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The Problems with “Man-Bibles”: Why Gender-Inclusive Bible Translations

By Rachel McNally

Several years ago, I was visiting another church with my family. As we were waiting for the service to begin, I picked up one of the pew Bibles. I opened it and exclaimed in a loud voice: “They have man-Bibles!” Even though I knew that this church held complementarian views, I was annoyed to see them using a Bible translation that excludes women, so I had this strong and immediate reaction. While I laugh at this memory with my parents, gender-exclusive Bible translations have real consequences, like being used to justify excluding women from ministry positions. For me, picking up that pew Bible reinforced my feeling that I would never want to join that church.

I am not a biblical scholar but as Ph.D. Student in Political Science, I am trained to always ask questions about who benefits and whose interests are reflected in any project (which is typically whoever funds it). It is clear that those who benefit from gender-exclusive Bible translations are men who want to maintain their power in patriarchal structures and who want to continue to exclude women. Those with power rarely give up their power willingly or easily.

The Brothers and the Others

I learned in French class growing up that “ils” (they) could refer to a group of men or a group of men and women together. It was similar in Biblical Greek, where the term for “brothers” often referred to a group of men and women, or brothers and sisters. The translators for the New Living Translation include this note in the introduction to their study Bible:

One challenge we faced was how to translate accurately the ancient biblical text that was originally written in a context where male-oriented terms were used to refer to humanity generally. We needed to respect the nature of the ancient context while also trying to make the translation clear to a modern audience that tends to read male-oriented language as applying only to males. Often the original text, though using masculine nouns and pronouns, clearly intends that the message be applied to both men and women. A typical example is found in the New Testament letters, where the believers are called “brothers” (adelphoi). Yet, it is clear from the content of these letters that they were addressed to all the believers – male and female. Thus, we have usually translated this Greek word as “brothers and sisters” in order to represent the historical situation more accurately.

Opponents of gender-inclusive translations often use the argument of “accuracy” – that including sisters is not accurate to the original text – despite the fact that the original text means to include both men and women. As one author points out, those who oppose gender-inclusive translations want to keep words that seem to refer to males only, even if it misses the intended meaning of humans in general or if it may “create confusion and mislead some readers to think that they or those they love may be excluded, or that they are secondary participants.”

Besides representing the original meaning, the translators are recognizing that the way we use language changes over time. It is the same reason why most of us today read Bibles without “thee” and “thou.” What was so revolutionary about the King James Version at the time is that the Bible was translated in the language of the people so that anyone who could read would be able to read what was being said. Since we no longer use “thee” and “thou” in our everyday language, our Bible translations have changed too.

The Politics of Bible Translation and the Backstory of the ESV

The pew Bible I picked up at the church that day was the English Standard Version (ESV). The ESV promotes itself as a Bible that “emphasizes ‘word-for-word’ accuracy, literary excellence, and depth of meaning.” What is not so obvious is that one of the original purposes of the ESV was to undermine new gender-inclusive Bible translations. This agenda and this history get lost in the Bible’s promotion. The 10-minute video on the ESV website about the translation’s history never mentions the issue of gender-inclusive language. Instead, it emphasizes building on a long history of Bible translation and doing a literal translation that is close to the original text.

The backstory of the ESV starts around 1996 when the NIV released a new version in the UK called the “Inclusive Language Edition.” It was not the first translation to use gender-inclusive language, but given that the NIV was the main translation used by many church denominations at the time, the revision got lots of attention. In 1997, the Southern Baptist Convention passed the Resolution on Bible Translation, saying that Bible translators face “pressure from those who do not hold a high view of Scripture to take the license with the use of particular terms, including, but not limited to, the use of so-called gender-inclusive language.” They urged “every Bible publisher and translation group to continue to use time-honoured, historic principles of biblical translation and refrain from any deviation to seek to accommodate contemporary cultural pressures.” They requested that all the organizations and publishers associated with the Southern Baptist Convention avoid using or printing translations with gender-inclusive language.

It was in this context that the ESV was created. A 1999 article describes the backstory this way:

The version had its roots in discussions that took place before the May 1997 meeting…to resolve the inclusive NIV issue…critics of regendered language gathered in a Colorado Springs hotel room…The group discussed the merits of the Revised Standard Version, first published in 1952 by the National Council of Churches and recently replaced by the New Revised Standard Version…[they] entered into negotiations with the National Council of Churches to use the 1971 revision of the Revised Standard Version as the basis for a new translation. An agreement was reached in September 1998, allowing translators freedom to modify the original text of the RSV as necessary.

The ESV was published in 2001. The first to champion the ESV project was Professor Wayne Grudem, who at the time was the President of a complementarian organization called The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. That organization later celebrated the 2007 ESV Study Bible for being “unapologetically complementarian,” with study notes that emphasize complementarian interpretations of specific passages and do not present alternative interpretations. In terms of its translation team, the ESV is also a “man-Bible”: all of the 15 members of the Oversight Committee and all of the 51 Review Scholars listed on the ESV website are men.

Beyond male-only language and study notes, the ESV has intentionally translated certain passages differently than other translations to support a complementarian perspective. For example, in Romans 16, Paul recognizes Phoebe as “a deacon of the church” (NIV), but the ESV translates it as “a servant of the church,” given that complementarians believe that women could not be deacons. This is especially problematic because Phoebe was likely the one who brought the letter to the church and read it to the congregation, given that he mentions her first and asks the Roman church to receive her well.

Later in the same passage, Paul recognizes the woman Junia and probably her husband as “outstanding among the apostles” (NIV). Since complementarians believe that a woman could not be an apostle, the ESV translates it as “well known to the apostles” and even puts the male version of her name in the footnotes, as if the female name might be a typo. Her leadership is not recognized since it would contradict their argument that women were not leaders in the early church. Although the ESV promotes itself as providing the literal words without any interpretation, it is clear that they are promoting a particular interpretation of these passages.

The other new translation that emerged around the same time as a reaction to gender-inclusive translations was the Holman Christian Standard Bible, commissioned by the Southern Baptist Convention to “champion the absolute truth of the Bible against social or cultural agendas that would compromise its accuracy.” As I know from politics, following the money is informative because a project usually reflects the interests of whoever funds it. When gender-inclusive NIV versions were released several years later in the US, the Southern Baptist Convention strongly criticized them.

Gender-inclusive Bible translations are not just about grammar or changes in how the English language uses words. It is about recognizing that each Bible translation – from the KJV to the NIV to the ESV – was created for a purpose within a particular historical, cultural, and political context. It is about paying attention to how particular translations of the Bible are used to legitimize particular interpretations of the role of women. It is about sisters seeing themselves as an equal part of the Bible and the Church, rather than as “others” or as an afterthought. It is about men and women being challenged together to follow Christ more fully, recognizing that the words apply to believers regardless of gender.

I hope that when a young woman walks into your church and picks up the pew Bible, she does not feel turned off by a “man-Bible,” but instead welcomed by an everyone-Bible.

Rachel McNally is a Ph.D. Student in Political Science and ASBE Board Member

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