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.

Author: exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian

3 thoughts on “Further Thoughts on ESV”

  1. and her who is in labor

    I agree, Rich. This sounds strange to me, also. However, I sat and thought about this a little, and I suspect that the reason the objective case (“her”) is used instead of nominative case (“she”) is that the pronoun is considered to be the object of the preceding verbs “bring” and “gather”. Both verbs take an objective case pronoun immediately after them. But, somehow, when there is so many words separating the verb from the pronoun you and I prefer nominative case “she”. The NKJV takes care of the problem by not using the pronoun, which I think is a good solution.


  2. Thanks, Wayne – you are right. When I originally came across this, I tore the sentence apart to simplest components, and “her” is grammatically correct – if there are no other interferring words. But it took a couple of readings to get that.

    The question is: what happens to someone who doesn’t know grammar and doesn’t know how to deconstruct the sentence to determine what it exactly is.

    Of course, this leads to another important issue for me: how does this affect oral reading? Will hearers be able to make the connection correctly?

    NKJV has done it right for both aspects.


  3. Rich,

    I love the way you teach the differences using the greek as the standard to which the English compared. I agree that liturgically the ESV is a good translation, but as a method for study it does lack good translation.

    Scott Strohkirch

    PS. Looking forward to seeing you again whenever you might come to the Sem in Fort Wayne.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: