Tuesday, March 09, 2021

A Myth/Mistake about the ESV

The ESV was not translated from the NA28, and the reading at Jude 5 is not an example of the ESV adopting the reading of the NA28.

(That’s the correct version, not the myth—just to be clear.)

I’ve seen this one several times before and was once even accused of bearing false witness against the ESV Translation Committee for saying that they did not translate the ESV from the NA28. The text-critical question is who saved the people out of Egypt? The UBS5/NA28/ECM/THGNT have “Jesus” (Ἰησοῦς), and the UBS4/NA27/Tommy Wasserman have “Lord” (κύριος). There is more to the variation unit than just that substitution, but that is the part I want to focus on here.

Before I get to why that is a myth, I’d like to acknowledge why I think I’ve seen it so much.

If you check the preface to the ESV, the “Textual Basis and Resources” section says the following:
The ESV is based on the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible as found in Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (5th ed., 1997), and on the Greek text in the 2014 editions of the Greek New Testament (5th corrected ed.), published by the United Bible Societies (UBS), and Novum Testamentum Graece (28th ed., 2012), edited by Nestle and Aland. ... Similarly, in a few difficult cases in the New Testament, the ESV has followed a Greek text different from the text given preference in the UBS/Nestle-Aland 28th edition. Throughout, the translation team has benefited greatly from the massive textual resources that have become readily available recently, from new insights into biblical laws and culture, and from current advances in Hebrew and Greek lexicography and grammatical understanding.
That is both in the online version and in recent (at least since 2016) print versions.

Furthermore, if you check Jude 5 in the ESV, we see that it translates the reading adopted in the NA28 and the Tyndale House GNT:

Source: https://www.esv.org/Jude/

Those two things are enough to make someone think that the ESV is simply following the NA28 here.

However, there is more to the story.

I attach below images from my own copy of the 2001 ESV, which I’ve had since college. Here are pictures of the copyright page (to show that it is the 2001 edition), the “Textual Basis” section from the preface, the text of Jude 5 and the text-critical footnote for Jude 5.

ESV 2001 Copyright page

ESV 2001 Textual Basis

ESV 2001 Jude 5

ESV 2001 Jude 5 text-critical footnote

Now, assuming I’m not bearing false witness with these photos (I promise I am not, but of course, that’s exactly what someone who was bearing false witness would say, so please do find an ESV 2001 and check it yourself rather than take my word for it), here we have the reading adopted by the NA28, Ἰησοῦς (against κύριος in the NA27 and in Tommy Wasserman’s Epistle of Jude: Its Text and Transmission).

The thing to remember here is that Ἰησοῦς was adopted by the ESV Committee eleven years before the NA28 was published. The 2001 ESV was also published four years before the publication of Installment 4 of the text (2–3 John, Jude) of the ECM1 Catholic Epistles (2005), which also adopted Ἰησοῦς before the NA28 (2012) or the ECM2 of the Catholic Epistles (2013). Unless Wayne Grudem is a Time Lord, this demonstrates that the ESV did not get the Ἰησοῦς reading from the NA28. Instead, the ESV Committee broke from the NA27’s main text at Jude 5 and adopted the Ἰησοῦς reading from the NA27 apparatus—just like they said they occasionally did in the preface—and coincidentally Ἰησοῦς was also adopted (a few years later) as the main text in the ECM/NA28.

That leaves one important question though: Why does the current ESV say that it was translated from the NA28/UBS5? From here, I can only speculate. I did ask this question to someone who is on the ESV translation committee (back when I was accused of bearing false witness—I do try to check myself believe it or not, because I’ve been wrong before), and unfortunately he said he was not on the committee in the beginning when it was first translated. If I remember his answer correctly, he said the process was something like “ok we’re going to meet to translate” and everyone brought whichever editions of the original languages he used. My suspicion is that when the ESV was updated, someone simply updated the ‘editions used’ to whatever was current—which became the NA28 and the UBS5. The textual difference is not huge, and given that the ESV never stuck slavishly to the NA27/UBS4 in the first place, it probably seemed reasonable at the time. Indeed, I imagine when the committee has met since, committee members probably brought their copies of the NA28/UBS5.

Update for clarification (29 Sept. 2021): I did not, nor have I ever suggested that the translators of the ESV lied about which editions they use. Lying is intentionally saying something false. As I said above, changing the preface from NA27 to NA28 "probably seemed reasonable at the time," because I suspect the translators simply brought the editions they typically used when they met, and since they admitted that they were not bound to follow those editions at every point of variation anyway, it was sufficiently accurate for their purposes to say they used the NA edition, the most recent of which became the NA28.

As a final thought: there is something to the notion that fundamentally textual critics are not in control of what’s in people’s Bibles—translation committees are. We can rave about/rail against the CBGM all day long, but the only way it will ever change the text of a Bible translation is if a translation committee follows the textual decisions that the CBGM was used to make.


  1. Where do people get the idea that translation committees slavishly follow modern critical editions? I’ve encountered this assumption about not just the text, but even the paragraphing. I don’t know any translation committee that just blindly follows whatever the the critical editions do. But people have this notion that they do. It’s odd.

    1. PG,
      First, how many people read the preface or introduction to their bibles? Second, with the amount of access and information on the critical text available on the internet this assumption is natural. Finally, with the aggressive stance of the confessional text and KJV only groups against the critical text and the resulting translations the confusion seems inevitable.

    2. It's frequently asserted in the Confessional Text movement probably because it suits their rhetoric.

  2. "Instead, the ESV Committee broke from the NA27’s main text at Jude 5 and adopted the Ιησους reading from the NA27 apparatus—just like they said they occasionally did in the preface—and coincidentally Iησους was also adopted (a few years later) as the main text in the ECM/NA28."

    I would suspect that the dissenting, and rather assertive [bracketed] comments in Metzger's Txt. Comm. credited to Wikgren and Metzger himself are probably the primary influence here.

  3. I can confirm in my 2001 ESV, the textual basis read UBS4 and NA27.

  4. But didn't the 2007 edition go back to Lord ?

    1. I have an ESV Study Bible and a Cambridge ESV, both in the 2007 Text Edition. I checked both just now, and both my copies have Jesus there.

    2. It's nice to have Jesus in the Bible.

    3. Everyone should go back to the Lord, it is good to be with the Lord.

  5. The ESV is a translation of the Nestle-Aland compilation, except in "a few difficult cases." But which edition?

    It could be argued that the differences between the NA27 and NA28 amount to "a few difficult cases." -- the text itself was changed in NA28 at fewer than 40 points. But to test how accurate the ESV's preface's claim is, let's sift through some of those places in the ESV where there is a translation-influencing difference in the General Epistles:

    JAMES 2:4: Και is adopted before ου at the beginning of the verse. ESV: There is no "And," implying that NA28 was not followed.

    FIRST PETER 4:16: μέρει instead of ονόματι. The ESV reads "name," implying that NA28 was not followed.

    FIRST PETER 5:1: In NA28, τους follows Πρεσβυτέρους. ουν is the reading in NA27. The ESV begins the verse with "So," implying that NA28 was not followed.

    FIRST PETER 5:10: Ιησου is not included after Χριστω. In NA27 it was included, but within brackets. ESV: "Jesus" is not in the text, implying either that NA28 was followed, or that an independent decision was made to reject the already-bracketed word.

    SECOND PETER 2:11: παρα κυρίω instead of παρα κυρίου. ESV: "before the Lord," implying agreement with NA28 (or NA25).

    SECOND PETER 2:18: όντως instead of ολίγως. ESV: "barely," implying that the ESV does not follow NA28 here. There is no footnote in my ESV here.

    SECOND PETER 2:20: ημων is not included after κυρίου. ESV: "our," implying that the ESV here does not follow NA28 here.

    SECOND PETER 3:10: ουχ ευρεθήσεται instead of ευρεθήσεται. ESV: "will be exposed," clearly NOT following NA28's conjecture.

    SECOND PETER 3:18: αμήν is not included at the end of the verse in NA28. The ESV includes "Amen," implying that it has not followed NA28 here.

    FIRST JOHN 5:10: NA28 has αυτω instead of εαυτω. ESV: "in himself," implying that NA28 was not followed.

    FIRST JOHN 5:18: NA28 has εαυτον instead of αυτον. ESV: "he who was born of God protects him," implying that NA28 was not followed.

    JUDE v. 5: In NA28, ἅπαξ has been moved; ἅπαξ πάντα appears between υμας and οτι.

    JUDE v. 5: NA28 has Ιησους instead of [ο] κύριος. ESV: "Jesus," implying either that NA28 was followed or that the reading was adopted independently.

    (Is there a "test-tube text" problem in NA28's text of Jude?)