Work on this translation was prompted, in the early 1990s, by what Lane T. Dennis stated was a need for a new literal translation by scholars and pastors. A translation committee was formed, and it sought and received permission from the National Council of Churches of Christ in the USA to use the 1971 edition of the RSV as the English textual basis for the ESV. About 6 percent was revised in the ESV.
The stated intent of the translators was to follow an "essentially literal" translation philosophy while taking into account differences of grammar, syntax, and idiom between current literary English and the original languages. The ESV uses some gender-neutral language.
In 2007, the ESV underwent a minor revision, and the publisher did not identify the updated text as a revised edition. The update changed about 500 words by focusing on grammar, consistency, and clarity. One notable change was from "wounded for our transgressions" to "pierced for our transgressions".
In April 2011, another edition was issued, and the 2007 edition has been gradually phased out.
In August 2016, Crossway announced the "ESV Permanent Text Edition" with 52 word changes in 29 verses. The publishers announced their intention to leave the text alone for the foreseeable future after this update. However, this policy was abandoned as a "mistake" the following month, with Crossway announcing that they would still consider "minimal and infrequent" updates to reflect "textual discoveries or changes in English over time". Lane Dennis, Crossway's president and CEO, said: "We apologize for this and for any concern this has caused for readers of the ESV [...] Our desire, above all, is to do what is right before the Lord."
The publisher, citing that the ESV has been growing in popularity, authorized an edition of the ESV with the Biblical apocrypha included, which was developed by Oxford University Press and published in January 2009. The publisher's hope for this new edition which includes the Apocrypha is that it will be used widely in seminaries and divinity schools where these books are used as a part of academic study.
The ESV version of the Apocrypha is a revision of the Revised Standard Version 1977 Expanded Edition. The team translating the Apocrypha includes Bernard A. Taylor, David A. deSilva, and Dan McCartney, under the editorship of David Aiken. In the edition including these books, they are printed and arranged in the order of the RSV and NRSV Common Bibles. The Oxford translating team relied on the Göttingen Septuagint for all of the Apocrypha except 4 Maccabees (relying there on Rahlf's Septuagint) and 2 Esdras (the Ancient Greek of which has not survived), which used the German Bible Society's 1983 edition Vulgate.
The ESV has been used as the text of a number of study Bibles, including:The Lutheran Study Bible by Concordia Publishing House
A series of ESV study bibles by Crossway Books: the ESV Global Study Bible, ESV Literary Study Bible, ESV Student Study Bible, and ESV Study Bible
The MacArthur Study Bible by HarperCollins
The Reformation Study Bible by Ligonier Ministries
The Scofield Study Bible III (an update and revision of the classic dispensational premillennialist Scofield Reference Bible) by Oxford University Press
The Ryrie Study Bible by Moody Publishers
Additionally, the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod adopted the ESV as the official text used in its official hymnal Lutheran Service Book, released in August 2006.
Mark L. Strauss, in a paper presented at the 2008 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, criticized the ESV for using dated language and stated it is unsuited for mainstream use. On the other hand, he has defended gender-inclusive language in translation and claims the ESV uses similar gender-inclusive language and speculated that criticism of the ESV by competing Bible translations is contrived for marketing purposes. ESV translator Wayne Grudem has responded that, while on occasion the ESV translates person or one where previous translations used man, it keeps gender-specific language and does not go as far as other translations; the ESV website makes a similar statement. ESV translator William D. Mounce has called these arguments against the ESV ad hominem.
Criticism has arisen in the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, which uses the ESV as its official translation, that its frequent translation of the Hebrew word mishpatim ("judgements" or "decrees") as "rules" is not only an impoverished translation of a very rich word, but also somewhat legalistic.