My Struggles With The ESV

The most popular translation among young, conservative evangelicals is most definitely the English Standard Version.  I’ve read large portions of the ESV on multiple occasions, most recently because the NIV has been updated for 2011 and our elders are looking at different Bible translations.  When I was in Chicago last week, Crossway (the publisher of the ESV) was the primary sponsor of the conference and was advertising their translation everywhere.  As they have done with their website (www.esv.org), Crossway utilizes the testimonies of prominent preachers and church-leaders (DeYoung, Piper, and Chandler’s heads were floating over us at the Chicago convention center) to promote their translation.  I respect these leaders and have learned so much from their work, and so I have tried to like to the ESV.  But I must be honest.  I just don’t.

As a pastor who values the Word of God and wants it to be accessible to those who are new to the faith and exploring Christianity, I simply can’t use it and recommend it to others.  While I understand the translation committee’s commitment to “essential literalness,” they have adopted archaic language and poor English phraseology in their translation.  As a seminary graduate who has spent considerable time in the Greek and Hebrew languages, I can assure you that NO translation is a completely word-for-word literal translation, even the NASB.  The translators must change the order of the Hebrew and Greek words and add implied words in order for the sentences to make sense.  We definitely want to hold on to the words of the original as inspired, but the whole point of the translation effort is to transfer the original words into words and phrases that mean the same thing in the new language.  If the translation doesn’t make sense in the new language, then the translation is not effective or helpful. To illustrate my struggle with the English of the ESV, here’s a few of the strange phrases that show up in Exodus chapter 1 which make it difficult to understand…

1:5 “All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons.”  When you want to communicate that there are 70 people in a group, do you say “there were seventy persons?.  The HCSB says “the total number of Jacob’s descendants was 70.”

1:6 “Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation.”  The sentence obviously means that Joseph and his brothers and that generation died, but the sentence reads very awkwardly.

1:7 “the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly.”  Why put the phrase “increased greatly” in that order?  Who talks that way in English?  Doesn’t the sentence mean the same thing if worded as they “greatly increased?”

1:9 “Behold” I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember the last time someone used the word “behold” in a conversation with me.  The word is so out of date.  Who talks that way today?

1:10 “lest they multiply.”  See my critique of “behold” in verse 9.  It applies to the word “lest” as well.  I don’t think I’ve ever used the word lest in all 31 years of my life.

1:16 “see them on the birthstool.”  What is a birthstool?  My spell-check in my word-processor thinks I have misspelled a word even writing it in this post.

1:16 “shall” Again, not a word that we use in modern English.

1:19 “Because…, for” The conjunctions don’t make sense in English prose.  You don’t need both prepositions to make the point that the reason the Hebrew women were unique was their strength.

2:3 “basket made of bulrushes and daubed it with bitumen and pitch.”  The description of Moses’ basket is almost incomprehensible.  What is a bulrush and what is bitumen?  The English doesn’t communicate effectively.  Strangely enough, the footnote for bulrushes says “Hebrew papyrus reeds.”  How strange is it that the word-for-word footnote is clearer than the actual text?  The only rationale that makes sense in my mind for this translation is a commitment to continue the King James Version use of bulrushes.

I could go on and on.  I hope my point is clear.  While faithful to the original words, the ESV is not faithful to the English language. Ongoing translation work is important because receiving languages change.  My struggle with the ESV stems from its apparent commitment to 19th-century English words and sentence construction.  Our 21st-century readers deserve better.

15 thoughts on “My Struggles With The ESV”

  1. Keith, I struggle with your conclusion that the 21st century readers deserve better. I am far from an educated person and I would argue that phrases like “All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons” and “Behold” may not be common day English translations but if you take any language other than English and translate it to English, you will find the exact same sort of thing. You know I am definitely a reformed Christian so I will go to the five solas which I believe you hold to be true…

    Sola Fide = only faith by literal translation but we would say by faith alone…
    Soli Deo Gloria = only God glory but we would say glory to God alone…

    My point being that I don’t fault the translators of the ESV for not converting the text to modern day English, I find it helpful for me to think in terms of things outside of my current situation and time zone. This helps give me a bit of a push to make sure I am not just skimming or passing over things that may be really important for me to think about in the context. Additionally, we can thank that Eugene Peterson for The Message if we are looking for modern day translations… oh wait… maybe there is a bit of a risk in doing that, yeh?

    Appreciate you writing these blogs, brother… they are encouraging and helpful to keep me thinking! Keep it going!

    1. Jason,

      The Message from Peterson is not really a translation as much as it is a trans-culturation. Peterson’s goal is to ask not how the original readers would have heard the text and how we can get that across to modern readers, but rather to ask how the original authors might have written the text to our audience today. In order to accomplish this, he takes great liberty with the Greek and Hebrew. His paraphrase is more of a running commentary, helpful as a supplemental tool but not intended to be a primary translation.

      That is not my point about the ESV. If we want archaic language and out of date sentence construction, why not just use the KJV? Because no one can understand it! Many churches stick to the KJV as the only authorized, faithful Bible, but students of language know better. The KJV is translated in 17th century English, which nobody speaks today. My point with the ESV is simply that they updated the KJV to the 19th-century but didn’t go far enough. We need to get all the way to 21st century English. Again, I’m not arguing translation philosophy. I do most of my in-depth study in the New American Standard Version, which is a very wooden attempt at a word-for-word translation. I’m arguing about the use of modern language, not archaic language.

      I hope that helps to clarify my position –
      Keith

  2. Understand your position. Exodus 2:3 is a very strong argument for your point, in my mind. I can tell you that when I talk to people from Europe, they do use words like lest, whilst, shall, etc. In fact my own wife actually uses the word behold. Don’t ask me why — she is a unique creation 🙂

    Fundamentally, I am not in opposition with your argument — I struggle with the paraphrasing and rewording of points. Some of them not as big of a deal, some of the could *arguably* be a bit bigger of a deal. The intent of the ESV is to be more literal in translation, while the NIV is a “word-for-word and thought-for-thought” type of translation. I think there is more danger (may be too strong of a word here) in the latter than the former. I will take my risk with a more literal translation resource where I might need to do a bit of homework to make sure I understand what I am reading versus reading something that may not be entirely accurate.

  3. Jason, you say you prefer the ESV’s often-awkward phrasing because the synthetically older language forces you to take your time and think through what’s being said. And that makes sense, because what you call a “modern day English” translation might lead one to believe one is reading the text in its original, and the difficulties with the ESV constantly remind the reader that s/he is reading a translation.

    But there are problems with this reasoning, evidenced in your examples from Latin translation. The Latin phrases you adduce as “literal translations” in fact suggest why using a “modern day English” translation of the sort you dislike makes better sense than using the ESV. You write that a literal translation of “soli deo gloria” would read “only God glory” but that a “modern” rendering would read “glory to God alone.” This is an incorrect assertion because, as Latin is an inflectional language, “soli deo gloria” translates literally as “glory to God alone” or “only.” (Soli and deo are in the dative case, gloria in the nominative; by contrast, “fide” is ablative, and thus “sola fide” translates literally “by faith alone,” not “only faith.”) The way you would translate these phrases “literally” (only God glory, only faith) is in fact a mistranslation.

    You say that the ESV translation is doing something akin to what you did when you rendered “sola fide” as “only faith.” You suggest, in other words, that when you choose the ESV over a translation such as the NIV, you’re choosing fidelity to the text over something that’s less accurate to the Biblical text. But, as your Latin mistake reveals, that’s a false opposition, because language are, in the strong sense, different. Choosing the ESV’s nostalgic English over “modern day English” has less to do with the actual Biblical text than you think, because the Biblical languages Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, like English, have linguistic structures that change over time and resist easy, word-for-word conversion into other languages. The ESV translators did just as much work as any other English Bible translators, reordering syntactic structures, choosing words that correspond in significance and resonate with the right connotation, and so on. In fact, we might wonder whether the ESV required more work, because the translators seem to have taken the extra step of layering the English with a nineteenth-century flavor that, to Keith’s point, is neither helpful nor natural.

    My own contribution to your point, Keith, is to note that many of the people associated with ESV (Piper foremost among them) have a real nostalgia for Puritan Christianity, which they perceive as being lost and in need of recovery. The ESV sounds to me like a believable but not altogether natural ventriloquism of Jonathan Edwards’ style, which was of course greatly influenced by the KJV.

    1. I have only recently found out about the HCSB translation, so until I read for myself what the translating committee(?) has to say about it, in their own words, I won’t comment on it. I have not read any of the text for myself either at this point.
      Translations of Scripture are a pretty hot topic, As can be seen in some comments posted here. I think Jon’s comments about the ESV, Jonathan Edwards and (John) Piper don’t seem to be constructive or edifying to the debate or the body of Christ, but seem more along the lines of disdain.
      Jon, you stated that “the people associated with ESV (Piper foremost among them) have a real nostalgia for Puritan Christianity.” The definition of nostalgia is , “a sentimental longing or wistful affection for the past.” Would you describe YOUR desire for the glory of God among all peoples of the world, and for the supremacy of Christ in all things, in that way?
      Jon, would you describe your desire, as a believer, to treasure Christ more and to love Him more every day in those terms? Well, from what I have read, that is what “the people associated with ESV (Piper foremost among them)” desire, just like you hopefully do.
      Yes, there were Puritans (and others) that desired these things also in their day, just as there are Baptists, and Bible church folk, etc., who desire these things now. Just as God’s people at all times, and in all places have desired I might add. I would say the bottom line is, if we know Him, we treasure Him and want these things also.
      Not that I have attained this, but I press toward the mark to make Him my own.
      As a side note, if you go to the book store an get an unedited writing of Jonathan Edwards (that has not been updated) and read one page of it, you will see immediately that his writing style is nothing like the ESV (in my opinion). Jonathan Edwards was not taught to write in early 17th century English. He wrote in 18th century English. His writing style was a product of his style/personality, education, and the times HE lived in, not because of the KJV.
      As believers, our hearts desire is for God in Christ to be glorified and worshiped in all things, by all peoples, in all places, and we count all things as loss for the SURPASSING WORTH of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord (and our Treasure), and count all things as rubbish in order that we may gain Christ, and we are longing for the day we will see Him face to face.
      So whichever of these bible translations, that have been mentioned, are in our possession, first, let’s be grateful to God to that we have it. What a precious privilege! And how astounding that we can go to the store and get another translation to use! Second, lets read hard and pray hard.
      I don’t have to tell you that there are believers all over the world who would LITERALLY give and arm or leg to have just a part of one of our bibles. I am so humbled and convicted by that. I take so much for granted. God forgive me.
      My prayer is that as we read through the Scriptures that we will be transformed from one degree of glory to another as we behold our God and Savior in His word, and that He will grant understanding, and destroy unbelief and cause the “obedience of faith” to flourish in our lives, by the power of His Spirit! Amen!

  4. I agree with you, wanted to like the ESV because of its popularity with everyone. I just can’t find myself using it in preaching and teaching though I have tried. Going with the HCSB. Thanks for sharing your blog on this, thought I was the only one in the wilderness on this issue.

  5. I decided to buy a cheap paperback version of the ESV to test drive it before purchasing a leather bound version. I have found really strange and annoying words popping up that seem to either sound strange to the reading or slightly diminish the verse…such as often the word law in Psalm 119 is translated “rules”. I am no scholar but the word “rules” seems very diminished in the implications of the word–almost a certain arbitraryness to the meaning. And yes, i was also bothered by the use of “persons” and use of “people” in very odd places”. I have been thinking i will continue to look at other translations. thanks for the article.

  6. Hey Keith, I ran across your post when looking for some people who are not on board with the ESV wave that seems to have hit the church. I too am a pastor looking for a new translation. I was wondering what you decided on?
    I personally have been back using the NIV (both ’84 and ’11) I find that a lot of the criticism of the 2011 is blown out of proportion. I recently talked to Preston Sprinkle who is the academic dean of my college (author of “Erasing Hell”) who has used the ESV for quite a while and he was saying how he is growing increasingly disappointed with it. Anyway, thanks for your time.

      1. Hi Keith, name is Jay, I to am a pastor who like you was trying to like my ESV study bible, I mean the notes are awesome but the version itself…. My favorite preachers like Matt Chandler, Francis Chan, David Platt, with the exception of my role model John MacArthur, they use the ESV so I got one but I found myself using a dictionary quite a bit, which is something I didn’t really like. So I started using the NLT which is very easy to read and I love it but saw that on some versions it was not completely accurate which I kind got disappointed cause I’ve used it for a couple of years. Do I went back trying to use the ESV but I just can’t don’t know why…???!!!! Anyways, I thought of just sticking either to the NIV or the HCSB. What would you recommend?
        Thank you.

        1. Jay, I use the HCSB for study and preaching. I read the NLT for devotional reading (especially when I want to read long sections of scripture in one sitting). The NIV is also good. They are all trustworthy translations and beneficial for spiritual growth.

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