A Complementarian Bible: Two New Changes to the ESV

Yesterday Crossway Publishers’ board of directors announced 52 changes to the next printing of their popular English Standard Version (ESV) Bible. The announcement was simultaneous with announcement that the ESV would be finalized in this form with no further changes. Thus the printings of the ESV taking place from 2016 forward will represent the permanent version of the ESV. Concerning the changes of the text, Crossway noted the following:

The number of changes in the new ESV Permanent Text is limited to 52 words (out of more than 775,000 total words in ESV Bible) found in 29 verses (out of more than 31,000 verses in the ESV). The guiding principle for creating the ESV Permanent Text was to make only a very limited number of final changes to the ESV text, where such changes represented a substantial improvement in the precision, accuracy, and understanding of the ESV.

This comment is interesting because it might make it sound as if the changes represent no big deal, however a quick glance at the list of the 52 changes reveals a bold theological debate that Crossway has intentional thrown their weight into. Before, commenting on these change it may be helpful to take an aside here and quickly comment on the act of changing words in an English Bible first.

Does the Bible Change?

It come as a startling revelation, or maybe a joyful one for opponents, to hear of changes made to the text of our English Bibles. I assure you neither of these is warranted. Anyone with a cursory understanding of the process called hermeneutics (commonly called biblical interpretation) has to be aware of the roots of the Bible, namely, of what the Bible is composed and how it came to rest in its present form. Take, for example, the following points about the Bible:

  • The Bible is best not understood as a book but a collection of writings.
  • The Bible contains 66 distinct writings, 39 in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament, written by 40 different human authors.
  • The books of the Bible are dated by conservative scholars to span from about 1500 B.C.E. (B.C.) to 90 C.E. (A.D.).
  • The primary recorded languages of the Bible are Hebrew and Greek (a form known as New Testament or Koine Greek), with a few statements recorded in Aramaic.
  • The 66 different writings fall into various genres including histories, prophetic writings, wisdom literature, psalms and songs, legal compositions, biographical narratives or gospels, letters, and apocalyptic literature.

There are many more facts that I could record here, but these five show us the importance of simply understanding what the Bible really is so that we can understand it properly. For instance, if the Bible were written with one primary human author—as the Qur’an is—we would expect certain things that we might not expect from a work of collaboration, for instance word choice. In texts composed by one author, we expect to carry the same meaning, imagery, and connotations all the way through the text. If, however, there are multiple writers we might expect that the meaning or connotations might vary slightly between authors. Similarly genre is going to play a large role in our understanding, it should be obvious, though critics of the Bible often ignore this, but a psalm, song, or poetry ought to be interpreted in a more symbolic fashion than a pastor letter or sermon. For a look at how both of these play out I would encourage you to consider the word “flesh”. If you have a Bible flip to the back contents, find the index, look up the word ‘flesh’, then go and read each of the paragraphs or stanzas in which the word ‘flesh’ is contained. You will notice at least three distinct usages of the same word.

Now, I point all this out to make the point that hermeneutics, like any discipline that combines art and science, is constantly refining. As we study we discover potential meanings of words and phrases expanding the possibility of what parts of the Bible might be saying, and as we study further we discover—within those possibilities—which meanings are certain, probable, and likely, as well as which fall on a spectrum of improbable, unlikely, and out of the question.  In an effort to make our English versions of the Bible as accessible as possible—especially in an age of decreasing comprehension—translators and editors make necessary additions in order to draw out a texts meaning. This is a required whenever you translate from one language to another. Consider your high school or college Spanish or French class (or any other language class you took), did you not learn phrases that when literally translated make no sense whatsoever? An idiom, perhaps, that while only comprised of two words seemed to have an English meaning of an entire sentence? The same is true of the Bible. In fact, it is an important note when choosing a preferred translation of the Bible (King James, New King James, New International, English Standard, Holman Christian Standard, New American Standard, Revised Standard, etc) to be aware of the translation philosophy, usually articulated in the first few pages of the Bible. This will tell you whether the Bible is more or a “word-for-word” translation or a “thought-for-thought” translation. You will notice the word-for-word translations (like the New American Standard) sound like Yoda or Shakespeare occasionally. Anyway, I have written these last 680 or so words so that you understand why Bibles (or the works from the classical, medieval, Renaissance, Reformation, etc. for that matter) might have different wording and why one translation of the Bible might slowly evolve. Though there is more that could be said, it is time to turn to our topic at hand: four important words in two different alterations.

Desire and Its Meaning

I believe the most controversial changes will be the first two announced that come within a chapter of one another, in the first book of the Bible, and involve the interpretation of the same word: Desire. In Genesis 3, after the sin of Adam and Eve, God levels a curse at the couple directing certain aspects at the wife and others at the husband. In verse 16, God tells Eve (according to the previous translation), “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” This is a critical verse in the theological conversation about sex, gender roles, and marriage. Think of all the meanings of the word desire. I bet the majority of meanings you can come up with refer to lust (sexual desire) or coveting (jealous ownership desire). So is this verse about a woman’s sexual drive? Or is it about a woman’s jealousy for her husbands affections and attention? Why don’t we consider the next verse: Genesis 4:7.

This verse comes in the context of Cain’s jealousy toward his brother Abel, who is favored by God for offering a more righteous sacrifice. God tell Cain that “sin crouches at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” The implication here is much clearer. There is a force (sin) which desires Cain, but Cain must rule or master it. In other words God is telling Cain that either Cain will master sin or sin will master him. With Genesis 4:7 in mind, let’s rewind back to Genesis 3:16 and read with the same understanding (after all it is the same word in Hebrew, written by the same author Moses, within the same book of the Bible, Genesis, and even appears in the same narrative unit, Genesis 3-4 describes the entrance of sin and the immediate ramifications). We should understand Genesis 3:16 to read: Your desire shall be for [to master] your husband, and [yet] he shall rule over you. Or another legitimate understanding would be (as the new translation puts it):

Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.

and Genesis 4:7:

Sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is contrary to you, but you must rule over it.

Wading into Gender Debate

The importance and controversy that will arise from this alteration is related to the on going debate between the groups known as Complementarians and Egalitarians. The basics of the debate revolves around God’s intention for authority within the home and within the church. Complementarians believe that God designed humanity in two distinct groups (male and female) which have distinct roles and unique ways of relating to each other. Specifically, to the chagrin of Egalitarians, a husband is to lead his family sacrificially and a wife is to submit to her husband in manner that honors him even though man and wife are both equal in personhood, dignity, and the possession of the image of God. Egalitarians on the other hand reject the idea of submission of one to the other as undermining the equality of personhood, dignity, and the possession of the image of God within the relationship.

One of the primary arguments that Egalitarians make is that headship (male-servant-leadership) enters into Jewish tradition after the Fall. As such they are interpreting “and he will rule over you” as the first mention of male leadership. While the new additions to the ESV are not as strongly Complementarian as I would understand the verse to be, they do lean the text against the Egalitarian interpretation, especially when you take into account the argument from creation order made by Paul in 1 Timothy 2. It will be interesting to see what, if any, backlash emerges out of these changes. If it does, I will expect it will be less effective in turning readers from the ESV than the conservative backlash against the “gender-neutral” NIV of 2012.

Thanks for reading,



3 thoughts on “A Complementarian Bible: Two New Changes to the ESV

  1. Generally, some folks believe: “if the plain sense makes sense, seek no other sense” in other words, primary emphasis is placed on the literal meaning of all texts before any thought is given to metaphor or simile.
    making a ‘permanent version’ is a flawed idea in the face of constantly refining knowledge of ancient languages and their idioms. I’ve seen a literal word-for-word translation of the Greek and it’s really, really difficult to follow. At least with some translations, added words are italicized; other versions don’t tell you what they added so that the verses seem to make sense.

    I’ve seen a “meaning-based” translation philosophy out there, too. In other words: “We decide what it means, and that’s how we translate the text.” It really garbled one of the more confusing passages out there – resulting in: “So a woman should wear a head covering as a sign that she recognizes the authority of her husband, a fact that all the angels realize.” Whereas another translated the same verse this way: “Therefore, women should exercise control over their own heads, to respect the angels.” While the most literal reading of the Greek translates to: “because of this the woman/wife ought to have power/authority on the/her head because of the angels/messengers” It seems that we’re all too eager to decide how we’re going to translate the text rather than just trying to decipher it’s meaning and then debating whether or not it’s wisdom is still applicable in our culture.

    Songs of Solomon 7:10 also uses ‘desire’ (same word.) I think we have to be careful – if we say: “Look, this New Testament verse refers to Sarah and Hagar – so this must be an important, eternal truth!” We’d rightly say that it’s an illustration borrowing from the Old Testament to make a whole new point. Likewise, if we say that every single mention of the Old Testament in the New Testament holds some important, eternal truth, then we’d risk garbling what was originally meant.

    1. Hey Jamie,

      I am not sure I follow your point in a couple of places, but that may be that we take different views of the Bible and how it is the word of God.

      For example, I take the position called verbal, plenary inspiration. If you are not familiar with this position, it is best understood as the belief that the Bible’s very words (not just its ideas communicated, but the words themselves) of the original manuscripts are breathed out by God (this is a trinitarian act) into the biblical authors and editors without overriding their personhood or personalities.

      The cash value of this idea is that the Bible would be without error as a perfect God cannot make errors. Not only that, but the Bible can be properly understood to be timeless (meaning constantly relevant), even the most obscure parts of scripture reveal aspects of God’s character. An example of this would be the ceremonial laws, though we are no longer required to live by them, they are very relevant to revealing the holiness of God.

      Thanks for reading,

  2. I think that the translation choice on Genesis 3 is deeply damaging and disturbing. First of all, the version claims to take a formal equivalence approach and this looks like a case of “except when a dynamic equivalence suits my agenda.” This looks like a theologically loaded translation and also the interpretation choice is not even necessary for a complementarian position. Note for example that Calvin sees the verse as meaning that her desire will be to her husband and she will be mastered by him ..or that what should have been voluntary submission becomes forced. So he doesn’t see it as a “battle of the sexes thing.” The translation is essentially following Susan Foh.

    Now the concern we should have is this. When someone forces a particularl interpretation into the translation which isn’t necessary for the overall theological position then it undermines the theological position. It makes it harder to have a conversation with people because I can’t now pick up a new ESV and talk things through with an egalitarian because they distrust the translation and see it as loaded. It looks like we need to force translations to make our point -and we don’t. It’s fascinating to go back to older Bible commentators like Calvin and see that because they didn’t have to worry about making an argument that was assumed that they were able to treat the text in an unforced way on these things. See for example his alloweance for what is effectively mutual submission within the context of headship because he isn’t responding to a feminist take on what that might imply.

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