ESV #4, by Mark Strauss

ESV Lexical Errors and Problems

One of the more common errors of literal versions is the attempt to use only one English word for every Greek or Hebrew word. This error—common also to first year Greek students!—fails to recognize the semantic range of words. Here are a some examples in the ESV.

Gal. 5:14
ESV For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Comment The ESV’s “one word” is actually seven in English and six in Greek. Greek logos has a large semantic range (it doesn’t literally mean “word”!). Here it clearly means “statement” or “command.”
TNIV For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command…
HCSB For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement:

1 Cor. 1:18
ESV For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
Comment The “word” here means the “message” of the cross. Even NJKV gets it right (“message”; cf. NRSV). Elsewhere the ESV translates logos as “message” (Mark 16:20). In 2 Cor. 5:19, logos is the “message” of reconciliation (cf. Heb. 2:2).
TNIV For the message of the cross is foolishness…
NET For the message about the cross is foolishness…

Matt. 22:36
ESV “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?”
Comment: Commentators agree that megalē is a Semitism for the superlative “greatest.”9
TNIV “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
NRSV “Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

———-

9See D. Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (WBC 33A; Nashville: Thomas Nelsonm, 1993), and D. A. Carson, “Matthew” in The Expositors Bible Commentary (vol. 8; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984) 464.

———-

Luke 18:34
ESV But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said.
Comment: The saying was not hidden (Jesus just said it!). The meaning was hidden. ESV has not recognized that rhēma here refers to the meaning of the saying, not the saying itself.
TNIV …Its meaning was hidden from them,
REB …its meaning was concealed from them.

Acts 14:15
ESV “We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God,
Comment: “Vain” in contemporary English means “related to pride or vanity,” but the Greek mataios here means “worthless” or “of no value.” Of course “of like nature with you” is also unnatural English, something no one speaking or writing English would actually say.
TNIV We too are only human, like you….turn from these worthless things to the living God,
NRSV We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God,

Phil. 3:1
ESV To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.
Comment: The ESV makes it sound like this is an issue of personal protection. The meaning is a safeguard, an extra source of spiritual protection.
TNIV … and it is a safeguard for you.
NRSV …and for you it is a safeguard.

2 Tim. 1:15
ESV You are aware that all who are in Asia turned away from me, among whom are Phygelus and Hermogenes.
Comment Multiple problems here. “Turned away from” is not quite right. The phrase means “deserted.” “Among whom are” is very awkward English. Standard English is “including.” Finally, contemporary English readers will consider Asia to be the continent, rather than the Roman province. The TNIV corrects all of these:
TNIV “You know that everyone in the province of Asia has deserted me, including Phygelus and Hermogenes.”
NLT2 As you know, everyone from the province of Asia has deserted me—even Phygelus and Hermogenes.

2 Thess. 3:8
ESV …nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it…
Comment: Greek artos does not always mean “bread,” but “any kind of food or nourishment” (BDAG). The meaning here is clearly “food.”10
TNIV …nor did we eat anyone’s food without paying for it.
NET …and we did not eat anyone’s food without paying.

1Tim. 5:11-12
ESV But refuse to enroll younger widows, for…they desire to marry and so incur condemnation for having abandoned their former faith.
Comment: Pistis doesn’t mean “faith” here, but a pledge made to the Lord (BDAG). The ESV sounds like the widows’ remarriage results in apostasy.
TNIV …they have broken their first pledge.
NRSV …having violated their first pledge.

Rom. 11:25
ESV the fullness of the Gentiles
Comment: “Fullness of..” is very strange English. The meaning the complete number of Gentiles.
TNIV the full number of Gentiles
HCSB the full number of the Gentiles

1Pet. 3:2
ESV …when they [unbelieving husbands] see your respectful and pure conduct.
Comment: The phrase (lit.) “your pure conduct in fear,” certainly refers to reverence to God, not “respect” for husbands. 10 Interestingly, a few verses later, the same expression is translated idiomatically in the ESV: “…to do their work quietly and to earn their own living” (lit. “eat their own bread/food”).
TNIV …when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. (cf. NET; NRSV; NLT; NJB; HCSB, etc.)

Matt. 8:28
ESV And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes…
Comment There is no “country,” of the Gadarenes. This is a region or territory associated with the Gadarenes.
TNIV …region of the Gadarenes (cf. NET; NLT, etc.)

Matt. 2:23
ESV And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth…
Comment: The village of Nazareth could hardly be classified as a “city,” either by ancient or modern standards. Polis here means town or village.
TNIV …town called Nazareth… (cf. NRSV; NET; NLT; REB; HCSB, etc.)

Luke 21:14
ESV Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer,
Comment: The disciples are commanded not to “meditate” beforehand? One would think prayer and meditation would be a good idea before facing a trial for Christ. The sense seems to be to prepare or rehearse (BDF §392.2).
TNIV “worry beforehand”; NET “rehearse ahead of time”; NASB “prepare beforehand”

Luke 24:37
ESV But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit.
Comment: Pneuma here probably means a “ghost,” a disembodied person, rather than a good or evil spirit.
TNIV thinking they saw a ghost. (Cf. NET; NRSV; HCSB; NLT; etc.)

Acts 7:19, 21
ESV “He dealt shrewdly with our race and forced our fathers to expose their infants ….(v. 21) and when he [Moses] was exposed, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him…”
Comment: To “expose” a child is to abandon it to death, but many readers will not know this technical sense. If they do get it, the second reference in v. 21 sounds as though Moses’ mother tried to kill him.
TNIV to throw out their newborn babies… he [Moses] was placed outside…
NLT abandon their newborn babies…had to abandon him [Moses].

1 Tim. 6:5
ESV and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.
Comment: The ESV is open to misunderstanding, since godliness is a means to gain—spiritual gain. The word “gain” here clearly means financial profit, as TNIV and HCSB make clear:
TNIV godliness is a means to financial gain.
HCSB godliness is a way to material gain

Luke 1:48
ESV for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
Comment: A “humble estate” in English would normally be a modest home. It would be better to say “state.”

(cont’d)

26 thoughts on “ESV #4, by Mark Strauss

  1. Black Hat says:

    Both the TNIV and NET use the phrase “the word of the Lord” in Isaiah 66:5 and “the Lord’s word” in Isaiah 1:10 (and elsewhere in the Bible) when the Lord plainly had more than one word to say.

    Pot – kettle – black

    1 Cor. 1:18
    ESV For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.
    CommentThe “word” here means the “message” of the cross. Even NJKV gets it right (“message”; cf. NRSV). Elsewhere the ESV translates logos as “message” (Mark 16:20). In 2 Cor. 5:19, logos is the “message” of reconciliation (cf. Heb. 2:2).
    TNIVFor the message of the cross is foolishness…
    NET For the message about the cross is foolishness…

  2. Mike says:

    Black Hat: Nobody is saying other translations are perfect. That’s why this blog exists – to make all translations better Bibles.

  3. John says:

    Many of the examples provided here, and in previous articles, show that the ESV is achieving its stated mission–to be “transparent to the original text”. The basic argument in these articles is just the dynamic vs formal argument restated, exact meaning vs exact words.

    If the ESV changed the idioms to reflect *meaning* rather than the actual wording, then it would become a more dynamic translation. That is not their stated purpose.

    Also, the ESV wants to remain firmly in the KJV tradition which means they will retain the wording wherever possible. Again, that’s their stated purpose. Apparently this is what a large number of people want in a translation since three of the top five best selling Bible translations (by unit sales) for the past two months are KJV based (KJV, NKJV, ESV; NIV and NLT are the other two. TNIV doesn’t make the top ten).

    So the examples presented here come across, to me, as, “Why isn’t the ESV a more dynamic translation?” The answer–because that’s not the translators’ purpose.

  4. John says:

    Many of the examples provided here, and in previous articles, show that the ESV is achieving its stated mission–to be “transparent to the original text”. The basic argument in these articles is just the dynamic vs formal argument restated, exact meaning vs exact words.

    If the ESV changed the idioms to reflect *meaning* rather than the actual wording, then it would become a more dynamic translation. That is not their stated purpose.

    Also, the ESV wants to remain firmly in the KJV tradition which means they will retain the wording wherever possible. Again, that’s their stated purpose. Apparently this is what a large number of people want in a translation since three of the top five best selling Bible translations (by unit sales) for the past two months are KJV based (KJV, NKJV, ESV; NIV and NLT are the other two).

    So the examples presented here come across, to me, as, “Why isn’t the ESV a more dynamic translation?” The answer–because that’s not the translators’ purpose.

  5. Mike says:

    John said: “If the ESV changed the idioms to reflect *meaning* rather than the actual wording, then it would become a more dynamic translation. That is not their stated purpose.”

    That’s a very unusual purpose for a translation. Why not just publish a Greek text? That would best be transparent to the original everyone is always the same word every time its used!

  6. John says:

    Mike, that’s one of the reasons there are numerous translations. Different people read for different purposes. There are plenty of people who will never learn Greek that would like to have a translation that is as close to the Greek as possible. They would probably like the ESV. Someone else may not care about the underlying words and wish only to get the meaning. They probably would not like the ESV.

    But the ESV translators make it clear that they want the translation to be “transparent to the original text” and they specifically mention being transparent to the structure of the original text. Maybe that’s “unusual” but that is their purpose.

    The critical examples presented in these articles express a problem with the translation philosophy more so than a problem with how the translators carried out that philosophy. Most of them don’t come across to me as, “The translators aren’t doing a good job delivering on their stated purpose.” They come across to me more as a disagreement with the ESV’s stated purpose while making a case for dynamic translations.

  7. Mike says:

    John,

    My personal view is that even for study translations that reflect the meaning rather than the form are still superior. My argument for that is simply that if we already know what individual words cannot always be translated the same way in given contexts, why should we suppose that clause structure can? Then there’s the fact that Greek clause structure and English clause structure are different. Ephesians in the ESV is a perfect example since when it comes to Paul’s long sentences they do not transparently represent the structure of sentences like 1:3-14. But that’s a side issue.

    I cannot agree with you that for the most part the examples here do well to reflect that the ESV succeeds at its purpose. This is for two reasons. The first is based directly upon the ESV’s stated purpose:

    “Thus it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original” (from the preface, emphasis mind.)

    The fact that Strauss has shown that the ESV fails at half of its purpose. 50% is a lot.

    Secondly, in Strauss’ introduction (Part I), he made the point that the ESV is much more dynamic in Hebrews, which suggests that the ESV fails at the first half of its purpose for an entire book of the bible. Then there are also Dr. Rodney Decker’s comments about the ESV being a poor representative of its claimed goal of being “essentially literal” HERE ). See the basic review, starting at page 6, “Translation Issues.” The goal of his discussion, which is incredibly documented in the 60 page single spaced long version, is to show,

    “. . . that the ESV–which is a good translation–is much more functional than many people think. There seems to be a discrepancy between the product as advertised (or at least as perceived) and what is actually delivered” (his italics).

    If Dr. Decker is correct (and I think he is), then the ESV has failed at both its goals–both meaning and transparency.

    So to borrow your words a bit, Strauss is saying that the translators “aren’t doing a good job delivering on their stated purpose” with regard to meaning. And Decker is saying that the translators “aren’t doing a good job delivering on their stated purpose” with regard to transparency to the original.

  8. Tiffany says:

    I appreciate you, Wayne, taking the time to post this article. I have an ESV and have been going through making notes. During this process I realized that some of the idioms I didn’t need to make a note on because I understood the meaning. That is due to an involuntary learning of “churchese”. I’ve been observing many translations from all throughout the spectrum. I think there is definitely a benefit of having translations that are both formal and functional and I don’t think either should be done away with. I am a lover of music as well and Bible translation reminds me of the different genres of Christian music. (This happened when I was flipping through channels on the TV and found an old DC Talk music video “Jesus is Still Alright”.) Christian music wants to convey a message through different styles. Indeed some styles are a little dated but the message is still there.
    Well, just thought I’d share my thoughts with you!
    I appreciate the BBB blog!

  9. Suzanne McCarthy says:

    But the ESV translators make it clear that they want the translation to be “transparent to the original text” and they specifically mention being transparent to the structure of the original text.

    My complaint is that it is neither transparent to the Greek, nor is it traditional in the best sense.

    See 2 Tim. 2:2. Would you know from the ESV that this verse has “people” in Greek, and not “men.” This is found over and over. If the person is a teacher, translate it as “men” in English. The bias of the translators is all too transparent for me.

    Also not in the tradition of th Tyndale, KJV is the phrase “sons of God” rather than “children of God.”

    Any way, when I read it, as KJV and Greek fan, it is neither traditional enough, nor transparent enough, not meaningful enough. But clearly it meets the notions of some people as to what a Bible should be. That clearly is an update of the RSV, version I have only rarely used.

  10. Jonathan Wiebe says:

    Out of interest I checked the renderings in my favourite translation, the NRSV. Like the ESV it is a revision of the RSV.

    Here are the number of times the NRSV follows Prof. Strauss’s recommendations:

    Oops Translations: 6/15 times (40%)
    Idiomatic Issues: 19/42 times (45%)
    Lexical Issues: 13/18 times (72%)
    Total (so far): 38/75 (51%)

    In the remainder of the cases, the NRSV essentially matches the ESV.

  11. Thomas says:

    Re Gal 5:14, I’m late to the party but in English we say such things as “word to the wise” and “let Jim have the final word” when we don’t mean one word. I think if we are going to claim that a translation is bad for missing the semantic range of a word or for any other reason we need to bear in mind whether in fact people will misunderstand it. Language is fluid and semantic ranges shift. Re. Luke 1:48, I find this perfectly acceptable based on my English background or is it background in English. I remember Gordon Fee telling us how he was given directions once and he didn’t know what “bear right” meant (He mentions this in How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth as well). GPS units often say “bear left or right” so hopefully fewer people are in this predicament. If the person giving him directions was a Bible translation we would criticise them (or the GPS) but is it their fault for using the word “bear” or his for not knowing what it meant? What responsibility does the reader have to understand English? It was an accident of upbringing that Fee didn’t know what “bear” meant in this context but most of us learn new words or semantic ranges and we move on, reading with ever greater understanding. Why shouldn’t it be the same with the Bible?
    Re Luke 24:37, I just asked my Chinese wife what the difference is between a ghost and a spirit (in China). She said that ghosts are always evil, whereas spirits do not have a bad connotation. Background in English is very important. BTW her town in China (Matt. 2:23) has 300,000 people but it certainly isn’t a city. She went to university in a city (8 million).

  12. Wayne Leman says:

    Jonathan wrote:

    Here are the number of times the NRSV follows Prof. Strauss’s recommendations:

    Oops Translations: 6/15 times (40%)
    Idiomatic Issues: 19/42 times (45%)
    Lexical Issues: 13/18 times (72%)
    Total (so far): 38/75 (51%)

    In the remainder of the cases, the NRSV essentially matches the ESV.

    Thanks, Jonathan. That says to me that the NRSV wordings, at least for those particular examples, are an improvement on the RSV and that the ESV team missed opportunities to improve the quality of English in the RSV.

    Is that the conclusion you draw as well?

  13. Wayne Leman says:

    Thomas wrote:

    If the person giving him directions was a Bible translat[or] we would criticise them (or the GPS) but is it their fault for using the word “bear” or his for not knowing what it meant?

    That’s an excellent question, Thomas. There is no easy answer. There is surely an appropriate balance in here, where a Bible translation team has field tested sufficiently to be able to know if the *majority* of their intended audience understands the words and idioms in their translation with the meanings that they intend.

    What responsibility does the reader have to understand English?

    But there will always be people outside of majority I mentioned above who do not understand every word of a Bible translation. In such cases, a person who has not been exposed to one or more words that the majority understands may need to do some more reading or other remedial work to bring their level of understanding English up to that of the majority.

    I have myself studied the ESV extensively, and I can say that I strongly agree with Mark Strauss’ evaluations. My own quantified studies show that the English of the ESV does not meet the standards of English as used by the majority of native speakers of English. The ESV has a very high percentage of odd English throughout the translation. The ESV team should have spent much more time bringing the RSV up to a higher standard of good quality literary English for today’s readers of English.

  14. Wayne Leman says:

    Brent wrote:

    I think it is clear that we have an ESV hater on this blog. It seems the hatred for the ESV continues to grow and grow.

    Brent, I’m an equal opportunity Bible translation evaluator. I have sent hundreds of translation examples which need improvement to the TNIV and ESV teams. I was employed to give this kind of feedback to the HCSB team. I have sent the same kind of feedback to the NLT team.

    I am passionate that the English speaking public should have access to English Bibles which are not only accurate but are also worded using English which is considered good quality by the majority of native English speakers around the world.

    I would invite you to read my quantified studies of the best-selling English Bible versions today. I try to be as fair as possible with each version. And I try to base my evaluations on specific examples, the same way that Mark Strauss did in his paper.

    If I am wrong in my evaluations of the ESV, I would invite you or anyone else to submit findings which we can post on this blog, indicating where we are wrong about the quality of English in the ESV, which was the version in focus in Mark’s paper for the ETS conference. Other versions have been the topic of other papers at this ETS conference and conferences in preceding years.

    It is a good thing to work toward improvement of Bible translations anywhere in the world, including for English speakers.

  15. Mike says:

    Brent,

    I partially wonder if you are referring to me with your statement about an ESV hater. I can imagine why I might give that impression with my comment about the ESV translators failing at fulfilling their stated purpose. But I do not hate the ESV. At the very most, I would say merely that the preface of the ESV is an impossible dream. I’m not sure that any translation could reach that goal – both the transfer of both meaning and form into the target langauge. I don’t think its possible. I’ve used the ESV since 2003 – my copy is old enough to still say that Laban’s goats were in charge of his sons – and I continue to use it along with about a dozen other translations.

    All this to say, again, I don’t hate the ESV either.

  16. Mike Sangrey says:

    Mike wrote:“At the very most, I would say merely that the preface of the ESV is an impossible dream”, in reference, I believe, to the statement in the ESV preface, “‘Thus it seeks to be transparent to the original text, letting the reader see as directly as possible the structure and meaning of the original‘ (from the preface, emphasis his.)”

    I completely agree.

    I use the word use when referring to how a person “reads” a literal (ie. transparent) translation for exactly the above reason. I believe the skill set needed to use a transparent version is much more than just the skill of reading. One must be able to process the unique, lexical and grammatical forms with much more conscious analytical effort than reading.

    And, please note, I didn’t say simply reading because I think a number of topics dealt with by the Bible require more mental effort than cozying up by the fire with a good book. But, it’s reading nonetheless.

    This certainly doesn’t make me an “ESV hater.” I think we need analytical versions. However, the ESV claims to use good English–thus the ‘E’ in ESV. I think Mark’s scientific analysis clearly suggests there needs to be improvement in the English.

    I don’t hate any translation; however, any translation that tries to simultaneously accomplish transparency AND good English suffers from linguistic compromise.

    I wonder what a methodology would look like that seeks to answer the question, “How well does translation XYZ support the analysis of original meaning?” This would help us get our minds around a definition of quality related to transparency. We need a metric here, too.

  17. Richie says:

    “Thanks, Jonathan. That says to me that the NRSV wordings, at least for those particular examples, are an improvement on the RSV and that the ESV team missed opportunities to improve the quality of English in the RSV.

    Is that the conclusion you draw as well?”

    Wayne, that’s not the conclusion I would draw. Instead, I’m sure that the ESV committee examined every one of those verses and instead of “missing opportunities” consciously chose what was they felt was the best translation according to their own translation
    philosophy. They were trying to stay more in line with the Tyndale/KJV tradition and were actually reacting at times against the NRSV “improvements”. Now I would agree that there are a lot of unnecessary archaisms, etc. left in the ESV. However, it is obvious that there are many, many thousands of people who understand and love those archaisms. Thus, for that very large segment of the convservative wing of Christianity “biblish” is actually something that they understand and that is also very much a part of “their” English – just in the same way that it was so much a part of the English of almost the entire English speaking world up until fairly recent times. Such Bibles will continue to be their primary source for learning God’s word and both their children and those who come into their churches will learn that same beautiful “biblish” while they also learn the truth of God’s word. Of course, beauty is to a great extent in the eye of the “beholder” (or, should we say instead “looker”? I think not.)

  18. Wayne Leman says:

    Yes, Richie, clearly there are many who love the English in the ESV. It would be interesting to see how they would react in a comparison of the ESV and the NASB, since both, ultimately, are revisions of the ASV, that great old “Rock of Biblical Integrity” that we used in my Bible school classes in the mid-1960’s. And, of course, the ASV is a revision of the KJV and the ERV.

    The ESV revised many, but not all, of the obsolete archaic negative word orders, as in:

    Nahum 8 “Rejoice not over me” (ESV)

    The NASB, as far as I know, does not use any of those old negative word orders. Note:

    Nahum 8 “Do not rejoice over me” (NASB)

    That word order was already obsolescing in 1611 A.D. when the KJV was published. By 1650 the current negative word order was the standard.

    I do not understand why the ESV team did not complete the job of revising the old order to the standard word order. Perhaps, as you say, some people find it beautiful.

  19. John says:

    “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

    This paper is dismal. Is the “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” not contextually indicative that “one word” is a command? Yes it is. Furthermore English does use “word” as “command”, and all the time. “What’s the word”, “the final word on..”, and many other expressions. [rolls eyes again.]

  20. James Snapp, Jr. says:

    It is obvious to me that a large percentage of Dr. Strauss’ problems with the ESV are idiot-boy objections. One can do this with any translation, and one can do it with the original text, too. Imho, although Dr. Strauss has a good point here and there, this whole review may tell the reader more about Dr. Strauss than it tells us about the ESV.

  21. Michael Nicholls says:

    John said: Many of the examples provided here, and in previous articles, show that the ESV is achieving its stated mission–to be “transparent to the original text”. The basic argument in these articles is just the dynamic vs formal argument restated, exact meaning vs exact words. (emphasis mine)

    John said: There are plenty of people who will never learn Greek that would like to have a translation that is as close to the Greek as possible.

    As a Bible translator, I find the ESV to be quite useful when I want to read through a section quickly and see the underlying Greek words, forms and structures.

    But there aren’t many people who are trained well enough in principles of Greek discourse who can understand the significance of the Greek word order, forms and structures. You said it yourself:

    1. There are plenty of people who will never learn Greek.
    2. They would like to have a translation that is as close to the Greek as possible.

    And I say, if they haven’t learned Greek (and I don’t mean just 2 years at Bible college), a translation that is close to Greek will only mislead them.

    I’m not just talking about a knowledge of Greek idioms. Language is so much more than that. Unless the reader can identify and understand the significance of Greek register, collocation, focus, style, etc., etc., he or she will end up reading English register, collocation, focus, style, etc., etc., into the ‘transparent’ Greek text.

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