We Shouldn’t Exclusively Use the ESV

We Shouldn’t Exclusively Use the ESV June 13, 2015

In the past decade, the ESV has become the go-to Bible for many in the Lutheran and Reformed traditions. The official CPH material for the LCMS now uses the English Standard Version, as do most of the popular Reformed study Bibles. While I like the ESV, I think the exclusivism with which some people use the text is problematic.

One of the primary issues I have with the ESV is the translation of the term monogenes (such as in John 3:16) as “one and only.” Traditionally, this term has been translated as “only begotten,” but some contemporary scholars have argued this to be a mistranslation. This may seem to be an insignificant point, but the translation of this particular term is part of the rejection of the eternal generation of Christ endemic in much of contemporary theology. Any tradition committed to the truth of the ecumenical creeds, this should be problematic. This, of course, is not only an issue with the ESV, but appears in most modern translations.

The ESV is largely a revision of the earlier RSV. Generally, conservative denominations rejected the use of the RSV due to its translation of the Hebrew term alma in Isaiah 7 as “young woman,” rather than “virgin.” Thus, translations such as the 2nd Catholic Edition RSV and ESV serve as conservative revisions of the RSV. Unfortunately, however, some of the problems in translations of the RSV then carry over into the ESV. One example is Philippians 2:6 which is translated “was in the form of God,” rather than the Greek present tense “being in the form of God.” One might get the idea, when reading this text, that Jesus only was in the form of God and gave up his deity. Some of the revisions are also quite odd, such as the reference to Jesus rescuing the Israelites from Egypt in Jude 5. This particular phrasing has very limited textual basis in the manuscript tradition. Here, and in several other places, I actually prefer the rendering of the original RSV.

I also wonder sometimes whether the ESV should even exist. In many ways, the ESV is trying to replicate the same translation and textual ideology of the NASB. Though originally a revision of the ASV rather than the RSV, the NASB is, in many places, identical to the ESV. Both were put together by conservative Biblical scholars to render an accurate formal equivalence translation of the earliest manuscripts. The updated NASB of 1995 basically does the same thing as the ESV, so what need was there for the ESV in the first place? Unfortunately, the reason for so many translations often has less to do with the need for the church to have new translations, and more with the profit gained by companies owning the copyright to various translation.

In places where the ESV differs from the NASB and the RSV, I generally prefer the original RSV rendering. However, the liberal leanings of the RSV in a few minor places are problematic. Because of that, my preferred formal equivalence translation from the critical text is the 2nd Catholic Edition RSV. This is a slightly-revised version of the RSV which utilizes modern language, and fixes the translation of both alma and monogenes.

Finally, I wonder whether the critical text should even be the basis upon which our Biblical translations should be built. Yes, these editions do try and incorporate the most ancient available texts, but those ancient texts are only from one small region of the world: Egypt. Because of that, our translations are largely limited to that particular textual tradition, rather than the broader range of Biblical texts in the Roman Empire. This also means that as more manuscripts are found the text will continue to be revised, and more and more new translations will be released. This can be rather confusing for the average church goer with Scripture memorization. It also is somewhat odd that the text we use today is one that never existed in the past, and is an attempt to reconfigure an original autograph that we don’t actually have.

As much as I reject the King James Only IFB movement, there is a point to be made regarding the preservation of the text. The textus receptus demonstrates a much broader textual tradition (in most places), which was in use throughout the majority of the history of the church. If we truly believe that God preserves his Word, shouldn’t this have some theological implications regarding the text that we use? Now, lets be honest about this tradition as well, as there is no one unified manuscript, but this tradition is rather consistent. The idea of the preservation of the majority text is also consistent with the fact that the Old Testament citations in the New Testament are quotes from the versions in transmission in the first century. The Apostles themselves believed that the text has been preserved, and didn’t seek to go back to an original autograph that no one had.

It is for these reasons that I have recently been using the New King James as a primary Bible, though with consistent reference to the 2nd Catholic Edition RSV. None of this is to say that the ESV is a bad translation, or that we shouldn’t use it. However, we should be wary of making it our exclusive go-to translation.

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