We all know about the big fight that went on a couple years ago between the promoters of the ESV and the people who were promoting the TNIV. There are still some hard feelings to be found among those people, even now.
But I am in the midst of a little conflict between the ESV and the NASB, if only in my mind. Both translations are formal, word-for-word translations (although in all honesty neither is truly a word-for-word translation, because such a translation is totally impractical in the real world.)
What I am dealing with is this: I have an old, nearly worn-out NASB reference Bible, and a brand new ESV single-column reference Bible. Now I really love my old NASB, because it gives me an extremely literally-accurate text, along with outstanding text notes. (I rarely use cross-references.) I discovered with this Bible that by using their excellent text notes as I read along, I could discover a deeper understanding of what the scripture text was saying. That caused me to fall in love with that particular Bible, and also helped me realize that it wasn’t necessary for me to carry along a “study” Bible wherever I went. Unfortunately, I also discovered that reference Bibles of the quality of this NASB are very few and far between, at least when it comes to the text notes. There are lots of reference Bibles out there with a lot of cross-references, but a relatively poor set of text notes. I think that the NASB’s text notes are about the finest available, outside of the extensive notes that accompany the NET Bible.
My new ESV has a fine set of text notes, but they’re not the equal of the NASB. Even so, they’re quite good compared with a lot of other Bibles out there. I frequently refer to them and am rarely disappointed.
So that brings me to the text itself. The ESV and the NASB are really quite different from each other, even though they share a very similar philosophy of translation. In fact, both translations came about as a reaction to another translation, the NASB in reaction to the RSV, and the ESV in reaction to the NRSV. In both cases the “offending” translation was perceived as a “liberal” translation.
In the case of the NASB, the translators went back to the old American Standard Version (ASV) and revised it to bring it more in line with the current-at-that-time English usage and scholarship. The latest NASB is the result of a very similar revision of the 1971 NASB done in 1995, with an eye to making it more readable.
The ESV came about in response to the National Council of Churches’ revision of the RSV, resulting in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). (The conflict with the TNIV came later, after the ESV was published.) It was decided that the NCC had gone too far in their revision, making the NRSV far too liberal for evangelicals to use. Interestingly, the ESV people chose the old RSV text as their basis for coming up with the ESV text. Originally the ESV text was simply a revision of the more liberal things contained in the RSV to make it more palatable for evangelicals, but the latest revision of the ESV, though still not very extensive, has included a little more of what we could call “evangelical scholarship”.
Of the two translations (ESV & NASB), the ESV uses a more formal style of English, a more classic English, if you will. The NASB, on the other hand, while its readability has been improved, is still far more concerned with its literal accuracy than with being fine English. This makes for some frequent odd renderings, at least grammatically speaking. Most of the NASB’s critics complain about how “wooden” the NASB’s English is.
When I’m reading the NASB in my own personal study, I really kind of enjoy the odd renderings in English, because it gives me a better picture of the original languages, and sometimes will even give me a greater insight into the actual meaning of a passage. But when it comes to reading it out loud, I have found the NASB can be difficult. At one point a couple years ago I abandoned the NASB as the text for my adult Bible study class, because the passage we were looking at was too difficult to read out loud easily.
The ESV, on the other hand, is a much smoother-reading text, especially reading it out loud. Its translation team apparently took this into consideration when they chose to use the RSV text as the basis for the ESV. It was already written in a very classical-style English, yet it was also already quite literally accurate. However, since the RSV was already an “old” translation when the ESV people took it up, it contained, and still contains, quite a number of what I would consider “archaic” renderings. These are really no problem for scholars and most people with a fairly good education and grasp of the English language, but for the average modern English-speaker it can make the ESV a relatively difficult translation to understand, far worse than the NLT, worse than the NIV/TNIV, and almost on a par with the venerable old King James Version. But for the Bible scholar the ESV should cause little difficulty in understanding the text.
So, my question at this point is which translation do I prefer to use as my main Bible? I already use both of them for my own study, and compare them frequently. I often would tend to carry the ESV to church, since my church uses the NRSV as its pew Bibles and I think the ESV is closer to the NRSV text, making it easier to follow along. On the other hand, I find I usually can understand the NASB easier, especially when I use the text notes.
If I want to use a study Bible, I have the MacArthur NASB in leather, and it’s a pleasure to use. I also have the NKJV MacArthur, and the waters will be muddied even more this fall when I get a copy of the ESV MacArthur. I don’t have a copy of the ESV Study Bible, so that doesn’t figure into the mix, at least for me right now, but I might get one in the future. But the point of this post was more concerning the text and notes of these two, rather than their study Bibles.
I’m afraid I go back and forth between these two, and probably will continue to do so. The fact that my ESV is brand new will factor into my using it more than I probably would if they were of equal age and condition. But I am finding more and more that I tend to prefer the clear, easy understanding of the NASB over the classic English of the ESV.