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«A Critical Analysis of the English Standard Version of 2001 Joel R. Grassi, M.B.S, M.Div., Th.M., Th.D. Introduction The Preacher told his son, “of ...»

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Grassi 1

A Critical Analysis of the English Standard Version of 2001

Joel R. Grassi, M.B.S, M.Div., Th.M., Th.D.


The Preacher told his son, “of making many books there is no end.”1 The

factualness of this statement is certainly corroborated by the volumes of commentaries

and textbooks that fill the average seminary library. No other volume has provoked so

much written discussion as the Bible, and this is rightly the case, for the written Word of

God is an infinite book in the hands of finite men. It is only natural that the God- breathed Word of God would compel men to spend their lives considering its truths and putting these considerations into writing.

Unfortunately, there is not only a seemingly endless stream of books about the Bible being produced, but over the course of the last century, and especially the last several decades, there appears to be a glut of English Bible versions being produced and marketed upon the English-speaking world, particularly in North America. A recent count lists at least 102 English versions of the Bible currently in print.2 Each subsequent version is marketed as being both more readable and more accurate than the previous ones, and earlier English versions, though still available, are disused and finally deserted in favor of the latest ones.

One of the most recent examples of this is the English Standard Version (ESV) of

2001. At the present time it appears that the ESV is being promoted and accepted by popular Christianity and by many within popular Fundamentalism.3 A recent (2005) survey4 among “young Fundamentalists” found that 14% of those who planned to start a church would do so with the ESV. This is more than three times as many as those who would use the New International Version (NIV) and nearly as many as those who would use the New King James Version (NKJV). This is striking considering that the ESV has only been on the market since 2001. Therefore, a critical analysis of this version is necessary at this time because of the apparent acceptance of the ESV within popular Fundamentalism.

1 Cf. Ecclesiastes 12:12, “And further, by these, my son, be admonished: of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh.” 2 This was the author’s count upon visiting several retail bookstore chains.

3 On a recent visit to the campus of Bob Jones University, this author witnessed the ESV on a prominent display in the bookstore and heard the ESV highly spoken of by the campus tour guide. The ESV is also available for purchase on the BJU Bookstore web site.

4 This survey is available at www.sharperiron.org and at www.wayoflife.org.

A Critical Analysis of the English Standard Version

–  –  –

Analysis of the History behind the English Standard Version The history of the ESV cannot be fully discussed in an article of this size.

However, there are two historical facts that are necessary in order to understand the significance of this new version. These historical facts concern the relation of the ESV to the RSV and the reactionary motivations behind the ESV.

The first historical fact is that the ESV is a revision of the RSV of 1952 and 1971.

This information is not clandestine, but is readily available in the preface of the ESV, which will be examined in the next section. For years, fundamentalists viewed the RSV as being synonymous with liberalism, modernism, and unbelief. This may be evidenced in any number of ways, one of which is the fundamentalist document, “Position of the Bible Department of Bob Jones University on the Scripture” by Stewart Custer and

Marshall Neal. An excerpt from this document states:

“When we teach the content of the Bible, we naturally study a passage in the Greek Testament. To aid the students in understanding that passage, we will take to class the King James Bible, which often gives an exact rendering of the Greek. Sometimes we will consult some other conservative translation, such as the American Standard Version of 1901 or the New American Standard Bible (not the liberal R[evised] S[tandard] V[ersion]), which at times gives the most accurate rendering of the Greek.” (emphasis added)5 Many men have ably examined the history of the RSV. One such example is David Cloud’s book Myths About the Modern Bible Versions.6 In this work, Cloud observes the ecumenical nature behind the RSV when he cites Evangelist Billy Graham,

who in 1952 received a copy of the RSV and told a listening crowd of 20,000:

“These scholars have probably given us the most nearly perfect translation in English. While there may be room for disagreement in certain areas of the translation, yet this new version should supplement the King James Version and make Bible reading a habit throughout America.”7 Cloud goes on to list fourteen translators behind the RSV and gives quotations from their own writings to reveal their modernistic beliefs and unbiblical doctrinal positions. He cites eight lengthy statements by Walter Russell Bowie, one of which says, 5 This document is cited in Daniel L. Turner, Standing Without Apology: The History of Bob Jones University (Greenville, SC: Bob Jones University Press, 1997), Appendix D, pp. 322Cf. David Cloud, Myths About the Modern Bible Versions (Oak Harbor, WA: Way of Life Literature, 1999). Lesser works on this subject include Sakae Kubo and Walter Specht, So Many Versions? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975) and Jack P. Lewis, The English Bible from KJV to NIV (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1981).

7 Billy Graham, cited by Perry Rockwood, God’s Inspired Preserved Bible, n.d., p. 15), quoted in David Cloud, Myths About the Modern Bible Versions, p. 258.

A Critical Analysis of the English Standard Version Grassi 3 “The imprecatory psalms and other utterances like them reflect a God who is dead and ought to be dead – and never was alive except in unredeemed imagination.”8 Also, he cites Henry Joel Cadbury who states, “Jesus Christ was given to overstatements, in his (sic) case, not a personal idiosyncrasy, but a characteristic of the oriental world.”9 And he cites James Moffatt who says, “Once the translator of the New Testament is freed from the influence of the theory of verbal inspiration, these difficulties cease to be so formidable.”10 Furthermore, the preface of the RSV should be reread before reading the ESV or the preface to the ESV, for the ESV is built upon the RSV. In the RSV preface the following statements are made, (along with many others that cannot be cited here for

reasons of space):

“Yet the King James Version has grave defects. By the middle of the nineteenth century, the development of Biblical studies and the discovery of many manuscripts more ancient than those upon which the King James Version was based, made it manifest that these defects are so many and so serious as to call for revision of the English translation.

The problem of establishing the correct Hebrew and Aramaic text of the Old Testament is very different from the corresponding problem in the New Testament. For the New Testament we have a large number of Greek manuscripts, preserving many variant forms of the text. Some of them were made only two or three centuries later than the original composition of the books. For the Old Testament only late manuscripts survive, all (with the exception of the Dead Sea texts of Isaiah and Habakkuk and some fragments of other books) based on a standardized form of the text established many centuries after the books were written.

The present revision is based on the consonantal Hebrew and Aramaic texts as fixed early in the era and revised by Jewish scholars (the “Masoretes”) of the sixth to ninth centuries. The vowel signs, which were added by the Masoretes, are accepted also in the main, but where a more probable and convincing reading can be obtained by assuming different vowels, this has been done. No notes are given in such cases, because the vowel points are less ancient and reliable than the consonants.

The King James Version of the New Testament was based upon a Greek text that was marred by mistakes, containing the accumulated errors of fourteen centuries of manuscript copying…”11 The ESV claims that the RSV is its “starting point”12 and that it is a revision of the RSV. It is not a new translation in the strictest sense. Therefore, the entire preface of

–  –  –

the RSV should be reread if one hopes to understand the historical background to the ESV.

The second historical fact is that the ESV was motivated by a reactionary effort aimed at opposing the inclusive-language version movement that was being widely discussed in the 1990s. World magazine dealt with the circumstances behind the ESV in

an article in the June 5, 1999, issue:

The English Standard Version (ESV), announced in February by Crossway Books, had its roots in discussions that took place before the May 1997 meeting called by James Dobson at Focus on the Family headquarters to resolve the inclusive language NIV issue.

The night prior to the meeting, critics of regendered language gathered in a Colorado Springs hotel room to discuss the next day’s strategy. During the course of the evening it became clear their concerns with the NIV extended beyond gender issues. The group discussed the merits of the Revised Standard Version, first published in 1952 by the National Council of Churches and recently replaced by the New Revised Standard Version, a regendered update.

Some months later, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School professor Wayne Grudem and Crossway President Lane Dennis entered into negotiations with the National Council of Churches to use the 1971 revision of the Revised Standard Version as the basis for a new translation. An agreement was reached in September 1998 allowing translators freedom to modify the original text of the RSV as necessary to rid it of de-Christianing translation choices (bold editor's).13 If this reactionary effort against the gender-neutral Bible version movement is the uniting and driving force behind the ESV, then it will no doubt continue to be promoted, for the gender-neutral movement does not appear to be subsiding. One recent example of this fact is the October 7, 2002, issue of Christianity Today (CT), which featured a cover story on “The TNIV Debate.” In this issue, CT featured a debate between Mark Strauss, a proponent of gender-neutral Bible versions, and Vern Poythress, an opponent of gender-neutral Bible versions who also happens to be on the fourteen-member Translation Oversight Committee behind the ESV.

Those present at the aforementioned meeting at Focus on the Family headquarters then developed and signed an agreement known as the Colorado Springs Guidelines.

These guidelines give approximately thirteen principles dealing with the handling of gender in an English translation. At some point after this resolution, the efforts were put in motion to gather the fourteen members of the Translation Oversight Committee, the Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the U.S.A.” Page vii of the ESV preface states, “the words and phrases themselves grow out of the Tyndale-King James legacy, and most recently out of the RSV, with the 1971 RSV text providing the starting point for our work” (emphasis added).

13 World magazine, June 5, 1999, Vol. 14, No. 22.

A Critical Analysis of the English Standard Version Grassi 5 fifty members of the ESV Translation Review Board, and the fifty-four members of the Advisory Council. By the fall of 2001, the ESV was completed and released to the public in several subsequent editions.14 It is clear, then, that there are two important links in the history of the ESV. The first is that the ESV is a revision of the RSV. The history of the RSV is part of the history of the ESV. The second link is that the ESV was prompted by the gender-neutral Bible-version movement and is a reaction to it.

Analysis of the Preface

The preface of the ESV provides much helpful information in understanding and analyzing the efforts that went into producing this latest English version of the Bible.

Under several subheadings these introductory pages discuss the copyright, the translation legacy, the translation philosophy, the translation style, the textual basis, and the publishing team, as well as the dedication of the ESV.

Copyright Page The copyright page, after giving the legal requirements for citing, quoting, or printing excerpts of the ESV, makes the following statement: “The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV) is adapted from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. All rights reserved.” It should not be missed that the ESV is not an entirely new translation, but is a revision of the notorious RSV of 1952 and 1971, and could have (and should have) been named the Revised Revised Standard Version (RRSV). (There already exists a New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), so RRSV would have been a possibility.) Again, the history of the RSV is essential to understanding the significance of the ESV.

Translation Legacy The section on the translation legacy appears to be an attempt to contextualize the ESV within the history of the English Bible. However, the premise to this section is at best deeply flawed and at worst dishonest and misleading.

The authors of this section claim that the ESV “stands in the classic mainstream of English Bible translations over the past half-millennium. The fountainhead of that stream was William Tyndale’s New Testament of 1526; marking its course were the King James Version of 1611 (KJV), the English Revised Version of 1885 (RV), the American Standard Version of 1901 (ASV), and the Revised Standard Version of 1952 and 1971 14 Some have pointed out that the ESV was completed in a shorter span of time (approximately three years) than almost any of the other popular versions available today. For instance, the time to produce the RSV took from 1937-1952, and the time to produce the NIV took from 1967-1973. This short span is because the ESV is a revision of the RSV and not a new translation.

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