In recent weeks, I’ve been working on a mini comparison of the RSV-CE, ESV-CE and NRSVue in the first six chapters of 1 Corinthians. I worked my way verse-by-verse, comparing the three translations and noting any significant differences between them. This is my preferred way of understanding how translations differ from each other, and until now, I haven’t done it for the new translations in the RSV family (the ESV-CE and the NRSVue). For this comparison, I used the RSV-CE text that is available on Bible Gateway, the SPCK Hardcover ESV-CE, and the personal size NRSVue with Apocrypha from Zondervan.
Summary of Observed Differences
Overall, there are several themes that emerge from my verse-by-verse notes on 1 Corinthians 1-6:
- Inclusive Language: Consistent with its reputation, the NRSVue makes a completely comprehensive attempt at inclusive language in every instance where masculine words appear to refer to generic people in the RSV-CE. The ESV-CE is far more restrained in its use of inclusive language, but it occasionally opts for translations like “one” instead of “man” in the RSV-CE. In those cases, the ESV-CE continues to use the male pronoun “he” later in the sentence to refer to “the one.” The ESV-CE uses “brothers” to translate Paul’s references to fellow Christians, with an accompanying footnote explaining that the Greek word can refer to either brothers or brothers and sisters depending on the context.
- Updates to Formal/Archaic Language: Both the NRSVue and the ESV-CE choose a variety of less-formal words to replace older, more formal words in the RSV-CE. The NRSVue does this significantly more often, but there are a number of cases when the NRSVue and ESV-CE both choose the same updated word to replace a more formal word in the RSV-CE. One simple example is a change in 1 Corinthians 4:7. The RSV-CE translates the beginning of Paul’s second question in this verse as “What have you,” while the ESV-CE and NRSVue translate it as “What do you have.”
- Literal vs. Dynamic: In cases where it differs from the RSV-CE, the NRSVue chooses a mixture of literal and dynamic renderings. By contrast, the ESV-CE keeps the RSV-CE’s wording intact much more often, and when it chooses a different translation, it usually opts for something more literal than the RSV-CE. This usually involves translating an additional word like “for” or “or” at the beginning of a sentence which appears in Greek but is not translated in the RSV-CE. The vast majority of these examples are trivial with no effect on the meaning, but they are technically more literal. In a few cases, the NRSVue appears to be more literal than either the RSV-CE or the ESV-CE (compared to a Greek-English interlinear).
- Textual Updates: I found a handful of examples where a textual variant which was listed in the RSV-CE’s notes was chosen as the main text in both the NRSVue and ESV-CE. In the examples I could find, the NRSVue and ESV-CE usually agree on these textual variants.
- Influence of Christian Tradition: I found one example where later Christian tradition could have some influence on the ESV-CE’s translation stood out to me. In 1 Corinthians 2:12, the ESV-CE uses the personal pronoun “who” to refer to the Spirit (i.e. “the Spirit who is from God”), while the RSV-CE uses the pronoun “which” and the NRSVue uses the pronoun “that.” In this case, a look at a Greek-English interlinear reveals that there is no pronoun in the Greek text at all, so the translations are supplying an English pronoun to conform to English grammar. One could easily argue that all three translations are legitimate here, but the ESV-CE’s use of a personal pronoun seems more consistent with later theology on the Spirit’s role as the third person of the Trinity.
This broad overview is consistent with the reputation of these three translations which I’ve run across in other online discussions. If I had to describe my overall takeaway in a few sentences, I would put it this way: The ESV-CE is a very light update of the RSV which primarily accomplishes three things: nudging the RSV in a slightly more literal direction, updating occasional archaic or formal language and grammar in the RSV, and making extremely limited updates to gender language and footnotes to nudge the RSV in a slightly more inclusive direction (but not much). The NRSVue makes significantly more changes to the RSV. These changes can be either literal or dynamic. It also chooses different words compared to the RSV much more often than the ESV. In many cases, the goal is similar: to find less formal, less archaic words with an equivalent meaning to the RSV. The NRSVue is also completely gender inclusive. It doesn’t use any male pronouns for generic persons at all.
I was struck by a decent number of instances where both the NRSVue and the ESV-CE were more literal than the RSV. In these six chapters, I think it’s safe to say the ESV-CE is definitely more literal than the RSV. It’s harder to judge the NRSVue, since it updates the RSV in both literal and dynamic directions. The increased literalism of the ESV-CE usually has no effect on the meaning at all.
Here are some selected examples of the differences I found between the versions:
1 Corinthians 1:10:
RSV-CE: “I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
ESV-CE: “I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
NRSVue: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
Here, the ESV-CE has the following footnote: “Or brothers and sisters. In New Testament usage, depending on the context, the plural Greek word adelphoi (translated “brothers”) may refer either to brothers or to brothers and sisters“
1 Corinthians 3:10:
RSV-CE: “According to the commission of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it.”
ESV-CE: “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it.”
NRSVue: “According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it.”
Incidentally, this verse is also an example of where the ESV-CE and NRSVue choose a more literal rendering than the RSV. The RSV refers to God’s commission while the ESV-CE and NRSVue refer to his grace.
1 Corinthians 3:14:
RSV-CE: “If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.”
ESV-CE: “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.”
NRSVue: “If the work that someone has built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a wage.”
1 Corinthians 3:21:
RSV-CE: “So let no one boast of men. For all things are yours”
ESV-CE: “So let no one boast in men. For all things are yours”
NRSVue: “So let no one boast about people. For all things are yours”
It strikes me as unusual for the ESV-CE to use “men” in this case, since it often uses “one” instead of “man” in other cases. I can only speculate on the reasoning, but there are a couple of possibilities:
- Since this is the conclusion of Paul’s argument about why the Corinthians shouldn’t be making their allegiance to individual preachers like Apollos and Paul, perhaps the translators concluded that Paul was only referring to the people who he named earlier in chapter 1 (Paul, Apollos, Cephas), all of whom were men.
- Maybe the ESV translators believed that the plural construction “men” was more acceptable as a generic term meaning “humans” than the singular construction “man” for a single generic human.
1 Corinthians 4:9:
RSV-CE: “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death…”
ESV-CE: “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death…”
NRSVue: “For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, as though sentenced to death…”
1 Corinthians 2:14:
RSV-CE: “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him…”
ESV-CE: “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him…”
NRSVue: “Those who are unspiritual do not receive the gifts of God’s Spirit, for they are foolishness to them…”
Also note the NRSVue’s use of plural rather than singular here to avoid the male pronoun “him” at the end of the selection. The RSV and NRSVue both have footnotes saying that “natural” is an alternative translation for “unspiritual” while the ESV-CE uses “natural” with no footnotes about alternatives.
1 Corinthians 3:1:
RSV-CE: “But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ.”
ESV-CE: “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.”
NRSVue: “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people but rather as fleshly, as infants in Christ.”
Note the inclusive language differences in this verse also.
1 Corinthians 3:11:
RSV-CE: “For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
ESV-CE: “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.”
NRSVue: “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ.”
1 Corinthians 4:13:
RSV-CE: “when slandered, we try to conciliate; we have become, and are now, as the refuse of the world, the offscouring of all things.”
ESV-CE: “when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.”
NRSVue: “when slandered, we speak kindly. We have become like the rubbish of the world, the dregs of all things, to this very day.”
1 Corinthians 5:6-7:
RSV-CE: “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed.”
ESV-CE: “Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.”
NRSVue: “Your boasting is not a good thing. Do you not know that a little yeast leavens all of the dough? Clean out the old yeast so that you may be a new batch of dough, as you really are unleavened. For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.”
This is a good example of how the ESV-CE makes fewer changes to the RSV than the NRSVue. The NRSVue updates the language to more modern equivalents.
1 Corinthians 6:12:
RSV-CE: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be enslaved by anything.”
ESV-CE: “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.”
NRSVue: “‘All things are permitted for me,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are permitted for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.”
Literal vs. Dynamic Translations
1 Corinthians 2:1:
RSV-CE: “When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom.”
ESV-CE: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.”
NRSVue: “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the testimony of God to you with superior speech or wisdom.
Here, the ESV-CE adds the words “And I” at the beginning of the sentence. This appears to be closer to the Greek grammar, but it has no impact on meaning. This is one of many similar examples where the ESV-CE adds an extra word or two that appears in Greek but does not affect the meaning.
1 Corinthians 2:3:
RSV-CE: “And I was with you in weakness and in much fear and trembling“
ESV-CE: “And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling“
NRSVue: “And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling“
Here, the RSV chose an expression that is an idiom in English (fear and trembling), so it sounds smoother to an English speaker. The NRSVue and ESV-CE are closer to the Greek text’s order, though. Judging from an interlinear, the word “much” modifies “trembling” rather than “fear” in Greek.
1 Corinthians 2:15:
RSV-CE: “The spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.”
ESV-CE: “The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.”
NRSVue: “Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.”
Here the NRSVue chooses a rendering that is more dynamic compared to the Greek than the RSV-CE and ESV-CE.
1 Corinthians 4:12:
RSV-CE: “and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure”
ESV-CE: “and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure”
NRSVue: “and we grow weary from the work of our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure”
As near as I can tell, the Greek word translated here has a connotation of getting tired out from hard work. One could argue that the RSV and ESV-CE are more literal, while the NRSVue captures the nuance a bit better.
1 Corinthians 4:15:
RSV-CE: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
ESV-CE: “For though you have countless guides in Christ, you do not have many fathers. For I became your father in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”
NRSVue: “For though you might have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers. Indeed, in Christ Jesus I fathered you through the gospel.”
The NRSVue is more literal here. The Greek literally says ten thousand. The Greek term translated “guides” in the RSV refers to slaves who served as guardians and tutors to minors. I think the NRSVue’s translation “guardians” captures that nuance a bit better. Finally, the Greek term which the RSV and ESV-CE translate “became your father” literally means “to procreate.” The NRSVue’s translation captures this nuance better as well.
1 Corinthians 5:12:
RSV-CE: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?”
ESV-CE: “For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?”
NRSVue: “For what have I to do with judging those outside? Are you not judges of those who are inside?”
Here, the RSV-CE and ESV-CE supply the words “the church” to explain what Paul means. The Greek merely contrasts outside and inside without specifying the church.
1 Corinthians 6:10:
RSV-CE: “Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither the immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals…”
ESV-CE: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality…”
NRSVue: “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! The sexually immoral, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, men who engage in illicit sex…”
Like the NABRE, the RSV-CE uses “immorality” to translate the Greek word “porneia.” The ESV-CE and NRSVue both clarify the meaning by translating the term as “sexual immorality.” For the last part of this verse, each translation includes a footnote to further explain the meaning:
RSV-CE footnote: “Two Greek words are rendered by this expression homosexuals: Greek has ‘effeminate nor sodomites.’ The apostle condemns, not the inherent tendencies of such, but the indulgence of them.”
ESV-CE footnote: “The two Greek terms translated by this phrase refer to the passive and active partners in consensual homosexual acts”
NRSVue footnote: “Meaning of Gk uncertain”