The ESV Literary Style

For the last few weeks, I’ve been explaining the reasons I prefer the English Standard Version of the Bible for use in the church. Last week, I offered my first reason: the ESV is translated in a way that emphasizes the words and grammar of the Bible’s original languages.

The second reason I prefer the English Standard Version for use in the church is literary style. The ESV strikes what I think is an appropriate balance between refined language on the one hand and readability on the other.

Some modern translations are too casual for my taste. I think it’s helpful when the style of a Bible translation is elevated above the vernacular enough to capture readers’ attention with expressions that linger in the mind. I don’t prefer for the word of God to read like a Dick and Jane story. For example, here is 2 Corinthians 4:1 in one particularly free translation: “Since God has so generously let us in on what he is doing, we’re not about to throw up our hands and walk off the job just because we run into occasional hard times.” Contrast that with the ESV: “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart.”

On the other hand, the ESV not overly wordy or formal. Reportedly written at an 8th grade reading level, it can be read aloud fairly easily. Some other literal translations, however, are so archaic or stilted, many readers stumble when attempting to read them out loud. This problem is only compounded for those who are not very familiar with the Scriptures.

Granted, the point I’m making is a matter of preference. I don’t know of any specific verses or theological principles which would regulate the style in which God’s word should be rendered when moving from one language to another. In fact, it helps to bear in mind the fact that, even though the Bible deals with holy matters, for the most part it was originally written in the everyday Greek and Hebrew of commoners, not in the lofty, reverent style of King James English!