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:
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.