Greek Theology

Does the New Testament Use ἀνήρ and ἄνθρωπος Synonymously?

Bible translation is not a static discipline. As target languages change, it calls for fresh renderings of the Scriptures. Some words lose or change their meanings, to a point where it may be confusing to readers of a different era. I well recall sitting in a Bible study years ago where a young man was puzzling over the King James rendering of Romans 11:29 “For the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.” He thought God always desires repentance, doesn’t he? What does this mean? After a few failed attempts to explain, someone finally said “It means God’s gifts are irrevocable!” The word the KJV translates as “without repentance” is ἀμεταμέλητα, similar to μετάνοια, the word for repentance, but not the same. The explanation cleared up the confusion, but one can say the translation did not help the matter.

Lexical data

When it comes to considering how to translate various words in the New Testament, it’s not only the target language and current use that needs to be considered, but also the original usage and the semantic range one finds in the New Testament books. Looking at the words ἀνήρ (aner) and ἄνθρωπος (anthropos) shows us the importance of this. The first definition BDAG’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Early Christin Literature offers for ἄνθρωπος is “a person of either sex, w. a focus on participation in the human race, a human being.[1]

That definition is borne out by numerous examples. (The word occurs 554 times in the New Testament.) In Luke 15:4, Jesus asks, “What man among you, having a hundred sheep…” It is evident that the gender is not important to Jesus’ example. Thus the NIV translates this “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep” with no loss of accuracy. The majority of the NT uses of anthropos are such cases where gender is not in view, and “person” could be an acceptable alternative. There are some specialized uses, such as when Jesus refers to himself as “the Son of Man” (υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου.) There are a handful of cases where anthropos goes beyond a person of either sex and is more specific. Matt 19:10, is such an example. “If such is the case of an anthropos with his wife, it is better not to marry.” Also, 1 Cor 7:1 “It is good for an anthropos not to touch a woman.” From these, we can conclude that in most cases anthropos refers to humankind generically, but in a few cases, it can refer to men.

With the word ἀνήρ we find something different. Here, gender is usually in view. BDAG give the definition as “an adult human male, man, husband.”[2] We see this in John 4:16 when Jesus says to the Samaritan woman, “Go, call your husband.” In 1 Tim 5:9 Paul speaks of enrolling widows who have been the “wife of one husband.” While aner is gender specific, there are a handful of times where it is used as a synonym for person—much as we might anthropos—this seems to differ by New Testament writer. It is chiefly in James epistle where we see this.

NT scholar Craig Blomberg observes “In James, probably every use of aner falls into this category. James 1:8, the first such usage in the epistle, clearly employs aner as parallel to the generic ‘man’ described as anthropos in v. 7, and a quick glance at all of the other uses of aner in this letter demonstrates that almost all clearly refer to men and women alike (1:12, 20, 23; 3:2; the possible exception is 2:2).”[3] Blomberg notes a handful of other cases where Luke uses aner to address a mixed audience, but he acknowledges this as well: “Each usage of aner must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, in context, even if it is true that the sizable majority of New Testament uses do wind up referring to males as over against females.”[4]

The Pauline Corpus

When we come to Paul’s epistles, we find two things: a battleground, and a consistent pattern. A battleground, (on the part of readers) because it is the epistles of Paul where the conflict over gender roles in the church is fought. Anyone making claims about what the New Testament teaches concerning the role of women and church office must deal with Paul. The consistent pattern we find is that Paul always uses aner to refer to man, male, husband. Indeed, the only case where it is otherwise is not actually Paul, but the apostle citing the Septuagint. In Romans 4:8, he quotes Ps 32:1-2, saying “Blessed is the aner against whom the Lord counts no iniquity.” While we can say that with James, aner is sometimes used interchangeably with anthropos, in Paul, aner is always used for male.

Other cases are in Romans 7, where Paul refers to a woman who marries while her husband still lives. This is in the context of his declaring the believer free from law. Rom 11:4, seven thousand men have not bowed the knee to Baal. 1 Cor 7 contains a cluster of uses as Paul gives instructions about marriage. In 1 Cor 11, many uses concern male headship. Ephesians 5 has multiple uses, in the context of husbands and wives demeanor toward each other, and the same for the analogous passage in Colossians.

The remaining uses are in the pastoral epistles. In 1 Tim 2, the apostle includes a prohibition on women teaching men, and guidance on prayer. Both passages use aner. In 1 Tim 3, Paul has specific instructions about elders and deacons, and here we find him consistently using aner. The 1 Tim 5 passage noted earlier concerning widows is another gender specific use. The same is true in Titus, where Paul gives guidance on elder qualifications in ch 1. The only other use is Titus 2, where Paul encourages young wives to love their own husbands.

In each of these uses in Paul’s letters, aner has a gender specific meaning, and could not be translated as person or human being. In other words, Paul’s use is very different from James. While James does seem to use aner where anthropos could fit, Paul never does. In assessing the apostolic teaching on gender roles and office in the local church, one has to factor in this evidence in any conclusions. One has to consider the data on the New Testament use, and if one asks “Can we translated aner as person in Paul’s letters?” The answer from the usage data would have to be no.



[1] BDAG, ἄνθρωπος.

[2] BDAG, ἀνήρ.

[3] Craig Blomberg, “The Untold Story of a Good Translation: Today’s New International Version” retrieved July 29, 2021.

[4] Blomberg, “The Untold Story.”

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