Why I Chose the ESV over the NASB

esv vs nasb

The ESV and the NASB are very similar translations. When the ESV first came out in 2001 I started an Excel spreadsheet to record passages where I believed one to be superior to the other. I evaluated them based on accuracy, mainly. In the end, they came out neck and neck. I just looked at that file again, and I’m not sure I’d make all the same choices, but reading the two translations over the years has led me to the same conclusion.

Both the ESV and the NASB are conservative translations. Both are more apt (there are plenty of exceptions, as Dave Brunn has shown) to leave historical distance in the text than the NIV—like calling people “fat” instead of “healthy” in Psalm 73:4. Both tend to give the reader credit to recognize figurative speech rather than concretizing it—like “cleanness of teeth” instead of “empty stomachs” in Amos 4:6. Both are willing to leave inspired ambiguity in the text instead of shunting readers into one interpretation or another—like “the obedience of faith” in Romans 1:5. There is value in a translation which makes many interpretive choices for you—especially if you know that’s what you’re reading. But for daily reading, preaching, and study, I want to know all the options available to me. The ESV and NASB both (often, though not always) provide those options—though the Greek and Hebrew are even better, of course!

The ESV is generally regarded as having greater literary beauty than the often “wooden” NASB, and the ESV follows more clearly than the NASB in the great line of English Bible translations stretching back to the KJV. That means it’s closer to what I grew up reading and memorizing, and that has a value. But so does reading something like the NASB which forces you to rethink what you may have glossed over or assumed growing up.

Through various means I keep coming back to a near parity in these two translations. So which one should I make my primary Bible? If their quality as translations is more or less equal, on what basis do I choose?

Because they are similar in the most important respects, I felt free to make my choice based on more pragmatic considerations:

  1. The ESV has many more editions available than the NASB, and their typography and general quality far exceeds the available NASB editions. As a part-time graphic designer who enjoys making websites for small churches, this means a lot to me. Other things being equal (and they pretty much are in this case), a beautiful Bible is better than an ugly one. And I’m convinced that typography is more important to Bible reading than most people realize.
  2. the Single-Column Heritage Bible is Beautifully Designed and Executed
    The ESV Single-Column Heritage Bible is beautifully designed and executed. I know of nothing similar in the NASB.

    The ESV comes in multiple innovative editions, like the journaling Bible and the various single-column Bibles, some of which are drop-dead gorgeous. The NASB had a single-column reader’s Bible I saw once, but it appears no longer to be available.

  3. The ESV seems more likely to me to stick around than the NASB, even though it’s newer. The NASB has failed to gain much market share over its long existence. It’s hovering at and below the tenth spot in CBA’s list of unit sales, last time I checked (Sep-Dec 2014)—beaten out by Bibles no conservatives would use like the Common English Bible, and even by the main Spanish version, the Reina Valera. The ESV goes up and down in the top ten, currently standing at a respectable third place behind the behemoths (NIV and KJV). If English-speaking conservative Christians ever hope to recover the value of using one common translation in the language we actually speak, and if they want it to be a bit more literal than interpretive, this may be our best chance.unit sales
  4. I like Crossway; they have a distinct conservative identity and a notable spirit of excellence, one that attracts conservative writers who are making real contributions to the church. I also know many or most of the scholars who produced the ESV; I have their exegetical commentaries, and that work gives me confidence about their translation work. The Lockman foundation has no identity apart from the NASB, and it lacks that drive for excellence (its website, for example, looks like it comes from the previous millennium).uglyoutdatedwebsite
  5. Crossway showed a commitment from the beginning—which they have kept up actively since 2001—to making the ESV available in innovative technological formats. I use the ESV website probably 15-50 times a day. It looks great without being overwhelming (no ads), and it has helpful features such as free audio Bibles, “apps,” and different text display options. Crossway gets technology: they realized that making the ESV available freely online (and for Kindle, iPad, etc.) will encourage people to use the translation. The NASB folks just don’t get the technological world. I know of no comparably beautiful and useful online resource for that translation. That matters a lot to me.

Other pragmatic considerations may lead you a different direction—for example, your church may use the NASB (as mine does). For the sake of ease in your own church, you may want to go with the NASB. But this blog post on the relative merits of the NASB and ESV has become one of my most popular (it regularly gets a substantial number of hits multiple years after it was posted) for a reason: a lot of people must be asking this question.

I’d like to end with what I take to be an important comment: NASB or ESV? What a good problem to have! I regularly use all the major conservative English Bible translations (especially within Logos Bible Software). Making one translation “primary,” for me, doesn’t actually mean a whole lot beyond my own family, and probably won’t mean a lot unless I become a pastor or elder making a choice for my whole congregation someday. I encourage all readers to own and use both the ESV and the NASB—along with the rest of the embarrassment of riches we have in English Bible translations. You’ll find, as I have since I first bought the Comparative Study Bible for $50 in 1999, that close reading of multiple translations will enrich you a great deal more often than it will confuse you. When one translation “differs” from another, it’s still usually saying the same thing, just in a different way. I find that the slight variation in nuance helps me understand. And when you are confused, you’ll be driven to ask good questions. Don’t let ESV vs. NASB be an either-or. Use both.

This post has been updated a few times—for those interested in reading a little more detail, check out my post on “Comparing Bible Translations.”

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

17 thoughts on “Why I Chose the ESV over the NASB”

  1. I know this a dated blog, but I thought I would leave a comment anyway. I have both a NASBU and ESV right here with me and struggle to decide on which to make my primary. I just ordered the Macarthur in NASBU…time will tell..but I sure do love the ESV..argh..

  2. I will pray for you right now to have wisdom. What becomes your “primary” Bible may have a lot to do with your particular calling and circumstances. I feel as if the current state of my calling and circumstances has not afforded me the luxury of having a “primary” Bible. I’m required in some forums of ministry to use the KJV, which I would prefer not to use because of its antiquated language. I’ve found it beneficial in my outreach ministry to use the NIrV, because I preach weekly to people with low educational levels. My pastor preaches from the NASB. I tend to prefer (for reasons I’ve given above) the ESV. But my preferred Bible format is only available in the NIV(2011) and TNIV—so right now I’m reading through the NIV.

    Sigh.

    There was a value in English-speaking Christendom’s long-standing agreement to use the KJV. That unity, it appears to me, has been lost for the foreseeable future. We’ll have to muddle through until Chinese takes over. =)

  3. Have had the same struggle. I had used the NASB since 1991 but switched recently, after noticing that I tripped up often when reading large portions of the NASB aloud. However, I find if frustrating when ESV interprets for me (“from glory to glory” -> “from one degree of glory to another” at 2 Cor 3:18, for example). But, I recently ordered a wide-margin, verse-by-verse ESV made by R.L. Allan, and it’s absolutely beautiful, so the expense of that sort of forces me to stick with ESV. Thanks for giving me some peace of mind in that decision! 🙂

  4. Who would have thought an article 4 years old would still be receiving a comment? First, I appreciate your reasons for liking the ESV without trying to sound so spiritual. In my comparison of the two, along with the NKJV I have chosen to use the ESV as my primary translation. I do refer and quote the others in preaching along with the Amplified version for a further breakdown of the verse (this is only used if people can see the verse, such as power point. I do not read it alone.). I have chosen the ESV, (hopefully based on the leadership of the Holy Spirit) due to the quality of their work on the outreach New Testament and the economy edition. Our body hands these out or gives them away to anyone. My thought is, if this is the one I’m giving away, it’s the one I want to be the most familiar with. Once again, not so spiritual, just common sense. With that being said, I do believe the ESV to be a great translation along with the NASB and the NKJV. Using the ESV primarily just works for me. Our assembly does not use one single version and we have a plurality of elders that split time preaching. No translation is used all the time. Each man has his primary preference with referring to others. By the way, I grew up on the KJV and still find myself quoting it more than any other translation.

  5. Eric, I also grew up with the KJV and I also find myself quoting it more than any other translation, but I learned more than half my lifetime ago to “translate” those quotations for others on the fly.

    I like your comment about not trying to sound so spiritual. =) That’s great. The reality is, we have many great translations available. I do fear that our choice of translation has become a badge of tribal membership more than a reasoned conclusion to careful study. That makes perfect sense, because comparing Bible translations knowledgeably requires several demanding skills, and most of us just end up having to trust someone who has—or claims to have—those skills.

    I regularly use all the good translations—and in my Bible software I’ve been known to check the not-so-good ones, too.

  6. I don’t know the back story here, so forgive me if I’m misjudging, but I can’t let this apparently innocuous statement slip through without a comment: I would like to banish from all Bible translation discussion the equivocal use of the word “Bible,” as in “Which Bible is best?” The NASB and ESV and NIV are not different “Bibles.” They’re the same Bible in different translations. The KJVO crowd—even (in my experience) the ones who say their main beef is the Greek text, not the English—commonly introduce a drastically unnecessary emotionalism into Bible translation discussion by making it seem as if it’s a war among different Bibles.

    Otherwise, what you say is pretty much true! I don’t know of a Bible translation that is so bad that it isn’t worth obeying. Even the New World Translation, with its purposeful twisting of John 1, still contains precious truth.

  7. Wow, I thought I was the only one who struggled with this. I’ve been a Christian since 1970. My first Bible was Good News. Then I was given the Living Bible. I was later introduced to the NASB but to be honest, I was a teen in HS and it felt over my head. The church I went to HATED the NIV and called it a false bible and only the KJV was Of God. I later went to the NKJV as I understood it better. In my 30s I switched to the NIV when the Study Bible came out. I am 60 now and I have every translation out there. I study from them all. I use the NIV 2011 the most, however our church has been using the NIV and our new pastor prefers the NASB. I have one, but I so agree with your comment about the ESV and the NASB lack of desire to come into the 21 Century. I have been going back to either the ESV or the NSB but I believe from your wise I put to stick with the ESV for personal use and I use th NIV with people I minister too in jail. They understand that much better. Thanks again for your wise and sensitive post. And it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who struggles with this.

  8. I was browsing through the bibles section of a family christian magazine and was wondering what version to get. I have read in about two books now about investing in the NASB. But the journaling bible I wanted (illustrator and designer=visual learner/note taker lol) means a lot to me and like you said it had a version of the ESV. I might just get that right now and get a “regular” NASB bible later. I have a NIV (Zondervan) bible, and I hate the fact that he has taken some scriptures out. I’m glad I’v finally made up my mind on what type of Bible to get now.

  9. The ESV is an excellent Bible, and is supported by many resources. BUT, it does have inaccuracies, infelicitous expressions and antiquqted syntax. As all translations of enduring and heavily-used translations, it needs CONSTANT LIGHT REVISION..possibly by interim amendment reports and (say) five-to-ten-years republication. The problem is that publishers invest very heavily in one particular edition – which, in any event, is never aired in draft for a pre-publication period so that the potential users may make suggestions for improvement – so that the chances of rectifying faults is slim! We need to recognise that, by handing over the publishing of OUR Bible to others, we have enslaved ourselves to the oppressive academic/ business cartel! We do NOT have the Bible translation(s) that we need and desire, and we are being charged exorbitant prices! But I don’t expect today’s Christians to have the oomph or the ability to challenge the system! I am writing this from the UK into the US..but I don’t suppose that matters are better or worse on either side of The Big Pond!
    Every blessing!

  10. Alexander, I can’t say I share your view. I do agree that the ESV is imperfect. I also agree that the ESV needs constant light revision—and as I understand it, that’s precisely what it’s getting. I can’t find an official statement, but it was revised in 2007 and in 2011, six and ten years after its publication, respectively.

    Looking at the list of people involved in the production of the ESV makes me unwilling to say I’m the victim of an oppressive academic/business cartel. These are people who have dedicated their lives to serving the church. I don’t feel oppressed; I feel served. Who else is going to translate the Bible? Laypeople? Who’s going to publish it? Should we all just go to FedEx Kinko’s? And the ESV is not exorbitantly priced, not in the least. It’s free online, and you can get a copy for less than $10.

  11. Since you provided a link to the ESV website, not including a link to the Lockman (NASB) web site hardly seems appropriate — especially because you “featured” a screen shot. (I have an immediate interest on this because http://www.lockman.org doesn’t seem to be online now — amusingly relevant but hopefully a temporary problem).

    Alexander T. points out the revision schedule, not mentioned in the main post. Frequent revisions are death to the discipline of verbatim memorization (not that many care, of course).

    Of course our language changes. But speaking strictly for personal use, I prefer that change to be reckoned on a longer cycle.

    I respect the NASB team for having one revision (which was greatly helpful). Since 1990 I have despised the NIV largely for this reason, and the ESV is likely to end up alongside it on my bookshelf.

  12. Ha! That is too funny. And sad. The NASB is a good translation deserving of better promotional machinery. This is the first I’ve heard about a revision—I’m glad to hear it!

    In general, I too think that language change doesn’t happen so fast that revisions every ten years or so should be necessary. Maybe every thirty instead? But I’ve become so averse to My-Version-Only-ism that I support more frequent revisions. If I memorized a passage and the wording was later changed, what harm does that do to me? Has my memory work been wasted? I think not. If anything, here will be one passage in which I’ll be impelled to figure out the reason for the change rather than not even noticing it—which is what happens with 99% of updates. And what will happen if I am impelled to figure out the reason for the change? I might learn something.

    And I have to believe that this is an excessively rare phenomenon: the Bible is a big book, and the chances that you have memorized a passage that gets altered are low. The chances that you have recently memorized such a passage—how many passages do you hold on to for years and years?—are even lower.

    I just don’t see why any major (evangelical) translation out there needs to be “despised.”

  13. Thank you for this article – even though I see you wrote it a few years ago! My experience is a bit different from yours – but I think we’ve come to the same conclusion.

    The NASB is the first version Bible I ever had as a young Christian. I loved it. I found it beautiful, poetic – and I think because of those things, easy to memorize. When I moved and started attending another church that used the NIV, I found the translation clunky, dull, non–poetic – which for me, made it extremely difficult to memorize.

    I feel as if the NIV scholars wanted to make my interpretation decisions for me. Rather than allowing me to work through possibly difficult metaphors or phraseology, or to understand what it meant in the Hebrew or the Greek, they wanted to “dumb it down” for the masses.

    To me, the wording in the NIV just doesn’t flow, as it does in the NASB. And now that I’m becoming familiar with the ESV, I find that even more poetic – as you said, kind of a modern version if the KJV.

  14. Good thoughts, and I used to talk just like you do about the NIV. But I’ve come to see things a little differently. If the NIV is making interpretive decisions for me, that’s helpful in one major, common reading situation: namely when I’m reading big chunks of the Bible. When my purpose is to get the big picture, I don’t need to be hung up on interpretive difficulties.

    And, the fact is, Jesus told us to permit the little children to come to him, and James tells us not to tell the poor man to sit under our footstools, and Paul tells us to “condescend to men of low estate.” The masses need the Bible, too. Even if I disagree with individual decisions of the NIV translators, and even if I would choose a literal translation if I had to have only one (I don’t, thankfully), I get help from the NIV—why would I want to deny that help to the masses?

  15. Awesome article. I have weighed these two translations for years now. I do love them both, though I love the KJV for it’s poeticness and is the translation I use in preaching, I use the NASB and the ESV in my devotional reading and study. I love having this dilemma of which version I like best. It causes me to read the verses multiple times in multiple versions, which can only help my study of God’s word.

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