On the English Standard Version

A friend of mine and I were recently chatting about Romans, and I took the opportunity to remind him that, in writing his dissertation about Romans, he was writing about the most controversial personality in early Christianity as well as the most controversial author of the most controversial part of the most controversial book in the history of the world.

Although this blog is not about Romans or Paul, I do want to say some words about the English Standard Version, and particularly about the ESV translation of the Gospel According to Mark.

First, that word “standard.”  Who exactly has the right to say that one particular translation is “standard”?  For whom is a particular translation of the Bible “standard”?  Are there criteria for determining one translation to be “standard” and others “substandard” or “extraneous” or something that would be the opposite of “standard”?

I used to teach New Testament at Codrington College in Barbados.  We were blessed (or not) with an old hymnal called Hymns Ancient and Modern: Standard Edition.  That use of “standard” was because there was the original edition in the 1860s, followed by two supplements, and then afterwards, in 1916, the “Standard Edition” was issued which included the original edition together with both supplements.  A revised edition was issued in the 1950s called Hymns Ancient and Modern Revised, and in the 1980s, an edition was issued called Hymns Ancient and Modern: New Standard.

Perhaps the problem is that after you have spent years revising or translating something, you’d like your edition to become the standard, indeed with the goal of discouraging others from doing something similar to what you’ve done.

Or maybe you’re the King of England, and when you organize the work of a new translation of the Bible with a bunch of scholars, as part of your effort to quiet religious dissent, you just want the thing printed without any more folderol from others, including Puritans or Parliament, so you order its publication, and it becomes known as the “Authorised Version.”

Unless you have the power to enforce the use of your translation or hymnal over others, what’s the point of using the word “standard”?

The English Standard Version was published in 2001 by Crossway.  It is a translation of a group of Evangelical scholars.  It used the Revised Standard Version of 1971 (meaning the Old Testament of 1952 and the second edition New Testament of 1971) as its starting point.  The committee who started the work on the ESV asked for and received permission from the Revised Standard Version Committee to make a revision of the RSV.  A similar permission was given by the New Revised Standard Version Committee to British scholars to produce an “Anglicised Edition” (meaning with British spellings and idiomatic expressions) of the NRSV.

The ESV very frequently reads like the RSV, with some updating.  I was interested to notice that the ESV prints Mark 16:9-20 in the text of Mark, not in a footnote, but does include this note:  “[Some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20.]”  And the editors of the ESV have printed the text of Mark 16:9-20 within double square brackets, which The ESV Study Bible says means the editors were “showing their doubts as to whether it was originally part of what Mark wrote, but also recognizing its long history of acceptance by many in the church” (p. 1933).  So there seems to be a tendency towards accepting traditional judgments on historical-critical questions about the Bible, with the editors sometimes giving equal standing to both sides of the questions—even when quite a majority of scholars have rejected the traditional judgment.

A case in point is the handling or mishandling of the phenomenon of pseudonymity in the letters of the New Testament.  The editors of The ESV Study Bible are firmly against the idea that there is any pseudonymity in the New Testament.  In their introduction to 2 Thessalonians, they state: “A careful evaluation of these objections [against Pauline authorship of 2 Thessalonians], however, supports the conclusion that Paul was in fact the writer of 2 Thessalonians.  The duplicity entailed in the forgery hypothesis (see 3:17) is hardly credible” (p. 2313).

Yet the majority of critical New Testament scholars do accept that 2 Thessalonians is pseudonymous, and the very large majority of New Testament scholars accept that the Pastoral Epistles are pseudonymous, along with Colossians and Ephesians.  This means that there was pseudonymity in the New Testament, whether or not modern scholars are happy about that or not.  For my own view of pseudonymity see my article, “Pseudonymity as Rhetoric: A Prologomenon to the Study of Pauline Pseudepigrapha,” in Rhetorics in the New Millennium: Promise and Fulfillment, edited by James D. Hester and J. David Hester (Studies in Antiquity and Christianity; New York & London: T. & T. Clark, 2010), pp. 216-34.

The English Standard Version is a solid translation of the Bible.  There are many excellent maps and drawings in The ESV Study Bible.  The notes are often good, sometimes excellent, although at times they are a bit biased towards the conservative evangelical view and do not present the other side of critical questions.  But one may distinguish the ESV translation from The ESV Study Bible.

4 thoughts on “On the English Standard Version

Add yours

  1. Regarding the problems in the notes in the ESV, and the comments in the ESV Study Bible (in current editions), about Mark 16:9-20, see my comments at the “The Text of the Gospels” blog. Several things about the ESV’s treatment of Mk. 16:9-20 are problematic, both in terms of what is stated and what has gone unsaid. Hopefully future editions will correct earlier mistakes.

    Yours in Christ,

    James Snapp, Jr.

    1. I think the maps of that study Bible are gorgeous. What I find biased is that it always takes the conservative evangelical line about authorship of letters in the Pauline corpus and thus the issue of pseudonymity. There are other issues as well. In general it reads like the older RSV.

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