Wayne Leman has an excellent post on why Wayne Grudem's relentless tirades against the TNIV are misguided and morally questionable. I agree that those who criticize the inclusive language translations are ignoring real changes in the English language. I've made this point numerous times in the past, and I won't belabor it. What strikes me as odd is that one of Wayne's co-bloggers Suzanne McCarthy the next day links favorably to a post by Ben Witherington that seems to me to exhibit the same sort of rhetoric as Grudem but against the ESV rather than the TNIV (with no reference whatsoever to anything negative about how Witherington makes his point). Witherington is a top-notch biblical scholar whose work I have really appreciated. I have a few theological and interpretive disagreements with him, but I have benefited from much of his work, and he's usually fairly responsible in fairly representing those who disagree with him. On this issue, however, it's as if no one on the other side could possibly be considered intelligent or reasonable. His responses to comments about this haven't completely disabused me of that perception.
I think it's just as irresponsible to criticize the ESV the way Witherington does as it is to criticize the TNIV the way Grudem does. Suzanne's post does give cases where the different ESV translators don't act consistently. I haven't checked all her examples, but I don't doubt her conclusions. That sort of inconsistency happens in translations by committee. Witherington, though, claims that the ESV has a political agenda in the same uncharitable way that the TNIV detractors claim that the TNIV has a political agenda. I think both claims fail to understand the issues, and I think the misunderstanding is fairly deep. The central issue of debate over how to translate these terms is how to balance out two legitimate concerns. One concern (Witherington's) is that the English language is in the process of changing. In some dialects it gets the semantics completely wrong to use 'man' or 'brothers' when referring to humanity or a group of people of both sexes. In others it's completely standard. In some it's frowned on but understood, and if it's semantically understood but simply viewed as morally wrong then the English language hasn't fully changed. So some dialects are still in the process of changing. These aren't entirely regional dialects either. They're generational somewhat, and educational levels affect them as well.
Now the TNIV translators think the fact that it's changed in many dialects and is changing in enough others to be a very good reason to use inclusive language when the biblical text clearly has an inclusive sense, even if it doesn't have an inclusive form. Since it's a much more fully idiomatic/dynamic style translation, this fits well with its stated aim. The ESV, as Suzanne points out, is not consistently formally equivalent, though it doesn't exactly present itself that way. It describes itself in its preface as sometimes conveying the sense rather than the form, and it does so when the translators and editorial team think the case merits that. What the ESV doesn't want to do, though, is risk translating something inclusively when it might not have an inclusive sense. I think they might take this a little far, but I go both ways on this issue. Still, they're a more formally equivalent translation than the TNIV in general, even if they're not as formally equivalent as the NASB. Therefore, you might expect them to translate less inclusively with respect to gender. There are some elements of what the form conveys that you don't capture if you translate in the way we call gender-inclusive.
Suzanne is right to point out strange patterns and inconsistencies. I could do the same with the TNIV. There are plenty of places where the TNIV's inclusive translations have been pointed out as disguising some element that translating more formally would preserve. That's what the ESV translators consider to be more important than keeping with the English-that-is-becoming as opposed to the English-that-was. If preserving form captures something that preserving sense does not, then there's a real matter to disagree about. Some might prefer to keep what the form captures, while others might prefer to keep what the form does not capture and thus lose what the form conveys that trying to preserve other aspects of the sense will not capture. That doesn't mean this is a political agenda for either side, and I think that sort of claim is just as bad when coming from either side.
I highly recommend D.A. Carson's The Inclusive Lanuage Debate for more discussion of the legitmate motives from either side and the Bible Rage that it can turn into when criticizing the other side. It was written before the TNIV, but its main example, the British NIVi, is similar enough to the TNIV that the discussion wouldn't have been very different if he'd written it after the TNIV came out. (Update: I realize that there are many differences between the TNIV and the NIVi, but the same issues would have arisen with respect to gender translation, which is all I'm concerned about in this post.)
What suprised me most was Witherington's claim that the ESV translators know nothing about the last 30 years of text criticism, which is demonstrably false. Just look at the footnotes and compare any good commentary. It's one of the few good translations recent enough to be on top of this stuff. The HCSB, NET, and TNIV are probably the only other ones that I would say are in the same league. Given his other statements that seem to assume the ESV to traslate 'anthropos' as "man" when it generally translates it as "human" or the like, it makes me wonder if he knows much about the ESV at all. (Ironically, he puts the NKJV as better for a translation of this type, ignoring that the NKJV is unaware of the last 100+ years of text criticism while also ignoring that the NKJV is not the same type of translation to begin with. The NKJV attempts to be formally equivalent. The ESV aims to be something in between formal translations like the NKJV and NASB and moderately dynamic translations like the NIV and TNIV.)
His one example to support this comment about the ESV's textual ignorance is Romans 16:7, which the ESV translates as "Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me." Most translations render it "well known among the apostles", which better captures the ambiguity in the Greek, but most scholars take them to be apostles. Given the more general meaning of that word as what we call missionaries (e.g. when it's used of Paul's traveling companions as opposed to Paul or the Twelve), the significance of this verse for gender issues is extremely overstated. So I agree with Witherington that this isn' t the best translation. He seems to spend an inordinate amount of time responding to views he disagrees with that the ESV does not adopt, and he dismisses the most likely understanding of what's going on here with what amounts to an argument from silence and selective handling of the evidence, but his main point that the ESV probably gets it wrong is correct, in my view.
Still, this is a hotly debated text. Every translation will have its annoying little renderings that many scholars will criticize. Every good translation has particular renderings that not very many scholars support. Furthermore, not one of the issues he discusses has anything to do with text criticism, and yet this is his one example of the ESV's lack of awareness of the last 30 years of text criticism.
Most importantly, his conclusion seems to me to be well beyond what most scholars do when arguing against views they disagree with. He treats those who disagree as if their conclusions are not just wrong but unintelligent and immoral. This is something that unfortunately find all too common among absolute egalitarians on gender issues. Why is it that on just these issues there's no room for allowing those who disagree to have genuinely good motivations and to have reasonable differences of scholarly opinion? Complementarians have the same problem, as evidenced by the above-linked post about Grudem. But two wrongs don't make a right, and I'm going to hold myself to that as well. I'm not going to accuse Witherington of having political motivations for his views on gender inclusive translation. I don't agree with either side on that, but I understand the motivations of both, and that means I understand his own position. I'm also not going to accuse him of having political motivations for his absolute egalitarianism. I strongly disagree with him on that issue and don't think it's possible to maintain such a view biblically, but I'll give him and other egalitarians the benefit of the doubt and not question their motives.
I just wish he would do the same with the ESV translators, a group that includes a few scholars whose reputation arguably exceeds even his own (e.g. Gordon Wenham). There were also scholars involved who have promoted the TNIV, including Craig Blomberg. Blomberg and Gordon Hugenberger, also on the ESV translation team, support women preachers and women elders (provided there is a man as head elder). This isn't some monolithic group with some clear agenda. Many people who resist inclusive language have principled reasons, as scholars often do, and even if those reasons are misguided it's no reason to paint them as having negative motives. I was encouraged by Bruce Waltke's fascinating description in the preface to his Proverbs commentary of why he was conflicted on the inclusive language issue but chose in the end to write his commentary in non-inclusive language. Since I understand that conflict to some degree but go the other way in my own writing, it really disappoints me to see anyone treating those who choose another approach than their own as if the only way they could have arrived at it is some sort of base political motive.
So after all this, where have we ended up? I will quote Wayne Leman about his own blog:
My sincere hope for this Better Bibles blog is that we might do more than keep saying the same things about which there are honest differences of opinion. Instead, I hope that this blog can be a place where people are encouraged to think clearly about differences of opinion about Bible translations. And my prayer is that we would do so with grace toward those with whom we might disagree.
I don't think Wayne or Suzanne violated that policy, but I have a hard time seeing Witherington's comments fitting within that kind of reasonable and graceful disagreement. Since I've complained about this sort of thing in the past with regard to the opponents the TNIV's translators, I think consistency requires voicing my objections to those who do exactly the same thing with the ESV's translators.