Why the ESV is both excellent and terrible

In conservative Christian circles, the English Standard Version seems to be the Bible translation of choice. Many Calvinistic and Reformed leaders endorse this translation, and use it in their books and articles. I have personally used this translation for many years, and have enjoyed it. However, no translation is perfect. This isn’t a superficial comment meant to appease those who prefer other translations. Every translation of the Scriptures has deep flaws. You are then left with a choice of a set of flaws that you prefer. In this article, I’d like to point out why the ESV is both the best translation I know of, and a terrible one at the same time.

Many people have written accounts of their churches switching to the ESV. In this article, I’ll use Kevin DeYoung’s summary.

Genitives

DeYoung says:

[T]he ESV leaves interpretive ambiguities unresolved so that the reader or preacher or student, rather than the translator, can determine which meaning is best. [1]

This sounds wonderful. We should certainly allow the Scriptures to speak as freely as possible in English. The example that DeYoung gives is that of the Greek genitive.

The phrase “the love of Christ” translates the Greek agape tou Christou which is, grammatically, a nominative noun followed by a genitive noun. The love of Christ could mean the love Christ has for us, or the love we have for Christ, or both. All three are possible from the Greek and from the ESV translation. The NIV, however, translates 2 Corinthians 5:14 “For Christ’s love compels us …” This may be what the Greek phrase means (or it may not be), but the NIV has settled the matter for us—agape tou Christou means the love Christ has for us (i.e., “Christ’s love”)—and has not allowed the reader to come to his own conclusion. [2]

This is a great example, and I fully agree with the decision that the ESV makes. The translation is being faithful to the original by using the same level of ambiguity. The problem, however, is that it only works in isolated examples like this one.

Mark Strauss, one of the translators of the New International Version, has written an article encouraging the wider Christian community to not allow the ESV to become the standard English translation. One of his criticisms of the ESV is its treatment of Greek genitives. The ESV follows the above ambiguity of the Greek genitive too far in many cases.

For example, the ESV renders Hebrews 1:3 as “he upholds the universe by the word of his power”. Strauss comments:

Nonsensical (word that his power possesses?). This is an attributive genitive, meaning “his powerful word” [3]

Or Romans 6:4 is translated as “we too might walk in newness of life” in the ESV. Again Strauss says that this is an attributed genitive meaning “a new life”. [4]

Archaisms

DeYoung praises the ESV for its commitment to literary beauty:

[T]he essentially literal approach of the ESV in the book of Proverbs often sounds more, well, proverbial. The NIV often turns the aphoristic sound of proverbs into everyday conversation. Which sounds like a proverb and which sounds prosaic? The difference between the two translations is the difference between “A stitch in time saves nine” and “If you stitch something now, you’ll save yourself nine stitches later.” Proverbs are supposed to sound different from everyday speech. [5]

He then compares the rendering of Proverbs 27:6 in the ESV and the NIV:

ESV: “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.”

NIV: “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”

I agree with DeYoung’s assessment that the ESV often translates the Proverbs and Psalms better than other translations. The ESV seems to sound more reverent to my ears, and more like ancient literature. [6]

The problem with the commitment to literary beauty, however, is that it often leads to awkward language, and the proliferation of archaisms. Let’s look at a few examples from Mark Strauss again:

Matthew 1:18:

ESV: … she was found to be with child

Comment: The ESV is not literal here (the Greek idiom is “having in belly”), so this can only be classified as an archaism. Of course I would never say today my wife is “with child” unless I were trying to sound archaic and “biblical”. [7]

I really can’t understand why the ESV uses this kind of language. What do we gain by refusing to say pregnant? More:

Matthew 5:2

ESV: And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

Comment: The ESV has missed the Greek idiom, which does not indicate two actions, but one—an introduction to a speech. No one speaking English would say, “The teacher opened her mouth and taught the students, saying…” [8]

Prepositions and conjunctions

Another area where the ESV shines is its treatment of conjunctions. Careful exegesis must depend on how clauses within an argument relate to each other. The NIV often omits these small words to make the text flow better, or sound more natural. But my argument is that it often leads to loss of meaning that is present in the original text.

Here is an excellent example from Bill Mounce:

Take for example Heb 6:4. The author has been saying that he wants to leave the basic, rudimentary doctrines of the Christian faith and move on to more meaty, theological matters. And then, verses 4 to 6.

It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance” (NIV).

Notice that there is no introductory conjunction in the NIV, so what is the connection of verse four to the preceding? The fact that verse four begins a new paragraph suggests that we are moving on to a new topic. And yet the careful Greek student sees that verse four begins with γάρ. Is there a connection that is obscured by the simple new paragraph?

Absolutely. The flow of thought is clear. The reason that the author wants to move on to meatier matters is because of the people’s ignorance of the doctrine of necessary perseverance. And so he says that they should move on, and the reason, introduced by γάρ, is that if they do not persevere, they will never return to repentance.

This is why translations like the ESV translate the γάρ: “For it is impossible.” [9]

Another example comes from a rather funny and serious video by John Piper where he says you should get a Bible with all the words. Piper bemoans the likes of NIV for leaving out words from their text that they seem to not know what to do with. His text is John 4:43–45:

After the two days he departed for Galilee. (For Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in his own hometown.) So when he came to Galilee, the Galileans welcomed him, having seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the feast. For they too had gone to the feast. (ESV)

I have highlighted the two conjunctions missing in the NIV. Here, the reason for Jesus’s leaving is that there is no honor for a prophet in his home town. You cannot make that same argument from the NIV.

Conclusion

Every translation must make hard decisions. It is absolutely impossible to convert text in one language to another without losing some meaning. It’s true that the NIV often sounds more modern and normal. But it can be imprecise, use over-translation and under-translation, and it can obscure the flow of an argument. The ESV, on the other hand, is much more precise, tries to give you all the words, but it can often sounds too archaic, awkward, and “biblical”. Given these sets of flaws (as discussed in the introduction), I think I still prefer the ESV.

I hope this illustrates the need to consult many translations during serious study. Hopefully, the diligent student of the Scriptures can indulge in at least a rudimentary understanding of Greek and Hebrew.

[1]Kevin DeYoung, Why our church switched to the ESV (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 11
[2]Ibid., 11
[3]Mark L. Strauss, Why the English Standard Version (ESV) Should not become the Standard English Version, http://zondervan.typepad.com/files/improvingesv2.pdf (Accessed October 14, 2017), 30
[4]Ibid., 30
[5]DeYoung, Why our church switched to the ESV, 23-24
[6]Yes, I know, this is subjective.
[7]Strauss, Why the English Standard Version (ESV) Should not become the Standard English Version, 18
[8]Ibid., 5
[9]Bill Mounce, γάρ and Paragraph Divisions, https://billmounce.com/monday-with-mounce/%CE%B3%CE%AC%CF%81-and-paragraph-divisions (Accessed October 16, 2017)

This article was first published on October 16, 2017. As you can see, there are no comments. I invite you to email me with your comments, criticisms, and other suggestions. Even better, write your own article as a response. Blogging is awesome.