Thursday, September 30, 2004

Bible Versions – The English Standard Version

In my recent tract on “Bible Versions – if not chaotic then nearly so” of September 28 I did not mention, and therefore did not commend, The English Standard Version, which appeared in 2001 in the U.S.A. from Crossways of Illinois and in London, England, 2002 from Harper-Collins.

The title is perhaps somewhat pompous, especially since it is produced not by an official committee of the main-line or main-stream Churches but by a group of conservative evangelical scholars brought together by a Christian Publisher, Crossways, a Division of Good News Publishers. However, in the over-populated market of versions of the Bible, there are so many titles on view that to find a new one which characterized the intention of the translators was not easy.

The claim of the publisher is that the ESV stands in the mainstream of English Bible versions reaching back to the New Testament of William Tyndale (1626), the King James Version (1611), the Revised Version (1885), the American Standard Version (1901) and the Revised Standard Version of 1952 & 1971. Thus this version may be regarded as a revision of the Revised Standard Version, for the 1971 text of the RSV was where the team of translators began.

By starting here, and further by deciding to have nothing to do with the post-1960s method of translating known as “dynamic equivalency”, the team was committed to what may be called an essentially literal approach to translation. In doing so they separated their work from most of the versions that had appeared from the 1960s through to 2000.

In contrast to the ESV, such versions as The New International Version & the Revised English Bible are based on a use of both the essentially literal and the dynamic equivalency theory of translation and thus they move in one paragraph from literal rendering to a form of paraphrase and back again. (Note that such versions as The Good News Bible and the New Living Translation are wholly committed to the dynamic equivalency approach and thus they read as though they were written in the USA in the 20th century rather than in the ancient world!)

Because of its commitment to the essentially literal approach, the ESV retains the words of the original when referring to human beings. Thus Psalm 1:1 begins, “Blessed is the Man…”, and in the Epistles, Paul writes to “the brethren”. Also the inclusive use of the generic “he” is retained. In contrast, the New Revised Standard Version (so popular in the so-called main-line Churches) knowingly and deliberately renders references to “man” and “brethren” by dynamic equivalents in order not to be offensive to those (e.g., feminists) who find traditional generic language unacceptable.

Thus, those who have found the RSV to be a version whose literary qualities -- in terms of clarity, effective diction, vivid expression, respect for the principles of poetry and smoothness of rhythm -- are high, or at least pleasing and acceptable, should find the ESV also to be suitable for public reading and personal devotional use.

Certainly if the choice is between the NRSV or the ESV then the ESV wins; if it is between the NIV and the ESV, then the ESV wins. However, if is a choice between the RSV of 1971 and the ESV of 2001, then the ESV probably does not win.


Because, first of all, the ESV, unlike the RSV, does not yet contain the Apocrypha. This means that its use by the ancient Churches of Constantinople & Rome is limited, if not a non-starter. Anglicans also, who follow the Daily Lectionary, will find it does not meet their needs for they read from the Apocrypha in parts of the year.

Second of all, the ESV, though it claims to be committed to the essentially literal approach, does not use the ancient facility in English to convey the second person singular. The pressure of market forces in the USA, where it is judged that the majority of evangelicals do not wish (or have a strong aversion) to use the old form of the second person with its special verbal forms, dictated that “you” be used always and everywhere for the second singular and plural. Thus often the reader does not know whether God the Father or the Lord Jesus Christ are speaking to a single person, individually and personally, or to a group, a plurality. This causes a major loss of meaning if one believes that the original text is “God-breathed” and inspired by God verbally.

Further, in refusing even to address God as “Thou/Thee” (as does the RSV) the ESV team removed root and branch from the English language of prayer a form of address that reaches back through the Reformation to fourteenth century English lyrics and which was constant from the fourteenth century until the 1960s/1970s! A rich stream of devotion was uprooted!

In closing, I have a thought to share.

That if the publishers of the ESV were willing to produce an edition containing the Apocrypha, addressing YHWH as “thou/thee” and rendering the second person singular truly as such, then with the right marketing the ESV could do what the RSV once did and thereby cause the displacement of the NRSV and the NIV especially from churches where there is some kind of formal liturgy – R C, Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist etc.

There is needed, alongside the KJV, in American Churches and in the supermarket of American religion, a solid, reliable, readable version that is essentially literal in its rendering of the original languages! For the ESV to be so, it surely needs some further editing.

(See further on language for God – NEITHER ARCHAIC NOR OBSOLETE, the language of Common Prayer and Public Worship by Peter Toon & Lou Tarsitano from The Prayer Book Society in the USA (1-800-727-1928) and from Edgeways Books in the UK (ISBN,0 907839 75 4)

the Revd Dr Peter Toon September 29, 2004

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Oxford University Press will be publishing in Feb. 09 an ESV w/Apocrypha. OUP will be the only publishing house doing so. This means that now, the Anglican world can use the ESV in its liturgy.