To give some specific examples of the differences between the ESV and NIV, let’s take a careful look at John 17.
ESV: “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished
the work that you gave me to do”
NIV: “I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do”
Sometimes there are distinctions in English that don’t exist in Greek. For instance, in English we think prepositions are very important, and distinguish carefully between them. ‘In’ means something very different from ‘by’ which is different from ‘after’ and so on. In Greek, the same word could carry all those meanings.
In this verse, the NIV has “by completing”, but this could just have correctly been translated ‘having accomplished’, ‘by having accomplished’, ‘when I have accomplished’, or even ‘after I have accomplished’. Which one does it mean? It is not wrong for the NIV to say “by”, but the trouble is that it’s only one of several options. The ESV renders it as the more neutral “having accomplished”, which allows the reader to decide the relationship between glorifying the Father and the work Jesus has accomplished.
The NIV also changes an active to a passive construction. The Greek uses an active verb: “I glorified you” (as in the ESV translation), not the passive “I have brought you to glory”. They mean much the same thing, but the emphasis is subtly different.
ESV: “I have manifested your name”
NIV: “I have revealed you”
“Revealed you” and “manifested your name” could easily mean the same thing. But the NIV leaves out that what Jesus revealed was God’s name, which is in the Greek text. This is a very important idea, for Jesus is soon to pray about God’s name (in the following verses). The glory of God is tied up with God’s name, and so we hear echoes of Exodus 34 and John 1. Jesus has revealed God’s name, which is his glory, his goodness, his grace and truth.
To leave out the key word ‘name’ significantly changes the connections and logic in the passage. The simplification takes away a real opportunity to understand the text better and make connections to the rest of the Bible. The English is a little simpler and more understandable, but we have lost the text.
ESV: “they have kept your word”
NIV: “they have obeyed your word”
In some contexts, ‘keeping your word’ can mean the same as ‘obeying your word’, in the sense of ‘keeping the rules’. However in other contexts, they do not mean the same thing—‘keeping your word’ can have the sense of keeping the word safe or unsullied or unchanged. Verses 11-12, soon to come, have many references to ‘keeping’; we get a sense, then, of Jesus’ argument: ‘they have kept your word, now you keep them’. This connection is ruled out by translating ‘keep’ as ‘obey’. So why do it? ‘Keep’ is not a hard word, and it is the word that is in the original text.
ESV: “keep them in your name”
NIV: “protect them by the power of your name”
We have the preposition problem again. The Greek word translated ‘in’ by the ESV can also mean ‘by’, and the NIV has gone for the ‘by’ option. But in English ‘keep them by your name’ doesn’t make sense, so the NIV changes “keep” to “protect” and adds “power of” to make sense of it. However this means that a new concept, ‘power’, which is not in the text and not at issue in this passage, has been inserted. Why? ‘In’ makes perfect sense, and follows the flow that has been established: keep them in your name, which I have told them about, in which I have kept them and which they have kept.
The upshot is that the NIV prayer of verses 11-12 is not what Jesus is praying. He is not asking that people be kept safe by the power of God’s name; he is praying about the name, revealed to the people, to which they have been faithful and to which Jesus wants them to remain faithful.
ESV: “sanctified in truth”
NIV: “truly sanctified”
This change of phrase changes the meaning. The point is not that the sanctification is done properly, as the NIV would suggest, but that the thing they are sanctified into (dedicated to) is the truth. The ESV rightly renders the Greek as “sanctified in truth”.
ESV: “through their word”
NIV: “through their message”
The Greek word is logos, ‘word’, an important concept throughout John’s Gospel and in this passage. The NIV translates logos as ‘word’ on three other occasions it occurs in John 17 (vv. 6, 14, 17), but here, for some reason, translates it as ‘message’. Why?
ESV: “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe …”
NIV: “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe …”
Here we have three ideas in a purpose construction, each part of the chain being the reason for the next part. The NIV, however, breaks it up between the first and second ideas with a new sentence, leaving out the purpose word (‘that’), and giving the impression that Jesus has moved to a new idea. The ESV rightly leaves the chain intact.
KJV: “O righteous Father, the world knew thee not, but I knew thee; and these knew that thou didst send me”
ESV: “O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me”
NIV: “Righteous Father, though the world does not know you, I know you, and they know that you have sent me”
And just to show that nobody’s perfect, here’s a verse where the ESV falls into the same mistake as the NIV. They both change the tense from past to present. Why? The Greek is clearly in the past tense (as the KJV rightly translates it). The change loses the allusion to John 1 and Exodus 33-34.
Some of the differences are fairly minor—matters of emphasis and ‘feel’ rather than substance. Others are more significant, and change the meaning of the passage.
Overall, the NIV aims to convey the sense of what is said, and is prepared to sacrifice how it is said. But sometimes their interpretation of what is said is inadequate or even wrong. And sometimes what is said depends on how it is said.