New Testament Scholar, Ben Witherington, Takes a Whack at the ESV

Ben Witherington’s apocryphal account of the origin of the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible has been roundly refuted on the ESV Bible Blog (HT: Justin Taylor). Among other things, Witherington alleges that the ESV translation too often manifests conservative biases rather than accurate translation.

His comments imply that he detects complementarian biases being manifested in the ESV’s translation of texts like Romans 16:7, 1 Timothy 2:12, and Ephesians 5:21-22. Witherington writes, “The ESV doesn’t do justice to any of these texts, and at the expense of women.”

For Witherington (himself a Methodist), he thinks it’s important to speak out about the ESV now because someone else has told him that “the Southern Baptist Convention is considering endorsing the ESV as the one true Baptists ought to use.”

I have about one-thousand things that I would like say in response to Witherington’s blog, but the most important issues have already been addressed by the ESV Bible Blog. I would, however, like to offer some reflections on one paragraph in particular. Witherington writes:

The ESV we owe chiefly to one particular scholar who has spent much of his career opposing the idea of women being involved in minstry. I am told that this scholar did everything he could possibly do to scuttle the TNIV, in the main because he abhorred the idea of the use of inclusive language in the translation even where it was fully warranted and did better justice to who was being spoken of in particular cases. A good example would be when the Greek term ‘anthropoi’ (‘human beings’)is used to refer to a mixed group containing both women and men. To translate the term ‘men’ in such a case is in fact to misrepresent the meaning of the word in such a case since there were also women present who were not mere ciphers or appendages of the men who were there.

First, let me start out by saying that the unnamed scholar is Wayne Grudem. If you’ve read anything on this topic or even attended one meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in the last several years, then you know that it’s no secret that Wayne Grudem has been the most exercised about the issues at stake in the gender debate and in the debate on gender-inclusive translations of the Bible.

Second, and to the point I want to address, Witherington is in error when he says that translating anthrōpoi as “men” misrepresents the meaning of the word. In English usage, as in Greek, the plural form “men” can refer to mankind or people in general without respect to gender. A quick perusal of any English dictionary will confirm that this is in fact a long standing English idiom.

So, for instance, when the Declaration of Independence declares that “that all men are created equal” and that “Governments are instituted among Men,” no one misunderstands “Men” to be referring to male humans only. We know that “Men” means “mankind” or “people” of all genders.

The question is whether the idiom is still in use today such that English readers can still understand “men” to refer to “human beings” without respect to gender. It is true that about forty years of Western-style feminism has resulted among other things in a successful revision of the way we use the English language. Today, from the halls of Congress to the college campus to the style-manuals of modern publishing houses, it is no longer acceptable to use masculine words like “men” to stand for males and females. The forces of political correctness have achieved a change in usage. But that doesn’t change the fact that at least some English speakers are still able to distinguish the difference between “men” when it refers to male humans and “men” when it refers to all people regardless of gender. One could argue that the usage is fading, but it’s not gone yet.

I say all this because Witherington claims that “men” actually misrepresents the meaning of anthrōpoi. This is a serious charge because Witherington says the mistranslation is driven by an ideological agenda “at the expense of women.” Yet the charge rings hollow when one realizes that English speakers can still recognize the idiom of “men” standing for “all people” regardless of gender. The idiom may not be politically correct, but it’s perfectly understandable to the native English speaker. I think Witherington’s critique really misses the mark on this point.


6 thoughts on “New Testament Scholar, Ben Witherington, Takes a Whack at the ESV”

  1. Like it or not, English has changed. Generic masculine language sounds strange to teenage ears- when I use the NIV or ESV , I consistently have to explain what “men” means to those who have had little exposure to church or the Bible. You may not like that, but that’s how it is. Are we going to translate into the language of the common people, or are we going to make it necessary for someone to explain the Bible’s wording to people? I thought we fought this battle hundreds of years ago.

  2. Pingback: Better Bibles Blog
  3. Shane,

    Your response makes me very uncomfortable. First off, explaining what words mean is part of teaching the Bible. There is nothing wrong with that. Second of all, God chose to call the man and the woman collectively “adam”. It was God’s choice to call our race “Man,” not Denny’s or Wayne Grudem’s or the ESV translation committee. We shouldn’t shrink from speaking the way God’s Word speaks.

  4. Alas my friends, Shane is correct, it is no longer acceptable within proper english to use men as an all inclusive term that covers humanity. While this used to be the case and was the case when I learned to write ten years ago, simply is no longer acceptable. Look at the standards of colleges, of professional journals, anywhere that proper english is used and men just is no longer acceptbale.
    In another 10 years men, in its universalism form, will have gone the way of the buffalo, thee, thou, and the dodo…
    Additionally, why is this a big deal? Our language is changing and conseqeuently becoming more nuanced and percise, why is this bad?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.