The Bible is the most important text in Christianity and people grow attached to whatever version they do use. I most often use the ESV Bible (though not really on this blog which tends towards NRSV) because it is the Bible I find at once most accessible, somewhat familiar, and used by those around me. I use it because it is in a line of translations that stems from the one I grew up with, the Authorized Version (KJV). However, this bible is not a bible that is, as you might say, true to what I most often hear it is, an accurate, essentially literal translation.
One endorsement of the ESV bible reads “The ESV embodies both word-for-word exactness and easy readability. It has quickly become my primary Bible for both personal use and public teaching.” And this claim of word-for-word exactness is among the most common responses I receive when I ask “why do you use the ESV.” The ESV is now the 4th best selling bible in America. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. What I do think is unfortunate though is the faith that people have placed in the big names that have put forth the Bible as the Bible for English speaking Christians. This is just not so.
The ESV bible has a distinct agenda that colours its translations of certain key passages related towards gender relations in Christianity because of people like Grudem, the cofounder of the council for biblical manhood and womanhood who also served on the translation oversight committee for the ESV. Let me give you an example text: “but every wife who prays or prophesies with her head uncovered dishonors her head, since it is the same as if her head were shaven.” What is not clearly apparent here is the editorial decision to translate “woman” as “wife” to reinforce the point that the woman’s ability to prophesy in 1 Cor 11 derives from the authority of the husband. This is a deliberate change from the RSV (which is the basis of the ESV) which says “woman.” Indeed the ESV is the only major translation that uses this reading (unless you count the Message as a translation.) This reading of the Greek goes far beyond what the ESV translators have claimed is an effort to “use the same English word for important recurring words in the original” and this example especially stands out because the ESV is a reaction against perceived egalitarianism and political correctness in the TNIV (which has since been replaced by the NIV 2011) and it is in passages like these that the theological bent of the editors most appears. Whether you are complementarian or not, translating the Bible in such a way that emphasizes your own theological view is paramount to paraphrase at best and eisegesis at worst.
I can agree with the claim that the ESV is a good translation because of the soundness of its base, the RSV which is over 90% similar to the ESV. What I cannot agree with is the claim that this is a bible that is “word-for-word” as possible. I argue that this Bible is only popular because of the people who have popularized it. If we really wanted word-for-word to the point of unintelligibility we would have used Young’s literal translation or the more common New American Standard Bible. If you read the ESV say you read it because it sounds nice (and I do because it is as close as I can get to King James in a common bible), or because your favourite pastor uses it, or because you wanted a balance between readability and interpretation or because any other reason. But don’t say that you read ESV because it’s the most accurate Bible. Let us be honest with our words and not merely parrot those who speak words to us and let us as true students of God’s Word (who probably don’t know Greek) use more than one translation when comparing scripture with scripture.