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Friday, June 15, 2007

Generic "man" being misunderstood

The word "man" is used regularly in its gender generic sense in several current Bible translations, such as NIV and RSV, as well as KJV. There has been some discussion in recent comments here on how widespread this use is for RSV and KJV, but undoubtedly NIV is still in widespread use. But this gender generic sense of "man" is no longer clearly understood.

This misunderstanding is in fact nothing new. At least since the 1960s the primary sense of "man" for most English speakers has been the male-only one. I have previously suggested here that one explanation for Dr Wayne Grudem's strongly complementarian understanding of the Bible is that, as a young man in the 1960s, he misunderstood "man" in English translations as gender specific; when he later learned Greek he did not allow this to correct his theology, but rather reinterpreted Greek words to fit his theology.

But now, 40 years later, the generic sense of "man" is so little understood that people can completely misinterpret English Bibles without realising it. I came across an example in a comment on Dave Warnock's blog 42, where Theodore A. Jones wrote:
God has said that he requires an accounting whenever any male human's life is taken by bloodshed
When I asked Theodore
Where is the restriction to males?
he replied by referring to Genesis 9:5b NIV, which reads:
And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man.
It didn't seem to have occurred to him that "man" in this passage is intended to be gender generic, as clarified (by the same translation committee) in TNIV:
And from each human being, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of another human being.
The Hebrew word for "man" here is 'adam which is almost always used in a gender generic sense. (In fact 'ish is also used here, but not meaning "man", but "each".) So there is no justification at all for Theodore's gender specific exegesis.

The sooner IBS and Zondervan phase out NIV and replace it by TNIV, the better.

12 Comments:

At Fri Jun 15, 01:15:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

I'm always amazed at this kind of misunderstanding, but it's case in point as to why masculine universals are inappropriate in contemporary communication. I've told the story many times of the high school students who thought only males were made in God's image because of Gen 1:26 in the NIV.

It's examples like these which fuel my conviction to only use inclusive language translations in public. Even if a majority can make the distinction, there's no sense in misleading anyone unnecessarily.

 
At Fri Jun 15, 02:22:00 PM, Blogger Iyov said...

The sooner IBS and Zondervan phase out NIV and replace it by TNIV, the better.

Is that on the table? I had thought that they had pledged to keep the NIV in print indefinitely -- is your understanding different?

 
At Fri Jun 15, 02:28:00 PM, Blogger Joe Myzia said...

I have no new info to add, but I agree with both Rick & iyov.

Like Rick, it amazes me to see people misunderstand in this way. Context generally, if not always, makes it clear if it is generic or not.

And perhaps I need to brush up on my CSG history and guidelines, but I thought they weren't to pull the NIV from the shelves.

Though if these misunderstandings are so much more common than I realized, Peter's recommendation might not be a bad one.

 
At Fri Jun 15, 03:07:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

I saw this statement on a blog recently,

Your pastor might wear "cool" clothes, have a "cool" blog, or be in the process of trying to make God and Jesus androgynous, but God seems to care that his people are being led by capable men who lead the rest of God's people in bringing the Kingdom to their local neighborhood in all its forms.

which I think shows the same confusion. The author seems to be alluding to 2 Tim. 2:2 but he believes that the Greek refers to male human beings.

Of course, this confusion can be found in the recent ESV and NET Bibles, both of which freely translate anthropos with either "men" or "people" as they deem appropriate. I feel that any translation which predates the last century should not have a problem, "men" usually meant "people".

 
At Fri Jun 15, 03:34:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Yes, a pledge has been made that NIV will not be withdrawn completely. But there is nothing in that pledge which commits the publishers to continue to promote it or bring out new editions. Probably all their pledge obliges them to do is to keep one edition of NIV in print. And I would have no problem with that, for the sake of diehards and collectors of historic versions. But I do think that, for the sake of accurate understanding of the Bible as well as for long term sales, they would do better to phase out promotion of NIV and put their efforts unambiguously into TNIV.

 
At Fri Jun 15, 05:18:00 PM, Blogger Glennsp said...

Just because a few misunderstand the generic sense (where used generically in scripture) does not prove that the term is no longer understood generally.
Even in the media it is still quite common to find it used in its generic sense.
It may have lost its generic sense in your circle, but that does not extrapolate automatically to the rest of the world.
In the non Christian/Christian circles I move in it is still understood very clearly.

 
At Fri Jun 15, 06:35:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

But Glenn, why would you want to have a translation of the Bible that you know even some will misunderstand?

Which is ultimately clearer?

“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image” (Genesis 1:26 NIV)

or

“Let us make human beings in our image” (Genesis 1:26 TNIV)

Some will misunderstand the first version, but no one will misunderstand the second. So why favor it?

To hold on to a particular wording is to deify the language--to say that the English is immutable. In my opinion, that is entirely unnecessary.

 
At Sat Jun 16, 08:48:00 AM, Blogger Glennsp said...

R mansfield, people misunderstand the word of God no matter how hard you strain to supposedly 'simplify' it.
The only way to remove all misunderstanding is to remove the Bible itself, which is obviously not an option.
Also, as I said, I know many who do still understand the generic sense and would therefore ask "why change something that is still understood by so many?"

 
At Sat Jun 16, 11:24:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Actually, Glennsp, I don't see using human instead of man as a simplification, but merely better communication as our language stands.

And you confuse the subject because this isn't an issue of misunderstanding the Bible, but misunderstanding out-of-date translation.

We have no argument that many still understand the generic sense of man, and I noted in my post that I'm still amazed that such a thing happens. But the answer to your question is really simple. We change something that is still understood by many because some will misunderstand masculine universals in today's culture. Our goal should be to translate for clarity, accuracy, and maximum understanding.

If this was just about me, I'd be content with the NASB on the formal end of the spectrum and the REB on the dynamic end. But in the bigger picture, I realize that it's not about me. I want the Bible to be translated in the most accurate and clearest English possible for the widest possible dissemination.

Don't you?

 
At Mon Jun 18, 08:59:00 PM, Blogger Matt said...

The TNIV is certainly no panacea with many problems of its own. When reading in public I think it is best to use a gender neutral translation. People in the pews are not trained in these things and they need to understand that scripture is not just written to men.

 
At Sun Jun 24, 10:29:00 PM, Blogger orthodox said...

What about little children? Does the verses following apply to little children too?

Now the TNIV has got human being, it must apply to them also. But that is far from clear in the original.

So is the TNIV really more accurate? How long till we find some blogger who reads the TNIV and makes some assumption that it must apply to little children?

 
At Mon Jun 25, 07:35:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Orthodox, this verse certainly does apply to little children. The Hebrew word 'adam does not refer only to adults and has never been understood as doing so. Murder of little children is still murder. (And I won't follow up the obvious implications concerning abortion.) As for murder by little children, there are of course serious issues concerning how far the responsibility for that is the parents', but there is surely no suggestion that it is OK for children to kill others.

 

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