Bible Translations, IV: 21st Century Revisions

The 20th century was a time of great tumult, change, and transformation in general, and it was especially so in terms of Bible translations in English. At the beginning of the century the American Standard Version was released in a world defined by the King James Version; by the end of the century, while many still used the King James Version, many other translations had been developed and were widely used. The work of attempting to provide Bibles that make good sense of the Hebrew and Greek texts while remaining comprehensible to modern English speakers remains in the 21st century; the two newest translations of the century, the English Standard Version and the Christian Standard Bible, represent two different means toward that end.

In 2001 Crossway Books released a new revision of the Revised Standard Version called the English Standard Version (ESV). The ESV used an “essentially literal” philosophy of translation but consciously sought to render the Bible’s text into good, clear modern English idiom and grammar. Throughout the twenty-first century the ESV has gained in popularity, and for good reason: its reading level has been brought down to a more manageable level for the Bible student (8th grade level), and the text is rendered in clear, concise English, more easily understood than many other formal equivalence versions, and the ESV has been distributed freely online and in many Bible programs.

The original rendering of Malachi 2:16 in the ESV raised many eyebrows (“For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the LORD, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence”); it is a defensible translation of the text, but has been revised in later editions. Its use of “wife” in 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 is interpretive and inconsistent at times. Its confessional leanings are not strongly manifest in translation but prove striking in the ESV Study Bible and similar resources, and ought to be used with appropriate caution. Nevertheless, on the whole, the English Standard Version strikes a good balance between faithful rendering of the Hebrew and Greek texts and rendering the meaning of the text in clear, 21st century English; it provides great benefit in personal study and works excellently in preaching and teaching.

In 2004 the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) was released, published by LifeWay through the Broadman & Holman Publishing Group. The HCSB would be revised in 2010; its most significant change featured the use of the transliteration of the Divine Name (Yahweh) as opposed to the traditional replacement of LORD in many places. In 2017 a new revision of the HCSB was released, entitled the Christian Standard Bible (CSB); among its revisions was a return to the traditional use of LORD for YHWH.

The HCSB manifested some major shifts in Bible translation. It was the first translation named for a Bible publishing company; while its translators may have been cross-confessional, the HCSB itself was commissioned and published by the publishing arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Furthermore, the growing popularity of the dynamic equivalent, or “thought for thought” philosophy of Bible translation, led the translators of the HCSB toward a philosophy which they called “optimal equivalence,” their attempt at “balancing” between formal equivalent and dynamic equivalent translation methods.

To this end the HCSB/CSB provide some fresh and compelling translations of many passage that can help the reader get a good sense of what the author attempts to convey; many times the “optimal equivalence” philosophy works. The HCSB and CSB maintain a 7th to 8th grade reading level and are also presented in concise, clear English.

And yet “optimal equivalence” can manifest the same difficulties as “dynamic equivalence”: the more the translators attempt to interpret to bring out meaning, the more the doctrinal and theological biases of the translators become manifest. For years many have criticized some of the translation decisions of the dynamic equivalent New International Version (NIV), especially in passages like Psalm 51:5:

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.

How much more, then, in the HCSB and CSB?

Indeed, I was guilty when I was born; I was sinful when my mother conceived me.

Thus the HCSB proves as or more dynamically equivalent in certain verses than many dynamic equivalent translations. There is value in the dynamic equivalence approach, assisting the reader in English to better understand the core meaning and perhaps some nuances of the original which are difficult to render while maintaining the standard of formal equivalence. Nevertheless, the moment a translation departs from a strong commitment to rendering the original word-for-word, the reader must become careful in his or her inferences drawn from how the text reads; the inference might seem valid based on how the text is rendered in such a translation but prove less sustainable based on the way the Hebrew or Greek are rendered in a more literal way.

The HCSB and CSB provide benefits to those who would read it. The reader does well to remember that the translators returned to many conventions in the CSB away from the HCSB on account of reader criticism, and would do well to compare the HCSB and/or CSB to renderings in the ASV, NASB, and/or ESV for comparison. The HCSB and CSB would be good for reading and personal study; while many are beginning to use them in preaching and teaching, uncritical use in proclamation is unwise.

The work of translation and revision will no doubt continue as the 21st century progresses, and it will likely follow the paths trod by the ESV and HCSB/CSB. May we seek to use such translations to come to a better understanding of what God has made known in Christ and obtain the resurrection of life!

Ethan R. Longhenry

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