Three Unmistakable Examples of Gender Politics in the New ESV Translation

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One of the first (and usually embarrassing) lessons we learned during our four years of living in England was the absolute truth of the statement that “England and America are two countries divided by a common language.”

All of us North Americans made gaffes. No matter how astute we thought ourselves, there were always stumbles.

A Canadian friend of ours won the prize for the most embarrassing gaffe. After her interview for a new job and on hearing the good news that she was hired, she asked her proper English male employer, “Is it alright if I wear pants to work?” She was puzzled by his awkward reply and only later discovered to her chagrin what had been lost in translation. In Britishese, “pants” refers to underwear. Our friend had just asked her boss if it was permissible to wear underwear on the job!

What Gets Lost in Translation?

If different meanings to the same words isn’t enough of a challenge, there is the fact that even within a single culture, words have a way of changing. How many kids have rolled their eyes when their parents used some out-of-date expression?

Earlier generations were quite comfortable using the word “man” or “men” for all humanity. Today, it sounds a little odd to our modern ears to hear our own Declaration of Independence remind us that “all men are created equal.” Never mind the fact that, despite the universal meaning of “men” in the English language back then, that revered statement actually didn’t ensure equality for Native Americans, slaves, women, or other males who didn’t own land.

If that important American document were being crafted today, a modern Thomas Jefferson would ignite a firestorm of protests if he chose the same outdated wording. Language is dynamic.

Enter the world of Bible translations, and the linguistic stakes are even higher.

Bible Translations Divided by a Common Language

Crossway recently released the 2016 and final edition of the English Standard Version (ESV). After edits to 29 out of more than 31,000 verses, they declared the 2016 version to be “the Permanent Text of the ESV Bible.” Their statement goes on to assert,

“In making these final changes, the Crossway Board of Directors and the Translation Oversight Committee thus affirm that their highest responsibility is to ‘guard the deposit entrusted to you’ (1 Timothy 6:20)—to guard and preserve the very words of God as translated in the ESV Bible.”

The changes they made are listed here.

The most controversial change is to words of curse in Genesis 3:16. ESV editors changed their earlier translation from “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you,” to “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

Others are weighing in on the serious implications of this translation change and the thinking behind it. Scot McKnight calls it “not only mistaken but potentially dangerously wrong.” But now, in the ESV, it is set in stone. For helpful and insightful analyses of this change, read Sam Powell’s blog, “Genesis 3:16” and Scot McKnight’s “The New Stealth Translation: ESV.”

What also troubles me, however, are the changes that weren’t made in the new version. According to General Editor Wayne Grudem, a major motive that led to the first version of this “essentially literal” (word-for-word) translation was the “gender-neutral” language he found in other translations—specifically the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), but also found in other popular translations such as Today’s New International Version (TNIV) and the New Living Translation (NLT).

Resisting Gender-Accurate Language

This final version of the ESV continues to resist what Grudem labels as “gender-neutral” language. The translations he opposes are matters of serious concern for female readers in particular.

Consider two examples.

Colossians 1:2

When an apostolic letter begins with a greeting to “the brethren” or “the brothers,” the author is not addressing males only, but the whole church. The ESV translates Colossians 1:2 “To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ at Colossae.” Unless “saints” refers to women, the female members of the church appear to be suddenly excluded. The TNIV more accurately translates the same text to reflect Paul’s intended audience. “To God’s holy people in Colossae, the faithful brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Because of the awkwardness of the ESV translation, I’ve heard pastors in churches with ESV Bibles in the pews abruptly interrupt their public Bible reading to explain that the actual meaning of the text is “brothers and sisters.”

Genesis 1:26-27

Another example is in the creation narrative, where God says “Let us make man in our image and likeness” describing them as “male and female,” (Genesis 1:26 and 27). The Old English term “man” describes all humanity. Yet the ESV retains the Old English language, while the TNIV and NLT substitute “human beings.” That modern linguistic clarification doesn’t make the text gender-neutral, but rather gender-accurate—reflecting the actual meaning of the biblical text.

Evidently, the original ESV translators were unbothered by modernizing the Old English word “ass” to “donkey” (cf., Numbers 22:22; Joshua 6:21). Apparently their editors deemed it more important to clarify the meaning of “ass” than “man.”

Apparently the ESV editors deemed it more important to clarify the meaning of “ass” than “man.” Click To Tweet

In his Systematic Theology, Grudem defends his complementarian rational for insisting on retaining “man” for human beings:

“The theological issue is whether there is a suggestion of male leadership or headship in the family from the beginning of creation. The fact that God did not choose to call the human race “woman,” but “man,” probably has some significance for understanding God’s original plan for men and women. Of course, this question of the name we use to refer to the race is not the only factor in this discussion, but it is one factor, and our use of language in this regard does have some significance in the discussion of male-female roles today” (440)

As you may surmise, I feel strongly about the importance of gender-accurate translations. The ESVs “gender-exclusive” language obscures an accurate understanding for modern readers that impacts multiple texts in the Bible and can lead to false interpretations. Gender-accurate translations answer legitimate questions women are asking when we read the Bible: “Is this text addressing me? Or am I eavesdropping on a message that only applies to men?”

Modern readers must not be left in doubt as to whether the text is addressing everyone or just some of us. It is misleading to describe this kind of clarity as making the Bible “gender-neutral,” when it is a clearer literal statement of what the author actually intended. The final ESV cements into the final version words that obscure the true meaning of the text.

Readers need to be aware of that.

The final ESV cements into the final version words that obscure the true meaning of the text. Click To Tweet

Missing Daughters?

But here’s what makes this gender issue so complicated and, why it is important to consider carefully our translations.

In Galatians 4:7, the same translation problem surfaces. What the ESV translates as “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God,” the TNIV translates “So you are no longer slaves, but God’s children; and since you are his children, he has made you also heirs.”

This text follows the often-quoted statement, “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (3:28).

Paul was writing to a mixed audience. So to make sure readers understand that Paul is also including daughters, gender-accurate translations substitute “children” for sons. The sonship offered through Jesus is not just for sons (versus daughters). This has the unfortunate effect of obscuring something powerful Paul is communicating.

Ironically, the ESV sticks to “sons,” evidently unaware that they have unleashed one of the most powerful counter-cultural gender statements in the entire New Testament. Given the fact that in the first century patriarchal culture sons were prized above daughters—who didn’t inherit, didn’t show up in genealogies, and were married off to build another man’s family—the fact that Paul is telling a mixed audience that they are “all sons” is not diminishing women in the least. To the contrary, Paul’s words are elevating them to the same high status in God’s family as their brothers. Paul is telling women, Gentiles, and slaves that, in God’s family, they are all sons!

Jesus’ gospel is a revolutionary force in human society that re-establishes human equality. We are all sons!

This is why I keep saying, “Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the fallen cultural backdrop” that reveals the radical nature and potency of the Bible’s gospel message in contrast to the patriarchal world. We need to understand that world and patriarchy in particular—much better than we do—if we hope to grasp the radical countercultural message of the Bible.

So choose your Bible translations carefully. Gender-accuracy matters and is important for all of us.

Patriarchy is not the Bible’s message. Rather, it is the fallen cultural backdrop Click To Tweet

For further reading, see Mark Strauss and Gordon Fee’s book, How to Choose a Translation for all it’s Worth: A Guide to Understanding and Using Bible Versions.

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34 responses to “Three Unmistakable Examples of Gender Politics in the New ESV Translation

  1. Hey Carolyn,

    Firstly, I am very encouraged by your ministry and your care for women in the Church.

    I have some questions. It seems that this argument is actually inclusion vs. exegesis, primarily in your section about adoption into ‘sonship.’ Would that be a correct conclusion?

    Culturally speaking, women would not have had the same rights and importance in society as sons, who would be heirs. The good news of the gospel that we are adopted into ‘sonship’ communicates that God’s plan is to redeem us in ways that aren’t even possible in our own might. He elevates us from our lowly positions. In this proper exegesis, this passage doesn’t exclude women; it’s all the more empowering to women.

    To argue whole-heartedly for a gender neutral Bible translation seems dangerous, sacrificing proper cultural context for a happier and more inclusive text. Doesn’t that effectively demote the Bible from the perfect Word of God to a welcome mat?

    Lastly, given your stance, should not the real necessity be better exegesis given from pulpits and more intentional women leadership in churches? That seems less divisive than this article.

      1. I did and amended my paragraph to match, but the question still stands. Calling motives into question are very valid, but drawing conclusions that the translators (including Wayne Grudem, of whom I’m no fan) care more about the translation of “ass” and “ironically” including powerful statements about women and their adoption into “sonship” read as bitter and divisive.

        1. In fact, just as this article claims that this translation is potentially “dangerous,” isn’t vilifying our brothers and sisters in faith just as equally “dangerous”?

          1. I think ‘vilifying’ is a stretch here. I see someone calling out changes that are problematic, and in the context of recent debates on gender roles and Trinitarian doctrine, circumspect. It is also instructive to see how the translation changes are being lauded in complementarian settings, and how these changes have been put forward as immutable. These changes aren’t neutral, either in motivation or effect, and I don’t think it is too much for someone to point that out.

          2. Right, but the article goes further than pointing out areas of translation that could be problematic. It assumes the motive of the ESV translation, its translators, and those who use the ESV Bible as being anti-women. Additionally, it doesn’t posit, but presents as fact that the empowerment of women in the Biblical context of “sonship” was made only out of an ironic oversight. There is no real call to action on this blog other than to avoid the ESV and its translators. It’s just meant to create an us vs. them mentality. This article is not a debate as much as it is a snarky disapproval. Why else are the shareable quotes programmed into the website the most divisive?

            I would also like to see a quote where the ESV translators have said that they translated the ESV so patriarchy is the central message of the Bible.

          3. The ESV is heralded by CBMW for its faithfulness to a complementarian reading of Scripture ( It is clear to me that the changes that have been made to the translation are in a bid to be faithful to Scripture, but a range of commentators have been highlighting the peculiar way in which this has been done here. Intention alone is not determinative. I have read the article again (and again), and I think characterising it in the way you have is just unfair. The writer is making clear solid disagreement with choices that have been made in the translation of a text, a text which has been presented by its publishers as reliable into perpetuity. The starkness of the tone is commensurate with the seriousness of the subject matter.

            Given your disagreement with the piece, what changes in approach would you suggest the writer had made? Because on my reading, this is quite a measured response to what is a troubling translation.

    1. That is a good response.

      “So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.” Galatians 4:7

      In Biblical times son-ship was something different than daughter-ship. If the Greek term was “son” than the English should also be “son”. Changing it destroys the credibility of the Bible.

      Additionally, Paul did not speak of us as “brothers and sisters”. He used the term “brothers” in an inclusive manner.

      Quote: “Paul is telling women, Gentiles, and slaves that, in God’s family, they are all sons!”

      Yes, we are neither male nor female. We are sons. We are brothers. Insisting on terms like “brothers and sisters” already creates division and changes the meaning of the Greek text.

  2. Exceptional piece. Thank you. I really appreciate your observation on “sons” in Paul’s writings. I have often made the same point that when Paul says, “you are all sons” he is ironically elevating women to the position of sonship which carried cultural implications; it was a radical move in Paul’s first century cultural world in which sons were the inheritors. I have also often made this point in marriage counseling from 1 Pet. 3:7 – where husbands are to regard their wives as “fellow heirs” or “joint heirs” – which seems to me another radical move toward equality given the cultural setting within which Peter functions.

    1. Good point! We miss the potency of the apostles’ stmts when we divorce them from their cultural context. They made shocking stmts!

  3. Thanks for bringing this to our attention. This is a good heads up on another strange thing Grudem has his hand on. …and one quick edit. The TNIV stands for Today’s New International Version.

  4. If the ESV folks really felt that strongly that men means women and men, why do they stop to explain that men means women and men? If it’s worth explaining, it’s worth translating accurately in the first place so no explanation would be necessary.

    1. And that doesn’t address assumptions people draw when reading the ESV in private without a pastor to clarify. Serious problem!

  5. I am not multi-lingual, not a bible scholar educator, or paster. I am merely a Christian trying to navigate life in a screwed up world, and I use my faith, prayer, and my bible to help me get through the rough spots, of which there are plenty. We have enough problems in the world, and arguments like this only serve to distract.

    Still, it is what it is, and in this particular case, it seems to me that this essentially comes down to 2 questions:
    1. Is the ESV meant to be a literal translation?
    2. What was the actual language used by the original authors, and what did they mean?
    I use the NASB and NET. Colossians 1:2 (NASB) :” To the Saints and faithful brethren in Christ…..”
    NASB is said to be a literal translation. Colossians 1:2 (NET)” to the saints, the faithful brothers and sisters…” and has a translation note that explains that the Greek word used can be used to mean brothers, brothers and sisters, or fellow Christians” In Galatians, both translations say the word “son”…not sons and daughters or children of…. The Scripture4All Hebrew Interlinear Bible Genesis 1:26-27 concludes with “male and female, He created them.” Genesis 3:16 says”…and thy desire [shall be] to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” Genesis 3:16 (NASB) “…Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you” (NET) “You will want to control your husband, but he will dominate you.” (Has Translation note indicating a meaning of “rule over you”)
    Are these gender inclusive? I don’t know, but it seems to me that the Bible says what it says. Which comes back to the ESV. Is it meant to be a literal translation or not? Cannot have it both ways.

  6. Is there really somebody out there who thinks God has either a penis or a vagina. Until somebody comes up with a better generic pronoun, I think He or Him will suffice. You are still free to visualize God any way you want to.

        1. There was no need to use the descriptives you used. God is called the FATHER by Christ himself and that in fact is a male gender. So as to bring in sexual organs into the conversation is both unnecessary and childish. Obviously you purposely seeking to be offensive to get your point across is more about grandstanding than proving a point. Perhaps you should try to speak as a Christian instead of grandstanding to attempt to show your “intelligence”. If you want to know about the Father then read the bible and how Christ humbles Himself before HIM. Is it obvious now?

          1. Actually Jesus referring to God as the father simply means “He” gave birth to humans with a soul in His image. I don’t have a problem using the male gender for God, but using either sex is probably not accurate. I also think in the culture at the time of Jesus women were at best second class citizens and the use of the male gender simply denoted strength, dominance, and power at that time.
            Even as a kid I always thought there was something wrong with our concept of God. Thinking of God as having a beard dressed in a white robe sitting on a throne in heaven as a “flesh and blood person” just never sat right with me. Many of today’s Christians still cling to some variation of that image which is why use of the male pronoun is so important to them. Having said that, I think whatever image of God you have that you can love you should cling to.

          2. Again the only one blabbering about the sex of God is YOU unnecessarily STILL!!!!!! BTW the bible does give a description of God.

            Daniel 7:9

            I beheld till the thrones were set up, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels, as burning fire.

            You belief doesn’t change the truth of the matter. Please study the bible and not rely on your opinion about what God looks like or HIS GENDER. You’re not as well versed in God’s word as you purport yourself to be eh?

          3. Like I said cling to whatever image of God you can love. If you want to use Daniels dream, good. To me it sounded ore like an alien space ship.

          4. CIG – You are obviously entitled to your opinion on these matters and we value your voice, but these comments of yours are not adding to the conversation in a constructive manner. You are most welcome to engage by asking clarifying questions of the author or other commenters as well as to make a thoughtful case for your vantage point, but additional comments that demean others will be deleted and you may be banned from further comments.

  7. I don’t need “scholars” to tell me about bibles perversions such as the catholic and niv pervisions because we already have “translations” that were written by true “scholars” in the past that were better educated than those “scholars” of today. Let’s be honest there are more apostate churches today than ever in Christian history because they continue to sport new “revelations” that they must rewrite things that don’t need to be rewritten. The problem is that most social carnal christians are to lazy to educate themselves on God’s word and would rather take the word of social carnal “scholars”.

    1. So which version of the bible do you honor as your Christian idol. I have read several versions and I don’t see that the basic message or the teachings of Jesus changes from one to the other.

      How does one educate themselves on God’s word??? I presume by “God’s word” you mean some version of the bible you hold sacred.

      By past scholars are you referring to the Wycliffe (sp) translation.

      1. Well seeing you chose the word “idol” I know you could care less about a rational discussion let alone honor God’s precious word. Obviously you haven’t done much research on the different translations because you miss the differences between the corrupted versions and the better translated versions. BTW my choice is the Geneva version in old English that takes a little education to read and comprehend. Please reread my comment because obviously you’re way off of the context as your claim about the supposed bibles you read and fail to see the differences. BTW I’m well aware on what languages the bible was originally written in. However it was your haughtiness to suppose I didn’t. know.

  8. Thanks so much for this article Carolyn. I find the whole approach to translation by the ESV translators very distressing and it’s great that you are able to bring some clarity. Lord help the church that they continue to affirm gender inequality while the world moves ahead.

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