Where the world comes to study the Bible

NET, NIV, ESV: A Brief Historical Comparison

Related Media

Recently I received an email from a pastor about which translation is the best in terms of ‘scholarly lineage.’ His church has been using the NIV for years, but they are thinking of switching to the ESV. He wrote:

What I need to know is which version, the NIV or the ESV, has the best scholarly lineage of historical texts. This is really important for me, because I want to work with a translation that is true to our best known, most reliable manuscripts. Which of these two translations comes from the most reliable, historical texts available, and is truest, accordingly?

I filled in a little background on the two translations and also spoke a bit about the NET Bible. Below is my response.

Michael, you’re asking a tough question. In terms of solid scholarship, the ESV has behind it a long history: the KJV (1611), RV (1885), ASV (1901), and RSV (1952). Each of these was consciously in the tradition of Tyndale (1526, 1534) and was a revision of it to some degree. Beginning with the RV, the textual basis was updated from the Textus Receptus (the Greek text that stands behind the KJV) to essentially the Westcott-Hort text. The ASV was the American counterpart to the RV. In 1952, the RSV set the gold standard for translations for the 20th century. It still commands great respect. In 1989 it was updated to the NRSV. The scholarship was still solid, but it seemed to many that the translation now was bowing to egalitarian concerns by going too far in its gender inclusiveness. The ESV was an evangelical response to that. The elegance of the translation is excellent, and the translation is very good. I am happy to endorse the ESV, with the understanding that the scholarship, largely because it was restricted to evangelicals and was, within this realm, not as broadly based as some would like to see, took a downturn from previous iterations. (The translation committee, for example, used some irritating evangelical ‘trump cards’ in places where the text really does not say what they want it to say. No cardinal doctrine is involved in these places, but they nevertheless are problems in regard to accuracy.)

The NIV went in the opposite direction. The 1978 edition was a fresh translation, not based on any lineage. It doesn’t read like the KJV-RV-ASV-RSV-NASB-ESV because it is not consciously trying to emulate that tradition. It came out eight years after the NEB did; those two translations (one British and not evangelical, the other more international yet evangelical) were the first and second committee-produced English translations done in over 400 years that were not in the KJV tradition. About 100 scholars worked on the NIV. Frankly, I think that is too many, and the result is sometimes a text that seems to strike the lowest common denominator—that is, the least unsatisfactory rendering. But that makes for an uninteresting Bible, with language that is readable but not particularly memorable. This is a key complaint of many literary scholars: The NIV is too readable without having turns of expression, pithy statements, memorable phrases. In other words, the elegance factor is almost wholly missing from the NIV. As well, by shortening sentences and cutting out particles and conjunctions, I think the NIV can be misleading at times. I like the NIV very much and happily endorse it, but I think that it is not the best translation on the level of elegance or accuracy. For readability, it scores high marks.

With the TNIV, the translation reached new heights in this respect: excellent scholars worked on it. The language went toward gender-inclusiveness, but it was certainly not as developed in this regard as was the NRSV. There are a few verses that I don’t care for in the TNIV, but on the whole I think it’s a very good translation. Still, the elegance factor is missing. As well, the TNIV has an excellent textual foundation. Many translations nowadays are satisfied with translating the Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament. But the TNIV had Gordon Fee on the translation committee, an outstanding textual critic. There are places where the TNIV has taken some bold moves away from the Nestle text—places that I think they have made the right choice.

So, you have the ESV which was done by a pretty decent group of evangelical scholars but who were standing on the shoulders of giants, and the NIV which was done by a multitude of scholars (and far more than really should have been used for a Bible translation), launching out on their own. The TNIV has better scholarship than the NIV but its tendency toward gender-inclusiveness (rather than a gender-neutral position) at times gets in the way of accuracy.

An alternative to either of these is the NET Bible. One of the chief goals of the NET Bible has been to combine the three historic objectives of English Bible translation: accuracy, readability, and elegance. These goals are not entirely compatible and it proved almost impossible to try to satisfy each. However, the editors did something that is unique among Bible translations: tens of thousands of notes. The notes help to ensure accuracy where the wording would be cumbersome or inelegant. Thus, both readability and elegance can be maintained to some degree without sacrificing accuracy. Solid scholarship, readable and elegant, and more notes than any other Bible in history. It’s not a major seller but that’s only because it hasn’t been strongly marketed. It is significant that this translation is what that the translators of the ESV and TNIV used to help them with the hard places. It has become the Bible that thousands of people use to grasp better what their preferred translation is doing. That is, the ESV or TNIV might be interpretive in a given place (all translations are interpretive), and they might come out on different ends of an issue. The NET Bible will have a note that explains the two views; no other Bible does this even close to the extent that the NET does. And it really pioneered the idea of having serious interpretive, textual, and translation notes. It’s available at www.bible.org.

Ultimately, whatever translation your congregation uses should be one that they can trust, one that they will read, and one that they will memorize from. On those three fronts, I think the NET Bible may be the best. But the ESV, RSV, and, to an extent, NIV and TNIV also fit the bill. My own recommendation to English-speaking Christians is to own more than one Bible. In fact, I usually recommend the KJV (for historic and literary reasons), the NET (for accuracy especially, but also for elegance and readability), and a Bible of their choice (which could be either for reading [NIV, TNIV] or memorizing [RSV, ESV]). 

Related Topics: Text & Translation