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Friday, September 29, 2006

Singular "they" in ESV!! 1 John 3:24

After all we have heard from the ESV team complaining about singular "they" in TNIV, I was amazed to find a singular "they" in ESV!! Yes, really!! Look at 1 John 3:24 ESV (my emphasis):
Whoever keeps his commandments abides in him, and he in them. And by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us.
What does "them" refer back to? Readers, especially those who don't use singular "they" or don't expect to find it in a Bible whose translators have rejected this construction, may try to understand "them" as referring to "his commandments". But the Greek cannot possibly mean that, for the Greek pronoun rendered "them" is unambiguously singular!

A literal translation of the Greek (there are no textual issues here) would be (my emphasis):
And the one keeping his commands remains in him, and he in him. ...
Now this literal translation is rather confusing, as to which "him" refers to the person and which to God. And so it is not surprising that RSV changed to a plural for the person:
All who keep his commandments abide in him, and he in them. ...
NIV and TNIV similarly use a plural form (and not a singular "they"):
Those who keep his commands live in him, and he in them. ...
(This is TNIV; NIV has "obey" rather than "keep".)

The ESV translators, or revisers of RSV, obviously tried to follow their principles of not changing singulars to plurals. But they failed to do so consistently. As a result they have ended up with the word "them" which can only refer back to "Whoever", which must be singular as it is used with the singular verb form "abides". Therefore this is an unambiguous example of singular "they", not in study notes but in the actual text of ESV!

PS: I didn't find this by reading ESV. I was looking at this passage in the Greek and in RSV, and wondered what ESV might have made of this. Only then did I look it up.

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At Fri Sep 29, 03:04:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Peter you are quite the biblical sleuth! And you're obviously very excited with this find because you used double exclamation marks in the title.

But you're exactly right. The first thing I did was look at the Greek and the ESV translators have undeniably changed αὐτῷ to a plural. I have to admit that I'm surprised.

At Fri Sep 29, 03:27:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I noted that the NET Bible uses generic "he" here (which the CSG calls for, although the NET translators did not consciously follow the CSG) and is accurate with person and number as:

"And the person who keeps his commandments resides in God, and God in him."

The HCSB, which does intentionally follow the CSG, is also accurate:

"The one who keeps His commands remains in Him, and He in him. And the way we know that He remains in us is from the Spirit He has given us."

At Fri Sep 29, 04:05:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

HCSB can get away with this, but not when read out loud, because it uses capital letters for divine persons.

NET's solution made me think more carefully about which divine person is referred to here, and indeed it must be God (the Father), as in verse 22 and also 4:15,16. In John 15:4-7 and probably 1 John 2:6 we read about remaining (abiding) in Christ, but in 1 John 2:24 we are abiding in both the Father and the Son. 2:27,28 seem ambiguous, but by 3:6 John is clearly writing about abiding in God the Father, and so also in 3:24, 4:13,15,16. So I should correct "which "him" refers to the person and which to Jesus Christ".

At Fri Sep 29, 06:51:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

My problem is that the people who complain about singular "they" do not represent the ESV translation committee but simply advocate for the ESV. The translation committee doesn't take a stance on that issue except that they agree to avoid it because of the kind of translation it is. Since several of the people on the committee were involved with the TNIV or NLT, it's a little strange to take Grudem, Poythress, or Ryken as if they are the ESV translators.

At Fri Sep 29, 07:13:00 PM, Blogger R. Mansfield said...

Grudem, Poythress, and Ryken were all on the Translation Oversight Committee of the ESV. Ryken held the title of "Literary Chairman."

At Fri Sep 29, 08:06:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Here is one of the examples that Poythress discusses in this paper.

1 John 4:16:

NIV: ... Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him.
TNIV: ... Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.

CHANGE: TNIV opens the door to a corporate interpretation, in which God dwells in the group, not in each individual.9

I guess you could say that the ESV supports a corporate interpretation in 1 John 3:24.

This represents his feelings on the subject,

One cannot have confidence as to where one is reading the pure word of God, and where one is reading something that is close to being the word of God, but with some small alterations. That is disturbing for anyone who deeply values the word of God.

At Fri Sep 29, 08:32:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Jeremy said:

it's a little strange to take Grudem, Poythress, or Ryken as if they are the ESV translators

I don't think it is strange to note inconsistencies between what P&G advocate and what appears in the ESV. Dr. Grudem himself says that he was one of the main people who started the ESV translation. He and Dr. Poythress are very powerful figures speaking for the kind of language found in the ESV. They are the most vocal advocates against the TNIV. They are powerful voices for the ESV. Google on their names and you can see their relationship to both translations.

Yes, other people were on the ESV committee. But I doubt that anyone else had as much influence on the translation itself as P&G did. They and Dr. Ryken continue to publish on this topic. Dr. Grudem continues his campaign which results in an essential boycott of the TNIV in evangelical bookstores throughout the U.S. He has repeatedly mentioned intimately involved he was in the process of translation of the ESV, checking "every version" is how I remember him referring to it.

Now, it may be that the use of singular "they" in 1 John 3:24 was unintended. It might be an oversight. If so, the ESV revision committee will likely change it.

But it is still significant that it is there in the ESV for the very reason that its most vocal translators have protested so strongly at use of singular "they" in the TNIV.

At Fri Sep 29, 10:13:00 PM, Blogger Brian said...

funny how things like this won't be posted on the ESV blog site huh?

At Fri Sep 29, 10:14:00 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...


Good you pointed out that mistake by the ESV team, so that they can correct it. Surely they won't leave that there!

At Sat Sep 30, 12:44:00 AM, Blogger Chuck Grantham said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Sat Sep 30, 04:14:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Ted and Wayne, you may be right that this is a mistake which the ESV team would have corrected if they had spotted it. I expect them to say that now, if they say anything at all. For this does go against their regular practice of using "he" rather than "they" to refer back to "whoever" and "anyone". I have checked quickly through other examples of "whoever" and "anyone" in the ESV New Testament (using the search facility on their website), and cannot find any more singular "they"s.

But the ESV team do need to put their own house in order before criticising other translations, especially for almost identical renderings in the close context as Poythress does in the article which Suzanne linked to. Poythress writes: "Is Today's New International Version (TNIV) a trustworthy Bible translation? I think not." By Poythress' own criterion, the unacceptability of "Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them" because it "opens the door to a corporate interpretation", we have to conclude that ESV is also not a trustworthy Bible translation.

At Sat Sep 30, 08:28:00 AM, Blogger Brian said...

it is sad to see evangelicals in general emphasizing exclusivity and back away from a more inclusive approach to scripture. I find the TNIV's rendering much more inviting and open to "whoever." Insisting on a more exclusive rendering seems to me to miss the point of the text, unless I misunderstand it myself. Was not I John written to corporate group?

At Tue Oct 03, 04:43:00 AM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

I have no problem criticizing Grudem, Poythress, and Ryken on this matter. They sure deserve such criticism. Their view on this issue is very loud but linguistically insensitive, and even if they were right their elevation of it to the level of importance they place it on is way out of proportion with its actual level of importance.

But there are people who agree with them on the content of their view who do not place the same level of importance on the issue. There are also people who do not agree with them on the content of the view but simply prefer a translation that is what they call essentially literal on issues like this. Then there are people who just think we should have a variety of translation styles and are happy to work on any translation they are asked to work on, including the ESV and the TNIV or the ESV and the NLT.

Since people of those types were on the ESV translation committee, it just strikes me as patently unfair to lump all of them into the same category as the three most vocal members of the committee on these issues. It would be like taking a view from the most partisan Republican members of a bi-partisan political committee as representing the whole group, ignoring the concerns of the moderates and Democrats (or the reverse, if you prefer). It may well be that the committee is stacked a little more in favor of one side, but taking that as the view of the committee as a whole, in a way that sounds as if you're saying the whole committee accepts that view, sounds unfair to me.

At Tue Oct 03, 09:08:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Fair enough, Jeremy. It was already clear from Suzanne's interview with Packer that there were some very different views in the ESV team on matters like this. But the team does have to take collective responsibility for the translation, although not for the complaints against singular "they" in TNIV.

The real reason why I wrote about "the ESV team" rather than about named individuals was because I wanted to avoid personalised and ad hominem attacks. So I prefer to use a less personal designation. But perhaps I would have done better to start this post "After all we have heard from prominent members of the ESV team..."

At Wed Oct 25, 12:00:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

I note (thanks to David Dewey on the b-trans list and to Pickle Boy in comments on this blog) that in the latest edition the ESV rendering of this verse has been changed to:

"Whoever keeps his commandments abides in God, and God in him."

So I guess I was not the first person to notice this departure from ESV's usual rendering.

Ted, are you a prophet, or did you already have the reverse interlinear with this correction?


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