The “Permanent Text” of the ESV: A Soft Critique (Updated)

(NOTE: On September 28 Crossway issued a retraction statement on the Permanent Text.  You can read it here.)
Perhaps you’ve heard the news about the ESV: the recent update will be the last.  This past summer (2016) the ESV made 52 changes and the publisher and translation oversight committee have declared that it will never again be changed.  They are officially calling it the Permanent Text of the ESV Bible.  The website says it will remain “unchanged throughout the life of the copyright, in perpetuity.” This way, they note,
“People who love the ESV Bible can have full confidence in the ESV, knowing that it will continue to be published as is, without being changed, for the rest of their lives, and for generations to come.”

I realize it is very difficult to update a translation.  Most of us probably don’t realize the amount of time and energy it takes to translate and update an entire Bible.  The ESV teams are to be commended for the hard and excellent Christian work they’ve done in the past 15+ years.  They’ve given Christ’s church a solid translation for which we should be thankful.  I seriously mean that.

I do have to admit, however, that I’m quite disappointed the ESV translation is now frozen.  I realize one reason to freeze the text was (probably) to prevent it from being “liberalized” in the years ahead.  But I don’t believe that making a translation “permanent” is a great idea for these reasons (in no particular order):

1) What if future archaeological finds include new manuscripts and/or other artifacts that shed new light on Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek?  I’m not an expert at these things, but I know that archaeologists and scholars are hard at work in these areas, so it won’t be surprising if their findings impact Bible translation (either in manuscript evidence or new language insights).  Making a Bible translation permanent means it will not change even if there are helpful archaeological and scholarly contributions to the field.

2) What happens when the English language changes in twenty or thirty years?  Some of the ESV grammar and syntax is already wooden and dated.  In the years ahead as English morphs and transforms, the ESV will sound even more wooden and dated.  As one Themelios reviewer noted back in 2004,

The language [in the ESV] is not archaic in the sense of preserving vocabulary items no longer understood, or obsolete forms like thee and thou. But in its syntax it is certainly not modern either, and the long sentences in for instance Luke 1:68–79 are not at all easy to read aloud well.

The Preface claims that ‘the ESV is equally suited for public reading and preaching, for private reading and reflection, for both academic and devotional study, and for Scripture memorization’. Such an (over-) ambitious claim on the one hand inevitably limits the potential readership to those who are already committed and well educated Christian believers, and on the other hand virtually excludes ESV from use by the less educated and by unbelievers—that is to say by the large majority of the population.

If this was true – or even partially true – in 2002, wouldn’t these issues be even worse in 2034 or 2044?   (As a related side note, I’m disappointed that Numbers 11:17 – where the Holy Spirit seems to be called “it”- is forever sealed in the ESV translation.)

3) The language of “Permanent Text” sounds a bit too lofty.  I realize the publisher and committee probably didn’t mean to convey this idea, but to me it sounds slightly “KJV-Only-ish.”  No translation of the Bible is perfect; even those of us who are conservative Christians should be wiling to tweak a translation if there are compelling reasons to do so.  It’s not necessarily a liberal move to revisit a translation.  Freezing the text makes it sound like “We’ve arrived.” I hope and pray people who use the Permanent Text of the ESV won’t implicitly or explicitly adopt an “ESV Only” mindset.

I’m calling this critique a “soft” one because I’m not throwing the ESV out, nor am I going to tell people not to use it.  I’m not at all anti-ESV.  I will still use it, quote it, and I do still appreciate it as a faithful and good translation of Scripture.  However, I believe a “Permanent Text” will mean a “Dated Text” in not too long a time.
(The above quote was taken from David J. Clark, “Review of The Holy Bible: English Standard Version,” Themelios 29, no. 3 (2004): 62.)
Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

4 thoughts on “The “Permanent Text” of the ESV: A Soft Critique (Updated)”

  1. My objection to the ESV is the Scofield-like headings of parts of each chapter. Let me decide how the chapter should be divided, if at all. But the non-versified version is very handy. It reads well and is comprehensible to children. Whether they make it permanent or not, I will still continue to use it as my primary English text.


  2. Of course the ESV and any other new translation can never have a “Permanent Text” because there are potentially older texts out there just waiting to be discovered with more verses needed cutting out or words changed. One wonders why the Shepherd of Hermas is not in the ESV since it is in the Sinaiticus which is the base Greek of the ESV. One wonders also why the ESV contains the last verses of Mark and the pericope of John 8 when the Sinaiticus cuts them out. Including them is not being faithful to the Sinaiticus. The ESV itself is a revision of the NRSV which is a revision of the RSV which is a revision of the KJV. When does the cycle stop? Better to just stick with a real Reformation Bible like the KJV or the Geneva which are based on the best Greek texts, translated with the best scholarship, stamped with the blood of martyrs, and have born much fruit. The same Greek texts which are still used by the Greek church today. No need to go searching the waste bins of desert monasteries for God’s word.


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