ESV can become better

I haven’t been around the blogosphere for a while but I’ve been catching up on what’s going on at Better Bibles: Wayne Leman finished posting a series of posts on a paper by Mark Strauss: Why the English Standard Version (ESV) should not become the standard English version: How to make a good translation much better. It’s also available in PDF. I don’t think this should be seen as being critical against the ESV but rather, I think this is the type of constructive criticism that can make our bibles better.

The ESV can do so much better so Crossway should pay attention. I think Crossway has great opportunity to improve this great translation and make it so much better. If the translation team takes advice such as this, the ESV will surely become even more popular than it is now. It was be known as one of the great modern translations for a long long time. The enormous work done by the NRSV was a huge improvement and can be called a genuine translation. But the ESV has not done nearly as much work on it as the NRSV translators. So the ESV, there’s still room to improve.

14 thoughts on “ESV can become better

  1. Tim, thanks for your well thought-out comment. I am sorry you felt that you were not heard on another blog. I think what you said does pose a very good point. If the editorial committee of the NRSV went too far in making changes than what the full committee thought should be done, it was still in their authority to do so. Why? because it got published with the changes made by the editorial committee.

    So should we see the ESV as starting all over again from the RSV, but this time with a team of conservative editors? One could. Then the ESV becomes the bible of conservatives just like the NRSV became the bible of liberal academics. We now have two streams of revisions of the RSV for two streams of readers–conservatives and liberals. It may not be ideal but this seems to be the only way for either streams of the Christian worldview to be heard and have influence in biblical scholarship.


  2. Tim, I totally agree that the ESV is the best when it comes to communicating with it customers. They are totally setting the standard on how bible publishers should interact with their customers.

    I wish the others would do this as well, I know that the NLT is also following this pattern. Now if we can get the rest of them to fall in place.


  3. Excellent post Tim, you raise many great points. I had read some of these articles by disgruntled NRSV translators some time back, but had forgotten how stinging they were. Thanks for posting a couple of them.

    The ESV is doing very well, which is a very good thing. Since picking up a copy of the ESV Study Bible, I’ve ben using it a lot more myself. I am very torn at times between it and NRSV because each have strengths and weaknesses, so I find myself going retro to the RSV quite often. It leads me to ask myself which translation I will favor once I begin to teach on a regular basis again, or if I ever were to preach again. The NRSV is the darling of the Episcopal Church, but I suspect very few in my parish use it outside of the public readings. I would bet most use KJV, NIV, NKJV, or RSV. I suppose we should be grateful that we have so many good options and stop complaining over tiny nuance (though sometimes when I am reminded of how far NRSV has gone with inclusive language, it doesn’t seem so tiny or nuanced).


  4. I think it’s a little unfair to expect there to be another revision so soon after the last one. Let’s not forget, they brought out the revision relatively quickly after the ESV first came out and that is to be commended. I feel very strongly that they do listen and that another revision will happen. If they didn’t listen then the first revision wouldn’t have taken place would it?

    People say that the NRSV is a good version, and I echo that as I like it. But I couldn’t understand why there were not that many sales. I asked this question on BBB, that if it was the version recommended by scholars and academics why did it consistently do poorly in the sales rankings, to be told that the reason was probably because not many scholars and academics bought it. Bit of a smart**** answer and not the one I was actually looking for, so I did a little rooting around myself.

    I found that not only had one or two of the original people working on the translation been members of the discredited ‘Jesus Seminar’, but also this:

    “… the members of this editorial committee understood their task as involving a far greater authority to revise the translation than the full committee ever intended. According to Dentan [one of the five members of the committee], ‘This editorial committee was given power to determine the final form of the text before publication.’ Such a formulation is dangerously ambiguous. What the full committee understood and intended as the task of the editorial committee was actually quite limited; while respecting the basic work of the full committee, the editorial committee was expected to make the relatively minor changes to the finished product that were necessary for the sake of stylistic consistency. At least in the case of the Old Testament editorial subcommittee, that is not what happened. Some hint of the far more intensive reworking carried out by this small committee … can be seen in Dentan’s account of non-scholarly consideration that colored their work … the editorial committee made thousands of changes, some quite substantive, to the translation of the Old Testament made by the full committee, and when members of the full committee became aware of the extent of these changes, many were outraged, feeling that much of their own work on the translation over the years had been irresponsibly gutted.” The latter quote from one of the translation committee, J.J.M. Roberts.

    Also this:

    And for good measure we will note the remarks of Robert Jewett, professor of New Testament at Garrett-Northwestern Theological Seminary. Jewett is himself a liberal, and a supporter of the feminist cause, but he insists upon the obligation of liberal scholars to behave honestly in translating the Bible. Regarding the NRSV he says: “We’re facing, with the NRSV, liberal dishonesty in spades. The modern liberated perspective which imposes itself on the text is about as dishonest as you can be. All the way through the NRSV, implying that Paul has all these liberated concepts and so forth like the current politically correct person in an Ivy League school: I mean that’s just ridiculous. Here you have the imposition of liberal prejudice on the biblical text with the ridiculous assumption that our modern liberal views were Paul’s.” Against the specious arguments offered by apologists for these politically correct alterations, Jewett declares that a gender-neutral translation that claims to be accurate is “almost as bad as Stalin’s revisions of world history in which every 10 years he’d change all the history textbooks.” These remarks were published in WORLD magazine, vol. 16, no. 6 (Feb. 13, 1998).

    All of this information can be found on

    It’s clear to me that where a translation is concerned it becomes an attempted balance between style and substance. Such a balance is going to, by its very nature, be almost impossible to strike as many people have their own ideas of what ‘perfect’ English actually means. I tried to demonstrate this on BBB, failed, and instead had people jumping to conclusions and making assumptions about my comments, and getting it wrong. It puts me in mind of C.S.Lewis when he said “They claim to spot fernseed, yet can’t spot an elephant in broad daylight at ten paces.”

    The AV (1611) was itself a revision (even then the language was considered a little dated), and went through numerous revisions after it was first released. But for all its faults, it brought millions to Christ. Yet there are many who would make fun of others for still using it. How out of date was the Septuagint when the apostles were quoting from it? To my mind it isn’t the version that matters but whether you read it and use it, that does. As someone else (I cannot remember who) said, use the version that sings to your heart. I use many versions, and although my favourite is the Wycliffe Bible that is purely for stylistic reasons and its historical value. Firstly it can be considered the first shot fired in what led to the Reformation. Secondly, as an Anglo-Saxon buff, it interests me for the language it uses and is a link between Anglo-Saxon and our modern English.

    When I think of some translators I am put in mind of the priesthood of old (before the Reformation) which maintained that no-one was allowed to read the bible unless it was one of the ‘approved’ versions. Only the priesthood held the ‘secret knowledge’ that enables others to understand it properly. Well that’s rubbish. And regardless of how perfect the style is, it isn’t going to be much worth if no-one wants to read it, is it? The ESV tends to fly off the shelves around here, and that is a big plus. It doesn’t matter what version it is, nor how perfect the English within it. What matters is whether people buy it and use it. And on that score the ESV is doing well. So, if you can’t have both then what’s it to be, style or substance? I know what I’d rather choose.


  5. but I think that Jeff is right. It won’t happen.

    Give Crossway another 10 years, who knows? They might change their minds.


  6. Exegete, I concur about John 20:23. I think the ESV has definitely abandoned its own translation philosophy here. It’s these kind of places that keep the RSV and NRSV my main translations (though the NRSV gets weird about inclusive language at points). I also agree the NKJV has a better literary style than ESV, well probably better than most, too bad it used inferior manuscripts.


  7. Kevin, I had a similar thought after reading 1/3 of what Mark Strauss. If the ESV would make some revisions, and think about what Mark Strauss is saying it could very well be the best translation, but I think that Jeff is right. It won’t happen.


  8. While I lean toward the Formal Equivalent (or whatever term you want to use) translations, I have trouble using the ESV as my main English Bible. It makes a good liturgical Bible (for the most part, although Luke 1:53 is still odd). But the more I hear it read in worship, the less pleasing it is; the awkwardness of some of the phrasing can be jarring.

    Aside from the textual basis, the ESV still does not approach the readability/oral quality of the NKJV; as it stands ESV is not much better than NAS for readability and not as accurate in several places.

    If there is only one change they make in ESV, it ought to be John 20:23, where they changed the RSV rendering (which had it correct), translating it inaccurately and contrary to its own translation philosophy.


  9. Indeed Kevin, I think they will. Except it seemed to me that Crossway may not want to publish it…..which would be a shame.


  10. Jeff and L. Wells, I beg to differ with you guys because when the KJV was first written, it was not biblish at all since it was written in the language of the common people of 1611. I’m not one of the people who read the bible for literary reasons but if I did, I’d stick with the good old KJV. Well, I don’t read the ESV because it was slightly changed from the RSV but for the reason that it’s a good translation.

    Stan, ditto dude. ESV has lots of room for improvements. Who knows, they might in the future?

    Tim, Crossway will benefit from Oxford’s work on the apocrypha. If more readers use the ESV because of the apocrypha, ESV gets recognition and exposure as a translation. It’ll be good for the ESV and Crossway overall.


  11. Zealot, you hit the nail on the head, ESV lovers like their translation BECAUSE it was only slightly changed. They should’ve gotten to the Deuterocanonicals a lot sooner though.


  12. the ESV has not done nearly as much work on it as the NRSV translators.

    Understatement of the Month 😉


  13. The problem with making a major revision is–my theory is the people as a whole who like the ESV are the type that won’t like change. I’m not saying that’s necessary a bad quality. But iff it doesn’t sound as holy and Biblishy they ain’t gonna like it.


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