Thursday, March 30, 2006

The English Standard Version in historical perspective

In order to understand the origins of the ESV we must go back to the Revised Version of 1881. The claims that were made for the RV, especially in the USA, are of great interest. The publication of this version was a huge media event, with newspapers competing against each other to print extracts. The Chicago Tribune ran the headline that 107,000 copies of its printing had been sold in 4 days. The New York Evening Post lauded the revision as a New Testament that needed neither commentary nor glossary, rather like more recent versions that have claimed: “now no interpretation needed”. Philip Schaff, chairman of the American committee, called it the year of the republication of the gospel, claiming that the RV brought modern Bible readers “as near to Christ as the Christians of the first generation” (In discordance with the Scriptures: American Protestant battles over translating the Bible, Peter J Thuesen, Oxford University Press, 1999, p.106). Schaff, in common with modern Bible translators, was not however, averse to mixing a little commercialism with his idealistic faith and less than modest advertisements. Enthused perhaps by the level of consumer demand at the publication of the RV he suggested that updating it every 50 years or so would pique the curiosity of the general public, with satisfactory results. As it happened a revision was forthcoming within just 20 years in the American Standard Version of 1901. A revision of this had been successfully accomplished in the publication of the RSV New Testament in 1946, not quite 50 years. With the publication of the ESV, as a revision of the RSV in 2001, things are keeping to schedule.

The momentum for the RSV had been building since the 1920s when perceived advances in biblical scholarship were deemed to justify retranslation. The mainline denominations responded with alacrity and pursuing the goal of closer denominational integration they imitated the ecumenical structure of the RV translation committee. Schaff had exulted in “a commonwealth...of Christian life and Christian scholarship which transcends all sectarian boundaries” (p.47). For all this, however, only the American Baptists formally endorsed the RV. The RSV ran no such risks in being promoting by the National Council of Churches. The dedication service of the RSV New Testament in 1946 included a prayer referring to that version as “a standard for the Christian Church whereby she may be corrected in error, healed of her divisions, and made One in Christ so that the world may believe”. Ultimately the imprimatur of the NCC was their justification for referring to it as “the fifth authorised English Bible”. It was estimated that upwards of $500,000.00 was spent to promote the advertisement and sale of the RSV. On the first day of publication of the complete RSV Bible 30September, 1952 it sold one million copies.

On receiving his specially presented copy President Truman predicted “peace for all mankind” if only the Bible could be successful behind the Iron Curtain. The Cold War background is a vital aspect of the reception of the RSV: it was in fact tarred with the un-American or Communist brush by dead-end McCarthyist investigations into the NCC. A conspiratorial climate ensured that the decreeing power of a seemingly totalitarian “super-Church” upon the Scriptures was viewed with immense suspicion. Ultimately the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) launched their own flagship in this analogue of the Space race of the Cold War: the NIV bore their de facto imprimatur.

A significant dispute arose concerning Isaiah 7:14, where the RSV rendered the Hebrew word “almah” as “young woman” rather than “virgin” thus putting the scientific method into conflict with theology. The NIV translators were sure to have the word “virgin” in their version.
Yet, ironically this allegedly conservative version made a distinct break with the AV in terms of using dynamically equivalent language whereas the RSV had sought to retain a certain connection. The ESV at least attempts to restore the link with the AV and have some formal correspondence with the words that it is translating. If the NIV made its position at the expense of the RSV, the promoters of the ESV are now seeking to make use of criticisms of the NIV to further its position in the marketplace. As various studies have indicated, the ESV does not always achieve its goal in this way, however and the claim of an essentially literal translation is to be interpreted rather ambiguously.

Both the RV and RSV were highly academic productions. A. H. Nichols observes that the RV and ASV ‘gained acceptance only amongst the scholarly elite who could appreciate the translation because of their familiarity with the original languages’ (A. H. Nichols, Translating the Bible: A Critical Analysis of E. A. Nida’s Theory of Dynamic Equivalence and its Impact upon Recent Bible Translations (unpublished Ph.D thesis, Sheffield University, 1996, p. 8). The Preface to the RSV trumpeted "the best results of modern scholarship as to the meaning of the Scriptures"
claimed that in Biblical translation there can be such a thing as "linguistic science" which "knows no theology" and that "those of the most contradictory view can meet on common ground devoid of polemic, agreed that Hebrew words mean such and such, and their inflection and syntactical relations imply this or that."

Those evangelical academics who always had a predilection for the RSV haven't let go and now want to popularise it. The ESV is another instance of the Academy dictating to the Church. It is somewhat about the coming of age of evangelical academia. The Translation Oversight committee membership reads as a Who's Who of evangelical academics. There is an inordinate emphasis on contemporary academic pretensions in General Editor JI Packer’s rhapsody of praise for the ESV: “We are drawing on commentaries which roll off the press in great numbers these days. We are drawing on the increased knowledge of culture of the ancient world, which modern study has given us. We are drawing on the fact that computers now enable us to search the English Bible, the whole of the Hebrew heritage, the whole of the Greek heritage that has come down to us. It makes it a great deal easier for us to handle particular words and make decisions about how best to translate them. And in all these ways I think the ESV is going to go beyond its predecessors”. We are inclined to ask: “All this in a lightly revised translation dating from 1952?”

The ESV has been estimated to be 97-98% identical to the RSV, retaining some of its esoteric textual decisions and deliberate undermining of trinitarian passages whilst mainly revising areas of gender specific language and removing the remaining thees and thous. O.T Allis regarded the RSV as a new translation with lax views of plenary inspiration and not a revision of the AV. R. Laird Harris wrote:
“It is a curious study to check the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, a monument of higher critical scholarship, and note how every important Old Testament passage purporting to predict directly the coming of Christ has been altered so as to remove this possibility ... It is almost impossible to escape the conclusion that the admittedly higher critical bias of the translators has operated in all of these places.” Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible: An Historical and Exegetical Study, p. 58.

From a historical point of view it is exceedingly ironic that the RSV disguised is being touted as the answer to the NIV (which was itself supposed to be the answer to the RSV). It is even more strange that evangelicals are keen to support financially the organisation they once viewed with so much disdain and is now only more opposed than ever to their fundamental principles and professed convictions. The ESV bought the rights to the RSV from the National Council of Churches (the copyright holder of the RSV) are as liberal and apostate as you get in theology and principles, supporting same-sex marriage etc. The inside cover of every ESV proclaims: "The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (ESV) is adapted from the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Copyright Division Of Christian Education Of The National Council Of Christian Churches Of Christ In The U.S.A. All Rights Reserved.” These evangelicals are now turning round the fortunes of a liberal translation that had declined to 5 percent of the USA market share in Bibles by 1990.

This radical shift almost reads like a parable of the change in evangelical subculture. The RSV controversy in America, largely a struggle between the mainline Protestant Churches and the evangelicals who opposed them, has been turned right around through the capitulation of evangelical academia to the liberal scholarship that they are breathlessly pursuing. The 'success' of evangelicals attaining to university chairs is rather too similar to their success in being made bishops within the Church of England. It is a 'success' arrived at by the bypath of compromise and silence in relation to error. In No Place for Truth (1993), David F Wells warned of the potential theological corruption of evangelicalism in this way. Robert L Thomas and F. David Farnell have written The Jesus Crisis: The Inroads of Historical Criticism into Evangelical Scholarship (1998). John F. MacArthur writes in the Forward; "Some of Evangelicalism’s best-known theologians and seminary and college professors are now debating among themselves ideas that would have been deemed entirely nonnegotiable before the last quarter of the twentieth century. Destructive applications of redaction theories, source criticism, literary speculations, and so on have always been the theological liberals’ stock in trade. However, to see evangelicals applying this sort of Historical Criticism in order to cast doubt on the authenticity or historicity of the biblical text is unprecedented. Tragically, the prevailing attitude among evangelical scholars today closely mirrors the extreme tolerance that left the door wide open for Historical Criticism in the leading mainline schools and denominations of a hundred years ago." Now we have a bible prepared by higher critics only lightly revised by evangelical scholars.

The ESV promoters and translators attempt to align themselves with the Tyndale-King James legacy, and no doubt are closer than the NIV and others in this, but they are still very far adrift and the legacy that they are closer to is particularly dubious in its treatment of the Word of God. It is unlikely that the ESV will become the standard bible for evangelicals, but even if it did it will not signal an upward trend but will rather consolidate defections.