The translation committee of the English Standard Version has announced that there will be no more revisions to the text, which now becomes the Permanent Text. The ESV is not one of the ‘big hitters’ in translation like the NIV (it is used by around 8% of American Bible readers) but it has been the preferred choice amongst conservative evangelicals since its publication in 2001. It was not, in fact, a fresh translation, but a relatively light revision of the 1971 version of the RSV (changing only 6% of the text), in some ways a reaction against the inclusive language NRSV.
In principle, this is a rather odd decision to make. Although ordinary Bible readers might feel frustrated both by the constant revision of translations and the plethora of new translations that appear to keep coming out, both are important indicators of what translation is about. Anyone who speaks more than one language is aware that, even thinking at the level of words, moving from one language to another is not entirely straightforward—consider, for a moment, the range of meanings of the English have compared with the meanings of the French avoir (this is usually called ‘the semantic range’). Because these ranges don’t match, translation involves an interpretative decision about which word is needed in a particular context. Now add to this not just a significant change of historical context, but (particularly in the case of Hebrew) a fundamentally different structure to language, then you can see some of the issues. I have been struck that, if you do an internet search for a biblical phrase, there is rarely any difficulty in finding it in online Bibles, because all such phrases are nothing like ordinary English!
Translations also have to wrestle with the different ways in which language has an impact on us. The ESV takes an ‘essentially literal’ approach, by which they mean, a ‘word for word’ approach, in order to assist close study of the text. But meaning at the level of individual words is only one of the ways that language has an impact—it also functions at the level of phrases and ideas (hence the value of ‘dynamic equivalent‘ translations such as the GNB, CEV and to a lesser extent NRSV), and at the level of rhetorical effect (hence the value of paraphrases like The Message). We need to ask not only ‘What did the text mean?’ but also ‘What was its significance?’ as well as ‘What was the impact on hearers?’
But there are at least three reasons why translations can never really be fixed. The first is that we might make discoveries in the ancient world which shed new light on the significance of ideas, terms or episodes. The second is that, there continue to be discoveries of new and earlier manuscripts of the NT which might affect translation. The primary reason why the KJV is not a good Bible to read and study (apart from its archaic language) is that, since it was fixed 150 years after the first version, we have discovered many more better, earlier manuscripts of both Old and New Testaments, the most significant being the Dead Sea Scrolls. But the third reason has to do with our world; contemporary language continues to change, and so translation to this changing ‘target language’ will need to be open to review.
This might be taken to imply that the ESV translators are happy for new translations to supersede this one in time. But the announcement itself suggests something else, and it has drawn sharp criticism. First, they draw a parallel with the permanence of the KJV:
Beginning in the summer of 2016, the text of the ESV Bible will remain unchanged in all future editions printed and published by Crossway—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 (in 1769).
Stanley Porter (with his co-writers) is absolutely scathing on his blog at what he sees as the hubris of drawing such a parallel with the KJV, a hubris made worse by the ill-judged citation of Paul’s words to Timothy:
In making these final changes, the Crossway Board of Directors and the Translation Oversight Committee thus affirm that their highest responsibility is to “guard the deposit entrusted to you” (1 Timothy 6:20)—to guard and preserve the very words of God as translated in the ESV Bible.
The ‘deposit’ Paul is referring to is, of course, the good news about Jesus, and not the words of a particular translation, and this use collapses the distinction between the words of Scripture (either the early copies in the original language or the autograph which we probably do not have) and a particular translation—a dangerous move, echoing the ‘King James Only’ movement, suggesting that, in some sense, God originally spoke in English!
Even greater concern arises from the final changes made to the text before ‘fixing it.’ The ESV announcement lists the changes, claiming that they are of minimal significance, and indeed most are trivial. But why make such changes at the last minute, rather than, as previously, making the changes first, allow them to be reviewed and discussed, before making the text permanent? The reason is revealed by the first change in the list:
Scot McKnight offers a detailed analysis of what is going on here. Properly understood, this verse is descriptive of the result of the fall—but the changed ESV translation turns this instead into something prescriptive: women will be resistant to male power, but men are (in effect) commanded to subdue women.
Gen 3:16 describes how fallen humans may/will behave at times. This is not what God wants; but this is what will happen. It is not a necessity (and doesn’t history absolutely prove that not all men and women fight?). It is not God’s design. Already in the Old Testament there is evidence that there is a better way: truly loving relationships are reciprocal relations of desire for one another, not a war of wills. Not a desire-rule but desire-desire…
The ESV here is mistaken in over translating Genesis 3:16 and the mistake is the assumption emerges from the belief that this is prescription and not description. As description it needs some nuancing; as prescription it turns the male against the female, the wife against the husband, and it means the male partner will rule by God’s design…
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.
This all appears to be part of a wider theological argument, that women are eternally subordinated to men as the Son is believed to be eternally subordinate to the Father. There is a myriad of problems with this view, not least that it contradicts both Paul’s statement in 1 Cor 7.4 that men and women exercise mutual authority over each other’s bodies in marriage and sexual relations, and Jesus’ teaching that there will be no marriage in heaven (Matt 22.30, Mark 12.25, Luke 20.36). And, most seriously of all, this translation contradicts the actual meaning of the Hebrew. McKnight cites the analysis of Sam Powell, ‘the pastor of First Reformed Church in Yuba City’ who has ‘loved the Heidelberg Catechism from my youth’ (so hardly a radical feminist egalitarian!):
The question is whether the preposition ‘el ever has the meaning “contrary to”, as the ESV revision committee, following the lead of Susan Foh, claims.
The simple answer is no. If you wish to do a very technical study, you may look at Bruce Waltke and M. O’Conner, Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns) 1990. 11.2.2. A helpful summary of that massive work is the work by Bill T. Arnold and John H. Choi (A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2003). Hebrew prepositions generally have a primary spatial meaning, with metaphorical secondary meaning. The primary spatial meaning is terminative (to, unto, towards).
I know, very technical. Let me break it down. The preposition ‘el means to, unto, or towards. It is a preposition indicating the termination of movement. That is its primary meaning. If I leave my office and walk to my house, I would use the preposition ‘el. Towards. Most commonly, it is used with the verb “to say” to indicate to whom the words are said. In the phrase, “And God said unto Moses”, the preposition ‘el would be used. God designed his words to terminate in the ears of Moses. I hope this makes sense…
After a detailed survey of both lexicons and parallel uses of the word (which, incidentally, is the first word of Israel’s national airline, El Al, meaning ‘To upon’ or we might paraphrase ‘Up and away!’) Powell concludes this:
To summarize this rather complicated survey, the basic meaning of the word 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.
And Powell then goes on to put this verse in the context of the narrative of Genesis 2 and 3:
Before, Adam and Eve were one flesh. There is no hint of hierarchy in the garden. It is beyond the scope of this article to go into the meaning of “help meet”, but suffice it to say that hierarchy, authority and submission are not inherent in the Hebrew word ‘ezer (help). It is the name most often given to God, Israel’s help.
Instead, the relationship of the man and the woman was a relationship of unity and love. They were one flesh, committed, loving, fleeing all others, cleaving to one another. I believe in that context, Gen 3:16 can only mean one thing. Eve will still long for that. Her longing will terminate on her husband. She will long for that which was lost in Eden. But instead, her husband will rule over her.
As I hope you can see by now, this very small, last-minute change to the translation of a single term has significant implications, and I can see generations of men (and it will be men) clutching their ESVs to make their case. But this also has implications for what it means to be evangelical. As a senior leader in the C of E said to me recently, ‘I believe that Scripture, rightly interpreted, is the final authority for faith and doctrine.’ That, I believe, is that heart of what it means to be evangelical (and probably what it means to be Anglican and Christian). But the ESV translators are undermining that in the most serious way. They 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. 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.
C H Spurgeon famously compare the Bible to a lion, who does not need defending, but needs simply to be let out of the cage (he actually said it three times in three slightly different ways). What the ESV appears to be doing is true to secure the bars to keep the Bible firmly in the ‘sound’ cage.
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