First, a little disclaimer for those of you who don't know me particularly well. As far as I'm concerned, everyone is free to read any Bible translation they like - even if it's (God forbid) The Message. Each of us has a different journey, history, and personality, and we have no right to impose our own cookie-cutter spirituality on others. For many people, the question of what Bible version to use is intensely personal, as it should be. It is the right and responsibility of every Christian to look at the issues and make a decision for themselves. So relax. This post is just me talking about a version I happen to like; in no way am I attacking or denigrating other versions.
My first Bible - a gift for my 7th birthday - was a New King James. After a couple years, my Dad dropped the "New" and went to the old standby, commissioned by the venerable King James himself, way back in 1611 when books were written with blood.
Along with Dad and the rest of the family, I read the KJV for upwards of 10 years. During that time I became intimately familiar with the way the text was structured and worded and realized that it would be difficult to switch to another version. (I even went through a period of KJV-Onlyism, which was abruptly cut short when I read this book.)
Still, while I loved the King James for its dignified, larger-than-life style, I was growing frustrated with the archaic diction and syntax, and would often paraphrase the text when reading aloud. Eventually it became clear to me that I needed something else. But what?
I tried reading modern translations such as the NIV, NASB, or RSV. I wasn't satisfied. To me, the NIV read colloquially, almost irreverently. It just didn't sound like the Bible. Other versions lacked the rhythm, balance, and poise that I had come to expect from the King James. Of course, this is not to suggest that any of these other versions are inferior in any way: only that they - for one reason or another - did not connect with my story or agree with my spiritual palate. (Strictly speaking, there's nothing wrong with zucchini. It's just, well... never mind.)
Meanwhile, a dedicated team of scholars and translation specialists was hard at work on the ESV. In 2001, the fruit of their labor was published - the first Bible ever to be published simultaneously in print and electronic media. It took a few years for the translation to start percolating into the public, but before long I began to notice copies here and there, and decided to purchase my own and see for myself. I haven't looked back.
The ESV is reverent, understandable, easy-to-read, strong, natural, rhythmic. It is clear, careful, colorful - like stained glass. It is refreshingly modern without being crude or dumbed down. In short, it is a delight to read.
Possibly the single most distinctive thing about the ESV is that the translation team went beyond mere technical accuracy and placed a strong emphasis on literary considerations, even going so far as to include Dr. Leland Ryken, an English Professor at Wheaton College, as part of the translation committee.
When Lane Dennis asked me to serve on the translation committee of the ESV, I was very hesitant to do so because I do not know Greek and Hebrew. And I didn't think that my lifelong interest in the Bible as literature represented something worthwhile to bring to the table. I quickly turned out to be a very important member of the committee, and I don't think that my chief contribution lay in what my official title indicated -- English Stylist. All the translators on the committee were good stylists.
I served the committee best in two roles. One, with my knowledge of the Bible as literature, and it turns out that has a lot of ramifications for how we understand and translate the text. And totally unbeknown, I served best as a general reader, and I asked the questions that the expert overlooks to ask or doesn't think important....the ESV is maybe unique in granting a full-fledged place on the committee to a literary scholar. And that turned out to be very far-reaching in its effect. So, I really respect Lane Dennis for having that foresight, and it ensured that the literary interests were always represented. I lost some votes - I think that Ecclesiastes 1:2 should be translated "vapors of vapors." I've been walking around as though missing an arm or a leg ever since losing that vote. But nonetheless, my presence as someone who was adept at the literary dimension of the Bible was often a factor in how the translation proceeded.*
The result is a work of literature, not just a work of scholarship.
Of course, the most exciting thing about the Bible is simply that it is the Bible. But any tool works better when it's new and sharp; "If the iron is blunt, and one does not sharpen the edge, he must use more strength." (Eccl 10:10) As Steve Brown said, “I am so impressed with the clarity, beauty, and power of the ESV that I feel that I am reading the Bible again for the first time." And that is exciting.
Still, my own biases aside, I believe we should celebrate the variety of effort that has been put forth by various ones to preserve God's Word. I've come to appreciate it when an author unapologetically quotes from multiple translations - it's more generous and less narcissistic. The Word of God is living and active - let's keep it that way.