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"As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the countenance of his friend." - Proverbs 27:17

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Isn't the ESV a Bit Wooden?

Is it just me, or is the ESV unnecessarily wooden? Take my reading this morning from Matthew 14 as a random example: verse 20 says, And they took up twelve baskets full of the broken pieces left over.” Who would ever speak that way in normal life? “And they took up twelve baskets full of the left-over pieces” (or “left-overs” or even “left-over fragments”) would be better English and closer to the original word ordering. (They’re not even being over-accurate!) I have come across this woodenness time and time again in the ESV.

The ESV has become very fashionable of late, particularly in Reformed and Evangelical Anglican circles. It seems everywhere I go, every young person carries one with them, and increasingly it is the version of choice when quoting from a more accurate translation than the NIV. Having tasted this translation over a period, I can’t quite see why this should be, when translations like the NASV and NKJV have been around for a while. Probably it is because the ESV has been very well marketed, it has been well-circulated, and it has a very cool-but-sophisticated cover! Regretably, there may be a certain element of fashion! I think part of it is also the attitudes of some towards the best available modern translations.

The NASV is seen by non-Americans as an American translation, so there is a certain prejudice against it. It also doesn’t have the marketing power of Harper Collins behind it (and given that it is based on the RSV, Collins are probably happy about getting their hands on the profits of the ESV, now that the RSV is seen as a relic of the mid-20th Century and little-bought, and people are more aware that it was an ecumenical and inter-faith production). A third factor with the NASV is the opinion that it is a wooden translation. I find this claim quite ridiculous, having read it for some time after being an NIV-reader. I think what has happened is that the wooden reputation of the ASV has been transferred to the NASV through Chinese whispers (and maybe in a few places it has been too wooden, but not as much as the ESV in my opinion).

The NKJV has been popular for a while among Reformed Christians, but there was always the niggling concern among theological students that the NT translation is based on the Textus Receptus – shock, horror! I disagree with this disparagement of the Byzantine texts underlying the Textus Receptus, and the exaltation of the Alexandrian texts, but that’s for another day! I use the NKJV because I think that some of the arguments for the greater reliability of the Byzantine texts are convincing, and the arguments for the superiority of the Alexandrian texts are unconvincing. (I was brought up with the RSV for half my childhood, the NIV for the other half, the KJV for a year to try it out, and the NASB for my university days, so I’ve seen them all and have no prejudiced inclinations to any of them.) Also, what is the problem, when the Nestle-Aland/UBS text is given in the margin of the NKJV?

Non-AV'ers in the Reformed community were also beginning to admit that maybe the NIV wasn’t as good a translation as we would like: it dumped technical terms like “LORD of hosts” and “propitiation”, and added words not found in any original text, etc. In general, there wasn't sufficient respect for the actual words that the Holy Spirit chose to use, and these took second-place at times to modern sensibilities.

Some thought they needed an accurate translation that was largely based on Alexandrian NT texts, but didn't have “American” in the title, and had more marketing muscle behind it. Lovers of the RSV in the Evangelical Anglican community, and the likes of
Wheaton College and Trinity Divinity School, decided now was the time for the ESV!

"Why the outburst about the ESV?" you may ask. Well, once upon a time, there was one translation that was read in the pulpits, was read at home and was quoted in all the books: the AV. This was very helpful in engraving the Words of Scripture in the minds of believers. ("Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You." Psa. 119:11)

When the British churches covenanted together for reformation in 1643 using the Solemn League and Covenant, they swore "to bring the Churches of God in the three kingdoms to the nearest conjunction and uniformity in religion, confession of faith, form of church government, directory for worship and catechising". They didn't need to mention uniformity in Bible version, because they already were united in using the AV! [Please note Crawford's comments on this.]

If only we had this concensus again, how useful it would be! Just when the English-speaking, Reformed churches could have
united around the NKJV, which was accurate, well-written and allayed the concerns that some Textus Receptus advocates had with the NASB and NIV (although some AV'ers will never change to a modern version), along comes the ESV!

Was it really necessary? Was it profitable? Do we really need another translation to add to the available plethora? To top it all off, it is wooden and awkward in too many places! Is this really the version to unite the Church? (Or am I one of the few remaining
British Reformed Christians who still aspires to the principles of our National Covenants?)

I ask ESV'ers: examine the ESV objectively; isn't too wooden, and if so, then is this really what we want to be the majority translation
in the English-speaking, Reformed churches? (Doesn't it really duplicate what the NASV has already done since the 1960's?)

If only the Church took control of Bible translation like it used to, instead of leaving it up to publishing houses!

P.S. Please don't take this article out of proportion. The ESV is still my number 3 choice, with the NKJV first and the NASB second. I just question the wisdom of another translation when the NASB seems to already be doing the job for Alexandrian types, esp. as it appears to me to be more wooden than the NASB.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

you are an av man in denial, tim!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006 4:25:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

Yeah, right!! I have read through all the Trinitarian Bible Society's literature, but I remain unconvinced by the "nothing but the AV is any good at the moment" arguments. TBS arguments against the NKJV are very poor.

The AV is not so such much archaic in its vocabulary (although it is), as awkward in its sentence structures.

The NKJV provides an accurate, but modern translation of those original manuscripts which I think are best (as well as providing alternatives readings from the UBS and Majority texts, unlike all the other versions).

Our own pastor often says, "The NIV is wrong here," or, "The AV is wrong here," and I look at the NKJV and it always agrees with his own translation.

The problem is that very few people read the best arguments on both sides of the translation fence. I remain open to arguments on both sides.

You're just an NKJV'er in denial!

Wednesday, May 03, 2006 5:58:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

actually i have used nasb while a student, although i found it wooden and it had the odd rendering like godliness with contentment is a means of great gain!!
we have an nkjv currently as this is the pew bible in dromara. i don't dislike it, but i always seem to come back to the av.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006 6:04:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

Okay, the NASB is wooden at this point! I confess it! I still don't think it's that wooden and,in my limited experience, not as wooden as the ESV.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006 6:16:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

talking of wooden - what have you to say on the odd rendering of ps 73 v27 in the new psalter, wooden or has the rpc embraced annihilationism?

Wednesday, May 03, 2006 7:18:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

The verse is wooden when read as prose, but it is not meant to be read as prose. It is meant to be sung. When you sing it, it surprisingly works fine.

Initially, I was disappointed with the new Irish Psalter, but the initial woodenness has worn off with use.

On the translation question, it doesn't seem as good as the old SMV (as in a number of cases). A very literal translation of this verse is, "For behold, lo, those far from you shall perish; you have cut off all who go whoring from you."

The translators could argue that "perishing" is "destroying without a trace", and "whoring" is "turning from you unfaithfully". The former phrase I can't comment on decisively, and the latter is a very weak translation that loses the impact of the original.

I was and am very pro-revision and I'm glad that we have a new psalter. It is on the whole more accurate than the old Scottish Metrical Version as far as I can tell, but it is not without its faults.

In particular:

1. I think that the rush to finish the Psalter led to the later psalms not being of the same quality as the earlier ones.

2. The "modern approach" was applied to legalistically, esp. the complete exclusion of the word "Jehovah".

3. It is just as bad or worse than the old SMV in verses like the one you mentioned.

Saying that, Psalter preparation is no easy task. I doubt I could have done what they have done. I'm thankful for their hard work and it's good to have a revision of the SMV, even though sentimentally I miss it at times.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006 7:53:00 pm  
Blogger C G said...


The AV was not uniformly accepted even in 1643 - the last edition of the Geneva was printed one year later and both translations were in common use among covenanted and non-covenanted puritans for quite a while after that!

Sunday, May 07, 2006 8:18:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

Crawford, thanks for your historical input.

1. I have heard on several occasions that although there was significant opposition to the AV at the time of its production, nevertheless by the time of the Westminster Assembly the AV had gained such ground that there was no need to discuss Bible translation at the Assembly. (I also think it's significant that the last edition of the Geneva Bible was just 1 year later.)

As you're a Puritan Expert, can you provide the evidence for your statement? Why didn't they look at uniformity in Bible translation if the Puritans were so divided on this issue as you say?

2. You talk about uncovenanted Puritans, how widespread was this in England? (Assuming that Ussher can't be classified as a Puritan as he didn't seek for greater purity in worship and Church government.)

3. As a former English student, do you think that it's fair to say that the ESV is too wooden?

Monday, May 08, 2006 9:17:00 am  
Blogger C G said...

Thanks Timothy:

1. I don't know why there was little discussion of translation at the WA - because perhaps the majority still held to the Geneva? George Gillespie was unusually swift among these puritans to move to the AV. Remember that Bibles were being printed by commercial publishers, not being published by churches, so this was a market-driven change of preference. One reason why there was reducing demand for Geneva Bibles was that so many people had them - and, as expensive items, they were passed on between generations in a way that could not be imagined today. I would argue, though without the statistics that you could find in David Daniell's new book, that almost a century of Geneva Bible production had glutted the market among conservatives, and would suggest that the failure of commercial publishers to keep it in print may have forced puritans to switch to the AV as it became the main available text after 1644.

2. Loads of uncovenanted puritans in England - Baptists, Quakers, Fifth Monarchists, and other radicals among them. The proportion of uncovenanted puritans in England would have increased as the 1640s were left behind.

3. I quite like the ESV but prefer the NKJV. 'Wooden' is a very subjective term. The NIV sometimes gets its grammar in a complete muddle - but the AV is worse (all those unnecessary colons!). We use the ESV in church, which is the only place I use it now, though I read it through in 2004 and noted quite a few interesting changes from the NKJV.

Monday, May 08, 2006 10:16:00 am  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

Crawford, thanks for your valuable input. From what you're saying I have been subject to hearsay.

I presume that you refer to the Bible in English by David Daniell?

The WA may also not have discussed Bible translation because they thought that the Geneva and the AV were both adequate. The original Assembly was looking at the 39 Articles, so confessions of faith were a concern, as was worship; and also as episcopacy was banned, they had to come up with a church government to fill the gap.

I suppose that uniformity in religion may have been more about uniformity in belief and practice, rather than Bible translation.

I expect to see the unorthodox sects as uncovenanted, but it is interesting about the Baptists. Why was this? Did they not believe in it, or were they just left out of the process as beyond the pale as anti-paedobaptists?

Monday, May 08, 2006 10:42:00 am  
Blogger C G said...

My sense of it is that the WA and the covenanting movement behind it was determined to rid the world of 'sects' - including Baptists. The WA was about negotiating a centre for reformed churches and the sects (who often believed in toleration) were just too far removed from its centralising goal. No?

Monday, May 08, 2006 10:55:00 am  
Blogger C G said...

PS Also the Baptists I have read from the period don't believe in the state as an agent of reform or as an entity in God's providential dealings. So, covenanting at a national level does nothing and means nothing.

Monday, May 08, 2006 10:56:00 am  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

Crawford, I didn't know Baptists were into vestments. Why the frilly collar? Also you seem to have aged a lot since leaving N.I. Is the English climate not conducive? ;)

Monday, May 08, 2006 12:07:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

Crawford, as you know, I don't agree with the way some Presbyterians have treated and still treat anti-paedobaptists.

I don't think that being a Baptist precludes a belief in national covenanting, only the form of it. Shouldn't governments "kiss the Son" (Psa. 2:12)?

What I mean is that the civil government as individuals, as a body and as representatives of the nation could confess Christ as King over the nations, could write a constitution recognising Christ as the ultimate head over the state, and could covenant to reform the government in accordance with God's Word.

Monday, May 08, 2006 1:21:00 pm  
Blogger Philip S Taylor said...


I'm no literary expert and so my subjective notion of the woodyness of a translation is ... well, subjective.

For what its worth, I do find the ESV a tad strange in places. Not so strange as the NKJV ... but I read it about 5 years ago just before getting my first ESV. My current church uses the NIV which I just do not find useful for memorization. I have personally plumped for the ESV but oddly enough I keep coming back to my trusty NASB.

I agree that Reformed churches should get some unity on versions and I would be happy for the ESV or NASB and maybe even the NKJV to be the one.

Maybe I will have to learn Hebrew and Greek or something.

As far as the manuscripts ... I am not knowledgeable enough to comment. The only thing I can say is that I do not find any glaring differences between the NKJV and ESV even though they are based on different manuscripts.

Good blog by the way.

Thursday, May 11, 2006 6:34:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

The assessment of woodenness certainly can be subjective, but I think that there are certain criteria that can be applied objectively, e.g. this morning my reading contained the use of certain tenses that may be correct in the Greek, but are non-existent in modern English. This should have been left to the margins.

I have memorised well from the NIV, the NKJV, the NASB and the AV! Mary and her father have memorised huge portions of the NASV, so I think it meets that criteria. I think that the NASV is an excellent translation and it's a real pity that it isn't more popular with the non-Textus Receptus crew in the U.K.

I wish that when people started moving away from the AV in greater numbers when the NIV appeared, that they went with the NASV, or just waited a little for the NKJV to be completed. (Maybe I would view it differently if I was older then.)

I think it is important not to overemphasise the differences in the underlying texts as some AV'ers do, but it is still an important issue that is often overlooked by many.

Friday, May 12, 2006 9:22:00 am  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

P.S. Thanks for the encouragement. I only want to maintain a blog if it is profitable.

Friday, May 12, 2006 9:23:00 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having used the ESV since basically it came out over here, I haven't found it wooden at all! As for it being fashionable - well that's not necessarily a bad thing - but you couldn't say it was fashionable in the RPCI. I don't see why so many stick to the NIV as the difference between the two in terms of accuracy is pretty big.

As for comparing it to the NKJV and the NASV. I think the fact that they're (ESV v. NKJV) based on different texts is pretty important - if you've decided that one set of texts is right, should you not mainly use versions based on that text?
And as you've hinted at, no self-respecting non-Yank is going to use something called the NASV! No offence to your family!

Saturday, May 13, 2006 1:40:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

The ESV isn't as wooden as the old ASV, but if you can't see the greater prevalence of woodenness than the other best modern versions, then maybe the woodwork classes at Foyle have got worse since I left. ;)

Go on, admit it, Steve, you're just a shallow slave of fashion! By fashionable, I mean that it is an "in" version mainly because its new.

Maybe the cover is very noticable, but it does seem very common to me. It is not just its visible presence in my vicinity, but also its presence in Reformed literature.

My statement re. the underlying NT text is partly an appeal to unite around the NKJV. For Textus Receptus types, it is generally a matter of conscience, but for Alexandrians, it isn't such a big deal, hence the NKJV is best suited for unity as it also has UBS references in the margins. Purists on both sides won't accept the compromise, but all you can do is seek the best unity that you can.

As for the word "American" in the NASB, all I can say is that the authors and publishers should have thought of the prejudices of those outside the States, although they were technically correct in their title. Sadly there is a snobbishness amongst some British Christians against anything American, which is just a reflection of society.

P.S. For non-Ulster folk, Foyle is the grammar school that Steve and I attended.

Sunday, May 14, 2006 3:37:00 pm  
Blogger Philip S Taylor said...

Do you imagine Lockman could relaunch the NASB under a different name? I cannot see them do this as much as I would love them to.

I really do not understand your love for the NKJV. I find it far more wooden than the ESV. Perhaps it all comes down to what we are used to and are reading style. I do not find the NASB wooden even though that is the common criticism.

On a slightly different note ... I think Lockman make some of the finest bibles. You can actually hear their Calfskin NASB moo.

Sunday, May 14, 2006 3:45:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

Phil, I just wish that the Lockman Foundation has thought beyond the shores of the States in the first place.

In terms of experience, my progress was as follows (as stated previously): RSV -> NIV -> AV (1 year to test) -> NASB -> NKJV -> ESV (to check it out). I also used the Good News at school, so I've seem them all, and I'd assume I shouldn't be too biased by my background, although maybe I've been more exposed to poetry and older writings than most, so it could be that I'm immune to some carry-over from the AV. I also find the RSV wooden, even though I grew up with it first. (I think the ESV has inherited this.)

Setting aside the woodenness for a moment, what was the purpose of the ESV, given that the NASB already existed? Do you think the ESV is more wooden than the NASB?

Sunday, May 14, 2006 5:50:00 pm  
Blogger Philip S Taylor said...

I don't know what the prupose of the ESV was. I don't think it was needed really. But, it is here now.

I think the ESV reads better in some places (OT Wisdom) than the NASB. But that is about it. If all the guys behind the ESV had have pooled their resources and clout with Lockman then they could have used the NASB as a base and got a new edition of it. I would have much prefered that.

As it stands, I use the ESV and NASB mostly. When I am going back to my roots and mixing with those from my previous church background I use the KJV.

I really do wish there was only one literal translation. But the Bible is big business, right?

Monday, May 15, 2006 2:15:00 pm  
Blogger DFH said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Friday, May 26, 2006 9:22:00 pm  
Blogger DFH said...

Have any of you read the following book ?

Three Modern Versions - A Critical Assessment of the NIV, ESV and NKJV by Alan J. Macgregor, published (2004) by The Bible League, ISBN 0-904435-87-3.

Copies may be obtained from The Bible League, 46 Bulbridge Road, Salisbury, Wiltshire, SP2 0LE.

Go for it!

Friday, May 26, 2006 9:27:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

I haven't come across this book, but I'm going to have a look at it. Can you please summarise the arguments against the NKJV from this booklet?

I've read the TBS booklet on the NKJV and wasn't that impressed. Certainly there are defects in the NKJV, as in all translations. The question is: which defects take precedence over others? To me the awkwardness of the old English of the AV to a modern English-speaker overrides the defects that I am aware of in the NKJV.

The TBS booklet uses the AV as the gold standard with which to compare the NKJV, but this is begging the question. The comparison should be made with the original manuscripts from the Traditional Text. In those cases where it does use the "Textus Receptus", it is not clear whether this is just a comparison with the underlying text of the AV, which in several cases is not even attested by any original manuscripts. (Even forgetting that there is legitimate textual criticism within the Traditional Text tradition.)

In many ways one of my main criticisms of the NKJV is that it stuck too closely with the AV, and didn't replace some parts of the text with better, more literal translations found in the NKJV margins, where they aren't wooden. (I also hate the way they use capitalised pronouns for deity, which is unnecessarily subjective, and misleading, e.g. 2 Thess. 2:7.)

Sadly the English language has lost its distinction between the singular and plural in the second person, however I am aware of only one case where this has any significance.

It would be interesting to see an objective assessment of the AV by AV'ers.

Friday, May 26, 2006 11:00:00 pm  
Blogger Timothy Davis said...

P.S. Who do you work for? I see that you're a fellow electrical engineer. (You'll need to update your links with IET, not IEE. What a bad change of name; you'd think we covered all forms of engineering now!)

Friday, May 26, 2006 11:01:00 pm  

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