The debate over the use of gendered words in Bible translation has been significant and has raised numerous important and valuable questions. Despite the rhetoric at times, everyone agrees that context must guide our translation of any word and that we must pay attention to meaning and connotation in the receptor language.
The third edition of Discovering Biblical Equality includes a new chapter on this topic, “A Defense of Gender-Accurate Bible Translation,” by Jeffrey D. Miller. To make his point, Miller focuses on the subtitle of a book published by Wayne Grudem and Vern Poythress in 2000, “Muting the Masculinity of God’s Words.” Miller notes that the Bible was produced in patriarchal cultures and contains “considerable androcentric language” (473). He seems to take for granted that this is something we will want to overcome in translations, without raising the question of what is merely cultural and what is God’s design. God did of course choose the times and cultures in which to inspire Scripture. These are complex issues which must be dealt with and not merely assumed or skirted.
At the heart of the chapter is a comparison of the number of times ἀνήρ (“man, husband”) occurs in the New Testament (NT) with how many times “man” or “husband” show up in English translations. Whereas there is no great discrepancy between the occurrences of γυνή (“woman, wife”) in the NT and of “woman” or “wife” in English translations, there is a large increase of “husband” or “man” over the occurrences of ἀνήρ. This is taken to demonstrate that most English translations have inserted masculine references where they are unwarranted. Thus, translations like the NIV are actually restoring the less gendered realities of the Greek text.
I think this approach misses the more important, deeper issues of translation theory. Miller’s chart showing the number of occurrences of “man/husband” in English translations, however, seems to make a strong point. Why do these English words show up three to five times more often than the Greek word ἀνήρ? Miller suggests several reasons, including that translators often wrongly translate ἄνθρωπος as “man” when it should be translated without gender reference, using something like “humanity.” He also points to the translation of masculine nouns and pronouns, and a few other issues. He suggests this piling up of unnecessary masculine terms does damage by its cumulative effect (487).
What shall we make of this? First, I will make a couple of general observations and then test his primary thesis about translating the word “man.”
Most of Miller’s chapter, appropriately, is taken up with lists of examples of translations he contests. What is odd is that so many of his examples are drawn from the KJV. We all recognize that the KJV was translated in a different time. The ESV looks gender-neutral in comparison to the KJV. Whatever the reason for this preponderance of KJV examples, it gives the appearance of choosing the easiest opportunities for critique.
Secondly, though related, many of the examples where Miller calls for a broader translation (e.g., “people” rather than “men”) fall under the category of “permissible” changes in chapter five of the Grudem and Poythress book whose subtitle he critiques. The possibility and potential value of this translation is agreed upon. Miller has taken an uncontested point, proved it, and then suggested this refutes the other side when, in actuality, he is simply saying things with which we all agree.
Third, Miller’s chart seems to suggest that only ἀνήρ can properly be translated as “man” (since other occurrences of “man” in translations are presented as suspect). This misses the fact that there are several other Greek words for male humans. A quick look at Louw & Nida provides this list: ἀρσενοκοίτης (2x), ἄρσην (9x), εὐνουχίζω (2x), εὐνοῦχος (8x), γέρων (1x), πρεσβύτης (3x), πρεσβύτερος (66x; in certain uses), νεανίσκος (11x), νεανίας (3x), παρθένος (Rev 14:4). The inclusion of these terms would significantly affect the data.
Fourth, Miller seems to be unaware of the discussion about the generic “he,” even though Grudem and Poythress devote 120 pages to this topic.
The Primary Point
Miller’s chart, though, bears investigation. Even the numerous examples Miller gives from across so many different translations do not get to the heart of the discrepancies implied in the chart. In order to provide a closer examination, I chose one English translation (ESV) to examine every place it uses the word “man” or “husband.” Due to time and space limitations, I had to limit my investigation to Matthew. I chose the ESV since it is probably the most popular translation among complementarians, and it has a worse score in Miller’s chart than the CSB. While it would be beneficial to examine the complete NT, Matthew does contain 117 of the 799 occurrences of “man/husband” in the ESV, so it would seem to provide enough material for decent comparison. Furthermore, ἀνήρ occurs only eight times in in the Greek text of Matthew, so the discrepancy between occurrences of that word and the English words “man/husband” is much higher than in the rest of the NT. So, this should make for a good test.
In Matthew, ἀνήρ is twice translated “husband” (1:16, 19), and this is not disputed. That leaves us only six occurrences translated “man” with 111 other times the ESV translates “man/men” without ἀνήρ present. Does this show an unfair bias toward inserting masculinity? Thirty instances are occurrences of ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου which Miller acknowledges is a special case. So, setting that aside, we have eighty-one more cases. Here is what is behind the translation “man/men” in these cases:
|Other masculine noun||2x|
|εἰς, δύο (once each)|
|No Greek word (23:9)||1x|
Let’s examine each category.
Other Masculine noun (2x)
In Matthew 19:20 and 19:22 the word νεανίσκος is properly translated “young man.” I mentioned above the problem with leaving words like this out of the Miller’s count.
Five times masculine participles are translated with the word “man.” Three of these instances are the participle δαιμονιζόμενος, where they clearly refer to men (Mt 8:28, 33; 12:22). In Matthew 13:48, the participle ἀναβιβάσαντες is translated as “men drew” a net a shore. Jesus is comparing the kingdom of God to the work of fishermen, who in this setting would have been men. All of these make good sense incorporating the word “man/men” into the translation.
The ESV translates Matthew 12:48, “he [Jesus] replied to the man who told him,” with the italicized portion being the rendering of a masculine singular participle form of λέγω (I say, speak). The participle could reasonably be translated here as “the one who told him,” though the use of the masculine singular form of the participle would suggest the speaker is masculine. The masculine plural form would often refer to men and women, but the singular suggests the speaker was male.
Fifteen times adjectives in masculine form are translated using the word “man.” Joseph is a “righteous man” (Mt 1:16, δίκαιος) as is Jesus (27:19). The magi are “wise men” (μάγοι, 2:1, 7, 16 [2x]). Jesus encounters “blind men” (τυφλοί, 9:27, 28; 20:30) and accuses the religious leaders, all of whom were male, of being “blind men” (23:19). Jesus heals a “mute man” (κωφός; 9:23). Jesus refers to binding “the strong man” (ἰσχυρός, 12:29 [2x]), and the guards at the tomb were like “dead men” (νεκροί, 28:4). In each of these cases the context makes clear that men are in view, so the use of “man” in the translation is justified.
One could question the translation of σοφοὺς in Matthew 23:34 as “wise men.” It is used in a series between prophets and scribes. Several translations opt for “sages,” which catches the sense without gender reference (NIV, CSB, NRSVUE) and seems perfectly fine.
Thirteen occurrences of pronouns are translated using “man” in the ESV. One of these is the use of the third person masculine pronoun, αὐτός. In Matthew 26:48, Judas gives the soldiers a sign,
“The one I will kiss is the man [αὐτός]; seize him [αὐτός].” Conceivably the translation could read, “The one I will kiss is he,” but I am not sure what that accomplishes, and it is awkward with the following “him.” The pronoun refers to Jesus, so “man” is contextually appropriate.
The indefinite pronoun τὶς is translated as “a man” in Matthew 22:24. One might expect to translate this word as “someone,” but in the context this refers to a husband who dies without children. Thus, “a man” is a contextually helpful translation. In 26:18 Jesus directs his disciples to “a certain man.” The word here is δεῖνα, an NT hapax, another indefinite pronoun where the next referent is a masculine pronoun. BDAG suggests the same translation ESV uses.
The most common pronoun translated “man” in the ESV is οὗτος (10x). In seven of these instances the reference is to Jesus (Mt 8:27; 9:3; 12:24; 13:54, 56; 26:61; 27:47). One refers to Peter (26:71), one to Simon of Cyrene (27:32), and another (in the plural) to the ones accusing Jesus before the Sanhedrin (26:62), which would have been men. All of these, then, are fitting translations.
The Greek word for “one” (εἷς) is translated as “a man” in Matthew 19:16 introducing the man we often refer to as the rich young ruler. It clearly refers to a man, though I would prefer to retain the number in translation in some way. Still, there is no augmenting of masculine referent in the use. In 24:40 δύο is translated “two men” referring to two individuals going into a field. One might say that these could be two women. However, the masculine form of “one” (εἷς) is used when describing what one did and then the other. Furthermore, the next example Jesus gives refers to women using the feminine form of “one” (μία).
No Greek Word (1x)
There is one instance in Matthew where the word “man” is simply supplied. Matthew 23:9 could be woodenly rendered, “Do not call your father on earth.” For clarity, English requires the addition of another noun or pronoun. One could say “Call no one on earth your father” (similarly, NIV, CSB) but since it is a father in view, it is reasonable to supply “man,” as the ESV does.
The big issue, however, is how ἄνθρωπος is handled. Interestingly, a large percentage of the uses of this word in Matthew are clearly masculine. This calls into question the assertion of Miller and others that it should almost never be translated man.
Of these forty-three instances, sixteen of them do in fact, in my understanding, refer to humanity in general (Mt 4:4, 19; 9:8; 10:17, 32, 33; 12:12; 13:44; 15:9; 16:23, 26 [2x]; 19:6, 26; 21:25, 26). In many of these cases another word could have been used, though I think it is appropriate to use the word “man” to refer to humanity — especially when one considers the orthodox theological position of the representative headship of the first man, Adam (cf. Rom 5:12–21). There are forty-two other instances in Matthew where the ESV does not translate ἄνθρωπος as “man” but uses some other non-gendered translation.
However, there are twenty-five instances where ἄνθρωπος clearly refers to men. Fourteen of those times ἄνθρωπος is used with direct reference to specific man, like Matthew (Mt 9:9), or John the Baptist (11:8), Judas (26:24 [2x]), or Jesus (26:72, 74), or Simon of Cyrene (27:32), or Joseph of Arimathea (27:57). Also in this category are instances referring to men Jesus healed (9:32; 12:10, 13), to the twelve disciples (8:27), to a father (21:28), and a centurion using ἄνθρωπος to refer to himself (8:9).
In eight more of those twenty-five instances, the general context makes it clear that ἄνθρωπος is referring to a man: a master of a house (Mt 13:24), his field hands (13:25), and similar examples (13:31; 17:14, 22; 22:11; 25:14 [2x]).
Then there are the three instances where ἄνθρωπος is used to refer to man vis-a-vis a woman, the category Miller seems to argue is only reserved for ἀνήρ. In Matthew 10:35 Jesus says he has come to “set a man [ἄνθρωπος] against his father and a daughter against her mother.” Matthew could have used the word “son,” but he uses ἄνθρωπος as a distinctly male referent. In 19:5 Jesus quotes Genesis 3:24 (LXX) on the creation of marriage where the LXX (and thus also Matthew) uses ἄνθρωπος in the phrase, “a man shall leave his father and mother.” Following Jesus’s teaching, his disciples then refer to “a man with his wife” (Mt 19:10) using ἄνθρωπος again.
This brief analysis has only examined the Gospel of Matthew, but it already raises serious questions about the methodology of Miller’s chapter. His chart of occurrences of ἀνήρ in the GNT and of “man/husband” in English translations is very misleading. The data he presents are insufficient to limit the acceptable referents for “man” to ἀνήρ. Other Greek words carry this meaning, including ἄνθρωπος in quite a few cases.
Ray Van Neste is the Dean of the School of Theology and Missions at Union University.
 Vern Poythress & Wayne Grudem, The Gender-Neutral Bible Controversy: Muting the Masculinity of God’s Words (Nashville: B&H, 2000).
 Of course, it is possible that the idiosyncrasies of one author might skew the results, but I offer this study until further work can be done.
 Vernard Eller’s book The Language of Canaan and the Grammar of Feminism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982) deserves more attention than it has received in more recent years.
 5:13, 16, 19; 6:1, 2, 5, 14; 7:9, 12; 10:36; 11:19 [“him”]; 12:11, 31, 35 [2x], 36, 43, 45; 13:28, 45, 52; 15:11, 18, 20; 16:13; 18:7, 23; 19:3; 20:1; 21:33; 22:2, 16; 23:4, 5, 7, 13, 28. The most common glosses in these cases are “people” and “others.”
You, too, can help support the ministry of CBMW. We are a non-profit organization that is fully-funded by individual gifts and ministry partnerships. Your contribution will go directly toward the production of more gospel-centered, church-equipping resources.