God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

How to be a Biblical Man

The ESV translation of 1 Corinthians 16:13 has Paul tell his audience to “act like men.” This tradition of translation goes back at least as far as the KJV, which renders the text “[behave] like men.” The NRSV, on the other hand, offers “be courageous.” What’s going on?

At issue is the Greek verb andrizomai. That word contains the root andr, which also gives us the word aner, “man.” (The “d” drops in and out, in accordance with Greek grammar. Aner is a “man,” and adres are “men,” for example.)

But the leap from the root andr to the translation “act like men” makes three mistakes.

The first is the wrong assumption that internal structure tells you what a word means. (I have more here: “Five Ways Your Bible Translation Distorts the Original Meaning of the Text.”) Relatedly, the root actually means “person,” not “man,” which we see from words like androphonos in 1 Timithy 1:9. The word phonos means “murder,” but androphonos means “murderer,” not “murderer of men.” (Similarly, “manslaughter” in English doesn’t only mean “slaughtering men.”) So we have methodological and factual errors.

More importantly, though, even if the word meant “be a man” in Greek, it’s not clear that “be a man” would be the right translation in English, because the very notion of what it means to be a man depends on culture. This is particularly relevant in light of John Piper’s talk advocating a masculine ministry, and similar propositions supposedly founded in the text.

For example, we have a huge divide in the West between those cultures that adopted chivalry (mostly Western Europe) and those that did not (in the East). In my own life, for example, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that my instinctive reaction when a boy kicks a girl is more severe than when a girl kicks a boy. That’s because I’m still influenced by chivalry. This is also, I believe, why America has yet to have a female president even though places ranging from Israel to Pakistan (hardly a trailblazer for equal rights) have had female prime ministers. Similarly, women were rulers in antiquity, as in the case of Cleopatra VII, who ruled Egypt until a few decades before Jesus was born. So for (some) Americans, “be a man” might deal with being chivalrous or even having presidential qualities, while the same was not true in antiquity.

Similarly, in English, “do your job as a man and marry her” makes sense in certain circumstances, yet surely Paul wasn’t telling people to go out and marry. I know that in some cultures, it is the man’s responsibility to execute honor killings, but, again, Paul certainly wasn’t advocating vengeance. And as yet another example, it has frequently been noted that masculinity is often associated with excess alcohol consumption, a goal Paul obviously wasn’t promoting.

Likewise, Yiddish has an expression to “be a mensch,” and mostly it means to be kind and honest. It has little to do with physical prowess and everything to do with integrity. Though mensch is better translated “person” than “man,” it demonstrates the same point that words convey different symbolic meanings in different cultures.

Though the verb andrizomai appears only once in the NT, we find it with more regularity in the LXX, frequently as the translation for the Hebrew “be strong” in the expression “be strong and courageous.” This is why translations tend to run along the lines of “be brave,” “have courage,” etc.

But we should be clear. This may or may not have had anything to do with masculinity. (Dr. Bill Mounce draws a similar conclusion.)

And, more generally, I think that when we transport charged words like “man” across millennia and cultures we have to be careful not to read our modern understandings into the ancient texts.

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March 2, 2012 - Posted by | translation practice, translation theory | , , , , ,

8 Comments »

  1. The statement “act like men” I think could allow a person’s perception to skew the meaning. The context mentions talking to the “brothers.” “Courageous” is more clear to me. In today’s western culture if someone said he “acts like a man,” could have a number of negative connotations. 🙂

    Comment by nwroadrat | March 2, 2012 | Reply

  2. […] blog « God didn’t say that » soulève un cas intéressant (1 Co 16,13) où même la TOB se laisse influencer par la […]

    Pingback by » « Soyez des hommes.. » ?   Philippe Lestang, le blog | March 2, 2012 | Reply

  3. This is excellent, how would you then recommend it be translated?

    Comment by Brian | March 2, 2012 | Reply

  4. So is “be courageous.” the better translation – is that what Paul was trying to say?

    Comment by Kirk Brocas | March 2, 2012 | Reply

  5. Re your “instinctive” response when a boy kicks a girl — since you’d just (correctly) noted that the response derived from a cultural tradition, to then call it “instinctive” is to contradict yourself. An instinct is innate: it isn’t produced by training, as a reflex can be. Did you have some reason for describing your response as an instinct when in fact it’s something quite different: a trained reflex?

    Comment by Kate Gladstone | March 2, 2012 | Reply

    • I never really thought about the word that carefully. I meant “automatic,” “without thinking.” I agree that it’s technically the opposite of instinct.

      Comment by Joel H. | March 4, 2012 | Reply

  6. When I was growing up to be told to “act like a man” or “be a man” meant to be a person of integrity, character and courage. That is, all that an “honorable man” was supposed to be. The vast majority of people, if honestly reading this, would also make an equal application to corresponding virtues in women as necessary. That is still what this term means to me today and also to the vast majority of people who are not looking to find something insidious in the translation. I suppose “be courageous” approximates the meaning but it certainly falls short of all that it means to truly be either “a man” or “a woman” in the best sense of what those words are supposed to mean and, traditionally, have meant.

    Comment by Richie | March 25, 2012 | Reply

  7. […] In other words, even though only men were kings, and God is a king, it doesn’t follow that God is a man or even like a man, just as even though only humans were kings, and God is a king, it doesn’t follow that God is human or like a human. (A similar issue arises with the word “man” itself: “How to be a Biblical Man.”) […]

    Pingback by Is God a boy god or a girl god in the Bible? « God Didn't Say That | July 6, 2012 | Reply


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