Should the Bible change?

The publishers of the popular English Standard Version (ESV), Crossway, have been in the news recently for proposing that their upcoming revisions become a “stable version” of the translation. In other words, they proposed to no longer make any changes after this next edition.


According to Crossway:

The text of the ESV Bible will remain unchanged in all future editions printed and published by Crossway—in much the same way that the King James Version (KJV) has remained unchanged ever since the final KJV text was established almost 250 years ago (in 1769)

You may (or may not) know that most English translations of the Bible are regularly revised and updated to account for changes in the English language. The New International Version (NIV) Bible that you pick up and read at Barnes and Noble today is different from the first edition of the translation published in 1978.

The changes, for the most part, are relatively small and focus on ways of communicating the Biblical author’s most probably intent that are most effective for the English language as it is used today or on recent developments in Biblical studies.

Why might a publisher want to establish a permanent version of their translation?

One reason is a sense of permanence and longevity. According to Christianity Today:

 “We desired for there to be a stable and standard text that would serve the reading, memorizing, preaching, and liturgical needs of Christians worldwide from one generation to another.”

It’s also difficult and costly for a publisher to maintain and synchronize continual updates to a Bible version.

“From a publishing standpoint, there are some practical concerns that might drive such a decision, freezing a translation simplifies the process of keeping new editions in sync with one another, and also increases confidence in the translation itself.”

Mark Norton, Bible Development Director,  Tyndale House Publishers

There are also copyright issues. For example, the rights to the King James Version (KJV) are held by British Crown and extend only to the United Kingdom. As a result the official version of the KJV has remained unchanged for hundreds of years, however outside of the United Kingdom there have been alterations and modifications.

The ESV is the third most popular translation among evangelicals in the United States–following the KJV, and the NIV. It is especially popular among millennials, which is in some ways surprising because it a more literal, word for word translation, and avoids is not gender inclusive in the same way as other version such as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), longtime standard Bible of the mainline churches.

Yesterday Crossway announced that they had reversed their decision and will periodically revise the ESV. They did so in an admirable way, presumably after hearing objections from a variety of biblical scholars on the need to be open to revision.

My Take

Personally, there are twin dangers here. On the one hand, the failure to revise a translation will lead to the KJV phenomenon–a wildly popular, but unread Bible. On the other hand, continual change implicitly reduces confidence in the translation itself and also in the Bible. Thinking in legal terms, changes should be made only when the preponderance of the evidence supports making the change. Its for this reason that I do not support the ESV’s re-translation of Genesis 3:16, which I will write about next week.

What do you think?

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