Idioms Missed in the ESV
Almost all the problem translations cited in this paper could be called “idioms missed,” since most literalist errors result from idiomatic differences between languages. Here we focus on phrases or clauses that the ESV has tried to render literally, resulting in awkward, nonsensical or inaccurate English.
Mark 1:2 (pars. Matt. 11:10; Luke 7:27)
ESV: “Behold, I send my messenger before your face”
Comment: The Greek idiom pro prosōpou sou (lit. “before your face”) means “ahead of you.” I would never say, “I arrived at the restaurant before your face.” Most versions recognize the idiom and translate accurately (HCSB, NET, NIV, NAB, NLT, REB, GNT, GW). While the original NASB used “before your face,” its 1995 update (NASU) recognized the idiom and corrected it to “ahead of you.” The NRSV similarly revised the RSV. Curiously, the ESV misses the idiom here (and parallels), but gets it right in Luke 9:52 and 10:1, where pro prosōpou autou is translated “ahead of him.”
TNIV: “I will send my messenger ahead of you,”
NASU: “Behold, I send my messenger ahead of you.”
ESV Then Satan entered into Judas called Iscariot, who was of the number of the twelve.
Comment: This is not English. The Greek idiom means “one of the Twelve”
TNIV Then Satan entered Judas, called Iscariot, one of the Twelve.
NET Then Satan entered Judas, the one called Iscariot, who was one of the twelve.
ESV Anna…was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin,
Comment: The Greek idiom (lit.) “advanced in many days” means “very old.” The idiom “from her virginity” means “after she was married.” This illustrates one of the common mistakes made by literalist translators. They suppose that by reproducing a few words from the idiom (“advanced” and “virginity”), you get closer to the meaning. But it is the whole idiom that carries the meaning, not random words.
TNIV She was very old; she had lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,
HCSB She was well along in years, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,
ESV Then they raised their voices and said, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.”
Comment: This is another example of misguided literalism. The ESV has tried to translate the Greek idiom, “take up from the earth such a one,” literally. By leaving a few words intact (“such,” “from the earth”), the ESV supposes it has retained the meaning.8 But of course no one speaking English would ever say this.
TNIV …“Rid the earth of him! He’s not fit to live!”
HCSB …“Wipe this person off the earth—it’s a disgrace for him to live!”
Matt. 5:2 (cf. Acts 8:35)
ESV And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
Comment: The ESV has missed the Greek idiom, which does not indicate two actions, but one—an introduction to a speech. No one speaking English would say, “The teacher opened her mouth and taught the students, saying…”
TNIV and he began to teach them. He said… (cf. NET, HCSB, etc.)
Genesis 27:31 (and 61 times)
ESV Isaac answered and said to Esau.
Comment: Again, no English speaker would say “the teacher answered and said to me,” but rather she “answered” or “replied.” The Hebrew (and Greek) idiom does not describe two actions but one. All of the functional equivalent versions (GNT, CEV, GW, NCV, NLT) and the mediating ones (NIV, TNIV, HCSB, NET, NAB) recognize the idiom and translate it correctly as “answered,” or “replied.” While the original NASB used “answered and said” 186 times in the Old and New Testaments, its revision (NASU) uses it only 75 times, usually replacing it with “replied.” The revisers evidently recognized that this was a Hebrew idiom not an English one. Strangely, while the RSV correctly interpreted the idiom as “answered” in all but seven instances, its revision the ESV reintroduced “answered and said” sixty-one times in the Old Testament (but never in the New Testament!).
TNIV, NIV Isaac answered Esau.
NET, NJB, NASU Isaac replied to Esau
8 Even the TNIV and HCSB feel the need to retain the word “earth.” But the Greek idiom may well mean simply “kill him!” without the reader consciously thinking about departure from the earth (see NLT, REB, TEV, CEV).
ESV For I see that you are in the gall of bitterness and in the bond of iniquity.
Comment: The “gall of bitterness” is a Greek idiom that means bitterly resentful or envious. Very few English readers have any idea what “gall” is. The translation “bile of bitterness” might be better but is still obscure and inaccurate, since this was likely a dead metaphor by the first century. The second phrase “bond of iniquity” is also obscure and archaic.
TNIV For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.
NET For I see that you are bitterly envious and in bondage to sin.
Acts 9:28 (cf. Acts 1:21)
ESV So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly.
Comment: The ESV phrase is very strange, and certainly not standard English. The Greek idiom “going in and going out” means going around the city with them, with the implications that this was done in the open.
TNIV So Saul stayed with them and moved about freely in Jerusalem…
NET So he was staying with them, associating openly with them…
1 Cor. 9:16
ESV “For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me.”
Comment: “For necessity is laid upon me” is not English. The Greek idiom indicates compulsion.
TNIV “For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach.
NLT “Yet preaching the Good News is not something I can boast about. I am compelled by God to do it.”
ESV “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.”
Comment: The ESV misses the point. Paul is not saying that he is not speaking about being in need (he is speaking about it!). He is saying, he is not in need. This is a mistranslation of the Greek idiom, “speak according to lack/need.”
TNIV I am not saying this because I am in need…
NJB I do not say this because I have lacked anything…
ESV “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound.”
Comment: Paul doesn’t mean he knows how to be brought low, but rather he knows what it is like and how to get along while living in poverty. Other literal versions have gotten the idiom right NASB: “I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity.” NRSV: “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.”
TNIV “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty.”
NLT “I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything.”
ESV “Fill up, then, the measure of your fathers.”
Comment: Nonsensical English. NLT, REB and NJB get the idiom right.
TNIV “Fill up, then, the measure of the sin of your ancestors!”
REB “Go on then, finish off what your fathers began!” (cf. NLT; NJB)
ESV “and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’”
Comment: The ESV misses the point. This is not about “naming” offspring. The Greek idiom (lit.), “in Isaac seed will be called for you,” means “Your name will be carried on through Isaac” (see REB) or simply “Your descendants will come through Isaac.”
TNIV “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”
REB “It is through the line of Isaac’s descendants that your name will be traced.”
2 Cor. 6:12
ESV “You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted in your own affections.”
Comment: Paul’s point is that he has not held back his affection toward the Corinthians, but they have held theirs back from him. ESV misses this and sounds like Paul is freeing the Corinthians from some restrictions. The second clause in the ESV is simply obscure. What does “restricted” in your emotions mean?
TNIV “We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us.”
NLT2 “There is no lack of love on our part, but you have withheld your love from us.”
ESV “the men of Gibeon [said], ‘Do not relax your hand from your servants.’”
TNIV “… ‘Do not abandon your servants.’”
NASU “… ‘Do not abandon your servants.’” (cf. HCSB, NRSV, NET; NKJV)
Comment: The ESV has simply missed the idiom (by following the RSV). The ESV’s “Do not relax your hand” is obscure, but would probably be misunderstood as “Don’t stop putting pressure on.” In fact, the idiom means “don’t abandon” (HCSB, NRSV, NET; etc.) or “don’t forsake” (NKJV).
2 Sam. 18:25
ESV the king said, “If he is alone, there is news in his mouth.”
Comment: This is not an English idiom. I would never say, “Here comes Johnny with news in his mouth.”
TNIV The king said, “If he is alone, he must have good news.”
NET The king said, “If he is by himself, he brings good news.”
ESV with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.
Comment: The Hebrew idiom is “with a heart and a heart,” which means with deceptive hearts. Nobody speaking English would say they speak “with a double heart.”
TNIV they flatter with their lips but harbor deception in their hearts.
HCSB they speak with flattering lips and deceptive hearts.
ESV Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy,
Comment: What are “heavy ears”? The Hebrew idiom means deaf or hard of hearing. The TNIV is only slightly better. HCSB and NLT capture the sense.
TNIV …make their ears dull
HCSB …deafen their ears.
NLT2 …plug their ears (cf. GW)
ESV “… the LORD… will seize firm hold on you”
Comment: “Seize firm hold on” is very strange English.
TNIV “…the LORD…is about to take firm hold of you”
NASU “…the LORD is about to grasp you firmly.”
ESV “the wicked… you are near in their mouth and far from their heart.”
Comment: The ESV’s “near in their mouth” is nonsensical. The NET is clearest.
TNIV “…You are always on their lips but far from their hearts.”
NET “…They always talk about you, but they really care nothing about you.
ESV “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
Comment: “Borne the burden of the day” is not an English idiom.
TNIV “…who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day
NLT “…who worked all day in the scorching heat.”
ESV But Felix, having a rather accurate knowledge of the Way, put them off, saying, “When Lysias the tribune comes down, I will decide your case.”
Comment: The ESV has missed the Greek idiom, which doesn’t mean to put someone off, but to formally adjourn or postpone a legal hearing (see NIV, HCSB, NRSV, REB, NLT, etc., and the commentaries).
TNIV “Then Felix…adjourned the proceedings….”
HCSB “Felix …adjourned the hearing…”
2 Cor. 6:15
ESV What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever?
Comment: The Greek literally says “what part/share a believer with an unbeliever,” which means “what do they have in common?” The ESV makes it sound like the two are splitting a piece of pie. Also, “accord” is awkward. Better English is “agreement” or “harmony.”
TNIV What harmony is there between Christ and Belial? Or what does a believer have in common with an unbeliever?
NET And what agreement does Christ have with Beliar? Or what does a believer share in common with an unbeliever?
ESV After he had finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people,
Comment: Both phrases “all his sayings” and “in the hearing of the people” are strange and awkward English. No one would ever say, “The politician finished all his sayings in the hearing of the people.”
TNIV When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people who were listening,
NLT2 When Jesus had finished saying all this to the people,
ESV For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.
Comment: Both phrases in the ESV are unnatural English. “Numbered among us” means he was considered to be one of us. “Allotted his share” means he participated with us. It is not standard English to say, “The
youth pastor was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.”
TNIV He was one of our number and shared in our ministry.”
NLT2 Judas was one of us and shared in the ministry with us.
ESV For before these days Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody…
Comment: The Greek idiom “before these days” means “some time ago.” No one speaking English would say, “I visited my brother before these days.”
TNIV Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody
NET For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody,
ESV “When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel.
Comment: “It came into his heart” is not an English idiom. I would never say, “It came to my heart to visit my brother.” The Greek (lit.) “it rose up into his heart” means either “it occurred to him” (REB) or “he decided” (TNIV).
TNIV “…he decided to visit his own people, the Israelites.” (cf. HCSB)
REB “…when it occurred to him to visit his fellow-countrymen the Israelites.”
ESV “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand,
that we should walk in them.”
Comment: In English I would never say I’m going to “walk in good works.” The Greek idiom “walk in” in many contexts has lost any pedestrian connotations and means to live by certain standards. This is clearly a matter of “doing” the good works that God prepared for us.
TNIV “…which God prepared in advance for us to do.”
NET “…that God prepared beforehand so we may do them.”
NRSV “…which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
ESV “Walk in wisdom toward outsiders.”
Comment: To “walk…toward” someone in English can only mean literally to walk in that direction. The Greek peripateō (live; walk) is surely a dead metaphor here, as even other literal versions recognize (see NASB below). NRSV reads, “Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders.” This question of “walking” in terms of conduct is a difficult one in translation. Sometimes the idiom may be a live metaphor, envisioning a traveler on life’s journey. In other cases (as the two cited above), it is clearly a dead metaphor. Translators
must be particularly sensitive to contextual factors. It is beyond the scope of this paper to survey the data, but this metaphor would probably be worth a dissertation.
TNIV “Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders;”
NASB “Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders.”
1 Thess. 4:12
ESV so that you may walk properly before outsiders…
TNIV so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders…
NAB that you may conduct yourselves properly toward outsiders…
1 Samuel 10:9
ESV When he [Saul] turned his back to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart.
Comment: To give someone a new heart in English means a heart transplant. The point here is a change of heart or transformed disposition.
TNIV …God changed Saul’s heart. (cf. NASU)
God’s Word “…God changed Saul’s attitude.
ESV “the seven princes of Persia and Media who saw the king’s face.”
Comment: The idiom here refers to close advisors with special access, not the literal act of seeing someone’s face.
TNIV the seven nobles of Persia and Media who had special access to the king.”
NRSV the seven officials of Persia and Media, who had access to the king,”
ESV “two of the king’s eunuchs…sought to lay hands on King Ahasuerus.”
Comment: The Hebrew idiom (lit.) “sought to send a hand” means to conspire to seize or to kill. Here is another example where the translators assumed that retaining a few words from the idiom would preserve the meaning. But idioms work as a whole, not through their individual parts.
TNIV…conspired to assassinate King Ahasuerus. (cf. NRSV)
HCSB… tried to assassinate King Ahasuerus.
ESV In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him”
Comment: “The pride of his face” is strange English. The Hebrew idiom refers to a prideful attitude.
TNIV In their pride the wicked do not seek him;
NET The wicked in their pride do not seek God;
ESV “a scorching wind shall be the portion of their cup.”
Comment: “The portion of their cup” is nonsensical for most English readers. The idiom means “their lot” or “what they deserve.” It was certainly a dead metaphor.
TNIV “a scorching wind will be their lot.”
NET “A whirlwind is what they deserve!”
ESV The whole land is made desolate, but no man lays it to heart.
Comment: “No man lays it to heart” is not an English idiom.
TNIV …because there is no one who cares.
NET …But no one living in it will pay any heed.
ESV For even your brothers…have dealt treacherously with you; they are in full cry after you;
Comment: The Hebrew idiom, “called after you fully” probably means to raise their voices in anger or to cry out against.
TNIV they have raised a loud cry against you.
NET Even they have plotted to do away with you.
ESV Whatever is the first to open the womb among the people of Israel.
Comment: “First to open the womb” is not a normal English way to speak of a firstborn child. The TNIV is only a little better, retaining the odd “of every womb.” The NLT is the most accurate to contemporary English.
TNIV The first offspring of every womb among the Israelites.
NLT2 every firstborn among the Israelites.
ESV you should not…shut your hand from your poor brother.
Comment: Not an English idiom.
TNIV do not be…tightfisted toward them.
HCSB you must not be …tightfisted toward your poor brother.
1 Kings 2:10
ESV Then David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David.
Comment: The Hebrew idiom is actually “David lay down (shkv) with his ancestors,” which would certainly be better than the contemporary connotations associated with “slept with.”
TNIV Then David rested with his ancestors…
NET Then David passed away…
ESV No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.
Comment: The verb hupernikaō does not mean “more than” conquerors (how can you be more than the winner?), but that we conquer completely or overwhelmingly. Absolute victory is ours. The TNIV has the same problem. The NET and NLT get it right.
TNIV …we are more than conquerors…
NET …we have complete victory…
NLT …overwhelming victory is ours …
ESV all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death.
Comment: “Took counsel against” is unnatural English. The NASU’s “conferred together” is a higher register than the TNIV’s “came to a decision,” but both are normal English.
TNIV …came to the decision to put Jesus to death.
NASU …conferred together against Jesus to put Him to death