Comparing the texts: the ESV and friends

While waiting to see if an enquiry regarding the ESV and the proposed new Lectionary bears fruit, we might take a look at the ESV text as it stands in comparison with some other established texts. As it stands, that is, because it seems sensible to expect that the texts used for the Lectionary will be revised and edited by one or more Catholic scholars so, if only (though, surely, not only) to ensure the approval of Rome.

By way of an aside, it was interesting to find that a Baptist (holding that the King James Version is the one ordained by God) arguing – here and here – that the ESV (and other translations like the NIV) are actually Catholic translations already. His line of argument, detailed as it is, is not convincing, it has to be said, but it does rather suggest that the ESV, even prior to any Catholic editing, is not an intrinsically un- or anti-Catholic translation. We do well also to remember that the wonderful RSV itself originated as a Protestant work, which was later edited by Catholic scholars to produce a Catholic Edition. A precedent for the ESV is thus clearly established.

If you would like to read a detailed comparison of ESV and RSV translations on certain topical texts then the work has already been done over at Bible Researcher. As a taste, some examples provided include Isaiah 7:14, part of which in the original Protestant RSV was rendered “Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son”; in the ESV it is translated “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son”. Even before a Catholic team has revised the text we have a translation that is fully consistent with Catholic tradition, and with the original reference to a “maiden”. In the study version of the ESV there is a lengthy and informative note attached to this verse explaining the preference for “virgin”.

Another example provided is Genesis 22:17, which ends in the RSV (including the Catholic edition), “And your decendants shall possess the gate of their enemies”; whereas in the ESV it is “And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies”. The ESV notes give the reason: the logic of Genesis, especially as illuminated by the New Testament, is that God is preparing from among Abraham’s descendants a line from which a new King, a new Adam, a Messiah, will emerge. This is confirmed by St Paul in Galatians 3:16, who equates “offspring” with the “Christ”. This restores the proper Christological perspective to the text and is quite consistent with Catholic interpretation. Indeed, it is a real improvement on the RSV.

The Bible Researcher site also adverts to instances where it thinks the RSV is superior. It is not offering apologetics for the ESV.

For our purposes, we might consider the second reading at Mass today, 1 Corinthians 1:22-25. In the Catholic RSV it reads:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

In the ESV, as untouched by Catholic revisions, it reads:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

As can be seen, the ESV (which takes as its starting point the RSV) has seen fit to leave the RSV unaltered.

By comparison, the New American Bible (NAB) in use in the USA’s lectionary reads:

For Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, Jews and Greeks alike, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.

It is an inoffensive translation and quite dignified, though it has made the effort to remove the reference to “men” and so meets the demands of inclusive language, without, it must be said, making a song and dance about it.

In the Jerusalem Bible (JB), used in most lectionaries used outside the USA, we find:

While the Jews demand miracles and the Greeks look for wisdom, here are we preaching a crucified Christ; to the Jews an obstacle that they cannot get over, to the pagans madness, but to those who have been called, whether they are Jews or Greeks, a Christ who is the power and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

More liberties have taken here than in the other translations so far. “Here we are preaching” has the gratuitous addition of a temporal/ spatial adverb, adding nothing to our understanding. The JB also feels the need to elaborate on “obstacle” as something the Jews “cannot get over”. That may be true, but it is another gratuitous addition that might almost appear to be labouring the point. The “pagans” as a translation of “nations” is fair enough, though saying that for them the Cross is “madness” again oversteps the Greek original text, which calls it “folly”, or foolishness, or even we might say, silliness. It is not wildly inappropriate, but I wonder if yet again the JB is labouring a point too long. And lastly, the JB too avoids reference to “men”, which is clearly present in the Greek (anthropon).

Moving now to a traditional Catholic translation, we find in the Douay-Rheims (DR) version:

For both the Jews require signs, and the Greeks seek after wisdom: But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness: But unto them that are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

This accurately accords with the Greek text, and really only differs from the RSV/ESV in a slight archaism of style. “Stumblingblock” is a picturesque synonym for “obstacle” (skandalon in the Greek, whence our “scandal”). Despite its relative antiquity, the DR provides an easily understood and accurate translation of our text.

Lastly, the Knox (K) version, at one time approved by the English bishops, renders our text thus:

Here are the Jews asking for signs and wonders, here are the Greeks intent on their philosophy; but what we preach is Christ crucified; to the Jews, a discouragement, to the Gentiles, mere folly; but to us who have been called, Jew and Gentile alike, Christ the power of God, Christ the wisdom of God. So much wiser than men is God’s foolishness; so much stronger than men is God’s weakness.

K, like the DR, is a translation of the Vulgate, though with reference to the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Monsignor Knox was working far more in the tradition of what is now called dynamic equivalence. He elaborates and adds in parts, uses synonyms, and generally seems to seek for a more rhetorical effect. Thus he replaces “wisdom” (sophia[n] in the Greek) with “philosophy” which is of course the “love of wisdom”: rhetorical, but no damage done to the sense. More difficult to accept is his use of “discouragement” for “obstacle”, or “stumblingblock”. K strikes me as too weak here, and conveys a mood that does not match the stridency of “obstacle”, “stumblingblock”, or even (literally) “scandal”. He transforms the “those” who are called to “us”, which is not faithful to the Greek (tois kletois – “the called ones”) and becomes just a little too smug in its self-reference. Lastly, the double use of “so much” is an elaboration and addition to the original text for rhetorical effect. Again, K seems to take a few too many liberties with the text, though it reads quite well.

From this little comparison of translations available or projected for Catholic use, it seems that the ESV emerges well, reflecting as it does the RSV. The example scripture was provided by the liturgy for today, and used for convenience. Perhaps a more controversial text could be found if desired.

[UPDATE] I should have mentioned that Timothy has provided a useful brief comparison of 12 interesting translations in the NRSV and ESV. You can read it here.

7 thoughts on “Comparing the texts: the ESV and friends

    1. Oh Michael! I was using “men” in its previously accepted sense of “humankind”, as were the ESV and RSV. :-p

      That said, the issue of inclusive language is a live one in some quarters of the Church. My only beef is that the alternatives usually employed to inclusify matters are so cumbersome, awkward and often ugly. I guess I am a Luddite on this one.

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  1. Father Hugh,

    Your post seems to imply that the Lectionary will be standardized for the entire English-speaking world. This doesn’t apply to the United States as well, does it? I was under the impression that were no circumstances under which our bishops would surrender their precious NAB.

    If you know otherwise, that would be welcome news indeed.

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    1. Welcome Jon.

      Yes, sometimes I was a little breezy in the way I wrote. Yet I did nudge myself to attention in the last comment I wrote below the post itself, when I said the new Lectionary was “a winner for non-American anglophone Catholics”. Non-American. You guys keep what you have. Sorry!

      Pax.

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