As I noted in this blog about a month ago, I officially joined the Gideons International. They have a solid reputation for worldwide Bible distribution and I’ve heard plenty of people say that the Gideons are responsible for giving them the first Scriptures they’ve ever had. To date, the Gideons have distributed complete Bibles and New Testaments to the tune of 1.7 billion in over 190 countries. As we ponder over that, we must praise God for this ministry and their efforts to bring the Word to so many people. With a legacy such as this, I can say that I’m proud to be a part of this organization.
Yet with such a high volume of Bible distribution, shouldn’t it matter which translation(s) the Gideons are using? Most people who have any degree of familiarity with the organization know that the Gideons have been handing out the King James Version (KJV) since the ministry was founded. Even today, the KJV is the rock-solid standard of the organization. However, the Gideons also pass out a modern English version as an alternative. The version used for the modern translation has changed over the years. I’m told that the New International Version (NIV) was used at one point but later abandoned, probably because of the cost of the royalties (all modern translations have copyrights). After that, they switched to the New King James Version (NKJV).
Setting the NKJV as their choice for a modern translation was probably one of the best decisions the Gideons ever made. I say that because, in my humble opinion, the NKJV is the best modern translation available. While I won’t go into all of the reasons why I say that, suffice the say that I believe the textual basis is superior, the translation itself is trustworthy, and it is very readable. This year, however, the Gideons International decided to drop the NKJV. I was taken aback by this, especially since their usage of the NKJV as a modern translation was one of the main reasons I joined the organization. I was very much looking forward to ordering cases full of Personal Workers Testaments in the NKJV. No more.
At their last international meeting, the Gideons made the decision to adopt the English Standard Version (ESV) as their new modern translation. This is, in my estimation, one of the worst decisions ever made by the Gideons. Having used the NIV at one time was bad enough and this is yet another bad move. I actually called the Gideons’ made office to figure out what was behind the decision and I was told some very interesting answers. The NKJV copyright is owned by Thomas Nelson, a publishing company that was recently acquired by HarperCollins. When this takeover happened, the contract that the Gideons had with Thomas Nelson would not be renewed (I wasn’t given a clear answer about why it fell through). In the midst of this, there’s a lesson here about the commercialization of modern Bible translations, but I’ll save that for a future blog post.
Apparently the move toward the ESV upset many within the Gideons and so certain compromises had to be made. The lady on the phone told me that the version of the ESV distributed by the Gideons is not the same as the ESV you’d find in a book store. One of the main differences between the NKJV and the ESV is the textual basis for translation. In terms of the New Testament, the former is translated from the Traditional Text of Scripture (Textus Receptus or Received Text) whereas the latter is translated from the so-called Critical Text (or Eclectic Text). I can only suppose that there are a lot of Gideons who endorse the Traditional Text, for I was told that this compromise included taking the verses (and parts of verses) which were excluded from the original ESV and incorporating them into the Gideons’ ESV.
Did you follow that? In other words, what the Gideons did was to create a Textus Receptus (TR) edition of the ESV. All of those readings which were excluded from the ESV (because of its Critical Text basis) are now present in the ESV handed out by the Gideons. This is remarkable. One may be tempted to think that all is well since we have a TR edition of the ESV translation now ready for distribution. After all, isn’t it true that the advocates of the Traditional Text got what they wanted and can now rest easy? Not exactly. If what we advocate regarding the Traditional Text is limited merely to a textual basis in the TR, then we’re seriously missing the point. You can have an excellent textual basis and still have a terrible translation. The textual basis and the translation philosophy must go hand in hand.
What the Gideons have done is to put the proverbial “lipstick on a pig.” While I’m happy that the TR readings have made it into their ESV edition, the problem still remains that the ESV is a fundamentally flawed translation which cannot be trusted. As others have pointed out, the ESV is simply a glorified revision of the notoriously liberal Revised Standard Version (RSV). In fact, it has been said that the ESV is about 90 percent of the RSV. That fact by itself should be enough to dismiss any serious notion of endorsing the ESV. In decades past, it was common for evangelical Protestants to rail against the RSV and rightfully so. That being the case, why are so many conservative Protestants today endorsing what is essentially a revised edition of it?
I could be wrong, but I believe there are basically two reasons why so many people (including the Gideons) have jumped on the ESV bandwagon. In the first place, most Christians (to include pastors) are generally ignorant of issues related to textual criticism. This is coupled with a lack of knowledge and discernment regarding translation itself, the methodology thereof, and what a good translation ought to look like. Second, I blame the aggressive marketing campaign of Crossway (the publisher) and their lax allowance of its use. I suspect this is probably the main reason the Gideons decided to adopt the ESV as their new modern translation. The bottom line of cost seems to have trumped textual concerns, at least that’s the impression I’ve received.
There’s also a certain degree of dishonesty here which must be addressed. If it’s true that the edition of the ESV which is distributed by the Gideons is not like the one we find in book stores, then can they really say that it’s an ESV? I hope I don’t sound trite in asking that question, but I believe it needs to be asked. When someone is given a New Testament from the Gideons, in many cases this is the very first Bible that individual has ever read. If the Lord saves him and he desires to purchase a whole Bible, he may indeed go with the translation he’s been reading (as many people do). And so when he goes into the store to purchase an ESV, he’s not going to be reading the same text that he received from the Gideons which was also under the ESV label. Is there not, on some level, a measure of dishonesty here? I believe there is.
I would encourage fellow advocates of the Traditional Text to contact the Gideons and politely insist that they go back to using the NKJV as their modern translation, especially if you yourself are a member of the organization. I can only speak for myself here, but I cannot in good conscience hand out Bibles in the ESV, knowing what I know now about that translation. The good news is that the Gideons still offer Bibles printed in the KJV. They’re also a good resource for getting New Testaments printed in other languages. I didn’t write this post to pile on the Gideons, but to simply point out some fatal flaws in their recent decision to adopt the ESV. Despite this, I will press on as a member of the Gideons and I look forward to working alongside them in evangelism efforts.