According to its translators, the ESV stands in the Tyndale-King James tradition of Bible translations [examples of other translations that stand in this stream are the Revised Version (1885), the American Standard Version (1901), the Revised Standard Version (1952, 1971), and the New King James Version (1983)]. In their own words, they sought to follow an “essentially literal” translation philosophy. To that end, they sought as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer, while taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages. Thus, it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original. The result is a translation that is more literal than the popular New International Version, but more idiomatic than the New American Standard Bible (which is commonly known as the most literal of the modern translations).
The starting point was the Revised Standard Version, and the ESV is best described as a light revision of this (about 5% of the RSV was changed in the ESV). Many changes were made to satisfy objections that conservative Protestants had made about the RSV, for example reverting from “young woman” to “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14. The language was modernized, to remove “thou” and “thee” and replace obsolete words (for example “jug” for “cruse”). Some cautious steps were made to use inclusive language, but not to the same extent as in many modern translations.
Work on this translation began with discontent (largely amongst Evangelical Christians) over the perceived looseness of style and content of recently-published English Bible translations, as well as the apparent trend toward gender-neutral language in translations such as the Today’s New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version, among others.
In 1997, Christian psychologist and radio host Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family called together a meeting of individuals concerned with these issues, and from it came the “Colorado Springs Guidelines”: a set of translation principles that specified when it was and was not appropriate to use gender-neutral language. This action was spurred because the committee who created the NIV announced it was going to release an update that used gender-neutral language. The ESV was born to be a mainstream alternative to the NIV update. Rather than update the NIV, the committee released a revision called Today’s New International Version (TNIV), a version we will look at more closely in a future article. I personally find the ESV to be a trustworthy translation. As always, there are a few flaws that ought to be noted for those who are comparing the translations.
Not Always Literal
For as much as the ESV claims to be essentially literal with transparency to the original language, there are times when that goal is missed.
ESV: “Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
NKJV: “So Jesus said to them, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”
Notice that the ESV translates “in the new world” rather than the literal, “in the regeneration.” While trying to be helpful for the difficult expression “in the regeneration,” I do not think the phrase “in the new world” clears up that confusion. In fact, the ESV may be somewhat misleading.
ESV: “For God is not so unjust as to overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.”
NKJV: “For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister.”
I think the ESV is great in comparison to the NKJV is accuracy and rendering the words so it is easy to understand. But why did the ESV add the word “so” in “For God is not so unjust…?” The ESV makes it sound like that God is unjust but just not that unjust. The word “so” is simply a senseless addition that is not found in the Greek manuscripts.
Awkward At Times
Awkwardness is a problem for many versions that try to be literal. There are numerous instances of awkwardness in the ESV, just like the NASB, because both versions attempt word-for-word translation.
ESV: “While he clung to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s, astounded.”
HCSB: “While he was holding on to Peter and John, all the people, greatly amazed, ran toward them in what is called Solomon’s Colonnade.”
Notice how the HCSB was able to be literal, but not awkward. Why did not the ESV just say “Solomon’s portico?” Why not put the word “astounded” with the subject phrase “all the people ran together to them?” Even I can figure out that this sentence would be more useable if the ESV had said,”While he clung to Peter and John, all the people, astounded, ran together to them in Solomon’s portico.” There is nothing wrong with the ESV’s translation. One must realize that there are times where a sentence may be a little more difficult to read (like the NASB) because of the sentence structure.
The ESV is a major translation that I repeatedly consult, use in study, in reading, and in preaching. The ESV is not as formally literal as the NASB or NKJV, but it is not so idiomatic and loose like the NIV. Those who recognize the problems of the NIV may find the ESV more suitable for use since the ESV is usually not as formal in its sentence structure. If you have never used the ESV, I think it is worth the $15 to add to your library and use in your Bible studies.