ESV vs. NASB
I have been engaged in a survey and evaluation of many current English Bible translations. The ESV and NASB are part of this analysis. The following is a summary of my comparison between these two fine translations. I will admit that it is subjective and I stress that this is strictly my opinion based upon what I have learned thus far.
General Comments about the ESV:
The ESV is a relatively new translation developed by a team of scholars over several years. It is a revision to the RSV from half a century ago. As such it stands in the time-honored tradition of Tyndale, Geneva, and King James. It is a highly accurate and readable translation while maintaining a literal standard with the original language. For a thorough analysis of the essentially literal philosophy I highly recommend Leland Ryken’s book “The Word of God in English.” He makes a compelling case for the essentially literal philosophy over and above the more popular dynamic equivalent philosophy used in many more contemporary translations such as the NIV and NLT. Also, the ESV has as its goal to maintain the literary nature and quality of the original. Since the Bible contains many different forms of literature (poetry, narrative, didactic, etc.) the translators attempted to maintain this literary form and structure within the English language. This is good and helpful to the reader of Scripture in that you can read the Bible in the same sense in which the original readers would have read it.
General Comments about the NASB:
The NASB is a conservative revision to the ASV and is widely regarded as the most literal translation in English. Though it has never seen wide distribution due to its perceived “woodenness” of the translation it has been widely used in seminaries and by those seeking to have an English Bible that reflects the Greek and Hebrew grammar and style. To be fair to the NASB the charge of being “wooden” is not really an accurate assessment especially since the 1995 update. In my opinion and experience it is every bit as readable as the ESV and perhaps better than the NKJV and KJV.
Pros for both the ESV and NASB:
1) Both are accurate and reliable translations.
2) Both are essentially literal.
3) Both are readable English.
4) Both stand in the tradition of Tyndale, Geneva, and King James.
5) Both use the best manuscripts to translate the NT.
Pros for the NASB:
1) Regarded as the most accurate Bible in English.
2) Excellent translational notes. All areas where there is a significant variation in the text or translation you will find a footnote with the alternative translation.
3) OT quotes in the NT are in all capital letters making them very easy to find.
4) Pronouns referencing deity are capitalized. This may not be great use of English grammar but it is appropriate and makes the discussion easy to follow in areas where many pronouns are used.
5) Makes a sincere effort to not function as the interpreter of the text. Thus allowing the reader to function as the interpreter. In a day and age when dynamic and even paraphrase translations are on the rise in popularity this is a serious plus.
Cons for the NASB:
1) Follows Greek and Hebrew word order closely. This can make for some difficult readings in English. Though the charge of “wooden” English is a bit unfair, there are areas of this test which are difficult English and do not flow well when read aloud. The 1995 update went a long way to help this but it is still an issue with the translation.
2) Not all translational decisions take advantage of modern scholarship. Traditional readings are sometimes favored over more accurate readings. For example the use of the term “inspired” rather than the more accurate “God-breathed” in 2 Timothy 3:16 (thought this is footnoted.)
3) The NASB retains some archaic English terms even though they do not best represent the clear translation of the original text. For example, the use of the term “begotten” in John 1:14, 18, and 3:16 is an attempt to translate a Greek term meaning “one and only” or “unique.” Begotten does not mean this and is an improper translation of the Greek. I am not a Greek scholar by any means but this opinion is supported by many scholars. The NASB footnotes the more accurate translation but chooses to use the other term. Why this was done is only known by the translators.
Pros for the ESV:
1) Maintains a balance of accuracy with good readable English. The ESV can easily be read aloud and understood by both the reader and those hearing.
2) The English used in the ESV is of a higher quality that we normally see in our everyday life. This is actually a good thing. I know people assert the fact that the NT was written in the common form of Greek as support for making translations sound more like our everyday speech. I sympathize with this viewpoint but there is a difference between making a translation understandable to modern people and making it in the base vernacular of the day. I believe that there is a place for translations at a lower level of English but this is frequently done at the expense of accuracy and results in a much more dynamic and interpretive translation. Also, the vernacular English of our day is typically devoid of reverence and awe. The English Bible should call Christians to a higher standard and allow the teachers and pastors to interpret the text. It is difficult to worship a God who is referred to as “Dude” (no translation currently does this but there is a decided lack of respect for the Almighty in many of the more paraphrase-leaning translations available.)
3) It has been embraced and endorsed by many Christian leaders. (RC Sproul and John Piper to name two.) This is not a reason by itself to embrace this translation but it is significant when knowledgeable and godly Christian leaders agree on a Bible translation.
4) The footnotes are very helpful. They not only explain translational issues but the offer some explanatory notes as well. (Ref: Matt. 27:26 which footnotes the word “scourged” to offer an explanation as to what this means.) This is well done and not overdone.
5) The ESV is easy to follow along with when in church services or Bible studies where either the NIV or NASB is being read. In our church the main preaching Bible is the NASB but every now and then the NIV is used. I have found that it is much easier to follow along from the ESV to these than from the NASB to the NIV.
Cons for the ESV:
1) There are a few areas where the use of English is not quite as elegant as it could be and other areas where accuracy was seemingly sacrificed for readability. A good example of this is Romans 8:28 where the word order of this text is very different from what most other translations use. There is no clear reason as to why this was done. Most translations would say, “all things work together for the good to them that love God,” (KJV). The ESV translates this, “for those who love God all things work together for good.” Read these two out loud and see which one feels more natural. The ESV changes the word order but there is no logical reason I can see to do this.
2) Some textual decisions that should be footnoted are not. (Ref: Matt. 18:15 which includes the variant in the phrase “If your brother sins against you.” “Against you” is not in the earlier MSS but no footnote is provided explaining this. This slightly changes the direction of the argument and should be noted. In my opinion the textual evidence is stronger for not including “against you” than for including it so it should not be there in the text. The NASB recognizes this and properly footnotes the “against you” phrase.
3) Pronouns referring to Deity are not capitalized. Not an essential element, and not proper use of English grammar, but I happen to prefer it. It can also assist with following pronouns in some passages. Though, to be fair this is a form of interpretation.
4) OT quotes in the NT are not as clearly marked as in the NASB. In fact, they are not clearly marked at all. The footnotes are helpful for this.
5) The ESV has a history of relatively frequent revisions. It is a good thing to update a translation but the ESV is now on its third major revision in ten years. It was originally released in 2001 and revised in 2007 and then again in 2011. This makes the “one Bible for life” difficult to keep up with. Some people are not bothered by this but I am one who prefers the most up to date version and frequent changes like this are somewhat frustrating. I would recommend avoiding purchasing a high-end edition of the ESV until they stop the 5-year revision schedule. I understand the desire to keep up with English use and correct issues in the translation but 5 years is far too frequent to maintain stability for the usage of the translation in the church. I admit that this frustrates me and almost makes me want to reject the ESV out of hand. However, I will admit that the most recent changes have been minor and there are no further plans that I have heard to make further modifications.
All in all I would say that either translation is good. Both effectively communicate the word of God in our language and both are readable for those who make an effort to do so. We should be grateful that we have either one of these much less both. I tend to find myself switching back and forth between these two fine translations but my normal reading Bible is the ESV. My reason for this is simple. I prefer to read something in English that flows well in literary form and yet provides clear and accurate translation. While there are problems with the ESV (as with any translation) they are minor in my opinion. I still use the NASB and still appreciate it but I tend to think of the ESV as the NASB that went back to English class. The NASB is still a wonderful resource for serious Bible study but only marginally better than the ESV and the ESV more than makes up for the margin in other areas.
Whatever translation you choose please make sure to read it. The best translation of the Scripture is little more than a doorstop and dust collector if it is not read.
Update (October 2012):
I feel I must amend my comments here. Having been reading from the NASB the last several weeks, I have to retract my comments about the English style. I have found that the ESV and NASB are close enough to being equal as to be insignificantly different in this area. The ESV is still marginally better in English but only marginally in my opinion. Given that, I would have to recommend the NASB since it is more accurate and contains better footnotes. Several passages highlight the NASB footnotes but a good example of this is found in John 1:14 – “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The footnote is on the phrase “only begotten” and says, “Or unique, only one of His kind.” This is actually a better translation of the Greek word and, while the NASB chooses to translate with the traditional phrase, at least the better translation is available to the reader. By contrast the ESV translates this with, “only Son” which is not as accurate and no footnote is provided.
This is one example among several. Another can be found in Matthew 18:15 and I leave the reader to look that up. This is not to say that the ESV is inferior but I think the better study tool is found in the NASB. If you want a translation that is easier to read you can choose one of the more dynamic translations (NIV, NLT, HCSB, NET, etc) for that purpose (my combination right now is the NASB and NET). However, I would encourage you to give the NASB a try before you assume it is “wooden” English. You may find that it is not as bad as you have been told.