Does the ESV Have an Agenda?

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My brother responded to my post about Ben Witherington and the ESV via email, saying that the ESV most definitely arose from an agenda, and I thought it might be worth clearing up what I'm saying and what I'm not saying. I was aware of the ESV agenda he refers to. He's right. They had a deliberate agenda in initiating the work that led to the creation of the ESV. That agenda had nothing to do with inclusive language translations, however. I wasn't thinking in that direction, because my focus was on gender translation. The ESV agenda was to make a more conservative-friendly RSV. They wanted a translation much like the RSV but without some of what they viewed as liberalizing tendencies in the RSV. The two most notable of those were the Isaiah 7 "virgin/young woman" issue and the removal of any reference to propitiation, which the ESV was designed to fix. By the time they had a translation, though, it had ended up being much more than a straightforward conservatizing of the RSV with updates in style. As I noted in my previous post, they paid a good deal of attention to recent developments in text criticism, comparative linguistics, and all the usual factors that would influence a new translation to improve upon an older one. It became a new translation in its own right because of the work of some very good scholars who insisted on revising a lot more in the RSV than the original agenda had in mind.

I want to stress that, while I'm admitting that they had an agenda, this agenda was not primarily to do with gender. That's something a few people who were involved later made an issue. This was only after the TNIV issues become hotly debated, and it mostly was about how some people were promoting the ESV, not primarily about how they went about translating it. Most or all of the translation work had already been completed when the TNIV issue exploded, and the ESV people began their efforts to promote the ESV as a non-inclusive language alternative. These efforts had the immediate effect of convincing some people (including a friend of mine) that this was Grudem's own translation, and they dismissed his arguments against the TNIV on the grounds that he was saying it merely to promote his own translation. No, the arguments are to be dismissed because they are bad arguments, not because the ESV is Grudem's translation. He might have had some influence on how it came to take the form it took, but it's not his translation, not all the translators share his views, and the agenda of the ESV committee was not about this issue at all during the actual translation process. At best, that was a promotional agenda taking advantage of the irrational mass hysteria against the TNIV. A number of its translators did favor non-inclusive translation in general when they translated it, but that wasn't the initial reason for the ESV, as Witherington suggests, and that view isn't necessarily as extreme as Grudem's even on that issue. For some it is. For some on that committee it isn't. For a few on that committee, even the moderate opposition to inclusive translation is wrongheaded. So Witherington is claiming that he knows how the ESV originated, but these statements just sound to me as if he doesn't in fact know very much about how it originated. That's why I think he sounds just like those who claim that the TNIV stems from radical feminists who want to impose an ultra-feminist agenda on the Bible in their translation. Both claims are simply false.

I should also mention, also per my brother's email, that many translations Witherington would have no problem with originated from an ideological agenda. The NIV, in fact, began as a response to the same tendencies in the RSV that spurred the ESV revision. It just turned out that several things the NIV did annoyed some of the people who didn't like these aspects of the RSV, and they wanted something more formally equivalent. The NASB agenda was thus born. Over the years some found that translation too formally equivalent. It just doesn't read like English. Thus the ESV agenda began, which wanted more of the classic KJV style with modern readability and less formal exactness to Greek and Hebrew word order than the NASB. Others wanted KJV style but modern readability with a very fomalistic translation of the faulty textual basis of the KJV. That was the basis of the NKJV agenda. The JPS translation began as an effort to have a distinctly Jewish translation not tainted by how Christians have interpreted the Hebrew Bible.

So lots of translations begin from an agenda. Sometimes that's fine. Sometimes it's not. My point was that the agenda Witherington posits for the ESV was not the agenda it had. Some who translated for them would have refused to do it if it had been. Those issues came to the forefront in its promotion, but the translation process wasn't about gender issues. It was about de-liberalizing the RSV. Both the TNIV and the ESV have come to represent two opposing views on gender neutral translation, but neither one came about primarily because of such issues. The main goal of the TNIV was to update the NIV, to correct errors and outdated views captured by its renderings, and to keep up with new scholarship. In the process, they made more changes to make it less dynamically equivalent than they did to make it more dynamic, and they also decided to be consistent with their dynamic translation philosophy with respect to the sense of gender-neutral masculine terms. The latter is what has come to symbolize the changes in the TNIV, but that wasn't its primary agenda. That's why I think those who portray either translation as if it was basically about such issues is simply speaking from ignorance. I think Witherington showed some clear ignorance about the ESV in some of his claims (particularly the one about text criticism), so it doesn't surprise me if he doesn't know its history very well.

11 Comments

Jeremy,

Have you followed the Danvers statement, 1989, and the Colorado Springs statement, 1997? These predate the ESV and are guidelines for it. Do you doubt the influence of the CBMW, on the ESV. Look at who is the general editor and check his affiliation. You can follow this up yourself.

On the guidelines,

http://www.cbmw.org/resources/nivi/guidelines.php

Read in particular A #5 and B #3 and then check to see if the ESV abides by this. Compare the Greek and the ESV sometime.

Also these guidelines conflict with the translation philosophy. Because of these conflicting interests, 1) to be literal, and 2) to keep to their gender guidelines, and 3) to update and use plain English, they switch words for 'anthropos' from one verse to the next.

For me, it is not a negative thing for the ESV to use non-inclusive language, if that is their goal. I have no problem with that. It is the uneveness with which they apply this rule and how they have, unwittingly I believe, masked Biblical language around Jesus' humanity that is a problem.

And, yes, most if not all translations have an ideological agenda, I believe that.

I am disappointed, however, that you continue to let incorrect information about my post stand. I did not present examples of how *different translators* for the ESV translated 'anthropos'. I presented examples of what the editors decided to do on purpose to try and meet their conflicting goals. I think they tried to do too many things at once. So do we all. I only intended to highlight this so people could understand the issue of how the ESV deals with the Greek .

Most of these concerns have been addressed in my latest comment on the original post. I won't repeat what I said there, since you seem completely satisfied by it.

I paid some attention to those statements when they were issued, but it's been a while since I've paid much attention to them, and I don't remember the details.

I didn't say the gender translation issue played no role in how the ESV was translated. I said it wasn't the original consideration for doing a new translation, and I said some of the translators don't even share that perspective. I also said the view assumed by the official translation philosophy of the ESV is not the view Grudem holds, which is more extreme. Yet the ESV is being misrepresented as the translation of Grudem and of those who adopt his more extreme view.

The problems in masking Jesus' humanity and/or divinity arise in some of the TNIV's renderings as well. That was one of my points. Either translation philosophy can result in loss of information that is in the original. It's not particular to gender-neutral or gender-specific translation, because matching form doesn't mean matching the sense of the original, but matching the sense of what the form doesn't convey doesn't mean you lose some of the sense by not matching the form.

Hi Jeremy,

Yes, I regret that I was drawn into saying so much but I think some things are cleared up.

However, the general editor of the ESV has been involved in the CBNW from 1989 on so I think it is not to be discounted. The guidelines which I linked to were all established before the ESV was translated. I would not call it an agenda but certainly an ideological position, fair enough, but that is what Witherington also sees.

However, I agree that masking information can happen in any translation, and does occur in both the ESV and the TNIV, which is why I am so surprised that the ESV has criticized the TNIV for this. I wanted to point out how that happens in the ESV to better explain that they should not find this a fault in other translations.

In any case I had no intention of saying all this in my post. As I said, I like the KJV for its traditional language especially at Christmas. I have significant amounts of it memorized, and I like 'brethren' as a term of egalitarian spirit and family belonging.

I went from the KJV to reading Greek, then picked up the Good News Bible for working with children, and then read the ESV and was surprised by its translations of anthropos, uios, and adelphos, etc. They didn't seem to relate to what I was familiar with in English or Greek.

But that is a personal preference.

Jeremy, you wrote that "while I'm admitting that they had an agenda, this agenda was not primarily to do with gender." But did anyone actually say that it was? You were very hard on Ben Witherington for accusing the ESV translators of having an agenda. When Ben wrote in his posting "the ESV-- an attempt to push back the clock and the culture in the direction of the old KJV", he was saying as you do that the ESV translators had an agenda, but did not mention gender - except in a later comment in reply to a question about gender related language. You wrote: "The ESV agenda was to make a more conservative-friendly RSV. They wanted a translation much like the RSV but without some of what they viewed as liberalizing tendencies in the RSV." Liberalising tendencies relative to what? Not the KJV by any chance? In practice it seems that most of the changes from RSV to ESV take it back "in the direction of the old KJV". So now, it seems to me, there is hardly a whisker of difference between your position and Witherington's. In that case, surely you owe him an apology.

No, he's quite clear in his first comment that explains this that the agenda he had in mind was a gender one. He said, "Unfortunately it has an agenda to make the Bible less gender inclusive than it actually is." As I've argued, such a view is as ridiculous as the view that gender-inclusive translations are neutering the Bible. It's simply over-the-top rhetoric and incredibly suprising from a top-notch scholar.

Liberalising tendencies relative to what? Not the KJV by any chance?

Well, it happens to be liberal relative to the KJV, but the liberlizing tendencies weren't primarily translation issues. They were theological. I mentioned two of those issues. They thought the RSV translation of Isaiah 7 undermined the doctrine of the virgin birth. They thought the removal or 'propitiation' from the RSV undermined the doctrine of penal atonement. The RSV was liberal with respect to what we now call evangelicalism (what used to be called fundamentalism before the media hijacked the term as intrinsically negative). A number of translations preceded the RSV that didn't have those features. The ASV didn't, for instance.

Your last statement is simply false. Most of the changes I've been able to detect in the ESV are due to advances in contemporary linguistics, comparative semantics, textual criticism, new understandings of grammatical expressions, and (surprise, surprise) updating of language to a more contemporary style. You're acting as if the removal of those liberalizing tendencies amounts to the whole of the ESV translators' work, when in fact it amounts to an extremely small portion of it. You sound as ignorant about the ESV as Witherington does. I hear it alongside the RSV every Sunday, and most of the places where it diverges seem to me to be more of a contemporary English. When I've read it alongside a commentary, I've noticed that it often includes a reading that's fairly innovative compared to the older translations. None of what you're saying fits with anything I know about the ESV.

A part of the ESV translators' agenda was concerned with gender-related language. And you have agreed this: "this agenda was not primarily to do with gender", which implies that it was secondarily so. And Ben Witherington never said anything else; he never said this was their only or whole agenda, only that it was "an agenda" which they had. Your problem comes because you assume that Witherington's later comment (with which I do have some problems, but like many comments it was probably written rather quickly) controls the interpretation of his earlier posting, rather than perhaps being an additional point concerning a partially separate or seconadary agenda. If there is ambiguity here, have you tried to clarify it with Witherington? I don't see any comments from you on his posting. Surely you should check that you have understood him correctly before launching a public campaign of vilification against him. Indeed your personalised campaign sounds rather like some of the smear campaigns against TNIV and its supporters which you started by condemning.

I am glad to hear that ESV does have some stylistic improvements in its language which do not move it in the direction of KJV, and which are not related to removing liberalising tendencies either. But this proves nothing about the translators' or revisers' agenda, only that any group of competent revisers will make some changes which are not directly related to the main agenda for their work. After all, to use your words, "The ESV agenda was to make a more conservative-friendly RSV ... without some of what they viewed as liberalizing tendencies" does not imply even to you that "the removal of those liberalizing tendencies amounts to the whole of the ESV translators' work". My point, however, related to the theologically significant changes in ESV which can be considered removal of liberalising tendences, like "young woman" to "virgin" and "expiation" to "propitiation". Thes changes seem to be reversions to the KJV (and ASV) wording, even when they are theologically inappropriate ("virgin", which cannot be the meaning in the Old Testament context) or incomprehensible to 99% of readers ("propitiation").

I would also like to complain about the hijacking of the term "evangelicalism", a term which goes back to the low church Bible-believing Anglicans of the 18th and 19th centuries and whose tradition I follow, by fundamentalists who have a fundamentally different perception of the Christian faith based on an unscholarly and inerrantist approach to the Bible.

Anyone who wants to attach the word 'unscholarly' to inerrantism doesn't understand the view. There are some views that people call inerrantism that I would agree are unscholarly. That's not, however, the classic inerrantist view of, say, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, or most evangelical scholars (!) today. Most evangelicals even in general hold to the latter, not the former, at least when pressed for clarification. Those who hold to the former continue to call themselves fundamentalists. The larger category of fundamentalism once include both groups. I know there are those who have popularized a gross misrepresentation of this (N.T Wright and George Marsden come to mind, and D.A. Carson says that he knows from personal experience that Wright knows better, which leaves him baffled at why he would put forth such slanderous claims). Anyway, I suggest you learn what inerrantists actually hold before tarring it with anti-intellectualism.

As for Witherington, maybe I just haven't been clear. He says the ESV "has an agenda to make the Bible less gender inclusive than it actually is." I thought I'd been clear about why I think that's a misdescription of what the ESV is doing and of what the ESV translators' motives are. They're not trying to hide something in the text. They're trying to retain something that they (rightly in my view) think the TNIV obscures. Even if it's true (and it is, in my view) that the TNIV brings something out that the ESV obscures, the ESV motivations are not to hide the truth, which is exactly what his description claims their agenda to be. That's an irresponsible claim.

The main reason I didn't want to deal with it in his comments is because the comment I was writing out got long enough that I decided to post about it here instead. He doesn't have trackbacks at his blog, or I would have sent him one. Second, none of the linguistics facts I've been talking about should be news to him. It's not as if he doesn't know anything about how the Greek and English languages work. Third, his post was mainly about other things, and I didn't want to monopolize his comments with a discussion that I knew would largely be taken up by other people than him about details that most readers of his post won't want to wade through. Fourth, my main point has been made in the comments, and his responses to it have been disappointing. I didn't see how a further comment saying the same thing would change much.

Personalized campaign? I wrote one post on it, with a followup that mainly consisted of a correction and a clarification. Search my archives to see how many posts I have on those who pretend the TNIV stems from an evil agenda, and rethink your claim. You're acting as if I'm obsessed with this and have continued to post new things on it daily for weeks. I would have left it at that if people didn't keep coming here acting as if I'm saying things I'm not saying or trying to change what Witherington said into something weaker than what I see every time I keep going back there.

If you think "virgin" is inappropriate to the Isaiah context, you just betray a knowledge only of one side of the issue. I suggest you look at Alec Motyer's commentary for a defense of the traditional view. If you've got some sort of anti-supernaturalist objection (which I find funny for someone to claim about the Bible, of all things), then I'm just not going to bother. Christianity has no place for that. Even so, one point most people seem to ignore is that a virgin can conceive in her first sexual act, and therefore no one would necessarily think anything must be miraculous about a virgin conceiving. It happens all the time on wedding nights.

As for propitiation, you're right. That term shouldn't be in contemporary translations. It's better than trying to pretend the concept at work isn't penal, though I wish translators would simply translate it as the satisfaction of God's wrath or some such thing. I much prefer the ESV rendering than the RSV one, though, because that changes the meaning rather than simply using a technical term (which isn't a KJV term; it's a Latin term, with a much older origin than the KJV).

Thank you, Jeremy. I agree that there are scholarly inerrantists, whom I respect even when I disagree with them, and unscholarly inerrantists, whom I don't respect. I resent the implications which are now common associating evangelicalism with the more unscholarly kind of inerrantism. I am happier when such inerrantism is described as fundamentalism, because I consider it to be as dangerous as fundamentalism in other religions, especially when used to justify war and other aggression. It is odd that many inerrantists seem to understand "Love your enemy" and "Turn the other cheek" as exceptions to inerrancy!

I take your point that the ESV translators are not trying to make their translation less gender inclusive than they believe that it really is. But surely Witherington meant that they were making it less inclusive than he, Witherington, understands it to be. I could make the same statement as Witherington, although I would try to make it more clearly.

The real issue here is that Witherington and I have one view on such issues, and you and the ESV team have another. As you say of Witherington, "It's not as if he doesn't know anything about how the Greek and English languages work", but this is the kind of allegation I make against Grudem and Poythress, whose flawed analysis of gender-related language in Greek and in English is relied on by many opponents of TNIV, and is the basis for many ESV renderings including the ones which Suzanne objects to.

As for "virgin", I have looked into this in detail and I am well aware of both sides of the argument. My objection is certainly not an anti-supernaturalist one, but rather that the Old Testament should be translated in its own context. But these comments are not the place to go into this in detail. To find out more of my views on this, I suggest that you look at the archives of the b-hebrew list, as on that list I and others have discussed this issue in some detail several times, most recently in April 2005. Maybe I will post about this on Better Bibles Blog.

You say,

"They're not trying to hide something in the text. They're trying to retain something that they (rightly in my view) think the TNIV obscures."

And the ESV obscures some things that both the KJV and the TNIV make clear, that Christ is the mediator between God and the human race.

I repeat this one point tediously - I feel that you have not responded to it yet. In any case, on the Better Bibles Blog today, I have tried to be very even-handed. My views are not so important but uncloaking God's word is.

Peter, my view is not the same one the ESV team has, as I've said all along. It also isn't the view that the TNIV team has. I think both views are partially correct, and both are partially wrong. There's something obscured by the kind of gender translation the TNIV does, and there's something different obscured by the kind of gender translation the ESV does. I doubt many of the ESV translators share that view. I certainly wouldn't say that I'm with them on this issue.

Suzanne, I think you're making the same mistake. I've said that the TNIV sometimes obscures the meaning of the text. You're insisting that the ESV does the same thing. I agree. Yet you're saying it as if it undermines my argument. Every translation does things like that. Pointing out particular examples of it isn't enough to get me to call the whole translation a bad translation. It just means they've done things that aren't the best option in some particular cases.

Also, I don't think you can really make the case that no one could see the mediatorship of Christ in the ESV. There may be one or two places where it's less clear than it otherwise would be, but there are some explicit statements about that in more than one place. I'm not sure you're making this stronger claim, but if you're not then it makes your conclusion a lot weaker. It's not that the ESV obscures this truth. It's that the ESV translation of one or two particular places this truth is taught would obscure it.

Jeremy,

I got the impression earlier that you were saying that the TNIV obscured things and the ESV did not obscure as much - and I am arguing for par. However, we have both worked at defining our positions, which is a good thing.

About the mediator, the ESV could possibly give the impression, except for the footnotes, I must admit, but read aloud, that Christ came as a *man* to be a mediator between God and *men*, because that is what the ESV says. But, of course, we should read it as Christ came as a ~man~ to be a mediator between God and ~men~. If you can read my wavy line as being a */~man~/* who somehow represents *men* and *women* both. Somehow I find it easier to deal with the man/human semantic split myself.

Anyway enough of that! It doesn't really matter what I think of a translation, I am just trying to lay out the pattern of translation in the ESV so I can then think clearly about how it compares to other translations. I am looking for patterns in translations as part of assessing translations. Of course, this is only a tiny bit.

I actually assumed originally that the ESV was more word for word, and maybe it is in general, with reference to pronouns, etc. My expectations of the ESV were that it would be more consistent on gender but I have found that it is not what I expected. Sons and children are mixed, gender does not match actual real life gender if no male doctrinal point is to be made, etc.

Once again that is not necessarily different from the TNIV although I have to go back and reflect on that. I think when people compare transations they have to compare explicit examples, not just generalizataions that they have assumed about one being closer to the Greek.

I think that the fact that the ESV states so many different objectives for their translation, that it be formally equivalent, that it retain Greek gender, except when this and that, and if there is a male referent. It is the weaving together of these sometimes conflicting goals that make it seem uneven and not balanced as you say it is. However, on some points I do find more word for word translation so I will continue to look at it.

I haven't said that the ESV is terrible but just that so far, I find it confusing, and not better than other translations. ESV has an agenda as much as any other translation. If you already agree with their agenda, good. The same with the TNIV. But either way one has to know what the Greek says and comment on it so others who don't read Greek will know which pawns are being moved.

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