The essential difference is that the NKJV is a revision of the KJV and so shares the same textual basis as the KJV, that is, the Received Text, whereas the ESV is a revision of the RSV and shares its same textual basis, that is the Critical Text.
Origin of the NKJV and the ESV Bible translations
NKJV – This translation includes the Alexandrian Manuscripts to find more direct information as to the meaning of the original words. This translation was created to reflect better readability over the KJV.
ESV – The ESV translation was originally composed in 2001. It was based on the 1971 Revised Standard.
NKJV: Based on the Textus Receptus and Majority Text for the New Testament. Uses the Masoretic Text for the Old Testament.
ESV: Uses an eclectic Greek text, primarily based on the critical text for the New Testament. Also uses the Masoretic Text for the Old Testament.
NKJV: Very similar to the KJV but updates archaic words/grammar to be more understandable. Still quite literal and word-for-word.
ESV: Highly readable and suitable for all ages. Smoother to read than the NKJV but less literal/word-for-word.
Popularity and Use
NKJV: Less popular than the KJV or ESV but used by 14% of Americans. Used by preachers like David Jeremiah and John MacArthur.
ESV: Very popular, ranking high in sales. Used by preachers like John Piper and Matt Chandler.
Study Bible Options
NKJV: Good study Bible options like the NKJV Study Bible with extensive notes/articles.
ESV: Many excellent study Bibles like the ESV Study Bible with over 20,000 study notes.
Bible translation differences of the NKJV and the ESV
NKJV – This translation was commissioned in 1975. It was created in “complete equivalence” which is in contrast to “thought for thought” methods of translation. They wanted a brand-new translation that would retain the stylistic beauty of the original KJV.
ESV – This is an “essentially literal’ translation. The translators focused on the original wording of the text as well as the voice of each Bible writer. This translation focuses on “word for word” while also taking into consideration the differences in grammar, idiom, and syntax of modern English to the original languages.
The NKJV prioritizes following the Textus Receptus and Majority Text while the ESV uses a critical Greek text. The NKJV reads similarly to the KJV while the ESV aims more for readability. The ESV tends to be more popular but both offer good study Bible options. Choosing between them comes down to textual preference and readability needs.