Gender Accuracy in Bible Translation

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by E. Ray Clendenen

In the 1970s many feminists saw androcentric language—the abundant use of man, he, him, and his for groups or individuals of both genders—as one of the influences keeping alive the subordination and even demeaning of women in society. Consequently, many organizations, including publishers and teacher associations, were quick to publicize their concerns in raising consciousness about this issue. The American Bible Society produced the first “inclusive language” Bible in 1976 with the Good News Bible (Today’s English Version or TEV, which appeared in the New Testament in 1966). Then the New Revised Standard Version and the Revised English Bible were published in 1989.

Prior to that, Bible translations overused masculine designations for people. For example, Exodus 30:32 speaks of anointing oil being poured on a person (‘adam), although the KJV, RSV (1952), NIV (1973), and NKJV (1982), unlike all later translations, have “man.” In John 11:25 ho pisteuon is translated “he who believes” in the KJV, RSV, NASB (1971), NIV, and NKJV; but later translations render as “whoever believes,” “the one who believes” or “those who believe.”  

The Greek word pas, which means “all, every,” was often rendered by the older translations as “every man” or “all men” (Heb 2:9 in KJV; Matt 10:22 in KJV and NIV; Matt 19:11 in KJV, RSV, and NASB; John 12:32 in KJV, RSV, NASB, and NIV; Rom 11:32 in RSV and NIV). Also, adjectives used as nouns, such as dikaios, “righteous, just,” in Romans 5:7, were sometimes rendered as “a righteous man” in the older translations, but “a righteous person” in later ones. 

When the NIV Committee on Bible Translation, however, produced an inclusive language edition of the NIV (the NIVI) in Britain in 1996, it ignited a firestorm of protest from many. Similar protest greeted the release of the TNIV in America in 2005. While retaining masculine language for God in opposition to many feminists, these early editions of a new NIV (and also some other translations) were believed by many to have stepped over a line into gender inaccuracy. For example, they often avoided the use of man, he, him, and his by pluralizing it or by changing it to the second person you. For example,

  • Proverbs 5:21 (NIV, “For a man’s ways are in full view of the LORD”) became “For your ways are in full view of the LORD” (TNIV, NIV2011). “Blessed is the man” in Ps 1:1 and 40:4 became “blessed are those” in the TNIV (but “blessed is the one” in NIV2011). 
  • Revelation 3:20 (“If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me”) became “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me” (TNIV) and “If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me” NIV2011). 

Another issue that caused trouble was the rendering of words for “father” and “son.” In Acts 7:20 “For three months he [Moses] was cared for in his father’s house” became “For three months he was cared for in his parents’ home” (TNIV) and “For three months he was cared for by his family” (NIV2011). Likewise in Malachi 4:6 “fathers” was changed to “parents” (TNIV, NIV2011). In Proverbs 13:1 “A wise son heeds his father’s instruction” became “A wise child heeds a parent’s instruction” (TNIV) but was changed back in NIV2011. Finally, in Revelation 21:7 “I will be his God and he will be my son” became “I will be their God and they will be my children” (TNIV, NIV2011). 

Despite the TNIV’s somewhat problematic renderings in such cases, the TEV, NRSV, and CEV (Contemporary English Version) are more inclusive, and the NIV2011 is also less inclusive than the New Living Translation, God’s Word, and the Message. 

Between those translations that are more masculine than the biblical text and the translations that often avoid the masculinity of the biblical text (to varying degrees) by changing singulars to plurals, third persons (he, him, his) to second persons (you)—or even changing the meaning of words (son to child, father to parent)—stand the ESV and the HCSB, which make the credible claim of being “gender accurate.”

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