Search for a formal translation: NASB vs ESV vs NRSV

In the future, I will be blogging on formal equivalent translations doing a comparison of how it renders specific scriptural passages. The NASB, ESV, and NRSV are all very good, and currently, I refer to all three in by comparisons. There are many evangelicals who swear by the accuracy of the NASB and will not use any other. Although formal translations do not necessarily mean accuracy, they are useful because they more closely match the underlying Greek. Some bible readers from mainline churches like to read the NRSV just because it is largely a product of translators from mainline churches. Bible readers from the Reformed tradition have a tendency to favor the ESV. It is the newest translation of the three, but newer does not necessarily mean better.

The ESV is a direct revision of the RSV and is an update of the old ASV. Since the ESV has been revised and translated by evangelical scholars, it has gained a larger following of evangelicals and is now one of the top-selling modern translations. The NRSV is also an updated version of the RSV. In my study, I’ve noticed that scholars on the NRSV seems to have done more work than the translators of the ESV. The NASB, like the RSV, is also a direct revision of the old ASV. Translators of the NASB have done an excellent job and notably so. I think the NASB updated and the NRSV do not sound as awkward as the ESV and RSV because they have done more fine tuning work.

Surprisingly, as a newer translation, the ESV still sounds awkward in some places. It is obvious that ESV translators have not done as much work on it as the NRSV or NASB. But with literal translations, it is almost impossible to avoid sounding wooden. Despite some awkward places, it is still readable and a very trustworthy translation. Its updated scholarship is important but it should not be seen as a measuring stick of the translation’s quality. It should only be considered as one of the factors. The overall quality of the translation work is most important.

Besides the ESV, NRSV, and NASB, there are not many other formal equivalent translations that are as readable and use today’s language. Literal translations may not be as popular as dynamic or intermediate translations because most bible readers may prefer a more dynamic translation for regular devotional reading. For this, I personally prefer an intermediate translation like the TNIV (HCSB is good too) and also a dynamic translation like the NLT. But for in-depth study, I still feel comfortable having a formal translation at hand. Formal translations will always be around and I, as many bible lovers and readers, am on a search for what I think is the best one. We may never be able to find one, but at least, we might be able to find a favorite one.

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Author: Kevin S.

A follower of Jesus, a husband and a father. Hobbies include biking, keeping fish if they don't die on me, blogging when I can, theologizing and ministry, and pondering about world affairs.

14 thoughts on “Search for a formal translation: NASB vs ESV vs NRSV”

  1. I have been comparing the HCSB to the original Greek and Hebrew, and find it to be pretty literal more often than not. The three translations you are looking at all come from the KJV tradition so I’d suggest adding the HCSB into the mix as it is really quite good. I generally use the NIV (or my TNIV Books of the Bible) for a reading translation, and NASB and ESV for study. However I usually go to the HCSB for comparison with all of those. I find it strikes a very nice balance. My next step after that is usually to go to the Greek or the Hebrew. What this means is that I normally get an idiomatic view, a literal view, and somewhere in between from the HCSB. Looking forward to reading your results.

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  2. Kevin,

    I used the NASB for a few years, but then decided to part ways with it this year. Here’s why:

    1. I find it quite inconsistent at times, and I even shared these finds with Dr. Daniel B. Wallace of DTS and he agrees with me. For example, in Matthew the NASB translates porneia three different ways:”marital unchastity” (5:32); “fornications” (15:19); “immorality” (19:9). This is quite inconsistent.

    And I can show more of this; I have almost given up on the NASB.

    2. As a version along the same line, the ESV is a better choice than the NASB. The ESV is more consistent than the ESV. The NRSV is quite good as well.

    Right now, I like the TNIV over the NET, HCSB, and ESV.

    The TNIV has corrected most of the mistranslations of the NIV.

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  3. Nathan, Thanks for the suggestion. I was hesitant to do a comparison of three translations but decided to do so anyway because all three are very good. And yes, they are all from the Tyndale-KJV tradition. I will do a comparison between the HCSB and T/NIV in the future, just to compare apples with apples.

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  4. TC, the NASB does have its flaws just like almost any other translation. The NASB may have a tendency to do more interpretation for the readers than the ESV or NRSV. This is one of its flaws but its still a very good translation. I think the ESV also has its own flaws but I trust that they will get ironed out when the next revision comes around. I am amazed that the NIV hadn’t come out with new revisions earlier. Thirty years plus is a long time without revisions. I predict that in the future, many of the newer translations will have revisions on a regular basis.

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  5. Kevin, my wife tells me all the time that I need to do my own translation of the Bible.

    For example, I’m preaching from 2 Peter 1-11, looking at the seven virtues listed by Peter over a two-months period, but I can’t decide on which version to use.

    So far, I like the HCSB and the NASB on this text, but I’m more of a TNIV guy.

    I agree that both the NASB and ESV are good versions and that they have their place. As I said, I used the NASB for a few years.

    I’m looking forward to your other posts.

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  6. Hey Kevin,

    The NIV was revised at least once, in 1984, though we’d probably be hard-pressed to see most of the changes.

    I have both an old 1978 and a 1984 version of the NIV, and I have run across some differences. But it’sbeen quite a while since I looked at them, so don’t ask me what they are! 😉

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  7. Thanks Gary. You’re absolutely right about the changes in the NIV 1984.I don’t know what the changes were either especially since I was still a GNT and NKJV reader when I was still a young person. I have no idea what the extent of the changes. Maybe someone out there knows.

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  8. I believe the NASB does have inconsistencies in its translation choices like ALL other versions do. It is quite literal in many places, but when you consider all the italicized words in it, most of which are unnecessary you have a rather large body of “commentary.”

    The ESV is definitely more consistent in its choices than the NASB. The ESV is more lexically up to date.

    The NRSV is a very good translation most of the time. Its major flaw is its loose handling of “gender-inclusive” language. If it had not made unnecessary compromises with regard to gender inclusiveness, it would likely be my English translation of choice.

    I like to use the ESV as a “replacement” for the old ASV-1901 along with the NRSV. This gives me a modified literal selection for study purposes. I use the TNIV for general reading in order to capture the flow of the writers’ thoughts.

    In short, it seems that with the ESV, NRSV, TNIV, and throw in the ASV-1901 for good measure, a person has a team that can move a mountain!

    Robert Dillard, PhD Hebrew, PhD Greek

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  9. Robert, thanks for your input and opinion and for visiting this blog. I agree that the NASB does have a lot of verbiage. It could say the same thing using fewer words. I have come across other commenters who also said that they have found the NASB translation to be more inconsistent in its renderings than the ESV. However, the ESV also has its weakness in that it has many inverted negatives which are no longer used in today’s spoken English language.

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  10. I noticed the comment about the changing of the 78 and 84 versions of the NIV. One of the translators who worked on the NIV (Jack P. Lewis) wrote a book entitled “The English Bible from KJV to NIV: A History and Evaluation.” He recently updated the book in 1991. One of his sections on the chapter for the NIV is titled “Changing Editions.” His following discussion is way too long to copy here, but if one would like to know, I will check this blog and I have follow-up comments routed to my email. I can copy the section and send it to you, or actually get you a copy of the book. Among the translation books available, this one is definitely worth having. Let me know.

    I appreciate the comments so far. I mainly use the ESV, but I find the NASB, NRSV, TNIV, HCSB, and (not as often) the NLT very helpful.

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  11. After I posted this, I realized I need to clarify two things:

    1. Lewis didn’t “recently” update the book – it has been 17 years!

    2. The book doesn’t have a ISBN number. It is published by Hester Publications, a small publisher located in TN. You can find copies of the book on Amazon Marketplace, but Hester still publishes the book and they are available brand new.

    Just let me know if you are interested.

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  12. I realized again that I made a mistake. The book does have an ISBN and it is as follows:

    0801056667

    Sorry about that everyone.

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  13. I wish the NASB translators would correct some things about the translation; but I have found that it is by far one of the most literal proper English translations available overall. A blend of the NASB, ASV, and the ESV (the NASB having the greatest influence) with some other very slight revisions, would be much, much desired. I prefer other translations, especially the ESV, in many instances where it surpasses the NASB in accuracy (and where its English is not too elementary or choppy). The NASB will suffice as my primary translation for now.

    To “tc,” consider also how the Greek word “krino” (i.e., to judge, to discern, to opine, to decide upon, to condemn, to reprove, to govern, etc.) is translated throughout the New Testament in nearly every English translation. Even the ESV translators felt obliged to translate “krino” in various ways depending on the context: and rightly so. In fact, most English translations, including the ESV, are ripe with examples of Greek words being translated differently depending on the context. But I do agree, after some thought, that a consistent rendering of “porneia” as “sexual immorality” is better than attempting subtle (and risky) distinctions within that category, given the same word.

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