Writing Women Out of the Bible: Gender Exclusive Language in the ESV

Writing Women Out of the Bible: Gender Exclusive Language in the ESV November 14, 2022

gender-exclusive language
Pompei woman holding a wax tablet | Herkulaneischer Meister. Source: unesco.org

Equal in the Grammars

In 1882 a woman writing in the Memphis Free Trade presented her qualms with gender exclusive language: “As the law of grammars now stand, the use of “he” when “she” may be meant is an outrage upon the dignity, and encroachment upon the rights, of woman. It is quite as important that they should stand equal with men in the grammars [my emphasis] as before the law”.

Nearly 150 years later, women are equal before the law, but new translations of the Bible still can’t concede to women’s equality in the grammars.

Where I work, you’ll get the side eye, or a talking-to, if you consistently use gender exclusive language like “men” or “he” when your subject could be a woman. For one, as noted 150 years ago (!), it’s impolite. Two – it’s simply inaccurate. While the term “man” was once inclusive of women, language changes over time, and in the past 50 years, “man” has more and more come to connote a male (i.e., a man)  vs. female person.

I am really encouraged to be part of a workplace that accepts this change and elevates women alongside men in the grammars.

So why can’t the church do the same with its Bible translations? In fact, shouldn’t the church be setting the example for the secular world to follow, and not vice versa?

Gender Exclusive language: Writing Misogyny into the Bible

The Anglican Diocese of North America (ACNA) has endorsed the ESV translation of the Bible, published most recently in 2016. I worship at a church within the ACNA, and despite my overwhelmingly positive experience there, I am troubled, especially as a mom to two girls, by the gender-inaccurate language of this Bible translation.

The problems with the ESV first registered with me after several Sunday readings this summer that featured gender-inaccurate nouns and pronouns. These readings included, “He who has an ear, let him hear!”; “When He ascended on high…he gave gifts to men” (Eph. 4: 7-16); and “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election” (2 Peter 1:1-11). There were other passages as well.

I say that the readings were “gender-inaccurate” because although the ESV excludes women in these texts, that exclusion is not apparent in the original Greek; for example, “He who has an ear, let him hear!” has no gender implication in Greek. Additionally, it seems clear that the intended audience is both men and women. Therefore, using male nouns and pronouns in English here, when there is no gender in the original Greek, is inaccurate and deceptive. I’m not at all suggesting that we rid the Bible of gender distinctions and wouldn’t advocate similar extremes, but it seems, at the very least, that we should be using a translation that accurately reflects what was written as well as what was intended. Ergo, if no gender is specified in the original language, or if there is ambiguity – either don’t specify the gender in English or include both genders!

Interestingly, in the readings from Eph. and 2 Peter, the ESV indicates in footnotes that the language of the original text does not exclude women, but those footnotes only make the ESV translation here of “men” and “brothers” more nonsensical. In a kind of perverse way, the ESV does include women in these readings but not alongside men; our presence is literally downgraded to a footnote.

While each Bible translation has its pros and cons, it’s disturbing that we use a modern translation in which women are consistently, inaccurately written out or footnoted. Greek is a multi-valent language, but if Biblical authors had wanted to conclusively write women out of the text, there are ways they could have done so in Greek. But in the readings I’ve mentioned, and in many other passages “masculinized” in the ESV, they didn’t! Evidently, the authors of the original Biblical text were more progressive when it comes to gender inclusivity than the ESV is in 2022.

The Myth of Inclusive Masculine Nomenclature

So what are my little girls supposed to think when they hear these gender-inaccurate texts (and there are many of them)? Will they wonder, are these texts addressing me?

Studies going back decades have demonstrated that the notion of “female inclusivity” under masculine nouns and pronouns, at least in English, is dubious. We can want terms like “he” and “man” and “brothers” to be inclusive of women; we can treat those words like they’re inclusive; but empirical evidence suggests that in reality people don’t perceive them as such. I quote a review of some of these studies here: “Among the findings revealed by the review are: (1) there is a tendency for people to perceive man-linked words [e.g., “mankind”] as more likely to refer to men than to women; (2) there is a tendency for people to perceive nonhuman-linked words as referring with approximately equal likelihood to both men and women; (3) the traditional generic “he” is not perceived as referring with equal likelihood to both male and female referents.” A more recent study with similar conclusions reminds us that language influences how we think.

I would also add that how we think influences our behavior. Unsurprisingly, the exclusion of women in the ESV translation is reflected in the very composition of the ESV Oversight Committee and review scholars. Of the 13 members of the committee, and of the approximately 50 scholars involved, not one is female! You can’t possibly believe that there were no women who were qualified for these roles. The issues with the ESV translation appear to be symptomatic of a larger, systemic problem of women’s exclusion in the church, a problem that the ESV translation may not-so-subtly perpetuate. One need only visit the various ACNA diocesan websites to see, from photos of clerical gatherings, that women aren’t just excluded in Bible translations; we’re excluded from church leadership.

What other insidious effects might writing women out of the Bible, in our time, have on men’s perceptions of, and behavior toward, women? And on women’s perceptions of themselves – and on the behavior they are willing to tolerate? Especially in the church? These are questions that we need to reckon with. The Southern Baptist Convention sex abuse scandal didn’t happen in a vacuum. I’m not suggesting a directly causitive relationship between the gender-inaccurate language of the ESV (and some other translations used by conservative groups) and sexual abuse of women in the church; rather, these translations’ intentional exclusion of women emerges in a milieu, and is part of a pattern, in which women have been ignored, exploited, and abused.

The Bible is the Spirit-inspired Word of God. Perhaps the more gender-inclusive language of the original text, especially for its time, is also Spirit-inspired, reflecting the inclusiveness of the Gospel, which is for everyone. It pains me that we use a modern Bible translation in our worship that works against the Gospel in this fundamental way, by using gender exclusive language, or reducing women to a footnote, where no such exclusion is warranted.

The ESV: Institutionalized Patriarchy

Some Catholic clergy have called out how the ESV translation uses language to demean women and have questioned its adoption by the church. Fr. Brendan Hoban, recently criticizing the adoption of the ESV in England and Wales, writes: “Will they [the bishops of Ireland] compound a problem being visited on the Catholics of England and Wales by regularly and ritually insulting women as they listen to the Word of God being read at Mass – giving them another reason to cut their links with an institution that insists on patronising and disrespecting them to the point of misogyny?” He further describes the ESV’s adoption as a “watershed moment when women may eventually decide that no matter what the Catholic Church says, disrespect for women is sewn into its institutional seams.”

One my favorite criticisms of the ESV’s gender politics, because it’s actually quite funny, is from author and theologian Carolyn Custis James. She highlights in a blog the hypocrisy of the ESV’s gender-inaccurate translation of “man” in Gen. 1:26-27 (“Let us make man in our image and likeness”), comparing it to the care with which other, less important words are translated:

“The Old English term “man” describes all humanity. Yet the ESV retains the Old English language, while the TNIV and NLT substitute “human beings.” That modern linguistic clarification doesn’t make the text gender-neutral, but rather gender-accurate—reflecting the actual meaning of the biblical text.

Evidently, the original ESV translators were unbothered by modernizing the Old English word “ass” to “donkey” (cf., Numbers 22:22; Joshua 6:21). Apparently their editors deemed it more important to clarify the meaning of “ass” than “man.”

As I write and ponder what James wrote, I’m having a serious case of déjà vu; I’m suddenly reminded of another place in the Bible where we have a woman, a donkey, and hypocrisy – because the donkey is treated better than the woman.  It’s the story of the crippled woman in Luke 13. Let’s take a closer look at what happened and Jesus’s response:

Now he [Jesus] was teaching in one of the synagogues on the Sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the Sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured and not on the Sabbath day.” But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it to water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the Sabbath day?” (10-16)

ESV translators (or shall we call them scribes?) were happy to free the “ass” from the confines of outdated language, clarifying and replacing it with the modern term “donkey,” but chose that same outdated language to bind and bury the “daughters of Abraham” in one of the most important passages in Scripture, and throughout many others.

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!” (Matt 23:13, 16, 23, 25, 27, 29)

And There’s More

In this post, I’ve chosen to focus on the ESV’s gender exclusive language. But when it comes to gender, the problems of the ESV are hardly limited to its misuse of male nouns and pronouns. Throughout the entire ESV translation of the Bible, key words in various texts have been altered in ways that support a patriarchal, complementarian worldview, as detailed by theologians Scott McKnight, William G Witt, and many others. I won’t re-present their arguments here, but Beth Allison Barr speaks to this point in her blog post “Deconstructing the ESV,” where she discusses sociologist Samuel Perry’s study The Bible as a Product of Cultural Power: The Case of Gender Ideology in the ESV. Additionally, Barr draws on her experience in source analysis and perspectives, as a historian, to scrutinize the ESV: What is its historical context? How do the perspectives of the translators influence their interpretive lens? When she applies what she describes as “these basic methodological tools” to the ESV, the results (some of which I have highlighted in my post) are pretty devastating.

A Theological Basis for Protesting Gender Exclusive Language

In his commentary on Genesis, Matthew Henry makes this poignant observation about the creation of woman: “The woman was made of a rib out of the side of Adam; not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near his heart to be beloved.”

When it comes to Bible translations, women’s equality in the grammars isn’t merely a matter of kindness or linguistic accuracy, but of being theologically true to our creation as male and female, “beloved” by and equal to the other. Equality in the grammars should be seen as a necessary conformation to Biblical anthropology, to God’s will for human relationships, not as a concession to political correctness. More to the point, a translation strategy that deletes women is precisely one in which women are not protected, are not beloved, and while social justice issues are important, the sin of that exclusion is first and foremost a sin against God.

In her research of church manuscripts, Barr found multiple examples of medieval priests who literally re-wrote male-oriented scriptures in their sermons to include women. She writes in The Making of Biblical Womanhood: “The medieval world was far from promoting equality for women in everyday life”; yet, “medieval clergy used gender-inclusive language to better care for their parishioners” (143). These practices make the language of the ESV, published hundreds of years later, seem even more absurd and inappropriate.

I want the best for my girls. In so many ways my church provides that, but we can be better in stewarding the Word of God. I want my girls to hear the truth of the Gospel, which is primarily Jesus Christ, but I also want them to hear in our worship gender-accurate Bible readings that don’t delete their sex.

I want my girls to embrace the good news of Jesus Christ in the Bible; yet, the Bible – the ESV version – rejects my girls.

Gender exclusive language in our Bibles may not be the most pressing issue facing the church today, but it is one worth serious consideration. These deletions of women from the text, even if they escape most people’s notice, aren’t innocuous. They distort the Word of God, the “good news,” which is for everyone; they distort the God-designed mutuality of men of women by creating a linguistic gender hierarchy; and they feed the beast of patriarchy, at once upholding and mirroring it in an enabling cycle of idolatry.



Browse Our Archives