Monday, September 13, 2021

Ozoliņš: Observations on ESV Old Testament Translation Notes


The following is a guest post from Kaspars Ozoliņš who has a PhD from UCLA in Indo-European linguistics and currently works as a Research Associate at Tyndale House in Cambridge.

Translation notes are a time-honoured tradition in biblical translation. Here, for example, is an excerpt from the preface “To the Reader” of the 1611 KJV:

[I]t hath pleaſed God in his divine prouidence, heere and there to ſcatter wordes and ſentences of that difficultie and doubtfulneſſe, not in doctrinall points that concerne ſaluation, (for in ſuch it hath beene uouched that the ſcriptures are plaine) but in matters of leſſe momentNow in ſuch a caſe, doth not a margine do well to admoniſh the Reader to ſeeke further, and not to conclude or dogmatize upon this or that peremptorily?They that are wiſe, had rather haue their judgements at libertie in differences of readings, then to be captiuated to one, when it may be the other.

Translation notes are in fact a very useful tool for expanding and clarifying particular words and passages, given the many complications involved in transferring the meaning of ancient texts written in languages generally unfamiliar to the reader. The NET version excels at this, containing no fewer than 60,932 translation notes. But such an abundance of information raises an important question. What are the intended audience(s) for such notes, and therefore, what kind of information ought to be included?

This question is especially germane to notes of a text-critical nature. Naturally, the academic or pastor will consult standard critical editions of the biblical text for information about variant readings for a given passage. So it would seem that text-critical notes in an English Bible are not aimed at such an individual, at least not directly. On the other hand, what purpose could be fulfilled by supplying a layperson with variant manuscript and versional readings?

Of course, the obvious answer is that some variants ultimately make a difference, especially when dealing with an inspired text. To that end, anyone engaging with the biblical text should take at least some interest in important variant readings. Text-critical notes in translated versions should be a kind of bare-bones apparatus presenting the most important variant readings which are exegetically significant and difficult to evaluate (i.e., valuable and viable).

To that end, I’d like to examine a few text-critical notes from various Old Testament passages of the ESV. The textual basis for the English Standard Version’s Old Testament was of course Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. (I should preface by stating that I also consulted the NRSV notes at these passages, and it is apparent that many of the issues I outline below have been inherited by the ESV.

An example

What originally piqued my interest in this topic was the unmistakable resemblance of certain ESV textual notes I was reading with the layout of apparatus notes from BHS. Let me illustrate with an example from Deuteronomy 11:14:

BHS: וְנָתַתִּ֧יa מְטַֽר־אַרְצְכֶ֛ם בְּעִתּ֖וֹ יוֹרֶ֣ה וּמַלְק֑וֹשׁ וְאָסַפְתָּ֣ דְגָנֶ֔ךָ וְתִֽירֹשְׁךָ֖ וְיִצְהָרֶֽךָ

ESV: “[H]e3 will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the latter rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil.”

BHS (note a): 𝔊-θmin𝔘 ונתן cf 15a

ESV (note 3): Samaritan, Septuagint, Vulgate; Hebrew I; also verse 15

Notice that the witnesses and the order they are listed is identical, as is the final reference to verse 15. There is only a slight qualification for Greek witnesses (Theodotionic minuscules are excepted). Also, the “Hebrew” (= MT) reading is inserted as the penultimate element, for some reason. (The same witnesses in verse 15 similarily agree against the MT’s וְנָתַתִּ֛י there.) Within the context of the chapter, Moses is speaking in the first person, and the versions disambiguate God’s speech by using the third person. The MT’s first person ונתתי “I will give,” by contrast, may be taken as direct (divine) speech.

Here, a number of questions may be asked about the translation note. How much of this information is beneficial to potential readers of the ESV? How much of it could be misinterpreted? How many will know what the Septuagint or Vulgate refers to? How many could be misled by the term “Samaritan”? Will readers appreciate the significance of the word “Hebrew” (i.e., as a signifier of the Masoretic tradition, in relation to translational witnesses, themselves derived from Hebrew Vorlagen)? The results will doubtless vary from reader to reader.

Inconsistency in presentation and terminology

There is some inconsistency in the terminology and scope of many text-critical notes in the ESV. Take, for example, Ruth 4:5:

BHS: וַיֹּ֣אמֶר בֹּ֔עַז בְּיוֹם־קְנוֹתְךָ֥ הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה מִיַּ֣ד נָעֳמִ֑י וּ֠מֵאֵתa ר֣וּת הַמּוֹאֲבִיָּ֤ה אֵֽשֶׁת־הַמֵּת֙ קָנִ֔יתָי לְהָקִ֥ים שֵׁם־הַמֵּ֖ת עַל־נַחֲלָתֽוֹ

ESV: “Then Boaz said, ‘The day you buy the field from the hand of Naomi, you also acquire Ruth2 the Moabite, the widow of the dead, in order to perpetuate the name of the dead in his inheritance.’”

BHS (note a): 𝔘 quoque, l[egendum]גַּם אֶת־

ESV (note 2): Masoretic Text you also buy it from Ruth

Notice here, that instead of using the term “Hebrew” as previously, we find the more precise “Masoretic Text.” Secondly, there is no mention of the source of the reading adopted in the ESV (here, the Vulgate), even though the Vulgate as a concept and term is readily employed elsewhere (as we saw above)

The reader therefore has no access to the basis for the translation adopted by the committee, even though he has been alerted to the presence of variation among the witnesses. One could argue that it might be preferable to avoid labelling witnesses and potentially confusing readers—but the existence of alternative witnesses should at least be mentioned. Something like: “Reading found in other ancient translations; Masoretic Text you also buy it from Ruth.

Manuscript counting

One unhelpful practice in the now rather outdated BHS apparatus is the mere counting of manuscripts without their actual identification. We can see this spilling over in the ESV. For example, 2 Samuel 21:8:

BHS: וַיִּקַּ֣ח הַמֶּ֡לֶךְ אֶת־שְׁ֠נֵי בְּנֵ֨י רִצְפָּ֤ה בַת־אַיָּה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יָלְדָ֣ה לְשָׁא֔וּל אֶת־אַרְמֹנִ֖י וְאֶת־מְפִבֹ֑שֶׁת וְאֶת־חֲמֵ֗שֶׁת בְּנֵי֙ מִיכַ֣לa בַּת־שָׁא֔וּל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָלְדָ֛ה לְעַדְרִיאֵ֥ל בֶּן־בַּרְזִלַּ֖י הַמְּחֹלָתִֽי

ESV: The king took the two sons of Rizpah the daughter of Aiah, whom she bore to Saul, Armoni and Mephibosheth; and the five sons of Merab1 the daughter of Saul, whom she bore to Adriel the son of Barzillai the Meholathite;

BHS (note a): 2 Mss מ(י)רב cf 𝔊Mss, 𝔖 ndb, 𝔗 mjrb drbjʾt mjkl ex 1S 18,19

ESV (note 1): Two Hebrew manuscripts, Septuagint; most Hebrew manuscripts Michal

I take it that the characterisation “most Hebrew manuscripts” is a corollary from the information that only two Hebrew manuscripts (whatever they are) have the reading מ(י)רב. Imprecise terminology and unhelpful counting is also on display at Psalm 31:7[6]:

BHS:  שָׂנֵ֗אתִיa הַשֹּׁמְרִ֥ים הַבְלֵי־שָׁ֑וְא וַ֝אֲנִ֗י אֶל־יְהוָ֥ה בָּטָֽחְתִּי

ESV: I hate1 those who pay regard to worthless idols, but I trust in the Lord.

BHS (note a): Ms 𝔊𝔖 Hier תָ-

ESV (note 1): Masoretic Text; one Hebrew manuscript, Septuagint, Syriac, Jerome You hate

Here, for better or worse, all of the information in the ESV note is copied over exactly from the BHS apparatus. Is the “one Hebrew manuscript” outside the Masoretic tradition? If so, what tradition does it belong to? Does “Masoretic Text” therefore refer to all other Masoretic witnesses as a group?

If one took care to consult the BHS sigla list, one would find there a slight clarification of the Latin terms Ms(s), etc (namely that these manuscript readings are taken from Kennicott, de Rossi, and other such sources). Furthermore, some information about the number of manuscripts is given (for example, “pc Mss [pauci manuscripti]” means 3–10. 

But such information is far removed from the reader of the ESV. Needless to say, if all this is generally unclear or unhelpful to the scholar, it is even less likely to be of use to the layman. (As a side note, it will be interesting to see what kind of influence BHQ will have on future translations, given its significant changes in the apparatus, including the elimination of Kennicott and de Rossi readings, and its accompanying textual commentary.) 

Ambiguous translation notes

A final observation concerns the use of the potentially ambiguous English conjunction or. It seems to me that its occurrence in translation notes without further specification can lead to confusion. In particular, does the variation presented have to do with competing translation renderings or rather competing witnesses? For example, Ezekiel 3:15 (I’ve included the Masora Parva note since this is a ketiv-qere variant):

BHS:  וָאָב֨וֹא אֶל־הַגּוֹלָ֜ה תֵּ֣ל אָ֠בִיב הַיֹּשְׁבִ֤ים אֶֽל־נְהַר־כְּבָר֙ וָֽאֵשֵׁ֔רc הֵ֖מָּה יוֹשְׁבִ֣ים שָׁ֑ם וָאֵשֵׁ֥ב שָׁ֛ם שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִ֖ים מַשְׁמִ֥ים בְּתוֹכָֽם

ESV: And I came to the exiles at Tel-abib, who were dwelling by the Chebar canal, and I sat where they were dwelling.3

MP: קׄ ואשב

BHS (note c): l[egendum] אֲשֶׁר cf 𝔊

ESV (note 3): Or Chebar, and to where they dwelt

I don’t expect readers to be alerted to the presence of a ketiv-qere variant here, but I do think they would be better served with information that specifies whether the alternative rendering given in the translation note derives from an alternative translation methodology, exegesis, or is instead an alternative witness (whether from ketiv-qere variants, other Hebrew manuscripts, or versional evidence). From my brief perusal, I’ve noticed this in quite a few places. In my view, this is perhaps a case of the other extreme: too little information leading to potential confusion.

Why might a lay reader want to know the distinction? I feel somehow that most readers are liable to interpret the unqualified use of “or” in translation notes as indicating alternative translation renderings, and therefore, as additional useful information for an equally viable understanding of the text. By contrast, if alerted to the presence of alternative variant readings which are significant, viable, and difficult to adjudicate (think of brackets in the NA28 or diamond readings in the THGNT), the reader can better appreciate the very different set of issues at play.

Concluding remarks

The correct balance of information (and it is a balance, I think, from the examples above) may be likened to an analogy PeterWilliams has used with regard to the democratisation of knowledge about the biblical languages. We include quite detailed information in our food packaging so that consumers can be better informed, why not do the same in the case of the languages the Bible was written in and the transmission of those texts? Ideally, Bible translation notes of a text-critical nature should be precise, use consistent and understandable terminology, and include the right selection of information for the serious reader of Scripture.


  1. I think that both the problem of inconsistency and the problem of confusing lay people with technical terms could be resolved if the ESV would make their little section on "Textual Footnotes" in their preface more extensive, and including in it a glossary of terms, which the footnotes would all have to be re-edited to conform to consistently.

    It would still inevitably be the case that the nuances of evaluating the different textual witnesses would be beyond most lay people (or pastors for that matter). But it would still be helpful to have the information presented, and to be able to decipher what it at least means in a basic way.

    In my opinion, the variations within the Masoretic tradition that Kennicott, et al, compiled are still helpful, and the move away from reporting these is unfortunate. If the ESV does make changes to its textual notes, hopefully they will still provide information about those intra-MT variants. This could be done without giving the exact number of manuscripts attesting a given variant though.