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Published Date: April 4, 2018

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Does “Man” Always Mean “Man” in the Bible?

Most evangelical egalitarians know that the Bible has words that mean “man/men” and words that mean “person/people, human(s).” Many egalitarians also know that some Bible translations use “man/men” to translate words which aren’t limited to men. This is especially common, for example, in the King James Version and the pre-2011 editions of the New International Version.

But recognition of the distinction between “man” and “human” is growing. It has influenced modern translations such as the English Standard Version (Crossway, 2001) and the Christian Standard Bible (Holman, 2017). Though the translators of these Bibles tend to be strongly complementarian, and though I don’t believe they’ve gone far enough to accurately translate gender language, it’s heartening to see the tide starting to turn.

The number of people who recognize and appreciate this distinction is growing, but there’s a corresponding problem: We risk thinking that Bible authors never used the specific word “man” with the generic meaning “human.” Stated another way, we could think that the Bible’s authors and their original audiences were more inclusive in their language than most English-speaking people are.

You might be thinking: “Sure, in the 1950s the word ‘man’ often meant ‘people,’ but that wasn’t the case back in Paul’s day. Back then they spoke more specifically and carefully than we do.” That’s not true. English has essentially the same spectrum of words for men, women, and people that Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek do. And just having access to a range of words doesn’t mean all people use the words with precision.

Here are two examples from the New Testament.

1. Acts 2:41

Acts 2:41 says that on the day of Pentecost about 3,000 people were baptized and added to the initial core of disciples. The text doesn’t use words that imply gender, but everyone easily and rightly infers that the 3,000 included both men and women. But in Acts 5:14, we read, “more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number.” The NIV here uses the phrase “men and women,” as does the Greek. So here we don’t have to infer that men and women were added, because the text clearly states it. So, we have two texts which both communicate clearly, though with different words, that both men and women were included in the initial expansion of the church.

But now look at Acts 4:4: “the number of men who believed grew to about five thousand.” Here the NIV has “men,” not “men and women,” and not “people.” This is because the Greek text itself has the word “men,” not the word “people.” But surely we aren’t to conclude that in this verse, unlike the various other growth statements in Acts, only men are counted. That doesn’t mesh with the 3,000 in chapter 2. That is, if the 3,000 in chapter 2 are men and women and the 5,000 in chapter 4 are only men . . . well, you do the math.

So here in Acts 4:4 we have one of several places where the Greek word for “men” clearly means “men and women.”

2. Acts 17:34

Acts 17:34 (ESV) reads: “But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.” In the first sentence of this verse, the Greek word for “men” is translated “correctly.” But the following sentence names two of those “men”—Dionysius (a man) and Damaris (a woman). And we don’t have to depend on knowledge of whether Damaris is a man’s or a woman’s name, because Luke spells it out: “a woman named Damaris.” Various Bibles, including the egalitarian-leaning NRSV and the complementarian-leaning CSB don’t use the word “men” here because the text obviously isn’t referring to men only.

These are just two examples of the Greek word for “men” meaning “men and women” in Scripture.