Friday, July 10, 2009

Why I Want a Gender Neutral Bible Translation

image A friend of mine in Missouri responded to my post of this morning with what is a very pertinent question. Since he asked it on Facebook & not here let me duplicate it here:

I guess I always looked at "gender neutral" as an effort to be politically correct. Have I missed something? And while I am sure Jesus loved and loves men and women equally, did he really use "gender neutral" terms? I'm open to your input.


Here is my quick & imperfect reply to him:

Let me give it a shot:
There are two types of gender neutral translation efforts. The first was the one practiced in the 70's & 80's that made God our "Father/Mother" or “parent” and Jesus only the "child of God." That method is not only silly but biblically inaccurate. I have an “Inclusive Language Lectionary” on my shelves and it is ridiculous. Jesus was a male. There are times when God is called “Father” that it carries specific theological significance, just as the times (more times than people usually think) that God is called “mother”, or motherly characteristics are used of God, there is usually specific theological significance.

The second type of gender neutrality (used by NLT, CEV, NRSV, TNIV as well as others) takes the places whether either no gender specific noun is given, or (sometimes) even if a male pronoun is used, but the sense is obviously either men or women, to translate it neutrally. The judicious use of footnotes is important or helpful here. And if it is done artfully, most readers don’t even notice that “anyone” (or whatever) has been used for “man.” image

The reason for this is twofold: We live in a culture where language is changing/has changed. In no other field can you indiscriminately use "man" for "humanity'. I don't get into the he/she or s/he silliness, but modern day people who are accustomed to hearing gender neutral language find it jarring (they say) to hear “man” when the obvious intent is either male or female.

John Kohlenberger (see below) notes that "If you went into any church today and said, 'I'd like all the men to stand up,' most, if not all, of the women would stay seated. The adult males would stand up, and all of the teenage males would wonder, "Am I old enough? Do I get to stand up?" Most people today hear the word man as an adult male, not as referring to any person."

The second reason deals with translation theory. A good translation attempts to take the Hebrew and Greek words of the Bible and put them into the same meaning in English (or whatever language is the target language). It is dishonest to say that any translation does that without applying any interpretation of what the text “means.” That is a necessary part of translating from one language to another.

There is traditionally a spectrum discussed when talking about how to do that. Some Bibles (NASB is the classic example) translate word for word on the one hand. On the other hand you have paraphrases such as the (old) Living Bible and The Message. Many would claim that the word for word translations are more “literal,” but even the act of translating one English word for one Greek words involves a level of interpretation

In my estimation, a good balance is needed: one must ask “What did the words—individually and in context—mean to the original hearers?” and then “How do we express that in language that people will understand today?”


(Graphic from Brent MacDonald:

There has always been some gender neutrality in Bible translation. Even if one goes back to the KJV, there is some gender neutrality. If you look at Ex. 18:16 in the KJV it says: “When they have a matter, they come unto me; and I judge between one and another, and I do make them know the statutes of God, and his laws. “ The English translation "one and another" is literally "a man and his neighbor" in Hebrew.

1 Peter 3:1-6 (KJV) commands wives to concern themselves not so much with their outward adornment as with "the hidden man of the heart." Now I don't want Loretta to have a "hidden man of the heart"! Even literal translations like the RSV, the NKJV and the NASB talk about "the hidden person of the heart." In the NIV and the NRSV, it is translated as "the inner self."

One person noted that “The KJV translated the Hebrew word ben/banim as "son" or "sons" 2,893 times. But it translates it as "child" or "children" 1,570 times. Does that mean that 35% of the KJV is inaccurate?”

The charge is made that gender-neutral Bibles “change” the Bible. Actually, they don’t. They are seeking to maintain what the Bible says. The non-gender neutral Bibles change the meaning of the Bible. We want modern day hearers to “hear” what the original hearers heard. In our culture using “man” when both men & women are intended actually changes what the Bible is saying.

I could go on, but this is getting long. I might write a more extensive article about it someday (& perhaps I should). But in the meantime an excellent article addressing these matters is one written by the very respected Bible scholar John Kohlenberger III entitled “Inclusive Language in Bible Translation” found at

Hope that clears up & not muddies the water.


Wayne Leman said...

Cal, this is one of the best pieces I've seen on this (often divisive) topic. Thank you for thinking through the issues and posting this.

Wayne Leman said...

Cal, I have linked to your post at the Better Bibles Blog.

exegete77 said...

Thanks for this; well done and presented. I would note, though, that the example offered by John Kohlenberger does not really seem to address the situation of the generic use of "men". The context of saying something like that automatically points to gender specific referents ("If you went into any church today and said, 'I'd like all the men to stand up,' most, if not all, of the women would stay seated. The adult males would stand up, and all of the teenage males would wonder, "Am I old enough? Do I get to stand up?" Most people today hear the word man as an adult male, not as referring to any person.")


Cal Habig said...

Thanks Wayne!

Rich: Maybe, but I'm not sure I agree. I think that you kind of make Kollenberger's point for him. While "men" used to have a more generic sense. (Let all the men of God praise Him!"), today men is pretty gender specific. Maybe I'm missing our point about what Kollenberger is not addressing. But thanks for chiming in!!

dac said...

I like the NET bible for this reason

Anonymous said...

I am the copyright holder for the graphic you have posted. The Bible Translation chart is orginally from my web page:

I do not mind it being reproduced on your blog but I do ask that you either link it to my original article, or to my sites ( or, giving written credit as to it's source.

Thank you,

Brent MacDonald
Lion Tracks Ministries

PS. The graphic has been updated since the one you are using.

Cal Habig said...

Done! Thanks for bringing it to my attention.

Kevin Blow said...

For me, at the heart of the debate is this question,

"Is it acceptable to translate only the general idea of a passage and sytematically omit male-orientated detals of meanings that are present in the original Hebrew or Greek text?"

The practical outworking of such translation practice is that the following are omitted, father, son, brother, man, he/him/his and substituted with other words/terms. Even, if they are there in the original language.

Compare the following in the 1984 NIV and the TNIV

The NIV renders 1Cor. 14:28 'If ther is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and God.

TNIV 'If there is no interpreter, the speaker should keep quiet in church and speak to God when alone.

There is nothing in the greek text that means "when alone". By making the changes the text is subtly altered and is not strictly an accurate and faithful translation. Hundreds more example could be provided, but for the sake of brevity, I am just providing one. .

The recently updated 2011 NIV is very similar to the TNIV in its use of gender neutral language.

My concern is that we could be seing a trend where the world appears to be entering into the word of God, (subtly changing it), rather than the other way round and changing the world.

Visits Since Dec. 11, 2007