There is a plethora of English Bible translations available today. It seems to me a new version comes out every two years (the latest is the Lexham English Bible). The market for English Bibles is very competitive! Here are some reasons why I have settled on the ESV for public and family use:
As you may or may not know, Bible translations can be compared on a scale or continuum of literacy. The most “literal” translation would reproduce in English the Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic of a Biblical passage in the same exact word order. This would make little sense (e.g., John 3:16 would read “Thus for loved the God the world, that the Son the unique He gave, so that all who believe in Him not perish but have life eternal”). The least literal translations are basically paraphrases which attempt to summarize or restate the original without regard for the original form.
For expository preaching a “more literal” Bible is best. Because I depend heavily on the original languages in my study I prefer to use a translation that puts the reader in a position to consider the original without having to learn Greek and Hebrew. You are welcome! The ESV, NASB, and Holman Christian Standard Bible are some of the most “literal” on the market. No translation is completely literal, as it would not make sense. In fact, in every verse translators have to weigh the trade off between a more literal versus a dynamic translation.
The NASB has been the standard “essentially literal” Bible translation for the last few decades. It was originally published in 1960, and has been updated with minor changes until 1995. The ESV translation was initially completed in 2001, and as such the translators had access to the latest scholarship available. For example, the analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls has only recently filtered down to the level of impacting translation. In some places in the OT the ESV translation team had access to manuscripts and analysis that was not available when the NASB was completed. This is no fault of the NASB translators, it is simply a matter of timing.
Attention to English Style
After the ESV translators worked to ensure faithfulness to the original text, they took great care to consider the English style of their translation. Like the KJV translators 5 centuries ago, they wanted their Bible translation to have a beautiful sound to it. Thus they tested their translation for reading in a public setting and memorization in private. In places where the NASB might seem choppy in English, the ESV translation team tried to improve the English syntax and flow.
Finally, I felt it was very important to consider the staying power of a translation. Not every new translation of the Bible will last. The ESV has enjoyed not only critical acclaim and pastoral endorsements, it has sold well. This means that the ESV is readily available in any Christian book store and in many different formats (children’s Bibles, teen Bibles, various study Bibles, smartphone, etc.).
Best and Worst
One of my least favorite translation choices in the ESV is the rendering of Philippians 2:5, “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.” I take the two prepositional phrases “in/among yourselves” and “in Christ Jesus” to be parallel. I would say, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus.” The ESV translator added the pronoun “yours” to clarify that we have been given the example of the right attitude in Jesus. This is true, but not the best reflection of the original syntax. Even here the meaning of the verse is not greatly affected.
One of my favorite translation choices in the ESV is Ephesians 1:18a, “having the eyes of your hearts enlightened…” It has always frustrated me that the NASB started a new sentence there. This choice made it sound like the opening of the eyes of your hearts was a new prayer request, when in reality it is a subset of the request in 1:17 that we would have the Spirit of wisdom. This was very clear in the ESV translation.
There is no such thing as a perfect translation. You have no doubt heard me say in a sermon “I would prefer to have this verse read like this…” Given that reality, I think the ESV is the best choice in light of all available options for a translation to be used in public reading and preaching. This is not to suggest that other translations are not helpful or necessary. There will be times when the NIV or NLT or even a paraphrase will be needed. The ESV stands on the shoulders of the KJV, the RSV (literally), the NASB, and every English translation that has come before it. No doubt in centuries to come it will need to be updated or replaced. For now, it is an excellent choice for an English Bible.