I am generally more opposed to gender-neutral language as a philologist and a partisan for words than I am as a theologian; in matters of biblical translation, I am even more firmly of this opinion. The NRSV, although very responsible, I find, in the Old Testament, is often a little too enthusiastic with its removal of gender in the New. Whenever these arguments arise, there are generally two philological points that are made in favor of use gender-neutral terms where older translations had generally used "brothers/brethren" or the generic "man." The first is that, in Greek, a plural which designates a mixed group will always be masculine (there are historical-linguistic as well as social reasons for this; historically speaking, the feminine gender is a later development of the masculine); the second centers on the Greek word ἄνθρωπος, which can denote a person of either gender. Both arguments to me seem to drag Greek into an English problem (something to be expected in translation), which is the shift the word "man" has undergone in its meaning, and the political interests which have attached themselves to the shift.
My main aim here, however, is merely to note one of the many cases of over-enthusiasm on the part of the NRSV translators: James 1:12. In the Greek, the first part of this verse reads
Μακάριος ἀνὴρ ὅς ὑπομένει πειρασμὸν
which might be very literally translated:
"Blessed man, who endures temptation."
The NRSV, however, translates
"Blessed is anyone who endures temptation."
To someone with a smattering of Greek who reads that translation, knowing that the translators of the NRSV pay careful heed to render terms which in the Greek are neutral as to gender with correspondingly neutral terms in English, would probably assume that the Greek here underlying "anyone" is ἄνθρωπος, not ἀνήρ. It is possible that in this case the translation committee chose to follow one of the minority readings: two codices, one of them from the fifth century, do have ἄνθρωπος instead of ἀνήρ. It seems more likely, however, that they felt the translation "blessed the man" would be read so as to imply to a modern reader than only men are blessed in enduring temptation, and it is here that we run into dangerous territory. I shall try to be brief.
Such interpretation misunderstands the way language operates in male-dominated societies, assuming that a word, like ἀνήρ or the Latin vir, which denominates a masculine human being, cannot stand for humanity in general, or that a supposedly neutral term, such as ἄνθρωπος or the Latin homo, really imagines humanity as equally as we today would like. Any man writing in the ancient world would not think twice of the idea that the male stands for humanity as a whole; we may now be hesitant about submitting to the subtle ramifications of such an assumption, but they would not have questioned it. When James uses ἀνήρ, he no more means to exclude from blessing those women who endure temptation than the author of the first psalm, rendered in the Septuagint Μακάριος ἀνήρ, meant to exclude from blessing those women who "walk not in the counsel of the ungodly." In the minds of these authors the priority of the male does not annihilate all human kinship between the sexes.
An excellent example of this inclusive but not equalizing use of the masculine may be found in the second chorus of Sophocles' Antigone. The chorus begins
πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.
Many are the things wondrous and fearful, none more than ἀνθρώπος.
A world in which the word ἀνθρώπος denominates the human being without any sense of gender would not allow him to continue in the next strophe, as he goes on the describe humanity's conquest of nature, and call this οὕ ούδεν δεινότερον, this thing than which nothing is more fearful, περιφραδὴς ἀνήρ, "man most cunning." It is clear in this passage that, for Sophocles, although he was certainly aware of their different resonances, being as he was poet of the first rank, both ἀνθρώπος and ἀνήρ may stand for all of humanity.
Although we may be uneasy at the implicit hierarchy in this view of things, we should also be conscious that our zealous division of the sexes, while we undertake it in the name (so sacred to our ears!) of equality, is only a different way of skewing our perceptions. I do not know to whom it would not be readily apparent that the instances of this 'inclusive masculine' which I have cited apply to all human beings. Indeed, a language that cannot perceive that the first Psalm, "Blessed is the man," does not exclude the greater half of the human race, or that the praises of Proverbs 31 ("She considereth a field and buyeth it...She openeth her mouth with wisdom: and in her tongue is the law of kindness") are not applicable to women alone, is a language as incapable of figurative speech as it is of profound reflection. Perhaps there is a problem with the historical relation between the sexes, but it will not be solved by pretending than neither one is completely human.