Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Although I'm not a huge fan of the English Standard Version (ESV), I decided to use it, both in personal study and in public reading, for the sake of uniformity. The Lutheran Service Book, the Pastoral Care Companion, the Treasury of Daily Prayer, and the new Lutheran Study Bible all make use of it. It goes without saying that although the LCMS has stopped short of declaring the ESV to be the de jure official translation of the synod, it really has become so in a de facto way.

For the most part, it is a readable and yet solid translation, part of the King James Version (KJV) tradition (through its predecessor the RSV), and is available in many different formats. It is a great leap forward toward a word-for-word translation philosophy instead of the synod's previous de facto translation, the New International Version (NIV) with its thought-for-thought principle.

I still wish the LCMS had gone to the New King James Version (NKJV) - a much more catholic translation in terms of widespread use across the Church, as well as having a lot more formats (such as the Word of Promise dramatic reading of the New Testament on audio). But more importantly, the NKJV is more consistent than the ESV when it comes to maintaining traditional churchly renderings of certain key words. There is actually a good deal of similarity between the NKJV and the ESV. But I'm finding that when the ESV fumbles, it fumbles big!

Cleveland Browns fans might want to nickname the ESV the Earnest Byner Translation.

Our school makes use of Rev. Dr. Peter Bender's catechetical material. This week's memory verse is Romans 3:20.

Here is how the NKJV renders it: "Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (emphasis added).

This is an accurate translation of the Greek: "διότι ἐξ ἔργων νόμου οὐ δικαιωθήσεται πᾶσα σὰρξ ἐνώπιον αὐτοῦ, διὰ γὰρ νόμου ἐπίγνωσις ἁμαρτίας" (emphasis added).

But here is the ESV: "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin" (emphasis added).

Notice the emphasized Greek word σὰρξ (sarx). The NKJV translates this as "flesh" whereas the ESV renders it "human being." As every first-year seminarian knows, "sarx" means "flesh" - especially in the context of fallen creation. It is a theologically-loaded term. We often modify "flesh" with the adjective "sinful." And the word "flesh" is graphically incarnational, as Jesus comes in the flesh (Latin: in caro, or incarnatus) to redeem our fallen flesh. The politically-correct clunky sounding "human being" not only fails to convey the nuances of the original Greek word, it is a weak, figurative translation when there is nothing at all wrong or confusing about "flesh." This translation violates the ESV's own stated translation principle.

This is a big fumble.

The ESV also drops the ball with the word "seed." For the life of me, I don't know why they choose to render this literal word (which occurs throughout Scripture in both Hebrew and Greek: זַרְעָהּ and σπέρμα) using a more figurative English word: "offspring." This is a radical departure from the translation tradition going back to Jerome's 5th century Latin Vulgate (semen) right up through the King James' 1611 English translation ("seed"), from which the ESV claims heritage.

Just when I get comfortable with the ESV, it drops the ball on the one yard line.


Kaleb said...

I don't know Greek, so tell me: What are your thoughts about the ESV on Ephesians 2:8? The KJV says:

"For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God"

But the ESV says:

"For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God"

Every other translation I've looked at reads like the KJV, and seems to say that the faith is not of ourselves. But the ESV's wording doesn't say that; instead, the ESV says that the saving act is not our own--and it leaves open the question of where the faith comes from.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Kaleb:

The Greek reads: ἐξ ὑμῶν (ex humon) which means "of (or "out of" or "from") yourselves." The ESV has a curious translation of this verse.

My guess is they thought "of yourselves" was too wooden and isn't natural English, and so paraphrased it a little. Your point is spot on, though, that it introduces confusion. Does the "it" refer back to the action of salvation, or of faith? Which gift is being emphasized here?

The introduction of the verb "to do" where it doesn't appear in the Greek does indeed make the "this" seem to point back to (as you put it well) "the saving act" as opposed to the noun "faith."

I think this shows the unintended consequence of paraphrase - even with the best of intentions.

The Vulgate says: "hoc non ex vobis" (this [is] not of yourselves). The "hoc" (this) refers back to the previous word "fidem" (faith). The KJV and NKJV interpret it exactly the same way, only in English.

Luther plays it the same way in German ("... Glauben, und das nicht aus euch...").

I wish the ESV translators had left it alone and followed the established 400 years of English language tradition (not to mention the same tradition extending back 15 centuries to Jerome) in order to keep things clear.

"If it ain't broke" and all that.

Thanks for weighing in on this! I'm ashamed to say that I never noticed this before!

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

I remember being back at the Sem. telling every prof on the hymn committee that we should be using NKJV - it is by far the best translation I have seen. ESV isn't. . . bad. . . and its certainly an improvement over the "Nearly-Inspired-Version" and its tomfoolery - but yeah. Whenever you want to move away from a "wooden" translation, you are going to get euphemisms and lose the point sometimes.

Rev Keith Reeder said...

I seem to recall a recent post in which you pointed out the textual update of the ESV (2007) and that it was unkind to the word "pastor," opting for "shepherd." One improvement is the update of James 1:20: "for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God." The 2001 version read, "does not produce the righteousness that God requires."

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Eric:

I think the ESV was a foregone conclusion - as we had men from LCMS seminaries on the committee. I suggested that once, and caught you-know-what for suggesting that the LCMS is not immune from political considerations.

I really don't understand the argument for ESV over NKJV. The main one put forth seems to be the use of textual criticism in ESV. But that seems to be a pretty feeble argument in light of some of the paraphrasing going on in ESV.

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Keith:

Yes, that is indeed an improvement.

But what I don't understand is this: the Bible hasn't changed (though, to a point, I can understand the need to address more recently discovered texts), the ancient languages haven't changed, nor has English to speak of since 2001.

Why did ESV publish a bad translation in the first place that needed correcting?

I think this is one of the dangers of working by committee.

It defeats the point of using a word-for-word translation and encouraging people to memorize God's Word - if it's going to change every couple years.

I can see why some are chucking all the new translations and going back to the KJV.

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

The main argument I got in terms of ESV over NKJV for the hymnal was that the ESV was more "readable" -- which may or may not be true. I can see why that might be a consideration -- but it's a consideration that is lower on my list.

Past Elder said...

Here's one thing I've never understood about Christianity, and this sort of discussion is a great example of it.

In Judaism there isn't a big push about translations because typically you will learn Hebrew in school in order to read the Bible. In Islam there isn't a big push about translations because typically you will learn Arabic in school in order to read the Koran (the majority of Muslims worldwide are not native Arabic speakers).

The idea being the same -- the document is only the document in the original and a translation of it will always, even under the best of circumstances, be at least one degree removed from it.

But we do just the opposite, pride ourselves on getting the Bible into the language of the people etc and learning Hebrew and/or Greek is for blackbirds!

How or when did this happen?

Just a side note: I myself had no Greek whatever; what I know of it comes from etymologies etc but an actual Greek text is, well, Greek to me. I did have Latin though, which in those pre-conciliar RC days was counted a good thing, the Vulgate being the work of a saint for one thing and a scholar who had access to things we do not. I still keep a Clementine Vulgate around, not a relic from those days like my missals etc but bought later in a Mennonite bookstore (!), handy for when things turn Latin on this blog! Same with Hebrew -- twenty odd years around Orthodox Judaism (as if there were any other kind since the destruction of the Temple, but I digress) but as a Righteous of the Nations I was not expected to undertake the study of Hebrew.

Father Hollywood said...

As far as readability goes, I think it is somewhat true. For example, "even though..." (ESV) is a more natural sounding English than "yea though..." (NKJV). The NKJV more often retains older English forms like "behold" and "lo" - whereas ESV often (but not always) updates this to "look."

I don't mind that kind of thing.

But substituting "human being" for "flesh" is just over the top.

Also, John 3:16 in ESV follows other modern translations in translating μονογενῆ (Latin: unigenitus) simply as "only" instead of "only begotten." Technically speaking, it isn't incorrect, but the Greek word (monogenes) does carry both the sense of "one" (mono) and begottenness (genes) - hence the Latin "unigenitus" - which is more incarnational than simply "only." The point is not just that Jesus is the only Son of God, but also that He is God and is yet "begotten."

The English translation tradition reflects this by translating it is "only begotten" - which is also the language of the Nicene Creed ("only begotten Son of God")!

As it stands now, using ESV, people will not hear John 3:16 reflected in the words of the Nicene Creed. It just sounds like the Creed is "adding to the Bible" instead of confessing (repeating) it.

Again, if it wasn't broken, why did it have to be "fixed"?

Rev. Eric J Brown said...

Of course, even the modern translations follow the antiquated use of the English "So" with "For God So loved" instead of "God loved the world in this way, in this fashion, thusly" as the Greek would say. We don't use "so" in the "how so" fashion anymore. . . ah well.

Rev Keith Reeder said...

--if it wasn't broken, why did it have to be "fixed"?--

The PC crowd truly believes these things are broken. "Human being" is unfaithful to "sarks" in the extreme, though it might suffice as a translation for "anthropos."

One such example of PC extremism by committee is found in the Kolb Wengert, which offers the most amusing rendering of the creation account (I believe from the NRSV): "And the Lord God built a woman out of the rib that he had taken from the human being" (KW 370:10)!

All this is for the purpose of producing something that will sell in a culture that holds the learning of languages in low esteem. We feel the need for modern, relevant, accessible translations because we are so illiterate. Working in the library at the sem, the most frequently used reference book I had to reshelve was the Greek-NIV interlinear NT!

For too long, we've strayed from learning the biblical languages, and this creates the danger you've noted--that we put the Word of God in the hands of committees, the motives of which are not always clear (or clearly contrary to scriptural faithfulness).

This is not to say, though, that the idiosyncracies of all modern translations obscure God's Word in a dangerous way. I do steer people away from the likes of The Living Bible and unfaithful editions like the NRSV, but I try to be careful not to cause too much doubt about the trustworthiness of my parishioners' own Bibles. The most practical solution, I think, is to have pastors able to work in the Greek & Hebrew and be able to reference them in teaching the Scriptures. This, of course, opens up the can of worms of the whole lay ministry fiasco, which simply "fans the flame" of biblical illiteracy and ineptitude.