It's been a long time since I wrote much about Bible translation, but I thought I'd step up on this one. There has recently been a long series of posts on Better Bibles Blog containing a paper Mark Strauss presented to the Evangelical Theological Society entitled "Why The English Standard Version Should Not Become the Standard English Version." There is now a brief response from Bill Mounce, the New Testament Chair of the ESV translation committee.
I, on the one hand, agree with Strauss that some of the ESVs decisions make for misleading or awkward English text. On the other hand, I agree with Mounce that the majority of the passages Strauss points to seem to be consistent application of the ESV's stated translation policy. This means that it is wrong to call them 'mistakes' or 'errors'. The ESV team successfully did what they set out to do. There is another question, though: is there any good reason why anyone would set out to do this? A perhaps slightly sarcastic (but avowedly serious) comment by Peter Kirk has received some attention. Peter wrote:
ESV could be made better, but what�s the point? The market is already saturated with good quality English Bibles. If ESV were improved in the ways which Strauss suggests, the result would be so similar to NIV (not TNIV unless the gender issues are also dealt with) and HCSB that there would be no niche remaining for it. At least ESV as it currently is has found a niche market among those who believe that archaic and unclear language is the sign of a proper Bible, and that clarifying such language is the job of a preacher.
There are a lot of different Bible translations in English which are good for a lot of different tasks, because there is more than one way of reading the Bible: you could be following along with a sermon, you could be picking apart the syntax verse by verse (which, by the way, I generally don't recommend), you could be doing devotional reading, you could just be trying to figure out what the flow of argument is supposed to be in one of the epistles (not always an easy task), or you could be doing any number of other things. I claim that there is a spectrum of literalness and that different positions on the spectrum are better for different things. When an adult with good literacy skills asks me to recommend a good general purpose Bible translation, this is what I recommend: I tell them to go to the bookstore and pick up the NKJV, ESV, and HCSB, pick a chapter at random, and read it in each, then pick the one that sounds the most like the way they normally speak and write. My reason for this is that I think this region of the spectrum (roughly, at least as literal as HCSB, but more dynamic than NASB) is where we should be shooting for with a 'general purpose' translation. I say 'shooting for' because someone who doesn't have the vocabulary or other background will need a more dynamic translation.
Now, I don't really expect anyone to say that, of those three, the ESV will sound most natural. I include it in my advice because I think that in every other respect it is just as good as NKJV or HCSB. To me, the NKJV sounds more like good literary English, and the HCSB more like normal spoken English. The ESV is a lot like the NKJV. It's not as good in literary quality, in my opinion (I am not an expert on English literature), but most scholars believe that the New Testament text the ESV is based on is more accurate than the one that KJV and NKJV are based on, and ESV also renders certain words which have theological significance more consistently.
This last remark, about theological words, brings me to my final point, which I think is the real reason for a lot of very intelligent people, such as Phil Ryken, use and recommend the ESV. These ESV proponents push the fact that the ESV consistently uses words like 'propitiation,' 'justification,' and 'atonement'. Other people will point out that these aren't really good English translations of the original terms - after all, in English they are technical terms of Christian theology, and in the original Greek they weren't! However, I think this criticism misses the real point. There is one activity for which I think the ESV is, hands down, the very best translation, and this, I think, is what Dr. Ryken means to endorse it for: it is the very best translation if you are consulting a Bible while reading or otherwise learning Reformed theology. This, I think, is what Dr. Ryken means when he says that when he was teaching from the NIV he would have to stop and say "this should say 'propitiation.'" He means that when Reformed theologians teach about 'propitiation' they mean to be offering a theological explanation of what the Bible means when it uses the Greek word hilasmos (and possibly also hilasterion) and that word occurs here. If you have a Bible that doesn't say 'propitiation' in those places, you won't be able to figure out how this particular Reformed doctrine is supposed to be derived from Scripture and so you won't really understand Reformed theology properly.
Now, neither Calvin, nor Warfield, nor Ryken would like us to take their theological teaching on faith without checking it against our Bibles. That wouldn't be very Reformed of them! If we read only the ESV and our only knowledge of the meaning of the word 'propitation' comes from Reformed theology (after all, where else is that word used?) then we won't be able to very effectively compare Reformed teaching against Scripture, because there will be a bunch of theology packed into that word that has nothing to do with the definition of the Greek word and everything to do with how that concept fits into systematic theology. So this is probably a reason not to read only the ESV. On the other hand, though, we really have to know where hilasmos and dikaioo ('to justify') occur in order to have any idea how these doctrines are supposed to be derived from Scripture, and the easiest way to do that is to have a translation that uses the appropriate technical terms, 'propitiation' and 'justify'.
I predict that my explanation will cause Peter Kirk to like the ESV even less, but I think it does explain why many reasonable and intelligent people think the ESV is the very best translation out there, and I think it also makes a case that it might not be unreasonable for a church or denomination in the Reformed tradition to adopt the ESV as their 'standard' Bible for reasons other than the sort of 'stylistic conservatism' Peter blames for the ESV's popularity.Posted by Kenny at November 25, 2008 5:37 PM
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