The first bible I regularly carried around with me was a compact hardback New International Version. It had no maps and no concordance, but it did have about sixteen full colour glossy photos of modern Bible story locations interspersed in the text. It lived mostly in my school bag and it soon started to fall apart. Hardbacks are not good for carrying around. It got wet on a Duke of Edinburgh award expedition in the hills of mid-Wales and the pages never turned quite right since then. It didn’t really get retired till I decided that having a bible with all its colour photos carefully annotated with stick figure Jesus’—a legacy of lending it to a friend in a sixth form free period— was probably unhelpful in a 11-13’s bible study.
The next bible I used was a black hardback thinline New American Standard Bible that annoyingly had no design on the front or back, after a few months of opening it upside down someone kindly made me a sticker that said “Holy Bible” on it. When I started using this bible I was fully persuaded of the superiority of formal equivalence as a translation method. Regular use of an NASB should soon make you realise that formal equivalence is only useful if the text is comprehendible. It took me four years and the binding falling away at the spine before I accepted this fact.
Just as I moved to London I picked up a Bible in the perfect format, a thinline compact black faux leather ESV and with the help of gaffer tape I’ve been using it for the last four years. The gaffer tape is a bit unneccesary though, I temporarily lost my ESV about two years ago and panicked so ordered two more identical ones off the internet. The format is bang on perfect for a back-pocket, and I was not going to let them go out of stock. One of those two has had varied use; when I’ve mislaid the original or when the wife has wanted us of it. The other sits on the bookshelf pristine, barely out of it’s Amazon cardboard waiting for its call.
And then last week I went online and ordered a leather bound pocket NIV to replace it. It’ll be waiting a long time now. Why switch back now after eight years away from the NIV? There are a few factors playing into it but essentially it comes down to this; have you ever tried to read an ESV out loud? Not in the privacy of your room or during a talk when you’ve had time to wrestle with the text before hand, but over coffee with someone or when you’ve flicked to the passage in response to a question in a small group or during a talk when you’re winging it1. It’s horrible. For a start all copies should come with an oxygen pack to help you regain your breath after one of those string on sentences that the ESV seems to adore. I don’t know what you’d do if you’re one of those people who’s voice gets higher towards the end of the sentence. Start taking singing lessons? Helium?
And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith, stable and steadfast, not shifting from the hope of the gospel that you heard, which has been proclaimed in all creation under heaven, and of which I, Paul, became a minister. (“Colossians 1:21-23”:http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=colossians%201&version=ESV, try saying that after you’ve been for a run.)
And then there’s the tendency to use words that Shakespeare invented, the Victorians abused, and the 20th century gave up for loss.
For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. (“John 3:20”:http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=John%203:20&version=ESV) Lest? Really? What’s wrong with “in case”? And while we’re at “st” words, midst isn’t that great a word either unless you’re writing the script for Off With His Head; a five part BBC drama production about Oliver Cromwell.
And then, then there is the thing they do where to keep the word order or the conjugation or declension of the original text they resort to some wonderfully bizarre constructions:
But you, O LORD, are a shield about me, my glory, and the lifter of my head. (“Psalm 3:3”:http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm%203&version=ESV) Understandably the NIV renders this as
[you] lift up my head.
At times the ESV feels less of a translation into English and more a Greek and Hebrew text dressed up as a Englishman desperately trying to pretend he is from around here because he must be because he supports Tottenham and he saw the Oasis at the Wembley and he doesn’t even grimace while eating pork scratchings2. Maybe I’d be happier with it if I was smarter, or knew Greek or Hebrew, or used it primarily with students, but I don’t, and as a translation I shouldn’t have to worry about translating it again when I’m reading it to people to make sure they can follow it. I read out large chunks of 1 Samuel 3 today to someone from the NIV and I didn’t have to translate down any of it into understandable English. It was brilliant. Don’t get me wrong, the ESV is brilliant for deep study into the text and a great resource but it’s fairly abominable for my day to day use.
1 There is a thin-line between extemporary preaching and winging it, alas I am much familiar with it.
2 The standard criticism of John Owen’s writing was that he thought in Latin and so wrote his English in Latin. His sentence constructs where Latin not English. There’s a similar thing going on with the ESV. While it may have the appearance of English, I’m not quite sure it is.