NKJV vs. ESV: Thoughts on the Translation Wars

I know that many of us are always trying to find the best translation of the Bible. We want to know that we are as close to the original languages as possible, but without losing readability. So of the two Bible translations, the New King James Version and the English Standard Version, which one is the best translation?

Now, I know there is a sect of Christianity that insists on being “KJV-only.” These sectarians tell us that the translation itself was inspired by the Holy Spirit and no other group of translators were afforded such a blessing, therefore all other translations are of the devil. Anyone who reads those other translations are not true Christians. You can only be a true Christian, according to these pundits, by using the 1611 Authorized Version of the King James Bible. I’m sure there is a lot more to joining their sect, a secret handshake, a special baptism, and a host of other silly things they find very important, but never amount to anything of actual significance. I’m not arguing for that and strongly disagree with them (except for the part about the secret handshake…buy me a marble mocha macchiato sometime and I will show you the secret handshake that you really need to know).

My own personal Bible is the NKJV translation. There have been times that I have joked that I’m a “NKJV-only” Christian. Jody Harris once pressed me on my joke, asking me what I meant. All I mean by it is that the NKJV of the Bible is the version which I’m currently using. I was given this Bible by members of my singles class from PCPC when I graduated from seminary way back in 1999. Since my early time as a Christian, I had heard just how good this particular study Bible was, a Reformation Study Bible, and had read R.C. Sproul’s argument for why the NKJV translation was the best available at the time. So that is the version and study Bible that I really wanted to use in ministry. Some of my friends knew that, and graciously gave me this translation/study Bible.

Lo and behold, a few years later, R.C. Sproul & Co., switched versions of the Bible from the NKJV to the ESV throwing a real monkey wrench into the confidence some have in their translation and in Ligonier Ministries. Remember, we were told by Sproul & Co. that the NKJV was the best translation around. So the introduction of another “best translation around” was not really comforting. Many of us balked, myself included. I wrote Two Changes I Wish the ESV Would Make, and was surprised by some of the responses, even receiving an email from those inside the industry to talk about what I had written.

Yet, the battle for me has not subsided. It’s not a major battle mind you, more like a skirmish, but it’s still there. For a while, after writing the previous blog post, I was satisfied being a “NKJV-only” person (not in the strict sense.) But then on one of my walks with my wife as we sat on a bench near an area pond, I pulled out my iPhone and began reading the Scripture to her, which was from an ESV translation. It was so much easier than reading from the NKJV. The readability was much better, to the point that we looked into getting an ESV Reformation Study Bible, the premium black leather option. It was a bit too pricey for now, and Heidi tells me, “too pricey for later, as well.” Yet, here we were, looking at a translation change.

Fortunately, I have been working my way through Craig L. Blomberg’s Can We Still Believe The Bible? An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions. I really enjoy his style and thoroughness on the subject. For those who struggle with this question, I strongly recommend this book. But for our purposes here, I want to focus on what he writes about the translation wars in general. After showing a bit of the dangers that publishers commit by packaging the Bible for different niche markets (e.g. The Busy Mom’s Bible, The Secret Handshake Bible, etc.), the reality is that most of the translations we have are worthy translations. Blomberg writes:

Except for aberrant translations produced by sects or cults to promote their distinctive doctrines, every bible on the market today is sufficiently faithful in its translation so that its readers can learn all of the fundamental truths of Christianity accurately. The same events occur in all versions, the same characters appear, the same commands are given, the same wisdom is imparted, the same prophecies are articulated, the same doctrine promulgated, and so on. The differences are exceedingly minor compared to the overall similarities (Emphasis his).

Blomberg goes on to make his case in the following chapter, but for our purposes, we see that no matter what translation you use, as long as it isn’t put out by one of the cults, like the Jehovah Witnesses, etc., you have a fairly decent translation and all you need to know concerning salvation is found in your translation.

We also need to realize that most of Christianity has had to use translations throughout history because very few Christians understand Greek, Hebrew, or Aramaic. Surprisingly great stalwarts of the faith, like St. Augustine, struggled with Greek and preferred to use only the Latin translation of his day.

Even the Authorized version of the KJV was based on previous translations produced by John Wycliffe, William Tyndale, the Geneva Bible and the Bishops’ Bible. The goal of those behind the Authorized Version was to produce a bible that could be read among the common people. It wasn’t to produce a version that only true Christians could use, as the KJV-only people claim. Blomberg goes on to write:

Modern-day English speakers unfamiliar with the English of the seventeenth-century England may not always realize that it was normal for people in that culture to speak to one another with language such as, ‘Greetings, how art thou today, fair maiden?’ or ‘Dearest husband, I pray thee, suffer me to fetch thee a garment for thy lap.’

This eventually led to the Revised Version in Great Britain in 1885, and later the American Standard Version in 1901, here in the United States. So the idea of updating a version is nothing new to the church.

But the real difference between the KJV, and subsequent versions, is that its translators were working from a limited number of manuscripts. These manuscripts have been proven to be less reliable and to contain more variances than the earlier manuscripts we now have. Please read more about the variances here.

The point is that while the KJV/NKJV are fine translations, the translations that use the Nestle Aland and USB collection of manuscripts can be trusted to be a bit more reliable since the goal of these two groups is to provide copies of the best Greek manuscripts for the New Testament.

As for the ESV, it was brought about when the RSV went out of print and Crossway Books secured the rights to revise the version calling it the English Standard Version (ESV). I love what Blomberg points out in stating that, it’s odd that it is called the English Standard Version, given that it is more American than English, and that it is far from being “standard.” That is just a humorous point.

What Crossway did in revising the old RSV was to remove the more controversial translations the RSV had, and which Evangelicals had long complained about. For instance, the RSV translated Isaiah 7:14 concerning the prophecy of the coming of Christ, as being born of a “young woman” instead of “virgin.” The Hebrew can be interpreted as “young woman.” My Hebrew professor pointed out that while this Hebrew word doesn’t exactly say that the “young woman” in view is a virgin (during Isaiah’s time), to suggest to a Hebrew who has a daughter fitting the description of a “young woman” that she was not a virgin, was likely to bring an immediate death sentence from the father. The larger issue is that Matthew, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, interprets the passage from Isiah is that of being a “virgin.”

Blomberg goes on to write:

Changes were similarly made in various other passages believed to have reflected a ‘liberal’ bias on the part of the RSV translators. The ESV translators adopted a reasonably formal, exalted literary style, especially in poetry but by no means limited to it. They prioritized the accuracy of meaning, not the clarity or intelligibility of style.

He goes on to warn against those who make “inflated claims about it, especially concerning how literal, elegant, or intelligible the ESV actually is and about how consistently it implements its criteria for translation.” These claims have been shown to be exaggerations by scholars, one from the conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, another from Australian Reform scholar Allan Chapple.

The point to all this is that when it really comes to the different translations, if you like the ESV over the NKJV, or the NIV, over all others, that is fine.

The differences are so small, and God can use any of these translations to bring us to Himself. To argue over one being better than the other, is really an issue of personal pride.

As for my final decision about making the switch to the ESV, I haven’t made it yet and will give it some more thought. I think if I ever return to full-time ministry, I will make the switch. Until then, the Triune God of Creation continues to minister to me and my wife through the NKJV.

UPDATE: I did finally switch to the ESV. And then switched back to the NKJV. I hated the ESV. If they could find a way to soften a translation, they did, which lost some of the impact of the language. The Bible is not a soft book, for soft people. But the translators of the ESV clearly fall into the soft people, with a soft God, and a soft gospel.


13 thoughts on “NKJV vs. ESV: Thoughts on the Translation Wars

  1. When I saw the title of your post, I was afraid you were going to tell me that my ESV bible was flawed. I just bought it in September of last year (the latest study version) after six months of indecision about which study bible version I should buy. Whew! You didn’t condemn my ESV. I didn’t know how much I needed a “study” bible versus just a bible. I have been studying it faithfully, rarely missing a half-hour or more of daily study, so far including Mark, John, Galations, and working on Matthew presently. I could do more, but my SS class and ladies’ bible study require that I study other books as well. I’m loving my ESV.

    A person needs a study bible for better understanding of scripture, and the scripture references included in the notes are valuable.

    Keep up the good posts.


  2. I’m happy to see that you are overcoming your fears. I am happy that I agree with Craig Blomberg! I am thrilled that God is faithful to preserve His Word as faithful servants translate it across languages and time!


  3. Nice article brother, but I have a strong disagreement regarding the reliability of the “oldest”manuscripts. One such, codex sinaiticus was found in a trash receptacle in a roman catholic monastary on Mt Sinai, another, codex vaticainus, was discovered in the vatican archives. Both are very old, neither well worn. The theory I accept is that old does not necessitate reliability. Well read manuscripts wear out, and require recopying. Those don’t fall into that category. I prefer to stay with the majority texts, rather than the minority. Some manuscripts come from the line of Origen’s hexapla, which came from the mind of a man who allegorized much of scrioture, and held perverted views on many passages.
    Let’s not forget that many of the linguistic scholars of the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries were amazingly brilliant in their understanding of ancient Hebrew and Greek. They studied every available manuscript, as well as other documents to ensure what was accepted as the best was put into canon. The minority texts disagree with each other in many thousands of places, let alone their disagreements with the majority tests. Those don’t sound too reliable to me. Modern scholarship has taken a slippery slope, in my opinion.


  4. I am either a NIV or NKJV Bible reader. When I grew up in the Presbyterian Church, all we used was the Revised Standard Version. I don’t like the ESV. If I got the initials right, it will be a first for me for I don’t do initails right usually !!


  5. Hi Timothy,

    You know how much I respect you and your work. Unfortunately there is a lot of confusion in this post. I don’t blame you – but I would encourage you to continue to investigate this issue.

    There are many faithful Christians who have consciously looked at the translation issue in depth and so now use the KJV. My suspicion is that the KJV-Only movement has been used to make educated Christians who reject the eclectic text look like idiots. They’ve done a good job.

    The real issue has always been the preservation of the Greek text of the New Testament. God either kept it clearly for us or he did not. If he did, than the issue is not the divisiveness of fellow Christians but those who profit from convincing English speaking Christians that they cannot trust their English Bibles.

    Just to reiterate – I respect you and understand that there is a lot of pressure to accept the rejection of the KJV (and the received or majority Greek text) as the intelligent position. But it’s a little like evolution. Just because all of the big name scientists say it’s so doesn’t make it that way.

    Just because all the big name evangelicals say the Bible hasn’t been preserved, doesn’t make them right.

    Perhaps all Christians who use the KJV are gullible sectarians. Doesn’t the Bible talk about how we should treat our weaker brethren? I don’t see ridicule listed anywhere.



    • Hi Alec,
      I do say that both KJV/NKJV are fine translations. Yes, I do have a beef with the KJV-only crowd that I have run into in the past. Whenever anyone touts one translation over and against another with your salvation tied to it, I have a real problem with that. That is contrary to the gospel. Our salvation and sanctification are not tied up in a translation, and that is the tenor of the argument that I have experienced by the KJV-only crowd. They are a sect. Not a cult. Not outside the realm of salvation, but very sectarian. And yes, I am poking fun at them. That was the point of the “secret handshake” line. Are you saying my humor goes to far?


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