Is this the English Bible we've been waiting for?

by Tony Payne
Senior Editor, Matthias Media.


The English Standard Version (ESV) is about to hit Australia. Among the multitude of English translations, is this just one more attempt by publishers to cash in? Or might this one be different?

To understand the new ESV, and why it is potentially the most important English Bible translation to be published in the last 25 years, we need to do a little history.

For more than three centuries, the standard English translation of the Bible was the Authorised or King James Version (KJV). It was a literal translation; that is, it translated the original Greek and Hebrew word for word into English, finding the most direct English equivalent available, and retaining the grammatical structure of the original sentences as much as possible. This gave the reader not trained in the original languages the most direct access possible to the actual text of Scripture. Where the text carried several possible meanings, the English translation reflected that, and left it to the reader to work out which meaning (or meanings) were intended.

By the turn of the 20th century, however, the KJV was starting to show its age (not surprisingly). English had changed over the course of 300 years. 'Thee' and 'thou' were no longer in common use; nor were the '-eth' and '-est' style endings for the verb. The vocabulary was substantially different, and the long, multi-clausal sentences of the KJV, that reflected the original languages so well, made for difficult reading, especially as the direction of English was towards shorter sentences.

Various attempts were made to update the KJV without changing its essential character--such as the Revised Version of 1881, which gave rise to the American Standard Version of 1901, which in turn formed the basis for the New American Standard Bible.

However, it was the publication of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) in 1952 that marked the real beginning of 'modern English' translations. While maintaining a commitment to literal translation, the RSV sought to render the original into an English that made sense to the modern reader. The archaic vocabulary, verb endings and complex sentence structure of the KJV were replaced with modern English equivalents. The result was a translation that was still essentially literal, and stuck closely to the original, but which was readable for the 20th century person.

The RSV had some quirks. It retained the use of 'thee' and 'thou' for addressing God. And the liberal theological bias of the translation committee emerged at a number of famous points--such as using 'expiation' instead of 'propitiation' in Romans 3:25, and punctuating Romans 9:5 so as to remove the implication that Christ was God.

All the same, the RSV was a very good translation: precise, accurate, and yet still readable. By the 1970s, however, there was agitation for improvement, not only to iron out the quirks of the RSV, but to produce a translation that was even simpler and easier to read. Paraphrases such as the Good News Bible and the Living Bible were published. Ideas of 'dynamic equivalence' were in the air, in which the goal of translation was not to render word for word, but idea for idea.

When the New International Version (NIV) first came on the scene in the early 1980s, a buzz of excitement greeted its release. This was no paraphrase, like the Good News. It was a genuine translation, if not a literal one, committed to rendering the "thought of the biblical writers" as accurately as possible. The NIV was easy to read and had a vitality about it. The 'thees' and 'thous' of the RSV were gone, and gone also was its liberal bias.

The NIV quickly became the translation of choice for evangelical Christians, and for good reason. It really was an excellent attempt to achieve simplicity and clarity of modern English, while still trying to remain faithful to the meaning of the original text.

However, the more we used the NIV, the more we also discovered problems. In particular, because of its overriding commitment to simplicity of English and ease of reading, the NIV had a number of tendencies that masked the meaning of the original text of the Bible:

* Short punchy sentences predominate in the NIV, and this has made for fresh vital English. However, it has also eliminated many of the connective words (such as 'and', 'so that' and 'for') that linked the ideas of a passage together. One example (among many) is the omitting of 'for' at the beginning of Romans 1:18, thus not allowing the reader to see the connection with verses 16-17.

* Where the original text carried a number of possible meanings, the NIV irons out the ambiguities to present one simple meaning to the reader, often by adding extra words. This makes for simplicity and clarity, but places the responsibility for interpretation into the hands of the translator, rather than the reader. And what if the translator makes the wrong decision? Or what if the text deliberately carries a number of layers of meaning? The possibility of sorting it out is removed from the reader, in the interests of simplicity. As an example, sticking with Romans 1, the NIV uses the phrase "righteousness from God" in Romans 1:17. In the original, the phrase is actually "righteousness of God", which may mean either righteousness from God or the righteousness which belongs to God (that is "God's righteousness"). Which did Paul intend? Or did he phrase it that way because he wanted to include both ideas? The NIV is not wrong; "righteousness from God" is a quite legitimate translation, but it is not the only legitimate one. And by shutting off other options, the reader is taken further away from what the text of Scripture actually says.

* In order to produce more stylish flowing English, and for the sake of simplicity of meaning, the NIV often translates the same Greek or Hebrew word into a number of different English words. For example, in Romans 1:3, Paul says that Jesus was descended from David "according to the flesh". 'Flesh' is an important word in the rest of Romans, and its appearance in the opening verses is very significant. However, the NIV translates it 'human nature' in 1:4, and 'sinful nature' elsewhere in the book. Again, these translations are defensible in themselves, but they remove the connection between the ideas. They don't allow the reader to build up an idea of what Paul means by 'flesh'.

As these sorts of shortcomings became more obvious over time, many began to wonder whether the NIV was the answer after all. Evangelicals began to cast around for an alternative.

In 1989, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) came along. In many ways, it was just the kind of translation we needed. It retained all the precision and accuracy of the original RSV, avoided the pitfalls into which the NIV had fallen, and was still beautifully readable.

Unfortunately, the NRSV had one major idiosyncrasy that rendered it unsatisfactory for most evangelicals: its obsession with gender inclusive language. In an attempt to render the biblical text more 'politically correct', the NRSV removed 'he' and 'man' wherever possible in the text, and in doing so often came up with unfortunate results (the removal of 'son of man' in Hebrews 2:6 would be one classic example).

If the NRSV was not the answer, what was? It was in this climate that the idea for the ESV was born. Lane Dennis, the President of Crossway Books in Wheaton, Illinois, acquired the rights to the old RSV text (now superseded by the NRSV). Using this text as a starting point, he assembled a team of 'international scholars' (an essential requirement for every translation these days) and began the painstaking process of updating and revising the RSV translation. The quirks were ironed out, the liberal bias removed, and the translation improved in many places.

The result is the English Standard Version or ESV. The excitement with which it is being greeted among evangelicals testifies to the potential that it has. It has the precision and accuracy of the historic literal translations (like the KJV and RSV), and yet reads well in flowing modern English. It has avoided the problems of the NIV (noted above) by simply allowing the text to speak for itself. Where the text carries several possible meanings, the ESV leaves it open for the reader to appreciate and interpret. The connective words are left in. And there is a consistency of translation, with the same Greek words rendered where possible by the same English words.

No translation is perfect. The ESV will undoubtedly have its flaws, and we will all no doubt be pressing the good folk at Crossway for an updated, revised edition in the years ahead. (I have already found two little quibbles that I will be forwarding to the editors.) Yet judging by the sample selections that have been released, this, at last, is an English Bible that we can take and read, both publicly and privately. It's accurate enough to study carefully, and preach from, yet flowing and lucid enough to read in church and privately.

Copyright Matthias Media, 2001

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