Both the English Standard Version (ESV) and the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) are revisions of the Revised Standard Version that dates to the 1950’s. However, their translation teams and targeted audiences were significantly different. The ESV is number 4 on the bestseller list, but the RSV is popular with academics. Let’s compare these two translations and find their similarities and differences.
Origins of the NRSV Vs ESV
First published in 1989 by the National Council of Churches, the NRSV is a revision of the Revised Standard Version. The full translation includes the books of the standard Protestant canon as well as versions available with the Apocrypha books used in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The translation team included scholars from Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant denominations, and Jewish representation for the Old Testament. The translators mandate was, “As literal as possible, as free as necessary.”
Like the NRSV, the ESV, first published in 2001, is a revision of the Revised Standard Version (RSV), 1971 edition. The translation team had over 100 leading evangelical scholars and pastors. About 8% (60,000) words of the 1971 RSV were revised in the first ESV publication in 2001, including the liberal influence that had disturbed conservative Christians in the 1952 RSV edition.
Readability of the NRSV and the ESV
The NRSV is at an 11th grade reading level. It is a word-for-word translation, but not as literal as the ESV, yet has some formal wording that isn’t commonly used in modern English.
The ESV is at a 10th grade reading level. As a strict word-for-word translation, sentence structure can be slightly awkward, but is readable enough for both Bible study and reading through the Bible. It scores 74.9% on the Flesch Reading Ease.
Gender-neutral and gender-inclusive language:
A recent issue in Bible translation is whether to use gender-neutral and gender-inclusive language. The New Testament often uses words like “brothers,” when the context clearly means both genders. In this case, some translations will use the gender-inclusive “brothers and sisters” – adding in words but transmitting the intended meaning.
Similarly, translators must decide how to translate words like the Hebrew adam or the Greek anthrópos; both can mean a male person (man) but can also carry the generic meaning of mankind or people (or person if singular). When speaking specifically of a man, the Hebrew word ish is usually used, and the Greek word anér.
Traditionally, adam and aner have been translated “man,” but some recent translations use gender-inclusive words like “person” or “humans” or “one” when the meaning is clearly generic.
The NRSV is an “essentially literal” translation that strives for word-for-word accuracy. However, compared to other translations, it’s almost in the middle of the spectrum, leaning toward “dynamic equivalence” or thought-for-thought translation.
The NRSV uses gender-inclusive language and gender-neutral language, such as “brothers and sisters,” rather than just “brothers,” when the meaning is clearly for both genders. However, it includes a footnote to show “sisters” was added in. It uses gender-neutral language, such as “people” instead of “man,” when the Hebrew or Greek word is neutral. “ “The mandates from the Division specified that, in references to men and women, masculine-oriented language should be eliminated as far as this can be done without altering passages that reflect the historical situation of ancient patriarchal culture.”
The English Standard Version is an “essentially literal” translation that emphasizes “word for word” accuracy. It is second only to the New American Standard Bible for being the most literal translation.
The ESV generally translates only what is in the Greek text, so doesn’t usually use gender-inclusive language (like brothers and sisters instead of brothers). It does (rarely) use gender-neutral language in certain specific cases, when the Greek or Hebrew word could be neutral, and the context is clearly neutral.
Both the NRSV and the ESV consulted all available manuscripts when translating from Hebrew and Greek.
Bible Verse Comparison:
You can observe from these comparisons that the two versions are quite similar, except for gender-inclusive and gender-neutral language.
NRSV: “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.
ESV: “Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.”
NRSV: “He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, human beings and animals and creeping things and birds of the air; they were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those that were with him in the ark.”
ESV: “He blotted out every living thing that was on the face of the ground, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens. They were blotted out from the earth. Only Noah was left, and those who were with him in the ark.”
NRSV: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
ESV: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”
NRSV: “Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
ESV: “Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
1 John 5:10
NRSV: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the parent loves the child.”
ESV: “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.”
NRSV: “But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us.”
ESV: “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us.”
NRSV: “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.
ESV: “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.”
The NRSV, published in 1989, is currently in the 4th year of a “3-year” review, focusing on advances in textual criticism, improving textual notes, and style and rendering. The working title of the revision is the New Revised Standard Version, Updated Edition (NRSV-UE), which is scheduled for release in November 2021.
Crossway published the ESV in 2001, followed by three very minor text revisions in 2007, 2011, and 2016.
The NRSV is targeted toward a widely ecumenical (Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox) audience of church leaders and academics.
As a more literal translation, it is suitable for in-depth study by teens and adults, yet it is readable enough to be used in daily devotions and reading longer passages.
The NRSV does not rank among the top 10 on the June 2021 Bible Translations Bestsellers list compiled by the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA). However, Bible Gateway claims it “has received the widest acclaim and broadest support from academics and church leaders of any modern English translation.” The site also says the NRSV stands out as “the most widely ‘authorized’ by the churches. It received the endorsement of thirty-three Protestant churches and the imprimatur of the American and Canadian Conferences of Catholic bishops.”
The English Standard Version ranks #4 on the June 2021 Bible Translations Bestsellers list. In 2013, Gideon’s International began distributing the ESV in hotels, hospitals, convalescent homes, medical offices, domestic violence shelters, and prisons, making it one of the most widely distributed versions around the world.
Pros and Cons of Both
Mark Given of Missouri State University reports that the NRSV is most preferred by biblical scholars, due to translation from what many consider the oldest and best manuscripts and because it is a literal translation.
Overall, the New Revised Standard Version is an accurate Bible translation and not that different from the ESV, except for gender-inclusive language.
Its gender-inclusive and gender-neutral language are considered a pro by some and a con by others, depending on one’s opinion on the matter. Many evangelical translations have adopted gender-neutral language and some also use gender-inclusive language.
Conservative and evangelical Christians may not feel comfortable with its ecumenical approach (such as including the Apocrypha in Catholic and Orthodox versions and that it is published by the liberal National Council of Churches). It has been called “the most liberal modern scholarly translation of the Bible.”
Some consider the NRSV to not be as free-flowing and natural-sounding English as it could be – choppier than the ESV.
As one of the most literal translations, the translators were less likely to insert their own opinions or theological stance into how the verses were translated. It is highly accurate. The wording is precise yet retains the original style of the authors of the Bible books.
The ESV has helpful footnotes explaining words, phrases, and issues with translation. The ESV has one of the best cross-referencing systems, with a useful concordance.
The ESV tends to retain some archaic language from the Revised Standard Version, and in some places, has awkward language, obscure idioms, and irregular word order. Nevertheless, it has a good readability score.
Although the ESV is mostly a word for word translation, to improve readability, some passages were more thought for thought and these diverged significantly from other translations.
Pastors who use NRSV:
The NRSV has been “officially approved” for public and private reading and study by many mainline denominations, including the Episcopal Church (United States), the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), the Presbyterian Church (USA), the United Church of Christ, and the Reformed Church in America.
- Bishop William H. Willimon, the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church and Visiting Professor, Duke Divinity School.
- Richard J. Foster, pastor in Quaker (Friends) churches, former professor at George Fox College, and author of Celebration of Discipline.
- Barbara Brown Taylor, Episcopal priest, current or former professor at Piedmont College, Emory University, Mercer University, Columbia Seminary, and Oblate School of Theology, and author of Leaving Church.
Pastors who use ESV:
- John Piper, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis for 33 years, reformed theologian, chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, founder of Desiring God ministries, and best-selling author.
- R.C. Sproul (deceased) reformed theologian, Presbyterian pastor, founder of Ligonier Ministries, a chief architect of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and author of over 70 books.
- J. I. Packer (deceased 2020) Calvinist theologian who served on the ESV translation team, author of Knowing God, onetime evangelical priest in the Church of England, later a Theology Professor at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada.
Study Bibles to Choose
A good study Bible helps with understanding Biblical passages through study notes that explain words, phrases, and spiritual concepts, through topical articles, and through visual aids like maps, charts, illustrations, timelines, and tables.
Best NRSV Study Bibles
- Baylor Annotated Study Bible, 2019, published by Baylor University Press, is a collaborative effort of almost 70 Bible scholars, and provides an introduction and commentary for each Bible book, along with cross-references, a biblical timeline, glossary of terms, concordance, and full-color maps.
- NRSV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible, 2019, published by Zondervan, provides insight into the customs of biblical times with notes from Dr. John H. Walton (Wheaton College) in the Old Testament and Dr. Craig S. Keener (Asbury Theological Seminary) in the New Testament. Contains introductions to Bible books, verse by verse study notes, glossary of key terms, 300+ in-depth articles on key contextual topics, 375 photos and illustrations, charts, maps, and diagrams.
- The Discipleship Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, 2008, provides information about the biblical text as well as guidance for Christian living. Annotations emphasize the personal implications of the passage along with helpful tools for understanding the passages. It includes a chronology of the events and literature of ancient Israel and early Christianity, a concise concordance, and eight pages of color maps.
Best ESV Study Bibles
- The ESV Literary Study Bible, published by Crossway, includes notes by literary scholar Leland Ryken of Wheaton College. Its focus is not so much on explaining passages as teaching readers how to read the passages. It contains 12,000 insightful notes highlighting literary features such as genre, images, plot, setting, stylistic and rhetorical techniques, and artistry.
- The ESV Study Bible, published by Crossway, has sold more than 1 million copies. The general editor is Wayne Grudem, and features ESV editor J.I. Packer as theological editor. It includes cross-references, a concordance, maps, a reading plan, and introductions to the books of the Bible.
- The Reformation Study Bible: English Standard Version, edited by R.C. Sproul and published by Ligonier Ministries, contains 20,000+ pointed and pithy study notes, 96 theological articles (Reformed theology), contributions from 50 evangelical scholars, 19 in-text black & white maps, and 12 charts.
Other Bible Translations
Let’s compare three other translations that were in the top 5 on the June 2021 Bible Translations Bestsellers list.
- NIV (New International Version)
Number 1 on the bestseller list and first published in 1978, this version was translated by 100+ international scholars from 13 denominations. The NIV is a completely new translation, rather than a revision of a former translation. It is a “thought for thought” translation, so it does omit and add words not in the original manuscripts. The NIV is considered second best for readability after the NLT, with an age 12+ reading level.
- NLT (New Living Translation)
The New Living Translation ranks #3 on the June 2021 Bestsellers list according to the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA). The New Living Translation is a thought-for-thought translation (trending toward being a paraphrase) and is usually considered the most easily readable, at a 6th grade reading level. The Canadian Gideons chose the New Living Translation for distribution to hotels, motels, and hospitals, and used the New Living Translation for their New Life Bible App.
- NKJV (New King James Version)
Number 5 on the bestselling list, the NKJV was first published in 1982 as a revision of the King James Version. The 130 scholars endeavored to preserve the style and poetic beauty of the KJV, while replacing most of the archaic language with updated words and phrases. It mostly uses the Textus Receptus for the New Testament, not the older manuscripts that most other translations use. Readability is much easier than the KJV, but not as good as the NIV or NLT (although it’s more accurate than they are).
- Comparison of James 4:11 (compare to NRSV and ESV above)
NIV: “Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it.”
NLT: “Don’t speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters. If you criticize and judge each other, then you are criticizing and judging God’s law. But your job is to obey the law, not to judge whether it applies to you.
NKJV: “Do not speak evil of one another, brethren. He who speaks evil of a brother and judges his brother, speaks evil of the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.”
Which Bible Translation Shall I Choose between the ESV and the NRSV?
The best answer is to find a translation you love – one that you will read, memorize, and study regularly. Before buying a print edition, you may want to check out how various passages in the NRSV and ESV (and dozens of other translations) compare at the Bible Gateway website. They have all the translations mentioned above, along with helpful study tools and Bible reading plans.