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English Standard Version Review (CE)

UPDATED: from an online discussion with over 20,000 views and a lot of comments, I add some changes in red

For many in the West, church in Covid lockdown has been a sacrament – an outward sign of an inner reality: they point out that what they are seeing on their streamed services during the Covid lockdown has shown empty church buildings with a few older men up front.

Those online discussions spring to my mind with the announcement that “The Scottish Bishops [all older men, let the reader understand] have approved the Catholic Edition of the English Standard Version (ESV) for use at Mass in the forthcoming new version of the Lectionary.”

The Tablet article (quoted, with a link, in the previous paragraph) highlights that ESV is appalling in its use of inclusive language and weak on up-to-date scholarship.

One response could be: “Not my circus, not my monkeys”. That’s not my response. Especially in the Western, post-Christian world, Christian life is much more intertwined – we are all together in one house with different rooms, and it is not useful to say, “I’m in the lounge, it’s just the kitchen that’s on fire – no concern to us here in the lounge.” Just as this is Roman Catholics deciding to use a reactionary Evangelical translation (reactionary to the NRSV as a revision of the RSV), so Christians are much more using each other’s resources across denominations. Denominations mean less and less both within and beyond them. That’s not even getting into the discussion of the tiresome proliferation of translations.

Others respond: “Well this will encourage more people from Roman Catholicism into our brand of Christianity.” This second approach follows a God-as-product approach, and denominations as different supermarket chains peddling their different style of the God-product. At heart, this approach sees denominations, and within denominations different parishes/churches/communities, as competing in their fishing in the same pond for religious fish. I eschew such an approach.

Those enthusiastic about the ESVCE, have pointed me to this review. It claims that, amongst other things, the ESVCE solves that “the NRSV has too much gender-inclusive language.” Well, my position would be that if the original text is pretty clearly intended to be not just about males or a male, the English translation should be not just about males or a male. The ESV does the opposite. The ESV “translators” know that ἀδελφοὶ (adelphoi), as just one example, refers to siblings in a family. In fact, they say this explicitly in some footnotes, and yet the text that they would have us read aloud in church “translates” ἀδελφοὶ (adelphoi) as “brothers” rather than “brothers and sisters”.

The ESV is not really a fresh translation. It is essentially the RSV with a some changes. The RSV, I remind you, was produced in 1946. “Brothers” (“brethren”) sadly just might have been an acceptable translation for ἀδελφοὶ (adelphoi) in 1946; I cannot see that anyone can justify using such a MIS”translation” nowadays, three-quarters of a century later.

Sacraments have power to effect what they signify. Older men up the front may yet cause an emptying church building!

The review, extraordinarily, thinks that by placing some translations side by side, without any reference to the original texts, “you can judge for yourself… that the ESV preserves … accuracy”. That methodology is, of course, pure nonsense.

Let’s illustrate with its first example – Prov 18:24 (ESVCE):

“A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.”

The review also argues that “the ESV preserves …decorum with beautiful English”. Well, I have not the slightest idea what “a man of many companions” means. It certainly isn’t English – yes, there are five English words following each other, but that is not how language works.

Let’s now look at what the original actually says:

אִישׁ רֵעִים לְהִתְרֹעֵעַ וְיֵשׁ אֹהֵב דָּבֵק מֵאָֽח

That’s right: absolutely no mention of anyone coming to ruin. In fact, the word “ruin” is not in the original. The ESV is neither good English, nor is it an accurate translation. Even the RSV, which the ESV is “correcting”, is better:

There are friends who pretend to be friends,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

If you want what the original is saying in memorable, contemporary English, try the NRSV:

Some friends play at friendship
   but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin.

I will conclude by repeating the review of the ESV I did some time ago.

English Standard Version

the Bible as some people wished God had written it

3 Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.
5 He will receive blessing from the Lord
and righteousness from the God of his salvation.
Psalm 24

As in water face reflects face, so the heart of man reflects the man.
Prov 27:19

Oh, taste and see that the Lord is good! Blessed is the man who takes refuge in him!
Psalm 34:8

I appeal to you, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God on my behalf,
Rom 15:30

General Synod of the Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia has had a standing resolution on inclusive language since 1984. “All language used should be deliberately inclusive, and that this principle be observed in all matters arising for revision, renewal or reconsideration by Synod and by all commissions, committees and other bodies established under its authority.” Of particular interest – this is the second of the liturgical standing resolutions (SRL2/SR26). We have had many decades now of a commitment to inclusive language in our services as much as possible.

And yet, extremely surprisingly, General Synod 2006 asked the dioceses and Hui Amorangi to ratify adding the English Standard Version (ESV) as a translation worthy of being read liturgically in our services. What people do in the privacy of their own closets (Mt 6:6) does not concern us, but the public, liturgical reading of God’s Word is of such significance to us as a community, that we follow this lengthy procedure required by the Church of England Empowering Act 1928.

It is not as if there are not yet enough translations authorised for this use. At last count I noted sixteen translations authorised for reading at public worship. As well as those versions authorised for public reading at Anglican services there are many more, of course, in the ever-growing industry where each particular theological position seeks yet another version which will justify even the most minute doctrinal difference. And fill the coffers of this growth industry – to the confusion of ordinary Christians in the pew and any hope that familiar repetition might lead to at least some memorisation and internalisation “by heart”.

So what does the English Standard Version offer?

Essentially the English Standard Version is the Revised Standard Version with less than 5-10% changed. The “translators” received permission from the National Council of Churches to use the 1971 edition of the RSV as the basis for the ESV. “Thee” and “thou” has become “you”. But the New Revised Standard Version’s principle that what was intended to be gender-inclusive in the original be rendered gender-inclusive in the translation was a bridge too far for those who produced the ESV.

Just one example: ESV “translates” Romans 1:13 as “I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you”. In the footnote to this it notes, however,”Or brothers and sisters. The plural Greek word adelphoi (translated “brothers”) refers to siblings in a family.” Clearly the revisors realise and acknowledge that adelphoi means “brothers and sisters”, yet they insist on “brothers” in the actual text. Do not expect any consistency in footnoting, however. Sometimes adelphoi is footnoted as indicated here. At other times there is no footnote to clarify that the gender-specific ESV text is inaccurate (Rom 7:4; 8:29; 15:30; 16:17; etc.). Matthew Hazzel writes, “Where there are multiple instances of “brothers”/”brothers and sisters” in a chapter, the ESV(-CE) consistently notes all verses at the first instance. This is presumably to cut down on footnotes clogging up the text. Fairly standard practice.” Such a practice is new to me, and clearly of little to no use unless you are reading full chapters from the start and remembering footnotes as you go along!

In that discussion, there was also mention of the fascinating alteration to Genesis 3:16: ‘To the woman he said, “… Your desire shall be CONTRARY [my emphasis] to your husband,but he shall rule over you.” There’s good reflections on this here and here.

The “translators” claim “the ESV is an “essentially literal” translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer. As such, its emphasis is on “word-for-word” correspondence, at the same time taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages. Thus it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original.” (Translation Philosophy – ESV Preface)

The “Translation Oversight Committee” contrasts this with a “thought-for-thought” or “dynamic equivalence” version. Here is the danger in their contention. If the limitations of a translation are acknowledged, one can be wary of relying too heavily on it. In a Christian environment, however, in which Bible verses are currently often used as blunt instruments, as weapons against the sincerely-held beliefs of other Christians, where even many clergy have little agility in the original biblical languages, and where meetings on hermeneutics is the hoped for solution to increasing polarisation about a half a dozen biblical verses – then we need to be sure that a translation which claims so strongly to be “word-for-word” actually stands up to this claim. And it does not.

The ESV claims to be based on the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. Another example: where the Hebrew has almah (“young woman”) in Isaiah 7:14, that clearly did not fit with Matthew’s quoting of it later. Hence, in order to nicely harmonise with the New Testament, ESV has this translated as “virgin” without so much as a footnote to indicate that this is a Septuagint Greek interpretation, not a translation from the original Hebrew.

When it comes to the theory of salvation presented by the ESV, there is no room for a variety of models in the great multi-faceted jewel of our redemption – it is “propitiation” all the way home (Rom 3:25, Heb 2:17, 1 Jn 2:2; 1 Jn 4:10). No footnotes. No alternative rendering or interpretation.

Those who want their gender-bias unchallenged, those who want particular theological positions reinforced, those who want the Bible to give a greater sense of consistency might like the ESV. But those who prefer a more rigorously honest translation will not.

Hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.

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2 thoughts on “English Standard Version Review (CE)”

  1. As an associated but somewhat parallel comment, I would add this observation: the publishing houses drive to sell Bibles appears to be driving evermore translations … and in the process, for some Christian circles, it appears that the NRSV is becoming elusive. There is a largish Christian bookshop in our own fair city where one has to look fairly hard to find the few forms of the NRSV which are on the shelves.

    Back to the ESV: much as I have appreciated it as a Bible in the AV/RSV tradition, it is a poor Bible for the public reading of Scripture. The lack of inclusive language jars badly. But there is also phrasing (as you observe above) which simply does not read/scan well.

    (To be fair to th ESV re lack of inclusivity, the REB which is a very fine translation, but in the British mode of thinking “man” remains as good as “humankind/humanity”, also jars when read publicly.)

    1. Thanks, Peter. Sadly, the NRSV is very weak in producing quality bibles – say for study, or for different demographics or purposes. It now comes across like the version for some people with rarified taste. The NRSV also needs further work – and I pick up rumours that that is underway. As to inclusive language: there comes a point when one’s ears pop, and using masculine words and claiming that all are included cutteth no mustard. For the Scottish RC bishops, unfortunately that day clearly has not yet come. Blessings.

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