The Ambiguity of 'Anthropos'

by Michael D. Marlowe, 2003

What is man, that you are mindful of him?
Or the son of man, that you care for him?
Hebrews 2:6

In recent books and articles that have advocated "inclusive language" in Bible translations one often encounters the assertion that the Greek word anthropos [ανθρωπος] does not mean "man" in the limited sense of "male human being," but merely "human being," without any presumption that a person referred to by this word is a male. Usually this assertion is made in the context of an argument in which anthropos is contrasted with aner, a word which always does mean "male human being" (though even this is not admitted by some). It is argued that a Greek-speaking person of the first century would not perceive any male connotation in the word anthropos, because the only word which conveyed the sense "male human being" in Greek was aner. And therefore we ought to avoid the ambiguous word "man" when translating anthropos.

We note that D.A. Carson is among the writers who have defended gender-neutral translations along these lines, (1) and unfortunately his reputation for scholarship is such that many people have taken his pronouncements upon this point of Greek semantics as if they were authoritative. But it is a simple matter to show that they are wrong, and that is our purpose here.

Anthropos is a Greek word which is often used in a gender-inclusive sense, especially in its plural forms. The plural anthropoi should usually be understood in this inclusive sense if the context suggests it, (2) and the singular anthropos is often used as a collective term (like the English "mankind") which obviously is meant to include both males and females. This is the element of truth which lends plausibility to the assertions mentioned above. But it is a half-truth. The other half of the truth is that when anthropos is used in reference to a particular individual, that individual is always male. The word aner emphasizes the masculinity of the referent (often the best contextual translation for this word is "husband'), but anthropos is the word ordinarily used to refer to a male human being in Greek. The student may easily confirm this by consulting a concordance of the Greek New Testament, and this masculine sense is duly indicated in all the standard Greek lexicons. But anthropos is not used in reference to an individual female. (3) Whenever a particular person is introduced as an anthropos, that person is invariably male. If the person is female, the word gyne "woman" is used instead. In this respect then, the word anthropos has the same range of meaning as the English word "man," which can be used in a gender-neutral inclusive sense, or as the ordinary word for "male human being," and, like anthropos, it is never used in reference to an individual woman. The idea that "man" is somehow unsuitable as an equivalent for anthropos because it has this ambiguity is therefore completely wrong-headed, because anthropos has the very same kind of ambiguity in Greek as does the word "man" in English. Sometimes it includes both sexes, sometimes it refers specifically to males, as opposed to females. If there is any question about the sense in any given instance we must examine the context.

The usage of anthropos indicates that it has not only a specific masculine sense in certain contexts, but also that a Greek-speaking person of the apostolic era would presume that anyone who is called an anthropos is male. This may be seen in the following examples from the New Testament:

Obviously in these places one cannot maintain that anthropos is a strictly gender-neutral word, such as the English word "person." Even if such a gender-neutral word existed in Greek, the authors would not have used it in these contexts, any more than we would say, "it is good for a human being not to touch a woman." This would imply that we did not consider a woman to be a human being. But we have no trouble understanding the usage of anthropos in these places if we recognize that the word (in the singular) had such a masculine connotation or valence that Greek-speaking people would expect the referent to be male.

In a recent article Andreas J. Köstenberger has made reference to many more examples of this kind in secular Greek literature and in the ancient Greek versions of the Old Testament. He writes:

Apart from the fact that most standard NT Greek dictionaries include "male human being" in the semantic range of anthropos, one may cite numerous passages in the LXX such as Gen 20:7; 26:11; Exod 2:21; Lev 20:10; Num 5:15; 25:8; Deut 17:5; 20:7; 21:15; 22:16, 22, 24; 23:1 [22:30]; 25:7; 1 Sam 25:3; Esth 4:11; Eccl 7:28; Isa 4:1; Jer 51:7 [44:7]; 1 Esdr 4:25; 9:40; Tob 6:7 (not to speak of extra-Biblical references such as Dionysius Halicarnassensis, De comp. verb. 18.201; Dio Chrysostom, Orat. 32.89.3; or Clement of Rome, Homil. 13.15.2) where anthropos quite demonstrably stands in semantic opposition to gyne, "woman," which suggests that "male human being" at least in these instances is a semantic component of anthropos rather than merely coming into play at the level of reference. (4)

From this list of references we may quote several clear examples which show that anthropos carried such a male connotation that it was felt that the word gyne "woman" might be added as a different category of people. We note especially from the Septuagint:

Here it is obvious that in Greek it was sometimes appropriate to use anthropos and gyne together in a compound expression if one wanted to be explicitly or unambiguously inclusive, just as we sometimes use the words "man" and "woman" in English, although both anthropos and "man" are often used alone in reference to humans generally. In short, the word anthropos is no more gender-neutral or "inclusive" than the English word "man."

Now, in consideration of these examples the question which remains is, how can a competent scholar such as D.A. Carson honestly maintain in a published work that the word anthropos has no masculine connotations? We fail to see how this opinion can be maintained. Yet he not only does this, but he also condescendingly alleges that those who would disagree with him are in a "confusion over the elementary linguistic distinction between meaning and referent." (5) ... But we will leave it to the reader now to discern which side of the gender-neutral Bible controversy is involved in error and confusion on this point.

The usage of words relating to gender and humanity in the Greek language are no less "sexist" than the ordinary English usages which feminists have been trying to abolish for 30 years now, and this may be seen clearly enough in the case of the word anthropos. It is also evident that Carson and others who have confused the issue with specious arguments about Greek words and linguistics are merely distracting us from the fact that the "inclusive language" debate has to do not with Greek but with our English words and their meaning, and the recent attempts to reform our English usage along politically correct lines. On this question of English usage the professors of Greek have no more authority than any layman who is acquainted with the English language.

1. Donald A. Carson, The Inclusive Language Debate: A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998), pp. 126-127.

2. Yet in the absence of contextual indications to the contrary, the plural forms of anthropos have a masculine sense, by default. See, for example, in Plutarch's Lives the "The Life of Cato the Elder," in which it is said of Cato, Περι δε της γυναικοκρατιας διαλεγομενος παντες ειπεν ανθρωποι των γυναικων αρχουσιν, ημεις δε παντων ανθρωπων, ημων δ᾿ αι γυναικες "Discoursing on the power of women he said, All other men rule their wives; we rule all other men, and our wives rule us." (8.4.2.) The same wording occurs in the parallel in Plutarch's Moralia, "Sayings of Kings and Commanders." For a broader discussion of the persistence of the male component of meaning in masculine plural forms when used generically see Vern S. Poythress, "Male Meaning in Generic Masculines in Koine Greek," Westminster Theological Journal 66/2 (2004), pp. 325-36.

3. Although the Liddell & Scott Lexicon cites a few occurrences in classical authors under a proposed sense "woman," none of these represent normal usage. They include some occurrences of anthropos in obscure and possibly corrupt poetic lines which may be interpreted as references to women, one place where anthropos is used in reference to an imaginary bogeyman who appears in the form of a woman, one in reference to a woman who is disguised as a man, and some references to slave girls, for whom anthropos is used "contemptuously," as the entry puts it. None of the examples are from the Hellenistic era. These exceptional usages in classical Greek works do not establish a sense of "woman" for the word even in the era to which they belong, and they do not materially affect my point.

4. quoted from Köstenberger's review of The Inclusive Language Debate: A Plea for Realism, published in the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 42/4 (December 1999) pp. 689-693.

5. Inclusive Language Debate, p. 127.