Friday, April 28, 2017

My very critical critical analysis of the English Standard Version

I lost my respect for the English Standard Version (ESV) real soon after its publication. My reasons for disrespect follow in this article. In sum, I believe it was hastily put together in order to support (usually subtly) certain doctrines promoted by its publisher, Crossway. In the examples below, I do not argue that overt translational bias is provable; but the evidence for bias is stronger than innuendo. They are subtle; but they are there.

I am writing this article because many have asked me, "What's your beef with the ESV?" My answer is always lengthy and somewhat rushed. Now, for people who want to know, I can point them to this article.

Quick disclaimer: This article is strongly opinionated.

Seed or seeds?
In my mind, ESV's treatment of the Hebrew in Psalm 89:4 is a hallmark example of Crossway's biased agenda. Keep in mind that the ESV is allegedly an update of the venerable Revised Standard Version (RSV). Note how the RSV reads in Psalm 89:4.
'I will establish your descendants for ever,
and build your throne for all generations.'" (RSV)
Realizing that the ESV is a revision of the RSV, I am perplexed over how the revision team chose to alter the RSV in this passage:
‘I will establish your offspring forever,
and build your throne for all generations.’” (ESV)
Why did the scholars over at Crossway decide to change RSV's "descendants" to "offspring" in the ESV? Possibly, since the Hebrew word there is singular, in a collective sense, maybe they believed RSV's "descendants" should be switched out for a singular word. Well, sure. Go with "seed" or "posterity." But they went with "offspring." I suggest that Crossway wanted to force the verse to apply directly to Jesus Christ and only Jesus Christ.

Now to be fair, rabbis of Jesus' day understood this passage to apply to the expected Messiah. It is nearly certain that the Jews were referring to Psalm 89:4 in the following passage from the Gospel of John.
The crowd answered him, “We have heard from the law that the Messiah remains forever. How can you say that the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?” (John 12:34, NRSV)
Fine. Nevertheless, the Psalmist did not have in mind a particular person but rather a lineage. Indeed, the RSV reads in Psalm 89:29,
I will establish his line for ever
and his throne as the days of the heavens. (RSV)
while ESV modified it to say,
I will establish his offspring forever
and his throne as the days of the heavens. (ESV)
The RSV reads in Psalm 89:36,
His line shall endure for ever,
his throne as long as the sun before me. (RSV)
while ESV made a change.
His offspring shall endure forever,
his throne as long as the sun before me. (ESV)
This odd revision of the RSV seems to obscure the meaning of the psalm; however, the revisers may have been emboldened to go with the change because other venerable translations also have "offspring." The HCSB/CSB for example, use "offspring" in verse 4 and 36 but "line" in verse 24. Thus, the guys over at Holman (owners of the CSB) were not interested in forcing a single application of the psalm. They were comfortable applying it both to Jesus specifically and to David's lineage in general.

Crossway really seems to have pushed an agenda with Psalm 89; and one wonders where else the translation may have been modified in such a way to make it less clear.*

"Hebrew" in Acts 19:17
The ESV modifies John 19:17 in a way that betrays an agenda. The revisers changed RSV's "Hebrew" to "Aramaic."
and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. (ESV)
"Aramaic" is correct here, by the way. I applaud the change. The Greek word is Hebraisti which translates to "Hebrew" but scholars are certain that the word should be translated as "Hebrew dialect" or just "Aramaic." For one thing, "Golgotha" is an Aramaic word meaning "skull." Acts 1:19 says that the people of Jerusalem called the field "Hakeldama" which is an Aramaic word meaning "Field of Blood." Wonderful. Good for ESV for improving RSV in John 19:17!

So, why did the ESV choose to keep RSV's "Hebrew" in Acts 26:14 instead of also revising it to "Aramaic" as it does in John 19:17?
And when we had all fallen to the ground, I heard a voice saying to me in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ (ESV)
I can only speculate. I will personally report that this verse has come up in some of my discussions with other Bible students. In discussion, I took the position that Jesus spoke Aramaic. No, said others, Jesus spoke Greek or Hebrew. I don't recall what is at stake with concluding that Jesus spoke Hebrew; but ESV totally confuses the study. What language Jesus spoke can affect how we interpret some passages. For example, there is Luke 4:17-19. Some readers may really want that language to be Hebrew.

Romans 16:7
The history of translating Romans 16:7 is fraught with church politics! N. T. Wright translates the verse this way:
Greed Andronicus and Junia, my relatives and fellow prisoners, who are well known among the apostles, and who were in the Messiah before I was.
There is a lot of scholarship that has gone into this verse. The manuscript evidence witnesses to many variations of it. Textual scrutiny has recently concluded that in this verse, Junia was an apostle. What we want to do with that information is up to us; but we must face up to what this verse says. Apparently, many ancient copyists had trouble with that notion too; so they made slight adjustments to the text. Either Junia (a woman) was really a man (Junias) and an apostle or Junia was a woman but not an apostle―and the apostles knew her.

Consider RSV:
Greet Androni′cus and Ju′nias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners; they are men of note among the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. (RSV)
Both Andronicus and Junias are apostles; but Junias is a man. NASB1995 and NIV1984 follow this "solution."

Way back in 1989, the NRSV revised the RSV. In agreement with the best scholarship, Junia is a woman and an apostle.
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my relatives who were in prison with me; they are prominent among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. (NRSV)
Translations that follow this textual understanding include NIV2011, NCV, NABre, NKJV (1982!), REB, BBE, CEB, GW and MEV.
Check out NCV:
Greetings to Andronicus and Junia, my relatives, who were in prison with me. They are very important apostles. They were believers in Christ before I was.
How does the ESV handle the verse? ESV correctly revised RSV's "Junias" to "Junia." I am puzzled, however, why ESV revised RSV's good "among the apostles" to "to the apostles."
Greet Andronicus and Junia, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners. They are well known to the apostles, and they were in Christ before me. (ESV)
The evidence for "Junia" is stronger than that for "among the apostles." Evidentially, the men over at Crossway are not ready to let Junia be an apostle. They are in good company. Many venerable translations agree with ESV's solution, including CSB/HCSB, NET and CEV.

Even though ESV appears to be in pretty good company on this verse, the revision from RSV betrays a complimentarian bias. If it were the only such revision, I might overlook it; but it is not.

Deacons' wives
ESV revised RSV's 1 Timothy 3:11.
The women likewise must be serious, no slanderers, but temperate, faithful in all things.
That verse falls right in the middle of Paul's list of qualifications for deacons. Most translations permit an interpretation that Paul is giving a special qualification for women deacons. They also permit the view that this qualification is about deacons with respect to the kinds of wives they should have. The ESV modified the RSV language and thus forced the second interpretation.
Their wives likewise must be dignified, not slanderers, but sober-minded, faithful in all things.
CSB/HCSB follows the ESV in this interpretive translation. This translation along with CSB's translation of Romans 16:7 may betray a complimentarian slant in the CSB. Also in ESV's complimentarian corner on 1 Timothy 3:11 are NLT, MEV, NKJV and NET.

Interestingly, some translations swing the other way and force the "women deacons" view. Consider the REB:
Women in this office must likewise be dignified, not scandalmongers, but sober, and trustworthy in every way.
Calvinism
We have already seen a few places where ESV should have revised RSV yet chose not to. One glaring example is seen at Hebrews 2:8b. RSV has
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him.
This verse does not directly teach Calvinism, not even in the ESV; but the phrase, "nothing outside his control" in contemporary usage is more loaded than it used to be. An emerging theology today is that God is handling everything. Want to prove it? Read Hebrews 2:8 out of the RSV or ESV! Here is the ESV.
Now in putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. (ESV)
Current theological conversation has placed new meaning on the phrase "in control." The term should have been revised in order to accommodate contemporary language. Instead, ESV kept the old language which now comes loaded with Calvinistic meaning.

Fascinatingly, NRSV kept RSV's "in control" but corrected the pronouns (contextually) to show that the text is about "human beings" and not Christ.

Final thoughts
I do not study out of the ESV anymore. If I did, I might have more examples. What I have seen in the ESV is a subtle bias to standard evangelicalism. I am not impressed by translations that read the way they do in order to support certain doctrines. Translators should be translating first and interpreting only when required to maintain readability.

My household reads a good variety of translations but I have never encouraged anybody to read ESV. I am happy to say that nobody in my house reads it except me―and then only for translational comparisons when I encounter something interesting in another translation.

Footnotes:
*Judges 5:30 comes to mind. While the ESV is more literal than the RSV, it is much less clear.
‘Have they not found and divided the spoil?—
A womb or two for every man;
spoil of dyed materials for Sisera,
spoil of dyed materials embroidered,
two pieces of dyed work embroidered for the neck as spoil?’ (ESV)

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