Is the ESV Literal and the NIV Gender Neutral? – Mondays with Mounce 286

Bill Mounce on June 19th, 2017. Tagged under ,,,,,,.

Bill Mounce

Bill is the founder and President of, serves on the Committee for Bible Translation (which is responsible for the NIV translation of the Bible), and has written the best-selling biblical Greek textbook, Basics of Biblical Greek, and many other Greek resources. He blogs regularly on Greek and issues of spiritual growth. Learn more about Bill's Greek resources at

This blog is purely on translation and not directly on Greek, but I have been thinking about this a lot lately so thought I would share it.

Most people say there are two translation camps, formal equivalent and functional equivalent (or dynamic equivalent). The longer I am in translation work, the more I see how simplistic this division is.

There actually are five methods on translation with three sub-categories for the handling of gender language. Translations are all on a continuum, overlapping one another, and hence it is misleading to picture them as different points on a line. I am guessing, but for example, about eighty percent of the ESV and the NIV are the same, once you account for different translations of individual words.

1. Literal. The most accurate meaning of the word “literal” when it comes to translation work is “word-for-word.” The only “translations” that do this consistently are interlinears. (I quote the word “translations” because interlinears are not properly translations.) The word “literal” should never be used of any other form of translation since all of them, every single one, despite their marketing, rarely translate word-for-word. They will say they translate word-for-word unless it does not make sense or misinforms, but that is a red herring argument. They are never consistently word-for-word, unless you can find a translation that translates John 3:16 as, “in this way for loved the God the world so that the Son the only he gave in order that each the believing into him not perish but have life eternal.” No Bible on the market is “literal.”

2. Formal Equivalent. These translations try to reflect the formal structures of the original text, making the translation “transparent” to the original. This means translating indicative verbs as indicative, participles as participles, idioms with similar English idioms (if possible), and trying to use the same English word for the same Greek word if possible. Not to repeat myself, but please note that this is not “literal” the way most people use the word (and the way marketers present their translations). In every single verse there will be a significant diversity between the Greek and the English. All translations are interpretive; anyone who says otherwise is selling something (to quote the man in black). The ESV and NASB fall into this camp.

3. Functional (or Dynamic) Equivalence. These translations argue that the purpose of translation is to convey the meaning of the original text into the target language. It may mean that a participle is translated as an indicative verb, or a few Greek words are passed over (such as conjunctions) to produce proper English style. This introduces an additional amount of interpretation and produces a more fluid, understandable translation. The NIV, CSB, and KJV fit into this camp.

4. Natural Language. This is an extension of functional equivalence, but it sees no value in any of the formal structures and tries to repeat the same message in the full idiom of the target language. Eugene Nida says that the purpose of a translation is to transport “the message of the original text … into the receptor language [such] that the response of the receptor is essentially like that of the original receptors.” The problem is that this camp will often introduce ideas simply not in the text in order to achieve natural English style and readability such that you don’t know if you are reading the Bible or the translators’ comments. This is the NLT.

5. Paraphrase. This term is used variously, but I use it, along with “thought-for-thought,” to categorize translations that are very loose with the Greek in putting the meaning into English idiom. These are not Bibles, but running commentaries, including The Living Bible, The Message, and J.B. Phillips’s wonderful The New Testament in Modern English. (My mom became a Christian reading this work.)

Formal and Functional translations also have to deal with the gender issue in an ever-changing English language. For millions of people, “man” and “he” are still generic, referring to men and women as a whole. For millions of other people, “man” and “he” only refer to males. We are in the middle of a sea change in language, and “they” is becoming the third person pronoun that can refer to women or men. Many people decry this, but grammar is descriptive, not prescriptive, and this is what is happening to English. A person may not like it, but that doesn’t matter. “They” was not marked for gender in Elizabethan English (check out Shakespeare), and it is coming back in vogue.

Like the five translation camps above, there is frequent misunderstanding about the meaning of these three gender terms. Let’s try to use them accurately.

1. Gender Neutral. This kind of translation would eradicate any and all references to gender. God would be a parent, and a child would not have a mother or father. I am not aware of any translation that does this, but the term “gender neutral” is so used (and misused) that I needed a category for it.

2. Gender Inclusive. This method would make everything inclusive, whether the original makes gender specific statements or not. So biblical statements about women would be translated as if it were true of both men and women. I am also not aware of any translation that does this.

3. Gender Accurate. These are translations that make references to men using male language, women with female language, but they differ on how to refer to a mixed (e.g., a crowd) or indefinite object (e.g., “someone”). The ESV and CSB will refer back to an antecedent such as “anyone” with the anaphoric “he.” The NIV uses “they.” The NRSV has other ways (much like the now defunct TNIV) such as using plurals or second person.

There also is the issue of an historical male referent who stands as an example for men and women, boys and girls. In Proverbs, does the father teach the son (who represents all the siblings), or do the parents teach the children?

The point of this blog is to encourage all of us to use exact language. The ESV is not “literal.” (Note that the ESV does not claim to be “literal” but rather “essentially literal.”) The NIV is not “gender neutral.” (The NIV claims to be gender accurate.) But people commenting on these translations are often not as nuanced.


William D. [Bill] Mounce posts about the Greek language and exegesis on the ZA Blog. He is the president of, a ministry that creates and distributes world-class educational courses at no cost. He is also the author of numerous works including the bestselling Basics of Biblical Greek and a corresponding online class. He served as the New Testament chair of the English Standard Version Bible translation, and is currently on the Committee for Bible Translation for the NIV.

Learn more about Bill’s Greek resources at

  • Dannii Willis 2 months ago

    I don’t think that “paraphrase” is a very helpful term, especially when one of the most frequently identified paraphrases, The Message, is explicitly called by the author a translation from the original languages. The ESV is arguably more of a paraphrase, being largely an edit of the RSV!

    Instead, I think that we should think of The Message as prioritising pragmatics over semantics. The Message tries to convey the illocutionary force of the original text: if the speaker is angry the translation will sound angry. If the speaker is imploring the listener, the translation will sound like it is imploring you. If the writer is rebuking the reader, then you will feel like you are being rebuked. The Message prioritises this, occasionally by replacing metaphors at the cost of the original Biblical metaphors, and often by using dated American slang. An interesting experiment in Bible translation, but not one we’d want most translations to follow. I think conveying that illocutionary force is good, but not at the cost of changing the metaphors.

    Pragmatics and information structure needs more emphasis in our Bible translations. It’s been a few years since I looked, but I only found a single translation, the ISV, that showed the emphasis of the explicit pronoun ἐγὼ in Matt 26:33, saying “Even if everyone else turns against you, I certainly won’t!” Arguably these pragmatic features would fit into the functional translation category, but because it’s still such a weakness it doesn’t hurt to draw special attention to it. Lets aim even higher than semantics!

    (Though of course we’re so well blessed for English translations we would be better to direct more of our resources to other languages. Not that all English translation work should stop, but it doesn’t need to be the greatest priority in our minds.)

  • Adrian Tribe 2 months ago

    The KJV fitting into the same (Functional/Dynamic Equivalence) translation camp as the NIV?! Wow – I don’t think that’s how lots of people see it! :-)

  • Abram K-J 2 months ago

    Thank you for this–really helpful. I’ve always thought “literal” was a pretty useless (and misleading, misused) word when talking about biblical translation, hermeneutics, etc. Some nice distinctions here.

  • James Snapp Jr 2 months ago

    A moment:

    You listed in the “Formal Equivalent” category the ESV and NASB, while listing the KJV in the “Functional Equivalence” category. Granting that there are isolated points in the KJV that one can fairly describe as functional rather than formal, the general character of the KJV translators’ approach was formal, and I am rather confident that a comparison to the ESV would show that the KJV’s translation-technique is significantly more formal (for better or for worse) than that of the ESV.

  • Louise Marshall 2 months ago

    “Thanks for the clarification!” she said.

  • Linda Klug 2 months ago

    Oh how I wish I’d had this for my classes last year! But at least I now have something to print and pass out! Thanks!

  • Larry Hale 2 months ago

    I hear a lot of comments on which version is “correct” since a lot of folks make comments about the NKJV that I prefer. I always come back with use the version the Holy Spirit uses,

  • Norm Beers 2 months ago

    Very helpful distinctions, Bill. It amazes me that so many people who know full well how translation actually works between any two languages (always thought-for-thought) change their standards when it comes to the Bible. Any attempt to translate, say, French to English using Formal Equivalence would simply be deemed a poor translation. Why do so many view the task of translating OT Hebrew and NT Greek into English differently? To me, the NLT usually nails it by doing what Dr. Mound calls disregarding formal structures in the original and conveying the message in the idiom of the target language. I suspect people are spooked by the notion that, with the Word of God, you must try to avoid ‘messing’ with the original text, which, as Mound points out, is impossible anyway. Surely trying to do so misses the real point of authority and inspiration–and the real point of translation. So much is at stake with the Bible, in terms of understanding and conviction, that I can’t believe people who know better are willing to sacrifice excellence in the task of translation for the sake of a groundless idea of God’s truth being most resident in the words of the original Hebrew and Greek.

  • Jenny T 2 months ago

    Bill, this is very helpful, especially since many folks seem to view KJV and NKJV as the most accurate. Some folks, though, have a desire to use gender neutral or gender inclusive or non-gendered language for God. This, too, can become stilted, as evidenced in John 3:16 – For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son…
    My point is that there might be more than 3 categories, reserving one category for how we refer to God. Though, on second thoughts, I suppose “we” and “they” might work.

  • Stephen Hamblin 2 months ago

    The King James Version described as a dynamic equivalent translation? Never heard any scholars describe it like that before, and even with my limited Koine Greek knowledge, I can see it is a formal equivalence version.