The Latest Changes in the ESV

Every Christian is entitled to his own interpretation, but not to his own translation.[1]

My pathologically precisionism and scrupulosity becomes easily incensed by mistranslations of the Bible. It is not the honest errors that irk, but rather the ones which I know emanate from pre-existing theological prejudices and speculations. There are days in which I would like to disparaging proclaim that the dishonesty of the Biblical scholars is so great that one must read the Bible in the original Hebrew and Greek.

While I use the ESV translation and will cite from that version, I am always wary of intentional translative massaging of the Greek text, such as occurs in the Romans 5:12–21 passage which New Calvinists/Reformed types use to validate the notion that all humanity are deemed guilty for Adam’s sin. This is obviously against the principles of divine (Deuteronomy 24:16, 2 Kings 14:6, Ezekiel 18:20) and human justice. The validity of Christ’s imputation is judicially dependent upon the free consent of the One who sacrificed (John 10:17–18) and paid the penalty on our behalf. There has been no such free consent given by Adam’s descendants.

Another example is from 1 Timothy 2:12 – “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.” My suspicion of the meaning behind the first prohibition is that men generally learn differently from women. Many, observing the current state of schoolboy’s performance in the public schools, suggest that a chief cause lies for their failure, relative to schoolgirls, is in the overwhelming predominance of female teachers.

However, the second prohibition is imprecisely translated in most of the English versions. The Greek word translated into ‘authority’ in this verse differs from the norm. Whereas ‘authority’ generally derives from exousia (ἐξουσία), which denotes conferred/delegated, legal, and/or moral authority; the Greek word used in the Timothy passage is authentein (αὐθεντεῖν), which literally translates as self-arm (or unilaterally take up arms), which abstractly infers a self-appointed, non-delegated authority. Therefore, a woman can have a position of authority as long as it is rightfully conferred/delegated.

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Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you. – Genesis 3:16b

A passage in Genesis 3:16 has been re-interpreted since the 1970s by the CBMW (The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) crowd that has differed from its historical understanding. In response to the feminist movement and Evangelical egalitarians, these CBMW “complementarians” have suggested that the passage infers a wife’s attempt to overrule the rightful authority of her husband. At one time, I held to the same misunderstanding. But while there is no doubt that some women do make such attempts, one cannot honestly derive that interpretation from the translation.

No problem! Let us just change the translation to conform to a preconceived theological understanding! Thereby, the translation of that passage in the ESV has been modified.

Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you. – Genesis 3:16b

If it be true that “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation” (2 Peter 1:20), then neither should any single translation be so inconsistent with every other translation. The general sense from other English translations is along the same lines as it originally was in the ESV.

Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. [NIV]

Yet your desire will be for your husband, And he will rule over you. [NASB]

and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. [KJV]

and your desire shall be to your husband, and he shall rule over you. [AKJV]

and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee. [ASV]

The standard Jewish translation states “and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee” (JPS Tanakh 1917). The Jewish scholars of the non-canonical Septuagint (3rd century BC) translated the passage into the Greek as:

καὶ πρὸς τὸν ἄνδρα σου ἡ ἀποστροφή σου καὶ αὐτός σου κυριεύσει

kai pros ton andra . . . apostrephó . . .

And towards the man [of] you turning away from you . . . (or turning back)

One presumes that the Jews should be better authorities concerning their own language than Christian Gentiles, presuming intellectual integrity on the part of the Jews.

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In the 332 instances of the exact Hebrew term wə-’el-, there is no other case whereby it has been translated to “contrary to.” That is until now! There are occasions when the Hebrew term has been translated to “against.” However, that understanding (“Your desire shall be against your husband”) would make one wonder why a woman would ever want to get married in the first place.

The revision in the ESV is semantically silly. It might make semantic sense if the passage declared that the woman’s desires (in the plural) would be contrary to that of your husband. What specific but undisclosed singular wifely desire could it be that is contrary to that of the husband?

And how would this curse be particular to woman only? Do sons not have desires contrary to their fathers, male employees contrary to their employers, and male subjects and citizens contrary to their governors? Is not rebellion a general condition of humanity?

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Another passage revised in politically necessary sympathy with Genesis 3:16 verse is Genesis 4:17. The ESV has been changed from:

And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it. – BEFORE

And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it. – AFTER

This rendering is semantically disjointed. The notion of sin crouching at the door infers an adversary laying a snare to bring a person under its bondage. This understanding of enslavement by sin is consistent with Romans 6 and 7.

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. – Romans 6:12

Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. – Romans 6:16–8

but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. – Romans 7:23

A Profound Revision in Understanding

Rebellion of the wife against the authority of the husband may indeed exist. However, in blatantly revising the translation to match contemporary concerns of CBMW complementarians, it deliberately neglects another existential and historical reality; namely, that woman have often found their longings for their husbands unfulfilled as the latter seeks satisfaction away and apart from the spouse, children, and household; whether in pursuit of accomplishment and leaving a legacy (a.k.a. material and occupational success or even ministry); or in hedonistic pleasure at gaming tables and horse tracks, drinking tables, or in the arms of another woman; or in sheer abandonment.

A similar notion of material and/or effectual family abandonment by the husband and father is implied elsewhere.

Because the Lord was witness between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant. Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union? And what was the one God seeking? Godly offspring. So guard yourselves in your spirit, and let none of you be faithless to the wife of your youth. “For the man who does not love his wife but divorces her, says the Lord, the God of Israel, covers his garment with violence, says the Lord of hosts. – Malachi 2:14–6

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers. – Malachi 4:5–6; cf. Luke 1:17

And God as Father and Christ as husband declares a dedicated faithfulness contrary to this human propensity. “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Hebrews 13:5). “Do not fear or be dismayed” (Deuteronomy 31:8).

Which is the ontological curse for a wife? Being contrary to one’s husband (which seems, in my mind, to be more an ontological curse for the husband); or the ever pressing threat of abandonment and resulting material and psychological impoverishment? It would seem that egocentric male concerns have corrupted the Biblical scholars who translated the ESV.

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I am a complementarian, but not of the CBMW variety. The nature of Biblical complementarianism is not that of gender-based roles. Anyone, who has meditated upon Proverbs 31:18–31 and other Scriptural passages with intellectual and interpretative honesty, will not find the notion of “roles” in Scriptures, whether explicitly or implicitly. There are a very few functions which are delegated to males and females. But these can be explained upon other rational foundations (e.g. orderliness – “For God is not a God of confusion/disorder but of peace” – 1 Corinthians 14:33).

Rather, I would suggest that Biblical complementarianism is based on probabilistic differences in gender propensities and approaches to life, as well as distinctive physical attributes. This makes some of life’s functions more amenable to one gender or the other. But both Scriptures are, and real life must be more flexible than the patriarchal, cum “complementarian” notions of the CBMW crowd. And in reducing the gender differences to roles rather than to natural propensities, the CBMW crowd become intellectually incapable of presenting a credible rational defense against same-sex relationships and marriage.

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It is never a good occasion to translate a passage in the midst of controversy; or to trust such translations. Even beyond that; the blatantly deceitful and unconvincing manner of this latest ESV revision makes one averse to utilizing the ESV Bible, invokes greater distrust of the Christian intelligentsia, and discredits the cause of Christ.

 

 

 

[1] This is a variant on Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous quip, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts” as it relates to texts.
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