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Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The ESV and the HCSB

In some comment I read today someone mentioned the ESV (English Standard Version) and the HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible) in the same sentence. I'm getting old enough that I can't remember what the issue was other probably something about the differences between these two recently produced translations. I have been comparing the ESV and HCSB in my mind for several months so I'll share my thoughts with you.

I have carefully studied both of these versions. I did a small amount of editorial work for the ESV team, at their request. From what I can tell, both translation teams used the same "essentially literal" translation philosophy. Both teams carefully followed the Colorado Springs Guidelines For Translation Of Gender-Related Language In Scripture (CSG). No other English translation has done so, although several versions produced before the guidelines were compiled would surely fit those guidelines, also, versions such as the KJV, ASV, and NASB, and, as far as I know, the NIV, as well (which happens to be more male-oriented in the language of several passages than either the HCSB or ESV, precisely because both of the latter teams translated according to the CSG, rather than using "man" for an indefinite person, as the NIV sometimes did).

Translators on both teams subscribe to a very high view of Scripture, including a firm commitment to its infallibility and verbal inerrancy.

The translations differ some in the English used in them. This is largely due to the fact that the ESV is a revision of a translation which was already in existence, the RSV (which was, itself, a revision of the Rock of Integrity, the ASV of 1901). The HCSB is an original translation.

My subjective sense (I have not done the objective research yet required to know for sure) is that the HCSB has fewer obsolete words than does the ESV. As far as I know, in the HCSB there is no use of the obsolete inverted negative word order which is quite frequent in the ESV (retained from the RSV), such as "deny them not to me before I die," (Prov 30:7), rather than the word order which displaced it by 1750 A.D., "do not deny them to me before I did" which happens to be the exact wording of the NRSV for Prov. 30:7. Because reviewers as well as some bloggers have been noting the obsolete word order for negatives in the ESV, I would not be surprised if they will all be revised to the word order for negatives, which has been standard in English for 250 years, perhaps for the 2008 or 2009 ESV editions.

The ESV truly continues the Tyndale-KJV literary tradition. Because of this, those of us who grew up on the KJV, or ASV, or RSV feel comfortable with the ESV. It has a familiar sound, a sound for which in this case it can be said "familiarity breeds affection."

The HCSB does not have that familiar sound, although, like most essentially literal translations, its wordings are not too different from those of the ESV.

As far as I can tell, the level of scholarship was the same on both teams, a high level. Scholars on both teams were absolutely committed to making their translation highly accurate. There were well qualified biblical exegetes on both teams. This can be seen from the lists of names on the teams for each translation.

The HCSB was funded by Lifeway, a publishing house of the Southern Baptist Convention. But only about half of the translators on the HCSB team were Southern Baptists. I have found no Baptist bias in any of the HCSB. Those who produced the HCSB desire for the HCSB to be used by all Christians, not just those within the SBC. The ESV had no denominational affiliation. Its exegetes are from a wide range of denominations.

Both versions can be used without hesitation by anyone who is concerned about accuracy and trustworthiness in translation. I seem to recall that Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, thinks highly of both versions. For anyone wondering whether to use the ESV or the HCSB as a primary version, and does not know how to decide between them, the deciding factor may come down to the kind of language desired. If you want a Bible to have the familiar sound of the KJV tradition, go with the ESV. If you want a version which has fewer obsolete word orders and fewer outdated words, you probably would want to go with the HCSB.

Both versions have a higher reading level than the more idiomatic versions which have been produced. I personally think the reading level of the ESV is at about grade 10 (the typical reading level tests typically focus on word and sentence length and do not usually take into account syntax, word order, or how contemporary the vocabulary is). I would think the HCSB is at about grade 8. Both use literary English which should appeal to a number of serious Bible readers.

In terms of sales strength, the HCSB has been out-selling the ESV by quite a bit. But I don't know how much of that is due to the power of bulk sales from Southern Baptist churches (not all of which are using the HCSB, BTW, since SBC churches are autonomous and can use whichever version they decided to use, but there would be denominational encouragement to use a version which is also found in the denominational curriculum). In the latest sales ranking I have access to, the HCSB remains ranked at number 5 from the top, which is quite good for a version which is only a few years old. The last I heard the ESV was ranked at #14, but it may have moved up some. I have not been able to locate a website which ranks Bible version sales between the #10 spot. If any of you know about one, please let me know. My impression is that the ESV is moving up some in the rankings. Oh, trivia factoid: I see that the July sales rankings have the NIV back in the #1 spot again. It has been displaced by the NKJV for the #1 spot for the last two months that I checked.

I have regularly searched for scholarly reviews of the HCSB and have not found any. I feel bad about that because the HCSB took a lot of time and energy to produce, and it deserves to be reviewed by scholars. Its translators worked hard. The ones I met were wonderful Christian men, pleasant to be with. There are several scholarly reviews of the ESV. I have listed each one that I am aware of on my webpage of ESV links.

I could not give a recommendation one way or the other to someone wondering whether to use either of these versions as their main version, unless I knew more about specifics of their situation. If anyone is a Bible version collector like me, I might just say, "Buy them both, use them both; there is value in reading both and comparing them." In certain situations, I would be able to encourage someone to go with one or the other. For instance if an SBC church is using SBC curriculum with the HCSB in it, I would encourage a questioner to use the HCSB to be in synch with the curriculum, and more so, if the HCSB is also used as the pew Bible. Similarly, if a church has decided to use the ESV as its pulpit and pew Bible, I would encourage the questioner to go with the ESV.

Oh, another trivia factoid: if you do an Internet search on "HCSB" you will get hits for the Holman Christian Standard Bible as well as for the Harper-Collins Study bible.

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