The ESV’s Unchangeable Nature?


This past week, the ESV (English Standard Translation) team at Crossway made an interesting statement about the unchangeable nature of the translation.

“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). This decision was made unanimously by the Crossway Board of Directors and the ESV Translation Oversight Committee. All future Crossway editions of the ESV, therefore, will contain the Permanent Text of the ESV Bible—unchanged throughout the life of the copyright, in perpetuity.

The creation of the ESV Permanent Text represents the culmination of more than seventeen years of comprehensive work by the Translation Oversight Committee, as authorized and initiated by the Crossway Board in 1998. (For additional information about the ESV Bible translation, read more about the translation philosophy). The decision now to create the Permanent Text of the ESV was made with equally great care—so that people who love the ESV Bible can have full confidence in the ESV, knowing that it will continue to be published as is, without being changed, for the rest of their lives, and for generations to come.”

You can read Crossway’s fuller statement here.

Initially, the ESV translation team utilized the RSV of 1971 as its textual foundation.

Now, to the naked eye, this might seem like a noble project. Here’s a team that worked really hard to fine-tune this translation of Scripture and they are proclaiming they won’t need to update it again. It’s compared with the process of the long-standing KJV, which, though it’s initial version became available in 1611, it’s final version was completed in 1769.

But there are some challenges, to say the least.

First off, I’ll point you to an article that Scot McKnight posted today on the problems of this statement and the translation itself. As he notes, and I think it’s a fair statement: “Perhaps all they are saying is that this translation will now serve us until we are in need of another.”

Yet, why use the name ESV Permanent Text?

As McKnight also notes: “…if they think their work is over, they are theoretically deeply mistaken. Language changes and that means this translation will become increasingly dated.”

People laud the glories of the KJV. It’s understandable, knowing what it was as an English translation of its day. However, think back to the old KJV-only debates. Plenty of folk – and I mean plenty – championed that the King James Version was God’s authoritative version of Scripture. Yes, there were folk that believed Jesus and Paul spoke in King James English (though Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic were the languages spoken by learned Jews of that day). They saw it as authorized, permanent, and unchangeable.

Sound eerily familiar?

I’m hoping we don’t fall into the trap of an ESV-only debate. However, there are already hints of this amongst reformed evangelicals, as many believe the ESV is the best translation available on planet earth today. Interestingly, many will also disdain other modern translations such as the NIV, CEB, The Message, etc.

So I do believe we have a problem at hand by identifying this new ESV text the ESV Permanent Text.

Crossway’s statement goes on to declare:

“The number of changes in the new ESV Permanent Text is limited to 52 words (out of more than 775,000 total words in ESV Bible) found in 29 verses (out of more than 31,000 verses in the ESV). The guiding principle for creating the ESV Permanent Text was to make only a very limited number of final changes to the ESV text, where such changes represented a substantial improvement in the precision, accuracy, and understanding of the ESV.”

This seems to state something like this: “We were so very close with the update of 2011. We only had to update 52 words. Now we’re locked in with the best translation today.”

Now, I use the ESV when referencing a modern literal translation (as opposed to a dynamic equivalence translation). I explain the differences between these two translation ideas in this post. But I can tell you there are problems with this translation of Scripture (as with all translations). It has an agenda, mainly upholding the specific theology of conservative evangelical complementarianism. That’s what Crossway wants.

Perhaps the team needs to realize that, though they need space to hold to their theological bent (as any group does), to claim something as “permanent” and “unchangeable,” along with a statement that we only had to alter 52 words, communicates an unhealthy attitude. Honestly, it comes across as stating the door is closed, it is finished, all is now in order.

Very unhealthy, I believe.

I won’t go any further other than to, again, encourage you to check out Scot McKnight’s article. He goes on to show some problems of the actual new “permanent” translation. He points out how there is already a problematic (wrong?) translation in Genesis 3:16 – a very important verse for complementarianism.

Let’s be reminded that any in-depth study of Scripture should be done with multiple translations at hand, as well a lexicon and interlinear text. These tools will help us best work through Scripture.


5 thoughts on “The ESV’s Unchangeable Nature?

  1. If it were a really great idea – if the work of Bible translation could be finished, then we would have nothing beyond the KJV and no need for further clarifications. Half the reason why the KJV isn’t enough is that we just don’t speak it’s language that way anymore. Sometimes it doesn’t take that long for a shift in language either – when my parents watched the Flintstones as children, they couldn’t have imagined that by the time they were adults one of the words in that song would take on an entirely different meaning.

  2. Pingback: Old and newer King James Versions and other translations #12 God Himself masters His Own Word | Belgian Biblestudents - Belgische Bijbelstudenten

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