A reader sent me an email asking about my increasing preference for the English Standard Version (ESV). I kept meaning to say something about this, but I just never could get around it. Anyway …
I’ve been a fan of the ESV ever since it came out in 2001 (updated in 2007 and 2008). It typically does a much better job of translating Paul than the NIV because it’s generally truer to the original language, while managing to be quite readable. I started my transition in the last few months using BibleGateway, even though QuickVerse for Windows 95 (my primary software aid at the time) didn’t offer that version.
Greg Tidwell (my favorite conservative preacher) had urged me to shift to the ESV, and I increasingly found the translations superior to the NIV. But what completed my transition was BibleWorks 8.0, which includes lots of translations, including the ESV, NIV, and NAS, among many others. Finally, it was just as easy to use the ESV as any, so it’s become my first choice.
It’s not perfect, but it’s truer to the original language and doesn’t do annoying things like translate “faith” as “trust” or “works” as “deeds.”
The NIV has become nearly the official translation of many churches, and when it came out, it was an incredible blessing. The NIV isn’t nearly as bad as many make out, but it has its limits when you’re doing serious theology.
I don’t have an opinion on many translations, because, well, there are just too many to read. Here’s what little I know —
* I don’t use the KJV, New KJV, or 21st Century KJV unless as a comparison to a serious translation or unless I’ve checked the underlying Greek myself, because these are all based on the Textus Receptus, which is the same Greek text used in 1611 by the KJV translators, even though there have been countless discoveries and studies done since then greatly improving the Greek text. In other words, these translations are all based on a text known to be flawed. These translations are marketing ploys and not serious efforts at bringing the reader what the apostles actually wrote.
* I don’t use paraphrases such as the New Living Translation or New English Bible, because these are more in the nature of commentaries, rather than translations. Sometimes they’re really good, but they can be badly inaccurate.
* I really detest translations that try to sound too conversational. You know, like —
(1Co 13:1 NLT) 6 [Love] does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 7 Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. 8 Prophecy and speaking in unknown languages and special knowledge will become useless. But love will last forever! 9 Now our knowledge is partial and incomplete, and even the gift of prophecy reveals only part of the whole picture! 10 But when full understanding comes, these partial things will become useless.
“The truth wins out”? Could you pick a more hackneyed phrase? “Endures through every circumstance”? Lacks the grace of the original language. “Part of the whole picture”? Dynamic equivalence isn’t wrong — unless you choose the least dynamic, most clichéd language imaginable! (My kids couldn’t have gotten away with such poor writing in high school!)
And “full understanding”? It’s a possible meaning of “that which is perfect,” but hardly an assured translation. The Bible deserves a little more respect.
(1 Cor 13:1 New Revised Standard) 6 it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7 It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9 For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end.
And compare these translations of Gal 2:11 —
NLT But when Peter came to Antioch, I had to oppose him to his face, for what he did was very wrong.
NIV When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.
ESV But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.
NAS But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.
NRS But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned;
“Stood condemned” and “was very wrong” are not the same thought. The Greek is ????????????? (kategnosmenos). The same word is found in —
(Deu 25:1 ESV) “If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty, [The Septuagint translates using kategnosmenos.]
(1Jo 3:20-21 ESV) for whenever our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God;
Now, we can have a serious discussion about the meaning of “condemn” in this passage, but it would be a very different conversation from a discussion about Peter’s being “very wrong.” I prefer my translations to put the hard words front and center so I know when to dig deeper, rather than “solving” the problem for me and leaving me unaware of the issue.
But I’m not normal. For most people, looser translations work just fine — most of the time, at least — although I can think of no reason for anyone to use translations based on Greek texts known to be flawed. And the NLT and translations of its ilk are often inelegant, written by a clumsy hand. They make me want to scream. They won’t send you to hell — they’ll just make your listeners yearn for death.