The ESV is a sexist Bible translation.
And they even said that when they were translating it! It was commissioned in order to counteract the TNIV translation, which tried to be gender neutral in all places where the Greek was gender neutral, replacing words like “men” and “man” with people, human, humanity, etc. Wayne Grudem, who headed up the ESV translation team, doesn’t like things being gender neutral, and so they endeavoured to make a translation that was not gender neutral–even if the Greek or other original languages were.
I shared about this on Facebook yesterday, using some information from my good Australian friend Marg Mowczko, who has dedicated her adult life to studying Greek, and has an amazing website where you can look up different Bible passages pertaining to women and read her short articles on the original text, the context, and more.
That Facebook post went over really well, and many people had no idea about this stuff, so I thought I’d write a quick post going over some of the issues.
Let’s talk gender-neutral language.
There are two reasons that the Greek may be gender neutral, while English translations may not be.
The first is simply historical with English language changes.
For instance, as Carolyn Custis James points out in her article about the ESV, English has changed. And Bible translations need to change as language changes. The word “man” used to mean humanity in English, but today that doesn’t sound right to our ears. Think of the Declaration of Independence–“all men are created equal.” We now read that and assume it means “all PEOPLE are created equal.” If the Declaration had been written in a different language, and we were translating it today, a more accurate translation would be, “everybody is created equal,” or “all people are created equal.”
The point of Bible translation isn’t just to translate word for word, but to translate so that the meaning in the original Greek (or Hebrew, or Aramaic) comes out in the English.
The second is the nature of the Greek language.
French, Spanish, and other language speakers often have an easier time with this, but Greek has “masculine” and “feminine” nouns that have absolutely nothing to do with human males and human females. And a feminine noun will have a feminine article, and a male noun will have a male article. Think la chaise (the chair) in French, a feminine noun, versus le chat (the cat) in French, a masculine noun. A female cat is still usually referred to as le chat (la chatte is actually more of a vulgar term), and a chair is just a chair. It’s not male or female. But grammatically it’s feminine.
Just because something has a male article (an article is a word like a or the) or even a male pronoun (he) does not mean it only refers to men.
Likewise, in Greek there are two words that are translated “man”: anthropos (from which we get words like anthropology), which doesn’t actually mean an actual man but rather a generic person, and aner, which actually means male person (or husband).
When one translates “anthropos” as man, you lose the fact that it is actually more of a gender neutral word.
Similarly, the word “brothers” in Greek didn’t mean just men, but rather siblings. When you had a mixed group of people, you use a word that is male. French does this too (perhaps Spanish does as well, but I’m Canadian so I’m more familiar wtih the French!)
- Ils = a group of males
- Elles = a group of females
- Ils = a group of men and women together
So if I referred to my nieces and nephews, I’d call them “Ils”. But if one translated that to mean that I’m referred to only my nephews, then my nieces would be left out of the picture, and that wouldn’t be fair.
Translating “brothers” as “brothers and sisters”, then, is more accurate to the original language.
The ESV uses sexism to make translation decisions.
Quite simply, it’s horribly biased. Marg Mowczko wrote a comprehensive post on some of the worst assertions, but I’ll deal with just three today.
Let’s look at how Genesis 1:27 is translated in the NRSV vs. the ESV:
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
The ESV ignores the gender neutral language in the original, and insinuates that only men are created in the image of God.
In Romans 12, Paul is giving a list of gifts that the Holy Spirit gives to the church. Here’s what Marg Mowczko says about this passage:
Romans 12:6–8 is a useful passage to gauge how translations deal with inclusive language. Comparing different translations of these verses demonstrates how context and one’s own doctrinal preference informs interpretation, which then determines whether these verses are translated inclusively. Romans 12:6-8 contains no masculine personal pronouns in the Greek and no word for “man,” yet the NIV 1984 contains 8 masculine personal pronouns and adds the word “man.” Conversely, the CEB, CSB, NIV 2011, and NRSV contain zero masculine pronouns and no word for “man.”
While there are no pronouns in Romans 12:6–8, there are five masculine articles in the Greek …
The ESV, however, reveals its bias in Romans 12:6–8. The ESV translators have chosen to insert the masculine pronoun “his” in regards to teaching and exhortation, but not for contributing, leading, and doing acts of mercy. This translation choice is not based on the Greek text…
The CEB, CSB, NIV 2011, and NRSV translate Romans 12:6–8 as potentially applying to both men and women, with no trace of gender bias. The ESV translators seem to have decided that most of Romans 12:6–8 is gender-inclusive except for the ministries of teaching and exhortation.
Here is the NIV and the ESV, side by side:
We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. (italics mine)
There is absolutely no reason to insert “his” like this except for bias. There is no “his” or male pronouns in the original Greek. If they believed “his” should be there, then it should have been there for ALL the gifts. The fact that they only put it in two places and not all five meant that they were making not a translation decision but a doctrinal decision, adding to the text to support their male hierarchy doctrine that only men should teach.
I won’t belabor this one a lot, because others have written quite a bit about it (here’s a list of Marg’s articles on Genesis 3:16, and here’s Scot McKnight on the ESV interpretation of it), but let’s look at these side by side as well.
To the woman he said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”
16 To the woman he said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be contrary to your husband,
but he shall rule over you.”
Again, the idea that the text says that her desire is “contrary to her husband” is not supported by the vast majority of scholars, and is a totally new idea first put forward by Susan Foh in the 1970s. It fit with the ESV agenda that women desire to rule their husbands or women are rebellious and want to take control, and that this is women’s main sin.
Not all translations are sexist.
When I shared this on Facebook yesterday, many people were saying, “can we trust anything?” And I think the answer is a resounding yes. The ESV should not be trusted; it is not merely a translation, but it is a translation with an agenda, and that’s never okay.
Not all translations are like this, though. In her article on Bible translations, Marg recommends the CSB or the NRSV, as she believes both of those do a very good job, are accurate to the language, and are beautiful to read. (I use the NRSV myself). And I trust Marg because she’s looked into this far more than I have.
I just thought you all should know that about the ESV! Marg has many more examples of how the ESV is a sexist translation, and I’m just scratching the surface. But I hope that helps you choose a Bible translation which won’t make you feel left out, and which won’t make you feel like, as a woman, God doesn’t really welcome you.
What do you think? Do you have a Bible translation you like best? Have you noticed this before with the ESV? Let’s talk in the comments!