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).
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY “GENDER NEUTRAL”?
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.
A GENDER NEUTRAL ESV?
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?
SHOULD WE BE USING THE PHRASE 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.