Does the English Standard Version Support Watchtower Doctrine?

By Wayne Jackson

“I have read your review of the new English Standard Version. I am a little bit troubled by the rendering of 2 Peter 3:10, which suggests that the earth and its works will be ‘exposed,’ rather than ‘burned up.’ This sounds a little like the ’Jehovah’s Witness’ position. Can you comment on this?”

The ESV translation of 2 Peter 3:10 reads as follows:

“But the day of the Lord will come like a thief; and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.”

First, it should be noted that this rendition is not a new approach to the translation of 2 Peter 3:10. The American Standard Version of 1901 has this footnote on the expression “burned up”; “The most ancient manuscripts read discovered.”

The issue revolves around the identity of the actual word that was in the original Greek text of this passage. There are several different terms that appear in various ancient manuscripts. It is a complex matter.

What are the facts?

The Alexandrian manuscript (5th century A.D.), and some two dozen others of later date, contain the word katakaesetai (burned up). Some scholars (e.g., the majority view of the ERV/ASV translators, Lenski, etc.) consider this to be the most-likely term of the original text. See also: KJV, NKJV, NASB, Berkeley, Jerusalem Bible, Young, Montgomery, Goodspeed, and Williams.

Other manuscripts, however, contain the word heurethesetai (“shall be discovered,” “exposed,” or “laid bare”), notably the Vaticanus and Sinaiticus manuscripts (4th century), with some half-dozen of subsequent date.

Bruce Metzger contends that “discovered” is the oldest reading, and the one that best explains the origin of the alternate expressions (706). However, he also says that “discovered” makes little “acceptable sense” in view of the surrounding context. The translators of the NEB, NIV, ESV, and numerous commentators (e.g., Hiebert, Kistemaker, Gangel, Hillyer, etc.) likewise incline to the “discovered” view.

If heurethesetai is the original word, the meaning likely would be simply this (as paraphrased by Thayer): “shall be found [laid bare] … for destruction, i.e., will be unable to hide themselves from the doom decreed them by God” (261).

Finally, there is one other possible, though unlikely, textual variant. The Sahidic Coptic Version (3rd—6th centuries), and one other text, have the expression ouch heurethesetai (shall not be found), which would be the equivalent of “shall be destroyed.”

In the final analysis, there is no comfort in the ESV rendition of this passage for those who propose the theory that the earth will remain forever (as the “Jehovah’s Witnesses” and others allege). Clearly, the entire material universe will “pass away” at the time of the Lord’s return (Mt. 24:35), and exist no longer (Rev. 21:1).

In this very context Peter says that the elements will be “dissolved” (2 Pet. 3:10-12). Concerning the Greek term luo (“dissolved”), the application is to those “parts of the universe, as it is broken up and destroyed in that final conflagration” (Danker, 607).

There are passages which suggest that, in some sense, the earth will last “forever.” For example, Ecclesiastes 1:4. However, when Solomon declared that “the earth abides forever,” he employed “forever” in a relative sense, i.e., as compared to the rapid passing of human generations (see a discussion of this passage in our book, {glossSub (“Courier Publications”,“Notes From the Margin of My Bible — Old Testament”)}, p. 96). The Hebrew term olam (“forever”) is frequently used of an undefined period of time that does not necessarily denote that which is unending (cf. Ex. 12:14; Num. 25:13).

No legitimate criticism, therefore, can be lodged against the ESV with reference to the rendition “exposed” in 2 Peter 3:10. The identification of the original term is a critical judgment call, and most of the scholarship these days comes down in favor of “discovered,” “exposed,” or “laid bare” — rather than “burned up.”

Sources/Footnotes
  • Danker, F. W. et al. 2000. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago
  • Metzger, Bruce. Textual Commentary.
  • Thayer, J. H. 1958. Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Edinburgh: T.& T. Clark.
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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.