I would never recommend the ESV over the NRSV

In two recent comparisons (here and here) we saw where the NRSV was clearly better than the ESV in its revision of the 1971 RSV.  And after reading through the Gospel narratives in the NRSV, there is no way I could recommend the ESV over the NRSV.

At whose house did Jesus have dinner according to Mark’s narrative, his or Levi’s?

And as he reclined at table in his house, many tax collectors and sinners were reclining with Jesus and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.  (Mark 2:15, ESV, emphasis added)

I don’t think the ESV is of much help here.  Now check out the NRSV:

And as he sat at dinner* in Levi’s* house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting* with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. (NRSV, emphasis added)

So according to the NRSV’s reading, Jesus was sitting at Levi’s house (see HCSB, NLT, TNIV).

When was the woman with an alabaster jar of ointment healed, before or while at Simon the Pharisee’s house?

Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:47, ESV, emphasis added)

According to the ESV, the woman came to Simon’s house with her many sins and was not forgiven until Jesus did so that evening. Now here’s the NRSV:

Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little. (NRSV, emphasis added)

According to the NRSV’s reading, the woman came to Simon’s house to show her great love and gratitude because of what Jesus had done for her sometime earlier.

Here’s the grind: if I’m at a Christian bookstore and someone walks up to me, asking for a good “essentially literal” translation, I’m pointing them to the NRSV.  But if they object and say that they’ve heard wonderful things about the ESV, I’m still pointing them to the NRSV.

Make a better investment.  It’s that simple.

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40 Responses to I would never recommend the ESV over the NRSV

  1. David Ker says:

    One thing I’ve been wondering about in these comparisons is whether we should do them blind (i.e. Translation A and Translation B) so that people aren’t biased against a translation based on its marketing or critics.

    Good job on all the posts recently. I’ve enjoyed following your blog.

  2. Bryan L says:

    You know I bought into the ESV hype when it was first released and went right out and bought one (especially because of some of the scholars who gave it favorable reviews) and used it for about half a year.

    But then I just got tired of feeling like I was translating a translation. It didn’t read that smoothly and it wasn’t always clear what was being said because of it’s woodeness. It took too much effort to just enjoy reading the Bible. At that point I picked up a TNIV and I’ve never looked back. I don’t even know where that ESV bible is anymore.

    I would definitely pick the NRSV over the ESV if we were looking at translations with comparable translation philosophies and I the TNIV is my favorite for reading and studying.

    I wrote about my experience switching from the ESV to the TNIV a while back here:

    Bryan L

  3. tc robinson says:

    David, I’m aware of what you’re saying. I believe there’re biases in all of us on these issues. But I do appreciate what you’re saying. And good to know that you enjoy following my blog. 🙂

    Bryan L, believe it or not, I once used the ESV but quickly gave it up because of what you’ve outlined and the gender-issue as well.

    Yes, I do like the TNIV too.

  4. nothingman says:

    Great post. I think David has a great idea, kind of like a blind taste-test for Coke vs. Pepsi! You should really try it on your next post.

    As I am reading through the Gospel of Mark, and I comparing the NRSV to the NLTse, and I really think I am going to stick to using these 2 translations for a good comparison.

  5. When I switched to the NRSV 2 1/2 years ago I narrowed it down to the ESV and the NRSV. Although I didn’t know about HCSB, REB, NET and a few others at the time.

    As time went on and as I’ve read heavier books and commentaries, and read critical comparisons (as here) I became more and more convinced that the NRSV was the right choice.

    I think it’s apparent that the NRSV did a more thorough and thoughtful job of revising the RSV.

    I will be switching but still hold it in high regard.

    I will now try to go back to non-critical mode.


  6. tc robinson says:

    As I am reading through the Gospel of Mark, and I comparing the NRSV to the NLTse, and I really think I am going to stick to using these 2 translations for a good comparison.

    I found the NRSV to be quite good in the Gospel narratives. I’ll take David and your advice next time around. 😉

    I think it’s apparent that the NRSV did a more thorough and thoughtful job of revising the RSV.

    Jeff, you got it. From my experience with the both the ESV and the NRSV, the NRSV is the better choice.

  7. As for a blind test…

    I’m colorblind and I prefer the NRSV, TNIV, NLT, REB and NASB over the ESV.

    It’s settled! 🙂

  8. Peter Kirk says:

    I’m not usually one to defend ESV. But I don’t think the examples you give here are good ones.

    I wrote an undergraduate essay arguing that in Mark 2:15-17 (also 3:31-35 etc) the action takes place in Jesus’ house, not Levi’s or anyone else’s. Read Mark 2:13-15 in Greek or ESV and see which makes more sense. But NRSV and other versions resolve the ambiguity in the other direction, perhaps to harmonise with the more probable (but still not certain) interpretation of Luke.

    On Luke 7:47, the text is again ambiguous, and it seems to me that your objection to ESV is based on theological presuppositions, that Jesus can’t be declaring her forgiven at that moment because of a “work” of love. Here I should salute the ESV translators for not letting their Calvinism affect their translation, and not the NRSV translators for importing their theology.

    • Peter:

      Regarding Luke 7:47, the NRSV is better because it more accurately represents the Greek perfect tense, which is used to describe a completed verbal action that occurred in the past. Compare both the ESV and NRSV translation of 1 John 5:1.

      Interestingly, both passages (Luke 7:47 and 1 John 5:1), when the Greek perfect tense is properly considered, lend support to Calvinistic theology. It’s not a matter of importing theology into the text. It’s a matter of allowing the text to dictate theology.

  9. tc robinson says:

    Peter, the Greek is ambiguous at best. And if Luke makes things clearer, I see not problem with accepting Luke’s rendering. Maybe something should be said for Mark’s ambiguity.

    Regarding Luke 7:47, Jesus already pointed to prior forgiveness in the story he told in vv.41ff.

  10. Andrew Bourne says:

    When I see these discussions no one ever mentions the NAB why? Is this a cultural matter. As it appears in Mk 2:15 `en te oikia auto` `in the house of him`. It is not clear whose house Jesus is in. Mark`s ambiguity is probably correct as you note.

  11. Andrew Bourne,
    I read the NAB occasionally. It seems like a fine translation.

  12. tc robinson says:

    Stan, it seems like you’ve read them all. I’ve never read the NAB. 🙂

  13. I quite agree with you, TC, that the NRSV is far superior to the unfortunate, botched, hurried ESV. I like the old RSV and am quite familiar with it, so I will occasionally use one of my handy ESVs when traveling or commuting. Usually all goes well with my reading until I come across a passage that was obviously changed from the RSV — these often readily stand out because they differ in tone from the rest of the text. The result is a very uneven translation, at times distractingly so. I frankly don’t understand ESV-onlyism, particularly as I find this revision subpar in many ways. (But I do enjoy seeing in some passages of the ESV what the old RSV would look like with some gender-accurate translations.)

    The NRSV, however, is a stellar example of how to undertake the work of revising a translation. It was once said of the RSV that, while it was a revision of the ASV, very little of the ASV remained in it; the same is true in important ways of the NRSV vis-à-vis the RSV. It is an entirely new work, fully informed by then-current scholarly research — but at the same time, obviously in the mold of its predecessor. It has started to show its age a bit, though; perhaps a light “tune-up” might be in order! (Of course, none of this justifies some the ghastlier literary failures of the NRSV, none more cringe-worthy than its rendering of St Matthew 18:15-20.)

  14. tc robinson says:

    Esteban, thanks for the confirmation. From someone who has had experience with both the RSV and the ESV, your take certainly carries a lot of weight. 😉

  15. Nathan Stitt says:

    David brings up a good point of doing blind comparisons, no looking them up first. Someone did this last spring and I was surprised to see which ones I favored. I wish I could remember who it was, but it escapes me now.

    Also, why all the hate towards the ESV lately TC? I would feel better if you would just leave it be rather than see it constantly berated. No matter, hopefully we can get some blind comparisons going somewhere 8)

  16. Nathan Stitt says:

    Actually, I found the posts doing blind comparisons. It was Mike and I believe this was the first post in a series of many polls:


    They were pretty interesting, and I’d love to see someone do some similar comparisons in the same fashion that Mike did.

  17. Nathan I should have done this with some of the posts I’ve done in the last few months where I list some comparisons.

    I should do this and have the posts be about Scripture and not just the translations themselves. I should have done that with this. Nobody would have guessed ISV. And many would have guessed KJV for the ESV if I would have only included the first part of :17.

    Looks like I never answered Mike’s question in that post you mention. That was before I realized there are a few good verses in The Message.

    Here are the following posts starting at March 10:

  18. Nathan Stitt says:

    I’d love it if you’d do that that with some future posts Jeff. I think people will be surprised at their understanding and preferences once the (ABC) is removed from the end of a verse.

    And thanks for that link, it is probably better than mine.

  19. tc robinson says:

    Nathan, I guess I should just leave it alone. 😉

  20. petermlopez says:

    I have observed that those who carrying around an NRSV are typically from a traditional, mainline Protestant denomination…and the Bibles are usually still nice and tight. This is purely anecdotal mind you, I have absolutely zero scientific data to support me. But, this could corroborate Esteban’s suggestion that a “tune up” would be in order.

    My exposure to the NRSV is limited, so I will defer to you and others regarding the treatment of certain passages, but have others the same sort of thing? It’s probably the marketing…again.

  21. Eric says:

    Hi TC – really like your blog and especially enjoyed the discussion of the ESV vs. the NRSV. I grew up on the RSV and became a big fan of the NRSV when it appeared, although I was troubled by some of the renderings to make it gender neutral. Thanks again!

  22. Peter Kirk says:

    Nathan, surely it’s all the hype about ESV from its publishers and supporters, and the way many of them knock other translations, that generates the hatred.

  23. tc robinson says:

    Peter M, a “tune up” is in order for the NRSV. It still needs smoothing out and update of some archaic expressions.

    I’m ok with Is 7:14. 😉

    Eric, Have you overcome your challenges with the “gender issue”? I was going to suggest reading the TNIV…

    Peter K, to be honest, the ESV makes me reactionary more than anything.

  24. Eric says:

    TC, I still wrestle with some of the gender issues in the NRSV, but feel the merits far outweigh the shortcomings. Thanks for recommending the TNIV, I’ll definitely give it a shot!

  25. tc robinson says:

    Eric, in my opinion, handles the gender-issue better than the NRSV, so you should have no problem with it.

    It also flows better. I’m glad that you’re willing to give it a try.

  26. I really enjoy the information you guys put up on this site. I think the fact that a stellar scholar like N. T. Wright recommends the NRSV, with his carefull exegesis, is a great tout for that translation. He also uses the NIV a lot. Personally, I am a TNIV man. It brings out the nuances of the Greek.

    • Zach says:

      N. T. Wright does not like the NIV at all. See the end of “The Last Word” and “Simply Christian” and know that he recommends the NRSV and the NASB in a North American context. In the book “Justification” he slams the NIV (pg. 51).

  27. Michael Sanchez says:

    I am sad to see so many comments and yet not one mentions the NASB. I guess my favorite translation is finally dead. :\ I used to brag that when a preacher said “this word realy means ___ in Greek,” I would look down at my NASB and say “yeah, that’s what mine says!”

    I stumbled upon this blog looking for info on the ESV. I moved to a new city and the church we have been attending is part of Acts 29 (Driscoll’s network). They are “ESV only” as most other Acts 29 churches are these days. I have frequently heard it referred to as “the Calvinist Bible.” The funny thing about that statement is that it might lead one to believe that there are other translations that are free of theological bias. I think one would be hard pressed to make that case.

    One of these churches that I am familiar with has a long article by Driscoll called “Theological reasons for why Mars Hill preaches out of the ESV.” His fifth point is stated as follows:
    “The ESV upholds the truth that while Scripture is meant for all people, it cannot be communicated in such a way that all people receive it.”
    While I understand the point he is making, it is clear by the title of the article and especially this statement that Driscoll (and presumably his disciples) prefers the translation based on theological bias, not linguistic acumen. It is also hard to miss the ever-present “reformed arrogance” in the statement. Of course, this doesn’t say anything about the translation, just some of its adherents’ reasons for preferring it.

    I prefer word-for-word translations. However, those of us who say that need to realize we are talking about something that really cannot exist. Words have overlapping meaning, and words almost never have one and only one corresponding word in another language (what if someone 2,000 years from now tried to translate the word “pineapple” literally? or the word “butterfly?”) In the end it is the responsibility of the student of scripture, and even more so the teacher of scripture, to survey the Greek and the many good translations and try to understand all the shades of meaning in a text. Then, no matter which translation is taught from, the teacher will not be limited by the biases of its translators.

  28. Scott W says:

    I’m a newbie to this blog but I found this discussion interesting. One of the best maxims I know is “Don’t believe the hype”. This should be a motto when it comes to evaluating a Bible translation. It’s not the marketing campaign but the scholarship and the results in reference to the stated aims.

    The ESV came into existence explicilty as a “politically correct” version, according to the theology of its constituents, even as it casts aspersions on the gender neurtality policy of translating in the NSRV. The success of the NRSV in implementing this policy can be questions but the fact of the matter is this translation policy can be defended on many fronts–literary,cultural,missiological–and not just political. Whereas, I feel, the translation policy of the ESV boil down to theological and political concerns.

    The NSRV is a superior Bible translation because its scholarship is superior and it drew from a more diverse group of well-qualified translators and editors. You can disagree with a translation (e.g.,Isa. 7:14) because it’s not what’s in line with the KJV or traditional theology but what it really important is that you search for the truth, applying the best critical scholarship to understanding what the ancient texts, which are the word of God to us, mean. NT and OT studies is not systematic (dogmatic) theology.

  29. tc robinson says:

    The NSRV is a superior Bible translation because its scholarship is superior and it drew from a more diverse group of well-qualified translators and editors.

    Scott, I feel the same way.

  30. Scott W says:

    I have another version (of the NT and Psalter at this point), the EOB, the Eastern Orthodox version, based on the ecclesiastical (Byzantine) text for the NT and the LXX for the OT, which is the Orthodox OT.


  31. TC Robinson says:


    Thanks for sharing this translation. I browsed several texts. Quite formal and readable, though it has retained some archaic expressions here and there.

  32. Scott W says:

    TC says: Thanks for sharing this translation. I browsed several texts. Quite formal and readable, though it has retained some archaic expressions here and there.

    it is probably to be expected that the biblical text of this version has archaisms, given the ecclesiastical and liturgical nature of this translation, esp. for Orthodox. In actuality, I’m pleasantly surprised that there is as much emphasis on text critical matters, since ecclesiastical text is not the modern critical edition for the NT, and since the OT text is the LXX/Old Greek, which is historically correct.

    It’s ironic how the mushrooming of Bible versions, mostly by conservatives, represents a post modern mentality in many respects. I do realize that copyright issues are an issue but there is a sense that there are theologically customized Bible versions for all kinds of groups now more than ever.

  33. TC Robinson says:

    Scott, I figure with the readership that some would be retained.

    Well, I view matters of text critical matters as reflective of true scholarship. We cannot dismiss other legitimate findings a priori.

    Yeah, every major English translation has a particular readership in mind.

  34. John Harris says:

    I wouldn’t use the NRSV because a mentor of mine (E.E.Ellis) dropped out of the translating because of the feminist leanings of the majority of the translators. There are plenty of average translations out there, it’s more dangerous to think we can trust ANY translations. Spend the time, it only takes a year or two of study to be well on your way to be able to read the NT in Greek.

  35. John Harris says:

    BTW, I prefer the RSV

  36. Jon Hughes says:

    There certainly seems to be a concerted effort to push the E.S.V., especially in Reformed circles. It is the translation quoted in virtually every recent publication not only by Crossway (for obvious reasons!) but also P&R Publishing, Reformation Heritage, I.V.P., etc.

    I wouldn’t mind, but it is just not that good. If you want biblical/traditional English the K.J.V. is far superior; if you want contemporary English the HCSB is far superior.

    There is so much hype surrounding what amounts to a mild revision of the R.S.V. Piper, Sproul, Grudem, et al are all pushing it. Makes me want to ‘rebel’ and use the N.R.S.V. instead!

    Let’s just hope we don’t get into an “E.S.V. Only” movement somewhere down the line…

  37. Pingback: Some Love for the ESV… | New Leaven

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