against all of sinful humanity, not just men. In fact, women are mentioned in 1:26. Therefore, it makes more sense to translate this as humanity or humankind.
ESV Romans 2:16 on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men (anthropos) by Christ Jesus. (Rom. 2:16 ESV)
Note: God will judge all people according to Paul, not just men.
ESV 1 Corinthians 13:1 If I speak in the tongues of men (anthropos) and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. (1 Cor. 13:1 ESV)
Note: Because the comparison is with angels (not women), I believe anthropos is best translated as “mortals” or “humans” here.
ESV Galatians 1:11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s (anthropos) gospel. (Gal. 1:11 ESV)
Note: The use of “man” as a representative of “humankind” is rapidly falling out of use in modern English.
ESV 1 Timothy 2:5 For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men (anthropos plural), the man (anthropos) Christ Jesus, (1 Tim. 2:5 ESV)
Note: Here the mediation is not between God and male humans, but between God and mortals. It obscures the text to refer to Christ Jesus as a “man” here. Otherwise, it potentially elevates men over women. The point is the incarnation (Jesus becoming human flesh). Now the NIV2011 has “man” here (presumably because it sounds more natural), but I think in some cases gender-neutral clarity (when the wording requires it) supersedes the desire for more eloquent speech.
ESV Hebrews 5:1 For every high priest chosen from among men (anthropos) is appointed to act on behalf of men (anthropos) in relation to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. (Heb. 5:1 ESV)
Note: Again, I think the ESV overinterprets the text by rendering anthropos as “men” here. If the author wanted to say “males” he could have easily done so (aner). But we must allow the NT authors to make their own point, and not presume what that was by being more specific than they chose to be. Yes, high priests were men, but that is simply not what the author wrote. Even though some argue “not much is lost” here, it becomes a sloppy way of translating, especially when the ESV claims to be an “optimal” equivalence.
ESV Hebrews 7:28 For the law appoints men (anthropos) in their weakness as high priests, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. (Heb. 7:28 ESV)
Note: Again here, the ESV over-interprets the text. The point of the passage is not that “men” become high priests, but that one human becomes high priest and also suffers from weakness; but the Son is unique and perfect.
What Do Women Think?
My guess is that the ESV translation committee would find “man/men” a suitable gender-inclusive term, and they presume women feel quite comfortable allowing for this. But there are two problems with this. First, there is so much overt and latent sexism and androcentrism in society, I think we need to be more careful about gender inclusive language (in conversation and in translation where relevant). Secondly, the ESV oversight committee is 12 men and no women (LINK). There are ~50 review scholars (I assume this means translation consultants)—all men. To me, this is a major problem if we expect more than half the church (women) to find this translation meaningful and respectful of the inclusion of women.
I believe any translation claiming to speak clearly and meaningfully to the whole people of God, men and women, should take into consideration how women (of all generations) respond to default-male language like “man,” “men,” and “mankind” for anthropos.
The ESV does use more inclusive language sometimes, but the inconsistency on this troubles me.
A Technical Note on Semantics
This note is for readers who have studied Greek.
There is a danger in relying on lexicons to determine word meanings. Lexicons often offer several “meanings” of a word. But we must recognize not all meanings are of the same kind. Some meanings represent the core, what a word actually means. Often other “meanings” are nuances or contextualized versions of that root meaning. For example, διωκω means “pursue” at its core; in certain contexts it can mean “persecute.” The two meanings are not “equal” in terms of their relationship to the word.
The same goes for ἀνθρωπος – it means “human.” Culturally, it could be used as a synonym for ἀνηρ and be translated as “man,” but the two are not translation options on equal footing. Unless the context requires the more narrow connotation of “man,” the translator must presume the author means “human/person.” There should be a kind of “order of operations” for English word choices.
We must also deal with the difference between word meaning and the referent. Take the English word “vehicle.” A vehicle can be any means of transport. If a police offer says, “Step out of your vehicle,” the meaning of the word doesn’t change: the word still means “mode of transportation.” But here the referent is obviously a car. We all know the referent, but that still doesn’t change the meaning of the word “vehicle.”
The same goes for ἀνθρωπος in the New Testament. Just because ἀνθρωπος sometimes has males as the referent doesn’t mean the word meaning changes. It still means “person,” even if the referent is a male. Translators who are trying to reflect the Greek text in a straightforward manner ought to consistently stick to word meanings and avoid substituting referents.