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 teaching 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:
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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).
- 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.
Google sends dozens of people a week to this post, a fact which tells me that people are interested in English Bible translation. If you found my take helpful, check out my new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. The book is “Highly recommended” by D.A. Carson, and endorsed by John Frame, Tom Schreiner, Mark Strauss, Andy Naselli, John McWhorter, Kevin Bauder, and Mark Minnick.