Biblical manhood and masculinity

My friend Bronwen Speedie recently pointed out to me that the word “manhood” is in the Bible. It occurs twice in the English Standard Version (ESV): in Ephesians 4:13 and in Hosea 12:3. Is “manhood” really the best word to convey the sense the biblical authors wanted to express in these two verses?

“Manhood” is a loaded term in some Christian circles. Wayne Grudem, who is on the Oversight Committee of the ESV, has even co-edited a book entitled Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Wayne Grudem and some other Christians, including several of the translators of the ESV, believe in an ideology called complementarianism. Complementarians are Christians who place a great deal of importance on gender differences which they believe boils down to male-only leadership (“manhood”) and submission from women to male authority (“womanhood”). This ideology seems to have affected the ESV’s translation of various passages of scripture in various ways. The main way the ESV supports the concepts of male-only leadership, as well as male primacy, is by using masculine language rather than gender-inclusive language.

Masculine Nouns and Pronouns in the ESV

The ESV follows the translation principles set out in the Colorado Springs Guidelines. These guidelines give preference to masculine language such as “men,” “brothers,” “sons,” and “fathers” even in many instances where the biblical context and meaning is broader humanity: men and women, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, parents or ancestors and not just fathers. (The guidelines can be viewed here.) [1]

Masculine nouns, such as “brothers” when the meaning is “brothers and sisters,” effectively distance women from the text. I experienced this a while ago when I read the book of Hebrews in the ESV. It felt like nothing in Hebrews was relevant to me as a woman. It was unpleasant and disconcerting to feel distant from the Word of God that I love so much.

Here are just three examples of masculine nouns in gender-inclusive verses:

That is why [Jesus] is not ashamed to call them brothers . . . Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God . . . Therefore, holy brothers, you who share in a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the apostle and high priest of our confession (Hebrews 2:11, 17; 3:1 ESV, italics added).[2]

The ESV also prefers masculine pronouns such as “he” and “him” even if the intended sense is gender-inclusive (e.g., 2 Cor. 5:17 ESV). Wayne Grudem and Vern Poythress, both on the ESV Oversight Committee, have written against gender-inclusive Bibles (the TNIV in particular) and state, “’He’ includes both men and women, but does so using a male example as a pictorial starting point.”[3] They admit that “In a subtle way, this use brings along with it an unequal prominence to men and women.” (Italics added)[4] By choosing to use masculine pronouns, the ESV makes men more prominent than women, even in Bible passages that, potentially, apply equally to women in the original languages.

“Act Like Men” in 1 Corinthians 16:13 ESV

It’s not just nouns and pronouns that are given a masculine feel in the ESV. 1 Corinthians 16:13 is an example where an inadequate translation of a verb alters its sense and makes it seem especially relevant to men. 1 Corinthians 16:13 applies to men and to women, but in the ESV (and several older translations) it sounds as though Paul is advocating for uniquely masculine behaviour.

In the ESV, Paul tells the Corinthians to “act like men.” This verse contains the Greek verb andrizomai which the ESV translates according to the word’s etymology, rather than its actual usage and meaning in Paul’s day. The CSB, NIV, NLT, NRSV and other English Bibles correctly translate the meaning of andrizomai as “be courageous.” Paul was not telling the Christians in Corinth to behave as men, he was telling them to be brave, and Paul follows this with “be strong.”

Here is how the NRSV translates 1 Corinthians 16:13-14:

“Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong. Let all that you do be done in love.”

These words are to be heeded by both male and female followers of Jesus and do not require women to copy the mannerisms of men. Ephesians 4:13, which includes the word “manhood” in the ESV, likewise applies equally to male and female followers of Jesus.

 “Manhood” in Ephesians 4:13 ESV

In Ephesians 4:11-13, Paul writes about believers, and the church as a whole, becoming mature, that is, becoming like Jesus.

Here’s how the CEB renders the meaning of verse 13:

“God’s goal is for us to become mature adults—to be fully grown, measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.”

Here’s how the CSB translates the last part of verse 13:

“. . . growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness.”

This verse contains the Greek word anēr which typically refers to an adult male person. (The exact form in Ephesians 4:13 is andra.) Occasionally, however, anēr can refer to an adult person who may be either male or female (e.g., Rom. 4:8: Jas 1:12). One principle in the Colorado Springs Guidelines (A4) is that anēr should almost always be translated as “man,” but here the ESV translators have chosen not to use the word “man” but “manhood.”[5]

The ESV reads,

“. . . to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Italics added)

For a translation that prides itself on being a fairly literal translation, why didn’t the ESV translators use the word “man” which they admit in a footnote is the literal translation of the Greek word anēr? Why didn’t they follow the recommendation of the Colorado Springs Guidelines concerning anēr? Why didn’t they, like most other modern versions, translate the sense of andra teleion which is “a mature adult”?[6]

Most English translations do not include the word “man” in verse 13. This is because Paul’s meaning has nothing to do with manhood or masculinity, but with being a grown-up. Most translators have understood that this verse applies to women believers as much as it does to their brothers.

Why “Man” in Ephesians 4:13?

So why did Paul use the Greek word anēr (“man”) rather than the more inclusive word anthrōpos which means “person” or “human”? Here are some reasons why “man” makes better sense than “human” in Ephesians 4:13.

~ Paul used the Greek word for “man” to contrast with the word “infants” which comes up in the following verse (Eph. 4:14). Men are adults and are therefore physically mature, infants are physically immature, but both men and infants are human.[7] So a word that just means “human” or “person” is not satisfactory. LSJ, the most exhaustive lexicon of Ancient Greek, shows that anēr is often used opposite, or in contrast to, (I) a woman, (II) a god, or (III) a youth. (See here.) Paul uses it in Ephesians 4:13 to contrast with a very young person, an infant.

~ In the first-century world, women, generally speaking, were not regarded as models of maturity. Women did not have the educational and social advantages that free men had, and so were hindered from developing and maturing. But Paul is not contrasting men with women. He wants “all” to be mature. This “all” includes men and women.

~ Another factor to consider is that in the ancient world, the male sex was considered by some to be the primary sex or the normative sex.[8] Moreover, it was considered to be the superior sex.[9] Given this understanding, “man” rather than “woman” or even “human” makes Paul’s point clearer.

~ Lastly, Jesus Christ became a male human. He is a man, even though he is rarely referred to as an anēr in the Greek New Testament. (He is typically referred to as an anthrōpos.) Jesus is the model for mature humanity.

For these reasons, anēr (“man”) is rhetorically stronger and a more apt word than anthrōpos (“person/human”) in Ephesians 4:13. Paul chose to use “man” to make a point about maturity; his point was not about masculinity or manhood. Jesus is just as much the role model for his female followers as for his male followers.

Conclusion

If “manhood” wasn’t such a loaded term, it might not be a problem. But some Christians are heavily invested in their ideas of manhood and womanhood, despite the fact that the Bible does not describe what it means to be a man or a woman. Thankfully, “womanhood” does not occur in the ESV.

The Word of God is for all followers of Jesus. But by deliberately choosing to use masculine language, the translators of the ESV are obscuring the fact that many Bible passages include women just as much as their brothers.


Footnotes

[1] The original version of the Colorado Springs Guidelines had to be amended when someone looked at a Greek lexicon and discovered that the common Greek word adelphoi can mean “brothers and sisters” and not just “brothers.” Wayne Grudem and Vern Poythress, who were signatories to the original and amended guidelines, explain:

. . . the major Greek lexicons for over 100 years have said that adelphoi, which is the plural of the word adelphos, “brother,” sometimes means “brothers and sisters” (see BAGD, 1957 and 1979, Liddell-Scott-Jones, 1940 and even 1869). This material was new evidence to those of us who wrote the May 27 guidelines—we weren’t previously aware of this pattern of Greek usage outside the Bible. Once we saw these examples and others like them, we felt we had to make some change in the guidelines.
Vern Poythress and Wayne Grudem, The TNIV and the Gender Neutral Bible Controversy (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2005), 425–426.

The fact the adelphoi can mean “brothers and sisters” is common knowledge for those who have studied Greek. It is astonishing that Wayne Grudem, who has been arguing about the meaning of the Greek word kephalē (“head”) since the ’90s did not know this simple fact.

[2] See also Hebrews 3:12; 5:1; 10:19; 13:22 ESV, etc. This use of “brothers” and “men,” etc, continues in the ESV’s translation of other books of the Bible.

[3] Wayne Grudem and Vern Poythress, The Gender Neutral Bible Controversy (Nashville, Tennessee: Broadman and Holman, 2000), 145.

[4] Grudem and Poythress, The Gender Neutral Bible Controversy, 145.

[5] Carolyn Custus James gives a more amusing example of inconsistency in the ESV’s translation of “man” here.

[6] William Barclay comments on the Greek word teleios in Philippians 3:12 and 15, but it also applies to Ephesians 4:13:

Teleios in Greek has a variety of interrelated meanings. In the vast majority of them, it signifies not what we might call abstract perfection but a kind of functional perfection, adequacy for some given purpose. It means to be full grown as distinct from underdeveloped; for example, it is used of a fully grown adult as opposed to an underdeveloped youth. It is used to mean mature in mind, and therefore means one who is qualified in a subject as opposed to someone who is still learning.
William Barclay, The Letters to the Philippians, Colossians and Thessalonians, The New Daily Study Bible, (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew Press, 1975, 2003),77.

[7] In Hosea, where “manhood” occurs one more time in the ESV, Jacob’s actions as an unborn baby and as an adult are mentioned side by side (Hos. 12:3 ESV).

[8] Based on the work of Thomas W. Laqueur, presented in his book Making Sex: Body and Gender From the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), Susan Hylen explains, with some caution, that in the mind of some ancient thinkers there was one sex, not two.

In 1990, Thomas Laqueur argued that the ancient Greeks and Romans conceived of sex and gender very differently from people today. Instead of two distinct biological sexes, there was only one. The male sex was normative, and females were simply a subset of the male. Laqueur showed that authors like the fourth-century B.C.E. philosopher Aristotle and second-century C.E. physician Galen understood male and female reproductive anatomy to be identical—except that the female’s was interior instead of exterior to the body. “Instead of being divided by their reproductive anatomies, the sexes are linked by a common one.” Laqueur concluded that in these centuries “woman does not exist as an ontologically distinct category.” This conception was very different from modern formulations of sex and gender. The ancient conception of sex that Laqueur traced was also different from modern notions because it was inherently hierarchical. It assumed that women were biologically inferior to men. In a classic example, Aristotle wrote, “The female is as it were a deformed male (Gen. an. 2.3 [737a28]). As Laqueur argued, “The ancients saw women as “inverted and hence less perfect men.” This hierarchical understanding was widely shared in ancient sources. . . .
Although the one-sex model can help modern readers encounter some of our own biases, it is limited in helping us understand the lives of ancient women. This model may not have been the only way ancient people understood sex and gender.
Susan E. Hylen, Women in the New Testament World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), 5-6, 8. (Google Books)

[9] This is quite different from what Genesis 1 tells us, that humanity was made as male and female and that both men and women have the same status, the same authority (i.e. authorization from God), and the same purpose. Paul did not seem to think that males were superior and females inferior. In Galatians 3:28 he wrote that, in Christ, there is neither male and female. In 1 Corinthians 11:11-12 he wrote that men and women need each other and are mutually interdependent. But Paul did understand the ancient mindset and wrote with it in mind.

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Podcast: The challenges of being a woman in male-dominated American Evangelicalism

I love this recent Theology in the Raw podcast with Dr Lynn Cohick and Preston Sprinkle, here. At the 22.10 minute mark, Lynn shares that she cried when reading the many masculine pronouns in 1 Corinthians in the NIV 1984, and asked, “Where am I in the text?” Similarly, I cried when I realised that the masculine pronouns in Romans 12:6-8 in the NIV 1984 were unwarranted and misleading, and that these verses in the Greek did not exclude women.

Most modern English translations, such as the NIV 2011, do not contain the plethora of masculine pronouns that previous translations and, to a lesser extent, the ESV have which distance women from the text. The Colorado Springs Guidelines and Bible translations that adopt these guidelines, such as the ESV, hurt women.


Valiant or Virtuous? by Suzanne McCarthy

I am indebted to the work of the late Suzanne McCarthy. Her book Valiant or Virtuous?: Gender Bias in Bible Translation was published posthumously and released in July 2019. It was Suzanne’s book that alerted me to the information in footnote 1 above.

Here’s a recommendation I wrote for the book.

Suzanne McCarthy believed that “Women need to see themselves represented fairly in scripture.” To this end, she has used her expertise as a linguist to discover what the original authors of the Bible say about women. Suzanne is faithful to the Hebrew and Greek texts while highlighting shortcomings in translations and interpretations. Valiant or Virtuous? is like no other book I have read, and I am happy to recommend it.

Suzanne’s book is available at Book Depository and on Amazon.


Related Articles

Which Bible Translation is Best?
Why Masculine Pronouns can be misleading in English Bible and in the Church
The ESV Bible’s Men-Only Club
Junia in Romans 16:7 (ESV)
Gender Bias and the New Living Translation (NLT)
Why does Mary Kassian think the new NIV is bad for women?
The New Testament Household Codes are about Power, not Gender
25 Biblical Roles for Biblical Women

Further Reading

Eternal Subordination of the Son and the ESV Study Bible by Rachel Green Miller
Contrary Women: Genesis 3:16b in the (now non-) Permanent ESV by Matt Lynch