Today, the simplest conversations are full of pitfalls. Opportunities abound to offend others with a careless word. For example, when speaking about a representative student, I used to say that “he is writing his paper,” and no one seemed to mind. Now in our gender-conscious world, I have to consider whether to use the cumbersome expression “he or she is writing his or her paper,” or the gratingly ungrammatical “they are writing their paper.” And should I still refer to first-year students as “freshmen” or do I use something silly like “freshpeople”?
Bible translators face the same challenge of choosing the right pronouns as they weigh how to be faithful to the intended meaning without unnecessarily offending modern readers. The Bible often uses the generic pronoun “he” when referring to a person in general, just as we often do in everyday conversation. Furthermore, two different Greek words can be translated “man.” One, aner, specifically means a male. The other, anthropos, means a person, but it is still often translated “man.” Hebrew has the same two options for “person” (adam) and “man” (ish).
Some translations today promote themselves as gender-neutral, arguing that they are faithful to the original intent of the authors and avoid unnecessary offense. How can a Christian layman know if such a claim is true, or if the translators are attempting to push an unbiblical agenda that diminishes the Bible’s emphasis on manhood and gender roles?
To answer this question, it is important to consider the motives of the translator, which are usually spelled out in the preface to a translation. Is he (or she!) trying to blur or ignore the God-ordained distinctions between men and women? Does the translator want us to address God as “our Mother” or by some neutral word like “Parent” when the original language clearly uses the word “Father”? Such efforts alter the biblical picture of our God. They are actually attempts to reject what that very same God has revealed about Himself and His work.
On the other hand, it is perfectly acceptable to translate the generic “man” as “person” when that is clearly the writer’s intent. No one would argue that when Paul says that “death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Romans 5:12, KJV), he means women are perfect. Nor does the writer of John mean that God does not save women because John witnessed so that “all men through him might believe” (John 1:7, KJV).
So be firm about the masculine language used for our God and be very careful about any version that neuters people when the Bible clearly is describing a man or a woman. But don’t overreact when godly translators who reject unbiblical agendas simply try to use generic language where the Bible clearly intends it.
In other words, be as gender sensitive as the Bible is—no more, no less!