Saturday, February 26, 2011

The English Standard Version vs the New American Standard Bible

In the winter of 2004/2005 I was debating switching from the New American Standard Bible to the English Standard Version. After some comparison, I decided to make the switch. Here is my review from six years ago explaining why.
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.

Less Literal

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.

Smoother English

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.


  1. Thanks for doing this comparison brother. :)

  2. Thank you for sharing your findings. I wish I had found this post last year!

  3. Thank you for your work on this, and for making it available to the public. Very helpful.

  4. Just found this week that several places in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles that the Hebrew text is "Aram" (transliterated) and the NASB uses this term but the ESV translates to "Syrians". It is true that Syria later occupied the same location that was previously inhabited by the Arameans. But the attempt at readability is like referring to Native Americans as "Americans" (implied caucasions). Just because they occupy the same location, they are definitely different people groups. I find the wooden ness of the NASB to be more literal to the underlying text.

  5. Thank you for your comparisons. I recently heard a James White debate with KJV only proponents and was prompted to look into the translations you have compared here. While I always thought the NASB was superior, I will take a closer look at the ESV due to your insightful review. Thank you and God Bless,

  6. most scholars agree that the nasb is clearly the most close to be accurate word for word .but YOU have decided from your study that all these experts and their scholarship and evaluation are wrong. The thing I can't understand is that the multitude of the most impressive scholars on the planet didn't realize what YOU have found so easy and clearly ...this is absurd. Virtually all of our greatest bible experts we have in modern times all agree the nasb is the most litual and accurate word for word we have today ....all except YOu ....ill keep my nasb and trust the view of. People who have earned the right to be this worlds greatest scholarship on the authority of translated that text. .

    1. "But go and learn what this means: 'I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE,' for I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners." Matt 9:13 Michael, it is God's written word we are talking about. In your devotion to your opinions, you have been without compassion...merciless, and rude to Shane who has worked hard to write this review. You are treating him as an enemy, not a brother. If, indeed, as you seem to suggest, you have a devotion to the Word of God, then wouldn't it be acceptable for me to suggest you live by it and treat your brother in and with love. You are like a Pharisee here. Very much like one. In order to promote your own opinion in the realm of religion, you are ready to break with Jesus' teaching and mistreat a fellow human being. Jesus never did this. He spoke the truth boldly...but he was never just plain mean as you have been.

  7. Michael I don't understand the sarcastic and antagonistic attitude expressed by your comment, and I really don't understand how you misunderstand me to be saying that I have decided anything. I based all of my comments on someone with doctoral degrees in OT and NT, Dr Jack Lewis.

    1. did a great job in your article and research. Michael just has problems. Don't take it persponally. You did a great job, and to be very very honest, it has helped me personally a lot. I have been truthfully agonizing over which bersion to use for a long time and it was btw these two. I think now, thanks to your article, I know which way I need to go....Thank you...and don't let this guy who wrote above get to you.

  8. While not a scholar but a true lover of Gods word i know enough about the greek and hebrew that its not possible to have a complete word for word and the people able to comprehend the text it is true the nasb is more literal than the esv but folks the difference is not worthy of argument the nasb ,esv,nkjv all worthy of being the word of God none disagree with the truth Christ crucified buried and sitting at the right hand of God i have them all and read them all and blessed by them all be blessed read.

  9. Thanks for all your efforts and to Michael Johnson, you missed something very important that is in the NASB...speak to one another in love. Your comments were very unchristlike and a bit offensive. Pray about it.

    1. Wow where did that come from! I think you need to pray about how you are apparently seeing things that aren't there.

    2. Ummm... Did you read Michael Johnson's post above? It certainly came across as unchristlike to me. If you ask me M.M Belong saw what was apparent to others as well. Not sure how you missed it.

  10. Sorry disregard my post, I misread, I thought the comment was directed at Shane. So I'm in agreement

  11. Disregard my last post I misread "Unknown" post and thought it was in support of Michael Johnson with comments directed at Shane. Therefore I agree with "Unknown"

  12. I saw it and responded to it.

  13. Hi Shane, thanks or the comparison of the ESV and NASB! I was in Bible school full-time for 4 years and I just read some ESV scriptures and I really like the way it reads a bit more than the NASB. Peace, Health, Fulness, and Blessings to you brother! Griff.

  14. Shane,
    Thanks. I still would like to hear more from other researchers on this important topic. Have you found any more & varied reports on this? Our whole church endorsed ESV some years ago for preaching & memorization Although it is very readable & accurate, I have always been continually been going back to the NASB for the last word on accuracy. The LORD ( note all CAPS :) ) Jesus bless you brother.


  15. For scholarly reviews, with reasonably fair and (as much as seems possible) unbiased reviews of almost every English Bible version out there, see Bible-Researcher dot com.

  16. In my own opinion, I personally, even after carefully reading all of the examples included in the review by our brother in the Lord Jesus Christ, Shane, I still more enjoy the reading of the NASB as compared to the ESV. Just seeing all those examples given with both translations just even more solidified this point with me. I have both of the NASB versions in my Bible collection, (1977 & 1995 update) & even out of those 2 versions I gravitate more to the 1977 than to the update! To me, THAT is the version out of all of them out there, that retains both the majesty & beauty of the King James language, while also at the same time employing the literalness that has clearly defined the NASB over the last few decades. What more of a complete package could one ask for?!! I guess that I will always love & cherish my 1977 NASB as long as I live and read God's word. I am 44 years old, & I was actually presented with a brand-new copy of that version when I was 8 years old in 1977 by a well-liked brother in the Church that I attended all throughout my childhood in Manheim, Pennsylvania. This gentleman was a good friend of our family, & he gave me that Bible in Church one Sunday morning. He even had my name imprinted on it. I easily understood it & could read it fluently as a child, & I cherished the version then. It has a proven history & reputation that has withstood the test of time. The ESV somehow just still does not capture the "song" of the language for me, though I do commend the translators' efforts for accuracy. But I do have to agree with 'Anonymous' from September 24th, 2013 when it also comes to the final & definitive word on the accuracy point. Thanks Shane for the time that you took to share your research with s, & may our beloved Lord Jesus abundantly bless all of you on here no matter what translation of the Bible you read!! (LOL) :) The main thing is that God's word DOES get read by those who love him. Sincerely, your fellow spiritual pilgrim, David H.

  17. I study from both a nasb and esv.. they are both great... the esv is a smoothed out literal version.. sometimes when you get too literal on words you lose meaning...And same goes when you get too liberal in paraphrasing.. I think the esv is a great balance in that regard

  18. I've been keeping a spreadsheet and making notes for about 9 months and have found that the ESV is, in fact, superior to the NASB in many places where the translation doesn't impact major theological points. It's about 60/40 though because the NASB is superior in some places too.

    BUT when the ESV fails, it fails in big ways. For example, see 1 Cor 9:27 where the reference to "make it my slave" has been changed. Without this reference to "slave", it's hard for some people to make the tie-in to the preceding verses and see that Paul is talking about doing whatever it takes to win souls and doesn't want to be disqualified from winning souls. That's a big deal here because this is a rather well-known passage that people use to claim a believer can lose his or her salvation.

    Again, "katargeo" in Romans is translated differently almost every time it is used. The NASB isn't perfect here either, but it seems the ESV goes out of it's way to obfuscate that we're 'severed' from some things (like "works / law" - perhaps this was an uncomfortable concept for the reformed translation team?)

    See also Hebrews 10:14 where they've turned the "once for all time" sanctification into progressive sanctification. While progressive sanctification is a popular doctrine, there are some of us who prefer not to mix the concept of sanctification with concepts of growth and transformation. The NASB makes it easier to see this distinction.

    Plus, the archaic language of the ESV is a drawback for me. I know the NASB has an 11th grade reading level, but's accuracy on the small stuff is about equal with the ESV and it really wins in big theological texts. So, all things being better than equal in that arena, it wins again by not using "lest", "behold" and other oddities.

    Personally, it's hard for me to use either when I return to a letter and want to read it quickly, all the way through. Mainly, I don't do this anyway - I tend to always be in study mode. But for a good overview reading, I've lately been using the HCSB and find it great for this purpose. I can't recommend HCSB for study because it also obfuscates some texts with its looser renderings and tends to take an "exhortative" tone that isn't necessarily in the Greek. But it's far better than the ESV for reading devotionally or quickly.

    So I can't figure out where the ESV fits in. It's inferior to the NASB in terms of literal accuracy and it's not particularly easy to read. True, it's easier than the ESV to read - in some ways, if you can get past the archaic language, but we have other options (in the USA) that fill that need in a better way.

    Here's how the choice breaks down for me - do I want to use two bibles, one for easy-reading and overview reading, but another for more serious study (where I spend most of my time)? OR do I want to try to use one bible for both? It's just a personal choice, but I tend to prefer the first option.

    I lost a lot of respect for the ESV when I started comparing it to the RSV. The translators really didn't change that much - the ESV is basically a reheated RSV. This is what accounts for its archaic language. They use the "prose" as a selling point, noting it's beauty, but the reality seems to be that they just didn't do the real work of updating the RSV. So they've billed the negative as a positive and turned it into a "selling point".

    1. "I lost a lot of respect for the ESV when I started comparing it to the RSV. The translators really didn't change that much - the ESV is basically a reheated RSV."

      The ESV is "reheated" RSV, which is "reheated" ASV. The NASB is, of course, likewise "reheated" ASV. And of course the ASV is "reheated" KJV, which was "reheated" Bishops' Bible/Geneva/Coverdale/Tyndale.

      The ESV revisers/translators have never tried to hide the relationship of the ESV to the RSV. It is, after all, right there on the copyright page.The ESV is, in fact, the RSV I would have liked to have had about 25 years ago. Of course there are problems with the ESV, just as there are problems with any translation, and the NASB is a fine revision as well. But the examples provided in which the ESV is more literal than the NASB just show that the "NASB is word-for-word literal" selling point is just a tad exaggerated.

      Where does the ESV fit in? Readers will determine that, I suppose. It seems that, in spite of the fine quality of the NASB, many aren't quite sure where THAT version fits in. It was never "marketed" very well and never really quite caught on in a big way with the Bible-reading public, partly through shortsightedness on the part of Lockman and partly because the overall style of the NASB just isn't attractive. And that aspect shouldn't be underestimated. "Appointed to be read in churches" is different from "great for private word studies".

  19. What a blessing all the posts are. My perspective may be quite different. God blessed me immeasurably when I left two physically abusive alcoholic parent at 17 to take a fully paid scholarship to study languages in Germany (which has 32 dialects!) -- British English, French, German and Latin. I struggled learning for languages at the same time.

    But learned a real lesson. There are two words we don't use very frequently "nuance" and "context". I have my KJV with me as a faithful companion. In college I read large portions of the NIV before putting it aside. The poetry of the KJV was gone; context seemed to be lacking. Then I turned to the NASB and most of the issues disappeared. Most recently I bought a copy of the NASB in single column format and paragraphed. What a joy! So much easier to read in context.

    I encourage my brothers in Christ to have multiple translations. If you are stuck on the meaning of one translation, read another two or three. Still don't understand it, write your question in a journal using the most precise English you can. Some day the answer to the question will come to you. Some will not come to you in this lifetime.

    May God bless you all in your struggle to live the life He has planned for you.