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Bible Translation as Political Power Move: Social Location and the ESV

I’m currently teaching a three-part seminar among the congregation I serve on biblical interpretation. This is my second time teaching it. This time around, I couldn’t resist adding a few new slides and pages to the introductory section on translation. The occasion for this revision are the recent decisions made by the translation committee of the English Standard Version (ESV) translation of the Bible. I find them to be incredibly serendipitous, since they afford me the opportunity to show participants a powerful and relevant example of how not to translate the Bible.

Back in August, the ESV translation committee issued a statement declaring that they had completed the task entrusted to them by God of translating the Bible. They announced that there would be no more changes made to the ESV, ever. They called this the “Permanent Text.” As you can imagine, in many people’s minds this decision sounded eerily familiar. Was the ESV translation committee pulling a King James?

“The decision now to create the Permanent Text of the ESV was made with equally great care—so that 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.

The number of changes in the new ESV Permanent Text is limited to 52 words (out of more than 775,000 total words in ESV Bible) found in 29 verses (out of more than 31,000 verses in the ESV). […] Thus, with the work of translating the ESV Bible now completed, we would give our work back into the hands of the Lord […]” (1)

I only learned of the ESV Permanent Text when a Christianity Today article was shared by a friend on Facebook. Since Facebook is an infamous venue for satirical articles like those from The Onion or the new Christian satire site The Babylon Bee, I read the article’s headline and laughed out loud. “Since when does Christianity Today write satirical pieces?” I thought. But the headline wasn’t a joke. “After Tweaking 29 Verses, Bible Translation Becomes Unchanging Word of God.” (2) Here’s the humor: the word “translation” necessarily means that the product cannot be the unchanging word of God. So, even if inadvertent, the headline is incredibly ironic. And yet, what the article details is no laughing matter.

“One of the changes the ESV translation committee made, which they were making permanent, was a revision of Genesis 3.16. Christianity Today reported: “Genesis 3:16 was changed from “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” to “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” (3)

Scot McKnight was the first Evangelical theologian I read who addresses this translation choice.

“…in this final revision they have sneaked in a translation that is not only mistaken but potentially dangerously wrong. […] I refer to Genesis 3:16’s use of “contrary to” for the Hebrew el. In the Permanent ESV we have “contrary to” while in the Protestant-like Semper Reformanda ESV we had “for” with “and.” […] This translation turns women and men into contrarians by divine design. The fall means women are to submit to men and men are to rule women, but women will resist the rule. This has moved from subordinationism to female resistance to subordinationism. […] If I read the ESV aright, there is prescription here: women are at war with their men; men are to rule their wives. It is not description but prescription.” (4)

One of the things I teach in my seminar is that who is doing the translating matters. No one reads, interprets, or translates the Bible objectively. Each of us is necessarily and irrevocably subjective. Every person has a “Social Location.”

In my seminar, I projected a slide with photos of each member of the ESV translation committee and asked this question: Notice anything odd?

How_to_Read_the_Bible_Title_Slide.018

How do you think the fact that every member of the translation committee is a white male Complementarian affects their translation choices? Their race, gender, and presuppositions about gender roles affects their translation of the Bible exactly as you’d expect it would.

A few scholars even found their entire sentiment regarding translation laughable and incredibly arrogant.

“Finally, this whole enterprise smacks of incredible arrogance. For a committee to say that they have done the work of translation and that there is no room to improve or change their product means that they think of themselves as infallible translators, creating a “new standard” as the KJV once was. For them to say “Thus, with the work of translating the ESV Bible now completed, we would give our work back into the hands of the Lord…” is to use spiritual language to couch the fact that they think of themselves more highly than they ought to and have falsely given themselves this high honor. Perhaps there will arise a generation of ESV Only people, but in this case they will need a lesson or two on scholarship, textual criticism, translation, and humility.

It’s a disgrace to use God’s name and his honor to promote this translation as a final word. God is not honored by that “gift.” We can only wait to see if the ESV establishes itself as the literary and cultural icon that the KJV became and is—but we strongly doubt it.” (5)

Less than a month after issuing their statement that the ESV would never change again, the committee released a statement completely reversing their course. They apologized for the mistake of trying to make a “permanent text,” but they didn’t comment at all on the verses in question. They simply admitted that translation is a task that is never-ending.

“We have become convinced that this decision [to make the ESV Permanent Text] was a mistake. […] [our goal] …we now see, is not to establish a permanent text but rather to allow for ongoing periodic updating of the text to reflect the realities of biblical scholarship such as textual discoveries or changes in English over time.” (6)

Some Evangelical leaders have applauded the ESV translation committee for this reversal. I’m seeing a lot of that lately. A group of white men with horrible judgment defend their horrible decisions against all opposing opinions and when a critical mass of people are convinced they are wrong, they reverse their decision with a surface-level apology and people applaud them as if they are morally courageous.

Let me be clear: the ESV translation committee has done nothing worthy of praise. Nothing. They have horrible judgment and made a horrible decision and when they were sufficiently condemned and ridiculed for it, reversed their decision to what it should have been all along. That is the opposite of commendable; it’s shameful.

They have done nothing to date to address direct insights like those offered by McKnight that their translation is dangerously wrong. Nothing. Zero. Nada.

I refuse to applaud a bunch of white men who conspired to use their power and privilege to influence millions of American Christians toward their view of gender roles using their significant publishing resources and distribution networks, and when they were embarrassed, decided to walk it back …some. Nope. Not praiseworthy. Shameful.

The ESV is not an example of a pious offering of scholarship unto the Lord. The ESV is a political power move made by white men fighting the culture wars against their foes, the “progressives.”

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  1. ESV Translation Committee, “ESV Permanent Text Edition (2016)” (accessed August 20th, 2016)
    [ https://web.archive.org/web/20160820002244/http://www.esv.org/about/pt-changes ]
  2. Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra, “After Tweaking 29 Verses, Bible Translation Becomes Unchanging Word of God,” Christianity Today (September 9th, 2016) [ http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/september/after-tweaking-29-verses-bible-esv-english-standard-version.html ]
  3. Ibid.
  4. Scot McKnight, “A New Stealth Translation: ESV,” Jesus Creed (September 12th, 2016) [ http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/09/12/the-new-stealth-translation-esv ]
  5. Stanley E. Porter and David I. Yoon, “A Permanent Text of the ESV Bible?
    They Must Be Joking,” Domain Thirty-Three (September 13th, 2016) [ https://domainthirtythree.com/2016/09/13/a-permanent-text-of-the-esv-bible-they-must-be-joking ]
  6. ESV Translation Committee, “Crossway Statement on the ESV Bible Text” (accessed September 12th) [ https://www.crossway.org/blog/2016/09/crossway-statement-on-the-esv-bible-text ]
  • Michael

    Hi TC. I’ve enjoyed your post over the years. In fact I was with you on the ESV post until the last 2 paragraphs. I think it is unfortunate you are judging their motives. I assume they believe they are honoring God and standing for truth just as you and Scot McKnight are. I agree with you and SM that what they have done is not good but that is a different issue that what you are accusing them of.

    The line about white men conspiring to use their power and influence to millions Christian in their political war against progressives; well, do you use your what influence you have to influence christians against those aspects of conservatism (or any ism) you deem destructive, as you should.

    I’m on your side and it is good for you to discuss, but you were overly harsh and divisive in the use of the phrase “a bunch of white men”. Of course, maybe My bias is showing since I’m a white man. All the best to you, Michael

    • Thank you for the charitable tone of your comment, Michael. As you could probably guess, I’m used to much more condemning backlash. But, since you seem genuinely considerate, I think your comment is worth addressing.

      Yes, my rhetoric is harsh in this post. But I don’t believe I’ve been unfair. Here’s why: I don’t claim to know that they are **intentionally** misleading people. I don’t claim that they are self-conscious of their misuse of power and privilege. In fact, I’m fairly certain they are unaware of just how biased and prejudice they are. Most white men are not at all aware of just how much our social location affects everything we do, or how we view the world. Since American society caters to our every preference, we are rarely (if ever) confronted with our biases. And when we are, we typically react defensively as if we’re being attacked. To we who enjoy extreme privilege, equality feels like oppression. I think the Trump phenomenon is exhibit A.

      The ESV translation committee was committed to their Complementarianism long before they set out to make translation choices regarding passages like Genesis 3.16. Rather than decide against their bias, they clearly decided to infuse their bias into their translation choices. They decided that it would be better if they did some interpretation for readers of the Bible, rather than allow readers to do the interpretation themselves. I’m not against all examples of this (e.g. gender-neutral pronouns where the audience is clearly men and women). However, I’m against infusing Genesis 3.16 with Complementarian assumptions with no warrant in the Hebrew (as McKnight pointed out). I think that translation decision (and the many others like it) are examples of this entirely white and male committee “conspiring” (working together to bring about a particular result) to use their considerable social power and privilege to influence millions of people—whether or not they are aware of just how compromised they are by their echo chamber of white male privilege.

      Hope that helps to clarify.

    • Oh, and toward your question “do you use your what influence you have to influence christians against those aspects of conservatism (or any ism) you deem destructive”. Yes, I do. Perhaps the difference is I am upfront about my biases and aware of how they color my choices. I am aware of my social power and privilege in American society. And I actively seek to hear and learn from perspectives other than white men so that my assumptions are challenged. I believe it is only in the light of the diverse perspectives in the body of Christ that we can begin approaching the multi-faceted beauty of the Gospel.

  • Marcus Albert Moreno

    The 2016 edition is a pity. The 2011 edition was easily an improvement over the 2001 and 2007 releases, finally becoming a fully-realized revision of the old RSV rather than merely the Evangelical equivalent of the RSV-CE. (I wasn’t a fan of it until the third edition.) Despite the biases of the translators themselves, it was a good Bible, and I was happy to use it alongside its egalitarian sister translation, the NRSV.

    However, this Permanent Edition is disgusting. If they’d merely decided to stop toying with their translation every few years and let it stand as-is for a few decades, that would be fine by me, but their choice to bring in overt (and exegetically unsound) complementarianism to Genesis 3 as a Trojan Horse and then immediately declare, “We’re not changing it!” is simply shameless.

    Unless the fifth edition reverses this change, I’m not going to bother buying any more ESVs, nor could I bring myself to recommend the translation with conviction as long as this fallacious reading stands. Hopefully, the 2017 edition of the NASB won’t be a similar disappointment.