best bible translation ESV NRSV King James Bible NIV

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. the passages 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 to, only men. But this can be 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). (More on gender bias in the ESV here.)

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. These 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.

Philippians 2:7b-8

In the famous Christological passage in Philippians 2, Jesus’ humanity is referred to twice in the Greek, but the NIV and ESV, as well as the CSB, only refer to his “human-ness” once. The NASB 1995 and KJV (which are older translations) use the word “man/men” twice each. 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 and I have italicised the gender-neutral, inclusive words):

… being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man … NASB 1995 cf. KJV
… being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form …  ESV
… being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man … NIV 2011
… taking on the likeness of humanity. And when he had come as a man … CSB
… being born in human likeness. And being found in human form … NRSV
and by becoming like human beings. When he found himself in the form of a humanCEB

1 Timothy 2:3b-5

1 Timothy 2:3b-5 is another passage that I believe has been poorly translated in some Bibles. It contains the word anthrōpos (“human/humanity”) three times. The meaning is that God wants all people, not just men, to be saved, and that Jesus is the mediator between God and humanity, not just men.

The NIV 1984 edition translates each of these with “man/men” words:

… 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 two “man/men” words.

… 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 2011 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).

The CSB is still more inclusive.

… God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and humanity, the man Christ Jesus … (CSB, 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”).

… God 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 referring to people as “humans” or even as “people” can sound odd in some verses. Another reason is because the original biblical languages were gendered. Moreover, the masculine grammatical gender is typically the default gender in Greek and in 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

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 NIV 2011, NRSV, CSB 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 1995;[1] this is not an inaccurate translation, but the NASB then also adds a few more masculine pronouns. [Update: The NASB 2020 uses gender-neutral language in Romans 12:6-8.]

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.[1]

“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” Romans 12:6-8 ESV (Italics added).

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.

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 third-person pronoun in English, it is impossible to produce a perfectly gender-accurate and gender-inclusive translation.

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.[2] 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 New Testament because I rely on the Nestle-Aland and SBL Greek New Testaments 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.

As for the Christian Standard Bible (CSB), it is an accurate translation and beautifully written. I love its style, but it is biased towards male ministers (e.g., Rom. 16:1 CSB; 2 Tim. 2:2 CSB; Jas 3:1 CSB). I’ve been using it for quotations where this bias doesn’t appear. The CSB is one of the few English Bibles that correctly translates the singular verb (= “she will be saved”) and the plural verb (= “they continue”) in 1 Timothy 2:15 CSB. And for that, I am grateful.

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?


[1] 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.) The five masculine articles with the participles in the Greek of Romans 12:7b-8 are translated gender-neutrally and inclusively in the ESV (e.g., “the one who contributes”), but the masculine pronoun “his” has been inserted in the two phrases about teaching and exhorting. Masculine pronouns have not been inserted in the other phrases even though the grammatical construction of the three following phrases is almost identical to the teaching and exhorting phrases, and somewhat similar to the ministry/serving phrase (in that it includes ἐν τῇ) in Romans 12:7a.

[2] 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.

You can support my work for as little as $3 USD a month.
Become a Patron!

Postscript: October 24, 2020
The NASB 2020

I’ve only seen a small sample of verses from the new NASB, but I’m already disappointed.

~ In previous editions of the NASB, Andronicus and Junias (both masculine names) were “outstanding among the apostles.” But now that they’ve fixed Junia’s gender and made her a woman, the couple is “outstanding in the view of the apostles” and so are not apostles themselves. (I discuss if Andronicus and Junia were among the apostles, or not, here.)

~ Previous editions often translated the word adelphoi as “brethren,” a word which many readers feel has an inclusive sense. In the 2020 edition, adelphoi is usually translated as “brothers and sisters” but with some notable exceptions which limit the inclusion of women.
For example, James 1:2 reads, “Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters (adelphoi), when you encounter various trials …” But two chapters later, sisters are not mentioned: “Do not become teachers in large numbers, my brothers (adelphoi), since you know that we who are teachers will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). Here is the 1995 version for comparison: “Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment.”

~ 1 Timothy 2:11 is unchanged from the previous edition and maintains the too passive sounding, “A woman must quietly receive instruction …” This translation is not as accurate as it could be. The Greek verb used here means “to learn” and it is not passive. The CSB is more accurate: “A woman is to learn quietly …” as is the NET Bible: “A woman must learn quietly …”

~ In 1 Timothy 2:15, “But women will be preserved” is unchanged from the previous edition, except that “women” was previously italicised to indicate the word was an addition. It is not italicised in the 2020 edition I saw. Italicised or not, “women” (plural) is incorrect and it alters the meaning Paul intended. The CSB accurately translates the singular Greek verb with”she will be saved.”

~ As in the previous edition, the translators have used the words “man” and “office” in 1 Timothy 3:1: “if any man aspires to the office of overseer …” But there is no Greek word that means “man” in this verse, and being an overseer in Ephesus may not have been considered a church office until later. The CSB translation of this phrase is more accurate with their word “anyone”: “If anyone aspires to be an overseer …” (I’ve written about 1 Timothy 3:1 and “man” here.)

For the sake of comparison with other translations of 1 Timothy 2:3b-5 in the article above, here’s how the NASB 2020 translates this verse:
“God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus.”

And here’s Philippians 2:7b-8:
“being born in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man …” NASB 2020.
“Being born” is different from “being made” in the previous edition. It’s difficult to see how any baby can be born in the likeness of men. Jesus was born in human likeness. The NASB has retained the masculine language used in the previous edition.

The translation of Romans 12:6-8 in the NASB 2020 is unmarked by gendered words. It uses the word “one”; previous editions had the word “he.”

However, since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to use them properly: if prophecy, in proportion to one’s faith; if service, in the act of serving; or the one who teaches, in the act of teaching; or the one who exhorts, in the work of exhortation; the one who gives, with generosity; the one who is in leadership, with diligence; the one who shows mercy, with cheerfulness. Romans 12:6-8 NASB 2020

Further Reading

7 Places where Gender-Inclusive Bible Translation Really MattersPart One and Part Two, by Jeffrey D. Miller.
A short review of the CEB by Hebrew scholar Martin Shields is here.
An evaluation of passages in the NET Bible that affect the status and ministry of women by Laura Hunt is here.
What’s Wrong with the Passion ‘Translation’? by Andrew Wilson is here.
The Passion Translation: A Review of the Treatment of Hebrews by Philip Church is here.

A PDF of the TNIV is here.

Related Articles

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
Manhood and Masculinity in the ESV
The Importance of Using Feminine Words and Images