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Tuesday, June 15, 2010

the ESV Bible

Though it's more fun to read the New testament in Greek - and the Old Testament or Hebrew scriptures too, since the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible is what Jesus used and the early Church too (the LXX or Septuagint), I like to read in English as well. I suppose, over the years, I've preached most of my messages from the NIV, but I have spent time with the NEB (now the REB), the NRSV, the Good News Bible (I'm dating myself), the JB Phillips translation, The Message, yes, even the Elizabethan era's KJV. A number of people have been talking up the ESV, and since that translation is being widely used in the American South where I will be preaching in a little over a week, I decided to check it out.

Okay, let's cut to the quick. To my ears, the ESV has a stately cadence, religious and ceremonial. There is a slight stiffness to it, it does not flow like other English translations - there is a reason for that, its literal approach to translating from the Greek and Hebrew. I can live with this. Unfortunately, the translators have the annoying habit of tossing in words like BEHOLD and BE GONE and LEST and TRULY, I SAY TO YOU and O! O! O! Now why would they do this unless they had an express purpose of very obviously connecting with 1611? No one in the 21st century runs around saying BEHOLD or BE GONE or TRULY, I SAY TO YOU. They didn't in the 1st century either in Israel. But they did in Shakespeare's time.

I intend to read the whole translation and give it it's due. I will preach from it in the South as well. But I shudder that I might be treated to gems like STIFF-NECKED PEOPLE when I wander into the Old Testament. Already I was looking up Ezekiel 22:30 and instead of "stand in the gap" I got "stand in the breach"! Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more! Henry V, where chunks of this Bible belong.

Instead of BEHOLD why not say something real world like LOOK! Instead of TRULY, I SAY TO YOU why not say something comprehensible to this present generation such as LISTEN, I'M TELLING YOU or HONESTLY, I HAVE TO TELL YOU! The ESV seems fine for people that hang out in a church culture and like to use different grammar, syntax, vocabulary and voice when they're at a service - in other words, religious-ese or Christianese - but it's not great for helping newcomers understand you don't have to get all formal and religious in your language when you're worshiping or praying or talking about God.

With all the hype I was expecting something better than an anachronism but that is what the ESV is. Personally, the only way I can enjoy it - accepting its rather more ceremonial sound that echoes with the courts of King James and Elizabeth I and the stages of William Shakespeare - is to mentally drop those dreadful 400 year old prefixes like BEHOLD! and O! and BE GONE! - or verbally drop them if I'm reading out loud. If I do that, I can enjoy myself. Otherwise I'm happier in the Greek which is far more dynamic and contemporary than the ESV.

Look, there is no way this is a NEW translation. It's clearly in the KJV, ASV, RSV family line. And if you like that, have at her. I'm not here to say NAY to the ESV the way one of its editors, Wayne Grudem, said NAY to the TNIV (which, by the way, translates John 1:18 far better than the ESV). Only, please, don't tell new Christians they have to talk like the ESV in order to talk to God and please don't tell them words like BEHOLD and LEST and TRULY, I SAY are the way you talk when you get really spiritual. (And don't tell them it was the way Jesus talked on earth or the way angels talk now as if those frozen-in-time expressions are the real spiritual thing.) I was hoping we'd left all this behind or at least left it in the hands of the KJV worshipers.

The notes for the ESV Study Bible are quite good - they don't treat you like an imbecile and they have some good things to say, even some deep things to say that involve the original languages. And, as I said, though I'm more of a dynamic equivalency sort of guy, I can enjoy the more stately rhythms of the ESV within reason. But O! those jarring 17th century pet expressions. Why? Why on earth would you make a translation for the 21st century and deliberately put those back in? Go ahead, read the translation without them and you'll find you don't miss them, in fact, to my ear, dropping them vastly improves the translation and takes it from a 3.5 to a 4+

So enjoy it if it's your thing. But, to me, it leaves a lot to be desired, is not a big breakthrough translation and sounds a lot like other literal translations I read a long time ago when there were few other good contemporary English options out there. I'll read it, God will use it in my life, but I am waiting with even greater anticipation now for the 2011 NIV, which will give me something I can really celebrate (I hope) and which is tied into 2011 and beyond, not 1611 and ne'er another foot forward if we can help it, m'lord.

Sorry, Wayne.

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