One question I frequently hear is, “Which Bible translation is the best?” The people asking this question are usually Christians who are dissatisfied with translations that seem biased towards men when, in fact, the intended meaning of many passages is gender-inclusive (i.e. they apply to men and to women).
Gender Inclusivity in Older Translations
Older English translations often use the words “man” or “men”, as well as masculine pronouns, in a generic way in verses that apply to both sexes. It was expected that readers would somehow know which verses were about, or applied to, men and women, and which verses were about, or applied only to, men. But this is difficult to do.
For example, can you tell which of the following verses are addressed to men only (in the Greek text), and which verses are gender non-specific? The answer may surprise you. (I’ve underlined the masculine terms to highlight them.)
I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing. 1 Timothy 2:8 (NIV 1984)
If a man’s gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully. Romans 12:6-8 (NIV 1984)
The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also. 2 Timothy 2:2 (NIV 1984) (More about this verse here.)
. . . if a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. 1 Timothy 3:1 (KJV) (More about this verse here.)
Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature . . . 2 Corinthians 5:17 (KJV)
1 Timothy 2:8 is the only verse here about men. The other verses do not include gender-specific language in the Greek, but this is not readily apparent to the average reader of the older, as well as a few recent, English translations.
Gender Inclusivity in Recent Translations
Some recent translations are more gender-inclusive than others. It is often assumed that the ESV is one of the least gender-inclusive translations. The ESV is known for not including even one female scholar in their translation teams. Furthermore, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood have plainly stated that the ESV is an “unapologetically complementarian” translation. That is, they believe the ESV upholds distinct gender roles (i.e. a gender hierarchy). But there are many places in the ESV where gender-inclusive translation decisions have been made
Like most recent translations, the grammatically masculine Greek word adelphoi (which was usually translated as “brothers” or “brethren” in older English Bibles) is often translated in the ESV as “brothers and sisters” (e.g. Acts 1:16). Furthermore, in Acts 2, where the Greek word for adult men (andres) occurs five times, the ESV translators have chosen not to use gendered language. There are several other instances of gender-inclusivity in the ESV.
The 2011 edition of the NIV is a more gender-inclusive translation, but I am disappointed by some translation decisions. In my opinion, both the ESV and the NIV have poorly translated a couple of key passages about the humanity of Jesus Christ. Verses about Jesus have been translated in the past in ways that highlight his male sex. But in the Greek New Testament, Jesus is rarely referred to as an anēr (an adult male); rather, he is typically referred to as an anthrōpos (human). While Jesus came to earth as a male human being, it is the fact that he became human that makes him the saviour of humanity; women and girls are equally included in the salvation offered through Jesus.
In the famous Christological passage in Philippians 2, Jesus’ humanity is referred to twice in the Greek, but both the NIV and the ESV only refer to his “human-ness” once. The NASB and KJV (which are older translations) use the word “man/men” twice each, while the NRSV and Common English Bible (CEB) don’t use “man/men” at all. Compare the following translations of Philippians 2:7b-8a (I have underlined the masculine words):
. . . being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man . . . NIV
. . . being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form . . . ESV
. . . being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man . . . NASB cf. KJV
. . . being born in human likeness. And being found in human form . . . NRSV cf. CEB
1 Timothy 2:3b-5 is another passage that I believe has been poorly translated in some Bibles. The NIV 1984 edition translated it like this:
. . . God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus. 1 Timothy 2:3b-5 (NIV 1984, underlines added)
The ESV has one less “man/men” word.
. . . God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, (ESV, italics and underlines added)
The NIV translates it slightly more inclusively.
. . . God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, (NIV 2011, italics and underlines added)
1 Timothy 2:3b-5 is translated faithfully in the NRSV and CEB with inclusive words such as “people”, “humanity”, and “human” (instead of “man/men”).
. . . our savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. There is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the human Christ Jesus, (CEB, italics added)
There are several other important verses where the NRSV and CEB translators have accurately translated from the original languages by not using gendered language.
Gender Inclusivity and Interpretation
Avoiding the use of gendered language in English translations of the Bible can sometimes be difficult. One reason why it is difficult is because the original biblical languages were gendered. Moreover, the masculine grammatical gender is typically the default gender in Greek and Hebrew for a generic person or a group of people which may (or may not) include women. So, the question of when to use gender-inclusive pronouns and words usually involves interpretation. And interpretation can be subjective.
For instance, John 3:16 in the Greek contains three grammatically-masculine words for “everyone who is believing”: πᾶς ὁ πιστεύων. It could be argued that these masculine words might be translated as “every man who is believing.” Thankfully, however, all English translations have translated John 3:16 inclusively. Nevertheless, other verses that use a similar masculine Greek construction, such as Romans 12:6-8, have not always been translated inclusively.
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 the verse is 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 NIV 2011, the NRSV and CEB 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 which are translated as “he” in the NASB; this is not an inaccurate translation, but the NASB also adds a few more masculine pronouns. The ESV, however, really shows its bias in Romans 12:6-8. The five masculine articles are translated gender-neutrally and inclusively as “the one”, but masculine pronouns have been inserted in the two phrases about teaching and exhorting. Masculine pronouns have not been inserted in other phrases of the passage even though the grammatical construction of the three following phrases is almost identical with the teaching and exhorting phrases, and similar to the ministry/service phrase (in that it includes ἐν τῇ). The ESV translators have chosen to insert the masculine pronoun “his” in regards to teaching and exhortation, but not for serving, contributing, leading, and doing acts of mercy. This translation choice is not based on the Greek text.
The NIV 2011, NRSV and CEB translate Romans 12:6-8 as applying to both men and women, with no trace of a gender bias. The older translations of the NIV 1984 and NASB may or may not have been using masculine words generically. So it is unclear whether the translators saw these verses as inclusive. 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.
As I said, interpretation can be subjective. Moreover, some verses are genuinely difficult to interpret. For these, and other reasons (such as no inclusive singular pronoun in English), it is impossible to produce a perfectly gender-accurate and gender-inclusive Bible.
So what is the best English translation of the Bible?
From the very few examples given, the NRSV and CEB have shown that they are committed to gender-accuracy, gender-inclusivity, and gender-clarity. The style of the CEB, however, makes it much, much, easier to read than the NRSV. Both are excellent translations; nevertheless, it is beneficial to read from several recent translations if available, as no translation is perfect.
Our knowledge of biblical languages has improved immensely in past decades, so recent translations are to be preferred over ones dating before the 1990s. I often use the NIV 2011, despite what I consider to be some arbitrary translation decisions; but I can see where these are (in the NT) because I rely on the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament (which I read pretty much every day.)
I’ve only looked at a few translations for this post, but, before finishing, I want to point out that the New Living Translation (NLT) has a distinct gender bias, and the new Passion Translation is not really a translation or even a paraphrase. The Passion Translation is not a version to use for serious study. On the other hand, the online NET Bible is a good Bible for study because of its helpful notes.
Which English translations and paraphrases do you prefer?
Which foreign language Bibles do you recommend for people wanting gender-inclusive verses to be translated in a gender-inclusive way?
 The five masculine articles in Romans 12:7b-8 are connected to five masculine participles. (John 3:16 similarly contains a masculine article and participle, as well as a masculine adjective.)
 I use the term gender-clarity to refer to the helpful use of gendered language (e.g., masculine or feminine pronouns) in verses that are specifically about men or specifically about women. For example, some translations go too far and translate passages that clearly refer to men (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:8) or clearly refer to women (e.g. 1 Tim. 2:9-10) as though they are gender inclusive.
Why masculine pronouns can be misleading in the Bible and in the church
Is God Male or Masculine?
Gender Bias in the NLT
The ESV-Bible’s Men-only Club
The Importance of Using Feminine Words and Images