What's Wrong with Gender-Neutral Bible Translations? (W. Grudem, 1997) (page 1)

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Author's Bias | Interpretation: conservative | Inclination: convenant

The publicity brochure of the New Revised Standard Version sounds so sensible. At last, we are told, misleading, masculine-oriented language has been removed from the Bible. Jesus no longer says, "and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (RSV), but instead, "And I... will draw all people to myself" (John 12:32, NRSV).

This is an improvement: the word men isn't specified by the Greek text, and all people is a faithful rendering of the Greek pronoun pas. Changes like this use "gender-neutral" language without sacrificing accuracy in translation. In addition, the NRSV has not gone as far as some people wanted, because it still calls God "Father" (not "Parent"), for example, and calls Jesus the "Son of God" (not "Child of God")--probably in large measure due to the conservative influence of the chairman of the NRSV translation committee, evangelical New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger.

But there are many other changes -- literally, thousands -- that should cause evangelicals much concern. The translators consistently disregarded precise, grammatically correct English equivalents and resorted to gender-neutral paraphrases. The preface explains that the copyright holder (the Division of Education and Ministry of the National Council of Churches of Christ) required that "masculine-oriented language should be eliminated as far as this can be done without altering passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture." To fulfill this requirement, the translation committee explains that it had to depart from its ordinary principles of making "essentially a literal translation."

For example, the preface says that they used "periphrastic renderings" to compensate for "the lack of a common gender third person singular pronoun" in English--in other words, they used paraphrase to eliminate "he," "him," and "his" where they were used in generic statements to refer to either a man or a woman. It is significant that the NRSV translators do not claim that such gender-neutral translations are more accurate, or even could be carried out within their guiding maxim, "as literal as possible, as free as necessary." Rather, they admit that they had to resort to paraphrase to make the translation gender-neutral. In addition to generic he-him-his, other "masculine-oriented" words such as "father," "son," "son of man," "man," and "brother" were removed from several hundred verses.

The NRSV in 1989 was the first major "gender neutral" translation, but many of its patterns have been followed by the New Living Translation (NLT), the New Century Version (NCV), the Contemporary English Version (CEV), and (in England only) the New International Version-Inclusive Language Edition (NIVI). I have based this analysis on the NRSV as the foundational gender-neutral Bible, but I compare it at several points to the NLT, NCV, CEV, and the NIVI. On the other hand, the current NIV, NASB, KJV, NKJV, and the old RSV are not gender-neutral translations and they are not evaluated here.

In the first part of this article I examine the changes made in order to eliminate thousands of examples of the offensive masculine words "he," "man," "father," "son," and "brother." In the second part, I examine English usage today, asking whether the language has changed so much that such gender-neutral translations are necessary today.


1. Changing "he" to "they."

The translators of the NRSV found the little word he especially troubling. We can appreciate the difficulty they encountered in a verse such as John 14:23: "Jesus answered him, 'If a man loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him'" (RSV).

There would be no problem in beginning the sentence, "If anyone loves me..." because the Greek pronoun tis does not specify a man. But then how can we finish the sentence? One might think of using "he or she" in some cases, but it would soon become exceptionally awkward. We would end up with this monstrosity of English style:

If anyone loves me, he or she will keep my word, and my Father will love him or her, and we will come to him or her and make our home with him or her.

The NRSV translators did not want to do this, so they changed the singulars to plurals instead:

Those who love me will keep my word, and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them.

The problem is that Jesus did not speak with plural pronouns here; he used singulars. Jesus wanted to specify that he and the Father would come and dwell with an individual believer. But the NRSV has lost that emphasis, because the plurals "those" and "them" indicate a group of people. "We will come to them and make our home with them indicates coming to a group of people, such as a church. The words of Jesus have been unnecessarily changed in translation, and the meaning is different. This is what the NRSV preface says are the "paraphrastic renderings" they had to use in dealing with gender-related language, and the preface rightly sets these in contrast to the rest of the NRSV, which is called "essentially a literal translation."

The rejection of generic "he, him, his" obscures the personal application of Scripture in many other verses, such as "I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me" (Rev. 3:20, where three Greek pronouns are masculine singular). The NRSV changes this to, "I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me," but "you" in this context would then refer to the whole church, and individual application of a familiar verse is lost. The NIVI, NCV, CEV and NLT, change "him" to "them," which also represents Jesus eating with a whole church, not just an individual. This is a serious loss of the specific individual application that Scripture intended for our benefit.

There is a Messianic prediction in Psalm 34:20: "He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken" (RSV). John's gospel refers to this (and probably Exod. 12:46) with respect to Jesus' death: "For these things took place that the scripture might be fulfilled, 'Not a bone of him shall be broken'" (19:36, RSV). But the NRSV will not allow such a prediction about an individual man in Psalm 34, so the prediction is plural: "He keeps all their bones; not one of them will be broken" (NRSV). The individuality of the Messianic prediction, so wonderfully fulfilled in Jesus' death, is lost to readers of the NRSV. And the NCV, NLT, and NIVI all have "their bones" as well, even though the statement is singular ("his bones") in Hebrew.

Other passages in the NRSV suffer the same fate: John 15:5 becomes, "I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing." (Jesus no longer says he will abide in an individual believer.) John 14:21 now says, "They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them." (Jesus no longer specifies that he will love and reveal himself to an individual person.) The singular pronouns that Jesus frequently used are all changed to plurals. Many verses that specify a relationship between God and the individual believer have been obscured or removed from Scripture.

In response to this, someone might object that other verses in the Bible, and even other verses in these contexts, use plurals to speak to us. I agree that other verses have plurals, but that is not the point: these verses have singulars, and they should not be changed to plurals in translation.

Another objection might be that Jesus used generic "he" because he mostly spoke to men. Was this the reason? Certainly not. Many women also followed him (see Luke 8:3, where "many others" is feminine). And even when talking to an individual woman he used generic "he," telling the woman at the well, "Whoever drinks the water that I shall give him will never thirst" (John 4:14). Jesus considered the third person masculine singular pronoun (Greek autos, "he, him") to be inclusive when used in general sentences like this, even when speaking to one woman alone.

Consider James 5:14-15 in the RSV: "Is any among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him… and the prayer of faith will save the sick man, and the Lord will raise him up…"

Now there would be no objection to changing "the sick man" to "the sick person" (there is no word specifying "man" in the Greek text), but the NRSV has gone much further: all the singulars are changed to plurals, to avoid the forbidden word "him": "Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up…" The situation that comes to mind is entirely different; James wrote about a private home with one person sick, but now it looks like a hospital ward! The meaning has been changed. This is not accurately translating the Bible; it is rewriting the Bible.

How often are singulars changed to plurals? The words "they, them, their, those" occur 1,732 more times in the NRSV than in the RSV. In many other places, "he" has been changed to "you" or "we." Why? There have been no new archaeological discoveries, no changes in our knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, no ancient texts discovered that make us put plural pronouns instead of singular in these places, or first or second person in place of third person. The changes have been made because the NRSV translators were required by a division of the National Council of Churches to remove "masculine oriented language" from the Bible.

This is not a small difference in the meaning of a few verses. This systematic change from singulars to plurals is a substantial alteration in the flavor and tone of the entire Bible, with a significant loss in the Bible's emphasis on God relating directly to a specific, individual person.

Most readers of these gender-neutral Bibles will think the plurals were in the original, and they will interpret and teach these passages accordingly. But these plurals were not what God's Word itself said. Since "all Scripture is God-breathed" (2 Tim. 3:16), and "every word of God proves true" (Prov. 30:5), we must conclude that God caused singular pronouns to be used in each of these places for his own purposes, and, if there is any way to translate them as singulars in legitimate English today, we are not at liberty to change them to plurals in translation.

2. Changing the third person to the second person.

In Galatians 6:7, Paul wrote, "Whatever a man sows, that will he also reap" (RSV). Changing "man" to "person" would have been fine, since the Greek is not gender-specific. But to avoid "he," the NRSV says, "You reap whatever you sow."

Readers will now wrongly think that Paul is speaking only of something that is true of Christians, the "you" to whom he is writing. This would be properly interpreting the English of the NRSV. But in fact, Paul is making a much more general statement about human conduct and about people generally. The NRSV changes "he" to "you," but that is not what Paul wrote. This kind of change has happened repeatedly. Once again, this is not translating the Bible; it is rewriting the Bible and giving the verse a different sense. (The NLT and CEV also have "you"; the NCV and NIVI change to plural, "people.")

3. Removing direct quotations.

In Psalm 41, David tells of his enemies speaking against him: "My enemies say of me in malice, 'When will he die, and his name perish?'" (Ps. 41:5). But in the NRSV the words "he" and "his" had to be removed, and in this case the speech of the enemies is turned into thoughts in their minds: "My enemies wonder in malice when I will die, and my name perish" (NRSV). But the Hebrew text does not say they simply wondered; it says they spoke ('amar). An accurate translation should tell us that. (The CEV changes "he" to "you," but the NCV, NLT, and NIVI accurately retain "he.")

Why does the NRSV try so hard to avoid using "he" in a generic sense? The preface explains that they used paraphrase "chiefly to compensate for a deficiency in the English language -- the lack of a common gender third person singular pronoun." What is surprising is that they say the problem is with English while they fail to mention that Hebrew and Greek also lack "a common gender third person singular pronoun," and both languages use a third person singular masculine pronoun ("he") in singular generic statements. Therefore there is no problem with English at all if we want it to translate the generic statements in the Bible -- it precisely and accurately translates the common generic use of "he" in Hebrew and Greek.

4. Errors in God's ordinances.

Turning the Bible's singulars to plurals can give meanings the translators did not expect. In Psalm 19, a familiar verse says, "But who can discern his errors?" (19:12, RSV). The NRSV changed this to, "But who can detect their errors?" Readers will rightly look at the preceding context to see who "their" refers to -- and find this sequence: "The ordinances of the Lord are true.... More to be desired are they than gold.... in keeping them there is great reward. But who can detect their errors?" (verses 9-12. The NIVI similarly has, "Who can discern their errors?" On a normal reading, the proper way to understand these English statements is that God's ordinances have errors, but they are difficult to detect. (The CEV, NCV, and NLT avoid the problem by rewording the verse in different ways: "their own," "our," and "my.")

5. Anything but third person singular.

God's providential guidance of an individual person's life is quite clear in the RSV: "A man's mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps" (Prov. 16:9). It would not be wrong to translate "A person's mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps," for the Hebrew is not male-specific, and the individual application would be preserved. The word "his" would also accurately translate the 3rd person singular (masculine) Hebrew pronoun.

But the offensive word "his" had to go. A comparison of other gender-neutral versions shows how translators have tried almost every possible way to avoid literally translating the Hebrew pronoun as "his":

RSV: [literal translation, preserving 3rd person singular:] A man's mind plans his way, but the Lord directs his steps. (The current NIV, along with the NASB, KJV, and NKJV all have the literal translation "his" as well).

NCV: [change 3rd person singular to 3rd person plural:] People may make plans in their minds, but the Lord decides what they will do.

NIVI: [change 3rd person singular to 2nd person singular:] In your heart you may plan your course, but the Lord determines your steps.

NLT: [change 3rd person singular to 1st person plural:] We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps. (CEV is similar.)

NRSV: [change 3rd person singular to no person:] The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps.

Such variation is almost humorous to see. It seems that any translation is acceptable except a clear, simple, literal "his."

All of the changes involve some change in meaning. The NCY with "they" loses emphasis on the individual person. The NIVI restricts the sentence to the readers ("you") rather than keeping it universal in application. The NLT and CEV restrict it to the speaker and hearers ("we") rather than keeping it universal in application. The NRSV makes the statement impersonal: "The human mind plans the way, but the Lord directs the steps." What way? Whose steps? We cannot tell. Personal application is lost. But "masculine language" and "patriarchalism" had to be eliminated, even when it most accurately represented the Hebrew or Greek text.

6. Can you trust any pronouns in gender-neutral Bibles?

Another serious consequence is the erosion of readers' trust in every pronoun in the Bible. Think about it for a moment: Imagine that you have a translation that regularly changes "he, him, his" to "you" or "we" or "they." Now you want to make a point in a sermon (or contribute something in a Bible study) based on one of those pronouns. How do you know you can depend on it? Maybe it is accurate, but then again maybe it is one of those "substitutes" that replaced "patriarchal" language. How do you know the "we" or "you" or "they" is really what God's Word said? Unless you can check the Greek or Hebrew text yourself, you simply won't be able trust any of those pronouns anywhere in that Bible.

For the NRSV, "we, us, our" occurs 4,500 times; "you, your, yours" occurs 21,704 times; "they, them, their" occurs 17,102 times. That is a total of 43,306 words. Even if half occur in narrative contexts where no change would be made, that still leaves over 20,000 words in the NRSV about which you can have no confidence that they faithfully represent the original text. Such erosion of trust in our English Bibles is a high price to pay for gender-neutral translations.


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