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.
- What’s in a Version?
How could I neglect to mention my book on Bible translations?
- The ESV Controversy and Women
- My Translations FAQ
Unfortunately this one is a bit behind, and deals mostly with the KJV only controversy.
- Finding an Authoritative Translation
- Revision and Translation
- Gender Neutrality and Bible Translation
- Bible Translation Selection Tool