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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Ben Witherington on the ESV

In separate posts, Suzanne McCarthy and I both recently linked to Ben Witherington's blog post about what Bible versions he recommends people consider to give as Christmas gifts. Ben wrote two sentences about the ESV in his long post, yet those few words have generated quite a lot of discussion, both on Ben's blog and in comments on this blog.

Here is the entire paragaph in which Ben wrote about the ESV:
Translations to avoid: 1) The New World Translation (this is the Jehovah's Witness translation, and it makes a mess of the Greek in various places; 2) the ESV-- an attempt to push back the clock and the culture in the direction of the old KJV. Go with the NKJV if this is your orientation, its much better; 3) Amplified Bible-- not bad as a tool for Bible study, but too confusing to be read in church or used as a Pew Bible-- its too paraphrastic frankly.
I do not wish to try to divine what was in Ben's mind when he commented on the ESV--I don't think any of us are capable of knowing what is in the minds and motivations of others and this attempt to divine motivations is one of the things which has bothered me so much about the years of anti-TNIV claims. But I can comment on what Ben wrote, from my own perspective. And I would also recommend that for those who have not done so, that they read Ben's entire post. Try to get a feel for what Ben is saying about English Bible versions. Use that context to place some perspective upon his brief comments on the ESV. Also, many comments have been added to Ben's post, far more than there were when I posted my comment there.

Ben lists three versions which, in his opinion, someone should avoid. Some of his blog visitors are rather exercised by the fact that Ben includes the ESV in the same list with the New World Translation. From my perspective, Ben didn't link any of these translations together as being of similar character, other than to say that he doesn't recommend any of them. I'm sure Ben would have quite different kinds of comments to make about each version, if he were to give detailed reasons for not liking each of the versions listed.

Next, some have been concerned because Ben considers that the ESV is "an attempt to push back the clock and the culture in the direction of the old KJV." But those who like the ESV and have been following the anti-TNIV literature and ESV advertising should actually take Ben's comments as an affirmation of the ESV team's claims for their translation. Ben's comments are a kind of compliment for those who like the ESV. Ben considers the ESV to be similar, in some way, to "the old KJV." To Leland Ryken, the ESV literary stylist, and probably many other members of the ESV translation team, to be likened to the KJV would be a good thing, something they desire, a literary style the ESV team deliberately emulated.

One of the first things I noticed when I began to evaluate the ESV was how non-standard its English is. Its English is not at all current English. The ESV uses negative inversions which most English speakers stopped using by about 1740 A.D. Negative inversions were already on the wane (no pun intended!) by the time the KJV was published in 1611 A.D. For those who do not know what negative inversions are, an example would be:
Forget not to follow all the commands of the Lord your God.
English speakers and writers for more than 150 years have preferred the current syntax for negatives:
Do not forget to follow all the commands of the Lord your God.
I have been compiling lists of strange, non-standard English in the ESV. These lists are online and anyone is welcome to read them to see if they agree with me that the phrases I have flagged are odd English for current speakers and writers.

Some people, perhaps many visitors to this blog, like the English of the ESV. And that is fine. Each person has a right to their own literary tastes and opinions. And Ben Witherington has a right to his. He makes it clear that he prefers Bible versions which are written in English that is more current, but not slangy or overly colloquial. That happens to be my preference also. But I don't want to criticize anyone for their literary tastes which differ from mine.

As for Ben's comment about pushing "back ... the culture in the direction of the old KJV," I'm not clear myself what Ben is referring to since he includes the KJV. But in responses to comments on his blog post Ben clarifies that he was referring to the ESV's use of masculine terms for mixed gender groups. For him, as well as for me, this is a concern. English speakers do not refer to women as being part of groups of "brothers." English speakers do not refer to females as being part of groups of "sons." Yet the ESV retains such masculine words for mixed gender groups. Such language is not the language which is spoken or written today, except by small pockets of individuals who believe that there is some special status to males and masculine language within the kingdom of God (see Grudem and Poythress' extended apologetic for such male representative language and theology in their book and book revision on so-called gender-neutral language.)

Once again, men like Dr. Grudem, Dr. Poythress, Dr. Piper, and others who hold to an ideology of male representation in language and theology have every right to do so. But, in my opinion, they should not keep saying that those who disagree with them are in error. They do this with regard to Bible translation when they keep repeating verses which they say are "inaccurate" translated in the TNIV. Dr. Grudem stated in his recent Focus On the Family radio broadcast appearances that the number of "inaccuracies" he and his team has found in the TNIV has not risen from more than 900 to something like 3600. Most of the purported inaccuracies are, as I stated in a recent post, differences of opinion about how to best translate the biblical language text. Many of the best biblical scholars agree with the exegetical decisions made in the TNIV and disagree with those followed by the proponents of male representational language and theology.

The ESV website clearly states that the ESV (unlike other recent versions) retains masculine terminology for gender-inclusive referents. So Ben Witherington's comments should be taken as affirmation that the ESV was successful in its aim to retain a masculine flavor to its translation. Rather than being offended by Ben's comments, ESV advocates should take them as a compliment, from their point-of-view because ESV advocates typically prefer the masculine sound of gender-inclusive reference within the ESV. Many ESV advocates agree with Drs. Grudem and Poythress that there is something special within God's creation about males in terms of a divine hierarchy.

Dr. Jim Dobson never permits anyone to give alternative views on his radio broadcasts about the TNIV. He only permits his large radio audience to hear anti-TNIV comments. Dr. Grudem has campaigned against the TNIV since it was first published. He has every right to do so, but some of us feel that he has not fairly presented all the issues involved in the translation process which result in using current gender-inclusive language for gender-inclusive referents in the biblical texts. We do not have the same kinds of large, influential forums that Dr. Grudem has enjoyed to disseminate his claims against the TNIV. But we can do our part to try to help people understand that accuracy in translation calls for using current gender-inclusive English for gender-inclusive reference in the biblical texts. What could possibly be wrong with such a desire to be accurate in Bible translation? Now, we do want to be fair to the other side, and loving in our words. Both call for us to recognize that Dr. Grudem and those who speak English and believe as he does apparently uses grammatically masculine English words for gender-inclusive reference. And they have every right to do so. They simply are increasingly becoming a part of a linguistic minority as they do so. And if they don't mind that status--or, as Grudem and Poythress prefer to suggest in their book, they can "teach" people the gender-inclusive meanings of the grammatically masculine words--they can do as they feel best.

It is my opinion that those who disagree with the male representation theologians and Bible translation approach should do so with grace and love. I believe that we should never stoop to the level of imputing wrong motives to them, as they often do to the TNIV translators (read the anti-TNIV literature for many such examples). We must never suggest that Dr. Grudem and others who believe like him are misogynists or consider women to be inferior to men. I personally do not believe that they do. I believe that they godly men sincerely believe that they are interpreting the Bible correctly when they say the things they do about men and women, and about males somehow representing the rest of humanity. Theirs is a theology which I do not understand well, but it is one which needs to be explained in much better detail during the current Bible translation debates, because it is such theology which forms the basis for the retention of grammatically masculine language for mixed gender groups in the ESV and HCSB, the only two recent English Bible versions which fully conform to the Colorado Springs Guidelines for Bible translation, developed under the sponsorship of Jim Dobson of Focus on the Family.

As Rodney King pleaded once, "Can't we all just learn to get along together?" That is my plea also as we try to deal with differing opinions about how best to do Bible translation. None of us should judge others in this debate. None of us should question the spirituality or ideology of others. We can present our own ideas, and even do so with academic vigor, but we need to keep that love in the biblical phrase which calls for us to "speak the truth in love."

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At Wed Dec 14, 10:18:00 PM, Blogger Mike said...

hmm. interesting. i really enjoy Mr. Witheringtons writing. I also delight in the "nonstandard" english in the ESV. It is... poetic? I use the TNIV or the Message when I speak to groups. I did this hesetantly at first, but realized that I was rendering the test to suit gender equality and current language usage already. so i just went all the way.

at anyrate i don't know why i felt the need to say all this. so i will go now.

At Thu Dec 22, 02:49:00 AM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Very helpful discussion, thanks.
I must say, I haven't read the TNIV, but I liked the NIV from an 'ease of reading' standpoint - even if I have troubles with its interpretation of many Pauline passages. I have a small ESV, and the archaic language doesn't bother me in the least - but the gender inclusivity question which you so well overviewed, is a stumbling block for many.
All the best,


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