Translation wars: Why critics are turning on the English Standard version


Does it really matter which version of the Bible you use? Most pastors are just thankful if their congregations read it at all. But sometimes translations get a bit controversial. The English Standard Version's translators and publishing board have announced that they won't be producing any more revisions to its text, and that its next version is the fixed and final one ("in much the same way that the King James Version (KJV) has remained unchanged ever since the final KJV text was established almost 250 years ago ", it says in a rather daring comparison). There aren't many changes from the one before, and it helpfully lists them. Most of them are uncontroversial, but one in particular has set the theological world abuzz.

Just tell me why the ESV matters, though, first?

It doesn't have the clout of giants like the New International Version, but it's beloved by conservatives because it adheres to a "word for word" translation philosophy – it tries, as far as it can, to make one English word stand for one Hebrew or Greek word, rather than going for a more idiomatic translation like the NIV. That makes it rather clumsy to read, but some conservatives think they're getting closer to the original meaning of the text.

Kevin DeYoung, who blogs for The Gospel Coalition, wrote a pamphlet praising it and saying why his church had switched. He compared it unfavourably with the NIV, citing as one of his examples 1 Timothy 2:12 (stay with me on this, it's important). The 2011 NIV has Paul saying "I do not permit a woman to teach or assume authority over a man" (implying, he says, that she has grasped at it in a domineering way); the ESV just says "exercise authority" (implying she shouldn't have it at all). DeYoung says: "Any pastor who prefers the complementarian view of male and female roles but who preaches from the NIV is left with the task of 'correcting' the translation of this key passage."

Go on then – what have they done?

It's Genesis 3:16, God talking to Eve after the fall. Previous version: "Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." Authorised version: "Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you."

Is that really significant?

Think it through. "For" could mean various things in this context, but it's hard to make it mean "contrary to". The latter means women are going to want different things from men and rebel against their husbands' authority. But it's OK, because their husbands will rule over them – ie, they can rebel all they want but they aren't going to win.

That doesn't sound very enlightened.

More than one scholar has noted that. Scot McKnight, for instance, a respected teacher and commentator, said ESV had "sneaked in a translation that is not only mistaken but potentially dangerously wrong". McKnight says he's discussed this with complementarians (the rather generous word used for those who believe men and women have different, God-given roles and that women are under men's authority) and they all think the verses are prescriptive: "Which means this is God's curse on all women for all time (until heaven and maybe then too). Women will need to be ruled over by their men (and many think this is true both about home and society, though not all) because women, evidently, acted out of order when Eve did what she did."

So, says McKnight, "This translation turns women and men into contrarians by divine design. The fall means women are to submit to men and men are to rule women, but women will resist the rule. This has moved from subordinationism to female resistance to subordinationism."

Now it's sounding absolutely horrific. Is there any justification for the new translation?

Categorically not. Another critic cited by McKnight, Sam Powell, notes that the basic meaning of the word ['el] is "to, or towards. Sometimes, if the context and the verb used are hostile, 'against' would be a proper meaning. But this does not mean that we can pick and choose whatever meaning we want. 'Contrary to', in the context of Genesis 3:16 or 4:7, cannot be justified."

So the ESV translators have deliberately twisted the meaning of the Bible to make it say what they want it to say?

Not deliberately, perhaps, but they have chosen a translation that's way out on the margins of probability because it fits a certain theological viewpoint, when this wouldn't be anything like the natural way of reading the text. As another scholar, teacher and Christian Today contributor Ian Paul, says, the ESV translators "appear to have decided, on other grounds, what the text of the Bible needs to say, and by golly they are going to help it say that. They truly are attempting to 'fix' the Bible."

In a damning judgment, he concludes: "I am seriously tempted to prohibit its use in my classes, not because it is a poor word-for-word translation (which mostly it isn't), but because its existence now represents a contradiction to the key principle that evangelicals, of all people, should be standing up for."

I think I'll stick with the NIV.

What an unfortunate example to choose. Most if not all translations show some degree of bias, but the NIV more so than most. British scholar NT Wright once wrote (in Justification : God's Plan and Paul's Vision): "Again and again, with the Greek text in front of me and the NIV beside it, I discovered that the translators had had another principle, considerably higher than the stated one: to make sure that Paul should say what the broadly Protestant and evangelical tradition said he said ... [I]f a church only, or mainly, relies on the NIV it will, quite simply, never understand what Paul was talking about."

So what's an ordinary Christian to do?

A good start would be to have three or four translations and compare them when you're in any doubt. But another, as mission specialist Eddie Arthur points out, is to get this whole thing into perspective. He says: "This whole debate is about one translation in one language at a time when there are still around 1,800 languages which don't have a single word of Scripture available to them."

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods