2nd Century BC Scroll of Isaiah from Qumran
A brief history of the English Standard Version (ESV)

"We had a strong sense of divine guidance and divine help in what we were doing ."

J.I. Packer , ESV General Editor


Why the English Standard Version ?

evangelicalbible.com store

1.  Does Translation Philosophy Matter?

2.  Gender Neutral Translations

3.  Helpful Links

4.  English Bible History

A legitimate question is whether the world is truly served with another English Bible translation. Since the middle of the 20th century, English language translations have proliferated. Presently, there are more than 25 English translations.


The English Standard Version (ESV), in contrast to most modern translations, is not entirely "new." The ESV is the product of a rich translation legacy which spans some 500 years. The beginning of this heritage was William Tyndale's New Testament (1526). The starting point for the ESV was the 1971 Revised Standard Version (RSV). Over 90 percent of the RSV is retained in the ESV. The RSV was regarded by many as the best modern translation in terms of precision and literary elegance.

The ESV improves upon the RSV in 3 important ways.

1. First and most crucial to the evangelical community, is that the ESV corrects key Old Testament passages whose prophetic intent was dulled in the RSV. The passage that served as a lightning rod for this controversy was Isaiah 7:14. (see also Genesis 22:15-18, Psalm 2:11-12 & Psalm 45:6)

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman'u-el.
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

Another example of an important correction to the RSV was the translation of the Greek word hilasterion and its cognates (Rom. 3:25, Heb. 2:17, 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10) which the RSV translated "expiation." The ESV corrected this to "propitiation."  Propitiation means to appease the wrath of someone by the substitution of an offering.  Thus Jesus bore the wrath of God that was due mankind.  The righteous anger that was due mankind was placed upon His Son.  Christ's sacrifice had the effect of both bearing the sin of man (expiation) and the punishment due man for his wickedness (propitiation).  It is worth noting that the NIV and the NRSV both took the "middle ground" and translated hilasterion as "atonement."  In so doing the translators decided not to take a stand on the issue since "atonement" captures both expiation and propitiation.  Clearly, many modern translations have not translated hilasterion as propitiation for the simple reason that it does not fit their theology.  That God's wrath needed to be appeased was contrary to their understanding of God.  Both the "Message," and the CEV translations have removed the heart of the meaning of propitiation from their respective translations entirely.  (See Romans 3:25)

2. Archaic language was updated. (Thee, Thou, Art, Ye, Hearken, etc.)

3. The ESV translation is more literal than RSV. It attempts, as much as possible, "not to improve on the originals."

The ESV is a grand "improvement" upon centuries of English Bible translations. With a zeal for faithfulness to the original text, and a desire for traditional literary excellence, the ESV is the best modern translation in the English language. We have attempted to explain why these qualities are essential to Bible translation.
The ESV is an Essentially Literal Translation
Codex Sinaiticus: a manuscript containing the Old and New Testament. (c. AD 350-375). Sinaiticus was discovered in the mid 1800's at the foot of Mt. Sinai.
An "essentially literal" translation attempts to make the original biblical languages as transparent as possible to the reader. It gives the reader the best view of the original wording of the biblical writers. The focus of the "essentially literal" translation is on word-for-word precision. On the other end of the translation spectrum, are versions which attempt to translate the ideas of the biblical authors. These are often characterized as thought-for-thought translations. Most translations fall somewhere within this continuum. It is true that less literal translations may be more "readable," but often at the expense of accuracy and intended cross reference. The ESV is a superb choice for those who hold transparency to the original text, as a premium for an excellent translation.

Does translation philosophy really matter?

Most people believe that different Bible translations are simply a function of varying levels of readability, though all roughly similar in accuracy.  So, for example, if we know of a new believer who is not well read, we give him a "CEV" or "NLT" translation.  Similarly, for youth we pass on the translations which are simply "easier to understand."  What is critical, to this understanding is "readability."  In this brief essay I want to demonstrate that translations are not equal in accuracy, and that "readability" comes at the expense of changing God's words and therefore His message.

Before the middle of the 20th century there was only one basic philosophy of Bible translation: "word-for-word" or "formal equivalence."  This translation philosophy placed a premium on making the original languages transparent to the reader to the extent that English grammar would allow.  This translation theory is grounded in 2 essential facts.

1. Plenary (Verbal) Inspiration -the fact that God inspired not only the "thoughts" of the biblical writers, but also the "words."  (Psalm 12:6, Proverbs 30:5, Matthew 4:4, 2 Timothy 3:16, Revelation 22:18-19)  Since God inspired the words, one must be hesitant to change them.  It should be noted, however, that the English language changes. Many modern readers would be extremely hard pressed to understand the English that John Wycliffe spoke in the 14th century (or the AV of the 17th century.)

For God louede so the world, that he yaf his `oon bigetun sone, that ech man that bileueth in him perische not, but haue euerlastynge lijf.  
(John 3:16 Wycliffe 1382)
That if thou knoulechist in thi mouth the Lord Jhesu Crist, and bileuest in thin herte, that God reiside hym fro deth, thou schalt be saaf.
(Romans 10:9 Wycliffe 1382)

Word-for-word translation theory does not suggest the preservation of archaic English.  It attempts to translate the original biblical languages as close as possble to their contemporary equivalents.

2.  Thoughts can not be disconnected from the words that produce them.  This is true in the Bible as it is all aspects of communication.  Scholar Raymond Van Leeuwen says, "It is hard to know what the Bible means when we are uncertain about what it says." (We Really Do Need Another Bible Translation)  In other words, even if one didn't hold to the verbal inspiration of Scripture, changing words necessarily changes the resulting meaning.  We have provided examples below.

Since the middle of the 20th Century there have been a proliferation of new translations whose premium is not transparency of the original languages, but rather to make the "thoughts" or the "meaning" of the text more comprehensible to the modern reader.  These transations are called "thought for thought" or "dyanmic equivalence" translations. Undoubtedly with the noble intention of making the Bible easier to understand, the result has produced translations which ironically compromise the meaning of the text. 

In summary, we believe that when a person reads the Bible, he should be confident that he is actually reading the words of God, in the form God delivered them to the biblical authors.  From that starting point we trust God to reveal His Word to the reader. We do not trust a well meaning translator to do that work.  We believe, of course, that there is a place for biblical commentary, only it should not be placed in the Bible text, and then called "The Bible." Within this framework we recommend the following translations: ESV, NASB, KJV & NKJV as one's primary study Bible.  The NCV, GVB, CEV & Message may be helpful study aids, but one must keep in mind that in these translations great liberties have been made by translators in "helping" the reader understand the text.  In many passages and verses you will in effect be reading human commentary.  The NIV has often been the source of much criticism, in part, because of its popularity.  The NIV follows neither a word-for-word translation philosophy nor a thought-for-thought philosophy.  With enormous admiration for this translation, it must be said that, at times, translators opinions have been inserted into the text.  This having been said, the NIV is a solid translation that is more "word-for-word" than "thought-for-thought." As a primary Bible, every Christian should be afforded the opportunity to read it with the confidence that the words are indeed God's words. 

Below are a few examples of where "thought for thought" translations obscure the meaning of the Bible text.  (Please note that we have also given specific examples of similar difficulties with "gender neutral" translations)



through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations


 Through Christ, God has given us the privilege and authority to tell Gentiles everywhere what God has done for them, so that they will believe and obey him , bringing glory to his name.

Jesus was kind to me and chose me to be an apostle, so that people of all nations would obey and have faith. Only the first column gives the Greek translation of the text.  

Is it clear in the NLT and CEV that obedience comes from faith?
translation ESV NIV CEV Meaning


Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say?

(all literal translations)

Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 

Now I am deeply troubled, and I don't know what to say.
(NCV, Message also use "I")
Apollinarianism was a heresy 
which denied that Jesus had a soul or spirit.  The Greek word "psyche" can mean "soul" or "life."
translation ESV NIV, TNIV NLT Meaning

Acts 19:11 

And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul

(all literal translations)

 God did extraordinary miracles through Paul

God gave Paul the power to do unusual miracles

Does it matter that the word "hands" is omitted?  Oftentimes Jesus and the apostles actually touched the people they ministered to.

translation ESV NLT (NCV) Message Meaning


See also Prov. 13:24 with omission of "rod "

for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer.
(NIV + all literal translations keeps sword and wrath)
The authorities are sent by God to help you. But if you are doing something wrong, of course you should be afraid, for you will be punished. The authorities are established by God for that very purpose, to punish those who do wrong. But if you're breaking the rules right and left, watch out. The police aren't there just to be admired in their uniforms. God also has an interest in keeping order, and he uses them to do it. That's why you must live responsibly-not just to avoid punishment but also because it's the right way to live.

 The word sword, Greek --"machaira" is omitted and replaced with punish.  Similarly wrath, Greek "orge" is omitted.

First, sword was an instrument of death-and likely capital punishment is in mind here.

Second,  wrath is replaced with "punish."  Wrath is a biblical attribute of God.  Also it references Rom. 12:19.

translation ESV NLT CEV Meaning


you anoint my head with oil

(all literal translations)
You welcome me as a guest,
anointing my head with oil

 You honor me as your guest, and you fill my cup until it overflows

This is an example of changing a biblical metaphor.  Do we have the right to restrict this metaphor only to "welcome?" When you "explain" a metaphor by placing it in the text you narrow its possible meanings.

translation ESV NIV NLT Meaning

1 Cor. 4:9 

For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men But sometimes I think God has put us apostles on display, like prisoners of war at the end of a victor's parade, condemned to die. We have become a spectacle to the entire world--to people and angels alike This is another typical difficulty with "thought for thought" translations: all that you see in red is not in the original text.

Are we free to add what the Holy Spirit didn't give to Paul?

Added text gives a "clearer" picture, but not the one in the Bible.
translation ESV NIV Message Meaning

1 Pet. 4:12

Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you.

Friends, when life gets really difficult, don't jump to the conclusion that God isn't on the job. see below
In the above example of 1 Peter 4:12, the NIV translates the Greek pyrosis as "painful," instead of its literal meaning, "fiery." It would appear, at first sight, to be an example of a "helpful" translation since "fiery" is not a common way to express a difficult trial. However, the Apostle Peter may have intended the listener (reader) to understand the trial in light of Malachi, "For he is like a refiner's fire and like fuller's' soap." (Malachi 3:2) Only with a literal rendering can such illusions be made transparent to the reader. Only a consistently literal renderings will expose intended cross references to other Biblical passages.

This Masoretic Text is dated to the 9 th Century. The MT forms the basis of our Old Testament.

A great resource regarding the importance of an essentially literal translation can be found in: Translating Truth The Case for Essentially Literal Bible Translation .  The contributors include: Wayne Grudem, Leland Ryken, Vern S. Poythress, Bruce Winter, and C. John Collins.  The forward is by J.I. Packer.  Another succinct book, which gets to the heart of these issues is Choosing a Bible by Leland Ryken

Gender Neutral Bible Translations

Some modern Bible translations (NRSV, NLT2011, NCV, GNB and CEV) have substituted "male-oriented" language with "inclusive" language.  The stated intention of the NRSV was to "become sensitive to the danger of linguistic sexism arising form the inherent bias of the English language towards the masculine gender, a bias that in the case of the Bible has often restricted or obscured the meaning of the original text." (NRSV Preface, Metzger)  Beside apparent sexism was alleged archaism.  In other words, in modern English, we no longer use the masculine pronoun "he" to refer to both male and female.  Nor do we use the word "man" or "men" to refer to "people."  Thus, from this perspective, gender neutral translation theory is allegedly nothing more than bringing archaic language into modernity.  It is similar to changing thee, and thou to "you."  The TNIV is perhaps one of the most popular examples of a gender neutral translation. There are more than 3,600 changes to Hebrew and Greek "male-oriented" language in this Bible.  These are documented in a short title by Wayne Grudem and Jerry Thacker.  Do any of these changes alter the meaning of God's Word?  Look at some of the examples below from the TNIV & NLT.  It is clear that these changes do alter the intention of the text.


TNIV Change in Meaning
He protects all his bones, not one of them will be broken.
(Psalm 34:20)

He protects all their bones, not one of them will be broken.
(Psalm 34:20)

The change of the Hebrew pronoun "his" obscures its prophetic intent fulfilled in John 19:36, "Not one of his bones will be broken."
For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man.
(1 Corinthians 15:21)
For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a human being. 
(1 Corinthians 15:21)
The Greek word anthropos can signify both a man or person depending on context.  Here both Adam and Jesus are the intended.  Both are "men."
I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with me.  (Revelation 3:20) I stand at the door and knock.  If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them, and they with me.  (Revelation 3:20) The change in the masculine pronoun obscures the fact that Jesus makes his home with the individual.
KJV NLT Change in Meaning
So David slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David.  (1 Kings 2:10) Then David died and was buried in the city of David.  (1 Kings 2:10) In this example not only is the Hebrew "'ab" or Father not included but died is substituted for slept.  The metaphor slept may entertain a hope of a future resurrection.  Died leaves no such hope.

When one chooses a translation we think it imperative to listen to the words as God gave them to the prophets.  If "all Scripture is God-breathed," and "every word of God proves true," we must refrain from making Scripture palatable for our culture.  God had a reason for using masculine pronouns and words, just as he did for using the word "slept" instead of "died."  We must not take the liberty to change words that God chose. 
The ESV retains the elegance of its Tyndale (1526) and King James (1611) heritage.
In addition to being a precise translation, the ESV holds "literary excellence" in high regard. In keeping close to the style and wording of its roots in Tyndale's New Testament (1526), the King James Version (1611), and most recently the Revised Standard Version (1971), the ESV is ideal not only for serious Bible study, but also for worship, preaching, memory and personal devotion.
A Trustworthy Translation .
The Translation Team for the ESV is comprised of over 100 Christian men and women who have a firm commitment to the truthfulness of God's Word. The translation team represents a broad coalition of evangelical leaders and scholars. It is by no means a 'denominational translation.'  There has been a concerted effort to translate the Bible as it has been given by our Lord, and not with an eye to suit contemporary cultural fancies. This is an important consideration in choosing a Bible.
For more information on the ESV translation.
How does the ESV differ from other translations, click here.

Purchase an English Standard Version Bible.

Recommendations for ESV Bible editions / evangelicalbible.com on Facebook.

The ESV is the Bible of choice for those looking for both transparency to the ancient languages, as well as elegance in literary style. It is suitable for in depth Bible study, preaching, worship and Scripture memory. 
"A Brief Schematic History of the English Bible"  
Please click Here to see a more complete Bible translation Chart.

This papyrus manuscript (P66) contains most sof John's gospel.

(c. AD. 150-200) (click on picture)


All Contents © Copyright 2005-

evangelicalbible.com P.O. Box 31. Midlothian, VA 23113


VisaMastercardAmerican ExpressPayPal  

Bookmark and Share