When it comes to Bible translations I have no particular axe to grind with the English Standard Version (ESV). I sell plenty of them and recommend it quite often to my customers. One of the most recent reviews I’ve read of it is by a Lutheran, Thomas Nass. Unlike some other reviews Nass proposes to “evaluate [the] translation . . . to see if the translation actually does what it intends to do.” (6) He finds much good in the translation but in terms of how well it matches up with its own stated goals it often fails to deliver the goods. After his lengthy review (which is quite good) he concludes,
“I hope that nothing I said will lead someone to conclude that the ESV is a bad translation that should be avoided. The ESV was produced by God-fearing Christians, all of whom consider the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God. The ESV can be read as God‘s Word, and I am certain that God will use the ESV for good in the lives of countless people as the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ is presented in it. It may have a good purpose among us as a literal study Bible. But we should not make the ESV into something more than what it is. It is not the silver bullet that does everything perfectly in regard to English Bible translation. It is not some sort of ―high road‖ for all conservative, Bible-believing, complementarian Lutherans. Simply put, it is a doctrinally acceptable, somewhat unidiomatic and inconsistent evangelical revision of the RSV. Nothing more and nothing less. It is a translation that promises more than it actually produces.” (31)
Most readers of the ESV know that it used as its base text the 1971 update of the Revised Standard Version (RSV). In fact it only changed about 8 percent of the text (about 60,000 words). As Wayne Grudem states, “The remaining 92 percent is the RSV, much of which is simply the ‘best of the best’ of the KJV tradition.” (Which Bible Translation Should I Use, 42) Nass rightly observes “that the Revised Standard Version, the base text of the ESV, received a mixed review when it was first published in 1952.” (2)
I’ve been reading a review of the RSV 1946 edition which was done by Oswald T. Allis. He wrote his review in 1948. What I find interesting is that not only does he fault the translation for its liberal bias but he also says it falls into the category of a “modern speech” translation. I find this surprising because one of the chief selling features of the ESV is its “essentially literal” translation philosophy. Allis writes,
“It has already been pointed out that of the nine members of this committee, two and these probably the most influential—Doctors Moffatt and Goodspeed—were already themselves authors of ‘modern speech’ versions of the NT. This indicates quite clearly that the committee was definitely committed from the outset to a ‘modern speech’ revision of AV, RV, and also to one which would represent a ‘modern’ viewpoint theologically.” (13)
Again, he says, “What is distinctive in RSV is that it is a modern speech version which differs radically from both AV and RV.” (12) To give just one example Allis cites Acts 12:20 which in the RSV (and ESV) reads “Now Herod was angry.” Allis says the “reading ‘Herod’ is certainly incorrect.” (9) He continues, “The ‘Herod’ reading in RSV is not due to any new discoveries of codices or versions. It is simply an example of the ‘freedom’ claimed for RSV in rendering the text into ‘modern’ and ‘idiomatic’ English.” (9) I find this fascinating because it is this type of criticism that modern proponents of the ESV make against other translations like the NIV or NLT.
Allis concludes his first chapter,
“Consequently, as we now proceed to examine the RSV in some detail, it is to be noted that the criticisms which are offered in the following pages are not intended as criticisms of RSV merely as one more of the now quite numerous collection of ‘modern speech’ versions of the New Testament. Were this all that RSV claimed to be, our interest in it would not be so great and its publication would not be a matter of such concern. Our criticisms concern RSV primarily as a ‘modern speech’ version, which claims to be a legitimate and indeed a ‘standard’ revision of the AV, a revision which carefully conserves its well-deserved reputation for accuracy and the beauty of its literary form, and which is, therefore, entitled to represent itself as the lawful and proper heir to the immense prestige and popularity which the AV has enjoyed for some three hundred years.” (14)
Make no mistake. Allis was not cut from the same cloth as some of our contemporary KJV-only groups. He was a formidable scholar in his day and his observations carried considerable weight. I find it a historical curiosity that some of the very objections the ESV raises against other translations were brought against its parent, the RSV, by Allis. I had always known that conservatives didn’t like the RSV because of its liberal theology but I was unaware of Allis’ claim that the RSV was a “modern speech” translation.