How to See Changes in the ESV (though They Don’t Matter Much)

The ESV came out in 2001, just as I was starting seminary. I bought one that was made of paper—the iconic black hardcover with a big white pane on the front. My roommate grabbed it and promptly spilled tea on it.

esv bible translation blogNo problem: I now have probably 10 or 15 different copies of the ESV in various editions around my home and office. I’ve always loved the fact that it comes in so many creative, beautiful, and useful editions. Other things being equal (and they kind of are), I personally—not speaking for Faithlife here—think this is a good reason to choose the ESV as a church’s main pulpit Bible.*

But one complaint I’ve heard about the ESV—one that NIV users now make as well—is that it has changed since its initial release. People want a common standard for worship, for Scripture memory, for preaching. The fact that the ESV has been slightly revised four times in less than two decades—in 2007, 2010, 2011, and 2016—is unsettling to some Bible readers.

That 2016 edition, in fact, caused a bit of an uproar because it was called the “Permanent Text Edition.” The idea, until Crossway was forced by the laws of internet brouhaha to walk it back, was that the ESV would never be revised again. And I get why this happened. I think laypeople, especially (and understandably), want the text to be stable—or rather assume that it is. I think scholars, especially, want the freedom to make tweaks when the scholarship warrants it, or when the English language changes. I think pastors are stuck in the middle, appreciating the scholars’ viewpoint but also preferring to lead the flock by still waters. It was rock, paper, scissors. This time, paper won: the scholars, rightly, argued that English doesn’t stand still, and therefore neither should the ESV.

Lead the sheep by still waters

How can pastors resettle unsettled sheep? They can teach the principles I suggested when the Permanent Text edition was announced, and—now, using a free tool made by Logos user James Chaisson—they can let people see the changes easily for themselves. Just make sure you’re signed in to your Faithlife account in your web browser, click this link, click the “Action” button, then “Connect.” Now open up the ESV in Logos, click the visual filters button (This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is Screen-Shot-2020-02-10-at-8.27.13-PM-1.png),  and select the Notebook for “ESV Text Changes.” You’ll start to see little notes popping up in your ESV, like this:

esv bible translation blog

How will this help you help others? By showing them 1) that the changes are minor and 2) that they are infrequent. Viewing the changes in context instead of in a list carries particular sheep-settling benefits. If someone comes to you, shepherd, and says, “Are you sure we should be using the ESV? I bought my son one, and we noticed that it’s different from mine!”, just pull up the tool and start scrolling.

If you choose a random spot in the OT, you might scroll for a long time before you hit a change. That in itself will send a powerful visual message. Page after page after page has no change whatsoever:

Starting in Lamentations, it took me a fair bit of scrolling till I got to my first change:

esv bible translation blogThis one-word revision in Ezekiel 3:7 is so minor—and so very representative of the kinds of changes made in the various ESV editions. The revisers changed the way they split a sentence. They didn’t even change a word. That ought to help your sheep.

And if said sheep asks, “If this is so minor, why couldn’t they just leave it the same?” Then whip out a quote from the KJV translators:

As nothing is begun and perfected at the same time, and the latter thoughts are thought to be the wiser: so, if we building upon their foundation that went before us, and being helped by their labours, do endeavour to make that better which they left so good, no man, we are sure, hath cause to mislike us; they, we persuade ourselves, if they were alive, would thank us. (xxvii)

Start scrolling in Matthew 1:1, and you’ll meet your first change in chapter 3, at the baptism of John:

I could dig into the Greek here; maybe you could, too. But let’s avoid it for the moment, because people coming to your office probably can’t read Greek. Just on the level of English, is there any difference here? In many places of revision (see the previous example), there’s effectively no difference. But no matter the translators’ reason for the change—and let’s start with the presumption that they had a one or they wouldn’t have bothered—does the meaning of the sentence change? In this place, yes. The Pharisees and Sadducees are either coming to get baptized themselves or coming to watch (and, no doubt, make stink eyes) as others get baptized.

Now, is this something to be alarmed over? No. I think it is fair to ask people who don’t read Greek to trust that if translations differ like this, then God must have placed ambiguity in the text at this point. And what, really, is the difference between the two readings? Whether the Pharisees came with apparent humility or evident contempt, John still sees their wicked hearts. Having looked at the Greek, I do think the ESV translators made the right decision here. They left the RSV unchanged in 2001, but by 2007, they realized that the stink-eye option was more contextually likely. But the RSV’s (and ESV 2001’s) rendering is interesting: it adds a layer of narrative complexity that is worth exploring and considering.

The upshot: actually seeing 1) how much text is unchanged and 2) how minor and even piddling the changes are should help unsettled sheep. And sort of a subcategory to 2, seeing that there are places where God inspired ambiguity should help also. Translators into English have to choose one interpretation or the other, but rarely do such choices have doctrinal significance.

(Now, it is true that there were some more contentious changes in the 2016 ESV. Before a sheep comes asking, you might want to bone up on them. This one stands at the top of the list—no, it kind of is the list:

If someone asks you about this passage, do some reading in the commentaries. Understand the issues. Know the relevant cross references. Be gracious to Christians who have sincere reasons for taking various viewpoints on a difficult and obscure phrase that stands somewhere near the very heart of massive culture wars!

3 Lessons

Let me offer three lessons from the above exercise looking through a few changes in the ESV.

1. God doesn’t promise perfect Bible translations

First, I think our work above provides a healthy reminder of something I will keep going on about until my skin turns into TruTone® vinyl: the Bible does not promise us perfect translations, or even good ones. As the KJV translators themselves pointed out in their utterly brilliant preface, Jesus and the apostles were content to use the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, despite its flaws. I am glad somebody cares enough about the ESV (and NIV and NET Bible and NASB and CSB, etc.) to look for minute ways to improve it.

If we’re not willing for this improvement to occur, what are we saying? At best, we’re saying that stability in my church outweighs getting Bible translation right. Stability and accuracy are two genuinely good things to value, but which one ought to weigh more? I think the latter. At worst, if we oppose Bible translation revision, we’re implying that a given translation is perfect. Little revisions are little reminders that we need to be occasionally unsettled. You don’t have to know Greek to know God, but there is a level of accuracy and specificity in biblical interpretation that requires knowledge of the original languages. Inspiration does not extend to translations anymore than it does to teachers. Translations are teachers: they teach us the Word of God.

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2. There are weightier matters of the law

Second, Christian people often forget how much of the Bible is not remotely doctrinal. Using my magic computer arts (or rather, those of Random.org), I selected four random verses from the whole Bible. Wouldn’t you know I got a genealogy twice:

. . . Shamsherai, Shehariah, Athaliah . . . (1 Chron 8:26 ESV)
. . . and Obadiah the son of Shemaiah, son of Galal, son of Jeduthun, and Berechiah the son of Asa, son of Elkanah, who lived in the villages of the Netophathites. (1 Chron 9:16 ESV)
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. (James 3:13 ESV)
For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more. (Heb 8:12 ESV)

None of these verses contain changes in any ESV editions, by the way, and only one of them is what I’d call doctrinal. All contribute to doctrine as part of longer passages, but only the last states it directly. I am not devaluing the other statements or creating a canon within the canon. I’m saying that there are weightier matters of the law—that it really is okay, even preferable, to understand and memorize Romans 3:21–26 before you spend time learning to pronounce “Shamsherai.” Also, there are other passages that teach all the doctrines in any of these verses. The Bible comes with a good deal of fail-safe redundancy: indeed, that fourth passage is a quotation of an Old Testament text. So if a translator is clumsy in a given place, our Christian faith does not fall dead.

3. The same thing can be said with slightly different words

Third, Christian people often don’t realize how many different ways there are to say basically the same thing. If the English Bible we hold in our hands is full of magic words (like אברא קאט אברא; abra qat abra), then we change it at our peril. But the Bible itself, in the four Gospels, says the same thing in different ways:

Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. (Matt 4:19)
Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men. (Mark 1:17)

Would anyone argue that one of these quotations is in error because one word is “added” or “omitted” (depending on which Gospel you take as your standard)? Same meaning; slightly different words.

Or take those four random verses from above. Even the most doctrinal ones could all be stated (or spelled) a bit differently and yet say the same thing. That’s what the major English translations do.

Tell any sheep around you, “I’m going to change the Bible!” and they will shift uneasily, then go looking for another shepherd. But patiently explain to them why changes in Bible translations are necessary, and they’ll be better and more contented grass eaters.

*But watch out, Crossway, because other translations such as the NIV and CSB have been coming out in some beautiful editions, too! Even the nerdy NET Bible has a brand-new typeset with a custom typeface. I think Crossway has changed consumer expectations for the better when it comes to Bible design, and I’m grateful to them. When my team put out a Lexham English Septuagint in print, we most definitely looked closely at my favorite ESV edition as a successful model. We chose Pensum Pro as the typeface, however, and I think the result is both classy and useful.

***

Mark Ward received his PhD from Bob Jones University; he now serves the church as an Academic Editor at Lexham Press, the publishing imprint at Faithlife. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

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Comments

  1. Joseph W Luna says

    The ESV fails miserably in using caps or italics in the NT to quote OT references when needed. The NASB does.

    The ESV fails in capitalizing deity (no excuses). The ESV lacks the beauty of the NASB’95 although I heard it uses more references than the NASB.

    I love the NASB’95 but I’m not willing to let translations use gender neutral and change the Hebrew culture where men were men and women were ladies into gender conformity to sell more bibles. Ugh!

    By the way, pardon my rant.

    Will my ESV from Logos will see the new update or do I need to purchase the new edition?

    • I’m not convinced that either of the first two things is a failure—but I’m glad the NASB has them. I’ve written on deity pronouns: I think it’s fine for some translations to have them and others not.

      https://blog.logos.com/2017/06/stop-capitalizing-pronouns-referring-god/

      And capping OT quotations is a useful tool, but quotations marks and footnotes/cross references can serve the same purpose.

      As for gender pronouns, that’s a complicated discussion. But have you read any defenses of “gender accuracy”? Such as D.A. Carson’s book?

      There’s no new ESV update, nothing to purchase. The notes are free. =)

  2. This is awesome. I was just thinking it would be nice to track or see the changes somehow and wondered if it was possible. Thank you.

  3. Thank you for this! Are there others out there like this for other translations like the NIV?

  4. Your article definitely made me laugh… enjoyed your dry sense of humor and the “stink eyes” comment had me laughing out loud. Thanks for keeping it light when speaking of important issues that affect our congregations. Keep up the writing… and the humor.

  5. Philip Larson says

    Is this function available on the desktop version of Logos?

  6. I don’t have time to do a lengthy check on translation issues for every English version, but I use a few tests. Usually in Paul. Paul writes long complex sentences that allow us to see clearly how every piece relates to another. Modern English version tend to break them up into little pieces that lose the connection. The most glaring place is Eph. 5:18-22, and the ESV doesn’t even tell the reader what they did. I find that unforgivably irresponsible. In v. 18, Paul give a command, be filled in spirit, followed by 4 participles that define how they were to do that. In v 22, there is no verb, Paul just adds it on.
    being subject to one another in the fear of Christ, wives to their own husbands as to the Lord. English versions regularly make a new paragraph here, a heading, and even put an imperative verb word in the text where the Greek has none. They should at least italicize it so the reader knows it was added. Noooo. No such marking is here. No note. Nothing. Sorry. I can’t trust it.

    • Very few people have the time and the ability to do lengthy checks on English Bible translations, and even fewer take that time. We all end up trusting authorities. And I do trust the authorities behind the ESV (and behind the CSB, and behind the NIV, etc.). Not that they’re perfect, or even that they’ve pegged “translation philosophy” exactly right—but that they are competent and consistent with their stated philosophies. And what every major translator today will tell you, I think, is that English simply doesn’t permit sentences of the length Paul sometimes uses. We just don’t nest participles the way Greek did. At some point, certain Pauline sentences, translated literally, cross the line into Greeklish—they aren’t English anymore. You can disagree: you can value form over meaning here, you can argue that changing the syntactical forms unacceptably alters the meaning, you can say that English *can* bear the long sentence. But it seems to me that some charity is called for on such arcane questions. Is anyone really being misled by the ESV (or CSB, etc.)? Isn’t it at least equally possible that readers will be confused and lose meaning because of a sentence that just goes on too long for their English brains? It seems to me that reasonable people could differ on this point, and that they have in fact done so. I like having multiple translations, at least one of which is dependably literal so I can be tipped off to questions like these.

      And italicizing the elliptical participle “submitting” in Eph 5 (for example) would help only the people who can read Greek anyway—and therefore don’t need the help. I’ve argued that italics are “overmuch honest.” They don’t truly help people unless people read Hebrew and Greek. The copula is often unstated in Hebrew, but it is no less “there” for that. Of what possible value is a bunch of italicized copulas in my OT? I like having one translation that uses “Bible code” stuff like italics, all caps for OT quotations, capitalized deity pronouns, etc.—leave that to the NASB. But for the regular needs of regular plow boys in the church, I’m prepared to see those study aids left out. Again, reasonable people can differ over the value of these tools for all-purpose Bible translations.

      • I don’t pick passages casually. This case makes a major change in the meaning of the passage, and a passage where accuracy is critical. Paul links this to being filled with spirit and as an example of being subject one to another. The ESV totally separates this, creates a new paragraph with a new heading, that essentially says that Paul has now moved on to something else.
        No, italicizing added words would not only help Greek students. Good translations inform their readers of translation issues. This is an issue that requires explanation. And no, this is not equivalent to adding italicized copulas in the OT.

        • Larry, we won’t be the first people in the history of the internet to disagree. =) Our little disagreement here makes me genuinely grateful that you read through my piece.

  7. I have Logos on a Mac, currently updated to software version 8.11.0.0017. Full features for Logos 8. I am not able to find this feature you described.

  8. I have a desktop PC. However, when I click on the “click this link,” it comes up with “this page not found.” I’ve tried it on 2 successive days. Help!

    Mark Sutton

    • Mark, make sure you are signed into your Logos/Faithlife account in your browser before you click. I sent you an email; reply if you have trouble!

  9. Darren Bradley says

    Mark,
    I used the filter to see changes made over the years in the ESV and I see that those changes are consistent with trying to make the text as clear as possible. Changes like this are not problematic because, as you said, there are multiple ways of saying things without changing the meaning. My issue is when they remove entire verses. I see that the ESV has remove the passages listed below, with a note that some manuscripts include the removed passages. The HCSB on the other hand includes the passages, within brackets, with a note that some manuscripts do not have the passage. Wouldn’t it be better to include those passages at put them in brackets so people can at least read them?

    Matthew 17:21; 18:11; 23:14
    Mark 7:16; 9:44; 9:46
    Luke 17:36; 23:17
    John 5:4
    Acts 8:37

    These are the ones I have checked but I have been told there are other passages that have been removed. I would like your thoughts on this issue.

    Thank you,

    Darren Bradley

    • Darren, thank you for reading and for writing in.

      Has the ESV used a base Greek New Testament text that removed these passages, or have the KJV/NKJV/MEV used a base Greek New Testament text that *added* these passages?

      Brannan and Loken’s Lexham Textual Notes carefully avoids using language such as “removes” or “adds” as it reports textual variants in the Hebrew Bible and the Greek New Testament. Here’s its judicious note at Matt 17:21, for example:

      I have a feeling you’re already aware that there is serious debate over how best to decide among the textual variants in the Greek New Testament. If you prefer manuscripts that retain the verses you mention, I’d encourage you to check out the NKJV or MEV. If you haven’t yet read an introduction to the field, I’d suggest you read Dirk Jongkind’s Introduction to the Greek New Testament Produced at Tyndale House, Cambridge. Here’s my review of that book.

  10. Darren Bradley says

    Thank you for your response. I will check out the book you mentioned. I use the NASB and the HCSB which both translations include the textual variants.

    Joy in Christ,

    Darren