On the ESV

On the ESV

While I don’t mind being seen as a critic of the ESV, I feel that lately my posting has gotten a bit out of balance because I have largely been responding to the ESV proponents, who appear to be pretty much critics of everything else. I want to comment on the “critics of everything else” position a bit later, but right now I want to look specifically at how I see the ESV in terms of value and appropriate use.

At the end of this post I will append some links to things I have said about the ESV previously and to some of my more general comments about Bible translation for those who want to look. Note that all links on the abbreviations of Bible versions are to that version’s page in the Bible Version Selection Tool.

I do not advocate a single Bible version myself. I am an advocate of the CEV as an excellent Bible for use in outreach and general ministry. I personally use a variety of Bibles in my own study time. My primary study Bibles are texts in the source languages. My first Bible to put alongside such study is the REB, followed closely by the NRSV and the JPS Tanakh. For me personally, the ESV is well down the list, though I do consult it occasionally aside from when I’m busy criticizing it.

What do I see as positive elements of the ESV?

  • It lives up to its claim of careful, literal translation.
  • It is in the KJV tradition and manages to keep some of the style that makes older church members comfortable with it.
  • It’s language is generally modern, except where the dialect is “churchese,” and this usage is consistent throughout, eliminating the archaic prayer language used in the RSV
  • It uses a good eclectic text, which is a substantial improvement over the NKJV

In language, I regard it as better than the NASB, even the 1995 edition, and definitely better than the NKJV. I would be very happy to see someone move from the KJV to the ESV. Amongst generally literal versions, I prefer the NRSV to the ESV for a number of reasons, which should become clear as I list my negatives.

Here’s what I don’t like about the ESV:

  • It is a literal version, and in my view goes further in this direction than good English, comprehensible to an average reader, will permit.
  • It uses church language and theological terms that are not in common enough use. These terms essential require retranslation before the reader gains adequate understanding of them.
  • It continues the use of gender language that is going out of use in the English language. While there is still an audience for such language, it does not reflect the correct understanding to the majority of modern American readers.

Where would I recommend its use?

  • By persons who would like a modern language version, but want something that is close to a prior version they are used to. This would include people moving form the KJV to a modern version for the first time, or who dislike the RSV because of its use of archaic language in prayer, unfortunately including many Psalms, or renderings that disturb some conservative Christians.
  • For any person who wants a good literal version to use for comparison in Bible study.
  • With some distress, for a church that sees its primary mission as maintaining the status of long-time church goers. I say with distress, because the idea of such a church bothers me, while I know that many churches exist for that purpose whether they admit it or not.

I do not recommend the ESV for the following:

  • An outreach Bible, aimed at attracting unchurched people.
  • A youth Bible
  • A primary study Bible for someone who does not have access to excellent commentaries and information on the source languages.
  • A fast reading Bible. I recommend fast reading for overviews as part of my Bible study method. The ESV would not suit for that purpose.
  • The pew Bible for any church that is not in maintenance mode.
  • A Bible for anyone who is concerned about gender accuracy in their own speech, writing, and reading.

Now these negatives and positives apply with equal and sometimes greater force to other versions in the same tradition and translation style. The only reason I’m doing this extensive of a comment on the ESV in particular is that I’ve been drawn into the debate by the proponents of the ESV who are setting themselves up as critics of all other versions. I regard this as a dangerous approach to Bible translation. Certainly we will all have positive and negative things to say about various versions. But ESV proponents have generally joined in a war against dynamic equivalence versions and any version that seeks gender accuracy in translation. This places the ESV front and center in debates in which it would otherwise simply be one of several versions used to illustrate a point.

I have not expounded much on the reasons behind each of these points. After all, this is a blog entry rather than a book, but I would like to link to some of my previous comments for those who are interested in pursuing this some more.

Have fun!

7 thoughts on “On the ESV

  1. Thanks for this generally fair overview.

    But I would like to take issue with your claim that ESV “lives up to its claim of careful, literal translation.” In most places, perhaps, but it cannot be relied on for this. See the points which Suzanne made against ESV in the post you linked to, such as the non-literal (and in some cases theologically tendentious) readings at Romans 12:19, 16:7, 1 Corinthians 11:10 and 1 Timothy 2:3-5. This sounds like a translation which is literal except when a literal rendering would conflict with the translators’ theology. Now probably no translation is entirely free of such problems, but my complaint is that ESV makes strong claims about being better than other translations in this respect but does not live up to these claims. So, if you said that ESV “is a careful, literal translation”, I would not reply, “well, reasonably so”. But I cannot accept that it lives up to its own claims about this.

  2. I had not yet read Suzanne’s post when I posted mine–at least I think that’s the order I worked in. It was a hectic morning! I do find some of her examples make me question the “literal accuracy” of some ESV renderings. My remaining problem stems from two facts: 1) I have such examples from all literal translations in which I have looked for them, and 2) I don’t have any sort of statistics by which to compare.

    I do think you are right to question my statement that the ESV lives up to its claims. I should better have said that the ESV lives up to my standards for what literal translation is. I do not think it stands up to the marketing hype, and much of the rhetoric of its advocates–no translation could, in my view.

  3. I think the whole debate is pretty funny, really. We’re all at the mercy of some translator or other. I just can’t get invested in an argument where the positions of both sides are so close, and neither side seems to “get” the fact that their opponents are much closer than they appear. I’m not saying the issue is irrelevant, just that it seems like a lot more emotion is invested in this issue than is really warranted. If a person is *that* committed to getting the exact wording and meaning, they’ll learn Hebrew and Greek.

  4. I would add one more use case for which I think the ESV is probably good, and note that I strongly suspect that this is Phil Ryken’s reason for supporting it (I attend evening service at his church regularly, but am a member of a different church).

    The ESV is a good translation for looking up verses while reading theology, especially theology in the Calvinist tradition. That is, there are certain words like propitiation, justification, etc., which are technical terms of theology and using a translation like the ESV which translates those Greek terms consistently with these technical terms allows you to see where in the Bible these theological doctrines come from. Of course, you should also consult other Bible translations, to make sure you aren’t getting a biased picture of what Scripture teaches, and its also important to realize that these aren’t technical terms of Christian theology in the original (there weren’t any such terms yet!), but I think having such a translation could be helpful for this purpose, and I think this is why Dr. Ryken (and others) decided it should be used at Tenth Pres., which is a very intellectual church and teaches a lot of academic theology. People there mostly do have a Calvinist understanding of these terms, rather than having no understanding of them at all, as is almost certainly the case for most people.

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