English Standard Version


I want at the outset to say two paradoxical things about the ESV. First, it is a pretty good formal equivalence translation. If it had come out fifty years ago under different circumstances, it might even be my favorite translation. But I don't like "it"--not the text itself, but what it represents. I have its text available to me through my Bible software and I believe you can access it online. But I have no intention of ever buying one.

J. I. Packer in an online article describes the origins of the ESV, which came out in 2001 I believe. He says it grew out of dissatisfaction with the RSV and the NIV. In part, I agree here. I agree that the style of the RSV is sometimes lacking and that the NIV is often less literal than I would prefer.

But the "efficient causes" of the translation derived from the, in my opinion, misguided Dobson pact called the "Colorado Springs Guidelines." It is this pact that Dobson's group says Zondervan violated when they made the TNIV.


Also, the inaugural group of scholars considered the RSV's translation of the Old Testament "unchristian" and sought to correct it in relation to several prophecies (like Isaiah 7:14 that I have already mentioned). This is, in my opinion, well-intentioned confusion on these scholars' part, an Achilles' heel to their scholarly credibility.

The ESV translators took (with permission) the 1972 edition of the RSV and revised it in the light of the original languages. With this background, let the evaluation begin:

1. FD Scale (formal or dynamic): 1
The text is very formal in most places, more literal than the RSV in some instances. Some of the texts I have criticized in the NIV appear in their formal form in the ESV:

Colossians 1:15: "firstborn of all creation"
Philippians 2:6: "though he was in the form of God"
1 Corinthians 7:27: "Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife."

But it does go slightly dynamic for 1 Cor. 7:1: "It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman" rather than "it is good for a man not to touch a woman."

One thing that I laugh about a little is that the translators of the ESV--not those who egged on the ESV but those who actually did the work--actually did a slight bit of inclusivizing in their translation. J. I. Packer bemoans that the ESV of Romans actually eliminates "man" two or three times and has "brothers and sisters" in its footnotes even though it goes with "brothers" in the main text. He writes that "apart from these few places, the changes of the ESV are a distinct improvement upon the RSV."

Again, I cannot criticize the overall interpretive moves of the ESV too much. It bugs me that the ESV translates anthropos as "man" when the word is really broader in connotation than that. "What is man that you are mindful of him..." "The Sabbath was made for man..." It is really legitimate to translate these as "What is a human being that you pay attention...," etc. Yet I know the original authors and audiences had a male bias. They probably were thinking primarily of the men, even though women may have been included as an afterthought.

Of course by tampering with the translation of certain OT texts that the NT read prophetically, the ESV deviates from its formal equivalence philosophy. It's translation of these texts is theologically driven and thus less formal than the RSV. But I will mention this under drift.

2. OC Scale (original or "catholic" text): 2
While it is a little better than the NIV in its use of Dead Sea Scroll insights, it is largely the same. At Deuteronomy 32:8 it has "sons of God" which represents the better text. But it does not include the new material before 1 Samuel 11, and it's note at Mark 16:9 sounds much less conclusive than the NIV.

The NIV at Mark 16:8 reads, "The most reliable early manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20."

In my opinion, the only way an informed scholar could think these verses were original would be for theological or personal reasons rather than evidentiary ones.

The ESV's wording is much more political but, however, softer on those who might be troubled by such issues: "Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include Mark 16:9-20." Try all of the earliest manuscripts.

3. Drift: 2

I'll give it a 2 for low drift, principally in the way it harmonizes its translation of the Old Testament to fit with New Testament interpretations. On the one hand, if it did this intentionally and consistently, it might be the right way to go. In other words, if the translators were to say, "Regardless of the original meaning, the Christian meaning of these texts is the way we're translating them." In that sense, the critics of the RSV are right--the RSV translation is more original but not the "Christian" way of reading the texts.

But in fact on this issue the ESV translators are just confused. They confuse the New Testament interpretation of the OT with the original meaning of the OT. The New Testament authors read the OT Scriptures spiritually, not in context. They really weren't very concerned about reading verses in context. And those out of context readings are not thereby less authoritative.

Isaiah 7 originally had a young woman and an earthly king in view. The Septuagint translators (inspired?) rendered the Hebrew 'alma in Greek with a word that meant virgin. So Matthew's Greek Bible was all set up to see a prophetic word relating to the virgin conception (a Spirit- inspired interpretation).

Youth Scale (readability): 2
It's pretty readable as a formal equivalence. It is probably more readable than the RSV or NIV, but obviously less readable than the NLT or Message.