On Translating the Greek Word “Anthropos”

In the new book Which Bible Translation Should I Use? there is a lot of discussion surrounding the translation of the Greek word anthrōpos (variously rendered as man, mankind, person). To give one of the shorter examples from the book consider the various renderings of John 2:25-3:1. Here are the four translations represented in the book. I have underlined in each passage where the word anthrōpos occurs.

ESV: and needed no one to bear witness about man, for he himself knew what was in man. Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.

HCSB: and because He did not need anyone to testify about man; for He Himself knew what was in man. There was a man from the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews.

NIV: He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.  Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council.

NLT: No one needed to tell him what mankind is really like. There was a man named Nicodemus, a Jewish religious leader who was a Pharisee.

Wayne Grudem, who argues for the ESV, writes “John is telling us that Jesus knew what was in every human being (every ‘man’), and therefore certainly Jesus knows the heart of this ‘man’ named Nicodemus who was coming to see him. But the NIV partially obscures the connection because they translate the first occurrence as ‘mankind’ and the second occurrence as ‘man.’ The NLT is even more troubling because it completely fails to translate the entire Greek phrase that is rendered in English ‘for he himself knew what was in man.’ Perhaps they thought it was redundant, but the additional statement is there in Greek, and it should be included in English as well.” (64) He acknowledges that this method of translating a Greek word with the same English word “cannot be done 100 percent of the time because of the range of meanings a Hebrew or Greek word will take in different contexts frequently does not match the range of meanings a single English word would have.”

Ray Clendenen, who argues for the HCSB, shares the opinion of Grudem. He writes, “But the use of anthrōpos twice in 2:25 prepares for the use of the word in 3:1.” (138) In commenting on the NIV rendition he says, “Yet the English Bible reader can only with difficulty make the connection since ‘mankind’ is not ‘man,’ and ‘each person’ misses the intentionally redundant anthrōpos. The NLT does something similar but collapses the clauses in 2:25 into one, so removing the repetition in another way. When the biblical writer has apparently emphasized a word by repetition, it is difficult to capture that emphasis in translation apart from a fairly literal translation.” (139)

Douglas Moo, who argues for the NIV concedes “There is no doubt that something is lost in the NIV translation here—the wordplay is not nearly as clear.” (103) Having said that he quickly adds, “But I want to stress that something is gained as well. As we have noted repeatedly, the word ‘man’ when applied to an individual person no longer is a term that includes both men and women. Now, to be sure, the ESV and HCSB translates seem to be using ‘man’ at the end of verse 25 to refer to the human race as a whole (this is what ‘man’ means earlier in the verse, and an indefinite article would have needed to signal a shift to an individual person—that is ‘a man’). But it is questionable if this is what John intends. It is perhaps more likely that he wants to emphasize in verse 25b that Jesus knew what was in each individual ‘man,’ or person. And, if this is the meaning, ‘man’ becomes a problematic translation because it suggests the reference is to a male human being rather than to a human being generally.” (103)

Finally, Philip Comfort, who argues for the NLT, writes “The connection in the Greek is clear: Jesus did not need to be told about Nicodemus, and he knew Nicodemus because he knew what was in every man. In the two literal translations, the ESV and HCSB, the lexical link is immediately evident—that is, if the reader reads 3:1 immediately following 2:25. The link is not as clear in the NLT and NIV. The NLT uses ‘mankind’ in 2:24 and ‘man’ in 3:1. The NIV reads ‘person’ in 2:25 and ‘man’ in 3:1.” (177)

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About Louis

I am a 1997 graduate of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
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2 Responses to On Translating the Greek Word “Anthropos”

  1. pltk says:

    As a female whose 8 year old daughter has already asked “Why does God love boys more than girls?” and when asked why part of the reason was because the Bible always talks of men and not women, I strongly support the NIV and similar versions that use gender neutral language when the situation clearly means both men and women.

    Like

  2. Thank you for writing out these snippets from books. They’re educational and show us what’s being written about these days.

    pltk’s comment shows exactly how our language has changed in this way and why many feel it legitimate to translate gender neutral/’accurate’ or whatever the best term may be.
    Jeff

    Like

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