In 2001 Crossway released a new translation, the English Standard Version (ESV). The purpose of this translation is to be more literal than the New International Version (NIV) -particularly the recent “gender neutral” edition - and to be more readable than the updated New American Standard Bible (NASB). Both the ESV and the NASB are on the literal end of the translation spectrum. The chief difference is that the ESV translators attempted to emulate the literary beauty and rhythm of the King James Version (KJV) and Revised Standard Version (RSV), while the NASB translators focused more on strict literalism.
The staring point for the ESV translators was the RSV. Many evangelicals rejected the RSV for alleged liberal bias, as in the translation of “young woman” rather than “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14. All of the translators of the ESV are firmly committed to the inspiration of Scripture, and the ESV reflects this commitment with a return to “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14. While the RSV was used as the basis for the translation, the translators did seek to evaluate every passage in light of the best current Hebrew and Greek text.
The chief competition for the ESV is the NASB. Both translations are conservative and literal. For years I have used the NASB and its 1995 updated edition. For some time I have been comparing the NASB with the ESV, and I would like to share the fruits of my research with you.
Since I do not possess the linguistic or critical skills needed to evaluate translations, I have primarily relied on the reviews of others. In particular, I have used Jack Lewis’s The English Bible: From the KJV to the NIV (Baker, 1982), for a great deal of my research. Along with the help of several young people where I preach (Omair Akhtar, Grady Behrens, Tim Compton, Sammie Recinto), I have used Lewis’s chapter on the 1977 NASB as a framework for comparing the ESV and updated NASB.
The primary result of my study has been this: approximately two-thirds of Lewis’s criticisms of the NASB have been corrected by the ESV, while virtually none have been corrected by the updated NASB.
There are several instances in which the NASB is less literal than the ESV. Some examples:
- Ezekiel 3:7 – “the whole house of Israel is stubborn and obstinate” (NASB) vs. “all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart” (ESV)
- Psalm 88:18 – “My acquaintances are in darkness” (NASB) vs. “my companions have become darkness” (ESV)
- Psalm 78:33 – “So He brought their days to an end in futility” (NASB) vs. “So he made their days vanish like a breath” (ESV)
- 1 Peter 3:7 – “live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker” (NASB) vs. “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel” (ESV)
There are dozens of times where the NASB adds a word to the text that the ESV does not. Some examples:
- Luke 1:17 - "It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him” (NASB) vs. “and he will go before him” (ESV)
- 1 Thessalonians 5:21 – “But examine everything carefully” (NASB) vs. “but test everything” (ESV)
- Luke 5:39 – “The old is good enough” (NASB) vs. “The old is good” (ESV)
- 1 Timothy 5:22 – “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily” (NASB) vs. “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands” (ESV)
- Mark 6:9 – “but to wear sandals; and He added, ‘Do not put on two tunics’” (NASB) vs. “but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics” (ESV)
- Acts 7:59 – “as he called on the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus’” (NASB) vs. “he called out, ‘Lord Jesus’” (ESV)
There are several instances where the NASB translation is very poor, but the ESV is accurate. Notice a few examples:
- Ecclesiastes 12:5 – “and the caperberry is ineffective” (NASB) vs. “and desire fails” (ESV)
- Hebrews 9:16 – “For where a covenant is” (NASB) vs. “For where a will is involved” (ESV)
- Acts 2:46 – “breaking bread from house to house” (NASB) vs. “breaking bread in their homes” (ESV)
- Exodus 32:4 - "This is your god, O Israel” (NASB) vs. “These are your gods, O Israel” (ESV)
- 2 Samuel 24:1 – “And it incited David” (NASB) vs. “And he incited David” (ESV)
- 1 Corinthians 1:12 – “Now I mean this, that each one of you is saying, ‘I am of Paul,’ and ‘I of Apollos,’ and ‘I of Cephas,’ and ‘I of Christ’” (NASB) vs. “What I mean is that each one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ or ‘I follow Apollos,’ or ‘I follow Cephas,’ or ‘I follow Christ’” (ESV).
The ESV is not entirely consistent, but does seem to exceed the NASB in this regard. Here are just a few examples:
- The NASB translates porneia as either “fornication” or “immorality.” The ESV consistently uses “sexual immorality.”
- The NASB uses renders mlk differently in Leviticus 1:15 (“wring off its head”) and 5:8 (“nip its head at the front of its neck”); the ESV is consistent (“wring off its head” and “wring its head from its neck”).
- Genesis 1:24 and 2:7 use the same Hebrew term for man and animals. The NASB translates them “living creatures” and “living being”, while the ESV is consistent (“living creature”).
- While the NASB translates teleios as “mature” (Eph. 4:13), “perfect” (Phil. 3:15), and “complete” (Col. 1:28), the ESV consistently uses “mature.”
- The NASB dropped the archaic term “seed”, but often uses “descendant” or “descendants,” neither of which are collective nouns like “seed.” The ESV almost always uses “offspring,” which is a collective noun.
- The NASB translates psuche as “life” in Mark 8:35, but as “soul” in the next two verses, while the ESV translates it consistently as “life.”
- 1 Corinthians 16:22 reads “he is to be accursed. Maranatha” in the NASB. Why translate “anathema” (he is to be accursed) but not “Maranatha”? The ESV has “let him be accursed. Our Lord, come”
- The NASB translates the same word as “wings” and “covering” in Ruth 2:12 and 3:9. The ESV uses “wings” in both cases.
The ESV’s primary goal was to use smoother English than the NASB while retaining the literal meaning of the text. Here are some examples:
- John 1:43 – “The next day He purposed to go into Galilee” (NASB) vs. “The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee” (ESV).
- Luke 20:2 - "Tell us by what authority You are doing these things, or who is the one who gave You this authority?" (NASB) vs. "Tell us by what authority you do these things, or who it is that gave you this authority" (ESV)
- Amos 1:1 – “which he envisioned in visions concerning Israel” (NASB) vs. “which he saw concerning Israel” (ESV)
- Genesis 4:1 - "I have gotten a manchild” (NASB) vs. "I have gotten a man” (ESV)
- Luke 23:45 – “because the sun was obscured” (NASB) vs. “while the sun's light failed” (ESV)
- Nehemiah 5:7 - "You are exacting usury” (NASB) vs. "You are exacting interest” (ESV)
- 2 Corinthians 11:3 – “your minds will be led astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (NASB) vs. “your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (ESV)
- Leviticus 19:27 – “You shall not round off the side-growth of your heads” (NASB) vs. “You shall not round off the hair on your temples” (ESV)
Criticisms of the ESV
The weakness of relying on Lewis’s critique of the NASB is that while we could easily check places where the NASB was poor and the ESV was better, I really have no way of knowing all the instances where the ESV is inferior to the NASB, or where both translations are weak. Based on very random research, here are some criticisms of the ESV:
· The NASB italicizes added words; the ESV does not.
· The ESV uses the literal Hebrew “Azazel” for “scapegoat” in Leviticus 16:10, with no note as to the meaning.
· The ESV translates Matthew 16:18 as “the gates of hell,” although it does have “gates of Hades” in a footnote.
· The ESV renders 2 Timothy 1:12, “I am convinced that he is able to guard until that Day what has been entrusted to me.” It does have the NASB rendering in a footnote.
· The ESV renders Revelation 20:4 the same as the NASB: “They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years.” This translation is in keeping with premillennial interpretation, as opposed to “lived and reigned” in the KJV and ASV.
· My sense is that the ESV has fewer notes about textual variation than the NASB or NIV.
Some Concluding Thoughts
It would be very helpful if someone with the linguistic and critical skills could measure the ESV against the Hebrew and Greek text rather than just comparing it to the NASB. However, based on these initial findings, it seems to me that the ESV has a clear edge over the NASB in accuracy and readability.