Why the English Standard Version (ESV) is NOT my preferred translation of the Bible

The English Standard Version (ESV) version of the Bible, a newer translation first published in 2001, has been increasing its market share steadily. It has also found an audience among those disappointed with the recent revisions of the New International Version (NIV), possibly the market leader among Bible-believing Christians. Much of this popularity is due to the ESV’s promise of being “an ‘essentially literal’ translation that seeks as far as possible to capture the precise wording of the original text and the personal style of each Bible writer”. However, in one Bible passage at least, the ESV’s presentation is anything but literal. Indeed, the ESV stands alone among commonly accepted Bible translations in its rendering of the passage.

Please click on the link to see a side-by-side comparison between versions of 1 Corinthians 11:3-15.

In all other versions, one can see the words “woman” and “man” consistently translated throughout the passage. However, the ESV is on its own in shifting from “woman” and “man” to “wife” and “husband” respectively in parts of the passage. The ESV translators explained themselves in the relevant footnotes, which clearly displayed their lack of fidelity:

“a. 1 Corinthians 11:3 Greek gun&emacron;. This term may refer to a woman or a wife, depending on the context
b. 1 Corinthians 11:5 In verses 5-13, the Greek word gun&emacron; is translated wife in verses that deal with wearing a veil, a sign of being married in first-century culture”

In footnote a, the translators claimed that the context called for shifting perspectives. If this were so, how come the ESV stands alone in shifting? Should not all other faithful Bible translations employ the same shift in wording? Clearly, the ESV translators are not being literal in their translation work at all here.

In footnote b, the ESV translators admitted to using “cultural factors” in how their translation. However, this is exactly what got the so called “watered-down” translations, such as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) and the NIV’s new revision into trouble. Once we adulterate the word of God and claim that things are said a certain way because of a particular cultural context, we lose the universal truth that is presented in the Bible. Instead, passages that do not fit well with contemporary sensitivities can be dismissed as “that’s the way things were back then, and means nothing today”.

1 Corinthians 11:3-15 is a passage that is commonly dismissed as not relevant to today’s Christian, but that calls for a deeper separate discussion. Here, the focus is on the ESV translators’ errors.

So what’s the big deal with one passage in the entire Bible? The answer is: faithfulness to the Word of God is at stake here. Even the ESV translation admits that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16 ESV). Note that ALL Scripture originate from God, and not “All Scripture except 1 Corinthians 11:3-15”. No matter how one feels about that particular passage, the integrity of translation of God’s Word is relevant to all.

The ESV is an “essentially literal” translation? I think not.


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4 Responses to “Why the English Standard Version (ESV) is NOT my preferred translation of the Bible”

  1. Pierre Rashad Houssney Says:


    I appreciate your passion for faithfulness in Bible translation. I also share that with you. My dad is a Bible translator, and taught me a lot about translation. To this day he is a strong advocate for faithful translation, and is battling against corrupt translations among Muslim people groups.
    Anyway, I want to encourage you to look deeper into things before condemning a translation based on a comparison with other English translations.

    If you talk to anyone who knows Greek, they will tell you that gune means both “woman” and “wife”, and the only way to tell which is the primary meaning is to look at the context in which it is used. This is the same in Hebrew and Arabic. So it’s just not possible to determine 100% of the time which is the intent of the author.

    The translator has to do his/her best to determine the most probable meaning from the text, and where there is ambiguity, a footnote is used. That’s exactly what ESV does in this case.

    And really, other English translations are useful for comparison, but you can’t use them to correct any translation. You have to go to the Greek. In this case, the Greek clearly allows both interpretations.

    It’s not fair to write off an entire translation based on a comparison of 1 verse to other English translations.

    I agree that in this day and age, way too many translators play fast and loose with meaning. But this is not one of those cases.


  2. AY Says:

    Hi Pierre,

    Thanks for your comment. I agree with you that the Greek word in question can indeed mean “woman” or “wife” depending on context, however, within the same passage there should be a consistent translation. The ESV translates “gune” as “wife” in some verses, namely 3, 5, 6, 10 and 13, but as “woman” in other verses, that being 7, 8, 9, 11 and 12. Since this is within the same passage and the same context, the ESV’s translation introduces an unjustified duality of terms that renders Paul’s argument in the passage non sequitur, i.e. the conclusion is disconnected from the premises. Since Paul obviously used “gune” with a consistent meaning throughout the passage to make a point, the ESV’s approach is highly suspect. I would suggest this is the reason why the ESV stands alone among commonly accepted translations in the way this passage was translated – and that does mean the ESV’s translators have a higher burden of proof in justifying their approach.


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