Blog Updates and ESV Deficiencies

I made a change to the site last week, something I’ve put off for six (has it really been that long?!) years. I added a plugin so that all the Bible verses listed on the site can be hovered over and have the passage made visible. Alan Jacobs has pointed out that an important principle of blogging is making the blog as easy to read and use as possible, and this addition was clearly something that would assist in that.

Why did I hold off for so long? Partially because I didn’t want to commit to a specific translation on here, and had some hesitations about the English Standard Version, the translation I ended up using.

The ESV is a fine translation, but it makes some egregious errors in places and the instincts it follows to get there are bad. Now, I have no problem using the ESV or preaching from it. Since 2007, the five churches (spanning three denominations) of which I have been a part, including the three in which I have been on the pastoral staff, have used the ESV. At this point it is the translation with which I am the most familiar and the one I use at home and is used by my church.

A reason I have no problem using it or preaching from it, despite some of its weaknesses, is because I am confident in my ability to translate Hebrew and Greek and in my capability to effectively correct or clarify for my congregation when the ESV is wrong. Individual reading of scripture matter far less than the communal reading of scripture, which should first and foremost happen in listening to the word read and preached in church. It’s for that reason that when people ask me what Bible translation to use that I tell them “They’re all fine, but you should probably pick the one your church is using.”

So what translation do I think is actually best?

The unconquered champion of best English Bible translations is the King James Version. It has an elegant, majestic style that remains literally and functionally loyal to the original languages. And it’s not just because it’s old: there are several older, previously widespread English translations that are weaker on interpretation and style (Geneva Bible, Coverdale Bible, Bishops’ Bible) that fell out of favor because of the clear superiority of the KJV. The KJV’s style and instincts are unmatched; its weaknesses are its inferior textual basis, archaic language that itself needs to be translated, and a pre-paragraph layout.

Even though I prefer the interpretive approach of the KJV, for those reasons I decided to stick with ESV on the site. But I couldn’t bring myself to do that without including a series of touchstone passages and verses that I use to compare different translations and show some of the ESV’s shortcomings. There is a long, ongoing debate about whether translations should attempt to be more literal (formal equivalence) or functional (dynamic equivalence), but these passages are not about that. Nor are they examples of the “big” translation debates, like in what contexts ‘ebed/doulos should be translated as slave, servant, or bondservant; whether the tetragrammaton (יהוה ; Yhwh) be represented by Lord, Yahweh, or Jehovah; or the gender-inclusive debate, such as whether adelphoi should be translated as brothers/brethren or brothers and sisters.

These are passages that I use to see differences in translation instincts that I find much more interesting and meaningful. So below are my summaries of them and how different translations land. I compare not just the ESV and KJV, but the leading modern English Bible translations, based on end of 2022 numbers and including the year revision I followed.

  • New International Version (2011)
  • English Standard Version (2016)
  • New Living Translation (2015)
  • Christian Standard Bible (2020)
  • King James Version (1769)
  • New King James Version (1984)
  • New Revised Standard Version (2021)
  • New American Standard Bible (1995)

Interestingly, the different translations don’t always cluster together the way you might expect based on the formal/functional equivalence debates. I’ll place the translations in the general order I think is best, which for the most part values simply and elegantly capturing the meaning of the original without using wording that rules out possible alternative interpretations. None of these passages have significant textual issues that affect translation.

Genesis 3:16 – Crossway, the publishers of the ESV, announced that they had “permanently” settled on their text (they backtracked on this), including the revision to this iteration of Genesis 3:16, a few weeks before my ordination exams. Of course I was asked about this.

“Your desire will be for/to your husband, and/yet he will rule over you.” CSB, KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NRSV.

“Your desire will be contrary to your husband, but he will rule over you.” ESV.

“Your desire will be to control your husband, but he will rule over you.” NLT.

Psalm 18:25-26 – Psalm 18 has a number of comparisons between God and people: with the faithful/merciful he proves himself faithful/merciful, with the blameless/upright he proves himself blameless/upright, with the pure he proves himself pure and then…with the crooked/froward (froward? isn’t the KJV delightful?) God proves himself what, exactly? The next Hebrew word follows the same pattern as the whole psalm (so, crooked/froward), but the English translations hesitate to call God that.

“With the froward thou wilt shew yourself froward.” KJV.

“With the crooked you prove yourself shrewd/astute.” CSB, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV.

“With the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.” ESV.

Psalm 136 – My friend Matt Blazer recommended that I use the different translations of hesed as a touchstone and Psalm 136 is the best employment of the term.

“His steadfast love endures forever.” ESV, NRSV.

“His faithful love endures forever.” CSB, NLT.

“His lovingkindness is everlasting.” NASB.

“His mercy endures forever.” KJV, NKJV.

“His love endures forever.” NIV.

John 3:16 (cf. 1 John 4:9) – This is the most egregious error on the part of the ESV. Monogenes should be translated as “only begotten” in reference to Jesus, and the theological implications of this are massive.

“Only begotten” KJV, NASB, NKJV.

“One and only” CSB, NIV, NLT.

“Only” ESV, NRSV.

1 Corinthians 6:9 – There are two terms at the end of this verse, malakoi and arsenokoitai, whose exact meaning and way to translate them have been hotly debated, especially in the last three decades. The best translations distinguish between the two terms rather than merge them.

“nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind/homosexuals” KJV, NASB.

“nor male prostitutes, nor men who have sex with men” NLT.

“male prostitutes, men who engage in illicit sex” NRSV.

“nor homosexuals, nor sodomites” NKJV.

“males who have sex with males/men who practice homosexuality” CSB, ESV, NIV.

1 Corinthians 7:3 – The context of this passage is the obligations husbands and wives owe each other, especially regarding sex. The terms in question here, ophelein apadidoto, mean literally “let fulfill duty”. The specifics of that duty shape the tenor of the whole passage: is it marital duty or sex specifically which is owed?

“Render due benevolence/affection” KJV, NKJV.

“Fulfill marital duty” CSB, NIV.

“Should please his wife as a husband” NLT.

“Fulfill his duty/give his wife what is her due” NASB, NRSV.

“Give to his wife her conjugal rights” ESV.

Ephesians 1:3-14 – This passage is a single, run-on sentence in the Greek. That means two things. First, each clause is intended to modify the previous ones. It’s a grammatical ziggurat; the more sentences and paragraphs the English has, the less the modifying intent of the original is clear. Second, this passage would be unintelligible as a single sentence in English and so some divisions are necessary.

    • KJV: 3 sentences, pre-paragraphs
    • NKJV: 4 sentences, 3 paragraphs
    • NRSV: 5 sentences, 1 paragraph
    • ESV: 5 sentences, 2 paragraphs
    • NASB: 6 sentences, 1 paragraph
    • NIV: 8 sentences, 2 paragraphs
    • NLT: 13 sentences, 3 paragraphs

Every translation has a sentence break between verses 6-7 and 12-13. Every translation but the KJV has a sentence break around the end of verse 4 and beginning of 5; they differ on exactly where, and KJV has a colon at that same place.

Ephesians 4:12It’s me and the KJV versus the world.

“For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry.” KJV.

“To equip the saints for the work of the ministry” CSB, ESV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV.

Colossians 2:14 – This one is tricky, and interesting since there is little uniformity and the implication for the doctrines of the atonement and justification are big. The KJV and NKJV get it literally right, but the terms here are vague enough that literal translation can still obscure: the “handwriting” could mean record and might imply a debt, and the “ordinance” does have a legal dimension, and the “contrary to us” is premised upon being in violation of the legal record. Clarity is needed. But supplying the verbiage of “debt” and a contrariness that “condemned” really fail as translations and are very much interpretative insertions.

“He canceled/erased the record of the charges against us with its legal demands” NLT, NRSV.

“Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances, which was contrary to us” KJV, NKJV.

“Erased certificate of debt that was against us and opposed us” CSB.

“Canceled the record of debts that stood against us with its legal demands” ESV.

“Having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us” NASB.

“Having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us” NIV.

1 Thessalonians 2:16 – This passage (1 Thessalonians 2:14-16) is difficult because of the strange terms used and the potential anti-Semitic bent, depending on the translation. The “uttermost” translation (more accurate) emphasizes that in the end, God will not allow the persecution of his church to stand. The “at last” translation emphasizes a semi-celebratory, divine comeuppance – in fact the ESV, following the RSV, adds an exclamation point!

“But wrath has come upon them to the uttermost” KJV, NASB, NKJV.

“But [God’s] wrath has come upon them at last” CSB, ESV, NIV, NLT, NRSV.

1 Timothy 4:7 – There are many ways the gender-neutral debates for Bible translation can be carried out in honest difference. Removing gendered nouns because they may be offensive to modern ears is not one. Replacing a vivid and intelligible term in favor of something less evocative betrays both formal and functional equivalency.

“Reject profane myths and old wives’ tales” KJV, NASB, NIV, NKJV, NLT.

“Reject profane myths and silly tales” CSB, ESV, NRSV.

Hebrews 6:2 – This is a good example of theology directing translation. Is baptismos, a cognate of the verb baptizo (to baptize) and the nouns baptisma and baptismos which almost always have the practice of baptism in sight, better translated as ‘baptism’ or ‘washing’? If the former, the implications for interpreting the rest of Hebrews 6 are significant. I do appreciate the NIV attempting to split the difference.

“baptisms” KJV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV.

“cleansing rites” NIV.

“washings” CSB, ESV, NASB.