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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 ]