Bible Translation Taste Test…Which Translation is the Real ESV?

The English Standard Version has become extremely popular as of late. For those of you who are discerning in your selection of a good Bible version and who may really enjoy using the ESV I want to give you a “translation taste testt. The results will surprise you!

Here are 2 passages from 2 different translations and you will see if you can guess which one is the ESV and which one is something else…here we go,

John 3:1-8 in Translation A

Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born anew.’The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit.”

John 3:1-8 in Translation B

Now there was a man of the Pharisees named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

Romans 12:1-8 in Translation A

I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.  Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I bid every one among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith which God has assigned him. For as in one body we have many members, and all the members do not have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; he who teaches, in his teaching; he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who contributes, in liberality; he who gives aid, with zeal; he who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Romans 12:1-8 in Translation B

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

So which one do you think is the ESV? Aren’t they remarkably similar?

Translation A is the RSV and Translation B is the ESV.

Turns out the ESV is 92% unedited RSV! That statistic comes from Craig Blomberg’s extremely helpful book, “Can We Still Believe the Bible?“. Here is Blomberg’s statement more in context,

“When the RSV went out of print, an evangelical publisher, Crossway Books, secured the rights to revise it and republish it as the English Standard Version (ESV), a fairly presumptuous title for a work that was more American than English and not yet standard!…They prioritized accuracy of meaning, not the clarity or intelligibility of style. Because about 92 percent of the ESV is unrevised RSV, readers who appreciated the style of the RSV should find the ESV almost as elegant.”

On that statistic Blomberg cites Wayne Grudem’s article “The English Standard Version (ESV) in Kostenbergers book Which Bible Translation Should I Use?, 42.

After reading that I went to the ESV website and checked the preface to the translation and here is what they wrote,

Translation Legacy

The English Standard Version (2011 ESV) stands in the classic mainstream of English Bible translations over the past half-millennium. The fountainhead of that stream was William Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526; marking its course were the King James Version of 1611 (KJV), the English Revised Version of 1885 (RV), the American Standard Version of 1901 (ASV), and the Revised Standard Version of 1952 and 1971 (RSV). In that stream, faithfulness to the text and vigorous pursuit of accuracy were combined with simplicity, beauty, and dignity of expression. Our goal has been to carry forward this legacy for a new century.

To this end each word and phrase in the ESV has been carefully weighed against the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, to ensure the fullest accuracy and clarity and to avoid under-translating or overlooking any nuance of the original text. The words and phrases themselves grow out of the Tyndale–King James legacy, and most recently out of the RSV, with the 1971 RSV text providing the starting point for our work. Archaic language has been brought to current usage and significant corrections have been made in the translation of key texts. But throughout, our goal has been to retain the depth of meaning and enduring language that have made their indelible mark on the English-speaking world and have defined the life and doctrine of the church over the last four centuries.

I thought a few of you might find that as interesting as I did.

7 Responses to Bible Translation Taste Test…Which Translation is the Real ESV?

  1. ozziepete says:

    I find that interesting. :-)

  2. Rusty says:

    Great post. I always tell people the ESV is a cheap knock off NRS guess I am more correct than I knew.

  3. Jim Campbell says:

    Thanks, Matt, but not as interesting as the over-literal renderings of Ecclesiastes 3: 2 by 6 out of 44 English language translations currently on Bible Gateway including the popular NASB. What happened to idiomatic sensitivity? Admittedly, one of these Young’s Literal gives what it’s label says, but the two Jewish translations are in the 44, and I’d be very surprised if they didn’t translate Hebrew with the correct idiomatic meaning.

    • Avatar of Matt Dabbs Matt Dabbs says:

      sounds like you have done quite a bit of thinking on that one…out of curiosity what drove you to take an interest in that?

      • Jim Campbell says:

        I used to work for a Bible publishers, which got me interested in comparative translations. Then the church of Christ that I was a member of emphasized the importance of working with a Bible that was accurate with respect to the original Hebrew and Greek. Eventually, I acquired a copy of the NASB, which I found very readable up to the point where I was working thru Ecclesiastes. That was when I discovered that a literal translation can lose the implied meaning if it does not take into account idiomatic equivalences between languages. They’d let their zeal for literacy block their sensitivity to the clear contextual meaning of the text, something that the two referenced Jewish Bibles had avoided. Yet they did not fall into that trap with Hebrew words like ‘elohim’, possibly because it’s well known to have context-defined idiomatic variances .I guess God gives us brains to actively reason with, but sometimes we let formula thinking in line with some dominant mission statement dictate what we accept.

  4. J D says:

    In my unhappiness with new NIV, I have been using ESV more lately, but often find it clunky.

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