“Son of Man” or “Human Beings” in the NIV 2011: What Difference Does It Make?

In answer to the question: What makes a translation [of the Bible] accurate?

I said: “Its ability to preserve the way that later biblical authors evoke earlier Scripture.”

You can read my explanation at the BibleGateway Perspectives in Translation forum.

The NIV 2011 provides a perfect illustration of my point. Hebrews 2:6–8 is quoting Psalm 8:5–7, but the NIV 2011 has a problem with the text.

Here is Psalm 8:4 in the NIV 2011:

what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?[c]

Here is the quotation of Psalm 8:4 in Hebrews 2:6 in the NIV 2011:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
a son of man that you care for him?

The problem here is not that Psalm 8:4 says “human beings” rather than “son of man.” Psalm 8:4 says “son of man.” You can come to your own conclusions as to why the NIV 2011 prefers to render the phrase “son of man” in Psalm 8:4 as “human beings.”

I would argue that in Psalm 8 David is describing his role as a new Adam exercising dominion over God’s creation (cf. Ps 8:6–8 and Gen 1:26–28) so that God’s name/glory will cover the dry lands as the waters cover the sea (cf. Ps 8:1, 9). This is in keeping with the promises that God has made to David in 2 Samuel 7, which are restated in Psalm 2.

So in Psalm 8 David refers to himself as “son of man,” then talks about how God made him ruler over the beasts of the field. In Daniel 7, in the context of a vision of various beasts who have taken over the rule God’s world, Daniel sees “one like a son of man” approach the Ancient of Days and receive everlasting dominion. Then Jesus refers to himself as “son of man” all over the place in the gospels, and the author of Hebrews, discussing Jesus, quotes Psalm 8 in Hebrews 2.

So is it important to render Psalm 8:4 “son of man”? Or can we render it “human beings”?

The answer depends on what you prioritize.

Apparently the Committee on Bible Translation prioritizes something that causes them to change the words “son of man” in Psalm 8:4 to “human beings.”

If the highest priority is to translate what the text says so that the interconnectedness of Scripture can be maintained, so that people can understand the whole Bible and see how everything fits together “according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and on earth” (Eph 1:9–10, ESV), then simple phrases like “son of man” should be translated simply “son of man.”

No small theological matter is at stake here. Does it matter whether Psalm 8 can be seen to be pointing forward to Christ, who fulfills the Davidic pattern as the new Adam who will exercise dominion and make the name of the LORD majestic in all the earth?

Postscript: I hope that this post is rendered irrelevant by the Committee on Bible Translation changing the phrase in Psalm 8:4 from “human beings” to “son of man.” I know they have “son of man” in a footnote, but “son of man” should be in the text not in a footnote.

7 Comments

Filed under Bible and Theology, Biblical Theology, Messiah in the OT, OT in the NT, OT in the OT

7 responses to ““Son of Man” or “Human Beings” in the NIV 2011: What Difference Does It Make?

  1. I appreciate your remarks. My 1984 NIV says ‘son of man’ rather than ‘human beings’ and my 1984 NIV is falling apart, and has been glued for the last time!

    I am considering another version for my personal use. Would you recommend the ESV?

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  3. Adam York

    Hi Jim,

    Great post. Hopefully you remember me. I pastor the OPC church in Kingwood and you and I got together for lunch just before you left Houston. If you had not moved to the Lord’s next calling for you, I would have enjoyed getting together for more Biblical Theological discussions just like this one!

    I would like to make one note about this type of issue. I do not think the ESV is altogether immune from these sorts of considerations either. In Eph 4:22 and 24 the ESV, like most other modern translations – except the NET, translates antrhopos as “self.” The logic of this translation is that we are to “put off the old self” and put on the new self. Personally, I wish the ESV would have gone with the traditional translation “put off the old man” and “put on the new man.” Though there is not an “explicit” reference to the two Adam scheme here, and though we do not have the luxury of having a NT interpretation (as in the case of Ps. 8 and Heb 2), it seems very possible (if not likely) that When Paul says we are to put off the old anthropos and put on the new anthropos, he’s not thinking about an old, individualistic self and a new individualistic self, but is exhorting the saints to pursue their identity found in the new “man”, Jesus Christ. Again, reference to an “Adam” figure is not made explicitly in the text, but given the broad context of Ephesians’ emphasis on being “in Christ” as well as the narrow context of a new “head” inaugurated by Christ’s resurrection/ascension (4:15), I would much prefer the ESV provide the translation “man.” At least rendering anthropos as “man” does not rule out the possibility that Paul might be referring to putting off the old “self” and putting on the new, renovated “self”, but the reverse is not true. The translation “put off the old self” and “put on the new self” will not strike English readers as allowing for the possibility that Paul may have in view the two Adam scheme that so deeply permeates his other epistles. In fact, in the case of 4:22 the ESV pushes this individualistic interpretation as “the” proper interpretation by adding the second personal pronoun “your old self.” This pronoun is not explicitly found in the Greek text itself though I suppose it is possible that the article could imply it. Only context can tell.

    Overall I really like the ESV and I preach and teach from it as well. Just pointing out that it too may not be altogether immune from these kinds of considerations.

    Blessings,

    Adam

  4. RT

    Brother,
    Thank you for the post. Without commenting on Psalm 8 I must disagree with you here, on some level: the literal translation is not superior to the dynamic. Check out some of Eugene Nida’s work on that. Translation is not decoding word-for-word (which even the NASB cannot do all/most of the time), it is not possible. If you know what playing field you are stepping onto when you open the NIV then you should understand that they are going to give you the meaning more than the ESV will. That does not mean it is inferior, but that it is a different kind of translation. The ESV has some trouble also. Check out this article, if you might

  5. Bruce

    I appreciate your blog, read it sometimes.
    Like one commenter above, I’m also an OPC pastor (?!).

    I would take the issue in Ps.8 perhaps a bit further, given the “intertextuality” of Scripture, and the reality of a single Author behind the authors.

    “Son of man” is a *representative* man, in the formal sense, not merely an *instance* of man (even an especially helpful one). David is more than a man, more than an Israelite man–he’s a Covenant-Representative. He’s a typological foreshadowing of Christ–a fact that isn’t lost on him, I’m persuaded, even before the special promise is made to him concerning his ultimate Seed.

    And this consideration, I do believe, has no small part in the Hebrews author’s proof-text selection of Ps.8. David himself asks (somewhat incredulously), “What is a man (at the head of creation) that you are mindful of him? What is [the highest of men, Representative-] a son of man, that you visit him?”

    Hebrews answers that question uniquely as the description is given to the Ultimate Son of Man, Representative Man, Covenant-Man, which was one of Jesus’ own preferred self-designations. He was (amazingly) *made* a little lower than the angels, and subsequently crowned *re-exalted* to glory and honor incomparable.

    What I find so wonderful about the Hebrews appropriation is: it does no violence to David’s own expressions; it merely brings out their force in a unique way.

    Anyway, thanks for your blog.

  6. Brad McKinney

    We just had a conversation about this sat. morning in our bible study. God is faithful and there is no way he will allow anything to corrupt his word without a bunch of people coming up in arms about it. As I read this new translation my spiritual alarms began to ring and that is how I came across this blog. I don’t know how to go about it but I would like to ask this “committee” to change this back and also any other changes they have made like this. I will never again look at this new translation and I would urge others to do the same. This may not seem like a bid deal but that is how most spiritual battles seem “not a big deal”.

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