The Bible, English Standard Version

Cover of an ESV Bible As an Hispanic Christian, my spiritual life was and is still being shaped by the beauty and accuracy of the Spanish Reina-Valera 1960 version of the Holy Bible. This is a version based on the Textus Receptus, and is very literal while exhibiting the best Spanish of the Golden Century (Siglo de Oro). This is what one would call a word-for-word equivalence, or “literal” translation.

After the 1960s, and coincidentally with the advent of estructuralism, pragmatism and post-modernism into the mainstream of literary studies, Eugene A. Nida at the American Bible Society began to advocate a different kind of translation: the “thought-by-thought” translation, more commonly understood as “dynamic equivalence”. Examples of this kind of translation is the Spanish Dios Habla Hoy, and the English versions New Living Translation, New International Version and the Contemporary English Version. But no matter what kind of hype I heard, I never could come to terms with the “dynamic equivalence” translations; they just felt as being extremely patronizing, treating me as unable to think or interpret. Besides that, they felt like “dumbed-down” versions in the sense that they took the “sting” out of Scripture. I know the Bible uses rather strong and forceful language, but in these translations the Bible seemed like baby-talk.

When I moved to the U.S. back in 2000, I was nurtured in the faith by a vibrant, biblical, lively and compassionate community of faith which also took liturgy and worship very seriously, and the worship was, if you understand what I mean, not exactly the ‘Maranatha-Hayford-Garveys’ school. In fact, it was far more into the Vaughan Williams, Howells, Parry, Lauridsen, and others :D. I loved it. I dug it. I craved it. For the first time, a church that had formal worship and did it with a joyful heart! So you might understand my disappointment when I noticed that the Bible version in the pews was the NIV. Yuck! Well, in a way it was understandable. The NIV translation was spearheaded by the denomination (the Christian Reformed Church) and it was regarded like an “in-house” product. People were very proud of it. Okay, I thought. This was the tough one to swallow…

One day, while in my apartment, I had the pleasure to receive a visit from the Church: one elder and one deacon, who were making a standard circuit of pastoral visits of members’ homes. While we were talking, sharing my struggles, concerns, and joys, the elder asked me if I had something to suggest. In fact I had: would you please consider changing your Bible version to something better? I took care of phrasing that request into the most tactful shape possible, and the elder was very interested in why I thought so. He said that it was surprising for me, having English as my second language, to request a Bible that would seem more difficult to grasp than the NIV. I had to explain to him that for me it was far more difficult to relate to Scripture in the NIV than in a more literal version such as the King James’. I was not looking for difficult English; what I wanted is a text that could do more justice to the originals and exhibit a better literary quality. The NIV wasn’t good in any of these areas.

The elder understood, and he then asked me what version would I like to use; to my surprise, the answer proved itself difficult: the New American Standard Bible was very literal, but awkward at times; the Revised Standard Version was liberal, and in fact it was the version used in the Church before the NIV, so it was already dismissed by our people; the King James Version was obviously too outdated. I recommended at that time that the revised NASB be evaluated as a possible replacement, but with an eye open for better arrivals in the field.

That conversation happened in the middle of 2001. Three months later, I found in the campus bookstore a Classic Reference Edition of the The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Seeing this Bible branded as literal, faithful to the originals, readable, and with names such as J.I. Packer and Max Lucado associated to it, I was intrigued. What I found is an excellent translation that is in fact an orthodox revision of the Revised Standard Version, updating the language in several parts, undoing the liberal excesses, and in general giving excellent renderings.

I was really glad to have this Bible with me. Finally, a Bible which I could really understand and relate to, a Bible that is for English what Reina-Valera is for Spanish! The language is modern and very readable; the outlook is faithful to the text, and conservative (e.g., the word propitiation is retained), and in general avoids the plague of political correctness. If only I knew about this Bible version when the elder and deacon visited me!

In several exchanges with my excellent friends Tim and Ed we shared a concern about the increasing commercialism of Bible versions. The English versions that we now use and cherish are almost all copyrighted, and the copyright holders authorize their use only under very restrictive terms. The Lockman Foundation (owner of the NASB) and the International Bible Society (owner of the NIV) are the most egregious examples of this trend. This directly affected us in several ways. In my case, for example, I own a Bible study suite based on the Logos library system, published by the United Bible Societies. But I am unable to use it in GNU/Linux, because there’s no Logos System for it, and the only software available (the SWORD engine published by the CrossWire Bible Society) cannot release these versions in the SWORD format, because the versions are copyrighted and because the CrossWire Bible Society was unable to secure authorization. Similarly, the ESV Bible I got came with a handy CD which had Bible Study software with the texts of the King James Version and the ESV, but I cannot use it, because the software is for Windows, and a GNU/Linux version is not provided. And the ESV does not escape this trend: The text of the ESV is copyrighted, and there’s an authorization to use the text that is also subject to some restrictions.

But there’s an encouraging trend, and signs of hope in the horizon. Crossway Bibles (the ESV publisher) is taking several steps to make the ESV available to everyone as much as possible and you can perceive that they are adopting a copyright policy that is friendlier than those of the NIV and NASB. You can search the Bible from the Web (and even from here; look to the top right corner of the page); you can get it as a RSS feed, email, and now, as a Web service! (For more information, check the ESV Online website. There’s indeed a variety of ways you can get the ESV text).

Additionally, check this from Stephen Smith, Webmaster of the ESV Website:

Sometime soon we plan to make the ESV available in OSIS format through our web service. It's my understanding that Sword can read OSIS files, so you should be able to use your key to access the text that way. We may have to modify the terms of agreement slightly, but I hope that that will be possible.

All in all, I think I’m glad that Crossway is making efforts to ensure a wider availability of the ESV under sensible and reasonable terms. Right now I deem it as the best overall English version of the Bible, and I plan to use it as the primary version of the Bible in this site. The ESV is strongly recommended by this writer.


  1. Allow me to nitpick: the ESV still chops out most of 1 John 5:7 (“The Johannine Comma”). I haven’t had time to check other sensitive texts. I do like the better English, but still prefer the New King James — whose copyright restrictions are probably the worst of the lot. We live in paradox.

  2. Eduardo, you raise some good points. For myself, I vary translations depending on my mood, desire, etc. I love the poetic language of the King James Version (although I also see that as a potential problem since it causes some people to take the Bible as a beautiful poem rather than something that they should listen to the meaning of). I read the NIV for study, since it seems to be pretty literal — although it certainly has failings — but does a good job of moving Greek into natural sounding English. For light reading, I have come to really like the NLT, although the American Bible Society’s CEV is pretty good, and the Message is even nice as a study companion (although not study Bible). I’ve also grown found of the MKJV, whose translator is quite generous about allowing organizations to distribute it (I first discovered it when I wanted a Bible for my Palm, but recently it became available for SWORD too). The WEB, the public domain translation, is also pretty nice and I think it is a bit more literal.

    In other words, I switch a lot (although I stay away from the really terrible ones like the TNIV). 😉 I seem to recall the Southern Baptist Convention just released a translation too — I’ve been meaning to check into that and the ESV.

    Ed: I must admit I’m not terribly familar with the Johannine Comma controversy, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything terribly convincing in its favor (much like I have not seen much to support Mark 16:9-20). It strikes me rather odd, though, that on Bible Gateway there seems to be a footnote included in the NIV denoting the missing part of the verse whereas there does not seem to be one in the ESV translation…

  3. The Johannine Comma should not be a test of a translation.
    While it certainly is an expression of truth related elsewhere
    in scripture, its authenticity has been questioned at least as
    far back as Erasmus. Many good scholars doubt it and as far
    as I am concerned it is completely up to the translators to
    decide whether it is in or out. Neither should be a deal breaker
    when choosing a translation. On a side not I love the ESV.

  4. ESV is the way to go. I have 2 ESV’s, one for my backpack, one for my bed side, ESV software, and a new ESV Bible on order. I do use the NIV still, as it is what is in the pews of my church, but for my own study and for my academic work, I use my ESV. I do use NASB too when working with Greek, but I dislike the NASB by itself because it is so clunky. I also have a New Living Translation that gets quite a bit of reading. I use the NLT when I want to read large segments (like a whole book) of the Bible in a single setting. If I’m trying to get an overview of a subject, the NLT works well, but when I want to dig in deep (or for sermon prep) I use the ESV.

    Big Chris
    Because I said so blog

  5. If the urge moves you, I have recently spent some time producing scripts which will auto-generate a Sword Project-compatible module from texts pulled from Bible Gateway. Significantly, this includes NIV and NASB. I don’t/can’t redistribute modules that my scripts create — that is where I perceive the copyright limitation line lies — but the scripts are certainly available (one tiny little download script, one horrendous slice-n-dice editing script) and the texts are accessible from BG with trivial effort. I have explicitly asked BG about their opinion as to whole-text downloading, and they have yet to reply, after an entire month. (Then again, I also submitted a bug report about content misdelivery in HCSB, and though I received an immediate “I’m forwarding this to the people who can fix it” response, it has again been almost a month and the HCSB text is still mangled. BG seems not to care about a lot.)

    I’m a GnomeSword user, and prefer NASB and NIV, though there is a beta ESV Sword module that I’ve spent a little time using.

    See the scripts link near the end of


  6. Karl, you mention that you are using the gnomesword. I would like to use it too. I use windows also. I have paid for the nasb, amp, and message, but they will not work with gnomesword. Can I get this in gnomesword? Thanks.

  7. Karl: Your idea is wonderful. I would like to learn more about it.

    Mary: you say that you use windows, and that you have paid for certain Bible versions. Can you ellaborate on the programs you use, please?

  8. Hi, It has been a while. I use the NASB study set on windows e-sword and the The Message, Amplified. I would love to see this in gnomesword, but alas, I cannot find it. I did manage to install ESV with gnomesword, but that’s it. As far as I can tell in my research, Lynx modules are not available in NASB and others. I was hoping to bid farewell to The Gates Community, but I guess not. Aren’t we blessed to live in a country with so many biblical options??? I think so.

  9. Apologies for not having checked in here for the last many months.

    First, my website has changed; I sold the old name. See The scripts have gotten far more general, far more complex, and can handle quite a number of texts, including Amp, CEV, NAB, NASB (3 flavors), NET, NIV, NIrV, NKJV, NLT, NRSV, and RSV. For NAB and NET, the appropriate script also generates a companion commentary module containing the notes. And concordances can be generated as well, for any module. (Even with complex search capabilities, I sometimes still find utility in a concordance where I can just look at it and see a tiny slice of context.)

    Dirty little secret: Lockman’s free “QuickBible” windows application contains a VPL (verse per line) text file of NASB. No footnotes, no xrefs, no headings, no nuthin’, but it’s NASB. It can be converted to Sword Project format as-is with a simple invocation of “vpl2mod” (one of the standard command line tools that is part of Sword Project base libs and programs). Then all you need is a suitable .conf in ~/.sword/mods.d. Put nt, nt.vss, ot, and ot.vss in a directory under …/modules/texts/rawtext, edit a .conf, and away you go.

    There is a close-to-release *officially sanctioned* NASB module. The fellow working on it is done with NASB itself, and now must finish up the Hebrew and Greek lexicons, after which time the results will be handed to Lockman Foundation (copyright holder of NASB), from whom it will be available for sale.

    Mary, if you paid for certain modules, they’re almost certainly not Sword Project-format modules. e-Sword is not the same as Sword Project — Sword Project is older, and is cross-platform by design, and is open source software.

    These days, I’m both a developer and project admin for GnomeSword. It now builds and runs in Windows, using the Cygwin environment. See under /pub/sword, if you need it there. Its base environment is still and always Linux, of course, where it is maximally featureful and, frankly, pretty.

    Lately, I’ve actually become most fond of NET Bible. Its notes are wondrous.

    I believe that your biblical options are improving faster under Linux than probably any other platform, unless you really like paying huge sums to Logos, and thus staying with Gates. 🙂

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