A Dilemma of Biblical Proportions.

I’m wanting to buy a new Bible. My last one was given to me by my ex-husband about 9 years ago and I can’t stand the hypocritical inscription in the cover any more! Apart from tearing the cover out – which I can’t bring myself to do because then I would have to use a Bible I defaced…it just seems wrong – I think my only option is to buy a new Bible. So, here’s my question: Which Bible?

I have been researching and I think I’d like an ESV but I have been using the NIV Study Bible for so long that I’m finding it hard to pull away. I love the annotations in the NIV Study but I’d like to try an ESV because I have heard and read that the translation is more literal than others (you can compare verses here). At the same time I have been put off the ESV because it is also known as the Eastern Suburbs Version* here in Sydney and this puts me off because the reworked title conjures up images of the exclusivity associated with the Eastern Suburbs. It’s a ridiculous reason, I know, yet strangely has been a hurdle. I just don’t want a snobby Bible!

So, I was thinking, perhaps I need an ESV Study Bible. But when I searched for one all I could find was this:


Not that this is necessarily bad either. However, having not seen the Bible, except for an excerpt on Ellen’s blog, I’m wondering if it will influence my interpretation of the Bible as I’m reading. If I’m going for a Bible that is more literal do I really want it to be interpreting what is written from one particular perspective? Don’t get me wrong, I am a Christian of Reformed persuasion yet I don’t want to just take this as the given perspective. I want to test and challenge my views in order to be convinced of the truth. I want to read the Bible as it is and see if it matches the Reformed perspective I have come to hold not read the Bible through Reformed tainted glasses – if that makes sense.

Along the way I’ve discussed the pros and cons with minister friends and have read too many articles and have seen a very strange game (!?) on the same. Then I heard about the Geneva Bible and discovered there will be an ESV Literary Study Bible to which I immediately thought both “Ooooh!” and “Hmmm?” and as a result have become not a little confused.

If you’re with me this far, you’re doing well and may be ready to answer my next few questions:

What do you think?

What are the pros and cons of each as you see them?

Which Bible translation are you using and why?

Have you used the ESV and/or NIV? Which do you prefer?

I’d love to hear all your reasons from the ridiculous – such as one Bible is perceived to be more snobby! – to the sublime.

*Because a prominent minister from the Eastern Suburbs was on the Translation Advisory Council for the ESV.

31 Responses to “A Dilemma of Biblical Proportions.”

  1. Ellen Says:

    There’s also the question of whether you can find the right Bible in the right version that has that nice supple leather cover that feels good in your hand and is trendy cool! I’m looking forward to seeing other recommendations. 🙂

  2. missmellifluous Says:

    Yes, I do like leather bound. And the pages must feel just right. Nice and thin. I’m glad we’re on the same wavelength, Ellen. I’d love to hear of your experience of The Reformation Study Bible too because your use of it has inspired me to consider it further.

  3. John Dekker Says:

    It’s also called the “Extremely Similar Version”.

    It’s my conviction that anyone who’s an
    c)native English speaker
    d)mature Christian
    should use a literal translation as their personal Bible. Basically, that means ESV, NASB or NKJV.

    Whether or not to get a study Bible is a separate issue. They have their limitations. But I’m sure the Reformation Study Bible would be just about the best of the lot. Personally, I would be interested in getting a Literary Study Bible, (it may be able to fill gaps in my knowledge) but I don’t know if I could recommend it to others.

    Anyway, I use the ESV, and have done so for about three years. Before that I usually read the NKJV. That was in the New Geneva Study Bible, which I think is the same as the Reformation Study Bible. I grew frustrated with it in the end, because it never seemed to answer the questions I was actually asking. A lot of the comments seemed quite inane to me.

    Of course, I can’t sign off without recommending that you learn Greek.

  4. John Dekker Says:

    OK, I’ve just downloaded the Literary Study Bible brochure. It’s not grabbing me. Studying literary structures is only useful if you can deduce what they are teaching, and I don’t see much of that so far. Besides, they’re missing the really important themes of Genesis – like that of seed and land.

    And what’s the deal with the Divine Name? Is that a printing error?

    Thumbs-down at the moment.

  5. Paul Says:

    I use the NIV and the ESV – so no help there! I understand that the ESV is a more accurate translation, and I’m vaguely unhappy about the commercial status of the NIV. However, it is readable, generally accurate, and it is the “pew” Bible at our church, so that tends to be the one I use. When I speak at church, I want hearers to know that I am speaking using the text they have in front of them. If the translation is inaccurate, then I explain what the differences are.

    I’m not keen on “red letter” Bibles (it’s all the Word of God, not just the Jesus quotes), and at risk of sweeping generalisations, much of the added content of study Bibles can be of limited value. Let the text itself (the rest of the Bible) illuminate the text, and if you are really stumped by something, a reliable commentary is likely to be more informative and helpful than the notes in a study Bible. The concordance side is obviously not really relevant any more by virtue of sites like biblegateway.com.

    If I were able to make a recommendation, I’d suggest: buy a basic NIV or ESV, and spend the extra money on the Moore Theological College correspondence course. I don’t think I’ve met anyone who hasn’t felt they have benefitted from the course!

  6. rebecca Says:

    Then I . . . discovered there will be an ESV Literary Study Bible to which I immediately thought both “Ooooh!” and “Hmmm?”

    This one made me laugh out loud. I was thinking exactly the same thing. The word “literary” makes it sound so exciting until you start thinking about what exactly that title means!

    I like the ESV. I use a reformation study bible, but I also sometimes read the study notes and think, “Pfft! Missed the boat on that one.”

    I don’t think that’s different than it would be with any study Bible, though. You have to take the notes a little lightly.

  7. missmellifluous Says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Paul and Rebecca,

    Paul, I don’t think concordances are obsolete. Bible Gateway’s keyword search is so painful that I often use my concordance when locating verses there anyway. And there are the times when you are reading outside or away from a computer, so a concordance is still on the list of necessary items for me.

    Moore College courses are pretty cheap here and yes, beneficial but I seriously don’t have the time for that right now. Even if I were to do one via correspondence. It’s a great idea – one I will probably pursue one day…

    I already have a range of Bible dictionaries and commentaries – they are gold! – but I do like the study notes in the Bible, often I don’t read them but I like that they are there. I also like the maps and historical information for context.

    For all my rejection I do appreciate your ideas. Thanks!

    I’d still love to look at the Literary Bible to see what it is like – did you see the 16 page download of Genesis that you can access via the link? – but I am quite skeptical about a Bible that encourages me to read it as if it were literature. I have met so many Professors who think the Bible is the ultimate text but boldly reject its claim to truth.

    Thanks for your advice about The Reformation Study Bible and the notes. That has been my experience of the notes in the NIV as well.

    I’m considering all this advice. Thank you.

  8. missmellifluous Says:

    Hi John,
    Your comments always get lost as spam so it takes me a while to find them and get them back. Sorry.

    I began learning Greek when I was about 18 but gave up as self teaching was more like self guessing at that stage. I’d still love to learn it. One day…

    What is this “Divine Name” thing? I missed that.

  9. missmellifluous Says:

    Do you mean the “L God” thing with the O and R superimposed over the top of each other? I think it might be a printing issue because it is also happening with the word “Let” on page 5. If they were doing the Divine Name thing surely there would be an annotation about it.

  10. John Dekker Says:

    Oh, the Divine Name is what is usually translated as “LORD”. Did it come up funny for you as well in that brochure?

    I would say that it’s essential to recognise that the Bible is great literature. Recognising literary devices can help us to understand it better. And I can, for example, highly recommend the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery. It’s just this particular study Bible that looks disappointing.

  11. John Dekker Says:

    Yes, I’d find it hard to see why you’d do it intentionally. But some people are silly.

    I write it as YHWH, myself. And I pronounce that “the Lord”.

  12. radagast Says:

    Personally, I prefer the NIV to the ESV. The fans of the ESV seem to be slowly departing from it.

    But no translation is perfect, so a pair of Bibles is better than one, and the NIV/NKJV make a particularly good pair.

    Matthew 6:28
    ESV And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin.
    KJV And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.
    NIV And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.
    TONY And why do you worry about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin.
    (NIV and ESV just as good)

    2 Corinthians 5:7
    ESV For we walk by faith, not by sight.
    KJV For we walk by faith, not by sight.
    NIV We live by faith, not by sight.
    TONY We walk by faith, not by sight.
    (“walk” more literal, but “live” is meant)

    Revelation 3:20
    ESV Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me.
    KJV Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.
    NIV Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.
    TONY Look — I am standing at the door and knocking! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, then I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.
    (I think the Greek tense of “knocking” needs to be respected. I don’t think “come in to” should be translated word-for-word, since “with him” conveys the sense).

    2 Corinthians 5:17
    ESV Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.
    KJV Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
    NIV Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!
    TONY So anyone in Christ is a new creation — the old things have gone, the new have arrived!
    (I think an exclamation mark is a better translation of the Greek “idou” than “behold”. I think “things” is needed to show that it’s not the old person that has gone).

  13. missmellifluous Says:

    So, when are you publishing your translation, Radagast? Perhaps I really should learn Greek.

    Thanks for the comparisons. They are helpful. To me, there is not a lot of difference between the NIV and ESV. I see your point in all the passages but the difference is quite minimal, don’t you think? The sense of the passage is never changed. I agree with you on the Corinthians verses: being a new creation is certainly worthy of an exclamation mark!

    Why is it that people are abandoning the ESV now?

    I have a parallel Bible that I use for comparisons but I just want one single version for daily reading. One. Just one. But which one? Argh!

  14. John Dekker Says:

    I don’t think Radagast’s examples form a random sample. Neither do these:

    Hebrews 4:2
    NIV The message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.
    ESV The message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.

    Hebrews 11:11
    NIV By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.
    ESV By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.

    Revelation 13:8
    NIV All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.
    ESV All who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb that was slain.

  15. missmellifluous Says:

    To John & Radagast – and anyone else who can translate the Greek:
    How do you account for the difference in Hebrews 11:11?
    How would you translate those verses?

  16. John Dekker Says:

    The only way I can account for the difference is that the NIV translators are being very, very naughty.

    Translating on the run, I would go:

    By faith Sarah herself received power to have a deposit of sperm, even past that age of life, since she considered the one who had promised to be faithful.

    I guess the only thing going for the NIV translators was that they might have thought only men have a deposit of sperm.

  17. missmellifluous Says:

    Ha! & Ah!

    Ok. So I can see how a very literal translation may be a bit of a strange/confronting thing…

    What do you make of:
    John 1:16
    NIV 16From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another.
    ESV 16And from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

  18. Steve Grose Says:

    Mel, I too have done a lot with Greek over the last 28 years.
    ESV is very, very similar to NASB.
    (I am using ESV now after using NASB for aeons).

    NKJV uses a different priority of Manuscripts. It is good to have too (after all, no one is absolutely 100% sure which are the better “more original” Manuscripts… so take an each way bet 🙂 )

    The John Macarthur Study Bible is a good alternative (better than the NIV Study bible for the accuracy of its notes). Its about $50 (and in the NASB) from Grace To You. http://www.gty.org.au/

    The NIV is pretty shocking as a translation.. (Romans is VERY poorly translated according to Australian Leon Morris in his Pillar series commentary). Its credibility is diminished further by the TNIV’s non-sexist language… again, translator’s theological views interposed over the biblical text.

    You can have ALL of these versions for free at a tremendous site that allows free download and usage.

    I have from that site several Greek versions, ESV, NKJV and HCSB (halfway between NIV and ESV) and CEV (for a laugh).

    It also allows you to compare verses in various translations.


  19. Steve Grose Says:

    And (or because) out of His fullness we have all received, and grace (anti = upon, for, with, in place of ) grace.

  20. rebecca Says:

    Oh! I wrote a post on the Abraham/Sarah thing once.


    Leon Morris, as long as we’re talking about him, thought the verse is referring to Abraham’s faith.

  21. Radagast Says:

    My sample wasn’t random, just the shortest bits from the online Bible comparisons.

    And no, there’s not a huge difference between the NIV and the ESV, but I still think the NIV is slightly in front.

    I do disagree with John on word-by-word “literal” translations: often they are less true to the original than one which is a little more free.

    My best attempt at Heb 11:11 is as follows (the orginal is ambiguous as to whose faith is in question):

    NIV By faith Abraham, even though he was past age—and Sarah herself was barren—was enabled to become a father because he considered him faithful who had made the promise.
    ESV By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered him faithful who had promised.
    TONY By faith also the barren Sarah was able to be fertilised, even in old age, since the One who had promised was considered faithful.

    The NIV (correctly in my view, given the context) focuses on Abraham’s faith leading to his ability to fertilise his wife(though with a footnote that it might be Sarah’s faith that’s meant).

    The ESV (incorrectly in my view) focuses on Sarah’s faith (and without a footnote!). Personally, I’d retain the ambiguity of the original here.

    Basically, the NIV translators seem to to me to have thought much harder about the tricky bits than the ESV translators have.

  22. Radagast Says:

    For John 1:16, I think that both the NIV and ESV do a fair job. I would probably personally follow the ESV here (but without the comma!), but both translations are good.

    One has to be careful with the word for “grace” though — it doesn’t always have the same theological connotations. The ESV isn’t entirely consistent in their approach, since in Luke 1:28 they translate “Greetings, O favored one” instead of “Hail Mary, full of grace.”

  23. Radagast Says:

    On Revelation 13:8, the NIV is right to replace “it” by “beast” (Greek has less ambiguity in pronouns than English because of inflections, and so translators sometimes need to substitute nouns).

    ESV and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.
    NIV All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world [or: written from the creation of the world in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain].

    I also like the way that the NIV uses dashes as part of their translation — they often use punctation to get aspects of the Greek across. Full points there.

    But the NIV’s “Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world” is in my view wrong — wrong BECAUSE it actually is a “literal” translation. It needs modification of the word order (as the ESV does), or some punctuation. What were they thinking?

    In fairness to the NIV though, they’ve picked up a possible ambiguity in the original with a footnote, and that is an acceptable way to handle it (especially in view of the theological importance of this passage).

    Basically the NIV philosophy seems to be that the footnotes are part of the translation (and so quoting the “NIV equivalent” without footnotes, as many people do, is not fair).

  24. Beth Says:

    Just get the KJV, it’s the truest to the original text.

  25. Scott Foresman Says:

    I’m an Anglican (U.S.), and came across this topic this a.m. I have gone over the translation issue, in my mind, over and over and OVER again. It seems I never come to any lasting conclusion about translations. The NIV, at times, makes CLEARER the meaning of Paul. Other times, there is clearly INTERPRETATION and not TRANSLATION. I resist ‘sin nature’ (vs flesh) and the use of ‘deeds’ rather than ‘works’ in James. The ESV is yes, more ‘literal’, and does follow in the tradition of the KJV/RSV, but sometimes is too literal. I do find that in the NIV, Paul’s writings are again, at times, better-understood than the ESV or NRSV. Speaking of the NRSV, I know that many conservatives reject this translation because of the ‘gender neutral’ language. That is unfortunate. I note that at Asbury Theo. Seminary (a conservative Wesleyan seminary in Kentucky, US) the NRSV is the standard text. That all said, currently I’m reading the NIV most of the time…and yes the NIV Study Bible. The notes are helpful, but also, at times, I thoroughly disagree with the ‘notes’. As an Anglican, I tend to be more ‘Catholic’ in my view of justification, for example. One bible that seems very interesting to me is the new Orthodox (NKJV) Study Bible. Certainly I think evangelicals would benefit from the ‘eastern’ take on Scripture.

    So, what bible DID you decide to get?

  26. Simon Leung Says:

    I currently own seven different types of bibles.

    These range from The Greek Septuagint (Koine Greek), The Jewish Study Bible (JPS Translation), KJV 1611 Edition, KJV Reference,NRSV, NASB-Updated Edition,NIV and ESV.

    I use the KJV Reference,NASB,NRSV,NIV and ESV to compare textual passages. Since I don’t have a preference as to which bible I use the most I often finding myself,using all five translations in my devotions.

    However,when it comes to the Old Testament this is where my Greek Septuagint and my Jewish Study Bible becomes handy because it gives me a different perspective from the other bibles that I have in my collection.

  27. Ted Michael Morgan Says:

    Crossway has just published the EVS Study Bible. It is a conservative study Bible.

    I am a liberal Protestant and most often use the NRSV, but I own seveal study Bibles including the Oxford Jewish Study Bible (JPS), the Oxford RSV and NEB study Bibles and the Oxford Catholic Study Bible (NAB).

    But, even at that, the EVS Study Bible is a conservative edition and the EVS is a great translation.

  28. David Says:

    My Bible Reading Preference and the Reasons for It

    I originally used the NIV. I then moved on to other Bibles for a short while at a time to see what else was out there: KJV, NASB, ESV, NIV, ESV. I’m now settled on the ESV. The KJV uses words in a different way than we use them today, so you can read the wrong thing into it a lot. The NASB is good (my bro uses it and my favorite preacher), but sometimes the sentences are a little confusing. The NIV paraphrases a little bit too much for my tastes. The ESV is very literal like the NASB, but with (generally) nice, flowing English. Also, my ESV is a large-print Bible, so I don’t need to squint.

    I’d generally recommend ESV, NASB, or NIV. I know plenty of people who like the NLT a lot, so that’s okay too, although it will do more paraphrasing/interpreting for you than the NIV which can be bad sometimes.

    I’d recommend against any super-paraphrase Bibles like the Message. Almost every time I’ve compared the ESV’s attempt at an English translation of the original texts to the Message’s paraphrase/interpretation of the text, I’ve been horrified that people actually use that as their Bible.

    I believe that the originals would be best, but since we don’t speak Greek and Hebrew, we should read a translation in our own language which seeks to just be a translation of the original. We should read God’s Word for what he actually said, and then apply it to ourselves after that. We shouldn’t begin with a paraphrase of what God meant until we actually hear what he said. It’s up to the Holy Spirit, the individual Christian, and the history of interpretation within the last 2,000 years of Biblical Christianity to decide what the Bible means, not the translator. The translator’s job is just to deliver to us what the Bible says.

  29. John Walter Says:

    I think NIV is all-around the best Bible translation. Others can be used as supplements (NLT, CEV, NASB), but as a primary Bible for reading and memorizing NIV is best.

    ESV is not as literal as most people make it out to be. It’s actually closer to the NIV in many ways than it is to the NASB. Furthermore, the English style is actually worse in the ESV as compared with the NIV (at least in my opinion).

    Ultimately, I think the NIV is more accurate in that it more clearly communicates the meaning. Sometimes it errs on the side of being a little too literal, but if your options are NIV vs ESV, go with the former.

  30. James Roper Says:

    Personally, I like The Message. Though not a translation, I’ve read the Bible many times in my life (doing Bible in a year reading plans), and have heard sermons every Sunday from Moore college ministers. This means I know more than most Christians do in the world about the Bible, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but does have the negative side effect of culturally separating me from those around me that haven’t grown up in church, because words that I use every day and have spent hours studying the intricate meaning of, they never use, and hence are useless when it comes to explaining my faith. The communication barrier is massive. I like The Message because it helps bring me back to reality, helps me to be able to express my faith in terms that the people that I’ve been sent to tell the message can understand. And that is far more important to me than expanding my knowledge of the Bible.

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