Sixty-Four Shadows of Man in the NRSV

Thaddeus W. Pruss
Catholic Insight
October 1995

What is man that Thou art mindful of him,
and the son of man that Thou dost care for him?
(Ps. 8:4)

To fully appreciate what God has revealed man to be, one must deeply understand all of Scripture and Christian Tradition. For all of revelation has a bearing on God's plan for man and man's place in the Universe, and therefore on what man is. Yet human history has witnessed a myriad of unrelenting attempts to distort, obscure, conceal or altogether change God's word.

Through the ages, a variety of techniques have been summoned in attempts to force Scripture to carry philosophically, politically, religiously or culturally motivated messages which were alien to the intent of the Bible's sacred authors. At the end of the 20th century, the true student of the times should be able to predict that the victim of revisionism must now be man. And so the word man, together with the underlying concept, has to be purged from the Bible as an embarrassing anachronism of an alleged patriarchal dominance of males over females in Church Tradition.

Inadvertently caught up into the gender politics of the 90's, English-speaking Catholics have been subjected to the gender-sensitive censorship and the obfuscation of the biblical message by the translators of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible (NRSV). When the translation committee, in its inclusivist missionary zeal to eradicate alleged androcentrism, change the generic man in one biblical assertion to nature, in another to enemy, in the next one to human commission, in one more to human society and in the last to world, then all five assertions no longer teach us about man qua man but about five ontologically and semantically different subjects. In fact, however, the NRSV uses not five but 64 different substitute terms for man or son of man.

If we have a premonition that this collage of NRSV-led surrogates alienates the human person from God by deconstructing the concept of the generic man into a clutter of philosophically and linguistically dissimilar attributes and substitutes, then it is an imperative to understand the nature, cause and components of this alienation.

Computer-aided analysis of the NRSV in a search for terms replacing man and son of man (adam and ben adam in Hebrew, enash and bar/ben enash in Aramaic, and anthropos and huios tou anthropou in Greek, as well as the plurals of all these) identifies 64 substitutes which can be clustered into nine semantic categories. This classification facilitates a systematic linguistic, logical and philosophical reflection on the content of each category and makes explicit the impact of the NRSV text on the readers' reception of the biblical message, and on their concept formation and thought processes.

The NRSV committee was evidently preoccupied with achieving consensus-based inclusive linguistic equivalents for allegedly androcentric English words. As the analysis will show, despite the self-congratulatory tone of several reviews,,,,, of the NRSV published in theological journals and the genuine effort of the translators, the committee has actually completely failed in regard to this goal. For, possibly excepting human (used as a noun), human being and people, the committee's prolifically generated replacement terms are in no sense equivalent to man and son of man.

Had the committee engaged itself in any consideration of the theological or philosophical consequences of its 64 renderings, it would have surely been struck by the linguistic inadequacy of the substitutes and the resulting distortion of the meaning of the holy text. The religiously heterogeneous composition of the committee would have, however, likely impeded any theological or philosophical discussions out of fear of disturbing a sense (in reality a false sense) of ecumenical harmony. However, the Bible is a theological document, and a purely linguistic approach to it must fail–even from a purely linguistic point of view.

The following analysis is broken up into the nine semantic categories. In each, a listing of the NRSV's actual replacement terms for man or son of man encompassed by the category will be given in italics, under a descriptive heading. Where necessary for the understanding of the apparent sense in which the replacements are used or where particularly illustrative, the context will be cited.

Substitutes derived from attributes which are common to all human beings now on Earth

all mortals, all that live, any mortal, but mortals, individual, mere mortal, mortal, person

The substitutes in this category defuse the concept of man by using imprecise and inadequate descriptors. This is paradoxically both reductionistic and overgeneralizing; it reduces man to but an attribute, and it generalizes the biblical meaning insofar as this attribute is also shared by some beings other than man. Furthermore, all these surrogates of man have different–sometimes diametrically opposite–connotations in English usage.

All that live (used in the NRSV's Prov. 8:4) places man in the vast universe of all living creatures, including the animal and plant kingdoms. Were all that live a true substitute for the original text's sons of man, then it would follow that man is not distinguished from other creation. The context of the original is an exhortation to wisdom. But is it fair to enjoin upon a flea, a frog, a fox and indeed upon all that live the obligation to become prudent and to assume the responsibilities that proceed from prudence?

While all that live had attempted to define man in terms of his life, the NRSV's more common mortal attempts to define him in terms of the opposite concept–his death. This is how the NRSV, perhaps inadvertently, shows disarming sensitivity to the present culture of death. If mortality is the essential attribute of man as the NRSV seems to imply, then a doctor who extends a man's life would paradoxically be taking away the essence of this man's humanity. Conversely, from this perspective, Drs. Kevorkian, Morgentaler and Mengele would be the true servants of mankind, working hard to preserve and enhance that which according to the NRSV is the essence of being human–death. Finally, while all human beings presently on Earth are mortals, we have to remember that mortality is not essential to man as God envisioned him in the beginning, nor will man's mortality last forever.

On the other hand, the term individual lacks the social and interpersonal dimension of man, and, when it is applied to a human being, it turns him into a black box, with his spiritual, psychological and physical features all being lost. Indeed, the word individual defines its referent by the distinction between one and another, rather than by any unifying feature. Moreover, it may equally be applied to beings, whether animate or not, other than men.

Last but certainly not least, the term person situates man uninvitedly in the transcendental company of the Three Divine Persons, of angels and unfortunately even of devils, too. For in Christian belief, man is not the only being which is a person.

Words not at all synonymous with man but attempting to describe the specific man in the context

any human authority, doubter, fellow, friend, human authorities, human leaders, human masters, human prey, intruders, our enemies, ruler, shepherd, troops, witness, your masters

All the replacements in this category come from attributes which not every man possesses. For, evidently not everyone is an authority, our enemy or human prey. And certainly we all know people who are not shepherds. The linguistic manipulation employed here by the NRSV chooses one particular attribute of a particular man to replace him. Although this attribute may make some sense in the context, it is not a synonym of man in general.

In using this category of surrogates, the NRSV makes a creative and reductionistic attempt at a contextual fill-in-the-blanks exercise, with the blanks being left after the excision of man. Moreover, readers or listeners may be completely unaware of the changes imposed by the NRSV as these alterations are often not at all apparent without knowledge of the original. In such cases, it is impossible for the reader to guess that the word in the original language of the Bible meant man. After all, the sacred writers could have used such words as shepherd or witness, but did not decide to do so in these instances.

Some of the creative replacements, such as intruders, our enemies and troops, add a specific flavour to the text. In fact, the use of our enemies (Ps. 124:2) in place of men dehumanizes the enemy–a common but morally reprehensible practice at war. And not only human beings can be enemies; addictions, diseases, natural disasters, sins and devils are all enemies of man, too. Replacing men by our enemies thus not only dehumanizes the enemy, but can also generalize the text beyond what the particular inspired author in his own historical context had intended. On the other hand, the use of terms such as human authorities may particularize a non-specific message which had previously spoken of men in general (Gal. 1:1).

Replacements for man in the sense of inner or outer man

being, nature, self

The NRSV attempts to translate the generic man [anthropos] in the immediate context of inner/outer man [eso/exo anthropos] by nature, being and self, using the terms inner nature, outer nature, your inner being and my inmost self for inner/outer man (Rom. 7:22, 2 Cor. 4:16, Eph. 3:16; cf. 1 Pt. 3:4). Regardless of the precise meaning of the original biblical text and of the NRSV's surrogates, one is lead to question why three different philosophical and psychological concepts are used to translate one anthropos in the very same context of the distinction between inner and outer man.

For, if the translators knew that one of the three concepts was the correct interpretation, then the other two, since all three are philosophically very different, should not have been employed. But if the translators did not know which of the three substitutions was correct, then they certainly should have retained the original man instead of offering three different guesses to the puzzled reader. This is a classic case of blind men and the elephant.

Even grammatically, the use of inner nature is ambiguous. For, it is not at all clear whether it is the nature of the inside (presumably of man) that the translators have in mind, or whether they are thinking of the inside of the nature (again presumably of man). A similar criticism can be made of inner being.

Troubles of a philosophical nature begin when we try to understand the NRSV's usage of being, nature and self. One often takes it for granted that Descartes' work came more than fifteen centuries after St. Paul's death. Anachronistically, however, the NRSV's translators put Descartes' self into St. Paul's mouth (Rom. 7:22, NRSV). For, it was with Descartes that the term self began its stormy conceptual life.

While before Descartes Western philosophy had no concept of self as self, after him the term acquired a number of contradictory meanings. Descartes' self as a spiritual substance was followed by Locke's "conscious thinking thing" without regard for substance. Hume rejected the idea of self being a thing and considered self to be a relationship. For Spinoza self was an aspect of one substance, and therefore identical with the world and God. Last but not least, Heidegger dissociated self both from being a thing and from being an "I"; rather, for him, self was how to exist.

In psychology, Freud replaced self with ego, whereas Fromm's self marks the direction for personal actualization. Frankl conceptualizes self primarily in the interpersonal context. More recently, with the ascendancy of the empirical approach in psychology, self per se is considered to be a hypothetical, if not speculative, construct that is not directly measurable and is therefore empirically largely unverifiable.

Not surprisingly, philosophers seem to nowadays reluctantly agree that self cannot be studied like any other object because self cannot be considered objective, is dependant on individual interpretations, and by its very nature must resist explicit description. Indeed, these philosophers point out that a description of self cannot be attempted without references to other selves. Why would then the NRSV gratuitously put its reader right in the middle of an intricate and untenable task of defining something that is undefinable?

Without a definition the word self is empty, and printing literally the original Greek anqrwpoV would be more helpful even to a reader who does not know the Greek alphabet. And even if one chooses a specific meaning of self, it is by no means clear what the NRSV's inmost self is, presumably as distinguished from a somewhat-inner self and an outer self. Talking of a self would already refer to what may be metaphorically called the inside of a man. But what the inmost inside would be, and how it would differ from just an inner inside and an outer inside, is a mystery that can perhaps only be resolved by New Age psychology.

On the other hand, if we take inmost self to be simply a more exuberant expression for inner self, then it is Hindu theology which offers us an explanation of the term, assuming we are willing to abandon Christianity by making Self identical with God. For, the Hindu Upanishads (800-500 B.C.) proclaim that "the inner Self [is] always settled in the heart of men," and later elaborate that this inner Self "is the highest lord, [...] the supreme master of all beings."

In contrast to the vagueness of inner/outer self or inward/outward self, the Greek original's distinction between inner man and outer man presents no unnecessary difficulty to the reader and leads one into the Western tradition of philosophical reflection on inwardness versus outwardness of man.

Similarly, the terms being and nature also do not make sense outside of a specific philosophical system. It is a philosophical commonplace that according to the traditional criteria of definition, being cannot be defined. Ontological analyses of being have ranged from Aristotle's equation of Being with Truth, Unity, One and Good, through the identification of God with the Being in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Old Testament (Ex. 3:14, LXX), to Hegel's view that pure Being is empty and collapses into Nothing.

Refreshingly, Heidegger offers the following counsel to those perplexed by the semantic and philosophical confusion about being: "Indefinability of Being does not eliminate the question of its meaning; it demands that we look the question in the face." And this is exactly what the NRSV has failed to do. Should the NRSV's translators have followed Heidegger's advice they would have discovered that to no philosopher is being equivalent to man.

On the other hand, one may well wonder whether the NRSV's equating of man with nature is its definitive answer to the ancient nature versus nurture debate on what it is that determines the human psyche.

Synecdoche of abstraction

daily life, human affairs, human authority, human commission, human life, human lot, human source, human strength, human wisdom

Here, the NRSV employs a figure of speech which either substitutes the abstract for the concrete or else uses a quality as a subject in the place of the one who possesses this quality. This constitutes a synecdoche of abstraction and relegates man to a vague abstract concept loosely related to his existence. Yet to meet a man is not to meet a concept: it is to encounter an integrated living creature composed of body, mind and soul. The question of what, if any, mode of existence can be ascribed to a concept is philosophically quite murky. After all a concept cannot be conceived of as any kind of object, let alone as a man.

No dictionary offers a precise definition of human commission, human affairs or human source. So how to define these terms is completely up to the reader, just like psychologists' Rorschach inkblot tests. The concrete man spoken of in God's word is replaced here by something ambiguous, the meaning of which each reader must guess and can never really know.

But of course deconstructionists with Jacques Derrida believe that a word actually has no fixed meaning, as they hold that the meaning is different each time the word is called upon since allegedly nobody is really sure of anything. In this view the ability of language to convey the truth as the speaker intends perishes, and everyone not only could but should read whatever he wants into the text. To the deconstructionist there is no true interpretation but only an interpretation. The Catholic Church, on the contrary, has always taught that the Bible is true, and thus language can convey truth. And there is a true interpretation, namely the one intended by the sacred writer under the inspiration of Holy Spirit.

The NRSV extends its helping hand to Derrida by replacing self-explanatory terms such as man with undefined ones which everyone will have to interpret as he desires. And this is how the Bible and the biblical message become relativized and deconstructed. Naturally, understanding the Bible involves incomparably more than just knowing the meaning of each word–but when the meanings of critical words are not known, the process of reflection on the text cannot even be launched.


human race, human society, humanity, humankind, nation, peoples, population, world

In these collectivistic figures of speech, the NRSV replaces man or men either by their place of residence or by something of which they are but a part. In the case of the term population, the emphasis is on the collectivity with its rules pertaining to the collective way of thinking and behaving. The responsibility of a collectivity, as opposed to that of men, is no longer personal. The uniqueness of the men as persons is buried since when we speak of populations we often think statistically of numbers, and the shadow of ideologies such as communism, fascism and various excesses of nationalism, all of which glorify the collective at the expense of the individual, looms just around the corner.

Wherever humanity, humankind or human race serves as a substitute for man, the personification inherent in the general usage of man is lost. For, when one speaks of man, one uses a personal pronoun such as he (in the generic sense) instead of the impersonal it used for words such as humanity, nation or world. In English, the personal pronoun he is employed even if the word man serves as a personification of mankind by a generic individual. If man is used in this way (e.g., progress of man or the Darwinian Descent of Man, the latter being a quite different notion from a descent of humanity), then indeed while human beings in general are spoken of, it still does not follow that an abstract notion of humanity is invoked.

By preferring the collective humanity to the individuality of men, the NRSV is echoing the sentiment of Dostoevsky's "lady of little faith" who says, "[I]t has always happened that the more I detest men individually the more ardent becomes my love for humanity" (The Brothers Karamazov). This also shows that at least for Dostoevsky the concepts of men and humanity are not at all synonymous.

Personal pronouns and demonstratives

they, those, we, you

A pronoun neither signifies itself nor does it signify anything by itself, and its interpretation is entirely contextual. No new concept can be formed from a pronoun per se as its meaning is entirely contained in the antecedent.

The first problem with replacing man by a pronoun is whether it is obvious to the reader of the translation that the pronoun's antecedent is indeed identical with man. For instance, the NRSV warns, "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in their synagogues" (Mt. 10:16-17, NRSV, italics added). Alas, it is not at all evident who the them are. Are they wolves or serpents or maybe sheep or doves? But in this passage the word them is absent from the Greek original, which instead uses anthropoi or men. This not only makes the meaning transparent, but, through the use of the general term men instead of a vague them, also provides us with a perpetual divine warning that human beings may be dangerous to those spreading the Gospel. The NRSV loses the generality and intensity of this warning which not only encompasses the actual mission that the Apostles faced in their time but may also refer to the Christian challenge in our day.

The second problem with pronominal replacements for man is that even if the antecedent of the pronoun in the translation were precisely man, still the emphasis on the humanity of the man with his form and substance would always be lost (see, e.g., Acts 5:4 in the NRSV and compare with the Greek or the Revised Standard Version). Moreover, Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek all contain a full range of pronouns which the sacred author could have used had he wished to do so.

At times when the original has man in the singular, the NRSV still boldly replaces it with the plural they (Ps. 144:4) or even we (Prov. 20:24), and thus imposes a plurality which may well not have been intended by the biblical author. Indeed, the singular term man connotes unity; a plural they or people introduces divisions. An assertion that "Man [adam] is like a breath, his days are like a passing shadow" (Ps. 144:4, RSV) abstracts from all men, personifying them as one. This abstraction, personification and unity–not to speak of the rhetorical force–are completely absent from the statement that "They [human beings] are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow" (Ps. 144:4, NRSV).

Indefinite or universal references

all, another, any, anyone, everyone, one, others, some, someone, whoever you are

Without context, these references are largely free of meaning. The richness of the concept of man which had been invoked by the sacred writer has vanished. Moreover, sometimes these terms unnecessarily narrow down the author's intentions, while at other times they overextend them.

For instance, the term others limits the meaning so as to exclude the subject spoken of, despite the NRSV's avowed distaste for exclusivity. The NRSV's condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees is qualified: "So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness" (Mt. 23:28, italics added). But according to the Greek text of this verse, Jesus used the more general term "men" instead of the more restricted "others."

The scribes and Pharisees not only looked righteous to others, but perhaps also deceived themselves. Speaking of men, as the Greek original does, instead of others, as the NRSV does, allows for this wider meaning, since men includes not only a Pharisee's neighbours, but also the Pharisee himself, as he is human, too. And this understanding is of moral importance to us today. For we are not only to avoid falsely appearing as righteous before others, but must also strive not to hide our sins from our own selves.

On the other hand, it is often not at all evident where the scope of the NRSV's universals such as all ends. For example, in some contexts (e.g., Rom. 2:16 or 5:12) the reader may well think that the term all includes animals or angels, whereas the original's man had no such possibility. Each of the three languages of the Bible possesses the word all, and yet the inspired author has chosen to use man or son of man instead in these instances.

Synonyms of man "enriched" by additional words or emphases

all people, all people on earth, men and women, other human beings, other people

These terms, even though they contain the idea of man or men, strive to "enrich" the Bible by adding a new thought or by swaying the semantic emphasis away from the man's humanity. The term men and women shifts the point of view away from their equally shared humanity, and channels the attention to the distinction between their genders. Even though this term is inclusivist in intention, it may reinforce a mistaken notion that the humanity of men and women is somehow different. When the Bible desires to emphasize that something applies to both men and women, then it explicitly does so (e.g., Acts 8:3). But where in 2 Peter 1:21 the NRSV speaks of "men and women" as prophets, the Bible had spoken of "men [anthropoi]," perhaps in the generic sense, but certainly without any emphasis on the prophets' gender.

Some of the "enriched synonyms" are actually less general than men or sons of men, as in the case of all people on earth (Dan. 3:82). For, even if in context all people on earth should be taken to mean sons of men as in the original, the addition of earth creates a new contextual dimension. All people on earth has earthly limits–sons of men does not. Speaking of all people on earth excludes those currently on the Moon, in orbit, in an airplane and not to speak of those in Heaven–or even of Absalom as he hung by his hair "between heaven and earth" (2 Sam. 18:9). In effect, the NRSV translators who want to "modernize" the Bible seem to end up doing the very opposite by excluding such innocent people as astronauts, parachuters and even crowds of ordinary airline passengers.

Semantically exact or almost exact equivalents

human, human being, man, people, the Son of Man

Even though these terms constitute exact or almost exact equivalents of man or son of man with respect to meaning, it still does not seem to be necessary or prudent to multiply terms when simple and poetic man or son of man can be used instead of them in almost all contexts. The consistent use of man and son of man would not only be more faithful to the original, but would also permit the formation of the concept of man which is so essential for the reader of the Bible. The NRSV translators are obviously trying to bury the allegedly shameful, sinful, and culturally out-of-date man, but the question of what has happened to the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" is left open.

The more often the generic man is removed from the text, the more the remaining occurrences of man emphasize maleness. Consequently, a reader will be conditioned to expect that man in NRSV-Speak always intends to convey a male image, even if he knows that the complex of connotations of man in standard English is normally different. For instance, the NRSV retains the rendering of the older Revised Standard Version (RSV) in 1 Corinthians 15:47, saying, "The first man [anthropos] was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man [anthropos] is from heaven." In the RSV, this translation caused no undue emphasis on the maleness either of Adam the first man or Christ the Second Man, since the generic sense of man was in full evidence throughout the RSV Bible and the reader could safely have trusted the RSV to use standard English.

However, a reader seeing the very same phrase in the NRSV expects that it is not written in standard English, but rather in NRSV-Speak, and thus interprets it accordingly with word man giving a special emphasis to the male gender at the expense of the particular male's humanity. This contrasts with the belief that the essence of the Incarnation is God becoming a human being, whereas the gender of the human being which He becomes is secondary.

Thus, paradoxically, in the NRSV, man is no longer an exact equivalent of the traditional generic man. If this is the case, then the actual number of substitutes for man in the NRSV is not 64 but actually 65.

Quo vadis, NRSV?

The vocal elite of postmodern revisionists of the Bible, having succumbed to the retributive ideological pressures of militant feminism in our day, claims that when an ordinary Bible reader encounters the word man, he immediately visualizes an adult male human being instead of just a generic human being. But, all the surrogates of man called to action by the NRSV are burdened with the very fault alleged by this elite to be present in the term man. For, all these substitutes have connotations other than simply the humanity of the man. Moreover, besides distracting the reader, these misshapen connotations may speak much more strongly than the connotation of the man's humanity, often to the point of complete dissipation of this very humanity, as in the terms all that live or world.

From a complete set of essential attributes shared without exception by all men, one could attempt to reconstruct the identity of man. But this cannot be accomplished from the tangle of surrogates that the NRSV presents for man. Readers cannot form a concept of man from substitutes that are particular only to certain men or from those that also apply to beings other than man. For, the attributes to which the NRSV tried to reduce man are inessential and many are shared with nonhuman creatures and, in the case of the term person, even with the Uncreated. Indeed it is beyond human cognitive capacity to form a concept of man from substitutes which have been selected haphazardly in response to the political demands of the time, with a disregard for the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the term man.

Categorizing all 64 surrogates and synonyms used in the NRSV to replace the purged man shows how doomed to failure the translation committee's attempts are, regardless of the number and superficial sophistication of substitutes. When we see the failure, whether linguistic, logical or theological, of each category of surrogates to account for the true humanity of man, we realize that merely adding more terms to the categories will never result in the true biblical man. And we can inductively ascertain that even the addition of more and more categories brimming with creative replacements would still not bring man back. The only outcome to which the process of multiplication of terms can lead is the slippery slope of a deconstructed, postmodern "Bible." This is how English-speaking Catholics are unwittingly being led into a blind alley.

The fruit of the NRSV's actions is directed both against God and against us human beings. Against God, as it is His message that is being changed through mistranslation. Against human beings, as this message was given for our salvation. Moreover, the NRSV wishes us mortals to do something humanly impossible–integrate 64 incongruent ideas into one ontological entity, historically known as man, which has been the subject of a Judeo-Christian cultural heritage with over three millennia of philosophical investigations.

The longer it takes the Church in Canada to restore the use of a faithful translation of God's word, the more painful it will be to undo the damage to Catholicism caused by the semantic and conceptual quagmire resulting from the extermination of man in the NRSV. Likewise, if time is allowed to pass, it will be more and more difficult to reverse the effects both of the alienation of the text from tradition and of the associated changes to paraliturgical, catechetical and literary works. For, any translation–be it even a mistranslation–used in the liturgy penetrates people's collective and individual memory.

We have seen ample evidence that the NRSV subjected the words of the Bible to elimination, change and gratuitous addition, all of which constituted grave distortion of that divine message which the Holy Spirit desired to leave as the legacy of the sacred authors for millennia to come. But the net effect of any distortion or obfuscation of God's word is to separate man from God in man's earthly life. And even the smallest rift between a man and God over but an instant of time during this life can have an eternal effect.