ESV vs. NKJV: Comparing Bible Translations

The ESV (English Standard Version) and NKJV (New King James Version) are two widely used Bible translations that have gained popularity among Christians seeking a balance between faithfulness to the original text and readability in modern English.

The ESV, published in 2001, aims to provide a literal and accurate rendering of the original biblical manuscripts while using contemporary language.

The NKJV, first published in 1982, seeks to retain the beauty, rhythm, and historical significance of the King James Version (KJV) while incorporating modern English.

Both translations have their own distinct approaches, and comparing them can help readers find the version that best suits their needs and preferences.

Also, see Is the ESV a Good Translation? to learn more.

Does the ESV use traditional language? See below

The NKJV Maintains a Lot of Traditional Language

In the context of Bible translations, “traditional language” typically refers to the use of archaic or old-fashioned language that was prevalent in earlier English translations of the Bible. These translations sought to maintain a sense of reverence, formality, and historical continuity with the past.

Translation MethodEssentially Formal EquivalentEssentially Formal Equivalent
Language StyleFormal and more literalFormal and retains traditional language
ReadabilityCan be more challenging for someGenerally easier to read, similar to KJV
AccuracyEmphasizes word-for-word accuracyEmphasizes word-for-word accuracy
Word UsageModernizes language where possibleRetains traditional language

What Is Archaic Language in Bible Translations?

Thou/Thee/Thy: These archaic pronouns were used to address God and were also used in formal or poetic contexts when addressing individuals.

Verb Endings: The use of verb endings such as “-est” and “-eth” (e.g., “thou knowest,” “he walketh”) is a characteristic feature of traditional language in Bible translations.

Thee/Thou Art: Traditional translations often use “thee” as the object form of “thou” and “thou art” instead of “you are.”

Old-fashioned vocabulary: Traditional translations may employ words and phrases that have fallen out of common usage in modern English, such as “behold,” “whence,” “thine,” and “yea.”

What Is Formal Equivalent in Bible Translations?

Formal equivalence, also known as literal or word-for-word translation, is an approach to Bible translation that prioritizes maintaining a close correspondence to the original language structure and word choice. It seeks to convey the original text’s meaning while adhering to its form and syntax as closely as possible.

In a formal equivalent translation, the translators aim to preserve the original language’s grammatical structure, idioms, and word order. This approach emphasizes accuracy and fidelity to the original text, even if it results in a less fluid or more challenging reading experience in the target language.

Also, see Is the NKJV a Good Translation? to learn more.

English Standard Version
What is the Masoretic Text? See below

The ESV Uses the Masoretic Text

The Masoretic Text is the authoritative Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible, known as the Tanakh or Hebrew Bible. It serves as the primary textual basis for the Old Testament in most modern Bible translations.

Manuscript BasisRelies on the Masoretic Text (OT) and Nestle-Aland Greek Text (NT)Draws from Textus Receptus (NT)
Inclusive LanguageLess inclined toward gender-neutralLess inclined towards gender-neutral
Denominational UsePopular among Reformed/Calvinist denominationsPopular among conservative denominations
Study ResourcesOffers a wide range of study BiblesOffers a variety of study editions
PopularityIncreasingly popular in recent yearsKnown for its similarity to KJV

The Masoretic Text was developed and preserved by a group of Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes. Their work spanned several centuries, from around the 6th to the 10th centuries A.D.

The Masoretes meticulously copied and preserved the Hebrew biblical manuscripts, ensuring the accuracy of the text and meticulously noting details such as pronunciation, grammar, and textual variants.

The NKJV Uses the Textus Receptus

The Textus Receptus, Latin for “Received Text,” is a Greek text of the New Testament that served as the basis for many early printed editions and translations of the Bible.

It is associated primarily with the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible, as well as other translations in the Reformation era.

The Textus Receptus was compiled by several scholars and editors, with the most notable being Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus’s editions of the Greek New Testament, published in the 16th century, formed the foundation of the Textus Receptus.

It was called the “Received Text” because it became widely accepted and used within the Protestant Reformation.

What Is the History of the English Standard Version?

The English Standard Version (ESV) is a modern English translation of the Bible that was first published in 2001. The ESV has its roots in a long history of English Bible translations and emerged as a response to the perceived need for a faithful yet more readable contemporary translation.

The project to create the ESV began in the late 1990s, spearheaded by a team of evangelical scholars and theologians known as the Translation Oversight Committee.

The committee aimed to produce an accurate, clear, and stylistically appropriate translation for both study and public reading.

The ESV draws on the Revised Standard Version (RSV) as its primary textual basis. The RSV, published in 1952, was a revision of the American Standard Version (ASV) of 1901, which in turn had its roots in the King James Version (KJV).

The ESV translators sought to maintain the strengths of the RSV while making improvements where needed. Their goal was to provide a translation that was faithful to the original languages of the biblical texts, including the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament while using contemporary English language and idioms.

The ESV was released in stages, with the New Testament being published first in 2001. The complete Bible, including the Old and New Testaments, was released in 2001 as well.

Since its publication, the ESV has gained significant acceptance among various Christian denominations and has been widely used for personal study, preaching, public worship, and academic purposes.

The ESV translation is characterized by a balance between literal accuracy and readability, aiming to provide both accuracy to the original texts and accessibility for modern readers.

It has been praised for its clarity and fidelity to the biblical text, and it has become one of the most popular English translations of the Bible.

Holy Bible
What is the history of the NKJV? See below

What Is the History of the New King James Version?

The NKJV is a modern English translation of the Bible that was first published in 1982. It was created to update the KJV while retaining its literary beauty and historical significance.

The project to create the NKJV began in the late 1970s, driven by the desire to produce a translation that would maintain the strengths of the KJV while using more contemporary language.

The translation committee consisted of a diverse group of biblical scholars, linguists, and theologians representing different denominations.

The committee utilized the Textus Receptus (Received Text) as the basis for the New Testament, which is the same Greek text used for the KJV. However, for the Old Testament, they consulted the Masoretic Text, the traditional Hebrew text of the Jewish Bible.

The translation process involved careful consideration of the original languages, textual variants, and linguistic nuances.

The committee aimed to provide a faithful and accurate translation of the Bible while making improvements in areas where the KJV was difficult to understand or had become outdated due to changes in the English language.

The NKJV was published in stages, starting with the New Testament in 1979. The complete Bible, including the Old and New Testaments, was released in 1982.

Since then, the NKJV has gained widespread acceptance among Christian denominations and has been used for personal study, preaching, public worship, and academic purposes.

The NKJV preserves the traditional and poetic qualities of the KJV, including the use of formal language and the preservation of familiar phrases. However, it incorporates modern English expressions and updates certain archaic words and grammar to improve readability.

The NKJV has become one of the most popular English translations of the Bible, providing a balance between reverence for the KJV and the need for a contemporary language.

It serves as an alternative for those who appreciate the literary beauty of the KJV but desire a more accessible and understandable text.


The ESV and NKJV are two respected Bible translations that offer distinct approaches to balancing accuracy and readability.

While the ESV aims for a modern yet literal rendering of the text, the NKJV seeks to update the KJV’s language while retaining its beauty. Both translations cater to different preferences and provide valuable options for readers.

Daniel Isaiah Joseph

Daniel's seminary degree is in Exegetical Theology. He was a pastor for 10 years. As a professor, he has taught Bible and theology courses at two Christian universities. Please see his About page for details.

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