Why I Changed My Bible Translation

It seems like the topic of Bible translations has been coming up a lot recently in conversations I have had with people. This time last year I was due for a new Bible and I decided to make the switch from the ESV to the NRSV. Changing translations always comes with a cost, because certain phrasing that you have become accustomed to in the old translation may not be the same, so I thought I would share the reasons why I made the switch, as well as one factor that was not part of the reason for me.

Not the Reason: Clunky Language

One observation that is often made about the ESV is that the language can be a bit clunky, and it is not the most readable translation. Whilst, I think there is truth in this, it wass not a factor in my decision to change translations.

One of the reasons that I chose the ESV in the first place is that I wanted a translation that was ‘formally equivalent’ (word for word translation) rather than ‘dynamically equivalent’ (idea for idea). I knew that this meant sacrificing a bit of readability in order to see the way the ideas were originally expressed rather than having them filtered through the translator’s interpretation of what was going on, that might get the gist across but would often miss details. As somebody who teaches the word, this was an important factor for me, and one that I wanted to hold on to in whichever translation I ended up using.

Reason One: Gender-Inclusive Language

One of the biggest judgment calls that Bible-translators need to make is whether to translate certain terms in gendered or gender-inclusive ways. There are terms in the original language that use the ‘male’ term but the reference is to both men and women. Examples of this include the Hebrew הָֽאָדָם֙ (hā·’ā·ḏām) in Genesis 1:27 and the Greek ἀδελφοὶ in Romans 12:1 and many other verses. The choice facing the translator is whether to retain the male ‘flavour’ of the words by choosing to translate them as ‘man’ and ‘brothers’ respectively. In English these words can still have application to all, but that usiage is becoming increasingly archaic, and these words often are heard in a more exclusionary way than they are meant.

The alternative is to go for translations such as ‘mankind’ or ‘humanity’ and ‘brothers and sisters’ respectively. Similarly, where a hypothetical individual is referred to using male pronouns, the translator must choose whether to also use the male pronoun in English or choose something more inclusive. The reason to go for something more inclusive would not be to bow to culture but to reflect the fact the the original has both men and women in mind, and to limit the use of gendered language to cases where it is clear that only men or only women are being spoken of.

The ESV is a gendered translation that uses ‘man’ rather than ‘humanity’ and ‘brothers’ rather than ‘brothers and sisters’. For a couple of years prior to switching, I had been growing increasingly uneasy with this. In part this was due to my developing awareness of the inclusive intention of the originals, that didn’t seem to quite come through in a non-inclusive translation. In part it was due to learning from female friends how non-inclusive language could sometimes come across in an exclusionary way and reinforce a sense of ‘otherness’ for them.

Because of these factors, I found myself frequently needing to ‘explain away’ the translation choices of passages that I was teaching on to assure the hearers that the text really did have both men and women in mind. I even found myself pausing mid-reading at times to add ‘and sisters’ or ‘or she’ into the passage that was being read (and I have seen plenty of other Bible teachers instinctively doing the same thing). I can’t think of any other case where I would choose to regularly add words into a passage I am reading, as I have no desire to add to Scripture. The fact that I was doing so here highlighted to me my lack of confidence that the gendered translation accurately reflected the meaning of the text, and made me seek a gender-inclusive translation that more accurately conveyed what the original authors intended to communicate.

Reason Two: Theological Partiality

The second reason was the clincher for me, and that is that I lost confidence that the translation choices made in the ESV were impartial. It is well known that the ESV is strongly linked to complementarian theology, with many of the same names who are involved in the CBMW (Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), which describes itself as the flagship organization for complementarians, also being on the ESV translation committees. The CMBW website lauds the ESV as an ‘unapologetically complementarian’ translation.

This strikes me as odd, and seems to be putting the cart before the horse. Our doctrine should be formed from what Scripture says, and in order to do this we want to see as clearly as possible what the words of Scripture say on their own terms. But when doctrinal positions that have already been reached are brought to bear on the translation choices made, then Scripture is not being heard on its own terms but is being distorted in order to strengthen the case for position already held. My point is not that the Bible doesn’t support complementarianism (indeed, I share some of the arguments for it here – as well as some of the arguments for egalitarianism here). It is simply that the argument should be made from the text and shouldn’t need to inform how the text is translated. If the argument is strong enough then it can stand on its own two feet without the need for a theologically influenced translation.

To show what I mean, consider a couple of texts:

Firstly, Genesis 3:16. As God is explaining the consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin, he addresses the woman. In most Bible translations he says to her, “your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” The original editions of the ESV translated the verse the same way, but in the 2016 update it was amended to “your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” This change twists the meaning from something expressing the brokenness of a good relationship (in a similar way to the thorns of the ground showing the brokenness of humanity’s relationship with creation) to something that more explicitly creates a ‘battle of the sexes’ and frames the problem in terms of contrary desires.

Note – It is sometimes argued that the same word being used in Genesis 4:7 gives precedent for this translation, but the context there is very different, as it is speaking of sin rather than a person. The relational dynamic of Song of Song 7:10 is a closer contextual fit, which would add support to the ‘desire for‘ translation.

Secondly, Romans 12:6-8. These verses are an encouragement to the believers in Rome to make use of the spiritual gifts they have been given. Seven examples are given: prophecy, service, teaching, exhorting, giving, leading and mercy. In the ESV, the verses are translated this way:

6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Note the way these gifts are introduced here. the first two are introduced with a gender-inclusive pronoun (our). The second two have the male pronoun (his) included. The final three are back to being constructed in gender inclusive ways. This translation gives the impression that teaching and exhortation are activities only for men, whereas the other five gifts mentioned are for everybody. This is not the case in the Greek however (the final five are all made up of a nominative masculine singular article followed by a nominative masculine singular verb). The reason for such inconsistency in translation can only be theological, but for pre-determined theology to distort what the text is saying in such a way is inexcusable, and noticing the way this passage had been translated was the final element in my choice to switch over to the NRSV,