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:
- Mark Strauss on the ESV Translation of the Bible
- Bill Mounce responds to Mark Strauss
- Mounce responds to Strauss
- Bill Mounce responds to Mark Strauss on the ESV
- ESV Bible
- Should Archaic Language Be Used In Modern Translations?
- “Rue the Day?” Who Talks Like That?
- Biblish, Oops, and Other ESV Idiosyncracies
- What the ESV is Good For
- Should the ESV really be the Reformed Standard Version?
- Issues with the ESV Bible
- ETS Paper Stirs a Debate Over the ESV
- what’s wrong with a literal translation?
- Strauss and Mounce on the future of the ESV
- Have You Purchased Your ESV Study Bible? Not Me!
- New Module: Improving the ESV by Mark Strauss
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.