Q&A: A Bible Translator Answers Your Questions about the ESV

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

An Enduring Legacy

This month, we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of the English Standard Version—first published by Crossway in 2001. To help mark this milestone, this month we’re releasing a number of fascinating interviews focused on the ESV and Bible translation.

Today's episode is a conversation with ESV Translation Oversight Committee member Dr. Paul House, where Paul answers questions that listeners submitted about the ESV—questions related to how translators work, the translation philosophy of the ESV, tricky passages, and more.

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Topics Addressed in This Interview:

01:14 - What (and Who

Is the Translation Oversight Committee?)

Matt Tully
Paul, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Paul House
Thank you. It’s an honor to be with you.

Matt Tully
You serve on the Translation Oversight Committee (TOC) for the ESV. First, could you start off by telling us what the TOC does?

Paul House
The Translation Oversight Committee is the group of people who make final decisions on the text of the ESV, and that group consists of different parts. I believe it started with twelve people and it may be as many as fifteen now. We had a recent death, so I forget the exact number. We have Old and New Testament experts, people who are versed in biblical language, but their primary specialty as scholars is theology and church history. We also have a literary expert and a pastoral expert because the translation is supposed to be able to be used in public worship and for preaching. That person on our committee also knows Greek and Hebrew, but the main thing that he does is help us know how this would come across with a congregation. So that’s the group. When we meet, we handle issues related to the translation text, always having done a lot of work beforehand so that we’re informed. We discuss and come to as much agreement as we can. We do vote on those things. Starting in about 2010, I believe, I have been the moderator of that group. The most difficult thing is I have to stay alert and engaged in every issue. I can’t let my mind wander too much. I’m supposed to guide the discussion and the motions and help the body know that it’s coming to a conclusion that it can stand by.

Matt Tully
I want to dig into more of what your role in particular looks like and then also the actual day to day work of the committee, but before we get into that, you said that there are different kinds of people on the committee—all of them Bible scholars in their own right, all of them able to engage with the text in the original languages, but nevertheless, with different emphases or backgrounds. That might be a little bit surprising to somebody who would think a translation committee would be just looking at the grammar and staying focused on those kinds of things. What’s behind the idea of having theologians and pastors and people who can come with a variety of those perspectives?

Paul House
All of those things are aspects of a translation and of literature. If people stop and think, they will know that there’s a great deal involved in a book (like the Bible) that was written over long periods of time, in different historical settings, in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic. That’s one side of it. The other side of it is this is an English Bible translation. I keep emphasizing English Bible because I don’t claim any expertise in how you would translate from Hebrew to Korean or Hebrew to Chinese. I’m just talking about English Bible translation, so you have to know something about English. It helps to know why this word that’s in the Scripture is there because sometimes you’ll come to a word that makes you wonder, Why this word and not another? Then you find out that it’s been in the English Bible for five hundred years. You see that there’s a history to the word, and then you have to make the decision as to whether or not it matters to change it. You could change it for better precision, clarity, and theological understanding. Also, it’s important that we had different denominations on the committee. First of all, we’ll talk about nationalities. There were Americans, citizens of the UK, and Australia. There were Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Free Church members. That’s helpful because this word might be heard in Australia with Baptists in one way, and heard another way somewhere else. When you use a term like “real presence” in a text, to an Anglican that means one thing, and to the Pentecostal it means another. You want to give the most precise language that is accurate, but you always have to ask yourself if it’s misleading too. You need to be aware. You can’t let the audience determine what you’re going to say—we might talk about that later—but you also don’t want to be unnecessarily obscure, vague, or misleading with a text. So it’s helpful to have these different viewpoints and to hear it from the original authors and the original languages coming across into the language that we know and live with.

Matt Tully
You mentioned that since 2010 you have served as moderator for the Translation Oversight Committee. When did you actually start serving on the committee itself and what was your role initially?

Paul House
I was first approached about being on the committee in the fall of 1998. I was at an organizational meeting in November 1998. In January 1999 I was teaching in Louisville, Kentucky, and Lane Dennis was in Louisville because we were working on launching Dr. Carl Henry’s God, Revelation, and Authority that Crossway still publishes. It was at that time—about January 15th or so—that Lane asked me to be part of the committee. Our first meeting was in Cambridge that summer, and from that point on I’ve been a member of the committee. I know I’ve attended every major meeting. I think I’ve missed a one-day meeting or something like that.

Matt Tully
Do you remember your initial early thoughts when you started to work on the translation? What was the sense in the room in those early days?

Paul House
I look back on the first meeting now and realize the most important thing we did—and when I say first meeting, it was three weeks and six days a week, as I recall. We only worked until noon on Saturdays.

Matt Tully
So that was your half day off?

Paul House
Yes. It reminded me very much of growing up on a farm. What we really learned then as we worked through Genesis and Romans, as I recall, was how to work as a committee—what was going to work and what wasn’t, and what we could move quickly on and what we could not. It was partly the dynamics of the group, partly the text you were dealing with, and partly the issues you were going to have to handle. At the very start, I think we thought what every translation committee thinks, that this is easier than it will be. We had grown up reading the Bible (or had become committed Christians at some point and began reading the Bible), all of us had been teaching the Bible at one level or another, and we had done our biblical languages. Some of us had taught Greek and Hebrew and so forth, so we had graded countless translation exercises. You also think, We’re all evangelical. We all believe that Scripture is without error. We believe it’s given by God for our protection and correction and growth. And then you start finding out what we’ve already said, that we need these various voices and expertise within these commitments. We started finding out that what sounded clear and helpful to one ear would sound different in a different country or a different denomination, and then you work hard to figure out the best way to be true to the original language and the original form of the texts, and then to find as close of an equivalent as you can in the English language.

Matt Tully
You mentioned before we started our interview that you were the youngest member of the Translation Oversight Committee. Do you remember feeling nervous about being a part of something like this? Was there anything like that for you?

Paul House
Sure. I was the youngest, but I was forty and I had been teaching for about twelve years and I had been in ministry longer than that. So I guess I felt able to contribute at the time. But to be on a committee with Gordon Wenham (an Old Testament scholar who is a Crossway author but was already established and respected and had written important commentaries on the Pentateuch). I didn’t know Jack Collins who was also on the New Testament committee. Jack’s a walking lexicon. He carries it in his head and he has an amazing mind. I quickly came to respect him for his comprehensive knowledge. I could go on like this. So I thought that I was going to learn a lot and that I was going to be able to make a contribution. I had worked as a consultant on two or three other translations, so I at least had some experience. But let me just say that by now—twenty years on—having worked on these things, thought about translation, worked on the committee, read the ESV nearly everyday and gone back and read Tyndale, the Geneva Bible, the King James (all the predecessors), realizing that I have a PhD in Old Testament with a minor in New Testament, I have a master’s degree in English, I have twenty some years now of experience as a translator—on my best days, I could almost see the figure of what I would like to be and what I need to be. It’s such an awesome responsibility. There’s nothing wasted in your background, as far as being useful to the work.

13:02 - What Was the Motivation Behind the ESV?

Matt Tully
We recently asked listeners to submit some questions about the ESV as a translation. We received a lot of questions, and many of them related to the early days—the genesis—of the translation itself. As you think back to that—those early conversations with Lane and others on the Translation Oversight Committee—what was the motivating factor behind the decision to develop a new translation? Obviously, at that time, there were existing English translations in print. Do you remember why the project was started to begin with?

Paul House
Yes, and I know it goes back to the 1970s and before with Lane, Leland Ryken, and J. I. Packer. As evangelicals, we’re committed to the truthfulness of Scripture and wanting people to love the Scriptures and know it. Yes, there were lots of translations coming out, but most of them were either in the field of paraphrase (which is one type) or dynamic equivalent (like the NIV). In the tradition of the Tyndale Bible, Geneva Bible, King James Version, American Standard, Revised Standard Version, New American Standard, there was not an updated version available. Sometimes you like a translation and you try to buy pew Bibles and you can’t find a way to do it.

Matt Tully
That’s a very practical consideration there.

Paul House
Very much so. There are just so many practical considerations that would surprise people. So, there was a need for something that was useful for preaching, able to be used by people who did know Hebrew and Greek and who didn’t, and that was going to have durability of language (because we have the Internet now we’re going to have changes every other day and reprint it), that would have respect for people’s intelligence and their desire to memorize and live by the word of God. For me, and I think for several of the others, the idea was can we do this type of translation—a formal equivalent translation—that would be true to the text and deal with the words and forms of the language and not just say what the general thought was. To be from the author, to the text, to the reader; not from the reader back to the translator, but that would then be able to make an impact over a long period of time.

15:54 - What Is the Translation Philosophy of the ESV?

Matt Tully
You mentioned a few minutes ago the idea of formal equivalence. That gets to the issue of translation philosophy, and we received some questions about that. One listener in Middleton, Indiana asked, “What was the philosophy behind the ESV translation?” How would you unpack the philosophy?

Paul House
I don’t know what the average person thinks when they pick up a translation. I would think they believe that all the translations are done the same way, and some people are more skilled than others at giving people things they would understand. But there are really three basic types of translation. The formal equivalence tries to give you as close as possible the forms of the language. That is, if it’s one word, we give you one word. If it’s a prepositional phrase, we give you the phrase. If it’s a long sentence, we give you a long sentence. We want the words to convey the meaning to the audience. We want to be aware of that, but the text comes first. A dynamic equivalent translation, like the NIV and several others like the New English Bible, are made by people who love the word of God and love God. The idea though is that we will give you thought by thought and we’ll take away what seem to be barriers. But then the question becomes, When the audience changes, how much are you willing to change for that purpose? But also, if you shorten sentences, does that change how people would understand what is going on? What about when you leave out connecting phrases? The Good News Bible was aimed at about a 10-year-old level when it first came out, so it had lots of short sentences, took out connecting phrases and that sort of thing. For that type of audience, I suppose it would do it. Those translations came along at a time when people were changing from the King James Version because of the perceived difficulty of reading it, so they helped many people. But that’s a different translation philosophy. A paraphrase could be that you take, in effect, you take the English Bible and you give as brief of an interpretation as you can to try and help people understand. All translations are at least minimal interpretations so that the translator is in the process. But I think the thought for thought approach increases the number of times the translator is in the picture. The paraphrase, of necessity, puts that translator there all the time, and you’re very dependent on them. So, I think pastors who don’t have training in biblical languages really need a formal equivalent Bible because they need to be as close to the original as they can in English. I think readers who want to be precise and learn really need that kind of translation. That seemed to be the stream that was dying out at the time. Some of us wanted to preserve and bring that forward at a time when other types were going on.

Matt Tully
Would you say that it’s safe to summarize that the goal of the translators for the ESV was to do as little interpretation as possible, to inject as little of their own views and applications of the text into the translation itself, but really just be as transparent to the original text as possible?

Paul House
Yes. I think humility requires us to say that is our goal and we were better at it at some times than others. I think the New American Standard translators would say the same thing. That’s what they were trying to do (and the King James and that whole tradition). I don’t think these others are trying to insert themselves and their influence. I’m just saying the method itself, once you choose that, it’s going to determine how a lot of things go. So I would say to any reader whatever your work is, I would need you to explain to me what are the underlying principles to being in marketing, to being an educator, to being in business that you’re in, and then you tell me how that method works itself out. Are there different methods in your industry that people do? It’s the same thing in Bible translation. We were trying to pick the one that did the most for the most people.

Matt Tully
What would you say would constitute a misunderstanding of the translation philosophy of the ESV?

Paul House
Through the years I’ve had the chance to talk to people about the translation. Also, in 2003, I did a tour with a Bible society in several countries in Asia, and I’ve also been to India and Australia and talked to people there. The most common misunderstanding is when they hear the term “essentially literal.” They think that it’s going to be more like an interlinear—it’s just going to be the words in whatever order and it’s going to be very choppy. That’s why I prefer formal equivalence because it’s the forms of the language that we’re trying to give in equivalent fashion. Greek and Hebrew actually translate pretty well into English in this manner. The original English Bible translator, William Tyndale, said it’s a whole lot easier to translate from Greek to English and Hebrew to English than it is from Greek or Hebrew to Latin. So, it does matter which language you’re working with. Again, I don’t claim to know about all these others, but I am saying that for English purposes, the very original translator said this is easier, and I think he’s right. Hebrew is actually simpler than Greek, once you’re used to looking at it and once you learn it.

Matt Tully
Once you’re used to the direction of the writing going the opposite way.

Paul House
Yes. It’s counter intuitive in so many ways, but once you learn it you see it’s very straightforward in grammar. Tyndale was actually delighted when he went to translate the Old Testament. William Tyndale was the first person to ever translate the Bible from Greek to English. He was the first person to translate any type of Hebrew into English to have it published. When he got to the Old Testament, he said he was so delighted that it worked so much better in English than he had found working Greek to English. So, as opposed to essentially literal so that if you need to move the subject to where it fits in English but it’s still the subject of the sentence, I don’t make a new subject. If it’s a command, it’s still a command. I don’t turn it into a participle or a noun or something else. So, that’s part of it. For example, in English we say, It’s a good day. In Spanish they would say, It’s a day good one. You make that switch anytime and in any language.

Matt Tully
So, saying essentially literal doesn’t mean that we’re not conforming to the kind of common rules of English.

Paul House
Right. That’s a great way to put it.

24:44 - What Actually Happens in Translation Meetings?

Matt Tully
Let’s turn to the translation work itself. A lot of people were curious to understand a little bit better what the day in the life of a translator is actually like. You have given us a little bit of a picture into that, but what was actually happening at those translation meetings? Was most of the work happening in those meetings together, or was a lot of work being done outside of that and then you’re coming together to discuss?

Paul House
There was lots and lots and lots of work done. We were among the first translations, if not the first, to benefit from electronic mail. We could send things back and forth to one another. That can be both a blessing and a curse, as everybody knows about electronic mail. But again, I’m sixty-three years old, so sometimes I have to explain what US mail is to some people.

Matt Tully
And for the younger listeners, electronic mail is email.

Paul House
Right. Email that I can send to you in an instant. Just so the younger people can understand us old people, we still find that to be fascinating because what used to take three, four, five days, or two weeks to another continent can now be done instantly. And the idea that I could call Australia and talk to a friend for a penny a minute when we used to have to pay $40 to talk to the east coast is astounding to us. But what that meant was we could do a lot of work individually and in small groups before we ever got to the meeting. I would say that from the time we started in 1999 to 2001 when the ESV was first published, I’m certain that we spent seventy-five to one hundred days together face to face, in person, and in hard-working sessions. But before that, for instance, I was a lead reviewer for the Historical Books of the Old Testament. I would have worked with the Old Testament committee, which was Jack Collins and Gordon Wenham, we would have had a book expert (i.e. the books of Ruth, Esther, etc.) outside of our committee who was looking over the work and making suggestions. We would have worked together to come up with what we would propose to the whole committee, knowing that changes could be made in the room. But we weren’t doing everything from scratch. That was also true of the other parts of the Bible, and as anybody would know, some are more complicated than others.

Matt Tully
Is there anything that stands out that maybe was harder to work through than you were originally thinking it would be?

Paul House
In the summer of 2000, it would have been August or so, we were meeting in a wonderful place in England. In order to get some work done, I was working separately from the whole committee. I was working on the book of Jeremiah, which is 5% of the whole Bible. I was working on that in the morning and I came together for lunch with the committee. We almost always worked 100% together, but I was asked to do this as an unusual thing. I said, What did you get done this morning? I think the answer was, Philippians 1:1–3. Well, that’s the bit where you have all the church officers. That was the point at which the Anglicans and the Baptists and the Presbyterians and the Free Church members were trying to work out the terms elder, deacon, and so forth.

Matt Tully
It sounds like fun work.

Paul House
A lot of times it was. That was kind of unexpected. There were times, too, when you were trying to figure out the best way to render a passage. I’ll give you an example. Ephesians 1:3–14 is one sentence in Greek. So even if everybody agreed, how do you put that whole thing together? So it was kind of interesting. As people do, every now and then folks will have expertise and want to get that shown in the translation, but we would also then unexpectedly get caught up. We would think we want to translate it this way, and then somebody (usually Jack Collins) would say, Hang on! That changes seven other texts.

Matt Tully
You said he was a walking lexicon.

Paul House
Yes, so it would be like that. Not eight, not nine. If he said seven texts, this was not a guess. Or, Bruce Winter, who was a Pauline expert and a great New Testament historian, would say, Well, that doesn’t work because that’s not what was going on then. In our translation, we wanted to make sure we translated the same words and phrases and terms where they were in the same context in the same way. English loves synonyms, but Hebrew isn’t committed to synonyms. Neither is Greek. So, what’s righteousness? What is holy? We also had some tough phrases to try and figure out so that we wouldn’t mislead people but try to give the nuance.

Matt Tully
What’s behind that desire to use the same English word whenever the same Greek or Hebrew word is being used? Sometimes the meaning in the certain context that it’s appearing in might shift a little bit and have a different flavor to it that we can kind of see there. Why not allow that to influence the use of a synonym?

Paul House
Where that’s true, we do allow the influence. But what I’m saying is that in English there is a reflex preference for a synonym if you know the language. In fact, I was writing a letter by hand last night and I was making sure I wasn’t using—

Matt Tully
Right. It’s bad form to use the same word over and over again.

Paul House
It’s bad form. So, that’s the reflex. So I’m not disagreeing with what you’re saying. There are times when we would say, Yes, there’s a nuance in this. In fact, in Hebrew it happens lots and lots of times. Where that’s true and you can tell, yes, you want to do that. But where you can see it’s just a synonym for a synonym’s sake, you don’t want to do it. Or, in Hebrew where they’re giving you six times in a short passage the same word, they’re making a point. So you don’t want to have five synonyms to go with the one original word. But I think if you don’t know that, my reflex would be to provide a synonym. So, I think that’s what it means to be true to what the author was trying to convey. A really good example is Ecclesiastes where the word vanity is used over and over again. It’s the same Hebrew word over and over and over again, and it wants you to use it.

32:55 - How Did You Utilize Original Manuscripts?

Matt Tully
Yes, that’s helpful. I think most of us are aware that when it comes to translating the Bible, in some way ancient manuscripts from the original Greek and Hebrew would be involved in that. That’s where we’re getting the words of Scripture that we’re then rendering in English. What did it look like to use those manuscripts, or to reference that material, in a context like the meetings, especially without the widespread digital access to those kinds of things as there might be today?

Paul House
We’re starting to have digital access, but actually, we benefit in so many different ways from prior work. We started with the accepted standard scholarly edition of the Hebrew Bible—the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia 1977—hundreds of years of hard work. We also used the Nestle-Aland New Testament, 27th and 28th edition—a Greek text. We benefited from the work of people who had done text criticism and had given us reliable manuscripts. Of course, that changed somewhat since the time of the King James because the King James translators worked with the best manuscripts they knew and had, which is all anybody can do. We have several better manuscripts, and know it now. For instance, here’s an Old Testament example that folks would know. The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in 1948. It would be hard to fault anybody, really, before about 1985 or so, for not being able to have those, put them into play, and use them. By now, we have them, and also the book experts were helping us with this. We still had to ask ourselves sometimes what is the best Greek or Hebrew reading. But again, you have to have humility because you know there have been lots and lots of people working on this and all we can ever say to somebody is, We are doing the best we can with the best manuscripts that we know to exist at this time. I would hope someday that somebody would discover, “I, Moses, decided to write . . .” So I think any listener needs to know that you have a very reliable Bible. There are tons and tons of manuscripts that stand behind this. There was not a lot of guesswork. Every now and then somebody will sell a lot of books saying the opposite, but I just don’t think it’s an accurate statement.

35:53 - What Does It Mean that the ESV Is in the Tradition of the KJV?

Matt Tully
You mentioned the KJV and some differences there. A question we received from one listener in Philadelphia was, “Why do some people say that the ESV stands in the tradition of the King James Version?”

Paul House
The simple answer is, because of what we’ve been talking about. It’s a formal equivalence translation that tries to do the things we’ve already talked about. But also, the King James was durable English that lasted. It wasn’t very quirky. It didn’t use a lot of slang and colloquialism.

Matt Tully
I think we read it today and it feels very foreign. It feels very unlike normal English. How would you respond to that?

Paul House
I would say that’s true now. Some people say that’s great because it gives an otherness to the Bible. I’m not so convinced of that approach. Some people talk about the dignity and grandeur and that sort of thing. People didn’t think so when it was printed. In fact, they said the opposite. They thought it was not doing that. So, I don’t know about all that. I’ve often thought that beauty and grandeur is in the eye of the beholder or the hearer. But what I am saying is that this is durable language, in part because people read the Bible and that helped the language. Luther’s Bible, in effect, people still say helped invent modern German. So it’s a both/and. But with the King James, the fact that by the twentieth century the New King James comes out, removes a lot of the rough words by changing “thees” and “thous” and it’s understandable to people, shows it’s durable. So that’s what we want. And it’s durable across English dialects so that if I go to Glasgow, Scotland I can barely understand people speaking English. It’s the same thing in Singapore or in India, because of my ear and because of the way it’s spoken. But when we all had newspapers, and now websites, I understand what each of those different places have because we have this durable language that when we see it and read it, we understand it. So that’s the thing that I think the King James tradition gives us. The King James is a very good translation from its time period.

Matt Tully
When we say that the ESV stands in the legacy of the King James, it's not that there’s some direct correlation like we started with the King James Version and it was sort of revised into the ESV.

Paul House
No. Again, what you’ll find is where we think the King James gave a good translation, we’re satisfied with a good translation. It’s like saying you look like your grandfather. Well, I take that as a compliment anymore, but it’s the fact that it’s come across through the years. If they’re worried that what we’re trying to do is sound strange or have this Bible, that is not what is intended at all. Again, it’s the durability and understandability of the language across several cultures. I’ll give you an example. In 1881 and 1885 when the Revised Version was made in England, revising the King James, when they found a word in the King James that was no longer viable because it was too old, they sought purposefully another word from the time period of the King James Version to insert that was still understandable. No, we’re not trying to do that sort of thing. We’re not trying to find old, strange words that you might still recognize. On that subject, somebody might say, Don’t you still have some strange sounding words in the ESV like sojourner. What is that? Well, the problem is that it’s a term that fits the Ancient Near Eastern context, and an English dictionary will help you, but it’s not exactly an immigrant, alien, resident, and so forth. It’s a different sort of thing.

Matt Tully
It’s still the best English word.

Paul House
Yes. You’re still stuck, so to speak, with it, but you’re trying to relate what was going on. It is an old English word, but it is still one that, at least, does not mislead and tries to be precise.

41:15 - How Are Revisions Handled?

Matt Tully
Did you receive comments from scholars who weren’t involved in the translation?

Paul House
We got good comments from scholars and pastors and good lay readers, and then we got—how do I describe some of the other ones—

Matt Tully
Less helpful comments?

Paul House
Less helpful and less informed, yes. Again, with the beauty of email, you could hear from nearly anybody under any conditions.

Matt Tully
Would you come to each of these meetings with a list of potential changes to discuss? And was there a voting process to decide what to do?

Paul House
The same as when we made the original text. Again, there’s a lot of work done by Crossway staff. I don’t want to leave them out. There are hundreds and hundreds of hours that are done by the staff to get ready for these meetings. Fielding of questions here and then consulting with the team to find out what we need to discuss. The idea at the beginning was let’s fix things we should have done correctly the first time. By the second meeting five years on, we were now trying to hone in on any specialty items that might be difficult. Plus, as the preface to the ESV showed, we were trying to deal with the issue of slaves, servants, and so forth. We were trying to get that right, and the preface shows that. The last time we met as the committee, we did not expect that we could have met in another five years. There are two reasons for that: J. I. Packer was about to die, and COVID. We wouldn’t have met in five years. So we were trying to do any kind of necessary work, but not do full-blown revision, as in rethink the whole thing and go back and do everything over again.

Matt Tully
Would you say that the default disposition of the TOC for those revisions is to do as little as possible?

Paul House
Yes, that’s the goal. The problem with a translation team is that if they see something they can fix, they want to. So yes, you do have to have a smaller set of things you want to get done. After a while, you start finding that if you change one thing again, you’re starting to unravel other things. So, you have to be careful about why you’re there, and I think we were pretty careful.

Matt Tully
You mentioned the fun involved in being together as a group and talking about Scripture and digging in among the weeds of things. Did that dynamic come back in these follow up meetings? Did it feel like everyone got back into that even almost two decades on?

Paul House
Yes, I think particularly the first two meetings. The last meeting that we had in 2015, we did not expect to see each other all again, so part of it was reunion and homecoming. But then we settled into some pretty hard work. I would say that time it took us a couple of days, but that’s just part of getting back into it. The camaraderie is great. Everyday we began with prayer and devotions. We ended everyday with prayer. By devotions I mean Bible reading and prayer requests. I’ll give you two examples. In one meeting, Gordon Wenham gave a devotion on the topic of the poor in the Bible, God’s compassion, and our need for compassion for the poor—for generosity. It was very much in his heart and it was very much a great reminder to us. That was one day. When Robert Mounce was on the committee he was the oldest member. He was a World War II fighter pilot and a New Testament scholar. He was maybe a little older than J. I. Packer. One day, I guess he thought we had been a little too high-minded or had gotten a little abstract up in the clouds the day before—I don’t know—but when he did his devotion, he went over to the upright piano that was in this room in Tyndale House—

Matt Tully
In Cambridge, England.

Paul House
In Cambridge, England where we met. I don’t know what an upright piano was doing in this scholar’s room, but there it was. He went over and he pounded out and led us in singing O Lord, you know, I have no friend like you. If heaven’s not my home, then Lord, what will I do? It’s just an old gospel song. He did that to get us back to remembering that this is about people’s souls. Again, I don’t know if he was being critical or not or if he just wanted to sing a song, but that’s the way I remember it. Then, at the last meeting we had in 2015, Lane asked J. I. Packer to close in prayer. I wish that every Crossway employee and other person who reads the ESV could hear his prayer. He prayed, Lord, we love you. We love your word. We long that your word would be up and running throughout the world, saving souls, building Christians . . .—and he just went on like this. We had just celebrated his 89th birthday and now he’s with God. But, that just makes me think that I don’t apologize for the level of the scholarly work that we had to do, but we never lost contact with our relationship with God and to all God’s people—including the poor—and that God’s word would be up and running above all else. Those are good memories that I just wanted to say were part of the work. It was not a scholarship versus devotion kind of environment. We often stopped to pray over hard issues.

48:20 - Why does the ESV translate the Hebrew word Yahweh as the LORD and not simply as Yahweh?

Matt Tully
I want to turn to some specific questions that we received, many of which relate to particular passages of Scripture and decisions that were made and how to render different things. One question that we received quite a few times relates to the covenant name of God that he gives in the Old Testament. One listener from Barneveld, Netherlands asked, “Why does the ESV translate the Hebrew word Yahweh as the LORD and not simply as *Yahweh?”

Paul House
I’m in sympathy with the writer. When I write Bible commentary I’ll often do that. However, in a Bible translation if you did that, then I think you would be obligated to use Elohim everywhere it is used, which is a standard name, and then all the other names used for God in the Old Testament (there are about eight of them). You would be obligated to use those, which I think in many cases would simply confuse readers. I know it’s a bit of an obligation though that “Lord” is capitalized, but we’re trying to show that every time. Also, I would say that it is one time that I would worry a little bit about the audience. It’s offensive to Jewish readers to use the divine name. Also, we’re not exactly sure, given the vowel points, that it is Yahweh. It’s our best understanding. I think it’s a lot more that it’s a slam dunk. We know this is how to pronounce it, we know this is where it is and so forth. So I think it’s a good question. Some translations have tried it—I remember one—and they backed off of it because the usage didn’t work.

Matt Tully
Isn’t it also the case that in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it often uses “the LORD”?

Paul House
Yes, and for the very reason I am saying. They felt it was more respectful, and also they did not have the pronunciation. So I think, again, we’re trying to show respect without becoming odd or offensive. But again, I think it’s a judgement call. I don’t condemn other translations for trying.

51:15 - What Was the Translation Committee’s View of Gendered Language?

Matt Tully
Issues related to gender and gender inclusivity are prominent in our public discourse today, both within the broader culture but also within the church. The Translation Oversight Committee undoubtedly had to think through some of those issues, especially related to gendered language as they worked on the ESV. As a first question on this point, can you summarize how the committee and the translators as a whole thought about the use of gendered language?

Paul House
I do believe that the preface of the ESV Bible is pretty clear and accurate to the way that we dealt with that, which was if we could tell that the language was inclusive, we did not try to make it masculine. For instance, as the RSV often did. Some people would say, You’ve taken a few masculine ones out. That’s because we thought that the words had no particular masculine impact, or were intended to be broader to include all people. But where the Greek word for man was there we tried to bring that across because we thought that’s what the text did and we were trying to tell the truth about what the text did. Often people ask about brothers and sisters because the word adelphi—which is brothers—and sometimes it’s clear by context that means the brothers of Jesus or something like that. But it seems to be a phrase, in some instances, where it includes brothers and sisters, men and women, boys and girls—the whole bunch—but in Greek you only have this one word.

Matt Tully
It’s the same word being used.

Paul House
So we tried to stick by the principle, but also to show by the note that we had a decision to make and that this isn’t ninety-nine to one percent. This was a decision that we had to make and we want to pass that onto the reader, that we had that decision to make; we’ve made this decision. We’re not going to hide it from you.

Matt Tully
You’re trying to show your work in that footnote.

Paul House
We’re trying to be transparent, yes, to your earlier statement. I heard a person talking about a translation of Genesis 2:23–25 where it says a man shall leave his mother and father and cling to his wife. Well, because of current gender disagreements, they want to put just “a person” shall leave. I even noticed last night that showing up in language about birth. Moving from “if a woman has a baby” to “if a person has a baby.” So, these things are going to ebb and flow and change. To me, I don’t want to hide from any skeptical reader. I want them to see the truth. I want them to see what the text actually says.

Matt Tully
How would you think about that example from Genesis about a man shall leave his mother and father and cling to his wife? We, obviously, take that verse and we apply that to women—her leaving her parents and clinging to her husband. So why, in that case, would you say it’s important to preserve the specificity of those two terms?

Paul House
I would say because that’s the original order of things. I would want any reader to know—they could agree or disagree with that order of things—that the text is specific about the male and female family being the bedrock—their mother and their father. So, you can disagree with that and say that’s a trajectory that we now know would include a man and a man or a woman and a woman. But that’s not what that text says. I would not want to hide from an honest reader. I don’t ever want the reader to say, When will you start telling us the truth? What else have you hidden from us to get us to come over to your side? Or, Why have you hidden it that way when we know it’s different? So we put what is there, and I think it’s the most honest thing to do. You will offend somebody by doing it one way or the other. There’s no non-offensive way to do it.

56:55 - Why Aren’t Divine Pronouns Capitalized?

Matt Tully
Another question that many listeners had relates to divine pronouns. For example, someone from Northern Ireland asks, “Why are the initial letters and pronouns related to the God-head in lower case in the ESV rather than an upper case?”

Paul House
I appreciate their respect for God because that’s where the question comes from—a deep reverence for God. First of all, there were no capitals in the original languages—neither Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. It’s not done that way in the King James, Tyndale, or anywhere or in this tradition. I want to say one other thing because I’ve been editing a book that uses the capital letters. It’s hard on my eye. I keep thinking I have a new sentence. So there’s this practical aspect to it that I think has been known for five hundred years, but I want people to know we are not trying to downgrade God. It’s the sense in which this is the translation tradition we’re in, these are the practical considerations, and again, I don’t condemn another version for saying let’s try that. But I don’t believe that respect for God is created or knocked out by capitalizing “he” or “him” or not.

Matt Tully
There was no motivation beyond that.

Paul House
No. We didn’t look at that and say, That’s just over the top. That’s too much respect for God. This really had to do with usage and again, whether you can read it in public or not.

58:34 - Were There Any Doctrinal Commitments That Had an Impact on the Translation Work?

Matt Tully
We received a lot of questions related to how the theological convictions of the translation team may or may not have impacted the work itself. We’ve hit on this a little bit and talked about the variety of educational and expertise backgrounds and how that was important. But theology in particular is one of those things that’s hard to disentangle from all of our lives but, in particular, translation work. Speak to that. Were there any doctrinal commitments that you think were actually very important and did have a material impact on the translation work?

Paul House
I think the first thing is to talk about what unified us. One unifying factor was our commitment to Jesus Christ, God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—our belief and our commitment to him. The second unifying factor was we believed the Scriptures were true and without error. If two of us disagreed on what the text says, one or both of us could be wrong and the text would be right.

Matt Tully
There was a truth to what the text said.

Paul House
We were in service of the text. I think it’s the Baptist Faith & Message that says the Bible is the truth setter of Christian union. We don’t know Jesus very much without the Bible, so there’s a sense in which that held us together. Hopefully, love of neighbor also held us somewhat together. Some of these theological convictions you do want to hold you in, whether it’s the Trinity or salvation in Christ alone and so forth. However, we all (translators) should know that we’re influenced by our theology. We’ve made some studied decisions. You need to be aware of that so that you don’t read it into your translation. I’m certain that at some point I was too affected by my beliefs. I hope that at each time I was voted down.

Matt Tully
So you would say there was a widespread recognition that you wanted to guard against being too overly influenced by your particular theological tradition?

Paul House
Yes, and that’s another time that I want to say that I don’t know what will happen to the word evangelical or to evangelicalism. But this committee was representative of the post-World War II consistency among Bible-believing Christians of a variety of denominations, so that we knew we were working together believing a broad spectrum of common beliefs. Yes, do we accept, as Tyndale and others, baptism? That’s just transliteration of a Greek word. The Baptists weren’t going to argue for immersion, for instance, because of this group. If you wanted, as a Baptist, really to get your oar in the water, you just argue for immersion, come what may.

Matt Tully
What are some of the other examples of theological positions that would not have had an impact on the translation work? Maybe an understanding of baptism—a specific mode and way of doing baptism—would be one example of that. Are there any others that come to mind?

Paul House
A view of the Lord’s Supper—sacraments or ordinances, however you would call them. I think those were issues that we knew that Scripture wasn’t misleading anyone but we had different views. The security of the believer who is truly in Christ. I think we were very careful about things in order to protect the atonement of Christ for us, but I think, again, they let things like church (and that goes back to Tyndale and the Geneva Bible)—does it mean congregation? Yes, but even then you’re not necessarily home and dry to know what sort of gathering we’re talking about. So, to go more particular they said, If I interpret it that might be what I would say, but I can’t say the text solves that problem. So I leave it like this. So I think there were some things—I don’t want to say they were off limits—but they were understood in this post-World War II evangelical consensus where we would say we know we don’t agree on that, but this word is fine. It’s not misleading, it’s not begging the question; it is a viable translation.

01:04:24 - Is the ESV Suitable for Young People from Other Countries Who Want to Read the Bible in English?

Matt Tully
A listener from Brazil asks, “Is the ESV suitable for young people from other countries who want to read the Bible in English?” I think that question gets at something you said right at the beginning of our conversation about how, early on, there was a global vision for the ESV. Speak to that a little bit and unpack that vision that still persists today.

Paul House
I think the durable English that can be read on any website and in any newspaper and any mass media kind of way is what we’re aiming at. You’re talking about students with this question. We treat that with respect and we don’t dumb it down. We don’t act like you can’t read and that you don’t have a dictionary or that you don’t have capability. We do leave some things to you to think about. I think we treat the reader with respect. If you’re not a believer, I would say that we treated you with enough respect to try to give you what’s there without trying to figure out how to win you over. In any case, the Holy Spirit has to win you over. So yes, I would say because we’re not just trying to write for an American culture at this point in time, but instead the durable thing with the varieties of English, now the ESV has been published in India and other places where people can read it. If English is your second, third, or fourth language, I can’t comment on how hard or easy it is for you to read. But yes, we’ve made no attempt or felt the need to figure out how to make this at an eight-year-old's level or so that a college student would be able to get it. I think it’s harder to go the other way, to be frank, but I would say by the time you can drive, you shouldn’t have any trouble. You should be able to read this.

01:06:47 - What Are the Benefits of the ESV for Preaching and Teaching?

Matt Tully
Speak to the pastor or church leader listening right now. What would you say are the benefits of the ESV for preaching and teaching God’s word?

Paul House
In your study, if you can do Greek and Hebrew, it will seem reasonable to you. You won’t say, What in the world? I don’t think you will. If you can’t, we’re trying to keep you close to the text. I heard a man preaching one time in Scotland and I knew he did not know any Greek. He was preaching from the New Testament. I won’t say the translation he was using, but it had taken transitions out. He was trying to preach the text but he didn’t have the “ands”, “therefores”, and “becauses”—

Matt Tully
The logic of the passage.

Paul House
The logic of the passage was lost to him. We hope that we will minimize that so that you can trust that you’re following along pretty well and that the text’s footnotes will help you know where we had to make a decision. Also, there are lots of people now who have been to seminary and only have one semester of Greek or Hebrew, which is next to nothing, so they need the help of a formal equivalent translation more than they need another commentary. Yes, I think it will help you. And even if you want to do thematic preaching, rather than expository preaching, I think the fact that it keeps the key words going throughout the Bible will help you do that.

Matt Tully
You see Paul reference righteousness here and you can connect that to when he says it somewhere else.

Paul House
Right. I was reading Psalm 37–41 this morning and the theme of waiting on God was there. The key words appear over and over again. You don’t have to try to find synonyms like “be patient.” Now you’ve got the words that you can follow and trace the line of thought not only of the original psalmist but of whoever was putting these together so that they would have connections.

01:09:03 - What Makes the ESV a Reliable Translation?

Matt Tully
I’ll close with a final question that will maybe overlap some with what we’ve already talked about, but I wonder if it’s nevertheless valuable. A listener in Oklahoma City asks a simple question: “What makes the ESV a reliable translation?”

Paul House
I think because of what we’ve been saying. We start with the best work that’s been done on the original languages. We try to build on, or to stand on the shoulders of, these great translators in this tradition that we are in, and we are trying—as committed Christians and for committed Christians—to do good work in God’s power. God’s word is perfect. The translator isn’t. But I am not known as a gullible person. I am not a particularly trusting man. So when I tell you that I think that every effort has been made to be reliable, to be accurate, to be truthful, to be orthodox to the important Christian doctrines with respect—not cowering—to the audience, to tell you the truth, then I think you would have that in the ESV. I pray that in one hundred years someone will do better work, or next week do better work. I’m not against better work. But I think you can trust this. I’m not saying that you can’t trust anybody else. I’m just saying there hasn’t been a political or monetary motivation behind this. So I’m just grateful that God has been able to use it.

Matt Tully
Paul, thank you so much for taking the time today to answer some of these questions that people have sent in and share a little bit more about the history of the ESV.

Paul House
Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity.


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