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Stepping Away from the New Testament Text

On August 24, 2016

Earlier this year, in April, I wrote two blog articles that described seven New Testament texts where gender-accurate Bible translation is of heightened concern. This new article follows up by giving closer attention to the English Standard Version’s translation of two New Testament texts, one which was included in my earlier list of seven (2 Timothy 3:17) and one which was not (Hebrews 13:6).

Paul’s famous counsel in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 reads, in the ESV, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” The word “man” here renders the Greek word anthrōpos, which means “person” unless the context gives some reason for it to mean “male person.” The NIV 2011, for example, here has “servant of God,” and the CEB has “person who belongs to God.”

More interesting than the ESV translation here is the ESV footnote attached to “man of God” in verse 17. The footnote reads: “That is, a messenger of God (the phrase echoes a common Old Testament expression).” This common expression mentioned in the ESV footnote occurs about seventy-five times in the Old Testament. You can find examples in Deuteronomy 33:1, 1 Samuel 2:27, and 1 Kings 12:22. This Old Testament phrase uses the Hebrew word ’ish, which typically means “male human, male person.” It does not use ’adam, which typically means “human, person,” and is roughly equivalent to the Greek word anthrōpos.

If the ESV footnote is correct that “anthrōpos of God” in 2 Timothy 3:17 echoes the Old Testament expression “man of God,” we should note the following sequence regarding the expression’s development.

1. The numerous Old Testament passages that include the phrase use the word usually limited to “male person” (’ish rather than ’adam).

2. In 2 Timothy 3:17, Paul shifts from a word that normally means “man” (’ish) to a word rarely limited to men (anthrōpos).

3. The ESV restores the full force of the expression’s masculine aspect—in spite of the fact that Paul himself had muted it!

Moving to a second text, Hebrews 13:6 asks, quoting the ESV, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” Hebrews is here quoting Psalm 118:6. A close look at the two texts (Psalm 118 and Hebrews 13) displays a different sequence than the one given above regarding 2 Timothy 3. Though different, this new sequence nevertheless reveals the same ESV tendency.

1. Psalm 118:6 uses ’adam in the question, “What can mortals do to me?” (here quoting the NRSV, compare NIV 2011 “mere mortals” and CEB “anyone”).

2. The author of Hebrews rightly renders ’adam as anthrōpos, retaining the gender-inclusive meaning of the text.

3. The ESV uses the word “man” in both Psalm 118 and Hebrews 13 (and does so without a clarifying footnote). The ESV thus has increased the masculine feel of these texts—something both biblical authors declined to do.

The point of my earlier blog entries was that people who claim the New Testament has a masculine feel, and further claim that gender-accurate translation tactics do damage to that masculine feel, are expressing a truth about certain English translations, not a truth about the Greek New Testament itself. That is to say, gender-accurate translations such as the NRSV, NLT, NIV 2011, and CEB are taking steps toward the character of the Greek New Testament, not away from it.

In the two above examples, however, the ESV has unfortunately taken steps away from the character of the New Testament text.

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