The ESV is Gender Neutral too!

Derek Ouellette —  April 29, 2013

What if the ESV were gender neutral? Would it change anything? Would you appreciate the NIV2011 more or would you ostracize the ESV as many have done with the NIV2011?

In this post I am going to show that every English translation uses gender neutral language in places where the Hebrew or Greek has a masculine form. This suggests that the difference between the NIV2011 and the ESV in regards to gender neutral language is one of quantity, not quality, and that quantity should not be a factor in determining which is the better translation. The examples in this post are pulled from a remarkably informative book called “One Bible, Many Versions: Are All Translations Created Equal?” by Dave Brunn (review forthcoming).

ESV Gender Neutral

From the ESV


We need to begin by defining our phrases. Does “gender neutral” mean that a translation changed pronouns referring to God from a masculine form to a neutral (or feminine) form? If so then we have nothing to fear. No major translation (including the NIV2011) has changed any of the pronouns relating to God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit. When Bible professionals use phrases like “gender neutral” what they mean is that some places in the Bible where the Hebrew or Greek use masculine forms, translations have used gender neutral forms if the context allows. For example, the Hebrew might say “man” and a translation might translate it “human” if the context calls for it.

Unfortunately when many people hear the phrase “gender neutral” they think that something of the original has been “changed” or that a translation has made God gender neutral. This is one reason why I believe we should not use the phrase “gender neutral,” because it can be misleading.

Here’s an example: Matthew 4:4

ESV: Man shall not live by bread alone.

NIV2011: Man shall not live by bread alone.

NLT: People do not live by bread alone.

GW: A person cannot live on bread alone.

This is what Bible translators mean by gender neutral. In the above example, the ESV and NIV2011 are both literal renderings from the Greek which are gender specific. The NLT and GW both use gender neutral words. Which translation is right and which is wrong? If they all communicate (or translate) the meaning of the Greek (which is the purpose of a translation), then they are all correct. It is not either/or but both/and.

But since both the ESV and the new NIV2011 are gender specific here this raises an interesting question: how gender neutral does a translation have to be to be considered gender neutral? We’ll come back to that question.


There are numerous examples in the ESV where its translators opted for a gender neutral rendering of a gender specific Hebrew or Greek phrase. Here are some examples. The literal Hebrew or Greek are in brackets (examples borrowed from One Bible, Many Versions, p.176):

From the ESV:

Ex. 2:11: “Moses… saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew, one of his people (lit. brothers)”

Num. 1:16: “the chiefs of their ancestral (lit. fathers) tribes.”

Num. 31:30: “one drawn out of every fifty, of the people (lit. men).”

Matt. 12:31: “every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people (lit. men).”

Jas. 3:8: “no human being (lit. man) can tame the tongue.”

These examples illustrate the principle that “every English version has replaced some masculine forms with gender neutral forms.” (p.175). This also shows that the difference between the NIV2011 and the ESV is one of degree. The NIV2011 has more gender neutral forms than the ESV, but they both opt for gender neutral forms at least sometimes. This begs the question again: how gender neutral does a translation have to be to be considered gender neutral?


Many people have put aside the NIV2011 because it is said to be “gender neutral.” But as we saw in the first illustration, sometimes the NIV2011 is gender specific like the ESV, and as we saw in the second example, sometimes the ESV is gender neutral like the NIV2011. If people put aside the NIV2011 because it contains gender neutral renderings, ought they not to put aside the ESV as well?

That people put the NIV2011 aside because it is “gender neutral” suggests that there is something inherently wrong with translating a gender specific form as gender neutral. But if that were the case every English version would be disqualified since they all, on occasion, do just that (ex. NASB Gen. 14:14; HCSB Eph. 3:5; KJV Ezek. 44:25 – all from “literal” translations).

What is sometimes argued, however, is that the NIV2011 does it more often. But is that really a valid argument? If there is something inherently wrong with translating a gender specific form as gender neutral, then isn’t the argument of “more often” akin to claiming: “I only robbed the bank once. They robbed the bank ten times!“? If it is inherently wrong, then it is wrong all the time whether the principle is violated once or ten times. Every translation would be wrong, and we are just left choosing the least wrong translation!

No. This won’t do. A better way is to acknowledge 1. that versions like the NIV2011 are simply more consistent in their idiomatic ideals than versions like the ESV; 2. that there is nothing inherently wrong with translating gender specific forms as gender neutral; 3. that both the NIV2011 and the ESV are good translations which complement each other, and 4. that calling one translation gender neutral is misleading.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • Derek Ouellette

    Dave! Some said to me today on YouTube: “Derek, I’ve tried to comment on your site, but it never showed up.” That’s when I first realized NONE of my disqus comments were even appearing as awaiting moderation. I thought people just stopped apologizing. I had to actually log into Disqus to find this dozens and dozens of comments! Sorry for missing yours!

  • Derek Ouellette

    Thanks Lando!

  • David Brainerd

    Compare the ESV to the RSV from whence it came, and you’ll find the ESV is super-liberal in that it has WAY MORE feminist pushing language than the RSV did.

  • Derek Ouellette

    You’re right about James. That passage was mistakenly included.

    Personally the link you provided, while interesting, is ultimately not very useful but potentially misleading as the sheer volume of changes tells us nothing of the quality of the changes and it should’nt matter how much the NIV11 differs from the NIV84. The question we need to keep exploring is which translations do a better job communication the message of the original. IMO, that would be the NIV11.

    Can you give me examples of where the NIV11 takes a masculine singular and translates it to a neuter plural? I haven’t come across any, even from reading critics of the NIV11. But I might just have missed it so I’d love to see your references?


  • Derek Ouellette

    The NIV11 does not make God gender neutral. Your charge that I’ve repurposed that phrase for my own purpose is hilarious! Because I’ve applied the phrase to the ESV in the EXACT same way that NIV11 critics apply it to the NIV11 using the same type of examples. (As other articles I’ve written on this will attest.)

    Your change regarding the motives of the proponents of a gender inclusive philosophy (I’m assuming you’re referring to the NIV11 translators since that’s what we’re talking about) is very highly presumption and judgemental. Who are you to say that they are more motivated by political correctness than scriptural accuracy? How can you give such sweeping judgement of their motives? Wow!

    I think you should check your motives.

    Finally, why scour the footnotes for the correct translation of a word like anthropoi every time you come across “brothers” (ESV) in the text? Personally I’d rather rely on a translation in which the correct translation choice to reflect the Greek (“brothers and sisters”) is in the text in the first place! (As in the NIV11). I want to trust and rely on my translation enough that I don’t have to keep looking into the footnotes for it to correct itself!

    Think this through carefully. I have no problem if someone prefers one translation over another. But your objections to the NIV11 are highly suspect (at least the objections you’ve come up with so far). This is a problem because not only are you working hard to damage the trustworthiness of a good translation, but you could very well be misleading others along the way!

    • John

      Bro…this was like 2 years ago…..

      • Derek Ouellette

        I know. Just getting caught up! lol.

  • Larry

    The AV is one version that does not use ‘gender neutral’ language anywhere as far as I am aware. But whenever a ‘gender specific’ form appears in Hebrew & Greek, it is also reflected in the English.
    Yes, it is true that ‘If it is inherently wrong, then it is wrong all the time whether the principle is violated once or ten times.’ But what follows from that? That we should not worry about the issue at all and not distinguish between the ESV and NIV2011? It does not seem to me that that at all follows. The more logical conclusion would be that the ESV is defective and the NIV2011 is more defective.
    The original languages are inherently ‘gender specific’ – that is the nature of them, and under the influence of unBiblical feminism there has been a push to make English more gender neutral and that push has flowed on to English Bible translation. But the plain truth is that it is a departure from strict faithfulness to the original languages. That is obvious from the fact that it was never an issue at all until the rise and ascendancy of feminism. The scholars who translated the AV for example were very competent scholars and they never saw the issue. Why not? Because the issue only arises from a changed culture, not from the original languages themselves.