I have been spending a lot of time this past week reading the ESV, particularly the Gospel of Luke, with occasional forays into the Pauline letters and the Old Testament prophets. I have been doing this as a serious effort to “make my peace” with the ESV.
You see, I have had a hard time with the ESV for several years now, because the way I viewed the ESV marketing which demonized Zondervan’s new (at that time) translation known as the TNIV. I felt, and still do, that those who were promoting the ESV did a major injustice to the TNIV and the Committee on Translation. And it remains difficult for me to forgive them for tearing down an excellent Bible translation, and promoting what I saw as a warmed-over old translation (the RSV).
Be that as it may, I have been trying to read the ESV with an open mind. The powers-that-be at Zondervan/IBS seem to have given up the fight for supremacy and have surrendered to Crossway and their ESV. Now I own three TNIVs and one ESV, and will continue to use them, but if we’re nearing the end of the line for the TNIV (and I don’t really know that we are), I figure maybe I should try using the ESV more.
What I have found in reading the ESV is a translation that has much the same feel of the old Revised Standard Version I grew up with. Of course there are changes: no “thees and thous”, and so-called “liberalisms” have been changed to match traditional orthodox theology. The style of writing in the ESV is certainly old; perhaps not necessarily “archaic”, but much older than what we see in true contemporary translations. It reads like what it is, a third generation revision of the KJV. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because when you get into the ESV, (at least for someone my age) it’s really quite comfortable. It’s like a pair of old, well-worn shoes. It fits. You have the sense that you are reading something which was written thousands of years ago, so it should feel old. Old words are used, words that we don’t use in everyday conversation any more. You have to put on your thinking cap, and maybe even have a dictionary handy, when you read and try to understand the ESV.
In a way I really kind of like it.
But is it a good thing to take what appears to be a step backwards in this age of new translations into “English-as-we-speak-it-today”?
I find it to be just as comfortable to take a step backwards from the TNIV to the “venerable old” NIV! The advantage of the NIV is that it has been used so extensively over the past three or four decades that it’s familiar to a great many Bible scholars as well as regular folks who like to read and study the Bible. It, too, is comfortable, and it’s certainly easier to understand than the ESV.
Let me put it this way: I am of a generation that grew up with the RSV, so the ESV is comfortable – but – I also really got into Bible study with the NIV, not with the RSV. The NIV was always so much easier to understand, yet it was still very close to the originals in meaning. It was still more word-for-word than its critics have always claimed. That’s why we tend to call it a “mediating” translation these days. It’s certainly not a free-form, dynamic, functional equivalence translation like some of the newer ones are. And as such, it has proven to be quite a good translation for more extensive Bible study, as well as use in the churches.
So if we’re going to take a step backwards, I think I’m more comfortable with the NIV than with the ESV.