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Why is Your ESV Different from My ESV?

Posted in Bible, Life in the Church

By Daniel Baker

Have you had the experience of sitting in a Sunday sermon and reading along in your Bible as the pastor reads a Bible text, only to notice that what he's saying is different from what you're reading? That can be a confusing moment. What's going on there?

Well, assuming you're both looking at the ESV, the English Standard Version of the Bible, this is because the ESV came out with two significant updates in 2007 and 2011. Remember, it was first published in 2001. That first edition took the RSV and reworked it significantly, but then in 2007 and 2011 they came out with a set of updates to the text.

When the 2001 edition was released pastors, scholars, and general readers began to live with the translation. They began to notice places where the original could be better translated or where the English could be reworked to make it more accessible and readable.

This is very normal for a translation of the Bible. Even the King James Version of the Bible had its share of being reworked significantly—but when you start in 1611 those early edits are now a long time ago.

A Few Examples to Compare

Here are two examples of the changes made to the 2007 edition of the ESV:

Ephesians 1:5

  • 2001: He predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…
  • 2007: He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will…

John 6:63

  • 2001: It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail
  • 2007: It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all

As you can see, these changes are fairly subtle. In each case, the change was made to make the English more accurate to the Greek beneath it. Likely, "avail" in John 6:63 was also felt to be less clear than "help."

Here are two places where the 2007 edition was changed for the 2011 edition:

Genesis 6:6

  • 2007: And the LORD was sorry that he had made man…
  • 2011: And the LORD regretted that he had made man...

John 5:31

  • 2007: If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not deemed true.
  • 2011: If I alone bear witness about myself, my testimony is not true.

Again the changes are subtle, and again they are made to make the English more consistent with the Hebrew and Greek of the originals. In Genesis 6:6 "regretted" is likely used because "was sorry" can be confused with God saying, "Oops. I made a mistake on that one." That isn't at all the intent of the passage. Rather, the passage is communicating how our sin has offended God's holiness. In John 5:31, the 2007 edition indicates that if Jesus is his only witness, then others will not perceive that testimony to be true. He is saying more, though. He is saying that if he alone bears witness of himself, his testimony is actually "not true."

How Should We Respond to Such Changes in Our ESV Bibles?

First, it's a good reminder that our English Bibles are only translations. They are not inspired and inerrant. Only the Hebrew and Greek (and Aramaic) originals are inspired by God. Our English Bibles are excellent and helpful translations of the original text. That means that there is no such thing as an inspired "translation." Many are excellent and some are clearly better than others, but none of them are inspired like the autographs are (original manuscripts).

Second, we should also remember that a translation makes a good deal of changes in the early years, much less so in later years. We don't need to imagine that every few years our ESV will change significantly. The 2011 changes were far fewer than the 2007 ones.

Third, God's Word is inspired in its details, not just the big themes. Why bother with changing a specific word in a specific verse? Because the Bible is inspired at that level. Further, since inspired words communicate inspired truths, we should pay attention to exactly how God communicates his truth. Every once in a while in your Bible reading, slow…way…down to catch the nuance of the specific words used in a specific verse. It will help you see the depth and breadth of the word of God.

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