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The ESV Goes Beyond Mars and Venus

June 29, 2017

Carolyn Custis James has written a fun and funny blog post, “The ESV Takes One Small Step for ‘Mankind’!” In it she tells a personal story of a man who had “an annoying habit of pontificating on his [malestrom] views of women, often flinging verses at me [Carolyn], to make sure I knew my place.” She explains how she’d get him reading a verse that particularly indicts “men” apparently and not all of mankind. When she read that same verse translated by the male-only team of ESV translators, nonetheless, she makes a discovery.

And she shares with all of us on this planet under the moon “a significant breach in the ESV’s firm commitment to retain ‘man’ and ‘men’ in universal statements to preserve a so-called ‘masculine feel’ to the Bible.” Read her post here.

Now I’d like us to look at more ESV verses. Let’s start with a set of verses that the ESV editors say point us back to the exact one that Carolyn Custis James has discovered. Let’s begin by looking at what Paul has written in Greek to Jews and Greeks and perhaps to barbarians in Rome. Is he, a male, a man, a Jew, a Roman citizen, writing only just merely to others of his kind, to men only, just to other males, simply to the guys and not the gals? Is this for Men from Mars and not Women from Venus?

Well, we might think so in the context as we read Romans 2. And continue then into Romans 3. Let’s look:

I’ve highlighted the word man and the word one. The ESV men translating are rendering Paul’s Greek, respectively the word ἀκροβυστία and the word ἄνθρωπος.

The consensus of most lexicographers studying the former word of Paul’s is that it refers to the tip of the penis, to the foreskin of the male genital. And readers of the Septuagint, the Jewish translation of the Hebrew scriptures into Hellene writing, can be sure of this too. For example, Genesis 17 has this for the end of verse 10 and the beginning of 11: περιτμηθήσεται ὑμῶν πᾶν ἀρσενικόν, καὶ περιτμηθήσεσθε τὴν σάρκα τῆς ἀκροβυστίας ὑμῶν. Later Jerome looks at the Hebrew scriptures (and possibly at this Greek translation too) and renders that in Latin as follows: et semen tuum post te circumcidetur ex vobis omne masculinum, et circumcidetis carnem praeputii. I mention the Latin for two reasons. First, Paul is snubbing official use of Latin as a citizen of Rome when writing to his fellow Jews and to those who identify as Greeks, using the old lingua franca of the previous Greek empire. Second, for us English only readers today the cognates with this newer imperial language may be more obvious: semen, circumcision, masculinity, carnivore/carnal, and prepuce. The Torah context is G-d’s institution of male circumcision on the eighth day of boy’s life as the physical sign of the sons of Abraham. Paul is writing about that boy-only, male-only, man-only body part. And so the ESV men translating his Greek phrase ἡ ἀκροβυστία make the full phrase “a man who is uncircumcised,” for a male individual retaining penis foreskin into adulthood.

The consensus of most lexicographers studying the latter word of Paul’s is that it refers to mortals in contrast to gods in its earliest uses. As such both men and women are included in the sense of the Hellene phrase. Sometimes, oftentimes, the ESV male only translators will nonetheless make it refer only to men, and not to women. Here’s just one example we’ve noticed before. What we can see, however, is that the ESV for Paul in Romans 3 lets the phrase refer to any “one” whether male or female. The constrast with God is emphasized for “everyone.”

Now, the editors of the ESV get us readers of Paul’s Romans 3 jumping back to the Psalms. They get us looking not just at the verse Carolyn Custis James has shared with us. But they also get us looking at another verse in Psalms. Let’s follow note “c” on this Romans 3 phrase “every one”; and we see that it takes us here:

Again the highlights are mine. What we may want to know in the original Hebrew for Psalm 62:9 is that there are two different phrases we might transliterate as “Adam” and “Ish.” We might put these in stark contrast with “Eve” and with “Isha.” In other words, the two Hebrew words are most of the time, by the ESV translators, rendered as referring only to men, not to women. Even the LXX translators of the Hebrew into Hellene open of the possibility that the reference is only to men:  οἱ υἱοὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων and οἱ υἱοὶ τῶν ἀνθρώπων (or the “sons” of “humans”.)

But here again for the ESV translators, in Psalm 62, there’s the generic English: “Those” and “those.” So when men are mere breaths, mostly deluded, and all liars then, in the ESV, they are also women. Or maybe we could say that at certain points the ESV goes beyond those distinctions of Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2017 12:27 pm

    Hi Kurk, I find myself faced with this male/female inclusive language all too frequently. I sometimes use ‘it’ as a personal gender non-specific pronoun. In some cases it works, and in some it is so awkward to my sensibility that I am forced to revert to he/his as inclusive (or not). Pluralizing the pronoun and verb is rarely good because it alters the individuality that is often in the forefront. Historically, of course, the dominant assumption of male is inherent in our languages.

    What struck me as a thought recently is this. Suppose one is in a situation where one person is strong and the other is weaker. The response that is required for justice is that the strong should enable the strengthening of the weaker. It is not hard to apply this to parent-child, teacher-student, male-female, gay-straight, or healthy-disabled assumptions. Enabling growth and interdependence is the essence of refusing to abuse the power of strength, however that strength was attributed. (Psalm 15) To say that he was crucified in weakness does not mean the first person was weak, but that it knew the consequences of misapplying strength.

  2. June 29, 2017 12:32 pm

    An afterthought. Mankind is a gloss that I never use. It is itself gender biased. Humanity (humus – ain’t no ‘man’ here) is usually a better choice, especially for Hebrew words related to אדם.

  3. June 29, 2017 12:59 pm

    Hi Bob,
    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I wish we in English had grown-up terms for boy and girl, that allowed neither to be semantically and morphophonemically dependent on the other.

    What do you think about the modern Hebrew for אדם? Have you read the wikipedia entry here?

    Notice how the writers/editors include the Greek ἄνθρωπος and the Latinized English Homo Sapien.

  4. June 29, 2017 1:08 pm

    Great post, Kurk! It reminds me of a brilliant note by oh Fotopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou on recent trends in the translation of the Creed. John Fotopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolao. See

  5. June 29, 2017 1:20 pm

    Thank you, Yancy! And thank you for sharing the post and the note by John Fotopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolao. It really is brilliant, isn’t it?

    Let me put in a plug here for the Easy-to-read Version of the Bible and the gender inclusive matching English phrases for the three gender inclusive Hebrew and Greek phrases in the various verses mentioned above:

    Those … not circumcised


    People… they

    no one

  6. June 29, 2017 1:23 pm

    Thank for the pointer. I will have a look. This is more Hebrew in one gulp than I usually read. Maybe I am ready.

  7. July 9, 2017 11:33 pm

    Great post! I love Carolyn’s sexism-killer-verse. 🙂

    Regarding the Creed, I’ve written on this mistranslation as well, when it was inflicted on the Roman Catholic church with the new missal translation in 2011. I correct this mistranslation when I recite it.

    Regarding pronouns, I occasionally use the nongendered pronoun sie, but I’ve generally embraced the singular they. Except when talking about God, in which case I generally simply omit the pronoun and re-use the noun. This felt awkward at first, but as I became used to it, it started to feel like a way of honoring the holiness of God, a little bit like the Jewish custom of never pronouncing the name & using a substitution instead.

    Bob, your comment didn’t end the way I expected! After your comments on the pronouns, here’s what I thought you were going to say:

    Suppose one is in a situation where one person is strong and the other is weaker. The response that is required for justice is that the strong should enable the strengthening of the weaker. Thus, to speak and write justly, we should use the feminine pronoun as the indefinite rather than the masculine, to undo that dominant assumption of male.

  8. July 10, 2017 12:00 pm

    Ah Victoria, what can I say? Stumped I am by the conflict between person and non-person, between history and deficiency in language. I take on some battles and I avoid some. There are strengths and weaknesses in both gendered language and so-called inclusive language. It’s a big problem.

    My own attempts at writing in English about the Hebrew sequences of grunts we call the canonical tongue are limited. And my priorities and biases are sometimes not even subject to my will. I think I rarely use he-words when I figure the subject is neither male nor female, but I still use she-words occasionally when the image is female due to gendered nouns. And then I may reverse the decision if I note or my software notes an anomalous phrase. I am stumped.

    I have written recently of my assumptions and my priorities. To sum it up in a very few words, I seek to read the Hebrew to hear the learning that Jesus was doing as he grew up. Like – where does the encapsulated thought of the Sermon on the Mount arise from out of the Psalms and the Prophets? In this, I want to remake my own mind. As I was doing this I discovered the embedded musical score in the Hebrew text. This with pattern recurrence has been my chief tool for forming thought. I am Christian, egalitarian, and self-taught. I read all of the work as story and literature, not primarily as ‘history’ and definitely not as if describing ‘history’ as if it were a series of ‘facts’. This is another philosophical battle I have avoided.

    I could sure use any specific critical feedback on any of my work. When I am wrong, I am consistently wrong.

    Madeline L’Engle wrote of needing a pronoun for God. She experimented with El. I have left it as ‘he’ but never with caps. The pronoun is sometimes indeterminate and ambiguous. I usually leave these unresolved. The reason I have not made some things my priority is that I have no complete solution for them for my time. I am limited.

    Also, for what its worth, I am shaped by the strength of my wife. She is not weak, though she shares my humanity and all its weakness. She does not share my obsession with the canonical text.

    Now for your specific question, Would using the female gender as non-specific compensate? I don’t think so. I think it would confuse. And it would give a impression of priority that would distract from my stated priorities. There are lots of things that could have stopped me. I have left this compromise unresolved.

    Thank you for raising this question again for me.

  9. July 11, 2017 11:43 pm

    Fair enough Bob! I meant no judgment or criticism; only wanted to share my surprise (caused at least as much by my own thoughts on the matter as by your actual comment, I’m sure) and float the approach that had occurred to me.

    In David Weber’s “Honor Harrington” novels, the practice in the dominant culture is that the pronoun used for an unspecified individual matches the gender of the speaker. I thought that was interesting!

    The question of how to handle gender and pronouns when translating seems that it would require more thought than when writing in a language in which one is fluent; especially if the translation was being done according to some coherent set of principles, as one would hope.

    And indeed, there are always more challenges than we have the wherewithal to engage. Alas!

    Thanks for your overview of where you’re coming from & what you’re doing; it’s always interesting to hear that and how it informs folks’ work.

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