Further Thoughts on ESV

No translation is perfect. However, ESV does an admirable job of presenting the intent of the underlying (original) languages (Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek). For the most part I wouldn’t hesitate to encourage people to use it. From a liturgical perspective, ESV has much to commend itself.

Having said that, though, there are some problem areas, some in English as the following illustrate, and some in changing the meaning (John 20:23).

Overall, NAS tends to be choppy, although not unreadable. But in these specific passages (and others I have found), the ESV is not only choppy, it presents awkward English.

Isaiah 22:17
ESV “… He will seize firm hold on you”
NAS95 “And He is about to grasp you firmly”

The NAS correctly uses the adverb. I realize that the ESV is following the KJV/RSV tradition and so continues that use in this verse. But the adverb is expected according to current English usage.

Isaiah 63:10
ESV “therefore he turned to be their enemy, and himself fought against them”
NAS95 “Therefore He turned Himself to become their enemy, He fought against them.”

It seems that the ESV is missing the word “he” before “himself” (read it aloud to catch the incongruence).

Jeremiah 10:25
ESV “Pour out your wrath on the nations that know you not, and on the peoples that call not on your name.”
NAS95 “Pour out Your wrath on the nations that do not know You and on the families that do not call Your name.”

The ESV is inconsistent in placing the negative. In this case, it is awkward, yet in other places the negative is placed with the helping verb (“do”) as in the NAS.

Jeremiah 12:6
ESV “… they are in full cry after you”
NAS95 “…even they have cried aloud after you.”

One has to ask what does “full cry” mean to the average speaker/reader of English in this sentence? I think of a hunting dog spotting the prey. Again, the ESV is following the KJV/RSV tradition and so continues that use in this verse, but the phrase does not reflect current English usage.

Jeremiah 12:11
ESV “… but no man lays it to heart.”
NAS95 “… because no man lays it to heart”
NKJV “… because no one takes it to heart”

I would say that both ESV and NAS95 present unnatural English; NKJV does better.

Jeremiah 31:8
ESV “Behold, I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the farthest parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, the pregnant woman and her who is in labor, together…”

NAS95 “Behold, I am bringing them from the north country and I will gather them from the remote parts of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and she who is in labor with child, together…”

NKJV “Behold, I will bring them from the north country and gather them from the ends of the earth, among them the blind and the lame, the woman with child and the one who labors with child, together…”

The ESV misses on two counts: The use of “her” is awkward and yields very unnatural English. Also, the other elements in parallel all have the definite article in English, which would suggest that the NKJV has rendered the parallelism best.

Isaiah 10:7 ESV
But he does not so intend,
and his heart does not so think;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
and to cut off nations not a few;

Try to read it orally and see whether it is clear, natural English?


The following is a passage in which the ESV translators abandon their guidelines and present an inaccurate translation.

John 20:23
ESV: If you forgive the sins of anyone, they are forgiven; if you withhold forgiveness from anyone, it is withheld.
NKJV: If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

In the Greek the word κρατῆτε has the sense of “hold fast, or retain” (BAGD, 448). The ESV misuses the word “withhold” in this context. Notice that it appears as if the ESV is claiming that disciples are controlling the forgiveness – “they are lording it over someone by withholding forgiveness.”

However, in the Greek, it is clear that what the disciples retain or hold against the person are the sins (plural), not forgiveness.

ἄν τινων ἀφῆτε τὰς ἁμαρτίας ἀφέωνται αὐτοῖς

if ever of whom you forgive the sins, they are forgiven to/for them

ἄν τινων κρατῆτε κεκράτηνται

if ever of whom …. you retain, they have been (and are still) retained …

Note, the parallel construction of the sentence. The direct object in the first part is “the sins” (τὰς ἁμαρτίας); the indirect object is “to them” (αὐτοῖς) . In the Greek of the second part of the sentence, the direct object and the indirect object are not supplied. But normal Greek structure means that the direct object and indirect object previously mentioned would carry over. Thus, the second line would translate:

if ever of whom [the sins] you retain, they are retained [to them]

Note that ESV changes this, so that it takes the verb of the first part of the sentence and makes it into a noun to be used as the direct object in the second phrase. I don’t know of any other case in which such a practice is followed, especially by a translation that favors an “essentially literal” approach.

Some have noted that the Greek word κρατῆτε also means “to restrain” or “to hold back”. So the question arises: Can this mean that they to retain the sin or the forgiveness of sin?

The answer is: neither. That is, the direct object in the sentence is τὰς ἁμαρτίας (“sins”) – plural. Note, that “forgiveness” is not in the noun form in the sentence, rather it is the verb parallel to “retain”. Thus, the parallel of the verbs is: “forgive” / “retain”. Now the question is what is forgiven and what is retained? In the first phrase, the direct object of “forgive” is τὰς ἁμαρτίας (“sins”) – plural. So they are to “forgive sins”. In the second part of the sentence there is no direct object associated with “retain”, and so the normal Greek sequence is to repeat the direct object of the earlier verb: “retain the sins”? The question then arises whether “retains” is appropriate translation in this context.

If a person claims that the direct object of “retain” is “forgiveness”, then the only way to get that is to ignore the first direct object, change the the first verb into a noun and make it the direct object of the second verb (none of which the Greek does).

So, no matter how you slice it, in this text, the ESV is inaccurate, and reflects a poor choice.

Luke 1:53 ESV

This Sunday morning (liturgically Advent 4), the Gospel reading caught my attention. I had mentally read the passage many times in the Greek and in several translations preparing for the Bible study on Luke (in the past two months). But I had not read it aloud. When I heard it read this Sunday, I grabbed the bulletin to see whether the person read it correctly – he did. But the text itself was “wrong”.

The reading, Luke 1:39-56, was from ESV. Note 1:53:

he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.

I think many people read it in their minds (like I had before this Sunday) and make the necessary mental adjustment so that it reads correctly. But when this is read orally, it is clear how awkward the English phrasing is.

The way it is written, “empty” functions as noun/pronoun as the direct object (substitute “them” and see how you would speak it). As it is, I would wonder whether “empty” was lonely when sent away? Was “empty’s” feelings hurt?

In reality, the word “empty” should be an adverb telling “how” the rich were sent away. Thus it should read:

he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

Thus, a typically good liturgical translation (ESV) fails in this specific liturgical text.

Just to clarify my use of the ESV: I use several translations for preparing Bible studies, in addition to the original language texts. ESV is one of them, but I personally prefer the combination of NAS, NKJV, HCSB, and GW. However, the congregation where I teach has now started using the ESV for Sunday readings – because Concordia Publishing House began using ESV on the back of the bulletins beginning with Advent 1 Sunday (four weeks ago). And CPH used the ESV as the base for the liturgical sections of the new hymnal published in August (Lutheran Service Book – LSB)

In the past couple of years I was encouraged by the ESV translation because of its “standardized” liturgical texts (i.e. Ps. 116:12-13, 17-19, Ps. 136:1, Is. 6:3, John 6:68 etc.). However, the more I have read the ESV (about 1/2, so far), the less I like it. I find it not as easy to read as NAS and NKJV, which are usually considered “choppy”. Could I teach using the ESV? Yep, just like I can with other translations. But I would use it with caution.

Given my exposure to the ESV over the past year (through private reading/devotion and some teaching), I would definitely state that the NKJV is a much better liturgical translation.