ESV #13, by Mark Strauss


As noted earlier, this survey is just the tip of the iceberg. It should be evident, however, that the ESV needs a major revision with reference to its English style. I would recommend that the ESV committee enlist competent English stylists to carefully review the entire text with an eye toward standard English idiom.

There is an unfortunate tendency among biblical scholars—who live in the world of Hebrew and Greek—to think they are getting it “right” if they mimic the form of the original languages. The unfortunate result is a tendency to create “half-idioms” (half-English/half-Greek), transferring a few words of the original, but missing its meaning in standard English. This is what the ESV does when people speak “with a double heart” (Ps. 12:2), have “news in their mouths” (2Sam. 18:25), “go in and out among them” (Acts 1:21; 9:28), or “fill up the measure of their fathers” (Matt. 23:32). These are half-idioms—Biblish rather than English. As noted earlier, idioms work as a whole rather than through their individual parts. In translating the English idiom, “He’s really in a pickle,” it would be a mistake to preserve cucumbers in the translation. It is not the component parts but the statement as a whole that communicates its meaning.

Some critics have claimed that the only way to protect the verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture is to translate literally. This, of course, is linguistic nonsense. The translation that best preserves the verbal and plenary inspiration of Scripture is one that clearly and accurately communicates the meaning of the text as the original author intended it to be heard. The Greek idioms that Paul or John or Luke used did not sound awkward, obscure or stilted to their original readers. They sounded like normal idiomatic Greek. Verbal and plenary inspiration is most respected when we allow the original meaning of the text to come through.

Asking the simple question, “Would anyone speaking English actually say this?” is a good test for standard English. This simple question could transform our Bible versions and bring them in line with the finest translation practices used around the world. We must remember that the ultimate goal of Bible translation is not to give our students a “crib” on their weekly Greek and Hebrew assignments, but to clearly and accurately communicate the meaning of God’s inspired and authoritative Word.

This concludes our postings of Mark Strauss’ paper. (Click here for the first post in this series on the ESV.) Thank you to each one who has interacted with the posts. You are welcome to continue interacting with them. The latest version of Dr. Strauss’ paper is available for download from my ESV Links webpage. Click here to download his paper from that webpage.

Dr. Strauss’ paper generated great interest at the ETS conference, and the interest continues as bloggers follow up on it. Here are some followup posts I am aware of:

We will add links to other followup posts as we become aware of them. If you know of any which are not yet in our list, please send to to me, either by email or in a comment on this post.

8 thoughts on “ESV #13, by Mark Strauss

  1. Mike Sangrey says:

    Mark Strauss wrote: “Verbal and plenary inspiration is most respected when we allow the original meaning of the text to come through.”

    I like the ambiguity of that statement. If the ambiguity isn’t clear, think about the two different types of audiences: the analyst who wants to have the details “come through” and the reader who wants the meaning to naturally “come through.” These two types of people understand Mark’s statement in very different ways.

    The reason I point this out is I think the critic’s statements about how verbal and plenary inspiration should be applied to Bible translation methodology is simply a red herring. And, therefore, Mark’s opposite and equal defense is also a red herring. I don’t think it should be positively applied to the meaning based translation method any more than it should be applied to the literal method.

    If I approach a well done literal translation with an analytical mindset, if I apply skills such as recognizing chiasm, inter-lock devices, book-end structures, participant references that demean or elevate, etc, if I have some appreciation of the lexical choices available to the original author in specific contexts, if I am sufficiently familiar with the original language (or self-consciously cautious about how far I “push the Greek”) so I can envision the original constructions based on the English translation I have in front of me, if I can synthesize the analyzed data into a coherent message within my mind paragraph by paragraph, then the doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration supports the authoritative message of God to my life. The method of translation and the method of inspiration work together. But, it only does so, in the case of a literal translation, when the “reader” is an analyst.

    Much the same thing can be said for meaning based translation. The doctrine of verbal, plenary inspiration supports the activity of reading the text and its application to my life. The two work together. But, the meaning-based translation must be in good quality English since that is what the English reader naturally uses to process the text.

    Neither of these are to imply that any random interpretation is somehow inspired or even valid. I’m merely pointing out that verbal, plenary inspiration is not a “high road” for any translation methodology.

    Finally, I think Mark has done an excellent job exposing the “English” of the ESV. And I thank him for it. If it is to be used by an audience which wants to read the text, then the intention has been missed, in my opinion. However, if it is written to support analysis, then my question is: How well does it support that?

    That’s a considerably harder question to answer. We understand the English language much better than we understand the skills one needs to process a literal translation. Perhaps, just perhaps, if we understood these skills better, then expressing the results in plain English would be that much easier.

  2. John says:

    After reading this entire series of articles, the thesis comes across as, “The ESV should not become the standard English Bible because it is a literal translation and retains some King James English.” The inferred thesis I get from these articles is, “The standard English Bible should be a dynamic translation.” There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s an opinion.

    The majority of critiques relate to is literalness and traditional language. However, staying “essentially literal” and “firmly in the King James tradition” were goals of this translation. If the ESV were to make the changes described in these articles, it would become a much more dynamic translation and lose a good amount of traditional language–in other words, it would become more like the TNIV.

    I just hope everyone understands that most of the critiques in these articles prove that the ESV stood by and accomplished its translational goals. The critiques point to the success of the translators, not failure. If you don’t like these goals, you won’t like the ESV.

    Not everyone likes every translation. I am glad the ESV is literal and rooted in traditional language. I like the ESV the way it is. I really hope the translators do not make any changes that would alter its essential nature.

    If you like literal, buy the ESV. If you like dynamic, buy the TNIV. But don’t try to turn one into the other.

  3. Wayne Leman says:

    John wrote:

    After reading this entire series of articles, the thesis comes across as, “The ESV should not become the standard English Bible because it is a literal translation and retains some King James English.”

    John, I disagree. It is possible to be an essentially literal translation within the KJV tradition and still use grammatical, good quality literary English. The criticisms of the ESV are not because it is in the Tydale-KJV tradition. The criticisms are of specific wordings which are not appropriate English for communicating the meaning of the original Hebrew and Greek texts. In several cases, the ESV English is actually ungrammatical, as when it has wordings such as “The rich is destined for ruin.” That is not grammatical English. Grammatical English would be “The rich are destined for ruin.” The fault is not particularly that of the ESV team, but, rather of the RSV, the ESV base, which used improper English wordings. And the ESV is not alone in using ungrammatical wordings like that. It is easy to correct the problem by wording as something like “The rich person is destined for ruin.”

    I agree with you that the particular language used by Dr. Strauss can be upsetting to those who like the ESV. It would have been better for more objective, calmer lahnguage to have been used. Nor am I suggesting that every example used by Dr. Strauss is of the same urgency for change. It is true, as ESV advocates have written, that some of Dr. Strauss’ examples sound find to people who already understand the Biblish dialect of church English. Different audiences have different needs. The ESV is not targeted at the average unchurched speaker of English.

    The ESV team has been revising the ESV to make it better. Let us all help them by praying for them and helping them spot other wordings which can be improved. The ESV does not need to become a different kind of translation; it, like every other Bible translation, needs to be improved. That is the purpose of thius blog, to help us learn to find Bible wordings which can be improved. We can even submit our findings to translation teams, to the email addresses they have provided (see our Versions page on this blog), to help them.

    There is no perfect translation. Each one can be improved. Dr. Strauss did the ESV team a service. Let us not dismiss his work with a broad brush, but let us interact with each example to see if his suggestion is justified or not.

    We treat other versions the same here on this blog. We are grateful for each one, but are willing to be of service to translation teams so their translations can become even better.

  4. Peter Kirk says:

    John, it may be true that “the ESV stood by and accomplished its translational goals.” In that case, I think Mark Strauss would agree with me on this, it is those translational goals which make it inappropriate as a standard English Bible. What most clearly makes it inappropriate is not that it stands in the KJV tradition, not even that it is essentially literal (although I would prefer a standard Bible to be less literal), but that (as a deliberate policy if you are right) it uses archaic, unclear and sometimes ungrammatical English, as Mark has shown in many of his examples.

  5. Rich Rhodes says:

    I fully understand that there are those that like the ESV. That’s OK, if one admits that it is not, in fact, a matter of accuracy at all.

    The problem is that there are actual measures for translational accuracy, for example, in the EU where translation is a big and important business. (I’ve blogged on this before here.)

    The core claim is that if there were bilingually native Koine and English speakers, they would have a field day trashing any of the essentially literal translations, including the ESV. (I suspect they would have some problems with our dynamic equivalent translations as well, but not to anywhere near the same extent.)

    To put it another way, the ESV may be true to its translational principles, but if those principles give that result, then the principles are wrong. As we evangelicals like to point out in other contexts, it is possible to be sincerely wrong.

    Furthermore, I will stick to the strong position that the ESV (and other essentially literal translations) are wrong and that it is not just a matter of taste. Apply the objective measures that are used in judging translations between modern languages, and the ESV fails badly. Mark has not overstepped the bounds. His criticisms are not just overly provocative. He’s right. The ESV is full of mistakes that are not just translational choices. (Two years ago I posted an example here that shows you can, in principle, tell a mistaken translation from an acceptable one.)

  6. Craig Bathurst says:

    The Church that I’m a member is changing out there NASV pew Bibles for the ESV. I was curious and I checked out John 3:16 and this translation leaves out the word “begotton”. So they didn’t translate the Greek word “Monogenes” at all.” I rather have the NASV back.

  7. Wayne Leman says:

    Craig wrote:

    The Church that I’m a member is changing out there NASV pew Bibles for the ESV. I was curious and I checked out John 3:16 and this translation leaves out the word “begotton”. So they didn’t translate the Greek word “Monogenes” at all.” I rather have the NASV back.

    Hi Craig,

    In the original Greek of John 3:16 there is only a very slight difference between the word which would translate to English as “begotten” and the word that would translate as “only, unique”. A large number of conservative scholars today find the evidence stronger that the original Greek word there meant “only, unique”, not “begotten.”

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