Sunday, September 30, 2012

Why We Use the ESV

(In honor of Nancy Thonus Hudson, my high school friend who has served the Wycliffe Bible Translators for nearly thirty years.)*

Bible translation is an ancient and venerable practice.  One of the earliest was in Coptic for Egyptians, which dates to AD 270.  An Ethiopic translation was completed in early 5th century AD.  Fragments of an early Syriac translation has been discovered, which is not surprising since one of the major early ethnic churches was the Syrian Church.  Between the years AD 350 to AD 439 the Scriptures were translated into Armenian for those in the Caucasus mountain region and in an adjacent region another translation into Georgian was done in AD 450.  An old Latin Bible was completed in AD 195 (which Augustine used) and Jerome completed his new and improved Latin Vulgate (vulgates referring to the common tongue) in 404 AD.  Unlike the old Latin Bible, Jerome relied on the original Hebrew in his translation. This particular translation was to dominate the landscape in the Middle Ages, and unfortunately led the Western Church to neglect the original languages of the Bible up until Erasmus and Luther.   Much more could be said about translations in the East as well as the history of translations in English.  However, at this point we should note four features of translations in the early history of the Church:

  • .       Translations were a function of the missionary nature of the Christian Church which was a vernacular movement, the assumption being that people needed to hear the word of God in their own native tongue (cf. Acts 2).
  • .       The whole process started in fits and starts and because of the needs of the missionaries, not because of some central authority’s efforts.  Thus, these early translations are uneven in quality.
  • .       It was assumed that a translation of the Bible could be called the word of God for this language group, yet…
  • .       Figures such as Jerome and much later Erasmus, Luther and Tyndale realized that these vernacular translations needed to be based on the original Hebrew and Greek texts. 
All English translations are in some measure dependent on the ground-breaking translation of William Tyndale, who in turn was influenced by Luther’s translation.  He was both a first-rate Greek scholar and master of early English prose.  To him we owe memorable phrases like “my brother’s keeper” (Gen. 4:9), “the salt of the earth” (Matt. 5:13), “a law unto themselves” (Rom. 2:14) and “the powers that be” (Rom. 13:1).  As you can tell, Tyndale was attentive to the aural qualities of the Bible.  He understood that the written text was in service to its oral quality and purpose: scriptures were originally written primarily to be read and heard a loud in public worship.
When people ask me why I (and now Truro) use the ESV for public worship its oral quality is one of the primary reasons I give.  There are numerous good translations on the market; I own and read several of them.  But I prefer the ESV for public worship because it stands squarely in the Tyndale tradition of Bible translation, especially his concern for good aural sense.  Because I also believe it is important for the Christian community to memorize key portions of the Bible, the ESV excels over other translations in this regard as well.  As a literal translation, it attempts to follow the rhythm and rhyme, the alliteration and assonance of the original text. The ESV has preserved the felicitous and memorably translated phrases of Tyndale which are noted above. 
 I encourage you to buy a reference edition for your personal study.  Mostly I encourage you to “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” the word of God in whatever translation you use.  For the word of God is “living, active and sharper than any two-edged sword” exposing our souls to God and God to our souls so that we can become wise in matters of eternal significance.

*Heavily indebted to Alistair McGrath's In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible... and Ben Witherington's The Living Word of God


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  2. Fyi Rector, there's a new esv single-column journaling bible with a wide margin with lines on the side for notes that I am enjoying that I bought for this study of yours. Lots of room to "mark!" (However, the text is a bit small.)

    Julie Walsh

  3. I like the ESV alot, though I still also read the NIV pretty frequently.

    Taking the idea of memorable phrases from Tyndale with beautiful aural quality, I thought I'd add a plug for a blog I discovered about a year ago that has become a real favorite. It's called the King's English, written by the Rev. Glen Scrivener, a CoE minister and evangelist.

    Each day he produces devotional blog entries on a phrase from the King James Bible. His writing is beautiful, but above all he has a real gift for using the Word to teach the Word - showing patterns and how Scripture fits together, and how all Scripture points to the King! Highly recommended!

    Karen B.

  4. My problem is that the preponderance of evangelical study Bibles in recent decades have been NIV texts. Yet, NIV is a dull, ponderous translation, in my view. I really like my Archeological Study Bible, for example, but again, it features an NIV text. Suggestions?