ESV #5, by Mark Strauss

Exegetical Errors in the ESV

All translations must make difficult exegetical decisions, and some errors are inevitable. Here are some examples where an overly literal approach contributes to errors in the ESV.

Luke 7:47
ESV Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much.”
Comment: The woman’s sins were not forgiven because she loved much (which would be salvation by works). Jesus’ parable teaches the opposite: gratitude results from forgiveness. She loved much because her sins were forgiven. Both TNIV and NET make this clear.
TNIV Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven—as her great love has shown.
NET Therefore I tell you, her sins, which were many, are forgiven, thus she loved much.

Luke 1:15
ESV and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb.
Comment: Luke does not mean that John will be filled with the Spirit “from” his mother’s womb, but
“already while in” his mother’s womb (see Luke 1:41, 44).
TNIV …even before he is born. (cf. NET; NRSV; NLT)
HCSB …while still in his mother’s womb. (cf. NASU)

Rom. 11:6
ESV But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.
Comment: The ESV implies that salvation once came by works, but it no longer does. The Greek ouketi is not being used temporally (“no longer”), but logically, meaning “it is therefore not the case that….”11 TNIV and HCSB get it right.
TNIV And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works…
HCSB Now if by grace, then it is not by works…


11 See Moo, Romans, 678, n. 42; cf. J. D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1988) 639.


1Tim. 1:3
ESV remain at Ephesus so that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine,
Comment: Heterodidaskalō here likely means doctrinal errors. The ESV’s “different doctrine” is too weak.
TNIV …not to teach false doctrines
NET…not to spread false teachings

2Thess. 2:2
ESV we ask you, brothers… not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by a spirit or a spoken word, or a letter seeming to be from us…
Comment: “A spirit” will be misunderstood by most readers as an evil spirit or a demon. In this context is surely means a prophetic utterance. See the commentaries. “Shaken in mind” is also strange English.
TNIV …whether by a prophecy or by word of mouth or by letter…
REB …by any prophetic utterance, any pronouncement, or any letter…

Matt. 13:21
ESV As for what was sown on rocky ground…he has no root in himself, but endures for a while…
Comment: In addition to the very strange “no root in himself,” the ESV misses the Greek idiom proskairos estin, which means “is temporary.” The point is not that he is able to endure for a while, but that he is shortlived.
TNIV But since they have no root, they last only a short time.
NLT2 But since they don’t have deep roots, they don’t last long.

Gal. 3:5
ESV Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—
Comment: The ESV makes it sound like God performs miracles by the works of the law. The TNIV and NET clarify this with “your.”
TNIV …by your observing the law, or by your believing what you heard?
NET by your doing the works of the law or by your believing what you heard?

Matt. 24:41
ESV Two women will be grinding at the mill…
Comment: The phrase en to mulo likely means “with a handmill,” not “at the mill.” See the commentaries.
TNIV …grinding with a handmill
NET …grinding with a mill


What is a translation, and how might it be bad?

A translation is a text with qualities of equivalence to a prior text in another language, such that the new text is taken as a substitute for the original. You may not realize it, but “equivalence” is a problematic concept in translation theory. I include it anyway in my definition of translation, because without some notion — some intention and perception — of equivalence, you wouldn’t call the new text a translation. My solution is to make it subjective. For something to be considered a translation, the translator and the audience for the translation have to recognize that the newly constructed text is somehow equivalent to the original text.

I’m not going to try to explain translation in objective, scientific terms, because all attempts I have seen to do so have been problematic and unsatisfying. Despite the problems, translation has been taking place as long as there has been a diversity of languages, and the fact of translation is not dependent on scientific explanation. As philosopher Sidney Morgenbesser said, “To explain why a man slipped on a banana peel, we do not need a general theory of slipping.”

You might call this explanation of translation anthropological or sociological, rather than linguistic or psychological. All definitions that I have seen that attempt to be psychological or linguistic have either recognized their own inadequacy, or else have just looked wrong to me. If this definition doesn’t jive with common sense, then as far as I am concerned it is wrong. It is based on people, and the central character is the translator, who has to be able to understand two languages. Of course the intended audience for the translation is crucial too. For the translation to accomplish its purpose, the audience has to accept it as a substitute for the original text.

Okay, now, given this definition of translation, what counts as a legitimate translation and what does not? For a translation to be good, it has to accomplish its purpose(s). Basically, that means that the translation has to be somehow equivalent, in the mind of the translator, to the source text, and the audience of the translation has to accept it as a substitute for the original. One could add the theological element in the case of Bible translation, namely that God is also one of the active participants in the process, and He gives His blessing on the resulting translation as a new expression of His message. But that part of the equation is least susceptible to analysis, except that you could say that the success of the translation and the happy reception of the translation among the target audience is a sign of God’s blessing on the translation as an expression of His own message.

What does it mean to say that a translation is bad? Notions of “good” and “bad” are a little naive in relation to translation, and I would rather talk in terms of a translation as being successful or unsuccessful, or to use terms that I like but are maybe a little more pretentious, felicitous or infelicitous. There are three ways a translation can get off track. First, the translator could misunderstand the source text. Secondly, the translator could produce a translation text that doesn’t communicate well because the translator isn’t in tune with the language of the intended audience. These are two types of mistranslations. A third thing that could go wrong is that the translator is dishonest, and presents the translated text as an equivalent of the source text when he or she knows it is not.

It should be obvious that if the translator misunderstands the language of the source text, a mistranslation will result. If we are talking about Bible translation, that is where exegesis and hermeneutics and a knowledge of the Biblical languages are important. Or, the translator may not be able to correctly anticipate how the audience of the translation will receive and understand the translation. There are lots and lots of examples, many humorous, where the translation doesn’t work because the translator doesn’t adequately understand the target language, or otherwise fails to anticipate how the audience will receive and understand the text. Here’s a recent example I like: According to the BBC, the Swansea Council wanted to make a bilingual road sign in both English and Welsh that read, “No entry for heavy goods vehicles. Residential site only.” They sent this text by e-mail to a translation service, and when they got the response, they added the Welsh to the road sign, and what the Welsh part of it says, in back translation, is “I am not in the office at the moment. Send any work to be translated.” For other examples of humorous mistranslations, go to

Now in addition to mistranslations based on misunderstandings of either the source language or the target language, a third way a translation might be what we could call infelicitous is if the translator is either dishonest or cavalier in how the translation is presented as an equivalent of the source text. I don’t have specific examples to give, and we have to be careful about accusing people of dishonesty, but I am saying that it is something conceivable. And one reason I bring it up is to say that unless it can be demonstrated that the translator misunderstood the source text, or unintentionally communicated poorly to the target audience, or was dishonest, then I don’t think you can say that the translation is bad or wrong. This message has gotten too long, and I will have to continue this thought later, but there are some translations that are unfairly criticized as being out of the bounds of proper translation, when in fact there was no dishonesty and nothing unintential.