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.


  • sofyst

    I will read both articles (yours and his and ESV’s, I guess thats all, not both).

    But I have heard of this guy before, and it was a good hearing.

    What did he do before that was good, or was it not? I remember him attacking something before and I cannot think of what he wrote about. Come to think of it, it may not have been good. Is he the one that wrote a book about how Calvinism AND Arminianism have missed it. And then how Covenantal AND dispy has as well?

    I guess I’ll have to do a little research if you don’t know. Dangitt.

  • Faimon Roberts

    I think your argument about the meaning of the word ‘man’ in English idiom is correct, but a different example may be better. If we stick to strict originalist meaning when we read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, we cannot say that ‘All men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights’ is gender neutral. For those rights were not extended to females or even to all males, i.e. slaves. It may in fact be argued that the term ‘men’ in the documents of the Founders was defined more narrowly than it is today by the PC crowd. Today we read it as a gender neutral term, rightly, but it is hard to argue that the Founders truly saw it that way. Again, I agree with the force of your argument, just not the example you used.

  • Denny Burk

    Hey Faimon,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I thought about that when I came up with the example. Maybe I’m off historically, but my view is that the founders did not practice what they said they believed in principle. They believed all “men” (meaning “people”) were equal in principle, but they didn’t treat them that way.

    I’m going through David McCullough’s biography of John Adams right now, and he says that one of the differences between Adams and Thomas Jefferson were their views on slavery. I think that Adams may really have held in principle and practice to all people being equal.

    I don’t know. Maybe my example is disputable, but I couldn’t think of a better one.

    Thanks for the note.


  • Darth Shaft

    The SBC is going to adopt the ESV text? There is nothing more unBaptist than a Baptist denomination trying to force individual churches to do something. The independence of each congregation is at the very heart of what it means to be Baptist.

  • Denny Burk

    Dear Darth,

    I am fairly certain that you have picked up on another one of elements from Dr. Witherington that is wholly without foundation. It seems highly unlikely on its face that anyone would be attempting that in the SBC since the SBC is already trying to promote its own new translation: the Holman Christian Standard Bible.


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