Why the ESV Translation Changes Matter: Two Things to Consider

It was subtle and discrete. I hardly noticed the press release in the seemingly endless feed of news and updates until it was literally placed in front of me by a friend. Dropping the announcement on my keyboard at work, “This,” they said emphatically. “What do you make of this?”

I’ll be honest, my mind and my heart were a bit apathetic as I forced myself to focus on the document titled, “ESV Permeant Text Edition.” My eyes scanned the list of translation changes recently published by Crossway Publishers, and I thought about all the current events and how weary we all are from a constant cycle of election updates and theology debates. Honestly, I just wanted a break – I wanted all of us to just have a break – from the mental stamina required to navigate these difficult times.

Then two words locked my eyes in: “in perpetuity.” I sighed. I knew we couldn’t ignore this.

Like many, you may have missed the little big announcement. I say “little” because not much was made of it, and “big” because I’m wondering if much should be made of it. Earlier this week, Crossway announced that the board overseeing the ESV translation changed 52 words across 29 verses. They also announced that the board voted unanimously that these translation changes will constitute the “permanent text” edition, the final draft the ESV.

On their website, Crossway writes:

“The text of the ESV Bible will remain unchanged in all future editions printed and published by Crossway—in much the same way that the King James Version (KJV) has remained unchanged ever since the final KJV text was established almost 250 years ago (in 1769).”.

In this decision, the ESV has made two major motions:

First, they have made interpretive decisions about the Text.

Second, they have decided that their decisions about the Text are final decisions.

Neither of these is necessarily harmful or wrong, but both of these motions have mandated that I ask some questions of my own Christian walk, questions that I believe are appropriate to ask of the Church as a whole. I believe there may be something problematic in this decision, and I believe the questions considering because the answers have implications for the global and local church alike.

Before we jump in, here’s my massive disclaimer (I would write in all caps if it wouldn’t feel like digital shouting): In what follows, I do not intend to go toe-to-toe with any of the translation scholars who were a part of the translation changes. With only a few years of each Greek and Hebrew under my belt, I would not be so ignorant as to presume that conversing on the grammatical choices, or nuances, is a conversation I could stay afloat in. However, I want to suggest that, as Christians, we have a responsibility to think well on this topic, to evaluate the significance of the statement that the Crossway Board and ESV translation team is making with these changes. And I want to suggest that, even though this press release snuck by many of us, it may be more problematic than it seems.

With disclaimers out of the way, here are two things I believe are worth considering:

Which comes first: the Bible or Theology?

It is worth noting that of the 31,102 verses in the canon of Scripture only 52 words were changed. In many ways, this is a drop in the translation bucket. However, some of these choices in regard to wording beg the question: which comes first, the Bible or Theology?

One of the major changes in this newly rendered translation is in Genesis 3:16. You can see the change depicted here:Screen Shot 2016-09-13 at 10.17.59 AM.png

Here we run up against the necessity of distinguishing between the task of translation from the task of interpretation. The task of translation is answer the question “what does the Text say,” to represent the Hebrew Text in the English language as accurately as possible. The ESV translation has made a platform for themselves on their word-for-word translation because they aim to render the Hebrew Text in English as meticulously as possible. The task of interpretation is to answer the question “what does the Text mean,” to take the English translation into the realm of theology and Biblical studies.

If you’ve run in Evangelical circles for some time now this change in Genesis 3:16 might only serve to clarify how this verse has been taught. I have heard from many-a-pulpit that this verse depicts the fallen sin-nature of women (general) in that they, as a result of the curse, will desire to usurp the God-ordained leadership role of man. Wherever you fall on this matter (another post for another time), an honest look at the Text leaves it painstakingly clear: the Text simply doesn’t say that.

Now this doesn’t mean that this verse doesn’t mean that, just that it doesn’t say that. The intricacies of the Hebrew grammar are explained at length elsewhere, but among those reviewing the new translation it is nearly unanimous that “contrary to” isn’t a translation option for the Hebrew Text. Prepositions that are translation options are “to”, “for”, or “towards”. Here is a helpful list of nearby verses where the same Hebraic structure is translated in the ESV translation according to common interpretation in contrast to how it has been interpreted in Genesis 3:16:

Genesis 1:9: “into (’el) one place.”
Genesis 2:19: “to (’el) the man.”
Genesis 2:22: “ to (’el) the man.”
Genesis 3:1: “ to (’el) the woman.”
Genesis 3:2: “to (’el) the serpent.”
Genesis 3:4: “to (’el) the woman.”
Genesis 3:9: “to (’el) the man.”
Genesis 3:14: “ to (’el) the serpent.”
Genesis 3:16: “to (’el) the woman.”
Genesis 3:16: “for (’el) your husband.” (Original ESV translation)
Genesis 3:16: “contrary to (’el) your husband.” (Permanent Text)

(“The Permanent Text of the ESV” by Dr. Claude Mariottini, Professor of Old Testament)

While the translators of this passage were likely trying to explain the interpretive value of Genesis 3:16, we must remember that is not the task of translation.

Much more could be said about this grammatical choice. Off the cuff, it causes me to question if some in Christian circles believe that my sin nature as a woman is hard-wired to be contrary to men. I can see far-reaching problematic theology that could follow this translation, but that is not my primary concern here. The main question that I believe needs to be asked is this, Does translation proceed interpretation, or is it the other way around? Put another way, Should our theology inform our Biblical translation, or should our Biblical translation inform our theology? 

It seems that those who translated this verse came to the Text with a prescribed theology, a pre-set interpretation of this passage. I have no doubt that these translators are theologically astute, but it is concerning that they seem to have brought their theology to the table of translation and gave it a place of influence over their translation.

I was sharing this scenario with a dear friend and mentor of mine yesterday over the phone. I described the various aspects of the situation and, for some reason, let out a little laugh about the whole situation. Being older and wiser than I, she rebuked me. “I do not think it is funny at all,” she said with more severity than I expected. “I am an educated, stay-at-home mother. I’m informed but I will never learn Hebrew. It makes me mad that a group of scholars would do this. I should be able to walk into a store, buy a recommended translation, and trust that it is the most accurate English translation they could produce.”

She is right.

This ESV translation is an exercise in putting the cart before the horse. Theology, which should always be informed by and derived from the Word of God, was given a place of authority over the Word of God, informing the Biblical interpretation in Genesis 3:16. But theology is the every-moving, ever-growing language of the Christian faith. Theology is the outworking of our study of God’s Word; it is to be formed and re-formed by God’s Word. God’s Word is unchanging, it is our authority, it is the Text to which we all must submit our opinions, our desires, and, yes, our theology.

 

“In Perpetuity”: the presumption of chronological snobbery

The most recent ESV translation changes have been made permanent. The translation is to remain unchanged “in perpetuity.” This means that the current rendering of all these passages will remain unchanged in the English Standard Version until the end of time.

On the one hand, it seems appropriate that scholarship would eventually arrive at such a conclusion. It gives me confidence in those who study God’s Word in the original languages that they can, eventually, arrive at a translation that seems just about perfect. However, to do this is, in some way, to practice what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery.” This is the practice of believing that our generation is the generation that has “arrived”. This kind of snobbery looks back on past generations as more ignorant and less educated that we are today. It is to believe that we, in our current time and place, with our academic and scientific advances, are the best that humanity is going to get.

To seal this translation as the permanent translation for all time is, in some way, to operate with a sense of chronological snobbery. It looks with disdain on translators of the past who didn’t interpret it the way we have, and it looks ignorantly towards the future, believing that no progress will be made beyond where our feet stand today.

This misses the reality that our God is present in every generation, gifting us with advances and discoveries that were previously thought impossible. Of course we all feel quite advanced in comparison to generations prior, but those advances are the gifts of a kind and gracious Creator God. We must, in great faith and thankfulness, believe that same God will be take future generations beyond where we stand today. We must believe that we will never “arrive” until we arrive on Kingdom shores.

These two matters have brought their force to bear in my own life, and I believe they are important for us to consider as a Church and as individuals. Do we come to difficult Biblical Texts that seem to contradict beliefs we hold dear and brush them aside by reading a theological book on the topic that agrees with us? Have we done the hard work of submitting ourselves – and our theology – to the Text? Are we willing to hold our love of good theology up to the light of the Scriptures, willing to change theological camps should the Lord, by His Word, call us to?

Are there times that we read Christian scholars of old and scoff at their seeming lack of understanding in comparison to our own because we are further down the timeline of creation?  Do we believe ourselves to be more advanced than previous generations by our own merit, or do we see ourselves by God’s kindness standing on the shoulders of those who came before? Do we believe that our God can take future generations, future church congregations, beyond where we will go and beyond where we can lead?

Our God is working, and we have the joy and privilege of participating. Praise God He moves beyond us, that His Word is greater than us. I praise God today that His Word is for you, for our training and teaching.

 

For more (read: better) writing on this topic, please see Scott McKnight’s article, “The New Stealth Translation: ESV” 

For a technical look at more of the translation changes, see Dr. Claude Mariottini’s work, “The Permanent Text of the ESV”

Also recommended: “A Permanent Text of the ESV Bible? They Must Be Joking” by Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon

 

 

*UPDATE: SEPTEMBER 28*

The ESV team, along with Crossway, has published a retraction of the Permanent Text. You can read their statement HERE.

I thoroughly commend them for this decision and for the humility with which they communicated this decision. This is a lesson for all of us, and one I need to learn: very few decisions are irreversible of irrevocable. We don’t have to charge ahead with a poor plan, we don’t have to be defensive our decisions, but we can, in humility, learn from others and recalibrate. I am hopeful that some of the translation choices will also be reversed, particularly Genesis 3:16. But with the Text no longer a permanent edition, this hope can be sustained.

Comments

  1. I am shocked that I have not heard anything else about this!

    You are quite correct that translation needs to be more about words than theologically interpretive concepts. I am going to be preaching through Genesis in the next 10 weeks (yes… I know it could be a year or two long project….) and I am constantly asking myself “how do I handle these texts that have so much theological import” (whether anachronistically or inherently) without going into in depth discussions about Hebrew prepositions?

    Keep up the good work. I am proud to call myself a classmate of your’s.

    • Thanks, Ben! Genesis is my favorite book! I hope you thoroughly enjoy preaching through it. Thanks for the encouragement – I hope you’re well! Be sure to keep in touch! 🙂

  2. Amy,
    I am going to repost this superb article of yours on my biblical interpretation blog (WROTE, the companion to SPOKE: A Christological site) .

    This is so dead on the money on both the major issues – and so well written I could never improve upon it (though I have been writing on thee issues for 30 years and am now back in Seminary in Berkeley.

    Yes – The Word and interpretation must come before our theology – and this is the classic mistake of many of our seminaries and churches – that it is demanded that we accept a theological overlay prior to investigating the Word which will blind us to its true vibrancy and explosive power. The “words cannot linger and texts cannot explode” (Brueggemann) if they have been pre-handled/mitigated.

    You have done a masterful job of using the Genesis 3:16 passage (hey – how come they don;t hold THAT up in the endzone at football games? I KEED) as an example.

    To the second point – no where is this more evident than at my seminary where upon my arrival I was told that unless I approached scripture primarily from a Womanist/Feminist/Postmodern point of view I would be a “Theological dinosaur who would only be talking to myself.” (this was from a dean f one of the 9 seminaries at the GTU). I responded that while I was certainly open to reading views from those three perspectives I would not be giving any currently (chronological snobbery) popular epistemologies the pole position simply because it was politically correct to do so (I did not note – out of kindness that the seminary in question used to have hundreds of students when I first enrolled there in the 90s and now at 49 students – and that if anyone had one leg in the tar pit it was quite possibly not me).

    The fact is, as I see it of course, we can always be open to refining the text with new discoveries. It is just that those will be rare. In this case (Genesis 3:16) it doesn’t take much to see your point that theology has dictated to translation – and this is what we simply must not do.

    We must go with the texts wherever they lead us – come what may – with a certain fearlessness. And when we do not understand them in our current milieu – we must ask deeper questions – not simply explain away the conflict.

    This is the second article of your I have been blessed to read. You have a wonderful gift for clarity. I look forward to more – and the few people who read my blogs will be blessed by your post!

    Grace,
    Mac

    • Thanks for the encouragement! I really appreciate you reading and sharing! Such an interesting topic that so much more could be said, but I’m glad the conversation is rolling. Blessings!

  3. Sister Gannett,

    This is a very thoughtful piece of work. While working at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, in Evanston, IL, I took some time to read the history of the institution. Before the merger between the Evangelical United Brethren and the Methodist church this school had been three separate bodies. The one central to the response was Evangelical Theological Seminary, located in Naperville. One of the two Seminaries for the Evangelical Church (later the Evangelical United Brethren. In the early writings of the church there was a great deal of skepticism about have a seminary at all.

    It was felt by many in the membership that pastors getting education would remove the from the communities they were to help. And fill their heads with a bunch of big city schooling that would make it difficult for them to come back to the mostly small rural counties they were to searve in. The local churches found that pastors trained in this way came back more liberally minded than those trained in local parish schooling.

    This seems to continue in practice today, depending on the school. Yet the worry that theology will override interpretation of scripture, daily events, and societal trends can and often does leave out the daily hand oh god in our lives.

    Matthew 10:29-31English Standard Version (ESV)

    29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?[a] And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrow.

    Amy, I wholeheartedly agree with you the god continues to be present in out lives. So while our larger or ultimate future is known, there is much growing, learning, helping, and example setting for us to do and new ways he may call us the be in service! One of my ways is to sing 🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶
    I love to tell the story,
    ’twill be my theme in glory,
    to tell the old, old story
    of Jesus and his love. 🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶🎶

    Brother David

  4. The old ESV was bad enough. Frequently, theology (usually very Neo-Calvinistic) interferes with the ESV. That’s why I’ve given up on it. I currently favor the NRSV for the Old Testament and the Epistles and the Kingdom New Testament (N. T. Wright) for the Gospels.

  5. Yes we all have roles to play and God given tasks to perform but there is always an element of human error in all that we do. Jesus is the only one who is who has the authority to make or break (as he will do) an eternal seal on anything, especially ultimate interpretation of the Bible. Only he is the ultimate judge of the theology behind the scriptures being that he IS The Word. All we can do is translate for the masses and interpret for ourselves and those who choose to listen. To change the Bible to include our theologically based interpretations is to say that we know exactly what his word was ‘supposed’ to say…..precariously close to ‘adding and subtracting’ from the word if you ask me.

    The arrogance (and dare I say ignorance) required to do that is quite astounding. I couldn’t agree with you more on all points.

  6. Put another way, Should our theology inform our Biblical translation, or should our Biblical translation inform our theology?

    Totally agree. I think it requires less of the average reader, preacher and theologian because it tries to teach through translation, which is, as you said, interpretation. The big issue I see is that rather than thinking, teaching and holding loosely, this promotes proof-texting that will certainly further a cycle of lazy and ignorant bible reading to support foregone conclusions based not on the Bible.

    Great post, keep it up! Hope y’all are doing well.

  7. Amy, I have just discovered you due to a comment posted by Christopher MacDonald on Facebook. I am thankful for this discovery. MacDonald shared an earlier post regarding millennials and current state of the evangelical church. I’m 66 and that post ran me back to my days of studying Theology at school. My struggles were not much different. Thank you for that.

    Then I come to this post on ESV. Thank you again. God has certainly gifted you. It brings me hope for I know that the winnowing of the American Church will reveal more and more those who are willing to stand in the gap for truth. This revision of the ESV (which I had not yet fully embraced) smacks of the same challenge the NIV took me through when they transformed into a gender neutral version. I’ve even considered the value of going back to the Geneva Bible when most of the verse markings were inserted.

    I am thankful that the ESV’s “In Perpetuity” will be short lived. The Day is near even if it is a thousand years.

  8. I think I understand what’s the big deal here, but it really is not a controversy at all. ALL translations make decisions about how to best render the original language in the target language. It is an inescapable reality that a certain degree of “interpretation” (as it is being called) will take place in a translation…that is a big part of what “translation” means. This is one of the major items addressed by the discipline of exegesis.

    The ESV is excessively literal in places where I (personally) wish it were not. “I send my messenger before your face” (Mark 1:2ish) is an unnecessarily literal translation, in my view. There are many examples of that kind of literalness when it comes to idioms that put the ESV much closer to the original language than most other translations.

    The decision to make the text “permanent” is a relief to me, particularly since I memorize the ESV. I own every text of ESV printed, and it’s annoying to try to keep up with the changes when you memorize Scripture. And honestly I still have difficulty with some of the language when it comes to memorizing because the ESV has a higher commitment to literalness compared to the 1984 NIV, which is what I have memorized for years. If you have a problem with the ESV translators “interpreting” Scripture for you, I assume you NEVER use the NIV. But I decided to make the transition because the 1984 NIV is out of print…more of the same frustration with updates. Memorization isn’t the only frustrating aspect here; a finalized text eliminates frustration in church services, bible studies, evangelism, on and on.

    All of this leads me back to an idea I had about 20 years ago. That idea was to just memorize from the same translation I study, which is the New American Standard Bible. It is difficult to memorize. But when I took Greek in Bible college, it was the text we were NOT allowed to bring to class. It is literally the answer book to translation exercises. A beginning Greek student would not have the skill to properly translate more complicated idioms the way a language scholar would. What you have with the NAS is as literal as it gets without using an Interlinear. So, me and like 100 other people love the NASB for that reason and wonder why people complain about functional equivalency in translations that don’t have the goal of being word-for-word literal translations.

    The ESV has the goal of being literal, with a higher degree of functional equivalency compared to the NASB. They are trying to overcome the choppiness and clunkiness of the NAS, and I think they do very well, even if I don’t think the improvement is as much as they’d like to claim.

    In terms of putting theology before the Bible, I think this is an inaccurate assessment of what is going on. Translation philosophy is the issue at hand, not necessarily theology. I have consistently heard that the ESV is a “Calvinist” translation, but have never seen a passage quoted that didn’t have translation philosophy as the real underlying issue. You might say that the two are one in the same, but I’m not sure what you expect to do with that. The NRSV, for example, is the text of the Anglican Church, and there are translation decisions made that are said to reflect exegetical tendencies from that background. The RSV is still in the top 3 of finest English translations, but has the dreaded “young woman” rendering in Isaiah (as does the NRSV), which is said to reflect more liberal theological thinking. Maybe it does…or maybe it doesn’t, I am not a heart-reader. It was a translation decision. I don’t personally like their decision, but I still use the translation and love it. The process for that rendering has been discussed in detail for years, and many people seem to take away what they want from those discussions.

    We seem to judge these things as Bible READERS and think of how we would say such-and-such, and if someone else said it differently, they would be up to no good. But exegesis and translation are technical disciplines, and the discussion about what degree of “interpretation” (which is really how to best render idioms, verb tenses, of when/how to use a functional expression over a more literal rendering) is a technical discussion first and foremost. If there IS a conspiracy afoot, it will go far beyond a discussion of translation philosophies, and give lots of old guys a chance to write books and go on radio shows and stuff and it will be obvious (again) what a great service these guys do for the Church through their devotion, obedience and commitment to the Word of God. But none of that is going to happen with the “permanent” ESV text; there’s no conspiracy or cult behavior going on with what they’ve done.

    It is not healthy to think we can approach the Scriptures with a blank mind, no preferences or prejudices or bad ideas. This is one place where the need for translations provides a benefit we might not otherwise experience if we all read Greek and Hebrew. It creates an opportunity for us to discover our own biases as we examine the decisions of translators. It adds a deductive element to our study. The popular idea these days is that the inductive approach is best, but a purely inductive approach is just not possible and can deprive us of opportunities to uncover our own bad ideas.

    I use many translations, and use the NASB and Greek NT as a reference for the others, examining specifically the places where significant differences in translation occur, and try to find out why. The NASB has had one update in 45 years and I greatly appreciate them for that. The slower approach to updates is very wise in my view. I know when the NASB goes on sale, it’s not because a big update just occured and everyone is trying to sell me a Bible that is going out of print. It’s frustrating to spend a lot of money on a big ol’ study bible that has a text that will be virtually extinct in my own lifetime.

    For more casual or devotional Bible reading, I use the ESV, and I carry an ESV to church. It is a very good translation with the work having been done by trustworthy scholars. That doesn’t mean it is beyond criticism. But I have far fewer reservations with the ESV than I do almost any other translation, including the KJV and NIV.

    Incidentally, the NASB is also going to be updated in 2017. This is the first update in 22 years. An update to the NASB is exciting to me, because when they update that translation it means something. So far, it has meant something really cool (it’s only been updated once). I don’t own every printing of the ESV on purpose. I’ve gotten to the point where every time I buy an ESV I actually dread the possibility of an update. In fact, I was looking at buying one today and had to send customer service an email to make sure the one I buy is the “permanent” text. In contrast, when the NASB updates it’s significant because they simply do not mess with that text unless there is a very good reason. The ESV folks made the right choice to stop it with the updates. And I think the NASB folks made the right choice to update at this particular time, if it continues to improve the text as it did in 1995.

    • Well stated. Thank you. I’m a limited ESV user because I came to my years of theological education as the NASB was first introduced. I am one of those 100 who love the NASB and though I have toyed with others I stay with it. I study in it and since I resumed a habit of regular memorization of scripture I have memorized 836 verses in that version.

  9. Well, they decided to make it un-permanent again:

    http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/september/crossway-reverses-decision-esv-bible-text-permanent-mistake.html

    And I just bought my “permanent text” today. If I die next week, people will think I was an ESV Bible collector. And I guess they’d be kind of right.

    I do hope, at least, they go to a more conservative update process like the NASB, so we don’t end up with 20 different text editions at Bible study in 10 years

  10. It really is deeply unfortunate that so many Christians think a constantly changing bible translation is a good idea. It isn’t. It’s a terrible idea. And to affix arrogance to the concept of a stable translation, flaws and all, is bordering on dishonesty.

    This attitude is a clear symptom of the plague of our times: modernity, with all its fickle and mindless microchanges to keep us distracted from timeless truth.

    Contrary to what is insisted upon here, it isn’t arrogance to stabilize a text, a necessary prerequisite to practicality; it’s arrogance to insist we have the wisdom to accomplish anything by constantly meddling with it.

    The Holy Scriptures and translations thereof are NOT computer software; brothers and sisters in Christ, please stop treating them as such!

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